Sunday, July 25, 2010

What’s It Like Being Married to an Expat

This week our special guest is Shonagh, Michael's long suffering wife, who give us a glimpse into what it is like to be married to an expat.    Mike, naturally, is also allowed his say on life in a foreign land married to a foreigner.


To us, it's normal, but I'm sure others must see us as the odd couple. In the beginning we were a novelty on both sides of the Pond to our friends and family. And, yes, I was asked on my first visit to the States to "say something; I love your accent". A friend of my family, on meeting Mike for the first time, commented later to my mother "He's not much like an American."  He obviously didn't have his 10 galleon hat and cowboy boots on!

Being married to Mike has given me the opportunity to see my home country from many different angles, and to enjoy it in a new way. I've always had holidays in the U.K, childhood holidays in Scotland, walking holidays in Yorkshire, the Lake District and Ireland. But now, every year, we rent a cottage in a different region—we just spent a wonderful week in Dorset enjoying both the coast and the countryside—and I have discovered many new parts of the U.K, including previously unexplored sites in my own back yard, such as Stonehenge and Battle Abbey.

I also represent the whole of the U.K population, having to explain political, social, economic and cultural events and situations while attempting to answer his who's, what's, where's and why's. At times you can hear me saying, "I don't know, it just is".

Living with an Expat has meant I have become more IT aware, reading blogs and surfing websites.  This has allowed me to meet people from all over the country and the world: a possible relative in South Africa, a Mummy blogger from Chicago, a Southern Californian Social worker and many other friendly and interesting people.

I'm nearly bi-lingual now, though I will never get over how some words are pronounced, and by Jove Mike clings to these—“'erb”, “Aloominum”—as he knows these make me cringe.

Even after 8 years we still have to explain local words and saying to one another. Only the other day I had to explain to him what a BILLIEDO (phonetic spelling) is, answers on a post card.

Then there is food; just don't get me started. How often do you find yourself in a shop showing your other half a food item and explaining how it is used—“Quite frequently” is my reply.  Last weekend I found myself in a supermarket explaining the various ways of making Jelly (NOTE: she means Jell-o): crystals, gelatine leaves and blocks, but it was a good excuse for picking up some individual tubs of Ben and Jerry's ice cream.

What's it like being married to and expat?  It is the opportunity to make our own mix of cultural traditions: Thanksgiving dinner and Pancakes at breakfast and Scones and Tea at National trust teashops. A lot of discussion and lots of laughter.


If marrying a foreigner is a bit like taking in a stray—introducing an outsider to a new routine, helping the newcomer to navigate unfamiliar surroundings and schooling the uninitiated in heretofore unknown customs—being the one to leave your homeland means putting your life in someone else’s hands.  For the first two years, I was unable to go anywhere without my wife.  At least if I wanted to find my way back home.  And if I did need to go out on my own, trusting directions such as, “Go to the top of the road, go left, take the right just beyond the Strangled Goose and when you come the roundabout go…”left me hoping she had not tired of me and was sending me on a course that would assure I could not possibly find my way back home.  This requires a special kind of trust.

Now, of course, I can find my way around Britain and back home again on my own with only the occasional frantic call to my wife, the Met or 999.

Being married to a foreigner and living in a foreign land puts you at a constant disadvantage.  You forever find yourself sitting with your beloved, watching the Telly and listening to them howl with laugher while you sit there like a pillock.  And if you press for an explanation, you’ll find the joke involved some incomprehensible cultural reference and a scene from an obscure 1960’s sitcom.

Language, too, is a continual—and sometimes startling—barrier, such as the day I discovered our mechanic was “diddling” my wife.

Eventually, however, you find yourself laughing more and asking things like, “Who, exactly, is Chicken Lickin’?” less.

But no matter how long you stay, you’ll always feel just a bit the outsider, surprised by the culture, language and customs of the natives, which is, of course, what makes it all worthwhile.

Except she still doesn’t know how to pronounce aluminium.

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  1. Thanks for the inside view. Didn't Chickin Lickin have a bad go round with an acorn? I must have had a very old version of the story here in the US :-)

  2. Ahhh, too cute, and made all the more sweet by the fact that I've had the chance to get to know Shonagh! I can hear her in her own voice.

  3. Yes, it's funny to picture Mike saying "ERB" as loud as he can and 'er indoors rolling her eyes. A bit like the Ball & Chain (American husband) flapping his arms around as he says "Expat MUM" in the worst English accent you have ever heard.

  4. Why would it be funny to hear me say 'erb? That's how you're supposed to pronounce it ;)

    Now, if you heard me say 'herb' (when referring to 'baysil' or 'or REG en no' and not some guy named Herbert), now that would sound funny. To me, anyway.

  5. Miss Marla,

    Yes, Chicken Lickin' was the fowl concerned with falling skies. How this translated to 'Little' in the US I can't say. I believe Chicken Lickin' ran afoul (afowl?) of one Colonel Sanders in his later years: where do you think the KFC slogan "Finger Lickin' Good" came from?

  6. Oh this one is waaaay too good for me to leave alone.....

    Shonagh, I too suffer the "erb" thing, despite my insistance that there is a reason it is spelt with a "H" in front of it, and multiple examples of other H words and how silly they sound without the H being pronounced - a difficult task for me, as a Yorkshireman, it is natural for me to drop as many H's as possible.

    One of the great joys of having Paula move to this country has always been to travel around the country and to "show off" various places, and yes, to discover some for myself, though without a Satnav (or me) Paula would never be able to return home. Yesterday we went to a very local car boot sale, hardly more than 500 yeards from home - mostly to test out the new batteries in her disability scooter, and I suggested she drive it home rather than pop it in the car and drive home and she admitted she didn't know the way home.....

    In seeply rural Michigan, when we go over to visit her family, I have been asked to "say something" more times than I can count, and have actually experienced the spooky sensation of a lady following me around the store (WalMart) just to hear me speak when discussing items with Paula - family are used to me now and the strange words I may use from time to time and I no longer seem so "dodgy" (took them a while to get that one...)

    It seems, Mike and Shonagh, your experiences, whilst unique to you, are far from the case, and are shared by many other people.

    Great isn't it?

  7. I've lurked around your blog for quite awhile, now and I'll raise my hand to the whole "married to an expat" experience, too.

    My husband is English and we lived for more than nine years in my native Texas before moving to East Sussex over four years ago, so we've experienced it from both sides.

    These days we can't remember which term or phrase comes from which country. We have definitely acquired a mid-Atlantic vocabulary.

  8. Lovely to hear about life from the spouse's point of view.
    It must be nice though to have someone to check with when you don't know what something is (eg. 'smores - I've only just discovered what these are) or how to pronounce stuff. The Doctor and I are just as clueless as each other!

  9. Oh, and I forgot to mention...

    Billets Doux

    Well if you translate the words separately, you would be getting Old Tickets, but that's not it

    You could possibly describe it as a French Letter, but that "could" lead to some confusion :-)

    So I'll stick with what it is generally understood to mean...

    A Love Letter (Usually a short note of that ilk)

  10. No Steve g in my family Billiedo is a list,ticket or note. Something you've written on to remind yourself or others. Nothing so romantic as a love letter. But that may be the Scots practical streak coming out from my family.

  11. So a bit like a Honey-do list, but for yourself? I must admit, I'd never heard of it. Must be a southern thing.

  12. I wonder if the difference is something to do with the spelling? When you forst alluded to it Shonagh, I just presumed that you were typing it phonetically for the audience so to speak. Is that the case or is that how you would normally spell it?

    My spelling of it - Billets Doux - is as it appears to be, derived from the French language and this may explain why we have a different meaning but still with slight similarities.

  13. Steve- I've never had to spell it before. Just my Glaswegian grandmother and father us the term a lot.So you are most probably closer to the mark and I'm living with family folklore

  14. that Aloominum and 'erb thing is just bizarre. Sorry- but it is just odd. Weird. Strange. I watch the Barefoot Contessa chef programme- I just love it, until she says 'erbs. My teeth are then on edge.

  15. Ahhh, I still use my“'erb”s, and “Aloominum” and probably always will. I can't account for the silent h, but to be fair, Americans altered the spelling of the latter - to aluminum - so it sounds as it's spelled. Not sure why we ditched the extra i - except it seems we do like our shortcuts! When I make the big move, I will plead the old excuse that English is my second language. ;)


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