N.B. It’s important to note that this is not a ‘bashing’ post, a complaining post or a whinging post. It is simply to discuss the differences I’ve observed and am experiencing and how this effects my settling in on ‘the other side of the pond’.
On our recent travels last week to see Bunny and Phil, I had a conversation which I have begun to realise is the epitome of my life right now in the USA.I will relate this conversation to you now (with slight artistic licence as I’m not a savant for week old conversations but you’ll get the idea).
Bunny: So how was the gun show you went to?
Button: Crazy. The guns were nuts enough but it seems the new big thing here is people buying torches with a Taser in the end. There was zapping going on all over the building which was very scary.
Bunny: *nods sagely* You’re right, that is crazy, I had no idea that was a thing now.
Phil: What do you mean a torch? What’s that?
Button: You know, a torch. *proceeds to wave her hands about in a torch like motion*A light you carry around and can turn on and off.
Phil: Oh, you mean a flashlight?
Bunny: Oh, that makes much more sense. I though you meant people had sticks with fire on one end and a Taser on the other. I was thinking, yeah, that’s crazy!
It has come to my attention that being a Brit in the USA, trying to live here, is going to involve a bit more work than I first thought.
The first thing that would come to my mind if I was moving abroad, not having any developed any type of linguistic skills beyond GCSE level German, is to move to a country that spoke the same language as me, English. This in itself should remove a whole level of complication and confusion straight off the bat, and immediately help you settle. Coming to the US, I would have thought that true.
However I am finding that my version of English and their version of English, don’t quite add up to the same thing. In fact, I am more routinely finding that I can have a conversation with someone here and realise either I don’t understand what they are telling me, or visa versa. And it can be silly little things like me using words such as: bin, lift, jumper, trousers, chips, trolley, lorry, biscuit and boot. I even had the person at the till (checkout) the other day burst in to laughter at me when I said ‘Cheers’ to thank her for helping me. Not a concern that would phase people coming here on holiday, who would simply shrug it off or think to themselves, ‘how interesting, that’s something new to remember’, but for someone living here on a day to day basis, it becomes a little more challenging.
Moving on, it’s no secret that grocery shopping has become my number two nemesis over here (after driving, which still ranks number one). On my last trip to Publix, I managed to slip out of my usual dazed state for a few minutes to realise something which I found slightly disturbing – my carrots and mushrooms were pre-bagged. Now on one hand this is fine, after all I can go into Tesco’s at home and buy a bag of carrots or a box of mushrooms, so what, right? Yes, but I can equally choose not to buy them and pick out my own, selecting the ones I like best and as many or as few as I wish. I have choice.
In my moment of clarity, I looked around the fruit and veg section of Publix and began to notice a couple of things. First, it’s blimmin’ small. There’s a horseshoe area and if I spin 360o I can see the whole layout in one go. It dawns on me there actually isn’t much healthy food to be seen or chosen from. I stare at the bags of carrots in front of me. I have two choices – a small bag with about 5 carrots in it, or a large bag with about 20. Hmm. But what if I only need 7 or maybe 10? And what about the 2 manky carrots in the bag I’m holding? I don’t want to buy those. I stand there looking at the bags for a good couple of minutes, occasionally looking up and around in confusion. This really has me stumped. I don’t get it.
It’s then I notice the mushrooms and the exact same deal, pre-packaged in two different sizes and in total only about 10 boxes on the shelves, for the whole store. I must be missing something here. Where are all of the loose vegetables? I shuffle to the side of the horseshoe and decide to stand there a few minutes to see what other people are doing. Maybe there’s something I’m missing?
No, it appears that no-one is suffering the same perplexing thoughts as I. They are happily shopping. Not being able to stand it any longer, I very awkwardly sidle up to the young lad who is restocking some shelves nearby.
Button: ‘Excuse me, can you tell me where the loose mushrooms and carrots are please?’
Young lad: *states at me*
Button: ‘The mushrooms and carrots. *holds up bags in hand* Where can I pick out my own ones please?’
Young lad: ‘You mean like outside? At a farm?’
Button: *breathes deeply* ‘No, I would just like to choose my own ones, here in the store. So I have the right number.’
Young lad: *looks a bit bemused and in wonder, like maybe I have two heads* ‘Oooooh. Um, no. We don’t do that.’
These are just examples of basic functions that have always been easy for me, which are now not so straightforward. You may be sitting there wondering why a couple of words or some vegetables might cause me such angst as to take the time to tell you about it. So let me sum up in one word.
Something which I realise now I have taken for granted. I have grown up within the UK culture and environment, where people have the same vocabulary as me, have the same daily experiences as I do. We can relate to each other. There are a million nuances about living in the UK that you would never deem important or even think about, until they are not there anymore….
Knowing that walking places is the norm and having pavements at the side of the road is pretty much expected. Accepting that parking your car and walking down the high street is just the done thing.
Packing your own shopping bags (which you’ve brought to the store yourself!).
Seeing houses made of brick and two stories high.
Knowing that conversation openings should relate to the weather and wondering if we’ll see a summer this year.
Offering people a cup of tea is the normal way to welcome someone into your home.
Knowing how to and being able to re-wire a plug.
Using a turn signal when driving is the rule, not the exception.
Saying please when asking for things and saying sorry, well, pretty much all of the time.
Knowing that saying ‘Are you alright?’ is a greeting and not necessarily a major concern over someone’s health.
That the speed limit is 30mph in towns and 70mph on the motorway.
Having public transport that is handy, regular and perfectly normal to use.
Measurements in metres, centimetres, pints, grams, stones.
Writing and reading the date as day, month, year.
Pay as you go mobile phones.
TV programmes with adverts only every 15 minutes.
That’s what is all comes down to I’ve realised, the frustrations that I experience and the sadness of thinking about home – at home, everything is easy. Easy because it is what I have grown up with, been taught about and lived with. No matter where on earth you take and plonk me, I would miss home and its familiarity, where everything makes sense to me and makes me feel grounded. It’s not perfect by any stretch, but even then I am familiar with its problems which are a comfort in itself.
Being away from the familiarity and ease of a life so far lived has had two consequences for me. The first is that every day that I am out and about experiencing new and overwhelming things, it is mentally draining. Just trying to adapt to small differences every day makes me feel like I almost have to re-write my brain. And honestly, I have yet to come to the point where I am happy with that idea. I am not sure that I want to change aspects of my behaviour to fit in here, I’m not sure that would make me happy. But I do have to find some middle ground or I could easily go a little crazy and end up permanently miserable.
The second consequence of all these dissimilarities is that I feel like a moron, which in itself it fairly demoralising.
As I stand there and try to remember the correct terms for rocket lettuce (arugula) and courgettes (zucchini) to ask someone where they are, I sound like a bumbling idiot. I find myself now trying to articulate many request with my hands, and feel deep inside like I am progressing so far backwards, I may as well just carry pictures cards with me wherever I go.
As I sit and try to work out percentages of a restaurant bill for a tip, I feel like I’m back in maths class with Mr. Rae standing over me shaking his head at why I can work out simple problems, until I give in and hand it to Loops to add the appropriate amount for me to then sign.
As I once again have to ask Loops try to explain to me something I’ve seen or heard or never heard of, most recently the national holidays here – President’s Day, Martin Luther King Day and the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day, because I just really didn’t get why there were two.
And my new fear, the workplace. A whole host of new and unusual things I will be sure to encounter when I decide to cross that bridge. Where, again, language might trip me up in the worst way – the use of veterinary terminology. For those of you who don’t know, I have signed up for an online veterinary assistant’s course, with a view in the future to potentially studying to become a veterinary technician. Yesterday I was discussing my new chapter on anatomy and physiology with Loops explaining that I was studying the skeletal system.
Loops: ‘The what?’
Button: ‘The skeletal system.’
Loops: ‘No, I’m not understanding you. What is it?’
Button: ‘The skeletal system. Skeletal. *Now pointing at myself* Skeleton bones!’
Loops: ‘Oh, yeah, you’re saying that all weird. It’s Skel-et-al.’
Button: ‘No, it’s Skel-ee-tal. Believe me, I’ve study it before. I’ve even taught about it.’
Loops: ‘Nope, it’s definitely Skel-et-al. I promise you, skel-ee-tal makes no sense.’
Button: *now starting to doubt herself*
My uncertainty grew even more when we took the debate to Paul, a doctor, who also proclaimed he had no idea what I was saying.
It got to the point where I was so confused and worried about my pronunciation, I googled it and found a website to confirm I wasn’t mad. Yes, us Brits do actually say skel-ee-tal. But now what happens when I go to college and start pronouncing things other people won’t understand?
So this is what I’m talking about. For while all of our traveling is going to be a blast, amazing and fantastic; I also have to offset that with the reality that I’m not actually on permanent holiday here. I in fact also have to test out the very real day to day concerns that come with living in another country and try to decide if I am adaptable enough to come to terms with such a culture change.
But as always, while there are things that throw me off, cause me to frown and mutter and really wish I was at home; there are equally things that are just different that I accept, don’t fuss over and actually can find fascinating.
For instance, I always find it amazing that if I closed my eyes and someone picked me up and plopped me in either the US or the UK, I would immediately know which I was in. That each country can be so distinct in its ways, I wouldn’t even need a landmark or reference point, I would just be able to feel it. And I love that sensation. Which is why every time I come home after a long trip away, no matter which country I’ve been to, when I step off the plane and am immediately hit by English air, I breath deep and I know I’m home (and for about 25 minutes rejoice in that fact, even if it’s raining, and then the reality of the weather sets in again and it sucks, but in a homely way).
I also find that the amount of space here in the US can be astonishing in its vastness. While I actually prefer little houses and spaces to live in because I may be part hobbit, in terms of wilderness and the outdoor environment, huge open expanses make me feel happy. Every time Loops and I drive from Florida to Georgia, and it takes us 10 hours to do so, it reminds me just how big this country is. And then when I glimpse the mountains for the first time and see the enormous forests spread out in front of us, it makes feel peaceful and small, which I like. My mum and I took a road trip in Arizona some about 7 years ago and I remember us stopping on the road and taking the following photo, and her face says it all about how big spaces can make you feel.
Right along with the immensity of the outside space here, I am also overawed by the diversity of the habitats, plants and wildlife across the country. While I love the beauty of the UK’s rolling hills and fields (and the fact it is very safe with nothing in the environment to kill or maim me), I thoroughly enjoy experiencing the scrubland of Florida, the mountains of Maine and the high altitude desert of Utah. Each time I see a new plant or animal species, I wish I had my own personal ecologist to explain what I am seeing and name it for me, so I can learn more.
Slightly more urban and domestic differences – drive thru services. Something I do detest, but have long stopped caring or fussing about. Not only drive thru food (which we occasionally encounter at McD’s in England), but so far while I’ve been here I have additionally seen drive thru banking, pharmacy, dry cleaners and smoothie shop.
And finally, the widespread practice of using the terms ma’am and sir when speaking to people you don’t know. While I like this, and thoroughly enjoy people calling me ma’am (it does throw me back to meeting the Georgia Boys on the trail), I personally find it very awkward to use these terms, not having been brought up doing so. It’s not so bad with sir, but I think especially when I try ma’am, all I can think of is the TV show Bread, and them all sitting round the table talking to their ‘mam’ in very northern accents, and I think this is what I sound like when I say it.
So now I’ve given you a few thoughts on the UK vs. USA, I think I shall now get back to my veterinary studies which I’ve procrastinated over today.
Oh, and an update on Belle and the final off quickly – we now have a new water filter under the sink with its own new tap, we took her to be weighed and have her tires balanced and Loops’ car is officially on the market. We have made the decision to start our travels without a tow car for now, just taking our bicycles to begin with, as we haven’t been able to find a car we have been happy with. Technically our rental storage space runs out at the end of the month, so that’s one week to go!
Have a great week everyone 🙂
Ps. In case you were wondering about the vegetables, I have been reliably informed by people on the British Ex-Pats forum that Trader Joe’s is the place to find free roaming vegetation and fruits. Light at the end of the tunnel…