Tag Archives: expat

Maybe I just got out of bed the wrong side this morning?

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of labels, it has to be said. Not the ones that come inside your underwear, although frankly I think I speak for us all when I say that it can be rather annoying when they get caught in your netherlands when you least expect it. But grouping people into one amorphous mass because it’s just kind of easier to say “crazy” rather than “that woman with the collection of frogs perched on her head” just doesn’t really work for me.

I’ve attracted a few labels in my time. The current favourite for the kids (The Little One mercifully excepted, although possibly only because of her inability to form understandable words at this point) is ‘fat’. Seemingly a little harsh, but hopefully nothing that a month of not drinking alcohol won’t sort out. That said, my tag as ‘gadget geek’ is probably well-deserved, although if I continue to purchase with the pace I’ve been keeping up over the last five years, the next label I’ll no doubt be acquiring will be ‘vagrant’ thanks to The Special One kicking me out on the street.

It doesn’t even have to be me that’s being labelled in order for me to get annoyed. A few times over the last three months, one relatively distant acquaintance has consistently referred to The Special One as ‘mommy’ eg How’s mommy? Is mommy sleeping well? What are mommy’s plans for going back to work? It’s all I can do to stop my fingers slamming the keys through the keyboard in fury as I reply. After all:

a) Do you think that using the word ‘mommy’ with me is ever going to induce joy in my soul?
b) You are a grown adult with a good education, do you really have to talk like a five year old?
c) My wife has a sodding name, you know.
d) I’m pretty sure that if she defined herself by anything, The Special One would be likely to use ‘world champion cumberland sausage eater’ rather than ‘mommy’. I appreciate that she’s had three kids and that they’re a hugely important part of her life, but she also peed the bed three times when she was young and she doesn’t expect people to refer to as ‘legendary bedwetter’.

But the label I least like being used to describe me is ‘expat’.

The problem is not so much with being away from my homeland, although that in itself brings its own problems such as missing friends and family. But does the tag that comes with leaving your own country really have to be quite so negative sounding?

a) It defines me by where I used to be, rather than where I am now. I went to Rhyl when I was a kid, so should I have been referring to myself as ‘ex-Rhyl visitor’ for all these years?
b) There’s an implicit assumption that I cannot truly be happy until I am returned from whence I came. I mean, most nights I do look out of the window and watch the rain pour down as I dream wistfully of black pudding, but even I smile sometimes.
c) Is it just me, or does it somehow suggest that I was thrown out of my own country, possibly for my role in the Great Train Robbery?

My biggest problem though is that I’ve seen too many TV shows featuring British expats in Spain. And frankly, I don’t like the idea of being lumped in with some over-tanned tracksuit-wearing former hairdressers from Bermondsey whose idea of having exotic food is having tinned tomatoes with their egg and chips. Call me a snob if you like, but my idea of exploring the world is not ‘drinking halves of mild in Ye Olde Red Lion just outside Torremolinos’.

Essentially, ‘expat’ has become too much of a catch-all for anyone living away from their home country. Reluctantly accepting that the world would fall apart without collective nouns, I think we need a wholly new label rather than attempting to reclaim ‘expat’ as a proud tag for adventurous world citizens.

But what to call people who have no vote, a permanent look of confusion, and who regard ‘wherever in the world we happen to be’ as their true home?

“Disenfranchised befuddled turtles” just isn’t going to cut it, is it?

You win some, you lose some

I’ve always hated the word ‘expat’, abbreviated or otherwise. It’s not the word itself, I guess, but more the notion that I ever ‘belonged’ to one part of the world in the first place. And more to the point, when I think of ‘expats’, I bring to mind the likes of Frank, Doris, Ethel and Brian, who live in Spain on the Costa del Sol, and eat pie, chips and gravy in 90 degree heat. I’m sure that some people can think of nothing better than putting their car keys in a bowl and hoping that Florence, (the positively spritely 68 year old from Harrogate), pulls out the keys to their imported Volvo – but I’m not one of them.

Nonetheless, an expat I am. Although we don’t have a car, just to be on the safe side. The thing about being a British expat in America is that your life becomes a weird meld of cultures and experiences that you create for yourself over a period of time. You abandon the sacred principle of watching early Saturday evening TV, but you gain the concept that eating hot dogs from a street vendor is acceptable. You lose the horror of watching representatives of an openly racist political party get voted into positions of power, but you are forced to replace it with medical providers who would charge you for breathing within ten yards of their establishment if they could get away with it.

The point is, you accept some alternatives into your heart (baseball is a more than acceptable summer replacement for cricket) and you reject others (the day I regard corn dogs as OK is the day I pack up and go home). As a result, your life becomes a constant succession of choices as you slowly create your new normality, horse trading with yourself to ensure that you assimilate without losing your sense of where you come from.

For instance, The Special One this week had reason to comment that I am “becoming more American than an American.” No, I was not seized by an urge to invade a foreign territory, nor did I feel the need to cut somebody off mid-conversation and start a whole new topic of my own. But I did realise that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” has become one of my favourite records.

There is an arcane law in the United States that requires “Don’t Stop Believin'” to be played at least once an hour on every radio station in the country. Yet somehow, despite a music knowledge that I would regard as pretty comprehensive, I’m not sure that I had ever even heard it before moving to the United States. Now I can’t get that small town girl taking the midnight train anywhere (or the city boy born and raised in South Detroit, for that matter) out of my head, and I’m not afraid to admit it.

To compensate for this, I have been forced to declare that pretzels are a product of the Evil Empire. If Americans were truly honest with themselves, they would sheepishly admit that the big doughy knot of salt studded nonsense is quite literally ‘not all that’, and that they would actually be better off just pouring a sachet of sea salt and a tablespoon of vinegary mustard down their neck instead.

And don’t get me started on ‘mini pretzels’ or ‘pretzel sticks’. When you’ve got a perfectly sensible potato chip staring you in the face, why would you even think to pick a pack of mini pretzels off a shelf? At best they taste burnt, and at worst they have the ability to absorb all the liquid in your body within 13 minutes. Those little silica gel packets that you get in bags and boxes to suck up moisture? There’s actually no such thing as silica – it’s just ground up mini pretzels masquerading as ‘science’. I would rather eat salt studded toe nail clippings, to be honest.

Ah, the yin and yang of life as an expat. It’s not easy being this opinionated, you know.

Getting a little too comfortable

I’ve made two horrific discoveries today*. Discoveries that make me question my very existence, and look at myself in a new, and not wholly palatable, light.

1. I read a blog today which mentioned a visit to Home Depot, shortly after I’d taken delivery of an order of stationery from Office Depot. On both occasions, I internally pronounced the word to myself as “dee-po” rather than “depp-oh”. I had to wash my mouth out with soap and water for ten minutes shortly afterwards, obviously.

2. After more than a year of ignorance, I picked up a copy of Sports Illustrated today, and pretty much understood the basic implications of every story within its pages. And it wasn’t even the swimsuit edition. College sport was happily still beyond me, but other than that I almost felt like a natural. You’ll be pleased to know that I have forced myself to watch scoreless draws between Grimsby and Shrewsbury on repeat ever since, and now feel fully reacclimatised.

* Certainly, far more horrific than discovering that David Blaine is a big ol’ cheat.

All is not what it seems

As you’ll see from the counter over on the right, I’ve now been a Brit Out Of Water for 400 days. During that time, I’ve penned a little under 250 posts. Which means, inevitably, that there have been just over 150 days when I haven’t posted at all. Now, on most of those days I was probably, you know, having a life. But on some of the others, if I was being truly honest, I probably just couldn’t think of something to blog about.

The problem is, of course, that the more you’re away from your home, the more you get used to your adopted city. Fortunately, New York is still strange enough to keep me in stories for at least another 400 days, but I do have to pay even closer attention these days just to make sure that I don’t miss any of the ridiculousness of it all.

Caring as dearly as I do about you, my loyal reader, I now find myself walking around the city with my eyes darting everywhere just in case I can see the start of a potential blog posting kicking off in my vicinity. Sometimes I’ve changed my route to work, having witnessed something unusual going on in the distance. Sure, it generally turns out to be a New Yorker walking more than six blocks without using a form of motorised transport, but at least I’m trying.

Tonight while heading home from work, I was standing on the N train back into the murky depths of Brooklyn, standing all the way from Union Square. While I clung on to a metal pole for grim death as the train attempted to throw me around like a pathetic rag doll, an elfin young lady sat down serenely on the chair next to me.

Serene, that is, but for the fact that she spent the next few stops consuming a chocolate brownie with the eagerness and grim determination of someone who hadn’t seen food for, say, three weeks.

It took her so long to eat the aforementioned brownie simply because it appeared to have fallen apart in the paper wrapper in which it was encased. Duly, Miss Elfin dipped her fingers into the bag with metronomic regularity, scooping up crumbs and plunging them into her ever chomping mouth. After about ten minutes, she extracted the paper wrapper from the bag in which it was contained, turned into a makeshift chute, and shovelled the last remaining crumbs down her gullet. And with that complete, she did the same with the outer paper bag, just in case there were a few molecules that she’d missed.

Throughout the whole thing, I could feel myself getting progressively – and inexplicably – more irate about the whole thing. Maybe it was the fact that she was an astonishingly noisy eater, or maybe it was because it was taking her forever to eat something that would have lasted perhaps 3.72 seconds in my custody. But as my anger rose, I was at least calmed by the fact that I would be able to pen a blog about eating on the tube, turning this anonymous character into an example of all that is bad about self-involved commuters.

Next thing I know, the man sat a few seats down from her quietly reading his John Grisham novel falls asleep (to be fair, his books can be a bit samey) and his bookmark drops to the floor. Miss Elfin, her chocolate brownie now firmly a thing of the past, quickly steps up, bends down, picks up the fallen bookmark, and quietly places it back into the book without even waking the man from his slumbers.

Hardly the actions of a superhero, but a happy ending nonetheless, and a good example of why you shouldn’t judge a book by its flour-and-chocolate based confection eating cover. But I was gutted. After all, there was my bitter posting ripped from my grasp. Much more of this good citizenry, and I won’t have a blog to speak of.

Come on New York, pull your act together. Enough of this ‘being nice’ – you’ve got a reputation to keep up, you know.

The true cost of avoiding homesickness

The Special One is more British than she cares to let on. Sure, she might externally appear to be an ‘h’ dropping, zucchini munching, country invading, milkshake swilling gas guzzler, but cut just under the surface and she bleeds HP Sauce.

Now, part of that is that My Esteemed Mother-in-Law’s mother was English, and resolutely maintained her British citizenship through years of living in the deep south. But really The Special One’s Britishness comes from her love of condiments. Whether it’s Branston Pickle, Maldon Sea Salt or mint sauce, she can’t get enough of the things that the British add to their food in a desperate attempt to make it taste of something edible.

Slowly though, I’m introducing her to more and more British products. PG Tips – as mentioned recently – was an easy one, and Ribena wasn’t exactly tough. I expected mushy peas to be more of a struggle than they actually proved to be, while Cornish pasties were the unexpected hit of the winter of 2006. Black pudding is still a bridge too far though, and the less said about tripe the better. Cold cow’s stomach in vinegar doesn’t appear to do the trick for The Special One, for some reason.

One thing that she’s particularly partial to is English sausage. Quieten down at the back, and stop sniggering. Proper meaty British bangers are a world apart from the fat laden patties that she occasionally had with gravy and ‘biscuits’ (or ‘tasteless sugar free scones’, as I generally call them) in her youth. And having been a vegan for some considerable time, there’s now nothing she likes more than minced pig sinew in a crispy shell.

Close to my office is Myers of Keswick, a British ‘corner shop’ serving the rather large expat community (and Anglophiles) in New York City. I can’t actually let The Special One go there anymore. Partly because she insists on pronouncing it “Myers of Kezwick,” but mostly because she would come back with a lifetime’s supply of Mr Kipling’s Bakewell Tarts if given half a chance.

So today I ventured there alone to stock up with essential items. ‘Essential’ if your idea of essential is Curly Wurly’s and three pounds of Cumberland sausages, obviously. And a bumper box of PG Tips, some HP and Branston, a chicken and mushroom pie and a bag of Twiglets. What more could a man ask for? Apart from maybe a spicy curry Pot Noodle and a bag of pork scratchings.

I reckon if I’d bought that shopping in the UK, it’d probably have cost me about 15 quid or so, depending on the quality of the sausages. Head 3458 miles west, and the price suddenly escalates to 64 dollars. Clearly the dollar is worth next-to-nothing, but that’s one hell of a price to pay for some creature comforts. As a great philosopher once wrote, “Man cannot live on Branston alone.” But after that shopping trip, we’ll probably have to give it a go.

A distaste for the good life

Maybe it’s because I’m British and we’re quick to put down anybody who is popular and successful, or perhaps it’s because I’m becoming insufferably crotchety in my old age. Whatever it is, I’m here to hold my hands up, look vaguely sheepish, and tell you that I just can’t stand The Do-Gooder.

Now clearly I don’t have an innate distrust of anybody who does good in the world. Bob Geldof may have lank hair and dubious taste in women, but you can’t fault his humanitarian efforts. Although, to be fair Bob, none of us like Mondays so it’s probably time to stop going on about it. Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King et al don’t bother me one iota, despite having the temerity to put the well-being of others above their own. And I’ve even been known to do my own bit for charidee on occasion, although the less said the better about the sponsored wheelbarrow race I organised back at school.

But The Do-Gooder is a different beast altogether. The Do-Gooder can’t help but make sure that every last person knows that they’re doing some ‘selfless’ work, and is guaranteed to make my hackles rise, even if the good deed they’re performing is pretty damn good indeed. Actually, the better the deed is, the more irritated I get with The Do-Gooder. You should see how I tear into those cancer research specialists…

The thing is, every community has its own Do-Gooder. Most people tend to ignore them, work around them or – more usually – give them the fancy sounding title that nobody else really wants. If you get introduced to your local community’s Executive Vice Chair of Waste Management Issues, run a mile.

Of course, there wasn’t a single Do-Gooder in sight when The Special One and I attended the first PTA meeting of the year for The Young Ones’ school. Ahem. All I can say was that I was the only man wearing jeans, and that if ever you hear me ask a question about voting procedures in any meeting anywhere in the world, you have my permission to shoot me.

What was particularly interesting about the meeting was actually the number of people who managed to prove themselves the absolute antithesis of the Do-Gooder. Bear in mind that this is a great school with results that outstrip those of better funded schools across the city. There was the goth looking mummom who played her Nintendo DS throughout the meeting. And the ice-crunching older mother who managed to scoff her way through an entire giant plastic cup of ice in ten minutes, and would probably have eaten the cup as well if she’d been given half a chance. And the family of four who may well have inadvertently wandered into the cafeteria, but still decided to eat their dinner there anyway as the meeting carried on around them.

Add in numerous Blackberry-viewing, diary-filling middle-aged folk, and it seemed at times that The Special One and I were pretty much the only ones actually listening to the headmasterprincipal’s (pretty inspiring) words.

Oh no. You know what this means, don’t you? I’m one step away from being a Do-Gooder. Quick, somebody get the rifle.

365 days out of water

I’ve finally made it to a whole year out of water. That’s 365* days of living with The Special One, 365 days of working in the United States, and 365 days of thinking “blimey, what just happened to me?!”

So, other than 365 days, what other 365s has the last year held for me?

365 times that I’ve wanted to have an everything bagel for breakfast. I have only given in on 207 of those occasions.

365 pushes and shoves against me on the subway. That’s approximately 1.83 shoves per journey.

365 times when I’ve been forced to ponder why the UK doesn’t have an all-encompassing commitment to the hot dog too.

365 inadvertent steps into dubious standing water.

365 wrong turns by taxi drivers with only a passing knowledge of the streets of the city.

365 sightings of the Empire State Building which have prompted an internal response of “crikey, that’s the Empire State Building.”

365 times I’ve been grateful for a summer that lasts more than 365 minutes.

365 passers-by who have stared at me for not wearing a coat in March.

365 occasions on which I’ve cursed the fact that you have to pay a fee to use an ATM that’s not one of your own bank’s. As well as a fee to your own bank for the privilege.

365 minutes in total sat listening to assorted weirdoes espouse their sanctimonious claptrap on the subway.

365 times I’ve struggled to remember which one’s a nickel and which one’s a dime.

365 times I’ve emerged from a subway station and stood on the street corner for ten minutes trying to work out whether I’m facing north or south.

365 people who’ve attempted to imitate my English accent with a passable impression of Dick van Dyke.

365 occasions on which I’ve used a swear word in the workplace (and 364 on which I’ve been rebuked for it).

365 moments when I’ve thought “I’m sure I’ve seen this in a movie.”

365 times that I’ve had to apologisze for alleged anti-American sentiments.

Thanks for keeping me company over the last year, and to all those who have tipped off friends, colleagues and readers about the blog. I’m 365 times more grateful than I can ever tell you.

* If anybody even thinks about saying it’s a leap year and that I’ve been out of water for 366 days, there’s going to be trouble.

A god who walks amongst us

I was never a big fan of my name when I was a kid. After all, most people had normal names like Phil and Simon, and standing out from the crowd is the last thing you want when you’re an awkward ten year old who wants nothing more from life than an Eagle Eyes Action ManGI Joe.

Then when I got to big school, there were two other people with the same name as me. I’d never even met one person called Dylan, let alone expected to find a couple of them in a class of 30. It turned out that by that point everyone in Britain was naming their kids Dylan (probably thanks to Luke Perry and Beverly Hills 90210), and it’s consistently been in the top 50 names for British-born boys ever since.

I regularly lambast She Who Was Born To Worry about the new found commonness of my name, although she blames Brit Out Of Water Sr.

Reading the press recently, it seems I should count myself lucky. A court in New Zealand has decided that a child had been given a ‘social disability’ when her parents named her Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii. Apparently Number 16 Bus Shelter, Midnight Chardonnay and Violence are acceptable names, making the same court’s decision to refuse to accept Sex Fruit, Keenan Got Lucy and Yeah Detroit seem relatively strange.

Anyway, the point is that a person’s name plays a vital part in establishing the first impression that you have of them. And parents would do well to take that into consideration when naming their child.

Walking to work this morning, I passed a group of young kids on a trip to some unknown location. It was a picture of idyllic bliss, with each pair of children holding hands with a teacher or parent, and sporting rather natty self-designed name tags around their necks. I’m still getting used to the subtle differences between British and American names, but there seemed to be the usual selection of Kimberley’s, Ricardo’s, Amber’s and Zachary’s, as well as the occasional Jamarion or Amya.

And then, there at the front, holding hands alone with a single teacher, was little Messiah.

Talk about setting up your child for a fall. Or for a particularly lofty career as an award winning (but tortured) actor. Either way, it can’t be easy at school for the poor little kid.

My one comforting hope is that whenever his mother is cross with him, and his proud dad intervenes to ask what Messiah has done, she turns around angrily and shouts “He’s not Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy.”

A little bit of politics

I was accidentally included on an email exchange today between a few intelligent Americans talking about Barack Obama’s recent Berlin speech. The back-and-forth quickly turned into a discussion regarding America’s role in the post-World War II rehabilitation of Europe. The Marshall Plan was, after all, one of a series of important measures that helped rebuild the economies and cities of the battered continent. Sure, there may have been a little bit of self-interest, but nobody’s doubting that America stepped up to the plate when it needed to.

But every so often in any debate about foreign policy, someone will make a comment that forces you to question whether you actually read the email correctly. The kind of statement that makes you wonder why Americans are surprised to find out that some people regard them as pariahs in the international arena.

A statement that in this case reads “if it wasn’t for us, 90% of the world would be speaking Russian.”

The 43rd President of the United States is near-universally derided as the worst occupant of the Oval Office, but you’ve got to imagine that even he would have second thoughts about saying something like this.

By the way, I read that an AOL poll on who should be the next president has John McCain ahead on 64%. Will the last person to leave America please turn the lights out?

Zut alors

When I was a mere glint in America’s eye, our French teacher told the likes of The Beancounter, Broadsheet Benny and I that we would only be fluent in the language when we thought in French. As it was, most of us couldn’t tell our derrieres from our coudes, let alone ponder the existential meaning of life in the tongue of our Gallic cousins. And besides, why would we think in French when it would leave less room for us to consider the important matters of the day, such as Ghostbusters, Panini stickers, the FA Cup draw, and how to snowball teachers and still get away with it?

Being no linguistic expert means that wherever I travel, I’m always translating from the local tongue into English, working out what I need to say, and then translating back into the relevant language. Such a laborious process can tragically turn into an internalised version of Chinese Whispers (or the markedly less impressive ‘Telephone’, as The Special One calls it), where a series of small mistranslations leads to me replying to a waiter asking if I want milk in my coffee with a suggestion that his wife did indeed look like an elephant.

But finally after nearly 35 years of trying, I think I’ve finally cracked it – I’ve mastered a foreign language to the point where I am now able to think and speak in the local tongue without translating into the English in between. Admittedly ‘American’ may be more of a dialect than a language, but you try living in a country that refuses to pronounce the ‘t’ in ‘water’ and see if you still feel the same then.

Today in a phone conversation with an American colleague, I managed to suggest (without even missing a beat) a series of non-specific options by using the phrase “we’ll need to go back to them with ‘ex’, ‘why’ and ‘zee’”. I was part way through the next sentence by the time I realised what I’d done, and had to stop myself and drop a random ‘zed’ into the conversation just to reiterate my Britishness.

Then on the way home I saw a billboard for the Home Run Derby. I have no idea what one of those is, although I suspect it involves slightly overweight men playing big boys rounders. The point is that I looked at the sign and wondered idly to myself what a ‘home run durr-bee’ was. That’s despite almost half my family having been born and raised in the East Midlands town of Derby, with its British pronunciation of ‘darr-bee’.

I can’t work out whether I’m proud or disturbed.

Ironically, the comfort with language won’t last as I’m off to France next week for a week of relaxation in the sun, and I’ll suddenly be back to struggling in a foreign tongue. Here’s hoping I can get my fair share of coffee and croissants without inadvertently reminding the waiting staff of the grey large eared mammal-esque qualities of their spouse, eh?