One American's continuing education

By Janet Eldred

Having lived in York for several months now, and visited a number of pubs, I've found the patrons most welcoming and very willing to educate me in the ways of the English pub. Regulars have explained real ale v. lager, ale houses v. pubs, swan necks, slops, licensing laws, and lock-ins. I've been drilled in the importance of receiving a full pint, and introduced to the complexities of telling when your pint is from the top or bottom of the barrel and should be replaced by the house. And, I've observed further nuances of round-buying, for example, what happens when time is called, a last drink is desired, but it's no one individual's round. (Each person contributes to the round, of course!)

The category of food has been an eye-opening experience as well. Natives will find this completely natural, but as a newcomer, I'm continually amazed at the variety of ways in which food is offered and consumed in pubs. I've partaken of a vegetarian Indian dinner; homemade soup; fish-and-chips; toasties; butties; and jacket potatoes. I've seen huge Yorkshire puddings and individual pizzas big enough for two. On Burns Night at the Minster Inn, I sampled haggis, neeps, and tatties. (Well done!) Of course, not every pub serves meals, and those that do may not have them at both lunch and dinner; but, I've found one food that is almost universally available: pork scratchings! I've never seen this delicacy in the States; dentists, take note!

The gentlemen I've chatted with in York's pubs have also enjoyed having some fun with me as an American. I've pronounced various familiar words and phrases in my "strong American accent" (didn't know I had one!), tried to explain American slang (I'm still working on "rain check"), and, to the delight of my listeners, innocently used phrases that have entirely different meanings in England. (If I tell you someday that I saw a friend of yours "on the street", please don't worry -- I only meant to say I saw him, not that he was down on his luck!) In all cases, the fun has been gentle and well-intentioned, and I've had a laugh on myself, too.

Not every experience has been pleasant, however. Two things I struggle with regularly are the prevalence of cigarette smoking and recorded music that is too loud. Regarding the first, where nonsmoking rooms are available, I use them. But, smoking is usually permitted throughout the pub, and I leave at the end of lunch or an evening out with hair and clothing reeking of smoke -- not to mention how it feels to breathe smoke when you are a nonsmoker. As for music, I love it; but, pubs that are trying to foster a convivial atmosphere should keep the volume down. If we wanted to go to a pub that features loud and/or live music, we would -- let us have our conversations, please!

Still, my overall experience of York's pubs continues to be a thoroughly enjoyable one. In fact, in the past month, I've graduated from lager to bitter -- more on that next time.

Janet B. Eldred, 1997