Sunday, January 31, 2010

After All This Time

This week, Nicola from Some Mothers Do 'ave 'em is our guest poster, discussing things we still have not quite gotten the hang of:


I’ve lived in England for nearly eight years now, and I still cannot properly turn on an appliance or crack an egg.

The electrical sockets here are 220 volt. Yes, even for a night light or a Glade Room Freshener. This makes the Brits very cautious around electricity and practically eliminates amusing anecdotes about the time you convinced your little brother to stick a bobbie pin into an outlet. As a safety precaution, wall plugs have switches on them, so you can turn the power off “at the mains.”

This is all well and good, as long as you remember to turn it on at the mains. I wish I had a 5 pence piece for every time my laptop ran out of power or I turned a light off and on half a dozen times wondering what was wrong with it or I returned to the kitchen after 20 minutes to see why I didn’t smell dinner cooking only to find the stove stone cold and the mains power still switched off.

As for eggs, I spent 46 years developing the perfect tapping technique for cracking an American egg and then found out—to my bitter disappointment—that the skill is non-transferable le. The problem, in my opinion, is they don’t feed their chickens enough DDT or whatever it is we feed them in the States because the shells here (on their brown, not white, eggs) are hard as walnuts.

Since it is my privilege to make breakfast on weekend mornings, and since my vegetarian wife and I have a limited selection of foods in common, a typical morning meal inevitably includes eggs. A favourite of mine is eggs over easy, and my wife likes fried eggs (they are the same thing, by the way) but the odds of me getting a yolk out of an eggshell in one piece are about the same as the Labour government sweeping to victory at the polls in the next general election.

Now, I know from experience that I have to hit the egg harder than I am used to, so I steel myself and give it a good whack. Generally, the first blow glances off the armour plating leaving hardly a nick. The second blow, delivered with more determination, adds a dent and a few cracks. So the third blow is practically guaranteed to end up with me holding a dripping mass of canary yellow goo, splintered eggshell and a good deal of something that unnervingly resembles snot in my hand.

We eat a lot of scrambled eggs.

But only if I remember to turn the stove on at the mains.


So, Mike has thrown down the gauntlet in terms of sockets and switches I feel. For many years, both in our first rented apartment and then in the condo we owned, I was totally frustrated by how many electrical sockets dotted around various rooms simply did not work. I'd plug in a lamp (or a clock radio/coffee maker...take your pick of appliances) and would be totally mystified as to why it wouldn't turn on. There seemed to be a countless number of sockets that were completely useless. It drove me nuts and resulted in appliances being placed in the strangest and most inconvenient of places (a bedside lamp on the other side of the room to the bed for example - which made the sole purpose of its practicality questionable).

On the other hand, there were several 'light' switches on the wall which didn't appear to operate a single ceiling bulb or light fixture anywhere. I would wander around rooms, casually flicking switches up and down, thinking that one day something would happen to illuminate the case for their existence. Despite my increasingly OCD tendencies, nothing ever did.

After several years of enduring inconveniently placed electrical devices and only being able to use two thirds of the sockets at my disposal (the other third mockingly refusing to cooperate to any 2 or 3-pin insertion that came their way) and aimlessly toying with wall switches that served no apparent purpose, I finally mentioned my frustration to one of the builders refitting my bathroom. (The whole topic of having multiple 'live' sockets in the bathroom, directly next to all sources of running water, is another conversation all together...)

He looked at me as if I was an idiot (an experience that was not new to me) and very patiently took a lamp and plugged it into one of my 'faulty' sockets. "See!", I said triumphantly, "it doesn't work...I have loads of them just like that around the whole house." Without saying a word he walked over to one of my 'there for decorative purposes only' wall switches and flicked it on. Instant illumination. For both me and the lamp plugged into the wall socket, several metres away. Aaah. So not redundant then. I hadn't been the victim of temperamental power supply for all these years after all. Good to know.

Now it's just a case of working out which switch accompanies which socket (and believe me, it's not always patently obvious - they don't always bear any relation to each other in terms of proximity). However, I still have two wall switches in my living room and two by the back door which appear to serve no purpose whatsoever. After over a year of living in this house I still have no idea what they are there for and what they are designed to operate. So my OCD tendencies continue. You never know, with persistence and tenacity, one day there may very well be light.

Now there is one more thing that, even after nearly 10 years in America, I will never be able to get used to. As far as I am concerned it contravenes all Health and Sanitation Regulations and is something that I have NEVER encountered in the UK (and nor would I ever wish to).

That is the standard practice of placing the down stairs loo. In. The. Kitchen.

Yes, you read me correctly. And no, of course I don't mean that there is free-standing toilet adjacent to the obligatory marble kitchen island, with the loo roll stashed conveniently next to the kitchen roll holder. But in many houses (including my own) it is not unusual to have the 'powder room' situated directly off the kitchen.

Now if everyone simply entered the loo to powder their noses, it wouldn't present much of a problem in my book. But no. I have lost count of the number of 'guests' who have frequented the toilet, performed their necessary ablutions (amplified with an acoustic precision that only a bathroom is able to provide) and then exited LEAVING THE DOOR OPEN when I am within spitting distance stirring bolognese sauce. It honestly feels at times that these people may as well have just taken a huge dump in my kitchen sink.

And of course my 'sensitivities' over this issue are magnified whenever visiting friends and I become the one having to answer a call of nature, typically not even a stone's throw away from where everyone is congregating. (It speaks volumes about how polite Americans can be—that they can continue to dutifully chug back beer whilst I am doing my damnedest not to rupture anyone's ear drums with a mortifyingly loud fart just 3 feet away - and then have the good grace to accept me back into the conversation when I have finished without missing a beat or raising a sardonic eyebrow.)

I guess I should just be grateful that all the 'kitchen toilets' I have encountered so far have a proper door on them at least. After all, it could be worse. They could be fitted with the shrunken door that you find on all public cubicles, where complete strangers get to watch you relieving your bladder (or worse) due to the huge gaps between the door and the door frame. But best not to get me started on that little bug bear...

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  1. I thought this discussion was very entertaining. Especially the toilets off the kitchen.......
    We had an understairs cupboard made into a second toilet (with a door!) and everything can be heard plainly from our living room. I often say to guests........ *I'm sure you'd prefer the upstairs loo.*
    *No, no* They say I won't bother to go all that way, the downstairs one will do nicely* If only they knew!

    Nuts in May

  2. Yes, over here there don't seem to be any rules about kitchens and loos. I remember when I was little and we had a toilet put at the end of the kitchen, but we had to have a sort of hallway and two doors between them. The only saving thing here is that the loos quite often have a really loud exhaust fan so you just switch that on as well as the light!

  3. I've lived in countless houses in four states in the US in two different regions and never seen a toilet off the kitchen.

    And the outlets in the bathroom are perfectly safe, because they have Ground Fault Interrupt circuits, something that has been mandated in the US for any outlet in a potentially "wet" area, including bathrooms and kitchens, since the 1970s but which has only been introduced in Britain in the last few years.

  4. The only bathroom in my apartment is off the kitchen. So not only do we do our business within ear shot, it's not terribly uncommon to have someone make a run from the shower in towel while there's a guest or two around. Not really the most convenient set up one must admit.

  5. We have different problems with the sockets here in Long Island; they are rather crappy and often you seem to have to bend the two pronged plug a particular way to actually get it in the wall. This means all your appliances end up with bent plugs.....however, I suspect this is because it is an old-ish house.

    I have not come across the loo off the kitchen yet; indeed, the only house I know of like this was a friend's in London (and she changed the layout as she hated it so much).

  6. Definitely a big thing in Chicago, (I don't have one this time but did in my last house). My in-laws in Little Rock, who built their house about 5 years ago also have one right off the kitchen.
    I have to say though, my mother build a conservatory on the back of her house so now the downstairs loo window looks into it. It's heavily frosted and high up of course but it makes me rather tense to think that someone might be able to see in.

  7. I'm not sure about the sockets in the States, but the ones in Bosnia quite often have wires hanging out of them, look pretty live and are situation just above the sink. How they haven't all burned their houses down in a mysterious electrical fire is beyond me.

    (my other favourite Bosnian socket was sitatuated directly behind the hot water pipes leading to the radiator, rendering it completely useless as you'd never ever be able to actually plug anything in).

  8. This whole page, original posts and comments, is the best read I've had in months. Thanks!

  9. Why can't the world just get its act together? We have too many adaptors for UK plugs in our less safe Belgian sockets. It's a pain.

  10. One thing I don't miss however are those gargantuan three point plugs in the UK. I mean, have you ever stood on an upturned one? Absolute agony.

  11. Have to agree with the gaps in the toilet doors over here. It's awful! I always feel as though the entire world can see in. Why can't they just put a proper door on?

  12. Some people I used to know had a downstairs loo off their hallway which had a slatted door - you know, like venetian blinds. The 'blinds' were 'shut' of course, but if you were inside you could see down them into the open plan hall/room outside, which was very disconcerting indeed. Luckily, you couldn't see in at all, unless you lay down on the floor and looked upwards (I checked this out once, but it was my husband who was in there at the time, and for demonstration purposes only). Horrible!

  13. I wish you had gone into the plugs in the toilets (or lack of them in the UK)! After just coming back from visiting my English in-laws I can't tell you how frustrating it was not to be able to dry my hair witin the proximity of the bathroom mirror. Many days I found myself in our host's bedroom - the only place with both a socket and a mirror - awkwardly trying to manage the world's weakest hair dryer, a brush, and a hair tie while standing (nowhere near a table or the what not). I was embarrassed that I was invading their bedroom - a place I consider to be private when one is a guest. All things said, I suppose the UK is still an excellent spot to set up shop if I was a vaniety seller!

  14. I agree, even though the voltage in the Uk can de serious damage when mixed with water. Or even without, come to think of it. The last time I was over I was staying at an aunt's and had to sit on the floor next to her wardrobe to do my hair because the nearest plug was behind it.
    And yes, I've had the slatted loo door experience too, but it was in an airport in the US as I recall. A very worrying experience but it makes you pee faster!

  15. I've been here long enough now that I don't notice the huge plugs on everything, but when I go to the States it is jarring to see the teeny, tiny plugs (awww, that's so cute, it's like a plug, only smaller).

    But no matter how long I am here, every time I have to visit a public loo I am thankful for sensible doors and wonder just what the heck it is with the Americans and their loo doors. Surely they can do better.

  16. First off -- hilarious post! I was beginning to wonder just why -- after decades of baking in the US -- I am suddenly unable to crack an egg here in the UK. Mike -- I share your frustration.

    In terms of the toilet off the kitchen -- I couldn't agree more! It was HIGHLY embarrassing to use the loo in my boyfriend's Mum's house during the holidays when everyone was cooking in the kitchen and could hear every little sound in the loo. Ugh.

    And finally -- the dreaded "ground circuit interrupter" conversation. I, too, really do not understand why I can't have a plug in the bathroom. I've been drying my hair in the bathroom for 31 years in the US -- and have NEVER heard of an accident involved with hairdryer, curling iron, etc. And trust me -- after a similar conversation on another blog -- much research has been done on this topic. I've worked around it by having a study desk devoted to all things hair-accessory near a mirror in another room, but I truly miss drying my hair in a towel whilst in the bathroom.

  17. Wonderful tak eon life but I will admit I woul dbe veryvery concerned about loos being just off teh kitchen especially if darling hubbie was caught short...I won't linger over that!

  18. My brother has one of those toilets off the kitchen arrangements. My wife (English)finds it shocking and on our visits would rather explode than consider using it.

    How come a country where a good percentage of people can't bring themselves to use the word "toilet" often have such potentially indiscreet arrangements?

    Peter Bond

  19. Actually I don't know what I'm on about - I have a loo (sorry, powder room) right off my formal living/dining room! No hallway in between or anything. Just a very loud extractor fan. No one ever seems to mind using it either.

  20. Hahahahaha I've never given the "kitchen loo" a second thought in my life. Hilarious.

  21. We had this tiny alcove thing near our front door in our last place. It too, had an elusive light switch that connected nowhere - that was until my husband set up the Christmas lights outside. On flick and they were all somehow on.

    Another thing I can't get over is the difference in height of the loos here. Slightly different height and it catches me off-guard. And, the bowl is a different shape, rendering silent peeing useless.

  22. The bathtubs are set higher in Britain, as well. To the uninitiated, it can be painful when you get in, and startling when you step out.

    Hadn't noticed about the loos, however.

  23. Great discussion & posts. Amazing the things which 'get us' in different cultures. Like Brit, I live in the Balkans (albania) & I have all my kitchen sockets in a row righ tnext to each other (3 of them only) One is on the wall behind the GAS cooker so the cord ha sto drape across the cooker. Strangely I don't use that one.....
    I agree wth the comment that it is slightly strange in a culture where you use the word bathroom/rest room, but NEVER use the word which designates what you might actually be USING it for, that Americans are so unsqueamish about the close proximity making the purpose of the room entirely self-evident by the nosies off. I mean even hearing a gushing torrent of someone peeing is slightly disconcerting when having a dinner conversation, never mind worse noises & odours & .....things.


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