The Old Lady of Soho

I’m always surprised that I am allowed entry in the über-trendy section of Soho where I’ve been temping. Everyone, and I mean, everyone, is under thirty, with most denizens between 22 and 26.  Of course all the kids are sporting the same 80’s fashion that I wore back in *cough* the 80’s, so I’ve been having this bizarre sense that I’m A) back in high school, B) just starting high school since everything’s so unfamiliar and new, and C) a neighborhood R.A. for adorable London kids.

They really are cute, though.  All angsty, navigating their very first jobs.  I wish I could take twenty pictures on my way to work, or when I dash into Mark & Spencer’s at lunch to wade through the labyrinthine queue.  I don’t think they’d appreciate being photographed by a random creaky lady with a probiotic smoothie and “stay full longer” M&S salad in her hands.  In the meantime, here are some things that you may recognize from the first time around that are ubiquitous in Soho right now.

#1:  New Wave asymmetrical haircuts. For girls, very androgynous.  For boys, big and moussey.

A lot of this

#2  Flats.  All colors.  Frankly I don’t understand how they walk for miles in them; they seem so flimsy.  But I guess that’s what I used to do too.

#3  Oxfords and skinny jeans.  Brown ones, for girls or for guys.  Lace-ups.  This seems to be the London uniform, the staple.  Brown lace-up oxfords with anything.   This guy (C. snapped pic from bus) sporting his own variation with striped trousers:

Am very curious about the hat, and the scarf tucked into the pants.  Not sure which part of C.’s bus route that was on, but it looks more like Piccadilly St. than Soho.

I used to have a white pair of oxfords that I loved, especially with my pants that got skinnier at the ankles.  (What were those called again?  Tapered…?)

#4:  Tights and leggings.  Oh boy.  Maybe 85-95% of females will be wearing black tights or leggings.  With brown loafers and maybe short jean shorts.  There’s that.  Or the skirty look. In any case, I feel the need to explain why I’ve wandered into their territory, as if I’m browsing in a Forever 21 store.

And it’s weird to be working at the same place as my husband, but my strategy is to kind of avoid him and now it seems fine.  The first few days we had lunch together, which felt like being at the “new kid table” in the school cafeteria.  Everyone eats their lunch at their computer, but I always want to go stretch my legs a bit after sitting still most of the morning. One of the guys that we’ve hung out with at an off-site work thing (back in the fall, spouses got to go) joked that instead of a helicopter parent, I’m a helicopter wife, making sure C. doesn’t need anything.  Which is kind of a perfect title since C. is surrounded by single twenty-something cuties all day, prancing around barefoot in breezy tunics and jeans.  Not to mention that he’s the guy who rescues their files, etc.  (Read: HERO.)

With my tendency to overthink things and then sleep on them and then run them through the mill maybe one or twelve more times, it’s actually kind of nice to be able to run things by C. about my first UK work experience.  Of course I’m self-conscious sometimes about being Too American.  At this company though (digital media), everyone’s just really young so it kind of seems like its own entity anyway.  The atmosphere is very “Hey, my parents are away this weekend–do you want to have some people over?”  The handful of over-thirties might serve a dual purpose of making sure everyone stays hydrated and no one burns anything.

I’m so glad for a bit of income, but the day is really, really long when commuting from Medway.  We get up before six, leave by 6:30, drive to C.’s mom’s to park in her drive, take the train (a mere 12 pounds instead of the whopping 32 it would cost from Medway) at about 7:45.   We get in to the London Charing Cross station at about 8:25, and walk to Soho.  Normally we’d leave work between 6 & 6:30, catch a train around 7 and get home about 8:30.  Today we got home later since  I had a Dr.’s appt. in London and took the wrong train around the District/Circle lines, backtracked, got off at another station and as a train was arriving that seemed like my train.  I’d hopped on, only to discover that was also the wrong direction.  It took me an hour to get to the Embankment stop, where I was meeting C.  Not such a nice journey.

Sometimes not easy to figure out on 3.5 hours’ sleep.

The day’s trek was starting to feel more like a pilgrimage.  I’m an insomniac and rarely fall asleep before two a.m., unless really heavily sedated.  So each night there’s the choice: do I want to feel drugged or frantic for sleep tomorrow morning?  Either way there’s rarely more than five hours when I have to get up early, and lately getting something like 3 hours of sleep is more common.

I’d been in a car, a train, and four Tube trains so far that day.  After Embankment, another train, another car trip, sunset, and then home.  Fifteen minutes of Zzzzzzzzzz on the couch and then, thinking that I was actually going to fall asleep at a decent hour, I get my second wind around 11:30.  Wide awake.  I realize that one of the guys at work has eyes just like an octopus–reclusive, deep-sea dwelling, intelligent. Plus he’s bald, so that helps the octopus look.  I wonder if he’d take it as a compliment. Probably not.

By now I’m really awake. So I might as well mention one last thing, which is that the other reason things have been feeling high schooley is that two of my friends from HS were just in town visiting their friend (who I knew then as well) N., who lives in London and works, get this, two blocks from where C. works.  Where I’m temping.  So we’re all in the same little section of the world, after all these years.  How weird is that. We got together for drinks last Friday and it was really great to go out, but strange in that I’ve been thinking about how people don’t really change very much.  How can it be that so much has happened–I’ve been through quite a few major events/life changes in the last twenty-five years–but there we were, having drinks and talking about how much we love Zach Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns.”   (Very dark and quirky humor; you kind of have to be in the mood for it.)

So–once again, the question.  Is massive change possible, or are people’s lives fixed at a certain point?   I still feel like I have so far to go to even approach where I want to be, what I want to do.  But if people stay the same, is that realistic?  C. keeps saying that we’re not really on the same timeline as most other people, that we had other things to deal with in our twenties, and some of our thirties, and we’re sort of just now able to work on the house and home thing.

Who knows what will happen.  C. and I debate this daily, if not hourly–he thinks we can move; I say there’s no point in going through with it just to be in a *slightly* better neighborhood with less space in the actual house.  I’m a pessimist and he’s an optimist, which is supposedly a nice balance, but we do drive each other crazy with our different perspectives sometimes.  I don’t just “hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”  I fantasize outrageously and imagine the apocalypse.  C. just functions and goes into hibernation mode when necessary.

The vibrancy of Soho and a cramped terraced house in what may be one of the most notorious sections of Medway.  Such different worlds.  When I’m in London I feel like a great pretender, glancing in bakery windows as if I’m just on my way home in the city.  On our block where we really live I’m usually frustrated without a clear plan to leave the house we intended to leave after six months, max.

For now we masquerade as a couple just welding our lives together, walking through Chinatown back to the Charing Cross station.

May Update

I’ve been very busy this month.  I started an intensive course to become certified to teach adult ed, which here means anyone over the age of 16.  Even though the content isn’t so much my cup of tea–very Teaching 101 kind of stuff–how to make a lesson plan, etc., I’m enjoying the company of the others in the class.  There are eight of us, from early twenties to sixties. Quite a range of experiences and fields, which is cool.

I’ve also been able to do some temping, so with that and doing my coursework for the PTLLS course, I haven’t had much time to write here.

Plus, there’s always DIY.   We had an estate agent by to look at the house a few days ago, and the assessment was a bit better than we’d previously thought, so that was a bit of good news.   Most of the painting’s done and we’ve got a bit of art on the walls.  It kind of feels like I live here–a little bit. Especially when it’s nice, in the garden.   Still, we’d like to get out of the neighborhood and to a place where we can go for a walk and have a bit of peace when we’re not working.

Before and After pics of the inside to come.  Now if I can just replace some of this monstrous furniture….

Cabinet mug shot. Offense: too large for small, dark Victorian.

I’m still going to the King’s Poets group in London every other week when I can, which was such a lucky find.  Great people, and  at the end of April an art review I wrote for the lovely Medway Broadside appeared here:

http://www.themedwaybroadside.com/2011/05/18/80062-the-painkiller-print-exhibition/

Southeast England has had the warmest April on record, and we’re in dire need of rain.  A few weeks ago things were still beautiful and green, but now they’re starting to turn brown.  Today (the 26th actually) we’re having some good rain for the first time since March.

And now, almost June, it’s freezing and gray again.  I’m sitting here writing this with a wool hat on, wool slippers, and a blanket.

Happy beginning of summer, folks.  More posts to come.  A mojito toast despite the chill.

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.

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!*

British Vs. American English

I decided that I need to start a list of words that I come across, so here we go.  I’ll update it from time to time.  If I’ve misunderstood a word, please let me know and I’ll correct it!

Basics:

  • Hen party–bachelorette party
  • Leaving-do–going away party
  • Till–checkout counter
  • Tip–the dump
  • Petrol–gas
  • Biscuit–cookie
  • Nappy–diaper
  • Prawn–small shrimp
  • Courgette–zucchini
  • Coriander–cilantro
  • Trainers–tennis shoes
  • Dolly shoes–mary janes
  • Digger–bulldozer
  • Lorry–truck
  • Plaster–bandaid
  • Garden–yard   (and garden for garden)
  • Trolley–shopping cart
  • “The shops”–instead of saying “grocery store”
  • Gammon–ham
  • Uni/university–university but not college.  College is around age 16-18, before university.
  • Roadworks–road construction
  • Motorway–highway
  • Indicator–blinker, or turn signal
  • Chav–derogatory term.  “trailor trash”
  • Cinema–movie
  • Carrier bag–plastic bag from store
  • Proper–as in “We’ll get you a proper carry-on next weekend.”   or   “It’s a proppa sunny day innit.”    I don’t think there’s an American equivalent here; it’s a colloquial term.
  • Hoover–vaccuum

Note:  Julia has some great comments in the comment section about the variants of cookie/biscuit (how gooey center is, etc.), gammon (a cut of ham), and digger/bulldozers.

Some British words that I particularly like:

  • Wanker.  ”Yeah, it’s probably from the wankers over at Fox News.”
  • Moreish. Something that’s so good you want more of it.  Have only heard it used in relation to food so far.  Thai prawn crackers to be precise.  ”They’re rather moreish, aren’t they.”
  • Bloody.  No explanation necessary.
  • Sod.  (While we’re at it.)  ”S*d off.”
  • Lollipop man/woman. (see last driving piece for pic.)  This is a crossing guard.   Now what do you want to be when you grow up?
  • Sorted. This appears to be a favorite, and I can see why.  It’s just like the US “settled,” but fewer Little House on the Prairie connotations.
  • Dodgy.  Quite a variety of uses, but probably best US translation is “sketchy.”
  • Whingy. Whiny.  Very satisfying word.  Sounds just like an annoying, creaky gate.
  • Pants.  As in “This website is pants.”   Or “Oh, pants.  I forgot my keys.”
  • Torch.  This is a flashlight.
  • Beaker. Plastic cup.
  • Brilliant. I can’t do the accent for this at all, but it’s wonderful.  Tomato soup can be brilliant.  A crouton can be brilliant.  It’s also a good sarcastic word, like if a train is cancelled.   It’s sort of the British version of great.
  • Gorgeous.  Likewise, a salad can be gorgeous, even if it’s not pretty.  Sort of a synaesthesia kind of thing.

And some that I’m not used to yet:

  • Whilst.   This makes me feel like I’m in a Jane Austen novel wearing a corset, riding in a bumpy carriage, unable to breathe at the thought of my domestic plight.  Just sounds very formal.
  • Jumper.  This is a sweater, I think, but I’ve also heard it used for a sweatshirt or a hoodie.  I always think of a horrible, shapeless plaid dress, which is what jumpers are in the States.
  • Nice.  I’m not fond of this word anyway, unless it’s used for the weather or maybe a shirt.  But I’ve noticed that here it’s used for anything from a cookie to chicken salad.   Because so many Americans use nice as a euphemism (saying, for example, “Oh, she’s nice,” when really you don’t like the person and so you say that she’s nice), I always think that any time food is called nice, it’s sarcastic, even though I know that’s not the intended meaning.  Just one of those connotation issues.
  • One-off.  At first I heard this used as a one night stand, but then I heard it in other contexts, so I’m not entirely sure of the scope.
  • Bespoke.  This drives me insane.  I guess it means “custom,” as in “custom-made tires” or something.  It doesn’t seem to mean anything and just seems shoved in front of nouns with the notion that it will distinguish them, especially in terms of advertising.
  • Adding, “don’t they,” or “haven’t I,” to the end of a sentence.  Depending on the intonation it can sound quite snarky.  Maybe Brits feel similarly when Americans say, “you know?”

Added by readers:

  • Tosser–jerk, or maybe worse..?  I’m not sure if this is really impolite or just kind of.  Like would you say it around your grandma?  (Was notified that wanker is worse than tosser.)
  • Snog–make out
  • Shag–have sex
  • Postcode–zipcode
  • Subway–pedestrian underpass?
  • Roundabout–traffic circle
  • Single (ticket)–one-way
  • Return (ticket)–round-trip
  • Pavement–sidewalk (not sure we really have the equivalent of American “pavement” … maybe just “the road”)
  • Rubbish–trash
  • Bugger–“bugger off you bloody sod”
  • Spanner–wrench
  • Skirting–baseboards
  • Made redundant–laid-off
  • Skip–dumpster
  • Central reservation–median/median strip
  • The High Street–downtown
  • Aubergine–eggplant

Other notable words and phrases:

  • “Gone all pear-shaped”     This is when something’s gone wrong.
  • The big one:  trousers vs. pants.  Pants=underwear here.  Our pants are always trousers.  At some point, I’m going to embarrass myself, probably the first day on a new job, by telling someone that I like his or her pants.   Hasn’t happened yet, but it will.
  • Ginger ale=ginger beer.  I think.  But I still hear ginger ale sometimes, so I’m still a little confused by this one.
  • Cake.  Still figuring this one out.  I made cornbread for a family meal, and even though I kept telling C. it wasn’t cake,  it was cake to him.   He also calls cookies cakes sometimes, which confuses me.  It seems that a lot of things can be cake…?
  • Pudding.  This will require at least two more years of study.  Basically, pudding covers lots of desserts eaten at the holidays, some drenched in liquor to keep them moist and then sometimes lit on fire at the table.  They look like bundt cakes and the chocolate ones can be moist and delicious.   (Note:  Dan A. says that “Pudding is any type of dessert eaten after a main savoury course often with custard. For example bread pudding, queens pudding or the venerable spotted dick.”   This helps Dan!)
  • Tea.  Tea is tea, but it’s also dinner.  ”I’m eating my tea.”  Very confusing.  (Is your tea frozen??)    Nope, it’s just dinner in England, where you eat tea in the evening.

I know there are more that I’ve come across.  There are usually a few a week.  Add any others you can think of in comments and I’ll post ‘em to the list!

On having space

About ten years ago, I fulfilled a lifetime dream of going to Paris with the aid of student loan funds. I knew I’d be paying for the trip for the rest of my life, but I don’t have any regrets now, and don’t think I will when I’m ninety, probably still with student loans.

Anyhoo, when I returned from the trip, there was a new employee at the library where I worked. She was from Paris. I was intrigued to find out how she wound up in DeKalb, Illinois.

DeKalb, in the middle of cornfields and more cornfields, boasted two claims to fame–a famous corn variety sold to farmers all over the country, and the legacy of the barbed wire barons. Cash from the barons brought a few rich families to the area, and they erected a few large homes. There was a tour. Like a lot of little towns, though, it had been reduced, by the nineties, to a Walmart and a bunch of boarded up storefronts on the Main Street. If you weren’t from there, the only reasons you might move to the little town would be because you got gentrified out of Chicago, or because you were a student at Northern Illinois University and just sort of stayed on. I was the later, waiting for my boyfriend to finish a computer science degree so we could get out of dodge.

But back to the lady from France who’d landed in Cornville.

“You moved from Paris to here?” I asked, incredulous. I couldn’t imagine how she was faring, but she seemed happy.

“Yes,” she said. “My sister did too. We both married men in the service. We wanted to be where there’s more space, where there’s more green. It’s less stressful here, a different pace, even though I’ve gained a lot of weight.”

True, she wasn’t in miniature, as all French women seem to be, especially Parisiennes.

Then, a year ago, on the plane to London to visit C. for the first time, I met a woman who’d moved to the remote American South from the London area. Again, I wondered about her reasons.

“We wanted the children to have space, and to have a yard,” she said. I nodded, not really understanding exactly what non-yard reality was. By then, I’d spent most of my life living in apartments without a yard, so I got that. But I didn’t really understand what it was like to be without any grass anywhere in the entire town except for a little patch by a public playground.

Now I get it. When locals say space, they mean square feet, or square meters. Or centimeters. Things are tight in the way that people often ditch their couches on the sidewalk when they move since they won’t fit through the door of their new place. (Why they wouldn’t measure first I don’t know. Too much trouble, I guess, but there always seems to be a ton of furniture on the sidewalk around here.) Plus, folks seem to favor overstuffed couches, which is not a good direction for cupboard-sized lounges. Things are tight here in a way that makes my old studio apartment in Chicago look like a bloated mansion.

My entire experience of the London area could be described as being in a very small, crowded store, in the holiday season, with a bulky purse and backpack, trying not to knock anything down or hit anyone in the face with my elbow. Everywhere I go—the train, the sidewalk, the street, the grocery store, the Tube stop, a pub—anywhere—one is constantly negotiating space. Walking on the sidewalk to the train even forty-five minutes outside London requires some serious spatial intelligence at times. Shoulders become a liability, and I imagine myself as the Sears Tower, Prudential Building, or some other City of Big Shoulders monument trying to navigate the squeezy sqoonchy nooks and crannies of the UK. Near our train stop, negotiating space becomes especially important, because if you underestimate, you’ll literally be on the street, under the tires of a double-decker bus. Really–a few times a car has brushed by my body and I’ve felt it shake my frame. Or, since no one cleans up after their pooches, you might land smack in the middle of a large doggie present, always left to festoon heavy pedestrian areas, or the pink and white puke sploshes that decorated the sidewalk during the holiday season in a festive, almost snowflake-like pattern. Hmmmm….too many candy cane cocktails? Let’s just say that on some seedier blocks, like our train station section, the sidewalks are a serious diet aid. A ten minute walk can leave you nauseous for hours.

At home, space is a constant issue, and everything almost always looks cluttered. Folks seem used to it, going up stairways sideways or squeezing themselves into airplane-sized bathrooms in their own houses. I’m not sure whether I’ll get used to it or not, and I now understand the sense of possibility so often associated with the States. Granted, that possibility remains bittersweet, given our means of establishing ourselves in already inhabited territory. Still, I get it now, the fascination and longing for expansiveness, and what happens when one is constantly enclosed, constantly vying for every centimeter. Without physical space, nothing new is possible. There can’t be any magic unless it’s Harry and his wand. Instead, it’s bump, “oh, so sorry,” and “pardon me,” and “please excuse my protruding body parts that I think may just have bumped/or ground against you in a way that could be construed as suggestive.”

Sometimes even the expansive thoughts of night feel fenced in, or muddled, as they mix with the thoughts and conversations of the neighbors, just inches from our head on the other side of the wall, the woman coughing now, or calling to her husband, or closing the wardrobe door. The people outside on the street aren’t really on the street, either, but actually in the lounge given that there’s less than a foot separating them from us. The concepts of privacy and shelter get revised, not so much a dwelling as some windows and a place to keep our stuff (relatively) dry. Fortunately I’ve finally stopped pining for my old roomy two-bedroom apartment with the balcony and fantastic view. I must be adjusting somewhat, and do like the fresh air that comes in off the North Sea sometimes. Today it’s quite brisk, and anyone who’s been out in it will likely sleep hard, at least for a few hours, under their duvet.

My So-Called Glamorous Life

Along with the jealousy some folks have expressed when I tell them I’ve moved overseas is this bizarre assumption that my life is automatically somehow glamorous and star-studded. I don’t really understand this. Is it because falling in love with someone from another country is a bit of the ordinary? Because of the extremity of the change? Or what?

Well, this post is just for anyone who might have pined, even momentarily, for the diamond-spiked grass that invariably grows in abundance in Kent, the Garden of England.

Here’s how a “glamorous” evening really goes. The night in question: London Zoo for C.’s work Christmas party, December 22, 2010

The first query: what to wear as plus one to semi-formal event.

The first issue: most female party-goers will be between the ages of 23 and 27, from France, devoid of a gram of fatty tissue, model-gorgeous, and fluent in ten languages. Ok, maybe just three, but still. I may as well go in a gingham tablecloth, spouting lines from Hee Haw.

Weapons of choice: an old but great little black dress, Spanx (ladies, give me a shout-out if you have a pair), vintage bag, and heels.

Problem: the London Zoo in late December right after a freak snow/ice storm. Heels and ice+darkness could = embarrassing old lady wipe-out surrounded by horrified Francophone hotties.

Solution: demand that C. find out what’s on the docket for the evening, and try to gather what the other ladies are wearing.

Problem #2: Company likes things to be a “surprise.” Awesome. Surprise trip to hospital for broken ankle? Yay! Committing major espionage, C. discovers talk of a trip to one of the indoor animal houses. Exhale. No major trek around giraffe house with flashlights, wearing l.b.d., heels, and safari hat. Could be safe.

Problem #3: Ice and snow have now melted to slush in our town, and temps have dropped precipitously, which will require very warm outfit for trek to C.’s office. The trip will take at least an hour and a half and will involve a few walks, a train, and a bus.

Solution: Wear one outfit through slush to train then through the frantic pilgrims flocking to the pre-Christmas shopping mecca of Oxford Street, and change at C.’s work bravely prepared for bathroom onslaught of 25 year-olds in spiked heels and ultra-trendy dresses sans Spanx.

Strategy: Don mask of “mature” womanhood, i.e. “I have been through it and yes, little missy, you will too.”

Problem: Cannot find vintage bag, Spanx, or overnight bag to carry semi-formal wear to C.’s office. Do not want to travel to zoo with something less appropriate, such as plastic carrier bags. Backpack is also ratty.

Solution: Go up into loft to look for bags and Spanx, which looks exactly like a pair of beige underwear (or pants, for UK readers), and could be any-fortheloveofallthingsholy-where. Driven by some sort of newlywed hormone that makes one want to appear especially appealing to new spouse for his first holiday company event, I journey to the loft, armed with a flashlight and a vague, recently-acquired knowledge of the loft light’s location. The ladder rocks as I creep up, and I flash to an image of me in crutches for the next three months. There’s barely room for the ladder, and it wobbles on the slanted floorboards and against the railing. One must perform a gymnastics sort of vault to get up at the top of the ladder, hopefully avoiding planting both hands in insulation.

Once up, I dig through every box and every suitcase. No Spanx. No vintage bag, no overnight bag. Just books, some starting to get damp, which makes me panic. Now in a Hollywood “save evening or save books quandary.” Cannot leave them up here to ruin, but bringing them down will take forever.

Added crisis: The clock’s a-tickin’! I should be getting dressed right now, but instead am performing Medevac for books, bringing down small stacks, and hoping I don’t break my neck.

Will our heroine make it to the zoo intact? Find out in the next installment of My So-Called Glamorous Life….

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