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Is that a chip in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

Actual pic of smuggled contraband

Actual pic of smuggled contraband

A dear friend came to visit from my hometown. It was wonderful to see her and to celebrate her first night with us, we decided to go to our local pub. Pubs (abbreviated version from ‘Public House‘) in England are much more beloved than in the US and serve more as a social network, versus just a place to have a drink. All that being said, when you go to your local pub in England, there is more of a community connection than you have in an average bar in the US.

So now, the table is set (tongue firmly planted in cheek) at this point. We arrived late for dinner in England, around 21:30 (9:30PM US time). The kitchen closed at  22:00, so we were pushing the courtesy barrier from the “git-go” (beginning) as we say in the Southern US. We are courteously escorted to our table, already thinking we need to have what we wanted to order in mind, given the time crunch. My friend, re-energized from the long trip over, was ready to settle in for a long night. She perused the menu, scanning repeatedly from page to page, still undecided with what she wanted. She began to ask us, “what’s really good here?”

“Everything, but especially the chips (french fries), they’re really great!” my husband and I chimed in, nodding to each other in agreement. So, after her final tour of the menu and asking us our recommendations, she settled on a steak with mixed vegetables. Funny how we often ask for opinions, but really, we end up getting what we think we want anyway. Only later, would her choice come back to haunt me.

By this time, it was about ten minutes before the kitchen was closing and we had not yet ordered. After the third time of the server coming by our table, we were finally able to place our order before the deadline and relax, knowing we’d not breached pub etiquette.

My friend was happy with her choice–until our burgers came out with a side of golden, thick and crispy chips! They were done the right way, the Belgian way (twice cooked). Did you know that chips/french fries are actually, Belgian? Glad to offer a side of chip trivia to you at no extra charge. Now, where was I? Right, so after our beautiful chips were placed before us, can you guess who wanted to have some? You guessed it, none other than Ms. Steak and Veg. Even before getting the first one in my mouth, I see her pinching her fingers together as she goes in to pinch one of the golden beauties we spoke so highly of. She took one bite and she was hooked.

One after another the chips began to disappear, not only from my plate but my husband’s as well. And like any junkie, she was wanting more. My friend even asked the server if she could order her own. The server, my husband and I all looked at each other, taken aback by her request. By now, it was 22:30 (10:30PM) so we all knew it was too late to order any more chips. The server made her way back to the kitchen, dreading asking if more chips could be cooked. After a just a few minutes, she returned and said apologetically, “I’m sorry, but the  cook has just turned off the fryer.” My husband and I were again relieved that the chip fiasco was finally being put to bed and we could get our bill and leave still with our heads high.

Sadly, none of us could anticipate what happened next. My American friend then added, “Well, if he just turned off the fryer, it should still be hot enough to make my fries.” Here it comes, I thought. Now, our server will take the walk of shame back to the kitchen and make the chef delay his exit because of my french-fry-loving friend. Dutifully, she did just that and fifteen minutes later, returned with a heaping “choke on it, you selfish American &!#@$” plate of chips! My friend was of course happy as evidenced by the mini clapping of hands when they arrived, oblivious to the gleaming, golden English cynicism they represented. In a word, my husband and I were embarrassed. We understood fully, but my friend on vacation had no clue. Having worked in the restaurant business, I know what other naughty things people can do to your food (never me, of course!). Let’s just say, neither my husband or I had any.

After about three, maybe four chips, my friend had her fill. She had several previously from our plates, plus the small wait to get her own, her stomach had ample time to catch up to her hypothalamus (part of the brain that tells us we’re full), much to our chagrin. I asked, “Are you sure you can’t eat anymore? They went to a lot of trouble to get them…”

She replied, “No, I’m full…besides, I’ll give a good tip.” How do you explain (or even should you?) that a tip isn’t always the answer in some cultures? In her defense, as an American, I do understand that money talks and most of the time, splashing out a little more cash for the inconvenience, will get you out of most situations. But in this case, it was more about the fact that several people had to stay late for the barely touched plate of chips and the routine of closing the restaurant also had to be delayed because of it.

Knowing that it would add insult to injury to leave the almost full plate of chips, I began searching for a way to hide them. I thought of going to the bathroom to ditch them, but then, I thought, someone might see them in the waste basket. Then I though, I know, I’ll flush them…then, what if the toilet overflowed (that would only happen to me!) how would I explain that? Then, I knew…I would smuggle the deep-fried contraband in my purse. It was a cheap purse, so if it smelled like a chip shop, I could learn to live with it. So, in they went, swaddled in a serviette (napkin) to be taken to their final resting place.

My friend looked at me like I was insane and frankly, I guess I was to a degree. We got up to leave and made our way to the bar to pay. We were greeted by all of the kitchen staff and our server (they wanted to get a look at us, it was certain). My friend had given us a few pounds and said she would use the restroom before we left. While she was away, we tipped everyone, not just the server. We all looked at one another with the knowledge that all was understood.

When we got home, our nerves turned to laughter and we took the photo of my purse and the chips that became the inspiration for this article. I guess the moral of this deep-fried story of culture, is that I have become accustomed (albeit, in a bit too neurotic of a way) to being British. Although I don’t claim that Britons would start stuffing their pockets and purses with chips to prove a point, I do think that there is a common connection of courtesy that is not always bridged by the size of your wallet. I’ve gotten another purse since then and will try to keep it, ‘chip-free’ from now on!

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2013 in Culture Choc

 

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Got Milk? A Curdling Tale of Culture

Courtesy of Google images

As you may already know, I talk about culture…a lot. Matter of fact, it’s the basis of everything I blog about. Never a time did this become more ironic, as now.

We needed some ‘niggly’ (trivial) work done on our flat and called in a handyman to help. Seems benign enough,right? We got chatting (having a ‘natter’ as the English say) and our handyman asked where I was from and then began as most do, talking about their trips to the US and comparing notes. I asked him, ‘do you really think there is a big difference between the English and American cultures? He was very quick to say, ‘Oh yes, definitely.’ He said that he felt Americans are much more open when speaking about themselves, and their thoughts, both good and bad. During our natter, I asked if he’d like a coffee or a ‘cuppa’ (cup of tea). He gave a big grin and said, “A cuppa would be lovely, cheers.” The word, ‘cheers’ in England is used in many ways: such as a greeting, as a thank you and the same as we use it in the States, as a toast.

As an American, I find it a bit intimidating to serve tea to an English person. It’s like serving your best homemade meal to a chef. You feel certain it can never be as good as what they can do and they can only judge it in degrees of badness. As an US Southerner, we do pride ourselves on our sweet tea, but an English tea is a different matter.

So, I watched him with hopeful eyes, as he took his first sip, staring ahead in anticipation of my colonial attempt. He blew on it gently, displacing the bit of steam that slightly fogged his square glasses. I noticed an ever so slight flinch at his temples. He was gracious and I apologized quickly, as I knew it couldn’t be very good from his covered reaction. Only later, did I find that I had actually put curdled milk in this nice man’s tea. Nothing says welcome like a cuppa full of friendly bacteria with a side of, ” I’m so sorry I gave you curdled milk” biscuits. I felt like Bridget Jones with a southern drawl!

Given our previous conversation on the differences between English and American culture, the experience solidified one of the differences perfectly; in the English culture, it seems to be that mentioning that your tea has curdled milk in it is worse than actually having curdled milk in your tea to start. I think as a southern American, we may find an overly nice way to tell you that the milk is curdled, but the point being, we would say something and not grin and bear it, as my brave English friend did.

To bring this full circle, I guess to become ‘cultured’, you have to drink your share of curdled milk though the process of making mistakes and learning from them. Although curdled milk won’t kill you, I still wouldn’t recommend it with tea 😉 Cheers!

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2013 in Culture Choc

 

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A Dickens of a Life

Let me begin with one of the best beginnings from one of the greatest novels of all time…Charles Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities. Although the past year for me pales by comparison to the travails of Dickens’ depiction of English life during the French Revolution, I can’t help but see the similarity in reflecting upon my past year as an expat in France and now, England. I think he said it best:

[It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…]

Innately, we know we cannot escape our circumstances and must face what life throws at us, but on some level, an expat by choice, wants some sort of escape. Maybe it is not a conscious choice (for some it is), but there is a desire to start over, to make anew for whatever reason(s) we each have. After the romance of living abroad settles, lies the dust of reality in the corners of our dream world, unable to be swept under the bed for another day, until we feel like facing our new reality.

In the past year, I feel I have equally and diametrically, touched the skies of Heaven and the flames of Hell. Upon our arrival to England, we had only been unpacked a week before our own, “French Revolution” began. My husband unexpectedly and tragically, lost his mother. ‘Maman’ (mother) was a, ‘femme formidable’ (remarkable woman). Even though she spoke no English and I no French when we first met, we bonded in a way that to this day, I admit I don’t fully understand how. We would play Scrabble together; she would play in French and I in English and when we both would get stuck, we would take a look at each others’ letters for inspiration in the opposite language–yes, we cheated for the greater good, as I like to think!

Maman was a mixture of great strength and sadness. During our brief but concentrated time together, I saw the strength, but also the sadness of a soldier who in the end, could not fight any longer. In knowing her, she underscored two important truths: first, we all are fighting something, whether our past, our fear of the future or… (fill in your own blank). Secondly, that place where our fear and insecurity meet, is where true character can be found. I think Maman visited that place more than any of us will know and ultimately, she became too tired to fight another day. She (for me) has set a standard of endurance not many can match, or would want to. She endured for her family, including me…and for that, she will always have my love and respect. Thus began the place were the dust settled in the corners of my new reality and I was forced to look. Still after a year, part of me feels she will be back, that she is just on an extended vacation, perhaps an expat like me. I do hear how ridiculous it sounds, but I can only surmise that I am still working on rationalizing her passing, until I can find a place to put the dust of that reality.

My husband and I returned to life as best we could and then, I began to feel unwell. I thought, all the same clichés, ‘well, I’m not getting any younger’ and ‘it must be the stress of moving’ and then…more dust. It wasn’t the change of life or stress, it was in fact, cancer. Life was getting dustier the more I tried to clean it. This could not be ignored until I was ready to accept it, it had to be dealt with now. So we did. I say, ‘we’ because anyone who loves you, has to deal with it too. And so, recently, I underwent six weeks of radiation and chemo. And yes, I believe I saw that place where fear and insecurity meet and I’m still afraid. I’m still working on building my character, still trying to figure out what I’ve gained. I do feel I’ve learned ‘something’, but it’s just that, something. It’s only a feeling of knowing: no instant wisdom, no revelation of understanding yet. I’m still waiting for it all to make sense. But for now, I still want to sweep the dust of the experience under the bed and deal with it later. My body feels like it wants to cry, but my mind won’t let it…yet another revolution (or beginnings of revelation?).

In France I lived the dream at its best: high times with travel, champagne, marriage and adventure: ‘the best of times.’ In England, it has been another matter altogether, until now. Why now? Honestly, I don’t know. I only know that it’s been long enough in ‘the worst of times’. My goal: to turn my internal revolution to evolution…

“Nothing that we do, is done in vain. I believe, with all my soul, that we shall see triumph.”
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2012 in Culture Choc

 

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