So I'm in England for my annual pilgrimage and feeling a bit like a foreigner once again. As many expats discover, with each year you're gone, your mother country becomes less and less familiar. New fangled procedures queue up to make you look like a complete idiot in your own land, compounded by the fact that you have the same accent as the natives and yet appear clueless.
A few year ago it was the challenge of the supermarket trolleys/carts that require a pound coin as a deposit. Try as I might, I couldn't figure out just by watching others, quite how the feat was performed. You put a coin in somewhere, pulled something, and the trolley was released. On returning the trolley, you somehow joined it back together with the other trolleys and your coin was returned to you. This, of course, assumed that I actually had a pound coin to my name. Half the time I had to buy a newspaper or a packet of chewing gum to get the desired coinage.
This year, once again, it's the bloody credit/debit card situation. Up and down the land, Brits are equipped with chip and pin cards. The whole process of paying for goods has changed in the last few years - no signatures required. There is even something you can wave at the scanner, although purchases are limited to thirty pounds and no more than thrice a day. Meanwhile in the US, while many of us now have a card with a chip in it, only a chosen few have been designated the magical PIN.
Despite Brits in America telling me that they have never had a problem with a PINless card in the UK, (as if it's somehow a moral failure on my part) every day is a new adventure for me with my cards. Unbelievably I visited Costco on two consecutive days and proffered my Visa card (with advance warning of its PINlessness). First day was no problem; second day, it wouldn't process. How can that be? (Fortunately my PINless American Express went through). Filling the car up at a petrol/gas station on the A1, my cards were all totally rejected by the sales assistant and I had to drag the Ball & Chain out of the car to pay with his Diners card (with a PIN). I suspect however, that the sales assistant just couldn't be bothered with the fuss of a manual process.
Yesterday in Sports Direct (a large national chain of sports stuff), my PINless Visa (again, with advance warning) sparked off a security procedure that would've put Buckingham Palace to shame. Although they could process it, because of recent scams, there are now internal steps in place involving a manager, a phone call to the bank, an internal code and a long queue of people muttering under their breath. Sigh.
The real benefit of a chip and pin card is that there is now no matching of signatures. I remember working in retail decades ago and young Americans would try to make purchases armed with a parents' credit card. We were, under no circumstances, allowed to process cards with dodgy signatures, even if they were accompanied by a letter from said parent. Now though, I can make off with the Ball & Chain's PIN'ed card, key in his PIN and no questions will be asked.