Thanksgiving in England

Last week was weird. It was my first Thanksgiving week out of the US. Usually on Wednesday things start to shut down, and everyone scrambles to get to the grocery store, grabbing items before they disappear. Or, if they’re like the majority of people who have to travel, they dash to the airport, or hit the road to try and beat the worst of the traffic.

Last Wednesday, instead of getting ready for the big meal, C. and I trekked over to Camden (in London) to see a show at the Electric Ballroom. We’d purchased tickets back in September for The Tallest Man on Earth, and it just so happened that The Drums played the next night, on Thanksgiving. I figured we wouldn’t be doing the traditional thing, especially since everyone would be at work, so I got a ticket to The Drums.

I was a little concerned that I’d feel self-conscious and old, as I rarely go to shows anymore and The Drums were bound to have a pretty big trendy teenager contingent. I soon spotted a woman with silver hair, though, who looked to be in her sixties. Ah, she must be a chaperone, I thought, and felt certain that one of the giggling girls nearby was hers. Later, though, on the Northern Line headed south, I saw her again and it appeared that she was just out with her friend.

It also happened that I’d been a bit obsessed about the recent tragedy (stampede) in Cambodia, and during the solo show, which was packed and in a fairly large venue, I started thinking about how I would exit if people started to flee. The opening band had only just left, so I had about forty-five minutes to think about this. Ample time to decide that the best strategy from where I was standing would be to get to a wall as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, I was standing right in the middle, so this would take some doing. How to avoid getting knocked over? I thought about those What to Do If… books that detail what to do if you’re getting eaten by a hippopatamus, etc., and sort of wished that I had read something about stampede death prevention before this evening. I recalled moving in horse stance in martial arts classes, and thought that would also be a good strategy to employ. Try to stay grounded. I ran through a few mental trial runs, trying to keep as much distance as possible between me and the rapidly encroaching crowd as I backed out of the auditorium. I also realized that since I was obsessing about the stampede, I just might be too old to attend big trendy shows, even though my hair hasn’t all turned to silver. Hmmm, wonder if they get Lawrence Welk on UK cable….

The show was great, though, Jonathan Pierce a blond skater cartoon with skinny jeans–completely over the top. I needed something outrageous to keep my mood up. After the show, I grabbed some chicken and rice from a late-night street vendor and ate it on the way back to the Tube. I was grateful for a lot of things, but a bit bummed to not be having a Thanksgiving dinner.

Expat Tips, or What I’ve Learned So Far

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Get as many records as possible from your doctors before leaving. Getting them sent over may prove a Herculean task, due to varying laws and regulations, and may prevent you from getting care.

If you ship your own boxes over, save the labels and compare them with your receipts so you can check off what’s arrived and what hasn’t. This way, you’ll avoid “has it gotten lost in the mail” anxiety, which is not fun.

“Y’alright?” doesn’t mean “Oh my God are you okay,” but is just a casual greeting.

It will cost you 30 p to uh, pee at Victoria Station. And you must have the correct coin combinations. No five pence coins. Lines, or the queue, will form quickly behind you, so get your coins ready.

Hang on to your train ticket. Every time I throw it out it seems it’s too early. Here are the times that it’s too early to throw out your train ticket:

1. Once you arrive at your destination
2. After you use the facilities INSIDE the train station of your
3. Once you’ve left the train station

Why? Why hang on to it? Because A) you need it to get out the turnstiles in the station or you will get a big nasty fine and B) the OUT ticket looks almost exactly like the RET ticket, and if you toss the wrong one, your husband who has just had a marathon-ish long day will be really irritated, but will be very nice about it, which will make you feel worse, especially if you have about thirty seconds to get on the train before it pulls away. That’s why. Just HANG ON to those tickets and you can wrap Christmas gifts with them, collage style, or tape a bunch together and use them as mailing envelopes. You can use them as coasters for your tea party with the foxes. Just don’t, for the love of all creatures great and small, throw them out before you’ve used both tickets in your journey.

Speaking of foxes, that weird sound you hear every day that sounds like a dog whose vocal cords have been altered is indeed a fox. Even though you never see it, it calls all day, sort of like a rooster, and it’s not a pleasant sound, so will always make you kind of sad.

If you’re at a bar or club and are not drinking-drinking, don’t ask for Ginger Ale. They will look at you like you’re insane. Don’t ask for Sprite either. Ask for Ginger Beer (like Ginger Ale) or Lemonade, which is like Sprite.

Don’t put too much money on your Oyster Tube card because if you lose it right after topping it off, you’ll be mad.

Molasses is called “Black Treacle.” When the store clerk at the supermarket tells you what it is, you’ll think he’s saying “Black Trickle.” Much fun will be had by all involved–store clerk, and near-by shoppers. Silly American.

I will be making a chart of US/UK terms I’ve encountered so far, but the biggest ones are: “the till” which is the cashier, “the tip” which is the junkyard or dump, and of course, “the boot” which is the trunk of the car. But we all know the last one. There are about a hundred of these, and I learn a new one each day.

About time–things will take time, and then they might take some more time. For whatever reason, I seem to be moving through molasses that no one is in but me. You really can’t prepare for all the change beforehand. You just have to do as much as possible to make the transition easier, and then just jump in.

24(ish) hours in the life of an expat

(Epic post, folks, sorry. Will get these shorter, I promise. Pics from London, including naughty cupcakes, further down–there is a reward for reading!)

The general response I got from people when I told them I was leaving the States to come to England was that I was embarking on a life of non-stop glamour and sophistication. No matter how many times I told folks that I’d be living a ways outside of London, they always deleted the “outside of” and decided that I would be in London. I probably participated in the fantasy sometimes, too. Meeting my husband in London in 2009 was completely random, and the ensuing romance was enough to make even the most crabby high-school English teacher (me) swoon.

But back in the spring, while considering the move, I’d come back to reality and make pro & con chart after pro & con chart. Among the cons were:

a) either transporting my cat or needing to find him a new home
b) living in a not so great town outside of London–maybe tough to get connected
c) the weather
d) not a place I’d choose to live–not that health-conscious, crowded, expensive, etc.
e) the weather

Eventually, though, for many reasons that would be too laborious for me to go into and for you to read, C. and I decided that me moving here would be the best thing to do. I was frank about everything–that the lack of sun would be quite tough for me, and that I just wasn’t thrilled with the idea. I didn’t really look forward to moving to Medway, just to being able to have the chance to have a life with C.

That’s why it was always so funny when people reacted as if I was moving to a castle in Shangri-La. The reality of moving to another country is quite different than the fantasy version, and I actually have it quite easy: I speak the language. To give readers a clear sense of what expat reality is, at least for me, here’s a 24(ish) hour run-through of what things are like living in Medway, England, as well as what it’s like to meet aforementioned husband in London when he gets off work:

(Please note that this is the still looking for work version.)

Some Tuesday morning, but usually not early as always revert to being nocturnal when not at work:
Wake up either with cell phone alarm, on own, or from neighbor’s screaming. Let’s just say she’s not a happy individual.

Replay last six months over in head: dating guy from England, ok, fall for him, try to resist falling for him due to distance, do not succeed, get engaged, I decide to move there, wedding, and then the next few months, a blur. I have pictures of being in Berlin on a honeymoon but spent a good part of it walking around the city in a daze. September gets a bit focused, and in October it started to sink in: I live in England.

Mid-morning: coffee, cereal etc. Maybe an omelette with spinach, red pepper and goat cheese if I’m going into London and won’t eat ’till late.

12 noon: random tasks. If these tasks involve, say, printing something out, putting it into any sort of package or affixing printouts to anything else, put on Superwoman cape for the next two hours. The stapler, envelopes, printer cables, and paper clips may have been sucked into the Vortex of Nevermore, in the messes on the desks/bookshelves, etc. Someone might also come to the door to ask a very simple question, like “Where’s your meter?” and I will have to say, “Uh, I just moved here and my husband does that,” after which the meter reader/other survey sort of person will give me a very strange, suspicious look.

I should point out that I’m terrible with having a ton of tasks at the same time as having a ton of unstructured time. This is the ideal plan for ensuring that I get very little done. Give me a huge list of tasks all with deadlines, and everything will happen. Combine these tendencies with expat time, which I have now come to accept is about twice as long as real time, and this equals some sort of dissertation for string theorists–some new plane in the time-space continuum where absolutely nothing gets done.
Note: It’s also recommended never to attempt new cohabitation, a cross-country move, and massive DIY all at the same time. (Note–for US folks, “DIY” is home improvement.)

After about two hours of which time is spent attempting to reformat a document like a CV from US paper format to UK paper size, which I didn’t even know about until I moved here,* look at watch and freak, realizing am late for hair appt. Leave all stuff to be mailed on table for….tomorrow, that hope beyond all hopes. One day, post office, I will return.

*it’s A4, if you’re going US—>UK paper format

1:30: catch train to nearby Chatham for hair appt. I’ve been there two other times, and this little oasis–K Hann’s–has been one of my most pleasant experiences so far. Nice people who do a great job, 80’s new wave on the stereo, a sparkling water, and off we go.

My stylist, Dave, who has a roommate named Dave and three pets between the two of them, all named–guess? Dave. (Flying Dave, a bird, Long Dave, a python, and Furry Dave, I think it was, a hamster.) Much chaos ensues at times. Dave also told me a story of an American tourist who got a haircut and raved about how her last stylist had given her the “best shag ever.” Oh, fun with US/UK English. It never ends.

3:15: forget the appropriate tip percentage, and fumble at the register. Dig for the right coins, and then fumble again staring into the pieces in your hand. Expat time.

3:30: catch train back home and then usually cook something, and go to gym with C., or if he’s getting home late, I’ll bike to the gym solo.

Days in Medway are sort of like that, except that I don’t get to go to Hann’s every day, of course. For a while I was working on my driving lessons, but am taking a break from those after massive roundabout immersion nearly made my head explode. On other days, once or twice a week, I go into London earlier in the afternoon, and then meet C. after he gets done with work. Days like that go like this, starting with the post-afternoon activity time:

5:15, London, another Tuesday:
Walk on the edge of Hyde Park after viewing excellent exhibit at museum on Wildlife Photographers. (I just started doing musuem-y stuff, having wanted to use the warmish outdoor time to explore the city a bit.)

Pass Prince Albert Hall (I think) and realize it’s going to take forever to get to the next tube stop, so try to hop on bus. Get the right one on first try (very exciting) and ride along Picadilly to the Picadilly stop, where I dash off in the thickness of rush hour, tired bodies at every direction, and find myself in front of a Waterstone’s bookstore, sort of like a Barnes & Noble, for US readers. I duck in and browse, very happy to see that they’ve adopted the “go ahead and read here” philosophy, with nice comfy leather chairs on each floor of the four-story location. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which I’ve been longing to read, is stacked along with other best-sellers, mostly biographies of famous chefs and some other famous Brits whose faces I don’t recognize. I’ve been spending tons of money lately, using the dregs of my old paycheck, on waterproof and water-resistant clothes, and some warm fleecey sorts of things. There are a few reserves ahead of me at the pubic library, plus I kind of just want to have a copy. I rarely buy hardcovers, but roam around the store, enjoying my browse but also trying to figure out a way that I might be able to justify the purchase of Freedom.

Around 5:45, C. arrives, and we decide to grab some Thai food before stopping at Whole Foods for my quarterly blood-letting/shopping for vitamins/supplements/thyme-encrusted, fair-trade, low carbon St. John’s Wort.

After I realize that my birthday is only about a month away and Franzen’s novel could count as an early b-day present (C. was easily swayed as then he wouldn’t have to figure out what to get me), we buy the book and then head out.

6:30ish: End up at same noodle place we’d been to before, on Wardour St., called Pho Along the way we pass a crazy cupcake shop with some horror cupcakes–bloody eyes and a skull/knife, and some naughty cupcakes:

Naughty cupcakes

Big bloody eyeball cupcake

Skull cupcake

Once again, very nice meal, although I enter one of my frequent “Is this whole England thing going to get better because I really feel generally lost” moods and am rather quiet. Also, as I have very little going on besides “my adjustment/transition/settling in,” which is beginning to feel ridiculously slow, C. and I sometimes play that married restaurant couple who shares conversational tidbits rather than the animated, consistent flow of those who only have a short time together. How to transition from a very different dating life, which meant short, intense visits, all tinged with imminent parting, the big ‘ole Atlantic between us, and weeks or months without seeing each other? Neither of us have the answer, right now, so…

we decide to splurge on dessert at the very trendy, green tea frozen yogurt shop Snog I love the crazy colored and lit balls hanging from the ceiling:, and the yogurt is tops. Plus, the cashiers are always “cashiers at Snog.” A small green tea with an extra spoonful of irony, please. We perch on plastic mushroom-shaped stools in the orangey light and, well, snog our yogurt. Or something.

8ish: Whole Foods on Brewer St. You all know what happens here. You buy exactly eleven items things and leave with one bag panicking about how that can last you, as groceries, for the next two months. There are only four food items in the bag. (Sound of knife-wielding, horror movie style.) Consider starting support group to cope with addiction to Kombucha tea, berry flaxseed or smokehouse-flavored Nut Thins.

8:30: bus to Victoria station. I duck back into Waterstones to use the facilities, and when I come out, C. helps a twenty-something cute girl resembling Isla Fisher

Cannot compete

by informing her that the bus to Victoria is actually the other way (he’d overheard her get the wrong info), and for a second, while I’m fussing with my bag, they walk ahead and chat. I realize that the Ms. Fisher replica does not know that the nice, cute gentleman who helped her find the right bus is actually a married gentleman, and she could think she’s on her way to a cute meet. I hang back for a minute, not wanting to seem covetous, and then watch C. do the “we” thing, gesturing to me, so that she knows he’s not a solitary urban roamer. Isla gets it, smiles at me, and C. takes my hand. That works out well.

8-something–one minute before the train leaves.


Make it.

Sit and read Freedom. Find three typos in first 25 pages, one or two of which aren’t egregious, and one which was. Can’t blame Franzen for uttering the “f” word when discovering typos on a TV interview/reading, and then pulling the book from its first UK printing.

10-ish: begin my US hours where I sometimes make a phone call at midnight or even 1 a.m. to the States. I guess I’m not really fully here yet, being on US time as I often am. I’m trying to remember that this whole transplant thing happens gradually–you don’t just plunk a plant down in another pot and expect it to grow new leaves or bloom right away, if you’ll excuse the cheesy metaphor. Still, I am rarely patient with myself.

11ish: C. goes to bed and I do domestic things and clean up a bit. Get stuff ready for the next day. And then I stay up. Late. I read, look for things online trying to familiarize myself with where I am. Sometimes I make a phone call with the benefit of my unlimited call plan to US (only about $20 bucks/month!). Look at want ads for work. Print out maps of the places I’m going to the next day if they’re new.

Post midnight-some wee hour: more of the same and then, hopefully, sleep.

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