Monday, 18 February 2008

Moving to England: The Saga Continues

"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.

"What switch?"

"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.


Kaycie said...

I can imagine how that would have been difficult for you. Had you ever travelled to the UK before you moved there?

When hubby and I were in England, we decided to walk into Slough the second or third night to find a place to eat. During the day, I had seen an area that had several establishments. When we got there, the only thing open was the pub. I kid you not, when we walked in, conversation completely stopped. Hubby had a drink but we were so uncomfortable that we left when he was finished. I think we ended up eating back at the hotel.

The next day, telling someone in his Windsor office about the experience, he was told we had wondered into an area that was not used to tourists.

We went to other pubs, other restaurants, and never had that happen again.

Aoj & The Lurchers said...

Yes, the warm and welcoming Brits...always suspicious of Johnny Foreigner. That's very welcoming isnt it? I'm sorry you didn't get a warmer welcome Wakeup. All I can say in defence of my fellow countrymen is that they do warm once they get to know you.

Now, if you'd moved to Wales, my home country, you would have been assured of a warm welcome....we love people that are from somewhere different and you'd have been questioned within in inch of your life! If you weren't stuffed with tea and cake first!

menopausaloldbag (MOB) said...

I loved this story. I worked for an American IT manufacturing firm for almost 30 years and spent a great amount of time in the States on business and assignments. An American girl that is now one of my best friends came over to London to live - she was actually my husband's girfriend that he met whilst on business there! She and I got on and to this day we are friends - I was happy she was taking the wee ratbag off my hands! She lost him too about 8 years later! Anyway, she had a similar experience to yours and your story has brought back so many memories of the early eighties when she and I used to flit between here and the USA.

Can't wait for the wedding story - you are a brilliant writer.

blueangel said...

I love the differences between the USA and the UK. It always makes me laugh when other Europeans make the assumption that the UK and the USA are pretty much the same. There are so many differences it's almost impossible to list, isn't it?

Looking forward to the wedding story...

PS I am English and I have the same problem in some 'local' pubs as opposed to chains. Why is it like that????

jenny said...

I agree with mob, you are a brilliant writer!!

I can picture the frustration you felt those first few months there and finding solace in your far-away cats.

I would love to visit England some day, but don't know if I will ever have the chance. Having to learn the lingo is one thing, but at least for the most part, they spoke english and you didnt have to learn an entirely different language.

Looking forward to the next post!

Anonymous said...

This was such an interesting story to me. I can't believe you went through all of that. I had no idea of the differences, I just assumed that the two were very similar.

It must have been so difficult and lonely for you. Especially with your cats. When you write about visiting them, it sounded like the highlight of your day.

You are a very talented writer. I look foward to hearing about the wedding.

-Ann said...

Great story. I feel bad for you with the baking, since I'm guessing this was well before the Internet. I love the Internet. I relate to your product searches - I refuse to believe the Cookeen is the same thing as Crisco, which is why I import my own Crisco (and cornmeal, molasses, corn syrup, chocolate chips...)

I don't understand Americans who refuse to drive over here. In rural Ireland, not driving is just not an option. I understand not wanting to drive in London or Dublin or fearing the driving test, but just refusing? Driving on the left isn't really all the hard.

Kelly said...

I can't wait for the next installment....I had the reverse experience working out the cooking ingredients when living in the Caribbean....and what the hell is broiling??


wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

Kaycie: I had visited twice before I moved here, but visiting is nothing like living somewhere. You went to Slough? Nobody wants to go out in Slough!

aoj: We live very near the Welsh border and at one time considered moving there. I met a delightful Welsh woman about a year or so after I moved here. Sadly, she died a few years ago, but I remember her fondly.

MOB: Now you've piqued my interest about the husband and the American. Thank you for the compliment on my writing.

blueangel: Not only are our countries separated by the big pond but also by a common language.

jenny: You would be welcome to stay at my house should you ever manage a visit. I'll even interpret for you.

eileen: Visiting the cats was the highlight of my week, actually. It was hard but I survived to tell the tale.

-ann: Here's a question: how do you convert the butter measurements? In the U.S. we use sticks of butter, which are 8 ounces, but I've never successfully converted the measurements. I agree about the driving. It isn't that difficult to drive here. I just remember Me in the Middle.

Flowerpot said...

You had a rough time didnt you? My sister in law has now lived in the US for over 40 years and she has similar problems coming 'back home'!

Pixie said...

reading this made me inexplicably sad. I think it was identifying your lonlieness and isolation even from your new family. Who surely should have known better.
I'm glad the world is shrinking so these things aren't quite as hard as they used to be.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

Kelly: broil = grill.

flowerpot: I now have problems going back to the U.S. Funny, isn't it?

pixie: I was profoundly lonely and isolated. I still haven't forgiven my in-laws for their shameful behaviour back then.

DJ Kirkby said...

Lol, I still have trouble remembering that there is a switch on the wall even after living here 15 years! I mean what is the point?

Sandrine said...

Hi Wakeup,

I had a similar experience moving from Paris to Miami at about the same time.I also brought my cat with me but didn't have to leave him in quarantine, thank goodness.However I experienced the same isolation and frustration.I was used to the metric system and foot and inches made no sense to me.I had the same problem with cooking and everyday items that I would not find.I was having a hard time also because I was used to socialize a lot with friends at dinner parties and people in Miami seemed more into family life and never invited me over.Also I had to endure endless comments on how Parisians were rude and French had no morals or good hygiene and the expression "pardon my French" from people who didn't mean to be offensive.I think the top was when people would say,"I know French, Voulez vous coucher avec moi?"I can say I cried a lot at the beginning and got angry even more.After all these years though, I really love it here and would not go back.However foot and inches still do not make any sense to me. ; )
I look forward to read the next post.
Take care.

Anonymous said...

all this and you stayed and married you must have loved him
I have several American friends here in Wales, and they found it strange initially but said it was the friendliness they met that was the deciding factor

-Ann said...

I'm not sure I understand the problem. If I'm using an American recipe, I can use American measuring cups. American recipes tend to measure butter in terms of cups.

For Irish/UK recipes, I have a kitchen scale, since everything is in oz or grams in those recipes.

Would it help you to think of the US butter as 1/4 cup to a stick? Can you give me an example of when you have this butter problem?

Anonymous said...

Having to leave the cats in quarantine would have broken my heart too. I can understand people not wanting to visit because of the overwhelming feelings but then again, I couldn't be parted from my animals.

Moving down south was enough for me. I couldn't wait to get back to the north. I met some lovely people but my roots were northern. However, since moving to Northumberland, I have been accepted and made to feel welcome from the day I arrived.

Crystal xx

Annie said...

Fascinating! And all the more so because I can relate to so many of these things, except I've done them in reverse.

I would say I had the advantage however since so much of American Culture is so widespread across the media - movies, sit comes, news even - that I would have been much more familiar with many US issues than an American may have heading to the UK. Liverpool has a very particular accent, too - and not one commonly heard on the media here in the US so I can only imagine that was a big challenge in itself - getting used to all those 'scousers'!

farming-frenchstyle said...

Glad you survived, and hope your cats survived the quarantine. Hope you are much happier now, and that the in(out)-laws are better.

look forward to the wedding.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

DJ: I know. And how about fire doors and all these other fire regulations when any idiot can go and buy tons of fireworks on Bonfire Night and set a whole neighbourhood on fire?

Sandrine: I think all ex-pats have similar experiences. You're excited, then that fades and you're disappointed and hate it. Then that fades and you learn to accept the difference and embrace your new country.

valleys mam: Yes, I found friendliness eventually too. I was crazy in love and put up with quite a lot.

-ann: Right, say a recipe calls for half cup of butter or two sticks. I have cup measurements but never seem to get it right so what I try to do is convert the half cup to ounces or grams. So a half cup should be four ounces, right? But it doesn't seem to work.

CJ: I think northerners are friendlier in this country. They're like the southerners or midwesterners in America, I think.

annie: The Liverpool accent is so nasal. But I found Glaswegians and Geordies even more difficult to understand.

Hello, farming french-style. The waiting is over.

-Ann said...

You know, I was thinking about this last night. I think you might be mistaken about butter in the states being sold in 8 oz sticks.

As far as I recall, 1 stick= 1/4 cup. And butter is sold in one pound packages that contain 4 sticks. (With me so far? This is like a Story problem. :))

So, 16 oz in a pound, 4 sticks in a one pound box:
16/4 = 4 ounces in a stick.

Could it be that you've been using the wrong conversion factor?

In your example, if 1 stick is 4 oz, then 2 is 8. If you're using 8 oz as your conversion factor, you're essentially doubling the butter.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

-ann: Thank you for solving the butter mystery for me. I will try to remember that one.

-Ann said...

You know, I just realised where you got the 8 oz from. The paper wrapper on a stick of butter does have 8 demarcations - but they're for tablespoons - not ounces. Mystery solved. :)