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You are in: Tyne > People > Worldwide Geordies > North America > Hello from Chicago

Chicago skyline

Toni Hargis against the Chicago skyline

Hello from Chicago

Tony Hargis is a Geordie living in Chicago. Having just written a book aimed at Americans called "Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom", we asked her about the difference between us and our US cousins.

1. What was the most important piece of advice you have offered to Americans coming to the UK?  

Although it sounds like a joke, I have two big pieces of advice for Americans. The first is not to use the word “f***y” too liberally. Most of them have no idea that it’s used for the ‘front’ part in the UK and are horrified to learn that! 

I also explain that even though Brits know that the American f***y is the bum, it still causes a little nervous laughter when they use it in company.

My second piece of advice to them is about saying “he” or “she” when that person is standing in front of them. In the States, it is very common and no offence is ever intended. 

If you’re in a restaurant and one person is designated to order for everyone, Americans will be heard saying “She’ll have an omelette; he’ll have a burger” and so on.  I try to stress to them that this is not just a pet peeve of mine, and they might well be answered with a “Who is 'she'? The cat’s mother?”

Other than that, I try to tailor my advice to their situation. Many Americans come here for a week and expect to visit three cities per day, which can be over a hundred miles apart.

They usually put a ruler on the map page and try to gauge their travel time like that. I have to explain that they need to figure out whether they are travelling by motorway, A or B roads, and estimate accordingly. 

I also encourage them to get out of central London if they can. Not that London isn’t great, but it isn’t really representative of the UK and there are beautiful (and cheaper) places all over the country.

2. What do you miss most about the North East?

Having spent the day on Tynemouth beach, I have to say one of the biggest misses is the coast. I missed it when I lived in London in the 80s, and I miss it now even though I can walk to the beach from where I live in Chicago.

"There’s a special kind of self-deprecating humour you get in the North East, that just isn’t to be found across the Pond."

Chicago is on Lake Michigan, and we have great sandy beaches right in the heart of downtown. However, since it’s a freshwater lake it just doesn’t have that special sea smell, and there are no rock pools to climb across.

There’s also nothing like the Geordie sense of humour. Americans don’t really use sarcasm much anyway, so I miss that, but there’s a special kind of self-deprecating humour you get in the North East, that just isn’t to be found across the Pond.

I also miss pease pudding and ham in a stottie sandwich!

3. What reminders of the North East do you have at your home in Chicago?

I hate to say it but I have some really corny souvenirs. Three small ornaments made from coal, a Geordie pinny, a Geordie cookbook, and about five lovely prints of the Tyne bridges through the ages, which I have going up my stairs.

I still can’t quite believe how great the Quayside looks and I usually buy a print every year. I left home for university in 1980 and I can tell you, it was nothing like that then! (Interestingly, many Americans seem to know the phrase “coals to Newcastle”.)

4. Top three tips for US travellers to the UK?

Apart from the two above, I would tell visitors to pack for all kinds of weather. I brought two pairs of jeans this time which haven’t even been taken out of the suitcase, but in previous years I have had to go out and buy fleeces for my kids – in July!

I also advise Americans to slow down – meals will be slower, hotel service might not operate through the night etc.

Americans tend to want everything done now! I am also not in favour of foreigners stepping off a plane and getting into a hired car without at least bothering to learn some of the rules of the road. 

Even though I drive in both countries, I always give myself at least a day to get used to traffic on the ‘other side of the road’. Some of the US and UK driving rules can be very different, and of course there are very few roundabouts (traffic circles) in the US.

5. How long did it take to put the book together?

It sounds quite pathetic, but I would say the book was ‘in progress’ for about 10 years. I didn’t really set out to write a book, but would just jot down tips when American friends and neighbours asked for advice before coming here.

Then a good friend moved here about nine years ago and I cranked out 40 or so pages. She exclaimed that it should be a book.

I continued to add to it for another few years and then decided I couldn’t go to my grave saying that I had a book I should have tried to have published. You would be surprised how many people have a book idea in their head!

About four years ago I obtained a great agent, then I had a surprise baby which took my eye off the ball for a while.

I got my publishing deal about two years ago, and that’s about how long it takes to produce a book in the publishing world. It was released in the US on March 31, and is released here sometime in August 2006.

Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan

6. Most embarrassing ‘faux pas’?

Because we English are more frank than most Americans, I am always putting my foot in it through my bluntness. However, the most embarrassing tale I have was done by my mother and I haven’t really topped it!

She visited me and my husband when we had been in the States for about a year. Her first night there, she was very jet-lagged and had to go to bed at about 8pm. Worried that she would over-sleep, she turned to my husband and said, “Mark, if I don’t surface in the morning, could you knock me up at about 9am please”. 

Since my husband had lived in London for three years, he knew the English meaning, but found it funny that she had no idea what she was saying to him, effectively asking for some hanky panky.

It was even funnier when we explained to her that the American phrase had a completely different meaning from what she had intended.

7. What do you love about America that we don’t have here?

More and more it’s the positive attitude. A lot of the time it can be irritating, but reading the newspapers in England this year, the moaning and whining is quite tiresome! I was never a Thatcherite, but the phrase ‘moaning minnies’ comes to mind.

Also, even though I hate Chicago winters with a passion, it’s nice that we’re guaranteed a decent summer of at least 10 weeks!

8. Favourite English words that confuse Americans?

I used to say ‘knackered’ a lot (having three kids) but have given up since it doesn’t translate. I once saw a car in America with a registration plate that said ‘B****x’ and the guy was driving around with the biggest grin on his face.

No one had a clue what it meant. When he saw me in the car behind, laughing my head off, he gave me a big thumbs up.

I find it hilarious that very straight laced Americans (including newsreaders) will say ‘shag’ or 'shagadelic’, and have no idea that it’s not that acceptable in the UK.

There are literally tons of words that Americans and Brits use that confuse each other – you would have to read my book for most of them. I wrote three separate chapters on different word usage and it’s not even a language book!

last updated: 24/04/2008 at 12:08
created: 14/08/2006

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