Thursday, June 7, 2012

Expats: perpetual strangers in a strange land

With the frequent back and forth across The Pond, my instincts will forever be slightly off I fear. Only last month I noticed that I still don't reflexively introduce myself in conversations with new acquaintances. In Texas this is odd. Now back in London, I am irked by things which I once routinely dismissed.

When we lived here, it took something like a five minute violation in a luxury store to catch my attention. Since the last six months have been my longest, and unintended, absence from London, low level rudeness grabs my attention just like when we first moved here.

Two stories from the last 36 hours:

Cupcake and I went to Waitrose for a grocery shop. Before, I would have blown off ("dismissed" for the Brits, not, well, you know...) the half dozen checkout lines three and four shoppers deep. Now I notice them once again. One of the reasons the lines were so deep is that customers routinely empty their baskets ("trolleys" for the Brits) and then leave them at the top of the conveyor belt, blocking the next person in line. When Cupcake and I got to our checkout, there were three empty baskets blocking us from unloading our groceries for checkout. So I moved them together and asked Cupcake to move them to the wall, out of the way. A few seconds later, a well dressed British man, perhaps 60, tried to maneuver around her to get to the checkout next to us. Once he realized that I was 1) not the offensive basket abandoner, 2) not allowing my daughter to play in the line of traffic, and 3) was actually instructing her to clear the obstacles to the checkout, then he relaxed his pursed lips, but--and this is the part that shocks me--did not offer to help and continued to try and work around my daughter. I lost a few moments just staring at him, dumbfounded. (That contributed to the line sluggishness as did the checkout girl waiting until I had unloaded my entire basket onto the conveyor before starting to ring up my groceries. I was confused until I remembered that customers sack their own groceries here. She was avoiding that awkwardness when a checkout person is finished ringing up items but just sits there waiting for the customer to pay, sack, and contend with children, handbags... But this isn't rude; it's just the customer service gap.)

Then, this morning I got off the Tube at South Ken. Due to proximity to various museums, V&A, Science, Natural History, demographics of the area, and the relatively few stairs, the South Ken station gets more buggy traffic. It is hard to retrofit wheeled access to Tube stations so you have to bump the buggy up the stairs or carry it up, which is a two person job. Myself and a blue collar guy helped a pair of mothers up one set of stairs, all the while men in suits, and inexplicably other women, pushed past us. One man even got annoyed when I had to swerve in front of him because someone had jostled the buggy, upsetting the balance and possibly the baby. I helped another mom at the exit, again as strapping men brushed past us.

I can hardly imagine either story happening in Texas, and all possible scenarios involve someone in the vicinity scolding the unhelpful. Like the story about tennis courts, this is not just unacceptable social behavior, but inconceivable social behavior. Two years ago, I would have simply accepted it as part of living here, but after almost a year at home, this screams out to me. UPDATE: I was just over at Texpatsabroad--she's started blogging again--and her recent post about culture shock reminded me that I must remember this rudeness lives in London alone; it is not part of the English character. None of this would happen in Devon.

Then there is the weather. I should have brought our Uggs and my cashmere tops. In Texas in June, however, the thought of anything but cotton against one's skin causes a Pavlovian sweat. So here I am in grey London (can you see the wet and the grey through my window?) with half a dozen linen pants, closed toe shoes (I am not so forgetful that I packed only sandals), and some cotton cardigans.

Piling on the annoyances, I did a pathetic job of planning and prep. Normally I would have emailed friends and arranged playdates, child and grow up ones. This time I didn't even know we were arriving on a bank holiday, much less during Hill House's half term break. No matter, everyone returns this weekend and, continuing my double life of being an active London mom but a slacker Houston mom, I still managed to have 14 kids in our house yesterday afternoon. Tomorrow I need to run to Peter Jones for a few necessary items like a Mac power transformer. I have my UK Mac plug, but not the white brick part of the power cable.

As mentioned, not my best show of travel prep. One positive development, my lack of laptop charge sent me on another search for a way to blog from my iPad. If these links work, then I am going to write a rave review on the Blogsy app page about how it finally made my iPad my blogging device of choice.

4 comments: said...

You're NOT supposed to reflexively introduce yourself to new acquaintances in the US?

I've lived here for almost thirty years, and I do it all the time... Um... I guess I attributed any weird looks to my accent.


AHLondon said...

No, no, you ARE. For me, native Texan, it should be reflexive. It seems, however, that five years in London killed my reflex. Almost a year back in Texas and I still find myself five and ten minutes into conversation without having offered my name. I feel so rude. said...

Oh. Good. (Relief.)

The problem with these things of course is NO ONE EVER TELLS YOU because they figure THAT would be rude.

And we're now in second generation of weird things because kids got habits and gestures from me that no one tells them are weird because they think the kids are just being odd. (Well, they're both boys and geeks.)

BTW, on rudeness. I've heard it said Portugal has the rudest shop keepers in Europe, and I find it relatively easy to believe, but I was shocked on going back at how rude most of my mom's circle of extremely well brought up older ladies seemed to me. I just realized reading this, that a great part of this is that reflexive thing Americans do, and which is now second nature to me, but is not in Europe: move the carts out of the way of people (particularly people with their arms/hands full) or run across the parking lot to help the elder lady struggling to her car, or... People here just naturally do that stuff, while in Europe there's more... reserve? I realize this is speaking very generally and of course there are exceptions, but I've generally found it so. Of course, when I was a young woman traveling by train across Europe, I never carried my own luggage in Austria. Some gentleman would always get it out of my hands, take it to my next platform, make sure I had everything I needed. It was very nice. And proves Europe is not a block. Americans (at least in the West. I haven't lived in the East in twenty one years) are just IN GENERAL more proactive about being helpful. Maybe we're all terrible busybodies? Eh. I like it, anyway.

AHLondon said...

Funny you should mention that no one ever tells you these things because that would be rude. My friend Virginia was at a cocktail party shortly after we both moved to London. A gentleman with whom she was conversing mentioned working at her husband's company. So she asked him which department he worked in, etc. Her British friend took her aside afterward and told her that those sorts of questions were way too forward for a cocktail party. Virginia and I had a chuckle the next day that, to us, the scolding was far ruder than Virginia's work questions.