When you miss something, you want to surround yourself with all that reminds you of what you're missing.
At least I did in my early days of living in the UK. And what I missed was the U.S., or my version of the U.S. I missed the TV shows. I missed the shopping (and still do). I missed my friends and family. But did they miss me? Life moves on for everybody, and I had to fill the gap in my life. I thought that what I needed was to be around other Americans who might understand what I was going through. What I was going through, I realise now, was a grieving process. Why I should have been grieving and what I was grieving for are two important questions. The answers to these would be key to whether I could finally settle in my new country.
I read in a magazine about an organisation called American Ex-Pats. These were Americans living in the UK who got together socially and celebrated American things, like Fourth of July, Easter Egg Hunts (which were non-existent in those days), Thanksgiving. I got in touch with the local chapter and went along to a few events. My fellow ex-pats and I would, over our coffee and cake, bitch and moan about our lives here. About what the UK didn't have that the US did. About the weather, the driving, the shopping, the doctors, the whatever. I realised later that all long-term ex-pats probably go through the different phases of grieving: Shock, Denial, Bargaining, Guilt, Anger, Depression, Acceptance. When I got together with these women, we would focus on the Denial and Anger aspects. The other women, though, had an end in sight to their ex-pat status. With a couple of exceptions, they were married to American men who had been sent by their American companies to work in the UK for a few years.
They didn't have to get depressed because they knew they'd be going back. There were a couple who embraced the British way of life and didn't want to go home but I think they were the exception. I met another American woman through the NCT in the same boat as me. We became fast friends, perhaps too fast. As time went on, I realised the only thing we had in common was our nationality. I also realised that I really didn't have a lot in common with the other American ex-pats I had met. And seeing them only reinforced my homesickness. I started to ask myself if I would be friends with them if I still lived in the U.S. And the answer was usually no.
I knew if I was going to settle -- and I felt I needed to do that for my children's sake -- I would have to stop focusing on the negative and accept that my life is different here. And so I sought out British friends through the CAB, the NCT, the PTA. Some of these friendships have endured; others have not.
I also had to sort out what it was exactly that I was missing and see if I couldn't find a way to fill the gap. So, family first. I have a pretty dysfunctional one, but probably just your garden variety. My family are not a supportive lot, not of me anyway. What I missed was something I'd always missed and will always miss. It doesn't matter what country I live in. OK, now friends. Because I was always working before I moved here, the only friends I made were at work. Work friends rarely cross the non-work barrier, I discovered painfully. Next, shopping. Well, that's pretty shallow, isn't it? Shopping isn't such a big deal in my life anymore, which my wallet appreciates greatly. The weather. Ah, yes, the weather. I had a very hard time getting my head round the fact that August can be colder than February. I mean, everywhere in the U.S. has a hot August. And the unpredictability of the weather threw me for a long time. You can't plan a barbecue for the weekend and know with any certainty that the weather will be fine. My poor hubby has cooked outside with an umbrella over his head many a time.
But what can be done about the weather? Not a thing. I started to appreciate, though, that weather offers a plethora of ice-breaking (haha, pun intended) opportunities. Inevitably, I get asked why I moved here. "For the weather," I cheerfully answer. Without the weather, English literature probably would have suffered. There would be no "Wuthering Heights." No pastoral poetry by the likes of Coleridge. No "Tess of the Durbervilles." Indeed, as I've lived here, my understanding of English literature has grown.
After my daughter was born, I felt an urgent need to settle in to British life. I'd grown up with a depressed mother who would lie in a chair all day and moan about her life. I didn't want my children to have the same experience. I started to allow Britishisms to creep into my language. I adopted British spellings. Some of this was done for practical reasons. People had trouble understanding me as I did them. And, again, I wanted to set a good example for my children. I wanted them to be good spellers, and how could they be if I persisted in spelling words the American way? How could they be proud of their Englishness if their American mother constantly put it down?
Some Americanisms are so deeply ingrained I will never change them. I will always say to-may-toe rather than to-mah-toe. Here's an interesting fact: to-may-toe used to be the British pronounciation during Elizabethan times. The pilgrims took it with them and preserved it. The British, perhaps to be different from the Colonies, changed it to to-mah-toe. I change the way I say some words depending on what country I'm in or to whom I'm speaking. Like basil. In America it's bay-zil. In the UK it's bah-sil. Or Birmingham. The Alabama one is Birming-ham. The one in the Midlands is Birming-um.
When I meet people in the UK, they usually ask how long I'm visiting. When I tell them I've lived here 16 years, they ALWAYS say I haven't lost my accent. When I go back to the States, people ask me what country I'm from and say I don't sound American. I think my accent must hover over the Atlantic somewhere.
So having children spurred me on to accept my adopted country. But world events changed how I view my mother country. That will be the subject of my next installment.