Pets at Home

For whatever reason, I like to ponder the names of businesses, especially if they’re new to me.  So of course I have a lot of new material here.  Monday we drove by a pub named “The Joyful Whippet,” which prompted a twenty minute discussion on A) what adjectives would appropriately describe a whippet (lithe, sleek, gaunt), and B) which dog breeds are actually “joyful” (terriers, labs).    C. says I’m over-thinking things, which is absolutely absurd.

The other day I noticed the Pets at Home store, which is like a US PetSmart.  One of those big box strip mall stores that has everything from lizard dens to gerbil water beds.  Well, actually you might have to special order those but they probably wouldn’t blink twice if you asked.


Pets at Home.

Pets at Home.

Pets…at home.

As a person who’s spent over twenty years obsessing over the right word, phrase or sentence, the Pets at Home campaign drives me absolutely insane.  Every time we drive by the store, I’m dying to know what they were thinking.  Pets at Home.  Why, for the love of all things furry, “at home”?  Is this opposed to one’s Pets on the Train?  Pets in one’s office cubicle?   The pets you keep in a locker at the train station, or maybe in your grandma’s basement?  How about the pets at your favorite restaurant or at the gym?   No–what’s great about this store is that it caters to all your needs for your Pets at Home.  Whew!  So glad someone finally realized there was a market for this.   Definitely need a different litter box for my pets at home than for my pets that I keep at the dentist’s office.  Pets…at Home!   Brilliant!

(And don’t even tell me that I have too much time on my hands.  Noted, of course.  But I would be on the exact same rampage if I were crazy busy.  Trust me.)

British Culture Social Taboos

British social taboos–what are they?   After nine months of being here, I still feel clueless.  I know that Brits generally regard Americans as louder, more arrogant, and geographically ignorant, but if we still venture out and risk making fools of ourselves, what rules might we avoid?

Before coming to the UK, I tried to read up a bit about major social do’s and don’ts.  I read that Brits frown on tardiness, overt religious references, and that they have a hard time accepting earnest compliments.   They take their tea seriously from what I can tell, no matter how manly the man, so don’t mess with their cup.   (A hilarious parody of all the herbal varieties of tea out there and manliness right here.)

I’ve noticed, in some group situations, that women will speak very quietly, often at an inaudible level.   A few other expats have remarked that British women usually adhere more to traditional female roles, and might avoid appearing aggressive, confident, or dynamic.  Of course this exists in the US too, and as a previous tomboy/princess-warrior/Tank Girl, I’ve rarely felt comfortable in traditional female environs.  In London, it’s all tights, skirts, and heels, and almost always straightened long hair.  Not so many earthy, sporty girls.

Does not worry about being nice.


Hugging.  I know that’s a no-no.  When I first met C.’s family, I asked what I should do–if I should hug them, shake hands, or do the cheek kiss.

“Nothing, he said.  “Definitely not hugging.  Don’t hug them.”

I was a little worried, as that’s how I convey warmth where I’m from.  To not even shake hands would seem cold.  It did.

The shaking hands thing seems very awkward, especially in professional or semi-professional situations.   I never know if I should shake, which would be my usual inclination, or to not shake.  If in a casual situation in the US, some folks, especially if female and shy, might not shake and that would be fine, but if one extended a hand that would rarely look weird.  I’m never sure if it looks weird here or not.

Hugging tigers: a no-brainer.

One thing I have observed is that people don’t talk about what they “do” as much as they do in the US, and they rarely ask.   Definitely appreciate this, and would even if I was working.  And no inquiries about where I went to school, which is such a big issue in the US.

I guess the other thing would be being personal in any way–making folks who are reserved uncomfortable.  I’m sure this varies from person to person, but I’ve definitely felt that I need to avoid saying anything about my life whatsoever with some sets of company.  This causes all sorts of confusion with C. and me, because he maintains that people want to get to know me, but since I can’t read people here I sometimes get self-conscious that I’m too expressive, too open, just plain too much in contrast to the English. When I get excited I talk with my hands, I raise my voice, and may even (gasp!) use fanciful language (one of C.’s favorite accusations). C. is constantly telling me “use my inside voice” and says that I exaggerate. (Gasp again.)

Along with the being too personal thing, I often feel too blunt, which is something I struggled with a lot in Richmond.  Chicagoans don’t mince words, and also being a Sagittarius (or it’s my personality if you’re one who thinks the stars don’t mean a thing), I have the tendency to tell it like it is.  I’m guessing that this is a taboo…?

I’ve also noticed that the level of formality is very different, and I might appear crass or rude by not observing the same level of formality.  For example, C.’s mom might come by for lunch or to help with something.  When parting, one of them might say “thank you ever so much for helping today,” along with a few other pleasantries.  The thanking part seems long, overdone and formal to me, especially for a family member.  I’ve experienced the same in a small interaction, say, at a small grocery store.  C. might say “thank you ever so much.”  In the US, there might be a bit of banter, and a “have a good one,” where I’m from, but not a semi-formal thank-you.  The wish of having a good evening, afternoon, etc. is something that I miss, actually, and the colloquial “take it easy,” or “take care.”  In VA, sometimes “take it easy darlin’.”

C. also gets upset if I don’t use please or thank you all the time.  Once, in a moment of total informality I said, “Gimme your camera,” trying to catch a quick shot before it was gone.  C. was offended.

While I appreciate C.’s politeness, it would just never be natural for me to say “May I please use your camera?” to my partner or spouse.  I might say  “Can I have the camera?”  It’s colloquial, relaxed language, but in C.’s family it seems that formality always remains.

What about restaurants?   I’m gluten-intolerant, and the other night I asked if I could have something without the bread, and the server seemed vexed. From what I’ve read, this makes Americans look demanding.  Obviously one should be reasonable, and all I did was ask if it was possible and when the server said no, that was fine.

The knife and fork thing seems to be a big one.  Americans often eat with just a fork, and may cut some meat with the edge of the fork, which I think is seen as sort of crude here. Here one is supposed to push food onto the fork with the knife and then take a bite with the left hand, off the fork.  Too old a dog for such new tricks?

Customer service. It’s different here, but I’m not sure how, exactly.  While trying to navigate the teacher qualification nightmare, I’ve had brush-offs by a number of people, but they were polite about it.  Truth be told, I would much rather someone be a jerk, but give me the information I wanted, without the obligation for a ten minute long thank-you.  Sometimes niceties are enjoyable, but sometimes you just want to ask a question and get an answer.

One place that has impressed me is Tesco, in that once I asked if there were any carts inside, as I ran out of hand and arm room, and the clerk went and GOT me one.   Holy schnikey–that was nice.

And then there’s eating.  Talking while eating (not with one’s mouth open, of course, but just in general)–I wonder about this one sometimes, as C.’s family is notably silent while eating.   If I say anything other than that something is tasty, I feel like I’m doing something wrong. To me it’s very awkward to eat in silence–that indicates tension, that something’s wrong.

Not eating dessert–is this terribly unpolite or just another family thing?  If one doesn’t want dessert should one prepare an effusive apology…?

The weather.  I’ve read that it’s ok for Brits to complain about it, but that if foreigners do, it’s annoying.  True?

Thanks in advance for any contribution to a chat about figuring out the British.

Update with More London, a Poetry Reading with The King’s Poets, a Burlesque Show at the Brickhouse, and Rainham houses

Last week was sort of insane.  We got back from Tunisia around two in the morning Monday, and then Monday I had an appt. in the early afternoon to talk to someone about a possible counseling program.  (To become certified to do it, not to get some, even though I probably need it.  😉   Sounded very interesting, and would do it if I had 625.00 pounds/year for over four years to drop on it.)

Tuesday eve. I went to The King’s Poets meeting, chatted with some very smart people about some poems, Wednesday…ugh, can’t remember Wednesday but I’m sure I did something, Thursday got a spontaneous last-minute appt. to meet with a recruiter in London about teaching jobs, and Friday got a spontaneous offer to do some admin stuff at C.’s very cool Soho office.  Saturday we looked at two houses in nearby Rainham, attempted to go to the carpet place and get Murphy’s second round of shots (those things didn’t happen), and dashed off to the King’s Poets reading in London.

Bloomsbury Waterstones

I freaked out about what to read, that everything was old, too dark, or just too American (“snap–can’t read the one about Soul Train–no one will know what that is here!”), but it was hot in the bookstore and I think by the time I went (second to last), everyone’s mind was just on getting some air.  I probably could have read a poem about watching The Brady Bunch while eating McDonald’s wearing my Nike tennis shoes and it all would have been good.

The cool thing about the Thurs. chat was that it was in the More complex near the London Bridge.  That little section of the city is futuristic and crazy.  Loved it.  Turns out the mayor works in an egg:

Where the Mayor Works

I did not take this.

Anyway, I met with a woman in one of the nearby buildings of the complex, which is called More London.  Really loved it over there (note intersection of Tower of London) and the egg.

Which building would you want to clean at night?  I’ll take the egg, thank you very much.  Every time I look at that section of London, all I can do is think about how many ghosts must be in there.

Friday, working at C.’s office was good in that I was out of the house and finally catching a glimpse of London work life.  I know it’s a hard-working office, and I was impressed at how focused everyone was, even at four on a Friday afternoon.  Folks were wearing jeans, as is the tradition there on Fridays, but people weren’t too chatty.

After work we stopped in for a snack at Yalla Yalla, Beirut Street Food, a few blocks away from C.’s work.  Incredible food for cheap (London cheap, anyway).  Very tasty.  Then we met up with one of his coworkers and his gf and had a rare night out (thanks, Keynoir–only like 15 pounds!) at Brickhouse in Brick Lane for a burlesque show.  Plus, who knew it would be Prince burlesque, no less??

I was still wearing my “officey” attire, and definitely felt the need for a little trashy glam, but after a few mojitos I didn’t care.   “Prince,” a solid lookalike (Syrian?   Indian?  We weren’t sure…)  sang “Raspberry Beret” while a businessman changed from his suit to drag, all from his briefcase.  Very good.  Purple Rain, both the album and the movie, were sort of my coming of age soundtracks, but I did feel a bit odd knowing all the lyrics as the two Brits and a German that I was with had never seen the movie and weren’t too familiar with the album.

And then a woman wearing an Empire State Building outfit shot fireworks out of her pasties, which I think she’s getting ready to do in the second shot:

We sat upstairs in this loungey space and hung over the rails to view the show.  At 11:30 (far too early for me) we had to go though, missing the last act, since our last train left Victoria just after midnight.  *Bummer!*

Saturday the house viewing was a bit of a crash into the reality of Rainham homes.  While the first house had excellent renovations (the owner was a designer), it was just so small.  Smaller than our current place, which to me feels very small.  And you’re talking to a girl who’s had some pretty modest digs, including three tiny, roachy studio apartments in Chicago and one very dangerous roach hole in Richmond, VA.

So both houses wouldn’t allow for our bed (double or Queen, not sure) in the main bedroom.  Those who had the second house had the bed crammed in there, and I don’t even think one could have walked around it in any direction, so I don’t really know how they got out of bed and got out of that room.  (A little gymnastics to start the day?)

Where the bleep do people get dressed?   Clothes were crammed into the second “bedroom,” which was a closet that couldn’t have even fit a twin bed.  Since the clothes took up all the space, there wasn’t room to also get dressed.  I guess one could take the clothes to the bathroom, but I’m sure with two people getting ready in the morning, bathroom time is of a premium.

Both kitchens also had almost zero counter or pantry space, and no place for a dryer, which is considered by many to be a luxury in England.  I’m all for saving energy like the next guy, but our place is usually quite chilly in the winter, and clothes have sat on our racks for about a week without getting dry.

So, not so exciting.  Not to mention the fact that we couldn’t fit our kitchen table in the tiny “dining room” space, so we’d have to ditch that.  Probably the bookshelf as well, and certainly the wardrobes, which would mean we wouldn’t have anything to eat on, dry clothes in, or put clothes in for who knows how long.

I didn’t really have time to think about the house thing though until Sunday, since we were flying to the reading, which was fun and I felt honored to have been included in the company of such skilled poets.

Back in Medway, which feels like my real life, and anything in London feels like a fantasy tangent, tonight we opted not to call the cops on the domestic argument outside (at neighbor’s?  hard to tell).   I’ve lost track of how many times we’ve called.   Territorial tiffs, domestic ones, or just plain drunken brawlers pounding back from Priestfield Stadium–add that to the neighbor’s litany of complaints and one has a nice beginning orchestra.  Then, add the Polish rap from two houses down, a little London rap from the adjoining neighbors on the other side, and how about a dog barking for a few hours, a fox, plus a bunch of kids screaming on bicycles?  Excellent, ah, you’ve got the Gillingham soundtrack.

This soundtrack put me in a horrible mood when I woke up Sunday, despite thinking I’d in a very good mood with the past week’s fun activities and the sunny, warm weather. But the noise was doing me in.  Unable to get a moment’s peace I’ve stayed quite bummed for the last two days, especially after my little hope bubble of moving to Rainham has burst.  I can’t see getting excited about spending all that cash to move when it might only be slightly better, in the less calls to the cops kind of way.   Quieter, yes, but less annoying?   No.  I think we’d have to call a summit to decide if we had room for a new pair of socks between us, or a bag of economy-size potato chips.  (Yes, crisps if I must be local.)   What to do, in-between bouts of attempting to unpack from the holiday, doing my “made insanely complicated by being unable to e-file” expat taxes and making gluten-free lasagna?

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  That’s right bitches.  Dee is my new hero.  Whenever I feel provincial as hell (daily), too loud, or too brash, I think of Dee and what she would say about living in Medway.  Any ideas…?

Your Name in Arabic, Tunisian Post-Revolution Graffiti, and of course, the requisite social anxiety

Sunday night I returned from my first family holiday as an honorary Brit.  From what I can tell, the Brits are serious about their holidays.   The whole US/UK/European vacation/holiday thing is something I’d like to post about separately, as it’s a loaded issue, but for now I’ll just say that I was a bit nervous about going since I’ve only been on a few vacations in my time that are “proper” holidays.  I’ve gone to other parts of the world for a bit of study, or to visit, but have only done the whole “beach” holiday thing twice, and both of these trips involved activities like snorkeling or Disneyworld so there wasn’t a whole lot of sitting around.

Let me just say this right off the bat:  I am terrible at “relaxing.”   My first reaction to the word is to get nervous and to feel kind of claustrophobic, as what many people find relaxing I find annoying.  I enjoy going to the beach to swim, to have a walk and to hang out for a few hours, but I can’t do it all day.  I get antsy, both physically and mentally.  I once had a huge argument with an ex who swore he’d never go to the beach with me again since I was so bad at sitting there.

The other thing that made me nervous was the whole issue of being around C.’s family for a week.   They’re kind and lovely people, but I’m always worried that I’ll say or do the wrong thing, both as an in-law and as an expat.  I’m usually kind of the odd person out in most groups, unless they’re of my making–a hodge-podge of quirky idealists whose lives don’t happen in a linear fashion.  Like English majors.

C.’s family, and like C. himself, are very task-oriented. Conversely, half the time I don’t even know what planet I’m on.  It’s the classic INFP thing.  (For more on life as an INFP–Meyer’s Briggs type–check out the basic description here and Corin’s blog about being an INFP here.)

But back to Tunisia.  Isn’t that why you’re here?

Being in Northern Africa was fascinating.  I’ve always wanted to go there, especially after reading Paul Bowles books  and the translation of Isabelle Eberhardt‘s bizarre and reckless life.  I loved the call to prayer that started around 4:30 in the morning and happened four other times during the day and evening.  I love the sound of Arabic, especially when sung by the guy walking down the beach I heard on my last day.  Gorgeous and full of longing.  I love the elegance of written Arabic, and Islamic architecture:

Mosque courtyard and steps to prayer tower

Great mosque in Kairouan

Doorway in Sousse near medina

Sorbet-colored building in Sousse 

All the hotels were surrounded by palm trees, and the flora was fun to admire:

I think this is some kind of mimosa.

Two salutes to the sunset

Am dying to know what kind of tree this is.  Was like a rat-tail cactus crossed with a pine.

mystery tree

Loved the combination of modern and ancient:

And weird signage:

This is a Russian pub. Lots of Russians come to Tunisia in the winter months.

Looks like one very long amusement park ride.  Millions of years long.

And of course signs of the recent revolution:

Tunisian flags everywhere

Various young men often approached us as the locals are very friendly and want to know if visitors are enjoying their country, especially after the drop in tourism this winter.  “Tunisia!  You like?”  wasn’t uncommon to hear from while walking down the beach.  It was great to see such pride in one’s country, and the sense of optimism. However, Tunisians do need the tourists to return as it’s their primary source of income.

A few young men offered C. to trade me in for some camels.  It’s a joke, a friendly exchange, one which the men seemed to feel absolutely no self-consciousness in offering.  It seemed like my role in the game was to be flattered, and feigned as much when one man offered a “trillion” camels.    On another evening, though, a different man’s grandmother was offered, to which C. replied, “Well, is she a good cook?”

Very reassuring.

Couldn’t care less who I’m traded for as long as no one’s riding me.  

One of the highlights of the holiday was the morning visit to the Sousse Medina, or marketplace.

C.’s mom, after a number of visits, has gotten good at bantering with the locals.  “I’ve already got some!”  she’d say to the men calling at her about buying some shoes.  She’d shake her bag, indicating the shoes inside.

“How much?” the vendors would instantly reply.

“Ten dinar,” she’d say, and the men would all moan and tell her she’d paid way too much.

C.s mom mid-barter and me

It’s fun to banter but the tour guides instructed us on the latest scams to watch out for.

For example, the hotel where we stayed, Hotel Tour Khalef, was all inclusive.  Upon arrival, one is issued a pink plastic bracelet, like one might get at a fair, or in a hospital.   (Many jokes about having “escaped” ensued.)    Down at Port El Kantoui, men sat by the entrance to the port, and on spying the pink bracelet, would call “Hotel Tour Khalef!  Do you remember me?   I was your waiter last night!”   The hotel is so huge that not remembering one’s waiter is possible.   The men would then lead the clueless off to a “discount” camel ride, or another activity that would cost a lot of money.   You gotta hand it to these guys–in a country where work can be scarce, this is not the typical pickpocket scheme.  In fact, I rarely felt at risk for pickpocketing–less so than Barcelona, or maybe even New York.  In Tunisia, it’s taboo to prey on tourists as they’re so crucial to the economy.

I didn’t get any photos, as I was usually too busy choosing treats, but many markets were full of pistachio nougat, sesame sticks, praline peanuts, Turkish delight, and almonds.  YUM.

I met a woman at the hotel who had been coming to Tunisia for 26 years.  Apparently, one gets bit and keeps coming back.  It’s so inexpensive to visit, especially with a package trip, that some retired folks stay for months.  It’s actually cheaper, food and heat wise, to stay there in the winter months rather than heat one’s home in England.

So will I be back?  If I can help it, oh, yes, please.

The married for almost one year couple. Awww….

Sousse beach at sunset

*Thanks a million, katrillion camels to A.M., C.’s mum, for treating us on this trip.

May you have many more days of sun in Tunisia!*

The Importance of Being Murphy

Murphy the cat’s been with us now for three months and he’s become a bona fide member of the family.  I miss him on days when I travel into London, he’s such a bright and spirited young kitty.  Although I still miss Toby (my beloved cat back in the States who has now has a wonderful new auntie/second mommy Joanne), I know he’s in the best hands ever and recently I heard he’s traveling to Joanne’s mom’s farmhouse where he’s made friends with a new kitty and even a dachshund.  Toby loves dogs, so I’m thrilled with this news.

The Toby.


"Are these working for me?"

Meanwhile, in British cat news, Murph is now officially Murphy Moyle-McCarthy as he just got microchipped, fixed, and dosed with the first round of feline leukemia vaccination.  Whew.  For a cat who wasn’t “allowed to stay,” (original dictate from the man of the house) he’s now got us paying till the cows come home.   We even got pet insurance today from Tesco (supermarket) for about seven pounds a month.

The tricky part of having a Murph (also known as Smurf, or Smurphus) in the house is the window situation.  Europe isn’t into screens, which looks nice, but when your cat decides it would be fun to duck out the second story, slippery ledge with his newly-trimmed claws, this is not good.  As he came to us as a stray, having spent who knows how much time living outside, it would be impossible to keep him in.  I’m a very cautious outdoor-kitty person, and my cats have usually stayed in, but here things are different.  Almost all the cats go outside and around here, where things are quite dense, so their territory is vertical instead of horizontal.  They hang out on the rooftops of the sheds and tops of garages and additions, sunbathing and stalking their way across fence tops.

Murphy as Jason Bourne

They don’t really roam as much, I don’t think, although you do see Lost Cat flyers up just as much as you do in the States.   Murphy’s lightning-fast too, and when he wants out, he’s slipping out.

So.  The other day I was looking outside for him and he wasn’t coming when I called like he usually does.  Finally I went back inside, and happened to see him, from the spare bedroom window, sliding around on the nearby office window ledge.  Narrow ledge.  Very high ledge over nothing but stone.  Of course I thought about C.’s sister’s cat, who just had to have knee surgery to the tune of 800 pounds.  (That’s almost $1,500.00 boys and girls.)   For some reason, I’d never even thought of cats having knees, let alone knee problems that required surgery.    The vet said it could have been dislocated during a drop from a rooftop.

Anyway, back to the cat on the ledge tale–I decided to open the window, if I could, as some swivel in.  But by the time I got to the window, I heard a loud THUMP.  I was terrified to look.  That did not sound alright.   I looked out the window and didn’t even see Murphy on the stone.  When I went outside, there he was, like “Hey, what’s up?”  all swirly-tailed and perky, as if he hadn’t just crashed to the ground.


So far there haven’t been any battles with any of the ten million other cats in the neighborhood, but Murphy did enforce his new territorial reign on another cat who’s been perched on the back shed since I got here, known as black and white kitty.  (As opposed to Fat Head, whose story is also here.)

This roof ain't big enough for the both of us.

Murphy manages to shove black and white kitty off despite being one-third the size.

And STAY off! Note black and white kitty's ears to bottom left of Murph.

Fortunately, when we went away in February for a weekend, our neighbor Rafael came by and hung out with the Murph so he didn’t get too lonely.   Rafael, who’s Polish with a wry sense of humor, said, on returning the key, “Yes, everything went fine but I was very disappointed in Murphy.”   Rafael looked grave.  Oh no, I thought, Murphy scratched Rafael or made a mess.

“He didn’t play fetch with me.”

Rafael did seem genuinely disappointed.  I think we’d hyped Murphy’s skills a bit too much.  We were the parents with the “My kid’s on the honor roll” bumper stickers except ours said “Our cat plays fetch with a brown glove!”

Murphy is awesome, but he’s not a lap kitty and doesn’t always come sit on the couch when you’re watching a movie.  He absolutely hates being picked up and will cry like you’re about to pull out his whiskers.  One of his favorite things is to ambush our legs as we walk up the stairs, poking his head out from in between the white slats.  He naps on a yellow, circle IKEA bath mat that I placed at the top of the stairs.  From his perch, he can keep an eye on the place, and make sure no one shady gets in.  Scrappy police officer Murphy.   I wouldn’t mess with him.

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