Christmas Eve

I think I found the UK equivalent to A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s the Nativity play, performed at churches on Christmas Eve. The whole thing was befitting of the story–very low budget, very DIY. The shepherds were great, with costumes made from cheap scarves and scraps of furry fabric. The angels shuffled up and down the steps of the “stage,” sort of drowning in their white sheets, tinsel halos cocked at weird angles like makeshift TV antennae. One of the shepherds was about three, accompanied by another toddler angel, who didn’t really understand that the whole thing wasn’t improv. She added some interpretive dance and antagonized the older angels between acts. A donkey on wheels rolled in and out, and the kids sang an ominous song about King Herod, who was “not nice to meet.” (Gotta love that understatement.)

Even though the play didn’t take itself too seriously, the organizers clearly put a lot of work into the production. The way I saw it, they were saying that it’s an important story, a hopeful story, but no one seemed to take it as sacred with a capital S. Of course this is just my interpretation, but it was refreshing to be without the Puritan heaviness that still hangs in the US air. Instead, I felt happy and cheered.

After the play the minister spoke over the sound system in the small room. I couldn’t see him and wasn’t sure if anyone else could, which was different than the minister delivering a message from The Pulpit. He added a simple, and humble, comment on the children’s sense of wonder, that it’s something everyone should try to maintain. A mention of the Christingle service, around midnight, with candles and carols, which sounded very pretty. Will try to catch it next year.

For some reason, maybe it was just being in a church and being reminded of all the times I’d attended services growing up, I started thinking about the States and what’s happening there right now. I’m almost guilty sometimes about how good it feels to be out from under the oppressive net of fundamentalism and the sentimental ignorance that seems to have all but taken over significant portions of the country.

Here, from what I’ve experienced, there’s a complete absence of a Christian presence. The presence of history is actually much stronger. One can feel the enormity of the Roman Empire, and we live near Anglo Saxon Way. After living in the Baptist South for the last nine years, I kind of feel like I’ve moved to the moon. There are certainly things I miss about the South–the lush beauty, the grandiose quality of the buildings and parks, and the friendliness and quirk with some folks–but I don’t miss the assumption that I must share a certain belief system.

I sometimes wondered if I’d been branded in a way that everyone witnessed but me–some sort of scarlet E, or F–and it’s nice to get away from that. However, here I feel I’m wearing a giant A, for American, and I need to disprove every misconception about Americans every time I meet someone new. Maybe I could make up a pamphlet–“No, I’m not rich, No, I never voted for Bush, No, I don’t think that Americans have the right to bomb whomever we choose, No, I don’t think that rampant greed and gluttony is acceptable….”

At some point in the near future, I’m going to just have to quit worrying about what people think. If they want to think I’m a greedy jerk who can’t find Australia on a map, there’s not much I can do about it. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed the play so much. No need to explain myself to the young thespians. Some don’t even know what an American is. Ahhh, anonymity….

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
destination
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.

Finally–What’s Wrong with Americans.

“This is what’s wrong with Americans,” my husband said the other day, emerging from the bathroom with a New Yorker magazine in tow. He pointed at a cartoon of two little girls in a playroom. One had moved all her toys into a pile and she stood holding as many as possible, hoarding them from the other girl. She explained, “I would share, but I’m not there developmentally.”

My husband pointed at the cartoon. ”Americans know too much,” he said.

This was the proof he’d been waiting for in a weeks-long discussion about Americans, psychobabble and self-scrutiny.

“What’s that?” he’ll say, wrinkling his nose, when a word like passive-aggressive finds its way into the conversation.

He seems to think that I’m talking about the psychological version of the Tree of Life–-something I’m not supposed to touch, let alone consume or digest.

The notion of analyzing oneself or someone else, or discussing relationship dynamics, doesn’t seem to be the order of the day here. Some Americans, on the other hand, might find pride in brandishing psychological terminology. The topic came up a few weeks ago at a dinner in which those around the table were mostly British. Many had lived in multiple countries.

“Americans seem very interested in understanding what’s happening emotionally,” one woman said. ”What’s up with that?”

Fortunately I’d wondered the same thing at one point, and had come across a theory that self-scrutiny in America goes back to Puritan doctrine and our supposed inherent shamefulness. Followers maintained a constant search for moral flaws that one might then seek to absolve by the grace of God.

Could this Holy Grail of pathology explain our relish for diagnoses and labels?

“Brits don’t know anything, and we’re cheerful as hell,” my husband claims. “Ignorance is bliss, right?”

I can’t argue with the cheerfulness. I often feel like a surly, complaining jerk and wonder if it’s too late to become a more stalwart person.

Uh-oh. Scrutiny.

So–-any thoughts? Is too much self-knowledge a bad thing? Would we be better off in the dark?

Driving.

Today I had my second driving lesson with the calm and intrepid Mr. Anderson of Gillingham driving school. When I first arrived in town, I swore that I wouldn’t get near a driving instructor until maybe, um, spring of 2011. But then I rode C.’s 25 year-old mountain bike that weighs about 400 pounds, and since we live in a valley one has to go up a very long hill to get anywhere, so I thought, hmmmm, ok, maybe driving lessons earlier.

Commence terrorism of locals.

As you all know, Americans and Brits drive on different sides of the road. It’s a big joke in the States, when finding oneself on a completely isolated country road, maybe on a bright sunny day, to veer the car off to the left a bit, scaring one’s passenger(s), and exclaiming, “Look! We’re in England!”

That’s all very good fun and no one gets hurt.

But here, driving on twisty turny roads now accommodating two sets of parked cars half up on the curb, traffic going both ways, and various cyclists and pedestrians, there’s no room for such Tomfoolery. Not even for a second.

Kansas this ain’t.

My instructor is much younger than he sounds on the phone, but he’s got a confident air and has clearly driven with frightened new drivers before, which puts me at ease. His mother is a friend of my mother-in-law, so I figured that the chances of him declaring me unteachable and banning me from ever driving in the UK are perhaps a bit less with the connection.

Good stuff, as he says often during our hour and a half lessons. Good stuff. I think this is his very kind way of saying, “Thank you so much for not killing me today even though we went up over the sidewalk three times and you almost hit half the parked cars.” Either that or he can’t think of anything I’ve done right, hence the general declaration of some positive elements existing somewhere.

Somewhere.

After two lessons I can say simply this about driving in the UK: “The roundabout is your friend, the roundabout is your friend….” This is my new mantra. I don’t believe it for a second, and am absolutely terrified every time I approach a roundabout, but, as the Queen suggested, I’ll Keep Calm and Carry On.

Or at least take enough anti-anxiety medication to appear calm.

The other thing I’ll say about driving in the UK after three hours of professional instruction is that I am terrified not only when I approach a roundabout but also every second I’m in gear and on the road, as everything about it–driving on the left side, being in the passenger’s seat, shifting with my left hand, and about twenty other counterintuitive patterns–make me feel like I am going to crash. So, in other words, my experience of driving in the UK can be summed up as “We’re all gonna die.”

Good stuff, good stuff.

It’s Midnight at Gatwick: Do You Know Where Your Husband Is?

Two pieces of advice for all those moving to another country:  1) memorize contact numbers like your life depended on it, because it kinda sorta does, and 2) always be clear on where you’re meeting if you’re ever separated in an airport.

Why am I dispensing such sage advice?  Because last night I lost my husband.   At midnight.  At Gatwick airport in London.  Just call him on your cell phone?   Of course, cell phones.  I do have one!  And I’ve managed to finally memorize my own new cell phone number, after making a song and dance out of it.   (No one will ever see, or hear, this dance.  Don’t worry.)   But I’d yet to manage memorizing my husband’s cell phone number.  It was on my list of things to do–a very long list with a lot of exclamation points.

But back to the phone.  The phone had died after two days of our long weekend away on my husband’s off-site work trip, and he had the charger in his conference room.   The last day of the trip was a bit crazy as we checked out in the morning, were in different places all day, and our luggage was moved around by staff.   Packing was haphazard, and we were rearranging all of our liquids/not-allowed stuff into check-in bags and carry-ons on the airport floor minutes before check-in closed.  Needless to say my phone didn’t get charged.  It actually stayed into my weekend bag which got shoved into my check-in stuff.

All this should have been fine, right?   I was with my husband on the flight home.  But we got into separate customs lines since I have a non-EU passport*, and when he got through first, he waved from the other side, which I took to mean that he would head towards baggage claim.  Usually I get through the line first and get the bags, but it was at least twenty minutes before I got through.  I assumed he would have the bags and would be waiting for me, then we would go, both of us tired and we still had to find the shuttle to our parking lot and then drive an hour home.

But he wasn’t anywhere in baggage claim.  All the others from the trip were gone, and I saw a few lone pieces of luggage riding the conveyor belt.   The status for our luggage on the board read “ARRIVED.”   There were only three different carousels, and I was definitely at the right one.  Still, I waited a few minutes thinking he may have just stepped away to the facilities.  After about 5-10 minutes, I decided to head out as we’d met before at a coffee shop right outside.  I figured that I must have misunderstood where we were to meet and as I am absentminded, he probably said something about the coffee shop earlier but I’d forgotten.

But he wasn’t there either, and after I waited about ten more minutes I started to panic.

I realized that without my cell phone, I had no way to get home that night, that I didn’t know where the car was parked since he had the ticket and I had no way to contact my husband and no other memorized numbers of people in this country.  The crowd at the airport was becoming thin, as one would expect for past midnight on a Monday.

No problem.  I’ll find someone on airport staff and see if he or she can announce a page.  “Mr. M., please meet your party at the Costa Coffee Shop.  Paging Mr. M….”   We’d have a little laugh and then be on our way, luggage in tow.   Ha, drama, hee.  Hee.

But I couldn’t find anyone and the Airport Information office was closed.

Finally I asked the Costa workers if they knew where I might find someone to help me with a page.  At this point it had been about an hour since I saw C. wave at me from my line at Customs.  There was no way that he was still in there.   I’d checked the missing luggage office to see if he was there dealing with any missing luggage, but he wasn’t.

Instead of picking up the Magic Airport Phone that I’d imagined, the Costa guys, who looked like they were about twelve and had never had that pre-cell phone feeling of sheer terror when losing someone in a ginormous mall or parking lot, just looked at me like I’d requested their livers.  They waved me in the general direction of Departures, which was completely deserted.  Not one staff person anywhere.  I was afraid to wander too far from the Costa in case C. went there looking for me.   The rational thing to do seemed to stay put, but that was becoming difficult as I imagined that perhaps something bad had happened to C.  Of course I’d read the recent, vague terrorist warnings so immediately began mentally flipping through various possibilities.

This is the point at which having an active imagination is not fun.  Especially if your brain moves very quickly.   About ten really scary scenarios flashed through my mind in less than a minute, and soon I’d convinced myself that my husband had vanished.   Add a little adrenaline habit and you’ve got yourself a film starring Jodie Foster or Franka Potente.

I started planning for the worst.  I would just have to spend the night in the airport, and eventually get in touch with my mother via her cell phone to get my husband’s cell phone number (I was envisioning a collect call, but later realized this was probably impossible due to the lack of pay phones).  The next day I’d take the Gatwick Express train to London and from there go back home to Kent.  At least I had some cash, and I had a key to the house.

Finally I found a maintenance worker who directed me to some secret supply of airport staff all safely hidden behind door #3.  There were about twenty of them all huddled behind a small desk.  Maybe they were having a meeting?   Maybe they were hiding from freaked out expats who couldn’t find their husbands and didn’t have cell phones?  Too bad.  I’d found them.  I explained the situation to a woman who seemed nice, asked about a page, and edged toward the Costa again so I might avoid missing C.

She asked me to tell the story again, in what seemed like an attempt to buy some time. What was the deal with pages?   Was it like declaring a person missing–did you have to wait 24 hours?   Why wasn’t the Queen notified that I COULD NOT FIND THE ONLY PERSON I REALLY KNOW IN THE UK?

After what seemed like an eternity but was probably only about 20 minutes, lo and behold, off in the distance (rapture!  little pink flowers!  bunnies!), there was C., talking to another airport staff person!   He’d put his jacket on so was in beige, while I’d been looking for a blue plaid shirt.   Duh.  And he said he’d thought that I got held up in customs, so had gone back to find out if I was still in there.   It seemed like we were both at baggage claim at the same time and never figured out how we still missed each other.

Oh.

Long moment of appreciation, relief, etc., followed by the inevitable Whaaa??  How could we really have not seen each other?   Then the trek to find the right parking bus stop which took about another hour.

I recited C.’s cell # all the way home, wrote it down before bed, and vowed to keep a list of contact numbers in ten different bags.   No song or dance required.

*Word to the wise:  we just found out that spousal visa couples can legally stand in the non-EU line together.  They allow this to prevent fellow travelers from getting separated.  Great idea….

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