Monday, 17 October 2011

Secrets to Living in England

Here are a few quick and simple rules that would make any American's visit to England just that bit more enjoyable, regardless of its duration.

1.  Never turn down a cup of tea.  I know there are times when tea seems like so much bog water and one could really do with a nicely cold can of A&W Diet Root Beer instead, but tea denied is a social opportunity deferred.  English friends won't know what to do with you, or in fact, how to continue any conversation you might have been having up until that point.  Your teeth will lose that unmistakeable brown cast only six cups a day can bring on.  Worse yet, no one will offer you any biscuits or scones to go with your bolshie soda.  So, suck it up literally and pony up for the PG Tips.

2.  Avoid using the term "spastic" at all costs.  Saying that one of your particularly nerdy friends is "such a spaz" in any U.K. company will swiftly get you labeled as a monster who might as well start hurling anti-gay and racial slurs while you are at it.  Calling someone spastic means they have cerebral palsy, and that adjective doesn't carry any of the lighthearted undertones as it does in American English.

3.  You're not in Kansas anymore, so get over it.  It's badly embarrasing to see unenlightened Americans running around, demanding glasses brimming with ice and jars of marshmallow Fluff.  Have some respect for the foreign country you are in, and realize how much American culture has already been stuffed down the rest of the world's throats.  Avoid cramming it full of Twinkies to boot.  Maybe you might get around to appreciating some of their culture if you stopped whining about the unavailability of your own.  (But whatever you do, don't get conned into trying Marmite.  It's not worth it, unless you'd be into licking the bottom of a brewery vat.)

4.  Learn to queue the right way.  Whatever you do, don't start jumping into short lines at the supermarket simply because they've opened a new till lane and you happened to get there first.  Look to see who's been waiting the longest, and make sure they can avail themselves of the opportunity to be served before you.  Being cavalier with queues is a recipe for disaster in the form of sour looks, sharp comments, and possibly being flagged as a problem shopper by staff.  Queue jumping is a fundemental violation of English social order, and you will be treated like the pariah that you are for engaging in it.

5.  For the love of Pete, just give up on callling your mobile your 'cell phone,' and stop feeling mortally wounded when Microsoft Word says you've spelled 'humor' wrong.  Sure you know deep down you're right, just like it's 5 o'clock somewhere.  But that somewhere isn't the UK.  And issuing militantly misspelled notes to the locals will get you branded as dangerously straight off the boat, most likely packing heat.  Console yourself with the fact that you win the language war every time you send an 'email,' as opposed to an 'epost.'  You shouldn't ever start imitating the accent unless you are particularly fond of Dick Van Dyke's performance in "Mary Poppins," which is known to English ears as the all-time worst attempt by an American at putting on a British accent in cinematic history.  Going to this extreme to blend will get you all the respect of a sideshow monkey, without the tips.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Lady

My father-in-law got me a very curious Christmas present. It was a subscription to a weekly magazine called “The Lady.” I had never heard of it before, and before the first issue arrived, I received a letter notifying me of my gift. “It's a funny old magazine,” he explained. “Very English. I hope you'll like it.”

The first issue arrived. The cover model was Dame Maggie Smith. I thumbed through and took in some of the advertising. This particular issue was heavy into chair lifts, retirement properties, baths with accessible marine doors for easy access, and a full-page ad for matronly cotton nightwear featured on the glossy back cover. My heart went out to the target demographic of advertisements by benevolent societies for “gentlepeople” fallen on hard times.

“It's a funny old magazine,” said a co-worker by sheer coincidence, who reminisced about finding an au pair placement while at university by consulting its advertising section. Sure enough, many pages of ads were devoted to most likely obscenely wealthy families looking for cooks, nannies, housekeepers, gardeners, house minders, and a nebulous term called “mother's help.” I imagine this last one is a particularly thankless job when I reflect on all the gross things my mother got stuck doing in my own childhood. Would the job description include extracting small pairs of soiled underwear from the washing machine after they had somehow become stuck in and completely disabled the agitator? The pay didn't seem particularly good, with sometimes the only remuneration being use of a “cozy” cottage on the estate. Some of the ads were very specific about the type of hooligan they were specifically trying to exclude from the applicant pool. “No one under age 45 need apply,” read one, the drafter apparently painfully unaware of a concept called reverse age discrimination.

Despite its fussiness and my urge to place it on a piece of furniture covered with a doily, next to our Queen's silver jubilee Wedgewood plate, I continued to enjoy reading it, if not for the entertainment value. I became rather well-versed in the various forms of stair lift and mobility scooters available. I enjoyed sidebars devoted on where to source the patterns for knitting one's own Royal Wedding action figures, complete with a small fleet of woolen corgis to surround the Queen. The article on England's Best Marmalade contest was light and breezy, as was the fashion feature on what outfits were sleek and stylish to wear to one's second wedding. I was knee-deep into an article on Colin Firth while on the train to Cambridge, with a lady of The Lady's target demographic age sitting directly across from me.

“I have that nightdress!” she said exuberantly, as a flipped the back cover to spy the usual raft of cotton nighties The Lady peddled on a monthly basis. “So comfortable, and great value for money.” I smiled and nodded in agreement to pacify her, while noting the asking price was £79 for something with a pattern I saw on a tea towel, and her certain clinical insanity for thinking that way. The matching robe would only set her back £139. Only people who took their loungewear very seriously would consider paying this king's ransom for what amounted to a wearable tea cozy. I continued to thumb through my copy, all the while catching her occasional pained glances and what looked like a trickle of saliva forming at the outer edge of her mouth. She was either in the throes of jealousy, or passing a gall stone. As the train pulled into Cambridge and I gathered my things, I was compelled to do my Christian duty.

“Would you like my copy?” I offered. Her eyes lit up with megawatt brilliance. “Oh, I couldn't,” she feigned in protest, as if she were asking me to drive her to her next crochet conference in Belgium. Her hand started to twitch in anticipation. “Really, my new issue arrives tomorrow,” I parried, “and the article on Colin Firth is well worth reading.” That comment sealed the deal, and I left a very happy pension-aged English woman in Coach A amused all the way to Stansted Airport.