Friday, October 14, 2011

Diary of an Expat: What?

Hi everyone! As Erin introduced me, I am her sister, Joy. If Erin is taupe and lime, I am probably more like raw umber and magenta. We have many similarities, but for every similarity, there are hundreds of differences. So, maybe you will read something similar to what Erin writes and like me for that, or maybe you will read something different and appreciate that perspective. Or, maybe you will grumble to yourself every time you see one of my guest blogs and secretly wish I would be done living in London and guest blogging. Anyhow, for those of you who don't fit into the last group, I hope that I entertain you and make you think a little. Now for me to get to the point.

A picture I took of the lovely London Eye on one of my first weekends here

I moved to London almost four weeks ago. In this time, I have tried to explore every neighbourhood that I might want to live in (I'm in temporary housing for the time being), eat new and traditionally British things and befriend everyone I could at work. I've been having fun so far, peppered with longings for my tiny Lower East Side apartment, my amazing friends in New York and stores that are actually open at hours convenient for someone who has a job.

As much as I tried to prepare myself for my move to London, there are some things you just don't know until you get here. I read every book I could find* on living and working in London, what cultural differences I could expect and even what words I should be using. However, it didn't prepare me for everything - for example, how people at work sit together at lunch until everyone has finished eating (oh, they were all waiting for me?!?), or how I need to actually remember to use the word 'trousers' instead of 'pants' (which led to a weird look from the dry cleaner when asking if the pants were in the same bag as the shirts). And that leads me to the point of this post - I have NO IDEA what people in the UK are saying when they talk to me!

On the left, some trousers you can buy at On the right, some pants you can buy at Not a subtle difference.

I speak English. They speak English (and I might add, much more eloquently than I do with my especially strong Midwestern accent). But somehow, things just don't add up. I'm generally OK in normal conversation, but if someone mumbles, forget it. If someone says just a few words instead of a whole sentence, forget it. If it's loud and slightly difficult to hear (I have abnormally small ears), forget it. If they're from Scotland, as my hairdresser was, completely forget it. I expected some funny things to happen (like me asking the dry cleaner if he'd cleaned my husband's undergarments), but I thought for the most part the culture shock would be void of any translational issues.

This lack of understanding actually led to quite an interesting effect. Several years ago, I studied abroad in Germany for six weeks. My German was mediocre when I set out on that adventure and did improve dramatically while I was there, but one thing I always did was plan out what I was going to say before I said it (you may notice a theme with the planning by this point...). Oddly enough, I find myself doing the same thing here, even though I speak the same language. I constantly have to remind myself to say 'flat' instead of 'apartment,' 'lift' instead of 'elevator,' 'trousers' instead of 'pants,' and 'zed' instead of 'zee' - which comes up surprisingly often because I work for a company with Z in the name. The impact of the language barrier was so intense that I found myself not really wanting to leave my flat (I did it right that time!) on the first few days I was here because I was afraid I was going to have to talk to someone. I thankfully realized that was silly because a) I can eventually figure out what people are saying, even if I have to say "What?" five times, and b) I was only going to walk around - all by myself - so I wouldn't really need to talk to anyone anyway. I did go out for my walk - which ended up being over two hours long! I was glad that I explored and saw new things, and it wasn't as scary as I had imagined it being. So I'm trying to keep those as lessons for my two short years here - you don't always have to plan it, and sometimes things aren't as scary as you imagine them to be. And maybe, by the time I leave, I'll understand what everyone is saying to me.

* By every book I could find, I actually mean every book my husband would let me purchase off Amazon - someone has to keep my OCD nature in check, and this is something my husband does especially well.

No comments:

Post a Comment