“A bit fresh” & a few house pics

“A bit fresh.”  That’s how the weather might be described today.  I’ve never heard anyone actually admit that it’s cold here.

But c’mon.  We’re creatures who evolved from warm climes, aren’t we?    Wet cold will kill you.  Which is definitely how it feels today.

It’s mid-June and barely 50 degrees.  Wet.  So cold that I’ve been back from “the shops” as they say, for an hour, and am sitting here in my North Face hat, trying to get warm again.

Mid-June afternoon. Please send multiple parkas.

I think I might finally be getting something about British culture and weather, though.   In the US, wearing skimpy clothes in freezing cold weather is considered silly and unwise.  The precedent to getting sick, which is a waste.  But here, enduring the cold is a badge.  I’ve heard many boast about how little they need to wear in warmer places, while others are donning coats and hats.  C. firmly believes, too, that one should keep the house as cold as possible to avoid any sort of unhealthy familiarity with temperatures above about sixty.

I’ve also heard the phrase “feel the benefit.”  I.e. don’t wear your coat on the train, where it’s warmer.  If you do, you won’t “feel the benefit” when you get into the cold.

Call me a wimp.  Call me decadent, etc., but I don’t want to be cold, shivery, or sneezy.  I enjoy warmth and the sun, and am not afraid of admitting it.  I do, however, enjoy a non-wet cold.  Icy cold, and snow.  It’s sobering.  It wakes you up.  Of course snow is gorgeous too.  I can appreciate a nice, polar ten below day.  But not wet cold.  There’s something about it that instantly makes me feel like I’m going to die, which is perhaps a life-enhancing feature of the human brain, but might be best switched off in England.

What I have heard locals admit is that the weather can be “a bit fresh.”   This, to me, feels like saying that the Sahara is “a bit sandy.”   But this is the closest I’ve ever come to witnessing a weather complaint.

I’m trying to remember what it’s like in Virginia right now, 100 degrees and climbing, when one simply cannot do anything out of doors.  That’s a killer too.  I remember trying to take a walk on one of my last evenings there, and it was like trying to swim in a Jacuzzi wearing four wool sweaters.  Just awful.

I thought I’d also share a few pictures of my neighborhood.   Even the houses look like they could use some chicken soup today.

There’s often a wide variety in how people keep up with exteriors around here.  There are piles of empty glass beer bottles in the windows of the unpainted house.  Very ghosty.

Sometimes I struggle to keep my spirits up when it’s so dreary.  I miss trees, flowers, green.  On the other hand, we did get our carpet in, and it looks quite nice:

The lounge. We put new curtains up--pics coming....

So lounge=living room.  This space is considered quite large, even though it feels a bit small to me.  More pics to come.  Estate agent was supposed to take pics tomorrow for their website, but he had to reschedule, so our deadline for getting things tidy and clearing out massive piles of clutter has been moved up.  A blessing in that there’s no pressure now, but a curse in that I probably won’t get very much done with it today without the pressure.

Murphy is very excited about the carpet.  The ping-pong balls he loves glide across the floor now in the most enticing way, and usually by nighttime he’s ready to curl up with us on the duvet.  He always goes out when C. leaves before 6 in the morning, even when it’s cold and rainy.   He scratches at the door at very odd times, like the crack of dawn and 10:30 p.m., as if he has a scheduled appointment in the alley.  I don’t know how he stays warm, he’s so small, and always comes in wet.   Do British cats have oily fur, like ducks?

Murphy’s favorite spot is right on top of C.’s feet.  C. had originally banned Murphy from the bedroom, and then just from the bed, and then from his side, so of course that’s the one place he always targets.  How do they know these things?

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.

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.

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.

What?

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.

%d bloggers like this: