I recently returned from a wonderful weekend in Atlanta, staying with Sarah, my closest friend from college days who is also British and, by great good fortune, now works in Georgia. Our tradition when I visit is to indulge in some serious retail therapy and spend a few glorious hours in the Atlanta stores.
I love Coastal Georgia and our boutiques, but would it be too much to ask for Nordstrom or Saks on Fifth Avenue to put a branch in the Savannah area? Actually, that could be one of the reasons my husband wanted us to move here …
I keep telling my husband that shopping is essential to my mental health as well as maintaining my appearance, but after 17 years together, he still thinks of it as indulging in clothes, shoes and accessories. This is when I quote the artist Cynthia Nelms: “If men liked shopping, they would call it research.”
Anyway, back to my revelation with Sarah during our most recent shopping marathon. We realized that finally we truly are bilingual and think in American sizes. You may be surprised to learn that by shopping in the United States, you immediately drop two sizes from the British equivalent. So instead of buying British size 12s, I can buy American size 8s and sometimes even size 6 jeans! What a confidence boost. Shoes go the other way; while my feet are a size 5 in England, they grow to a size 8 in America! Of course, European sizes are different — an American 8 usually is a German 38 — but German sizes come up bigger than Italian ones, which means I will often need a 44 in Italian brands. Confused yet? Try emigrating.
Sarah and I also get very excited about using coupons or gift cards, which are called “money off vouchers” in the U.K. Actually, we just get excited about going shopping together and enjoy a bargain. However, our enthusiasm led to some confusion when we first started shopping in the retail heaven that is the United States.
Here are some examples of potential minefields of misunderstanding when an innocent British lady hits the shops in America:
• Scenario No. 1 – shoes and accessories. Loving high-heeled shoes, we decided we wanted to try on “court shoes” — which apparently you call pumps, but in England, pumps is an old-fashioned word for tennis shoes, which we call “trainers.” So having sorted that out we turn to bags — did you know that we call purses “handbags,” and the British think purses are female wallets? As for “billfolds,” I had no idea what this exotic item was when a shop assistant offered to show me one. And because British notes are much bigger than American dollars, they don’t fit in American billfolds anyway…
• Scenario No. 2 – male clothing confusion. Much as we love our husbands, frankly we want to buy male items as quickly as possible to allow more time to find perfect outfits for ourselves. So my husband wanted me to buy him khaki pants; in England, that would mean dark green undershorts, because the British call pants “trousers.” He also wanted some cold-weather gear including a sweater, known as a “jumper” in the land of my birth, and a parka, which apparently is what Americans call an “anorak,” or alternatively a raincoat (which the English call mackintoshes). What really worried me was when he asked me to pick up some suspenders. In England suspenders are frilly items of lingerie that hold up stockings for ladies, which you call garter belts. I thought I knew my husband to be a straight-up regular guy. Imagine my relief when I realized he meant “braces,” which are what the English call trouser-holding-up devices.
• Scenario No. 3 – some personal items. Every girl needs essential underpinnings, and when first searching for bras and “knickers” (what the English call panties), we were delighted by the amazing choice of color and styles in this wonderful country. We thought we were so clever knowing that you call our “tights” hose, but our arrogance soon came crashing down when the poor sales assistant thought we wanted to buy a dressing room. This was a result of our combined English accents and the fact that the British call bathrobes “dressing gowns.”
These days, we are pretty confident in our fluency in American clothing but not so jaded that we take for granted the focus on customer service which is standard in most American stores.
God bless America!
Francis grew up in London and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009 with her American husband, Carl, and English dogs, soon to be joined by an American west highland terrier! Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.lesleyfrancispr.com