"I think the vacuum cleaner is broken," I sobbed into the phone.
"Is it turned on? Is it plugged in?" my husband-to-be asked.
"Of course. I'm not stupid," I replied.
"Did you turn the switch on at the wall?" he asked.
"Next to the plug there's a switch. If it's on, you'll see a red band at the top."
"Oh" (sound of vacuum cleaner drowning out the rest of the conversation).
This was my very first clue that I wasn't in Kansas (or New York or Florida or any of the other states) anymore. The next few weeks and months were a giddy jumble of planning the wedding, meeting the relatives, and getting used to my new country and the people in it. I thought everyone would be so happy to have me living here, but my first weekend in England showed that this was not the case.
We stayed at my in-laws' that weekend. It was a bank holiday (three-day weekend). My future mother-in-law ceremoniously showed me my room with the single bed. Then she beckoned husband-to-be into another room and closed the door. It was quite clear that she wasn't altogether pleased with her son's selection of future wife. None of my future in-laws spoke to me much that weekend. By the second night I'd had enough and told HTB that if he was going to go off into another room with his mother and leave me on my own again, I was going to use the return part of my plane ticket and move back to New York. He took me at my word.
It was beginning to dawn on me in many ways that the UK was much more different to the U.S. than I had suspected. Take contact lenses. I had been buying an all-in-one solution to clean and store them for years at the drug stores in the U.S. I couldn't find the brand or even a similar product in the UK. I bought what I assumed was the same and used it my first morning at my in-laws. My eyes burned and watered badly as I realised it wasn't the same at all. Eventually, I found a similar product at the optician's. Years later, the same brand is now sold everywhere here.
I marvelled and puzzled over the differences between the two countries and would try to discuss them with my new neighbours and HTB's friends, relatives, and colleagues. That is when I discovered a deep-seated distrust and dislike of Americans in the UK. "Oh, we know," they would exclaim sarcastically, "everything is bigger and better in America." Well, actually, that isn't what I was saying. "Aren't all Americans rather parochial?" they would ask. Well, no more than the people around here, I would want to say.
Hey, I thought, what about the British politeness? I wasn't seeing any evidence of it. Maybe I was fitting their stereotype of an American -- loud, brash, fat (though I certainly wasn't), wearing jeans and trainers (tennis shoes).
Never mind. I had so much to learn. In my first week I decided to take a walk down by the beach, which was only a few blocks away. As I turned left onto the Promenade, a strong wind blew me back several feet. I retreated to our home. When my husband came home, I assailed him: "You didn't tell me about the wind."
I missed my cats, my friends, my job even. I missed having people to talk to and laugh with. After they'd been in total quarantine for two weeks, I was allowed to visit my cats as often as I wished. That is why and how I learned to drive in this country. I had to see my cats, who were my only link to my past life. I have subsequently met Americans who will not drive in the UK, and I feel deeply sorry for them.
I visited the cats three times a week, bringing treats each time. They were housed in a cell six feet wide by seven feet long. It had a concrete floor and a loft space where they slept, with a little walkway to the floor. The roof was made of corrugated fiberglass. There were about twenty such cells, ten on each side, for cats. At the rear were the dogs, who would bark constantly. In the six months my cats were there I saw only two other owners. In fairness, some people probably lived a great distance and found it difficult to visit. I became familiar with the other cats. Joe from Hong Kong lived across from my cats. I would roll treats into his cell, though he didn't need them. He was very fat. Next door to my cats were two Burmese, a mother and son. One day when I arrived I noticed there was only one. I asked one of the girls who worked there what happened to the other one. She had died. It was not uncommon for animals to die in quarantine. Though their physical needs were met, they didn't get a lot of attention.
One time when I was there, one of my cats decided he'd had enough and made a run for the door. He made the mistake of turning left instead of right, though. If he'd turned right, he'd have been a free man, but turning left just meant more cells. I cried many times when I was there. I would bring newspapers and magazines and sit on the cold concrete floor and hold my cats and stroke them and apologise for making them live like this. I promised them they'd never have to go on an airplane again or live like this again. Then I'd dry my tears and drive back through the worst streets of Liverpool and through the tunnel to my new home.
Sometimes I would stop off at the supermarket on the way home. Here I was met with more frustration as I tried to find products commonly sold in the U.S. Some were there but with different names. I decided I needed to learn to cook properly so read my Joy of Cooking from cover to cover but had to learn how to convert measurements. I still struggle with butter. And the sugars. In the U.S. we get two choices -- white and brown. In the UK we have caster sugar, golden caster sugar, granulated sugar, demerera sugar, light brown sugar, dark brown sugar, and molasses sugar. There might be more but that's what I recall. Caster sugar is for baking. The British use demerera sugar in coffee but never in tea and granulated sugar in tea but never in coffee. And, oh yes, it's morning coffee and afternoon tea, except for first thing in the morning. I couldn't stomach tea with milk and sugar in the morning so bought a coffee maker as soon as possible. Flour is also a more complicated matter. There's plain flour, self-raising flour, strong white flour, wholemeal flour, etc. I learned eventually through a variety of mishaps that self-raising flour is equal to the American flour.
HTB had been in the habit of going to the pub three nights a week with his neighbour and a friend. He wanted me to join him, which I eagerly did. Pub culture was a revelation to me. I was fascinated by the different characters who peopled our local. Tom, the toothless old man who used a rope instead of collar and lead on his dog. Crasher, an older gentleman who earned this sobriquet by drinking eight pints of bitter and then attempting to back his car out of of the car park. Fat Harry, the landlord, and his wife Rita, who had meat-cleaver arms. When the pub owners decided to turn it into a wine bar a few years later, we moved our business to another pub. Here were a host of new characters. Volare, so named because he would start singing this song after imbibing a certain amount of beer. The UTBs, a group of men and women who earned the name when my husband overheard one of the men tell another, "She likes it up the bum." One fellow turned up in a T-shirt no matter the weather. We saw him recently. He still wears only a T-shirt. Many of the young people who went to that pub have grown up and married and had children. Many of the young men work for the post office now.
Conversation was difficult for me. Not only could I not hear the more softly spoken British, but the accents and different colloquialisms threw me. I would have to ask HTB and others to repeat themselves many times and still not understand what they were trying to say. This still happens to me, particularly in noisy, crowded places. HTB would have to interpret for me. Even still, I didn't get many of his jokes or those of others. People would make cultural references that had no meaning to me. I understand them now but can't quite make the bridge across the cultural gap since I didn't grow up here.
Next time I will write about the wedding and the cultural divides I encountered in trying to plan it.