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.

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