Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Morning Coffee, Afternoon Tea

When I first moved to the UK 15 years ago, I experienced a culture shock I hadn't planned on. I had to phone my husband at work and ask how to get the vacuum cleaner to work. There were a million other little everyday details that flummoxed me at first. How do I get the shower to work? What's the emergency services number? Is that the doorbell or the telephone? I also had to cope with not working and not knowing a soul other than my husband (though we weren't married yet), my new neighbours, and my (rather hateful at the time) future in-laws.

I read a lot of books. I listened to Radio Four. I wrote a lot of letters to my pals back in the US (who would never write back). I would gaze out the window at all the people going past and fantasize about knowing them and inviting them in for coffee and a chat. We didn't have a computer. The internet was in its infancy then. My two cats had to go into quarantine for six months. I would visit them three times a week, and that is how I learned to drive in this country.

I met an American woman who lived locally, and while she made it clear she wasn't interested in friendship with me, she did recommend I try to volunteer at my local Citizens Advice Bureau. That was a wonderful recommendation. I went for an interview with the then-manager. I did the training, and my time at the CAB helped me adjust to life in the UK greatly. And I like to think I helped a person or two while I was there. Most of the other volunteers were retirees who took me under their wing. One or two in particular were extremely helpful. I left the CAB a few years ago when I got volunteer fatigue and became dissatisfied with the direction it was going. But the friends I made then are still my friends now.

I got involved with an American ex-pats group in the early days, but gradually stopped going. The people who belonged to it were mostly wives of men sent here by their companies for three to five years. They were only here for a short time and then going back to their friends and family. I was here for the long run and had to make a life here. They would sit around and drink coffee and complain about life in the UK. I joined in but found over time that it was holding me back from accepting my life here and getting on with it. I think all ex-pats go through stages -- the first stage is Everything Is So Wonderful And Different, followed by Everything Is So Crap. If they stay long enough, they then enter the Everything Is Different But So What phase. I'm there now.

When I got pregnant, my social horizons expanded. I became involved (I do a lot of involvement) with my local National Childbirth Trust (a charity that promotes breastfeeding). Again, some of the friends I made then are still my friends now. It was having children that made me finally accept that England is my home. During my pregnancy, I fretted about having children over here, as if it were some third world country. I worried that my children would grow up liking different food and reading different books (haha, little did I know that I would produce children who don't like to read). But the NHS, despite its bad press, turned out to be a positive experience. The midwives were lovely, the doctors caring, the health visitor helpful. I needed their support as a new mother in a foreign country with hostile in-laws.

The weather is what got me down the most. I couldn't accept that sometimes July is worse than February, that August is usually rainy and dreary, except when it's not. I would come down with winter colds during summer. My sinuses still don't like it here (but they're not too keen on Florida either). Each morning I would pull back the curtains and exclaim "It's another crappy day." My husband took it personally. He would try to reassure me: "(Fill in the month)can be a lovely time of year in this country." I say it myself now. Bill Bryson's book "Notes From a Small Island" helped enormously too. In fact Bill Bryson is another reason I came to accept my life here. He loves this country, quirks and all. He's my hero, by the way.

The language was another hurdle. Simple words like shag have a totally different meaning here. I'd hear my husband use some words and assume I knew the meaning, then use them myself, to hilarious effect. Example: We had a houseguest, a rather distinguished older gentleman my husband had worked with. I thought I'd impress him with my knowledge of UK English and proceeded to talk at length about a certain person I described as a wanker. My guest's face registered shock. I didn't understand why. Didn't wanker mean something innocuous like jerk? No, my husband explained later, it's a bit stronger than that. I wasn't averse to using strong language during my newspaper career. However, I decided after the wanker incident that, for propriety's sake, I should clean up my mouth. Thus fanny has been banned from my vocabulary as have numerous other words (except in times of extreme stress and never in front of the children). Although I do say bloody from time to time. And I stopped giving people the finger when I drive because people do two fingers over here and I get all confused and forget which two fingers and the moment is past by the time I remember.

My husband and I had had a whirlwind relationship. We met May 31, 1991. By April 1992 I had moved over here lock, stock, and broken glassware. We'd only seen each other a total of five times in those months, and most of that was spent travelling to various places. We hadn't really known each other in our native habitats, so to speak. So I had a new relationship, new country, new lifestyle (I haven't had a paying job since moving to the UK). It took me years to adjust, but I did. Thank goodness I found help along the way because I couldn't have done it on my own.

Crystal Jigsaw has bestowed the Rockin Blogger on me. I'm having a really good week here. Thank you, Crystal, and I shall spread the wealth.


J said...

Very interesting. I've had several friends move between the UK and the US. Most are back here to stay. One was in the UK for 12 years or so, moved back to the US about 3 years ago, and misses the UK desperately. I think she'd move back if she could.

I can see some parallels in moving between different regions of the US. Although there are not currency, citizenship, electrical or as extreme language issues (love the wanker story), it's still different. There are still cultural adjustments to be made.

Thanks for writing all that out.

Vi vi vi vooom!!!!!!!! said...

Great to read your background mate, totally different to my intiation to this country, but also very similar.

I totally agree with with the NHS, they are flawless when it comes to first mums.

and cracked up over the wanker thing! (in oz, it means the same as hear)

Mean Mom said...

I found it really difficult, when I moved 2 hours or so further south in my own country, so you have 100% of my admiration! I could maybe manage a couple of years in another country, but I don't think I could go for ever.

I too worked for the CAB, but in a part-time paid position. I loved it, but I had to do the decent thing and resign, when money became short. I still regularly meet up with a lot of the people I met there. They are some of the nicest people I have ever known, and are we are all very supportive to each other in times of need.

I am glad that you feel more settled, here. The wanker story is priceless. We once had one in our bureau for real!!!!

Annie said...

I can completely relate to every thing you said. I laughed out loud at the 'fingers' thing! I don't use any fingers when driving here because I'm too scared that the offending driver may be high as a kite on some substance and kill me!

The language thing is still a hurdle at times, and I have to be careful to use US words with my kids since Miss E has in the past gone places and asked to have her nappy changed and people had no clue what she was talking about!

Having my kids definitely made settling here a lot easier. I also had a wonderful experience in the hospital with both kids - I think it its a testament to the individuals who choose that line of work - it is for the most part a happy job, so I'm glad you had as good an experience in the NHS as I have over here.

Kelly said...

I for one am glad you stuck it out for fifteen years!!!!

Growing up as an ex-pat, I can really sympathise with a lot of what you have seems a little other-wordly when I realise you are talking about the UK and not some god-forsaken hole on the other side of the universe!!!

lady macleod said...

A good tale of sticking to it! Well done. I have to say the picture of you being confused as to what and how many fingers to use to insult someone is pretty funny!

I like the idea that the way your life became better was by volunteering to help someone else, isn't that the way?

I can teach you to curse in Chinese if you like, then you can befuzzle everyone!

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

j.: I experienced culture shock when I moved from Florida to New York but that was nothing compared to the overseas move. I think we Americans expect the British to be just like us (or maybe I did) and they're not.

vi: If I ever visit Australia, I'll be sure to use wanker in the proper context.

mean mom: You see all sorts in the CAB, don't you. I could tell some stories if it weren't for confidentiality.

annie: When we visit the US I always have to be there as an interpreter for my family. Pretty funny. And you do have to watch out for people, don't you.

kelly: You've lived in some very exotic places, haven't you. The UK is actually a great place to live, and I'm glad my kids are growing up here.

Lady M: Yes, I'd love to learn to curse in Chinese. I know a few words in Turkish, Spanish, German, and French. I need to add to my vocabulary.

The Rotten Correspondent said...

I have to admit that I've wondered at your back story. Thanks for filling in some of the pieces. I'm assuming your husband is British, is that true?

It is hard to move away from what you're familiar with, but it sure does keep things interesting.

Queeny said...

Wanker doesn't read like that strong a pejorative, but I'll steer clear of using it if ever I'm in the neighborhood. Bloody enjoyed this post. (Is that proper?)

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine anyone not wanting to form a friendship with you.

The NHS isn't so bad I suppose. I've never had any horrendous experiences although I do think they could do a lot better. Particularly in the research of autism, but that's a whole different ball game.

As for wankers, there's too many of them around.

Crystal xx

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

RC: Yes, hubby is British. We met in NYC when he was on the last day of a business trip and I took a day off to sightsee with a visiting friend. Life has been very interesting ever since.

Queeny: How shall I phrase this? Wanking is something adolescent boys do a lot of, apparently, if you get my drift. And bloody good of you to say you enjoyed the post.

CJ: The American woman and I were at different stages in life. She'd been where I was and had moved on. Interestingly, my daughter is good friends with her niece.
There is still a lot of research being done about autism, isn't there? The latest I've read is that the mothers of autistic children have been found to have an excess amount of testorone in the womb (they always blame the mother).
Do you think I explained wanking all right to Queeny?

BOSSY said...

Sigh. The UK. Bossy is so jealous.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

Wow, bossy has visited my blog. I am honoured (or honored). Welcome. I'm jealous of YOU -- you're so creative.

Supernight said...

Hey now, you promised us answers to the quiz! Don't hold out on us!

Self employed mum said...

The fingers thing was just too funny!

I have lived in Scotland all my life and never thought about how it must be to live overseas, only that the weather is nicer, but it seems there's alot more to it, I keep coming across the language difference in blogs at the moment, you assume because we are all speaking English it would be the same, seems not and as I've said before in Glasgow we have a whole language of our own LOL

laurie said...

wow. i would love to do what you did but i don't think i'm adventurous enough; i found it traumatic just moving from duluth to st paul (and they're practically the same).

this was a great post. i could feel what you went through. and i'm envious and admiring.

good job.

marymaryquitecontrary said...

great post wakeup........ how could anyone be so rude as to let you know she didn,t want to be your friend. I referred to someone as a wanker once thinking it was a cool word to use. My then teenage children were horrified at 'MUM' using that word. I was horrified when they tried to explain, in as few words as possible, what it meant.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

supernight: Welcome. I was hoping no one would notice that I forgot. I promise I'll post them soon.

self employed mum: I've been to Glasgow and attempted to understand the native dialect: "Turrn rrreet here."

laurie: I was in love. Don't know if I could have done it otherwise.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

marymary: She wasn't exactly rude, just not exactly in the mood for friendship. I don't bear her any malice because she did give me some useful advice. My kids think I've never heard of some of the words they use. And I find that pretty funny.

Pixie said...

Great post.

I admire you for getting to really 'be' in this country. Think it makes the difference between feeling as if you belong and just passing through.