May 7th, 2008

mizuno: lil naughty

nanila’s lessons on living long-term in England

I'm nearing my fourth year of habitation in the UK. At the beginning, of course, there was a sharp learning curve, during which I made things like American-to-English vocabulary lists and figured out how to ride the bus without being petrified. Once I’d managed those, however, the process of adaptation slowed and became more subtle. As I prepare to settle here permanently, it seems like an appropriate moment to reflect on those tiny kernels of hard-won knowledge that have allowed me to survive here.

nanila’s lessons on living long-term in England

  1. In the immortal words of Pumpkin, “Be cool, Honey Bunny.” Tone it down. And I mean everything. In particular, your opinions, your dress sense and your volume level. Especially your volume level. Additionally, if you can learn to express your opinions with a modicum of self-deprecation, you will win over your new English mates. Don’t take offense when they disagree with you. Your ability to handle disagreement is a test of your sense of humour. Don’t fail it.

  2. Learn to apologize for everything. Apologizing for the dreadful intrusion your existence has upon everyone else is really terribly English. It includes things which are not your fault. If someone steps on your foot on the train, you apologize. S/he will also apologize, and everyone is happy. If only one person apologizes, particularly if it’s the perpetrator, there will be mild frowns of disapproval, which is the equivalent of a righteous diatribe to the English.

  3. Develop a thick skin with regard to politics. You may on occasion be held personally responsible for everything your English companions find wrong with the American government. And by “on occasion” I mean every single time the topic comes up. Since the English love to talk politics, this means you may have to deal with this whenever you go down the pub. Which will be on average at least once a week if you want to have a chance of building up a social life. Be prepared to be open about your politics, but do not, whatever else you do, get defensive. You do not have the high ground here. You’re a visitor in their country, and they are not obliged to welcome you. The responsibility rests on your shoulders to convince them to like you. That said, once you do have an established group of friends, the likelihood of being grilled when you meet new people decreases, so you'll be able to relax. However, you should be prepared for that process to take years.

  4. Complain, but not too much. You must cultivate the delicate, wistful way of remarking upon the state of the trains, the weather, the traffic or your boiler which clearly conveys a deep sadness, but also total acceptance that this state of affairs is unlikely ever to change. Also, you must learn which topics constitute acceptable complaint fodder. The aforementioned are the old standbys, but there are certain English institutions which must never be assaulted, even if you feel yourself justified, if you want to make friends. Tea with milk, for instance. Actually, that might be the only one.

  5. Be prepared to reach out to people. People are very busy, particularly in London, and they likely have their own well-established social groups, especially if they’re English. They’ve been here all their lives, they have long-standing friendships to maintain and not much time to do it in. You’ll find it takes a lot of work to make real friends. Don’t be afraid to invite people to the pub or out to dinner, and when you do, get the first round of drinks if your bar-fu is good. (This is particularly difficult for those of us who are not naturally extroverted, but it’s got to be done.)

  6. Subsequently, be prepared to be rebuffed. You will get it wrong sometimes. The English can be very difficult for Americans to read. They’re generally reserved, even when mightily drunk, and their passion for understatement often means that their changes in mood and feelings escape us. Even when you’re dating an English person and therefore have a more intimate relationship, you may find yourself missing signals which s/he considers to be quite obvious. If you’re confused, you’ll probably have to ask directly for clarification, as embarrassing as that may be, because otherwise you’re not going to be enlightened. Be self-deprecating about it (see item 1) and you'll be forgiven.

    Finally, but still significantly:
  7. The toilets, they will not flush properly on the first attempt. Don't ask me why this continues to frustrate and annoy, but it does. Each toilet has its own special unique quirk. You may have to hold down the handle for an additional few seconds to get it to finish flushing. You may have to wait in the stall for a good three minutes while the tank refills after the last person flushed it. You may have to pull a chain, in which case you should try pulling it smoothly and then releasing it abruptly. If you absolutely cannot get the toilet to flush after several minutes of trying, then slinking out of the bathroom with a guilty look on your face is likely your only recourse. You must become accustomed to the remorse and learn to let go of it.