Sunday, September 26, 2010

An Expat View of London

This week we are delighted to have guest blogger Erin from 'Cross the Pond, to talk about being an expat in London.

Seven months ago I boarded a plane with my husband of six and half years, our two-and-a-half old daughter and our 11-week-old son to move from our comfortable and happy life in New York City to the wilds of London. We didn’t have a clue. I was completely game, thinking it would be an adventure for us all and we’d skip through the historic streets of London singing pub songs, quoting Shakespeare to the jolly Brits while eating bubble and squeak and washing it down with a stout English pint.

So delusional! Okay, maybe I didn’t really think it would be that great, but I did have a bit of a rude awakening.

For a country that has had women as Queen and Prime Minister (at the same time), they are not very women friendly – bank-wise at least. Because I don’t work in the UK our bank would not allow me to open an account – not even a joint account. We moved here but without a permanent address (we were still in corporate housing) so they would not allow it. I still don’t have an account in my name – just a joint account. I felt like we had gone back in time to 1950 and I was the little housewife depending on my man to bring home the bacon for me to fry up in a pan! After 20 years of working my arse off it was the biggest pill to swallow. I still resent it.

But once I came to terms with that I started to look around the place. It is lovely, and historic and has that wonderful feeling of being European: old, fascinating and full of possibilities. I felt like a kid again...until I realized the new prime minister was born the same year I was – six months AFTER me!! Shocking. How could I possibly live in a place where the guy running the joint is younger than me? I need supervision and have little business running the household – how could he possibly be qualified? I consider myself a kid but I guess I’m not if the leaders of the free world are of my generation!

There have been some serious culture shocks. I figured it would be an easy transition from one English speaking country (one that was previously owned by England) to another. Wrong. The language isn’t the problem – although some of the accents (Cockney, Liverpool, Scottish) I’m straining to understand. It’s just different. For example: the portion sizes are much smaller here. I like that – a lot. Few places have built-in closets – ghastly! I’ve had to give up half my wardrobe because I don’t have the space. People are not as welcoming – they stick to themselves – very polite and lovely, mind you – but no one is inviting us for drinks, etc. I’ve been told it’s because we Americans can’t differentiate ‘acquaintance’ from ‘friend.’ Maybe not – but I still want to have a dinner party with people other than Americans. Paper towel rolls are a joke here – give me Bounty!! And don’t get me started on the nickel and diming: council tax, water and gas, electric, a license to watch TV – madness! And television – you must have cable or a giant library, there is no debate here.

But all said and done London and New York are a lot alike while being completely different. While NY is really a lively, happening, living-breathing entity unto itself – the city that doesn’t sleep, the city so nice they named it twice, etc. - London is steeped in something so extraordinary you can feel it in your bones. This is the land of Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Churchill, Queen Elizabeth (I and II!), the guy from House, Stonehenge, Victorian everything – it’s the place where all that truly speaks to me was born. And I can visit all of them (except for the guy from House as they have laws against stalking)! All the great castles and churches are within driving distance. I love the Museum of London and the Victorian and Albert Museum – to name just two. Even as I think about it I get excited wondering when we’ll see it all – and we will see it all. It’s fantastic.

But New York is still home in my heart. I miss the bustle of the subway and Times Square, Broadway, my favourite haunts, my office, my old apartment and buddies in Brooklyn; hotdogs and Fourth of July bbq’s; great television and TiVo; and H&H bagels with a schmear. Heavy sigh. It’ll still be there when we get back with the Statue of Liberty welcoming us home. I’ll be bringing half of Fortnum and Mason back with me - though.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Now is the winter....

As sunmer ends and the nights close in, let us pull up a chair and ponder the winter to come:


A few years ago I flew into Heathrow and the pilot announced that it was "63 and cloudy" in England. After what I can only assume was a silent smirk, he quickly added, "But then it's always 63 and cloudy here isn't it?" And yes, it appears that way. Hands up how many of you (in the UK) have said in the past few years that the winters don't seem as harsh as they used to be?

Forget your glorious English summer - How I long for an English winter.

Although it is still warm and sunny here in Chicago at the moment, my heart is already sinking at the thought of another long and frozen winter. Chicago doesn't even get the worst snow, but that's often because apparently "it's too cold for snow". Yes folks, if we get snow it's a sign that things are warming up.

Over the next month or so, people all over the northern plains will be preparing for winter as follows:

•Mulch the gardens if you don't want to lose all your perennials. (There is a very limited number of perennials that make it through anyway.)

•Prune all the dead and crisp branches down to the ground.

•Buy in huge quantities of salt to keep the sidewalks navigable.

•Train your dog to wear dog booties, as the salt can be very painful on their paws.

•Join every local toddler gym and indoor play facility (if you have small children) as they won't be playing out between November and March.

•Match up all the gloves and mittens - they can be needed at a moment's notice.

•Make sure all the snow suits/pants fit.

•Put away all your fashion boots and coats. Parkas and snow boots are the only option.

•Find at least one snow shovel. (In our case, have a back up for when you leave it outside and someone helps himself to it.)

Although we don't have the continuous darkness that Mike refers to, we do have months and months of sub-zero temperatures. On a really bad day the weather guys on TV will tell us to stay indoors and give us "frostbite signs" to look out for.

Now I've depressed myself and it's sunny outside. Must go and make use of the sunshine while I can.


The days are closing in, a sharpness is creeping into the evening air and a tinge of yellow is highlighting the hedgerows. Autumn is here, which means winter cannot be far behind.

Not that I mind so much; winters in Sussex cannot hold a candle to the winters I left behind in Upstate NY. Oh, there is the odd year when we get more than our share of snow, when the traffic snarls and the sidewalks ice up and everyone starts to grumble (it’s what we do best in Britain, after all) about why we can’t cope with a little snow. (I’ll tell you why: it only snows about once every ten years here, you don’t stockpile road salt and maintain a fleet of snow plows. No one even owns a snow shovel. That’s because you don’t need to, so stop whining! Just clean up what you can with what you have to hand, wait for the rest to melt and thank your lucky stars that you don’t know what REAL snow is like.)

Anyway, aside from the odd blizzard that socks us with, oh, two or three inches of snow and the few days the thermometer dips below the freezing mark, winters over here are a doddle. For me, anyway; people who moved here from Florida or Southern California must think they’ve landed in hell, but it’s paradise to anyone north of the Mason-Dixon line.

What it lacks in cold, snow and ice, however, it makes up for in darkness. Don’t forget that even southern Britain, latitude-wise, is on a par with Labrador, and while the Gulf Stream keeps the weather relatively mild, there is nothing you can do about the sun and its relation to the earth’s axis.

At the nadir of the year, it’s still dark when I get to work, already dark when I leave, and grey in between. I only get to see the sun on the weekends and then only when it is visible through the cloud cover that seems to appear at the end of October and not dissipate until April.

This is the time of year when pubs come into their own; there is nothing like an evening in a cozy pub by a wood fire in the inglenook fireplace to keep winter at bay. And British ale is specially brewed to contain all the vitamin D you need to offset the lack of sun. Either that, or it makes you not mind the lack of sun so much. Either way, it’s how you get through the winter.

In spring, you can start drinking lager again.

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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Say What?

Foreign nurses in Norfolk, England are receiving a crash course in euphemism after patients asking to "spend a penny" found themselves being escorted to a hospital shop. Mike and Toni reflect on how easy it is to make similar mistakes even when you’re speaking the same language.


Having married an American (a southern one at that) I’m used to hearing words and phrases that have no discernable meaning, and I’ve given up trying to figure them out. When my husband first said “If I had my druthers” I didn’t know whether he was talking about a favorite pair of shoes or a pet name for his grandma. Honestly! On further inspection, I’ll admit that it’s not a great stretch to see that “druthers” derives from the words “would rather”, but when you’re put on the spot, the meaning isn’t quite on the tip of one’s tongue.

Similarly, when I was first asked for my “John Hancock”, I stood staring at the sales assistant, wondering whether he needed a good slap in the face. How was I to know that your John Hancock is your signature? (The signature of John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence is the most flamboyant and therefore the most recognizable.) And when fellow students on my Masters Degree program announced that they would be “boning up on” various things, I thought this was rather too much information personally. Of course, it isn’t rude in the least and means to study (or swot up on) a subject.

Hubby’s conversation is liberally peppered with euphemisms such as “crying Uncle” or just “uncle”, which of course, means to give up or surrender. (The origin of this is so debatable I’m not even going to bother with it.) He also says he’s going to “put something up” which I quickly learned is a southern way of announcing he’s going to put something away as opposed to getting the attic ladders out.

Americans are masters of the euphemism when it comes to unsavory or personal matters. No one dies, they “pass away” or have “bought the farm”; complete nutters “have issues” or “baggage”, if someone is downright bloody rude, they are “rough around the edges” and anyone who drinks too much is obviously “self-medicating”. (A great one to use if you ever manage to drink too much in public is to say you were “over-poured”.)

Yet again, a whole nuther language!


The first time I knew I was dealing with a foreign language was on my first trip to England, when my future father-in-law asked it I fancied a “wee dram.” Naturally, I had no idea what he was on about. But then he’s from Glasgow, and even English people can’t understand them. So I remained confused, over one point of language or another, for some time.

My favorite source of confusion, like the hapless Norfolk nurses, was over “spend a penny.” “Visit a man about a dog” I could deal with, as it was not much of a stretch from seeing the same man about a horse. But a penny? Especially when the toilet cover-charge in Victoria station has just gone up to 30 pence! It just didn’t—and still does not—make any sense.

But I have had just as good a time confusing the British with my American idioms. “Boondoggle,” “Charlie horse,” “going Postal” have all been met with odd stares and silence. The best, however, was committed by a co-worker from India who, while we were at a company picnic, noted that one of our number was wearing his “knickers.” This caused a great deal of mirth among the others, though I knew exactly what he meant: where I come from, short pants are called Knickerbockers, from the Dutch who had settled the area and left portions of their language behind (Dutch rub, Dutch Uncle, going Dutch, in Dutch with your wife, etc.). So shorts could be referred to as knickers there without many people raising an eyebrow. In Britain, however, it means you’ve been raiding your wife’s underwear drawer. Again.

After eight years, my wife and I have pretty much learned each other’s language. She’s used to me referring to what she calls “stair rods” as “a cow pissing on a flat rock” (for those of you scratching your heads, these both relate to really enthusiastic rain). My wife faffs and gets knackered, while I’m fidgety and get beat.

All in all, it’s an interesting exchange of culture. I’d like to go on, but it’s getting late, and I’m knackered.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

American Religion and British Secularism - A Few Surprises

This week, we're delighted to bring you guest poster Noble Savage. She's an American living in the UK and started blogging when she moved there in 2005. This week, she has something to say on religion in the UK versus the US:

Noble Savage:

Like a Plymouth pilgrim in reverse, I fled America for Britain to escape religious tyranny.

Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but only just.
When I see things like this on American street corners and someone like this on American TV screens -- spouting hate, ignorance and vitriol night after night, in the name of religion, patriotism and the aggrandized sense of moral superiority that accompanies both -- I do feel that I’ve escaped a way of life that, if I’d stayed, I would have undoubtedly struggled with and against. As an agnostic and then an atheist, I have always felt uncomfortable with the pervasiveness of organised religion in my home country and thought it ironic that a nation founded on principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state could be so dominated and divided by that mythical man in the sky.

When I moved to England as a young adult, I was a bit shocked at the lack of religion. As a 20-something living in London and hanging out with lefty liberals, this should have been unsurprising but still, it was. Even the rare few friends and acquaintances whom I eventually learned did attend church never proselytized or used their religious beliefs to openly judge my lifestyle or political opinions. If they did disagree with me or judge me, they had the quintessential British politeness to do so in the privacy of their own head or home. That’s not to say that the British never use their religious beliefs to shape their opinions and, consequently, the law, but it seems to be less pervasive and in-your-face than it is in the States.

The thing that strikes me as most odd about the UK’s secularism is the fact that, technically, it is a religiously-affiliated nation, run and represented by the Church of England. There is no separation of church and state, yet it remains fairly separate because of the populace’s laid-back attitude to religion. This is a nation where 33 per cent consider themselves atheist or agnostic and only 15 per cent attend church regularly. The comparative figures for America are 7 percent and around 40 per cent, respectively [figures from].

Nothing illustrates these differences more perfectly than in 2008, during the Democratic nomination process in which Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton stood on a historic ballot. For the first time ever, America’s Democratic voters had to decide between a a black man or a woman. Rumblings and misgivings about each came from all quarters. But it was when a friend of mine quite rightly commented, “I can see either of them getting elected president before anyone who identified as atheist,” that I knew that even more than skin colour and even more than gender, religion holds a monopoly on American politics and culture.
For that reason, I’m quite happy to stay in merry ol’ England, where we have an admitted atheist for a Deputy Prime Minister and messages like this appear on the sides of buses. When it comes to religion, the UK is definitely my stop.

Post Script from Toni, our Brit in America:

I have little to add to Noble Savage's views except to say that if you're not a right-wing religious zealot, it's all a bit scary in the US at the moment.

I had a taste of the religious element as soon as moved here in 1990. Most people (in Dallas) were heavily involved in their (mostly Protestant) churches and were almost aghast when I confessed my non-attendance. Many offered to take me along to their church, never for a moment thinking that I had no intention of joining any church at any time. Even in Chicago (lots of Catholics, of which I am the lapsed variety) there's a much bigger percentage of church goers than in the UK.

All this I can live with however. I respect a person's right to practise a religion as long as my right to take a pass is respected in return.

What really annoys me is the religion that is inserted into American government despite the supposed separation of church and state. Having had many debates about this, the usual answer is that this country was founded by Christians and the entire Constitution envelops the Christian ethic. Never mind that they were trying to escape enforced religion, or that there are millions of Americans who don't have God and the Bible as the center of their belief system. And god help agnostists and atheists - we're all going to Hell in a handbasket apparently.

People who call themselves Christians are getting downright evil, as Nobel Savage showed above. This nasty side has always been apparent in the intolerance towards gays and lesbians, but now it's being directed against Muslims specifically, with Obama's middle name Hussein being interjected whenever possible to remind us that they think he's one of them.

I miss the tolerance in the UK and realise now that, like many, I took it for granted.