I like to be in America. Everything's cheap in America

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The Independent Travel
CASHMERE sweaters, fancy tea, silk umbrellas, handmade shoes, Wedgwood dishes, Dunhill pipes and teeny-weeny editions of Beatrix Potter. These were echt British, the must-haves that every Anglophile American learnt to lust after and buy abroad, preferably at Harrods.

All of them are now out of reach unless you are very rich, and even then, why bother? Everything is cheaper in America, and you can get everything; the internationalisation of stuff means every mall in Texas sells Burberrys. You can find Jasper Conran frocks and Manolo Blahnik shoes and Turnbull & Asser shirts. You can buy Chocolate Olivers and Tiptree Tiny Scarlet strawberry jam and Fisherman's Friend cough drops and Marmite and even HP sauce, that odiferous condiment you have to be born British to love.

Yup, you can get a bottle of HP sauce at Dean & DeLuca, New York's answer to Fortnum & Mason (without the striped pants) and you can get it there cheaper: 95p at Fortnums, dollars 1.80 at Dean & Deluca (about 90p). On the HP index, Prime Minister, it is time to devalue the pound.

Once upon a time, American friends used to telephone London with elaborate wish-lists of stuff they wanted you to schlep across the pond: Marks & Spencer underpants, say, or scarves from Liberty or some smirking china spaniel seen once in Kensington Church Street. But now the pound is at two bucks, who's gonna have the nerve to ask you to bring anything, except maybe a jar of E45 foot cream from Boots? (A friend in New York swears it cures everything from corns to cancer.)

Sometimes I also take a large tube of Smarties to New York for my godchild whose maths teacher insists they are required for a superior methodology of teaching arithmetic to eight-year-olds. Otherwise, the only single thing I can think of that is marginally cheaper in London than in New York are movies on tape, but of course you cannot play British tapes on an American video machine. Sometimes, when I am feeling lavish, I take back a copy of Sunday Sport - like which there is nothing at all in the entire city of New York, as Damon Runyon might have noted.

The ridiculous exchange rate and the resulting death of desire to purchase almost anything in the British Isles has also led me into crime. These days, when I get back to America and pass through Customs, I lie. I know if I tell the truth - that Americans cannot afford things in Great Britain and therefore I have not nearly used the allowance of dollars 400 - they will give me that fishy look and spend hours going through my suitcases. I do not look like someone who has not bought anything except one tube of Smarties. So I make something up. This may be the only case in recorded history where anyone has lied to Customs in this fashion.

Everything's cheaper in New York. Cheaper by half, at least. We are talking cashmeres and handmade shoes and hotel rooms and restaurants, and movies. I cannot remember the last time an American friend visited London except on business. In London, a boring hotel room in a boring hotel could run you dollars 300 or dollars 400, whereas a rather nicer room in a good New York hotel costs dollars 175.

In the hinterlands, it is even cheaper. I was in Houston recently where a perfectly OK double room in a motel cost dollars 60 - and that was during the Republican Convention when they probably jacked the prices up. At Houston's Ritz Carlton, the poshest hotel in town, I ordered a couple of orange juices and Perriers and waited for the bill, nervously eating the huge bowl of great nuts. The bill came to about dollars 7. For both of us. At The Ritz in London, an orange juice with Perrier costs pounds 3.50.

In Houston during the convention, British journalists spent their free hours prowling the Galleria, America's first upmarket indoor mall. They were not just cruising and grazing, these Brits were buying - sunglasses, clothes, books, toys - all the while mumbling how cheap it was and how you could not afford to pass up the opportunity.

In New York from time to time these days, the telephones crackle into life: the Brits are coming. Friends cry: 'Let's go eat somewhere expensive]' This may seem a bit crass but, what the hell, we think of it as the Marshall Plan in reverse. Most of us have not been out for a decent meal in New York since the Eighties ended. What is more, a little light exploitation won't do them any harm and with the pound at dollars 2 they will never notice. It is healthy for the Brits, a nation with a gas-ring mentality who frequently do not tip more than 10 per cent in restaurants, to turn into a nation of big spenders.

At Remi, my favorite uptown New York restaurant (with the sort of wonderful northern Italian food that does not exist in London), two people can have a great meal for dollars 100, with wine. On a stricter budget? Last night a friend and I went to a first-run movie. That cost dollars 7.50 each. Afterwards, at a midtown pub, we had a large platter of barbecued chicken wings, a large fresh turkey sandwich, a couple of beers and a soft drink; the bill came to dollars 17. For dollars 25, any one of a thousand Chinese restaurants will run to your house in under 13 minutes bearing a hefty bag containing spring rolls, hot and sour soup, ginger chicken, prawns with mushrooms, rice, fortune cookies, oranges, condiments and chopsticks, free delivery and goodwill included. And, compared with most of America, New York is not exactly bargain city.

For hardcore shopping, though, nothing beats New York - as London taxi drivers (the city's best foreign shoppers) have always known. What taxi driver has not stopped off at Macy's in New York to purchase sheets on his way home from Disney World in Orlando? Speaking of which - why would you go to Euro Disney at twice the price of the real thing in Orlando? One is in a dank northern city surrounded by hostile French culture, the other in sunny Florida where everyone says 'have a nice day' seven times daily in English. Politically Correct I may be; on vacation, however, I do not yearn to be Linguistically Challenged.

New York has everything and it has it cheap. On Lower Broadway are warehouse outlets for Levi 501s and Jockey underpants for women and baby-sized All Star High Top sneakers in 'glo-in-the-dark' green. All along Broadway are street stalls featuring fake Chanels, fake Rolexes, fake Vuitton, weird T-shirts, silver baubles, pirated concert tapes and fashionable shoes-on-steroids. Farther along at Tower Records, top-of-the-chart CDs are stacked sky-high at 12 or 13 bucks each.

People get carried away. 'Keep an eye out for leather jackets at Agnes B and great coats at Armani,' a friend said down the phone from London, as she staked out a forthcoming trip to New York. This is not a woman who normally earns the kind of dough which makes Armani a casual affair, but there is a feeling that it might not last and a kind of shopping frenzy frequently now besets Brits the second they hit the ground.

In Britain these days, Americans wistfully press their noses against shop windows, wondering how it is possible that their greenbacks can buy so little. Mostly they swear never to return. On the other hand, thanks to the exchange rate, Britons visiting America have become an expansive people. As a national anthem, maybe the British should replace God Save the Queen and go for Shop 'Til You Drop.

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