Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Moving to England: Weather Report

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.


ChrisB said...

LOl Where would we Brits be without the weather to start the conversation!

Kaycie said...

When I visited England, some of the people I met asked if I was from Texas. Texas! That's a horrid thing to ask an Okie. For whatever reason, the drawl in my accent was associated with Texas as opposed to the South in general.

I loved England and I'd like to visit again. I suppose if I were staying my outlook might be different. I can't imagine what it must have been like for you.

Anonymous said...

It's such a British thing to moan about the weather. It puts a bit of excitement into your day. Always starts a conversation. Makes you realise that buying a Barbeque or a soft top car is a bit daft really, when there aren't many days of the year that you'll get your money's worth. I think all countries have their ups and downs but we will always have roots.

Crystal xx

darth sardonic said...

sweet! i discovered i really started loving argentina and all about it when i let go of the yank things some. i forgot all about 4th of july and celebrated nueve de julio instead. and my time there had an end date, but i felt a closeness with the country and people.

i actually missed argentina like crazy for some time when i left. and there are still argentine things i search the local area for constantly.

excellent post.

Flowerpot said...

I have a French friend who's been over here for 25 years and she still has a very strong French accent!

Expatmum said...

Goodness, that was like reading me in reverse. I can say it's only in the last few years, (of 18) that I have finally stopped banging on about moving back to the UK. My kids love it here, and also love the UK. Like you, there are tons of things I miss about home but more and more things that I can accept about over here. My husband and I talked last week about moving somwhere else when the older two are out of high school, (another 7 years) and for the first time I didn't automatically think of England.
Can't wait to read the next post.

Kelly said...

I've never noticed your accent...but have noticed that you use English spellings. It's funny, but I suppose I always assumed you were a happy import. I know from experience that living in a different country isn't all it's cracked up to be though.

On the subject of accents, I once had an American (soldier!!) boyfriend...his friends usually asked if I was Australian, Danish and even American. Never once did they think I was English...and I sound like Mary Poppins!

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

chrisb: I like to think of the weather as a gift of sorts. It helps everyone get over those awkward moments of what to say.

kaycie: The reverse for the English is people asking them if they're Australian (which a lot of Americans do). I always get asked if I'm American or Canadian (which no doubt would annoy the Canadians as they, technically, are Americans too).

CJ: So true, so true. I tell my husband that I think the British are in denial of their weather and that's why they buy soft-top cars and barbecues and wear T-shirts in winter.

Darthman: Once I let go of my Americanism a bit, I started to enjoy life here a bit more. Are you finding Argentian stuff more available in Florida?

flowerpot: I'll have my accent till I do, and I don't mind.

expatmum: But you live in Chicago, which, as I've said before, I love. I've learned the hard lesson that your happiness is where you find it.

kelly: I use British spellings in my posts and when I comment on UK blogs, but I use American spellings when I comment on American blogs. But I can't get my head round some British spellings, like for maneuver (is it manouevre or something like that?) and estrogen (oestrogen?) and diarrhea (won't even attempt that one).
I've never heard your voice but I can imagine you sounding like Mary Poppins.

darth sardonic said...

yes actually, well some things, like restaraunts with authentic argentine food. haven't found a good place to buy name-brand yerba mate yet though.