One year of blogging.

So, the blog.  Blogging about blogging is probably like writing about writing, which might be terribly indulgent, but it seems appropriate at the one year mark.

I’m very ambivalent about blogging.  It seems like it would be great–no overhead, a vast potential audience, blog from anywhere. But there are a number of problems.  The notion of writing about one’s life to, oh, everyone on the planet, especially mixed in with all the other noise of the web seems daunting at best.  I much preferred the zine world, where one could write about anything and then schlep the little DIY pub to ye olde zine shop, zine distros, etc.  The zine audience was controlled, so there was some privacy and therefore, maybe more authenticity in the writing.  There’s something also very “Hey!  Lookit me, lookit me!” about a blog, and I’m usually disappointed by the writing in popular blogs.

Still, it’s an outlet.  A few of the virtual conversations I’ve had with folks in the last year have sustained me, mostly other expats telling me that they get it, that they were in the same boat.  (Thanks to you!)    It’s something to do while trying to create a space for myself in a new country.  BPRB offers WordPress practice, and let’s face it, one’s gotta try to keep up these days.

So after a week of two of consideration, I’ve decided to keep on blogging despite not showing up in the WordPress search bar under the name of my blog, which baffles me.  The IT husband can’t figure it out either.  It took quite a long time for Google to find me (months) but I haven’t found anything in forums that indicates that WordPress takes a year or more.

I’ve thought about doing an “after a year in the UK” post, but I think I’d be redundant.  For what it’s worth though, in a nutshell: the house is just about finished, is on the market, and we will possibly buy another that we’ve put an offer on, which is risky without me having solid work.  It seems crucial to be in a less extreme environment though.  The job search continues.  I’m still playing with various combinations of teaching qualifications and always have tons of forms that must be filled out yesterday.  Still do not have the driver’s license, and need to get that.   Am glad to at least be working part-time, even if it is just admin, and earning a few pennies.  Writing some reviews for Medway Broadside, and monthly book chat with the marvelous peeps of the Medway Book Club.

The romantic expat life, eh?   The biggest realization in the last year is that I’m in a weird position being an expat who isn’t with a bit of disposable income.  Those expats and trailing spouses can travel, do local things, and the TS can take afford to take classes if need be.  I’ve found that talking to other expats can be awkward because they don’t understand that I’ve moved here on a shoestring and they usually assume that we’re in a different bracket.

I wonder about taking two steps back, or in this case, about twenty steps back when it comes to work, whether it will make sense in the long run.  C. and I have no idea where we’ll be living in two years, five, ten.  When establishing a house and home is so important, this feels shaky instead of exciting.  I crave a home base more than anything else now, and have learned that I still like travel, a bit of adventure, but want to feel like I have a home and a life to return to.

In early September, I always go back to Rilke’s poem, “Autumn Day.”  (Scroll 2/3 way down for Edward Snow translation, which is best, in my opinion.)   “Lord, it is time.  The summer was immense.” and “Who has no house now, will never build one.”   The summer was indeed immense–an April of sun, and then the endless light of May, June, July.  In fall, a descent, permission to consider mysteries and troubling questions, to retreat.  Sleep so hard we wake not knowing who we are; darkness, and what we might find there.

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Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

I finished Never Let Me Go (2005) a few nights ago, and was expecting to be hard hit.  A friend had said the ending would “Really f. me up,” which fueled a quick turn of the pages.  Strange impetus, right?

But I think I would have been riveted anyway.  The bizarre flatness of the narrator (Kathy) and the parceling out of small details about the predicament of Hailsham students (who attend a school that prepares them for a “unique” future) drive the novel, as well as the increasing ominous sense that something is wrong, despite such a controlled setting with near-constant predictability.

I wasn’t hard hit by the ending initially.  I’d been expecting at least a poor night’s sleep.  But after a trip to London that involved a somewhat bizarre class-related experience, I started thinking about Kathy’s voice again, and the final scene of the novel.

And now the impact has finally settled in.  Took me a few days, but I think I see what Ishiguro might be implying, especially in light of the themes in The Remains of the Day.  I have a feeling that the sense of being disturbed is just starting.

A NYT Book Review reveals that Ishiguro was born in post-Nagasaki Japan, and later worked (in England) with the homeless as a social worker for three years.  Finding this out, and that he was eventually disheartened by this work, gives Ishiguro further credibility for his rather bleak outlook on the plight of some individuals in society, as well as the poignant existential trouble he must have faced when working with some of the most vulnerable of all groups.

One of the issues Ishiguro raises is that of prescribed and ascribed meaning in our lives, especially the latter. Since humans are inherently meaning-making creatures, we will do so under any circumstances, as illustrated by his characters.  But does this meaning actually hold in the end?

In other words, aren’t we just deluding ourselves?

What makes this question all the more brutal (a term that seems unavoidable, also admitted by the Times reviewer) is that Ishiguro’s characters don’t descend into cynicism, bitterness or nihilism, at least not permanently.  A refusal to “go gently into that good night” might infuse the novel with some degree of fire and the spirit of human rebellion, but the seemingly polite acceptance of the students’ fate is the most horrific element of the novel.  One keeps expecting retaliation, and there are hints of this, but nothing on the scale to which one would expect.

“You poor creatures,” one guardian (a teacher/parent sort of role at Hailsham) says.  “You poor, poor creatures.”   Poor indeed.  But are our lives really so separate from the “creatures” of Hailsham?

(Spoiler alert–stop reading here if you intend to read the novel.)

The other question Ishiguro raises is “Can humans be so easily controlled?”  In Ishiguro’s dystopia, the answer is a resounding “Yes,” despite the lack of true humanity of Hailsham students.

What then, defines humans exactly?  Is it the existence of a soul?  The sense of choice?  The ability to love and to feel compassion? Are there those, in the real world, who exist simply for one purpose, to fulfill a certain role, who will die after having served that term?

Not only does Ishiguro imply that humans (or a human clone) can be easily controlled, but that those with full human desires might be born into a set fate which renders that sort of fullness and the dream of happiness delusional, and any sort of hope for dignity embarrassing and foolish.

So how many of us get to be fully human?  Is this right reserved for a select group?   What does it mean to be fully human, and what defines an absence of humanity?

I wonder how much Ishiguro’s experience of moving to England after the age of six influenced his sense of the class structure in England.   One can’t help but wonder too, if this isn’t what the novel is about, at least in part.  Yes, the questions about humanity are unavoidable, but given the British class issues in Remains of the Day, perhaps it’s the case that class and social hierarchy allow portals to such larger questions about humanity.

There have been times, like yesterday, in leafy Marylebone, when I feel like I am conversing with a differently-formed creature, a creature born on another planet with an entirely different view of the world, due to our class differences.

The solution to my current predicament was solved, in his mind, with a few swift measures, thereby rearranging all the players and all of my options.

“There,” he seemed to be saying, as if setting a throw cushion on a sofa, finishing the new arrangement of a living room.

In the world of the upper class, it’s true; things can be changed or manipulated.  In the world of the working class and the quickly-deteriorating middle class, there are usually zero options, or a few risky ones. One’s learning curve is how to choose the least worst path of action.

No one is literally in the same situation as the Hailsham students of Never Let Me Go, but Ishiguro’s metaphor did, in the end, f. me up.

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.

WWTGD?

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.

Wallace Collection

The other day I went to up London and met my friend’s friend Patricia, in London, and she suggested we check out the Wallace Collection http://www.wallacecollection.org, a privately-owned house in Bloomsbury loaded with French 18th century art and furniture. I’d also been told that the armor there was the best collection in town, and while I’m far from being an expert, I have always enjoyed the occasional suit of armor or decorated sword.

So. I did the usual: I had an hour and fifteen minutes before I needed to be at the train station, and sat in my pajamas for forty-five minutes and puttered around online, and then frantically whipped some clothes on five minutes before I had to leave, frantically rummaged around for my Oyster card (for Tube http://www.visitlondon.com/travel/oyster/), grabbed my phone, cash, water, umbrella, and warm clothes for later in the evening, etc., and then, like always, I had exactly eight minutes before my train left and I’m running down the street, embarrassed, thinking “I’m going to be sweaty on the train. This sucks.”

Except that today I didn’t have to run. Can we count this as progress, gentle readers? Oh, you are the kindest readers ever.

I made the train–have only missed one so far–but wouldn’t it be amazing to arrive with a few minutes to spare instead of the panic? It would be amazing.

In the city, I soon realize that students are on a week-long break from school, which means that Oxford Station, near a major intersection packed with extra big versions of trendy mall stores like H&M, Top Shop, and department stores like Selfridges, are so slammed that I find a long line just to get up the tube exit escalator. On the street, a big crowd of dazed teenage girls and their friends gathers on the sidewalk, everyone barely shuffling. I’m so surrounded by zombies in leggings and long belted shirts that I get survival panic, “I will not die this way!” and shoulder my way out.

Whew.

Heading out of SoHo and walking through Marylebone, I pass a very cool-looking button store to check out some other time: http://www.thebuttonqueen.co.uk and also see some very nice shops that I must never, ever go in, or I’ll starve to death. Tweed and leather and lots of jackets in the windows that I do not need but for which I could definitely provide a good home.

At the museum, Patricia and I sat down for lunch before browsing. We had a nice visit although I definitely felt self-conscious. The crowd was pretty posh, and I forgot whether or not Tuna Nicoise had a silent or non-silent s. (The horror!) It was one of those lunches where things like one’s nails, sweater, haircut, or jewelry all seem up for scrutiny, and sometimes I don’t feel like I pass muster. I’m not very into wearing lots of makeup, hair product, and the like, and feel self-conscious about it in posh places. I’m currently sporting a haircut of my own doing, too, which actually seems to bring me more complements than when I have it done, but sometimes there’s a fine line between a rock ‘n roll look and mange. British women seem feminine in a very traditional way, too, and being a tomboy doesn’t appear to be a popular choice. If it is, I haven’t yet found the tomboy hangouts.

Strangely enough, conversation turned to politics and the class system in the UK vs. the divisions in the US. (Patricia’s originally from the States.) I certainly haven’t been here long enough to even pretend to know anything about local politics, but I have been thinking about the sense of shame in the US. The Dalai Lama was reported to have said, after a visit to the US, that he couldn’t believe so many people had such shame, and he didn’t understand why.*

If you don’t have a lot of money in the States, and you’re an adult, there’s this underlying sense that in some way, it’s sort of your fault, especially if you come from any situation where you might have overcome your circumstances. Of course this is not overt. It’s not like you’re told to feel bad about not being in a different situation. You just do. Mild embarrassment, at least. Kids often feel bad because they can’t dress a certain way. They can’t afford certain things, like expensive sneakers or an iPod, and they’ll feel bad about it. When you get older it’s your car or your house, where you go on vacation, or whether or not you go at all. In the Puritan era (ok, here I go again, but really, given some of the Tea Party comments lately, can one not think about America’s Puritan roots??), material prosperity was considered to be a sign of being chosen by God, of being predestined for a blissful afterlife. Is America really over such distorted thinking, or are you “good” when you’re earning lots of money, no matter where it comes from?

Where I’m from, in the industrious Chicagoland, people usually work hard and strive for some degree of prosperity. It’s very survival of the fittest, and sometimes harsh. On the other hand, big opportunities do exist in US cities, which can make for a vibrant quality in the air. You can surpass your upbringing, your birth, if you have the right kind of ambitions and the right kind of luck. How often does that happen here, especially in Medway? Doesn’t seem like it happens as often, but then again, I’m new to town.

Patricia and I enjoyed our chat so much that we had to move through the Wallace Collection pretty quickly. One of the rooms held Marie Antoinette’s furniture, which was decadent and over the top, as one would expect. Most rooms were covered with stripey silk wallpaper, and then the walls coated with prints in heavy, elaborate frames. Everything was too much–very Versailles–haven’t been but that’s the feeling. Sort of like you just ate way too many chocolates.

There was too much to see, and I was anxious to get down to the armor. I just had time for a glance, but it was incredible, and I’ll be back to imagine the lives of the men in the suits, how they may have died, and how they may have lived.

*Certainly I could go on here for eternity about all the things that Americans are ashamed about, and all the things they could or should be ashamed about–a culture that enforces rampant consumption and materialism, the religious right’s insistence that knowledge is somehow “bad,” etc. I could go on, but I’m sure you know and I know what words would go here….

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