Virtual Exploration of Our World

The world beckons, but we can't always experience its wonders in person. How lucky, then, that we can explore without setting foot outside our doors...

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Life Across the Pond

I've decided to begin my virtual global journey by reminiscing about my time spent living in England:

The five months I lived in London are the source of some of my most cherished memories. I was thrilled by the experience of living in the midst of an entirely new culture, rather than just passing through on vacation. I had the best of both worlds -- weekdays spent working, shopping, watching television, and doing the same things everyone does, really getting to know what it feels like to live among the British, and weekends spent acting like a tourist and exploring a magnificent city with endless offerings of museums, markets, parks, historical landmarks, restaurants, and shops. I threw myself wholeheartedly into British life. I opened my eyes, my ears, and my heart, and I fell in love with the city and the country.

The excellent London museums are free, and I explored as many as I could. I was gleefully confused by some of the abstract art at the Tate Modern Museum, like the piece which consisted of a two storey overheated (purposely, I gathered) room wherein an enormous image of a fiery globe was projected on one wall, from floor to ceiling. I visited the trendy Notting Hill and Camden markets, sipping mulled wine while strolling in the nippy winter air and marveling at the diversity of people and goods around me. (Stalls upon stalls of books of every genre, vintage jewelry, tie-dyed clothing…a shop consisting entirely of futuristic plastic outfits!) I was entertained by street performers in Covent Garden (see photo of gold man, above). I walked through the Tower of London and Hampton Palace, in awe at the possibility that my feet were treading the same ground as one of my favorite historical figures, Queen Elizabeth I. I rode the gargantuan Ferris Wheel that is the London Eye, looking down at the Thames snaking its way through the majestic old city.

What might be considered commonplace occurrences by native British people held me in thrall as well. Once, an urban fox stood still in the middle of a snowy, deserted London street, boldly meeting my gaze before padding off into the bushes. I drank a pint in a 500-year-old pub that Samuel Johnson once frequented, after walking through an ancient cemetery in the nighttime mist. My visit to Scotland, with its breathtaking pastoral and mountainous scenery, and a weekend jaunt to Paris (so nearby by American standards) were the icing on my expat cake. My senses were constantly engaged.

I approached British cuisine with a bit of apprehension, but my experience taught me that some stereotypes simply aren’t true, at least not entirely. (I would still advise travelers to stay away from that gastronomical misadventure, the black pudding.) British chocolate is as addictive as Coca-Cola must have been when it still included a generous helping of cocaine. Dishes like Toad in the Hole and Bubble and Squeak weren’t nearly as formidable as they sounded, and I found out just how non-scandalous Spotted Dick really was. I enjoyed traditional Sunday English roast dinners and shared in a British Christmas meal, complete with a flaming brandy-soaked Christmas pudding. I experienced imported culinary delights like England’s “official” favorite dish, Chicken Tikka Masala, and the most mouthwatering calamari from a tiny Italian restaurant in Goodge Street.

I am not a big television person, but I feel British programming deserves a mention. Of course, BBC News is a world leader, internationally renowned for its global view and impartiality. Also, British comedies are without equal. One of my favorite comedies would surely have been cancelled if it had been broadcast here. In it, comedienne and my top girl crush Dawn French portrays “The Vicar of Dibley,” a full-figured, self-assured, sexually confident vicar in a small, conservative-yet-quirky village. (Would we Americans ever have a successful show featuring a plus-sized woman as the star, or a show where a religious leader frequently expresses her human desires?) Anyone who ever has the chance, don’t miss viewing the classic “Blackadder” series, which proves that despite the Mr. Bean movies and the straight-laced character Dr. House, Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Laurie are comic geniuses.

Small differences between the American and British cultures were priceless additions to my experience. I didn't own a car and walked or took the Tube (London Underground) or buses everywhere. I loved that aspect. The public transportation was so convenient and quick, and walking really allowed me to take in the whole city. Outrageously expensive groceries were hauled home in a rucksack (that’s a backpack to us “yanks”) and put away in what we know as a mini-refrigerator but the British call a refrigerator. I hand-washed the few dishes that fit in the tiny cupboards and dried clothes on a radiator. On more than one occasion, I boiled water for a bath in a kettle because the landlady couldn’t be reached on weekends. Anytime I ordered a drink of any sort, it was always hot or tepid; ice is a thing British people treat with mild disdain. When I described these aspects of life abroad to my mother, she was shocked, but I found them wonderfully bohemian and exciting.

Of course, living in another country involved a culture shock. My American directness was often misinterpreted as aggression. I, in turn, found the reserved manner of many British people cold and a little snobby until I became used to it. I vividly remember walking down my street on a lovely day and passing an elderly woman. I looked her in the eye and gave her a big Texan smile, and she promptly looked away with a grimace, clearly assuming I was insane. People don't regularly grin at strangers in England. Of course, it turned out that your average British person is just as warm and kind as your average American; they just don't go around announcing it all the time.

There were also language issues. I had to learn new spellings for my job (labour, realise) and new word meanings. I imagine my in-laws were confused when I mentioned that I bought my velvet “pants” at the Gap. “Pants” refers solely to underwear in the UK. There are terms like “zebra crossing” and “roundabout” which are essential to know if you must drive in Britain (and I did on a couple occasions, apologetically running over curb after curb). Before I lived in England, I mocked Madonna's faux-British accent, only to have my own family accuse me of developing one. I really couldn't help it; after having my pronunciation wondered at and gently corrected a certain number of times (“no dear, it’s pronounced ‘GLOSTER’”), I began to subconsciously pronounce all my “t”s and to adapt my apparently distasteful American vowels. To this day I find myself occasionally pronouncing the “h” in “herbs.” (For a humorous take on what the Brits think of our version of English, check out this link to a rant by comedian David Mitchell:

After visiting many others and living in a few, London remains my favorite city. I still dream of it and wake up with a deep longing. While I called it home, I felt like a greedy child with the history and culture around me: I wanted more and more and was frustrated I couldn't have it all in the time I was there. With all its delights and challenges, the opportunity to live in another country has enriched my life beyond measure. Simply learning that there is more than one way to do things, more than one way to function as a culture, opened my mind to all the other new possibilities out in the world. England is never far from my thoughts, and I know that one day I'll make my way back.

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