Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Pubs: What’s all the fuss?

September 19, 2010 · 1 Comment

Frankly, I just don’t get it. I flat out do not understand how the Brits have (supposedly) built their entire social culture around pubs. You feel awkward going in, all you want to do is apologise and the food and drink are usually overpriced. That has been my experience, at least.

To be fair, I don’t plan on (once I turn 21) frequenting bars in the States. Like pubs, these are usually loud, overcrowded places mostly filled with people who have had a few too many. I’m the sort of person who would rather share a bottle of wine over dinner than specifically go out to a place to get drunk, as I think many people do.

My most positive pub experience came about after I had spent the afternoon alone going to museums. I was heading back towards the Tube from the Tate Britain when I realised that I was extremely hungry. I looked around to find some food (absolutely dreading the idea of ANOTHER sandwich from Planet Organics) and the first decent-looking place I found happened to be a pub. It was in a good area, close to the Tube, well-lit and not crowded, so I went for it. It was the White Swan Pub (photo: http://www.localdatasearch.com/london/victoria/public_houses_inns/the_white_swan-10005712)

As I walked in the door, panic began building in my mind. I mentally flipped through the pages of Watching the English, trying to remember pub protocol. Seat yourself . . . order at the bar . . . But how do I claim a table without leaving my stuff there to be stolen? Do I move the place settings or something to subtly signal that I have chosen the seat as my own? Should I only order a drink first or food at the same time?

Finally, I just approached the bar and asked rather nervously “Erm . . . do I order food up here as well?” The server gave me a lookover and then responded “Yeah.” Without even looking at the menu, I asked for fish and chips, declined to order anything to drink and paid. After sitting back down at my table, I felt awkward and decided to go back to the bar. I needn’t have bothered for a new person helped me as I tripped over myself saying “Oh. Uh, I changed my mind. . . c-could I get a half-pint of Guinness? Do you do half-pints?” Amused, he gave me my half-pint and I headed back to my table with my metaphorical tail between my legs.

The staff must have figured out that I was feeling a bit lost – plus business was slow – so they sent my waiter over at least twice to check on me as I nursed my Guinness with all the diligence of a new mother learning the ropers. When my food came, I thanked my waiter profusely and he came back twice more before clearing my plate and bringing me the bill.

Here’s what my meal looked like, if you’re interested:

It was actually the best fish and chips I’ve had in the city.

Just when I thought my troubles were over, I was suddenly facing a new dilemma.  DO I TIP? Is it offensive if I do? Is it rude if I don’t, especially as they’d taken such good care of me? I paid my bill with exact change and, after that was cleared away, made much of checking my phone while I reached down into my purse to get another pound coin and a piece of paper. I wrote a little note, saying simply: “Thank you!” and placed it and the coin on the table as I got my bag and prepared to go, taking the last sip of Guinness. Unfortunately, my waiter then came over to take my glass and, seeing the note, read it quickly and picked up the tip. My cheeks turned red and I feared I was about to face the biggest monster of English behaviour- the cold shoulder combined with the dislike of money! I needn’t have worried, as it turns out: my waiter looked me straight in the eye and said gratefully “Oh, thank you! That was very nice of you” in an accent that was clearly not British and hinted that he too was a stranger in this strange country where money is considered dirty. Relieved to have not caused offence, I gushed  “Oh, well, phew! I’m still trying to learn how all this *gesturing around, indicating the pub* works”

He smiled at me and said “Me too.”

So now the pub is not a location I visit petrified with terror, but I still prefer the peace and quiet of casual drinks with friends or at a restaurant then entering the realm of the pub, laden with social booby-traps as it is.

Categories: 2010 Elizabeth · Pubs

1 response so far ↓

  •   Young Dennis // Sep 19th 2010 at 19:37

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the pubs, not for the drinking, but for the same reason that I love the caf at Dickinson: pub arguments! I think the ones that aren’t too Americanized (The Rocket, The Court) are great places to verbally spar with your friends with the understanding that you’re not arguing to denigrate each other, but just arguing for the hell of it. Maybe it’s not really the pub that facilitates this, but it does seem like the environment is receptive to this. Very early in our month here, we saw a pub argument of epic proportions break out next to us at the Rising Sun. These guys were getting spectacularly animated, and then five minutes later it was like nothing happened. I guess the point of this comment is to say, I agree that pubs have a lot of crappy aspects, but man do I love pub arguments.

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