Monday, 23 August 2010

Strangers in a strange land

When I first moved to England, I heard lots of jokes about how I was going to end up sounding like Madonna, with her phoney-sounding British-esque way of speaking. I promised everyone, including myself, that I would never stop sounding American. But you know what they say about promises--they're made to be broken. Soon enough, I heard myself saying things like "advert" instead of "commercial" and (woe unto me) "courgette" instead of "zucchini." I even hear myself pronouncing my "t's" more emphatically, and using British inflections when speaking. Oh, well. During my college years, I picked up several Philadelphia pronunciations ("whut" and "wutter" for "what" and "water," for instance), and during my graduate years I picked up "y'all" from Virginia. I suppose it was inevitable that I should also bear the stamp of my British residency, though thankfully I haven't gone so far as to speaking with a full-fledged British accent--I think I might never live that down during my trips back home (much as I might like sounding elegant and exotic, comparatively speaking).

Oddly, I have been so obsessed over this issue of language that it never occurred to me that I might begin to change in other ways. Recently, my parents came to visit, and their presence in Falmouth helped me see it, and myself, through the eyes of a stranger. At the same time, I found myself observing Americans from a more British perspective--which was disconcerting.

One of the first things I noticed was my mom's propensity to interact with strangers. At the train station, she waved at other people to walk around her, indicating her luggage and saying she didn't want to slow anyone down. I heard her give this explanation a couple of times, as well as saying "excuse me" to people she passed as she got on/off the train and weaved in and out of the crowd. This was particularly noticeable because, with the exception of people who were talking to each other because they were traveling together, nobody else was making similar comments. That is because British people do not like to talk to strangers. Americans, on the other hand, are very friendly. We say and/or wave hello to people when we pass them on the street, we say "excuse me" and "bless you" to complete strangers, we end up having conversations with others who are standing in line with us or sitting near us in waiting rooms. You see this portrayed in movies, where you can tell that a place is "nice" and "wholesome" when neighbors there call "good morning" to each other as they pick their papers up off their front porches, and where everyone waves cheerfully to cars driving down Main Street. Brits make fun of us for this all the time, which is why I was particularly appalled to find, shortly after my arrival here, that I was proving these stereotypes to be true. I had a couple of uncomfortable small-talk conversations with check-out ladies before I realized that the awkwardness stemmed from their surprise at a customer's being overtly friendly for no reason at all. I also used to smile and/or say hello to people that I passed on the street, if I happened to meet their eyes or if we were the only people on the sidewalk (obviously I wouldn't say hello to everyone I passed if the streets were crowded; that would be very Borat of me, not to mention quite time-consuming). Nowadays, I don't say "excuse me" if I sneeze or "bless you" to someone else who sneezes, I don't say "sorry" if I bump into someone, and I certainly don't start any conversations. I went from friendly American to wallflower within a period of five months, and I hadn't even noticed the change until my parents provided a point of reference. The next question is: How will I act once I go back to the US again? Is the friendliness gone forever, or is it just a matter of setting?

One of the important things you have to learn quickly in a new country is currency, and my parents asked me for a lesson in identifying coins. They wanted to be able to identify them quickly rather than having to search for the label on each one, which I can understand--when I first got here, I preferentially used paper money and larger coin denominations in order to avoid having to laboriously count out the little coins in front of anyone, since I didn't know what any of them were. Nothing marks you out as a tourist faster than that, and nobody wants to look like a tourist. The problem with British money is that many of the coins are doppelgangers for American coins, only they don't represent the same denomination. For instance, 5-pence coins look like American dimes, while 10-pence coins look like American quarters. It would be a lot easier if nothing looked like anything else, since then you wouldn't have any preconceptions. As an American, it is also difficult to conceive of things like 20-pence pieces or 1- and 2-pound coins. I don't remember some point at which I began feeling felt comfortable with handling money, but as I ran through the monetary lineup with my parents, I suddenly realized that when I opened my coin purse to pay a bill, I did so with an exact a priori image of what coins I wanted to pluck out.

Another subtle change has been my acceptance of the British eccentricities around our apartment. For instance, the handle on the toilet used to drive me crazy because I could never manage to flush the first time I tried. In fact, most of the toilets here in Britain have quite interesting flush mechanisms, by American standards. When my mom commented on what an unusual handle it was, I realized that my struggles with it had ended a while back, without my even noticing. Another interesting thing around here is the electric sockets, where you have to flip a switch to turn on electrical flow in order to then turn on whatever is plugged in. I had to explain this to my parents so they'd be able to use electronics. I don't remember when I first encountered that British peculiarity--probably the first time I vacationed here--but I used to think it was really bizarre. Now I just flip the switch and carry on with my business without a second thought. I also taught my mom how to use the washer/dryer, and she had the same reaction to the laundry detergent setup that I originally had--"You just set it on top of the dirty clothes?!" Our various beeping appliances also raised some eyebrows. They drive me crazy, but it no longer strikes me as unusual to have a dishwasher and a dryer that beep incessantly to let us know that their cycles are through. But if you come from the US, where these appliances are either quiet or just make one single noise when the timer is up, these sounds are peculiar and unexpected. Also, all of our appliances are wearing a cunning guise of wooden paneling to make them blend in with the cabinets; imagine my parents' surprise to find not cabinets full of food and dishes, but a tiny dishwasher, refrigerator, and freezer! The diminutive size of those last two caused a stir, given that these are but a fraction of the size of their American counterparts.

Speaking of things related to food, eating with my parents reminded me of some of the many things I had to learn when I first moved here. Both my mom and dad asked me to explain "cream tea" and "clotted cream ice cream," which was something I never fully understood until I finally found out what "Cornish clotted cream" actually is (the product of heated unpasteurized cow's milk left to sit in a shallow pan). There was also the issue of ordering "fillet" (where the "t" is pronounced), as opposed to a "filet." I was impressed to note that both of my parents acclimated quickly and used the British pronunciation; I still use the French/American word because I feel too weird doing otherwise. That just goes to show that mind set, as well as time, is a critical factor in the acclimation process. However, one thing that my dad, at least, could not quite seem to adjust to was the size of British beers. Individual servings here are larger than those in the US, and my dad kept leaving unfinished bottles of beer in the fridge (my husband would come in and finish them off later).

Timing of meals was especially interesting, especially given that my parents were jet-lagged and struggling with their body clocks, anyway. Although the UK isn't quite as extreme as the rest of Europe, where appetizers might be rolled out at 11 PM, people do tend to eat later here than they do in the US. Of course, this has a lot to do with stopping for tea at 4 or 5 PM, since you often accompany your drink with a bit of a snack. My husband and I usually don't eat before 7:30 PM at the earliest, and often we don't sit down until 8:30-9 PM. When I first moved here, this drove me crazy, but now I've gotten used to it by spacing out little snacky-meals throughout the day, rather than the big three that most Americans eat. One night, my mom and I went to the gym before dinner, which meant that we didn't go out to eat until at least 9 PM. I'm not sure that my parents loved that timing too much, or at least would want to keep it up permanently.

We took a few road trips around the area while my parents were here, which gave my dad the chance to get comfortable with being on the left-hand side of the road. This was vital, as he was to be the driver when he and my mom rented a car to get from Bath to Winchester and then onwards to Cambridge. Getting used to traffic on the opposite side of the road is difficult because you have to overcome instincts that were formed by years of experience. Even in the US, I have trouble looking in only one direction when crossing a road that I know has one-way traffic; imagine what it's like to add an extra lane of traffic and then reverse the directions in which the cars are driving. Although I now find it pretty natural to expect oncoming traffic from my right rather than my left (especially in large cities where this information is thoughtfully supplied by signs painted on the ground at crosswalks), I definitely look both ways about four times as often as I do in the US when crossing the road. I don't even feel that weird driving on the left, though I still have a hard time judging distances while sitting on the opposite side of the car. I will be interested to see what it's like when I have to drive in the US after living in the UK for so many months--I'm a little nervous that my reflexes might now steer me into a lane that is "right" in the UK, but "wrong" in the US (pun intended!).

When my parents asked me what to pack for the trip, I emphasized rain gear and layers, which turned out to be a very apt suggestions. I was impressed that nobody complained about the overwhelming lack of sun (we didn't have much rain, but we did have a lot of clouds), which of course is the stereotypical thing that you notice and discuss in Britain. I did hear some comments about the wind, though, which can be ridiculous around here. High Street acts as a funnel, and sometimes when you walk up it on a breezy day, you might easily think you'd accidentally wandered into a wind tunnel. That and the rain make me very glad to have short hair, which tends to weather the weather pretty well. I've gotten to the point where I ignore the wind, or at least view it in a very matter-of-fact way: "Oh, it's windy again, I'd better pack a warmer sweater." It's funny to be reminded that there are lots of places where these gusts aren't a normal part of life, and where you don't have to bring in deck furniture to prevent it from toppling over in the breeze. What's even weirder is that I lived in one of these places for the first 18 years of my life, and yet my recent experiences in Falmouth seem to have obliterated my memories of that "normality" and replaced them with the new "normal" of Falmouth.

When I think about acclimating to a new place and redefining "normal," I can't help but remember my trips home from college. At first, the only differences I noticed were ones of convenience--my hometown is a college town built to accommodate students, while my own college town was not, so my main focus was the relief I felt at having easy access to shops and restaurants again. As I got older, though, and spent more time away from home, I started noticing other aspects of my hometown because they were not what I'd grown used to during my time away--the lack of a sushi restaurant or smoothie shop, the Appalachian accents, the limited cultural diversity of the residents. Returning to school in the fall, I'd have to readjust all over again--to the traffic, to the proximity of suburbia, to the lack of hills on the horizon. It's amazing how fast something "new" becomes something "familiar," while things that used to be "familiar" become a distant memory. I'm not saying that nothing in Britain surprises me anymore--it is a foreign country, after all, and I've only lived here for 4 months--but I no longer bat an eyelash at many things that used to strike me as odd. It's the same thing that happened when I moved away from home to go to college, and then again when I moved to do my graduate degrees. As long as I keep moving between such different environments on a regular basis, I am probably destined to find things interesting or stimulating in some way, which is encouraging--I'd hate to become complacent. Sometimes all of these comparisons can be a bit sad, as when you notice flaws in something that you used to think was perfect, or when you take a new look at yourself and realize how you've tuned some things out or focused unnecessarily on other things. It just goes to show that everything really is a matter of perspective, and the best you can hope to do is keep an open mind and collect as many of them as possible.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Welcome home!

When I was younger, I used to love flipping through my mom’s catalogs, of which there were many. I would look through the pile of mail and pull out each glossy booklet that looked promising—anything to do with books, toys, novelty items, hippie-themed gifts, or other amusing oddities. Until I was in my teens, I carefully left behind catalogs devoted to shoes, clothing, and beauty products. The remaining category—household items, including decorations, furniture, linens, and cookware—went untouched well into my 20's, not worth my attention even if I was completely bored and could find absolutely nothing else to occupy my time. So how did it happen that I finally find myself interested in these things? I not only browse home-oriented catalogs, but I peer into store windows where these items are on display, I peruse homewares websites, I go shopping with the single purpose of purchasing a set of sheets or matching pillows. What happened to me? How did I become…domesticated?

Oh, well, I suppose that this is somewhat inevitable as you grow up and live on your own, particularly if you are a woman—there’s that instinctual urge to build a nest and line it with nice, cozy materials. Or, in my case, with an ever-growing collection of bird art and kitchen implements. From the moment I began purchasing my own domestic items, it was clear that I had diverged from the path taken by my mother and her mother—both of whom have a very comfortable country style; my mother’s is accented with a suite of variously-sized antiques, while my grandmother’s is enhanced by the many pieces hand-built by my grandfather. Instead, I found myself drawn to the exotic—colors, textures, and patterns from Asia and the Middle East. Here, for instance, is the first major investment I ever made in an antique:

(My Chinese hatboxes. The first, on the bottom, was purchased at a wonderful antiques store called the Blue Crow, which I happened to stop at while driving along the peninsula of Virginia's western shore. The second also comes from Virginia--from the Old Chickahominy House in Williamsburg.)

It’s rather a happy coincidence, then, that my husband has spent his life traveling and acquiring things from abroad. He has also received a number of "multicultural" gifts from his diversely-origined friends and family. The few decorations that he already possessed prior to my arrival suited my tastes just fine--the Guatemalan clock, the series of African animal sculptures, the toucan statue, the set of Indian coasters. Even his collection of ultimate frisbee disks has an international flair, since they were acquired from competitions all over the world and sport (pun intended!) interesting and colorful designs. We were lucky, then, that we didn't have any moments of tension when it came time to join our two households; we kept everything my husband already had and then added my own things. As far as that "addition" process was concerned, I was given free permission to do what I liked. Given the general dearth décor when I arrived, that was quite a lot of freedom. I'm still a bit surprised by how few embellishments there were in the apartment despite the fact that my husband had lived here for three years prior to my arrival. Much of the furniture had been inherited, either from the apartment’s previous occupant or from people in his department who handed down pieces of furniture from one generation of academics to the next. This, for instance, is how my husband came by his couch, which was so disheveled that it had to be covered by a decorative sheet:

(The sheet failed to cover all of the places where you could see bits of metal and foam interior poking through the upholstery; it also couldn't disguise the ominous sounds that occasionally arose from the frame whenever you sat down.)

Unsurprisingly, the couch was high on my list of things to remedy. However, the first item on the list was cleanliness—not tidiness, which also needed some improvement—but sanitation and freshness, which seems to be something that many men, my husband among them, are not nearly as concerned with as we ladies are. Before I first came to visit, my husband had to pay a (female) friend to come clean the apartment so I wouldn’t be shocked by its appearance; there were actually places that he hadn’t dusted, vacuumed, swept, mopped, or scrubbed since he had moved in. To make this worse, there is always at least one window open in our apartment, and Falmouth produces this strange industrial dust that is thick and almost…furry. Its accumulation is quite noticeable even during the week that passes between my routine cleanings of the apartment, so you can only imagine how bad it was after nearly three years—especially in remote, inaccessible places like under the bed, on the baseboards, atop the armoires, on shelves, etc. As my mother would say, it was so thick in places that you could practically have planted corn in it. Another bane of my cleaning existence has always been the shower stall. The water here is full of minerals; within a day of cleaning the shower glass so that it is actually transparent (ooh la la!), white streaks are already collecting again. Even with the most toxic cleaning substance you can locate, de-opaquing the stall requires so much elbow grease that my muscles are sore the following day. Even I, in all my neat-freakiness, can only muster the energy to tackle this problem a couple times a year.

The next item on my list was organization. In the entire two-bedroom apartment, there is only one closet—one and a half, if you count the space under the water heater in its little closet by the bathroom. This worked fine for my husband, because he didn’t have much stuff. Even when I was just visiting, I routinely introduced many more things into the apartment—cooking implements, dishes, medicines, toiletries, reusable shopping bags, an iron and ironing board, etc. These all seem like normal items for any apartment to contain, but when there is no place to put them, they become quite problematic. There were also some issues associated with my husband’s general lack of neatness: All of his paperwork had accumulated in a single large pile on one of the kitchen counters; all of the extra parts and directions from home-assembled furniture had been crammed into one of the kitchen drawers; all of his recycling was piled in boxes and bags in the closet. When dealing with a packrat (yes, that’s right, I said it--he's a packrat), you have to pick your battles wisely. Thus, I only threw away the things it was absolutely imperative to get out of the apartment; the rest of them were organized by baskets, trays, boxes, and even my pride and joy, the closet caddy:

(I'm a little ashamed of how much I love this thing. To truly understand, you'd need to see a picture of the closet before it was organized by this nifty little piece of furniture. Unfortunately, I so detested looking in the closet during those messy days, I failed to document its previous condition.)

Luckily, my shipment from the US included two storage trunks, a chest of drawers, a bedside table, a desk, and several ornamental but also functional baskets and boxes; now all we need is a bookcase, and we will be more or less fully organized in here.

From the first moment that I stepped foot in this place, I had two nemeses: the couch and the laundry hamper. The couch I have already described, but words just cannot convey the awfulness of the laundry hamper. A large woven basket, it disintegrated while being carried from the store to the apartment; it then sat, in its unraveled state, in the corner of my husband’s bedroom, slumping more and more as it came more and more unwound from use. I first managed to relocate it to the guest room and at least get it out of my immediate sight; then I finally dismembered it and removed it from the apartment altogether. That was a great day. The couch took a bit longer. My parents’ wedding present to my husband and me was to buy us a new sofa, but the furniture company took a solid 9 weeks to deliver it after we’d placed the order. It’s more than a little frustrating to spend hundreds of dollars on something you don’t even get to enjoy until 2.5 months later. But, what a comfortable couch it is:

(And look how well it matches the rug, which matches the blanket along the back of the couch!)

Of course, couches require end tables, so we had to purchase those, and while we were at it we also bought a bedside table for our bedroom and a new bed for the guest bedroom (all of which was made possible by wedding present money from the other side of the family—do you see a theme here?). In the furniture assembly process that ensued, I learned an important lesson: Never let my husband put things together without supervision:

(Two of the three matching end tables that I put together. Beautiful.)

(The bedside table assembled by my husband. Notice the problem? The base of it is on upside-down, with the unfinished part rather than the finished part showing. *sigh* In his defense, the building instructions were pretty shoddy.)

With these basics taken care of, I could begin the much more fun process of decorating. For instance, I have purchased pillows that match not only our different-colored loveseat and sofa, but also each other; I have bought a pineapple “accent” table made by an artist friend; I’ve picked up a couple of locally-made paintings. I also brought many decorations with me from the US—in particular, several wall-hangings of various types, statues, sculptures, and picture frames. Unfortunately, another thing that is lacking in our apartment is surface space, so I’m not entirely sure where or how I am going to display all of these pieces I have painstakingly collected over the years. The pictures are a bit problematic because we lack the power tools needed to hang them appropriately, so we are either going to have to locate a friend with a drill or bite the bullet and purchase one of our own. I’ve managed to put a couple up already, using pre-existing nails and holes in the wall. It’s amazing how much warmer and less austere a room looks once it has color on the walls. The addition of plants and floor coverings also makes a huge difference; I added rugs early on, and we inherited a veritable greenhouse’s worth of plants from some friends a few months ago, not to mention the potted herbs that I have cultivated for the past year:

(My babies--basil, thyme, and oregano, with a random blade of grass thrown in for good measure.)

People who haven’t been over in a long time are always surprised when they walk in and see all the changes I’ve made. Take, for instance, the changes that have occurred just in the guest bedroom:

(When I arrived the bed was actually a futon, and the duvet was merely placed on top. Then we folded up the futon in order to make the room more spacious, ditched the dorm room-style duvet cover with the old one from our bedroom--I'd upgraded in there, of course. Next, we purchased a new bed. Then we added normal bedroom furniture, such as the bedside table and the trunk, some decorative baskets, and a new dresser. Finally, I purchased a new duvet cover that was a bit more mature. Note the towels on the bed runner--we have guests coming. And I'm not embarrassed to show them to their room.)

I do sometimes worry that I’m doing that clichéd makeover thing where women come in and feminize the bachelor pad; it makes me feel a bit overbearing. Then again, my husband really doesn’t care much about these domestic things, and I do give him opportunities to chime in (he was instrumental in choosing the couch, for instance, and for helping decide which rugs to put in our bedroom—he’s not bad at this stuff when forced into it). Also, I’m not one of those women who decorate in extremely girly ways. I once pet-sat for a family whose entire house was filled with pastels and floral prints, and I kept wondering how the husband felt coming home to such an oversized Barbie dollhouse; worse yet, how did he feel having male friends over to watch the game on Sunday?

I guess we all have our territories to reign over and defend. My husband, for instance, can still indulge in both messiness and dirtiness at his office, which is so mind-blowingly untidy that I feel anxious after standing in it for just a few minutes. He can also do whatever he likes in his car (but not when/if we trade it in for a car that is “ours”!). I’d also like to point out that, however strong my opinions about the apartment, and however forcefully I bend its appearance to my will, the same is not true of my husband’s own personal decorations. I have flooded his closet with many new items of clothing (mostly because he had so few to begin with), but I never complain about what he wears (well, I rarely complain), and I’m not trying to force him into any fashion mold.

In any case, he seems happy with all the changes, and that’s the important thing—that we both feel at home. Despite all the changes that have already been made, we still have more to go (as seems always to be the case—my parents are still making changes to their house after 27 years of living there). We need to purchase and assemble at least two bookcases to house all of my many tomes, we need to do something to organize the explosion of food (spices, in particular) in our pantry, and we need to install some sort of storage unit in our bathroom, just to name a few items on the list. And, of course, we have to clean the whole place once a week or so, to keep the Falmouth dust and fungus at bay. It’s hard work being an adult and living on your own. I sometimes miss the days when I could just focus on books and clothes, rather than worrying about whether things fit or match or are broken and need replacing. Still, it’s fun to create a place that really feels like home—one that exhibits your own tastes and interests and makes you feel safe and comfortable. After spending the last 11 years bouncing among various types of temporary housing, from dorm rooms to field housing to apartments rented in a sketchy part of town, it’s nice to be mistress of my own domain.