This return to London, I seem to be having another bout of culture shock, more intense than the first. I've been wondering if maybe an expat is always going to be in some state of culture shock. Yasha suggested I call it perpetual culture shock. But in the past few days, I think I've figured out why I'm having more intense culture shock now.
This time, I can identify the disconnect. When we first moved here, I figured out my missteps in hindsight. This week, however, when I called our vicar's wife "ma'am" after she welcomed me back to the women's Bible study and the room tittered a bit, I instantly knew why. First, I answered loudly. My voice has readjusted to Texas norms. Second, in the UK, "ma'am" is a term reserved for the Queen and other noble women. (At least I assume other noble women. Since no one I know in London is called "ma'am," I've never learned the specific rule.) A vicar's wife is not a "ma'am" over here, though she is so firmly in the ma'am set in Texas that children will get scolded for not calling her ma'am. (One of the women, who is from Nigeria, complimented me on my usage. We had a "you were brought up right," moment.)
When we broke for small group, our group leader lamented that two of our more consistent contributors were absent, so she hoped the others would comment more. The women then gestured to me, and our leader startled with an expression of 'Ahh yes, no problems with comments today.' I am embarrassed to report that I did run off with the discussion no less than five seconds later. In my defense, they were genuinely curious about life in Texas. We were studying the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus's admonition to not do religion just to show what a good religious person you are, which is a parallel problem to one of the drivers of insane American motherhood, doing for our children so that "their" achievements will testify to others what wonderful mothers we are. As readers know, I have some strong opinions about all of that. The discussion was lively, hopefully helpful, and ran way over time.
That was just Tuesday.
Another afternoon, I took the children over to play at Suzanne Power's house. We arrived around four o'clock. Having spent a few days getting my liver back into the London swing (more on that in a moment) I suggested that we open a bottle of wine for sipping while the children played in the garden. (Before anyone chastises us for neglect, we did have a nanny on duty.) I think there is a reason that Americans don't drink as much as the rest of the world. By seven o'clock, not even having finished the bottle, we were watching the children play from the kitchen windows and trying not to doze. Suzanne blamed me and rightly so. I was too bold after a week of socializing.
People drink more in here than in the US. Go to a Russian child's birthday party, and you might have 2.5 glasses of champagne before noon. (Helpful rule: never try to match a Russian drink for drink. That way lies trouble.) Attend a lunchtime birthday party in the small chapel of your church and find yourself discussing preferences for wine in glass goblets, even though the floor is stone. (You might also hear a story about the Millennium champagne dinner in the sanctuary, when the baptismal font became an ice bucket.)
In Texas, I often go for weeks without drinking any adult beverages. In London, a stretch of two days without an adult bev is unusual. This time, I knew what was typical and was trying to get back into the London life when I suggested wine at four. Alas, my liver is American.
Then there is the little stuff. I keep forgetting the double kiss/cheek bump greeting. I leave my friends' second cheek hanging. I had a lovely chat about the weather with a shop girl at the Little White Company. Sideways looks that I wouldn't have noticed in my early days here told me that I was speaking too loudly and for too long. I have also obviously recalibrated my notions of money. Over our long haul here, I forced myself to ignore prices on things like groceries, which is common new expat-in-London advice because there is little use stressing over stuff that one needs to buy. I will have to train myself to ignore prices again. My, it is expensive here.
All things considered, I'm not going through culture shock. I'm simply out of practice. And I know it.