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For expats, there’s nothing like the sweet angst of home

After living in New York, even the passive-aggressive wait at London bus stops and the reflex response of ‘sorry’ have their own charm -article by Emma Brockes for TheGuardian

‘People wait for a bus in a loose formation that is neither a queue nor a free-for-all, but a sort of passive-aggressive hiatus to see who’ll break ranks first.’ Photograph: Alex Walker/Rex Shutterstock

ne of the benefits of being an expat is that, every time you go home, the things that used to annoy you about the place suddenly strike you as charming. Visiting London from New York, I swoon at the way people wait for a bus, in a loose formation that is neither a queue nor a free-for-all, but a sort of passive-aggressive hiatus to see who’ll break ranks first. I enjoy the look of loathing when, forgetting myself, I invite someone I don’t know to “Have a great day!” And I live for the reflex response to all passing comments and queries: “Oh, sorry.”

In New York, by contrast, the hot weather merely brings out another layer of consumer rights agitation
This week, a New Yorker friend who lives in south-east Asia met me for lunch in the city. While we waited at the counter, a woman came up and barked at the server: “Did you make this coffee? Did you charge me for it? This isn’t what I ordered,” and so on. While I fantasised, briefly, about moving to the Shetland Islands, my friend looked on dreamily and said, “That sounds like a real emergency. In Bali, no one is ever in a rush to do anything.”

The server, meanwhile, talked the woman off the ledge, reordered her coffee and, with a bored look, accepted her gratitude, which was pitched at the same level of insanity her anger had been. My friend, meanwhile, admonished our own server for not stocking coconut water and, glancing at the pastry cabinet, pointed out that she had been gluten-free since before it became fashionable. There’s no substitute, sometimes, for being in the midst of one’s tribe.

Summer in the city

Factoring in the humidity, the weather in New York has topped 100F (38c) this week, which isn’t remarkable for the city but is still uncomfortable enough to provoke commentary. Weather chat in the US is different to its UK equivalent, where the novelty of a heatwave makes people go wild in the street, exchanging glances with strangers that broadly mean: help, it feels like abroad.

In New York, by contrast, the hot weather merely brings out another layer of consumer rights agitation. “I’m calling the city [council],” said a neighbour, as we stood on the street corner and discussed air-conditioning restrictions in our building while the air boiled around us. She was right, of course; babies and old people can die in this heat. But the discomfort of being denied cool air was almost worth it for the opportunity to indulge in a popular New York pastime – fantasy legal action: “It has to be against the law,” she said.

People talk to each other on public transport in New York. (Well, sort of. They don’t go out of their way to start conversations, but neither do they surround themselves with a forcefield so impenetrable as to be practically legally binding. As often remarked, someone could be murdered on a London tube train at rush hour and intervening would still be the greater social transgression.) The exception is the newish ride service Via, which charges a flat $5 rate to convey customers anywhere above 14th Street, with the proviso that they may stop to pick up someone else. In my limited experience, the inside of the Escalade, Highlander or Yukon SUV is silent until someone gets out, after which everyone else bitches about them. “Did we do something to him?” asked the remaining passengers after a guy slammed the door violently on the corner of 8th Avenue and 34th Street. It’s like a grown-up version of the school run, but whereas American friends are generally uncomfortable with the quiet bit of the ride, for those 20 minutes of awkward silence, I am briefly, thrillingly at home.

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