Sunday, August 4, 2013

Seven things I've learned

Over the past month or so things have been pretty hectic in preparation for the wedding, so I didn't get a chance to note an important anniversary: 12 July marked seven years of my living in Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. OK, perhaps it wasn't all that important an anniversary. But it was an anniversary, the sort of thing one feels strangely obligated to blog about.

Meanwhile, if we have learned anything from the existence of BuzzFeed it is that people love lists. So, here are Seven Things I've Learned Since Moving to the UK:

7) Their understanding of "clean" is different.
My friend, Dani, lives in Houston and prides herself on her spotless baseboards. She goes through her Venetian blinds with a toothbrush. She irons her bedsheets. She washes her dishes, then puts them in a dishwasher. Despite her having two children a dog and a cat, you will not find dust in her home. Her case is, perhaps, just a bit extreme but exemplary of what many Americans strive toward. Dani has never been to the UK, but I reckon a visit here would see her slowly unhinge.
It is not that Britons are filthy. Indeed, I read a statistic a while back claiming Britons use more bath soap and shower gel per capita than any other European country. But people here definitely have a different attitude toward the concept of "clean." Dust bunnies, cobwebs and water stains are easily found in the typical British home. Tea mugs are often reused with just a simple rinsing of cold water. Tea pots can go years without being washed out with soap. It is not terribly uncommon to detect the wafting aroma of rotting food in a kitchen. In certain UK regions, when washing dishes, people will get a dish soapy and place it on a drying rack without rinsing it first. Everywhere you look, the standard of clean is generally the same as you'd expect from a fraternity attempting to draw pledges: clean, but, you know, not really clean. They don't even sell Lysol here.
When I first moved to Cardiff I found all this disconcerting; I didn't like living in an environment that wasn't antiseptic. But over the years I've adapted to it. Indeed, I now see it as a reflection of the fact that Britons are generally more laid back. They're not trying to maintain a fresh-out-of-the-box newness to everything and perhaps that helps to keep them from going crazy.

6) The grass is not greener.
This is more of a lesson I've learned throughout my adult life, but one I have only come to accept (and at that not fully) in Britain. By and large -- war zones and Toledo, Ohio, serving as obvious exceptions -- one particular place is not inherently better than any other particular place.
Well, no, see, even as I say that I don't believe it. Unless your value metric is based solely on the number of Buffalo Wild Wings franchises a place has, you have to accept that London is better than, say, Des Moines. But what I mean by using the greener grass cliche is that if you are unhappy in Des Moines moving to London will not necessarily improve your situation. Moving from Bloomington to Moorhead to Portsmouth to Fargo to Incline Village to Reno to San Diego to Saint Paul to Cardiff I didn't quite cotton to that; I have for long sections of my time in Wales been miserable. I am quite certain that there are myriad towns and cities better than the Cardiff region, but now accept that moving to them won't make me happy in and of itself.

5) Football Soccer is boring.
When you first come to a new place and want to fit in, you feel a tremendous pressure to like all the things that the people of your new location like. So it was with me and soccer. For my first few years in the UK I would force myself to watch every match that was televised on free channels and would occasionally go so far as to drag myself to a pub to watch big matches. I would tell myself over and over that I cared, that this stuff was important and was relevant to my fitting in.
I have since come to realise, however, that most (though definitely not all) of the people who like watching soccer are not actually worth talking to. And the sport they get so wound up in is stultifyingly dull. It is just 90 minutes (sometimes more if you're unlucky) of watching a pack of undereducated rapists run around without direction. Occasionally, though far less often than you would expect, one of them manages to kick a ball into a space the size of a small house. For this they are paid more than the annual GDP of certain Polynesian islands. No thanks, I'd rather watch pure competition, like "Strictly Come Dancing."

4) The word "cock" is always funny. Always.
I haven't lived here long enough to understand this one, but you see it over and over and over in pub conversations, comedy clubs and television programmes: throw that magic word into the punchline of a joke and it almost guarantees riotous laughter. Don't get confused; the British are capable of cerebral humour -- stuff that is incredibly clever and brilliantly planned out. But they unite on the hilarity of a cock joke.

3) Free health care is a really, really good idea that actually helps a market economy.
Going against the claim of Britons being cheap are the billions and billions of pounds they invest each year in their public health care system. Some Americans (and, sadly, a tiny portion of Britons, too) look at that amount of money spent and see it as an argument against such a system. But ignoring the whole "people living healthier, happier, longer lives" thing, I think it is a system that can actually encourage capitalism.
In the United States, one quite often weighs a job on the value of its benefits. A person will choose and stay in a job because of something like health care. Similarly, he or she will choose to turn down a job that doesn't offer good health care. Employers are forced to offer benefits and long contracts to ensure those benefits, for the sake of getting the best employees.
The British system allows more fluidity. An employee here is relatively content to work on a short contract, content to move from position to position, because he or she knows that no matter what they'll still have those heath care benefits (admittedly, the UK's generous welfare system plays a role in this, too). I'm pretty sure that fully implementing a similar system in the United States would increase the ability of businesses to compete.

2) Latinos make the world a better place.
This may seem like a strange thing to have learned in Britain but as Joni Mitchell says: "You don't know what you got 'til it's gone." Live in a country where Latino food, music, humour and culture are only slightly more common than unicorns and you soon develop a deep and unabaited longing for son clave rhythms, flavourful food and all the other tiny little things so commonplace in U.S. culture that we don't even realise their origin. Express this observation to a Briton and he or she will helpfully direct you to a so-called Mexican restaurant like Las Iguanas, but you'll find yourself incredibly disappointed. It's similar to asking someone for a donut and being given a tree. The world sin los Latinos is just not as good.

1) I need the sun.
When I lived in San Diego I knew a girl who would claim to be suffering from S.A.D. every time it rained. It only rained three times a year, but, oh, did she moan on those three days. I knew people in Minnesota, too, who said they struggled through the short-dayed and sometimes-grey winters. But I always felt these people were ridiculous. You're not Birdman, gathering your super powers from the sun. Suck it up, Billy, and stop whining about a few little clouds.
Then I moved here, where the sun disappears for months on end. From October to April you will not see the sun in the United Kingdom. Maybe it won't rain every day, but there will always be a thick, impenetrable blanket of cloud overhead. In the height of winter, you will find yourself going to and leaving work in nighttime darkness. Day after day after day of the same thing until one morning you wake up and wish very much that you hadn't. This last winter was full-on hell for me and I carry a trembling fear of the winter to come.

All of this having been said, it should be noted that I still live in the UK and have no immediate plans to leave. I complain about the place constantly, but if a nonresident were to do the same I would almost certainly do the quintessentially British thing of first identifying the solitary exception to the rule (the food at Cantina Laredo is awesome) and follow it up with a catalog of ways in which where you're from is, in fact, the worst place ever. Then I would call you a cock and laugh uproariously.

Because although the primary lesson of living here has been that I will never stop being American, I feel now, too, that some part of me will always be British.


Lucky said...

"It's similar to asking someone for a donut and being given a tree."

I literally laughed out loud at this, mi amigo.

Incidentally, having moved from Phoenix, I really miss the Latino influences here on the middle coast. Know what I'm craving? A freakin' tortilla chip that isn't a quarter of an inch thick. ;)

jon said...

To mix a couple of your items, I find soccer intolerable in English, but very palatable in Mexican Spanish. I need that rush of Latino passion and enthusiasm and yelling to cut through what is essentially a chess game played in a big field.

Huw said...

"I complain about the place constantly".... Yup, sounds like you are assimilating perfectly.

What is this Lysol sourcery?!