Conversations with Americans Pt.6 (They’re not as dumb as you look)

brit duckWe’ve been getting out and about recently, saying yes to invitations. Being sociable and meeting new people.

I’m rusty with this; normally our social life is dominated by family, and it feels strange to spend time with people I’m not related to. Complete strangers, in fact, that I’m required to play nice with.

My biography will not have a chapter titled, “He was great at making friends.”. I might be the shyest person you know, and America isn’t sure what to make of ‘shy’. A lot of the time, America just leaves ‘shy’ alone.

For work I’m better (because otherwise no one will pay me). And it’s easier to be professionally engaged with people. At least it’s easier for me.

So perhaps I should pretend I’m at work all the time (that’s probably good advice for a few other things).

Anyway, I got a treat the other day, attending a party where I was feeling particularly shy. Just listening, it was nice to hear the conversation topics that I regularly advise my students to stick to when meeting Americans for the first time.

It was equally rewarding to sit back and listen as a British person (not me, and yes, two British men at a Nashville party is at least 1 too many) proceed to break all the rules.

He didn’t talk about religion. That’s the one American social taboo he didn’t break. Everything else was up for grabs, and he grabbed them, he beat the hell out of them. (I think the only reason he didn’t tackle religion is because British people are rarely interested in the subject. We’re not evangelical, we just don’t care all that much. In my British experience, talking about faith, or even just telling people that you go to church, was close to telling someone you still believed in the tooth fairy.

(It’s different in Tennessee.)

For the record, I go out of my way to avoid British people here. Partly because there’s the danger you get way too close before realizing the only things you have in common is shared TV shows from your childhood – and this is not nearly enough) and partly because I don’t want to hear them whine. And of course, what if they’re adjusting better than me? All British men I know who moved here have a baby (well, their wives do and they light cigars). I don’t have the baby. I don’t have the Facebook baby profile photo and I also don’t have the photo of me wearing a British club football shirt and drinking beer, either. I wasn’t British enough when I was there, there’s no chance I can match the stereotype now that I’ve moved.

Anyway, I didn’t have to worry about the latter with this guy. I’ve never heard someone sound more British on American soil.

He’s been in the United States for three years, longer than me. But it sounds as though he just stepped off the plane.

His accent is one thing; Americans generally can’t tell the difference between the variety of British accents (A  work colleague recently heard an interview with David Tennant on NPR and was delighted to recognize that Mr. Tennant sounded just like me.  I sound nothing like David Tennant. I wish I did, he sounds fantastic and fantastically Scottish, but I don’t) or between British and Australian for that matter. Americans try to tease me by “sounding British” – kids are good at this, and American kids using a British accent tickles me, but American adults sound like they’re auditioning for an Outback Steakhouse commercial.

But how can this guy live here for three years and pronounce Home Depot (America’s answer to B&Q, with the same orange livery) in a British way. It’s Dee-pot, not Deh-pot. When he did this (at the beginning of an anecdote that was so close to something I’d try to get away with on this blog that I can’t give the details) I blinked in surprise; surely they’ll correct him.

But they didn’t, and now I wonder if the American guests were thinking, well he’s British, maybe we’re all saying it wrong.

Our British guy held his infant son on his lap and said the following:

“America’s great as long as you’re not dying under a bridge.”

“I hear George Zimmerman almost shot his wife.” + “It’s a shame because the case has put back American race relations 30 years.” + “You’ve got a black President and you’re about to have your first woman President.”

Our British friend, he’s spouting off about the most contentious, divisive court case since OJ Simpson and he’s using the same conversational style heard in British pubs; it’s antagonistic, it’s dickish. And when no one takes the bait, it makes for the strangest dialogue. His barbs are met with almost doe-like responses.

British guy, sneering, to the man seated next to him: “Do you support football?”

American guy, bewildered: “You mean, am I in favor?”

It was poetic mis-communication and made me feel like a bilingual God in comparison.

“I joined the Democrat party.” + “I go to Drinking Liberally. (Livingliberally, wonderfully, is an organization promoting the idea that people who agree with each other get together in bars and talk about politics – for once the British got there ahead of you).

He’s saying these things. About politics, healthcare, guns. He doesn’t get to abortion (maybe he did, I couldn’t stay on him all night). And I think he got away with all of this because he’s British.

It wasn’t the baby on his lap. A baby can only get you so far. An American with a baby making these comments would be called out as a moron, or perhaps giving a cold glass of water. But this is just what Brits do. Well, what the tourists do.

Do I do any of  this? I really don’t mean to, and not with people I’ve just met. (And now that I think about it, excuse the blush. Looking back, I’ve done it. But not on the first date. Have I?)

I understood something important at this party. British people are often insensitive, snobbish pricks when speaking to Americans.

No, I’m kidding. I’ve known that for a long time.

But I did learn that British people are often insensitive, snobbish pricks when speaking to Americans and they’re forgiven. Because they’re British. We’re meant to behave this way. It’s the norm. We’re not meant to fit in, we’re there to be awkward, and rude. British Guy sounded like he was in a pub, fishing for a pub argument. Trouble was, no one knows how to have that kind of conversation here, so they just tried to respond in American.

British guy: “I watched a game of football and it was embarrassing because I actually quite liked it.”

American woman: “It sounds like you’re a little ashamed of enjoying things here.” See what she did? She addressed his statement head-on, she treated it like a sincere comment.

British people here, they can carry that attitude of “Let me tell you what’s wrong with you, let me tell you what’s so broken here.” And it’s okay. I think all Americans are clear that too many people get shot here, that too many people have to work slave labor jobs and still can’t get by. They just have different ideas about how to solve these issues (no guns vs. guns for “good guys”, higher minimum wage vs. work harder ya lazy bum).

In this set-up if a British man moves to America and 5 years later, you can’t tell him apart from the natives, then he’s done something wrong, he’s lost his way. So perhaps my efforts at toning my Brit down has been for nothing.

Ah, I don’t know. I’m still going for an exotic blend of Brit and American, I’m still trying for hybrid. I can’t ditch the 40 years before I got here, but I’m not going to go into Kroger and ask where the Ribena is, either.  (Besides, the yanks hate blackcurrant, everyone knows that).


American Distraction (Have you seen my…?)

look before you leave

No doubt; Wal-Mart has good reason for this sign.

I found someone’s debit card in the produce section of Krogers. A Bank of America nestled among the bananas.

I’m beyond the point of wondering how someone drops/forgets their money like this.  I have assimilated well enough that I’m just as bad.

I wanted to ignore it (there is a dream time-slot at Kroger in the afternoon before the kids get out of school and the grocery store aisles are dotted with slow-moving old puffers – I can zip around them) because I was against the clock, but it was too big for me to walk away from. In the UK I could walk over/around the passed-out, the homeless, I could blinker out the lot of them, but someone’s bank card – that really touched me, that made it real).  My sensibilities are the same in Tennessee, so I take the card to the customer service desk, and I jump to the front of the line, in front of the lottery ticket and cigarette buying funsters. The clerk says, “I’ll be with you in a minute,” and she’s not happy; she thinks I’m just in a desperate hurry to pick up a pack of Salems. I waggle the plastic at her, say “I’m just handing this in.”

“You found it?”

“In the bananas.”

This is hard for me to say,  Bananas. If you don’t pronounce it in the American way, confusion reigns. I did my best. I could’ve said “fruit ‘n’ veg,” right? But I know better.

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British remains (Running out of gear)

So far, so furry

So far, so furry

Things are falling apart. Specifically, British things. The stuff we brought with us, it’s not lasting forever, and I feel irrational surprise each time something we brought with us breaks or wears out. British stuff didn’t last forever in Britain, but it feels worse to see it degrading in the US.

Questions remain over key items we neglected to bring:

  • Beds
  • Dining room furniture

These things would have lasted, probably. And we liked them. And yet we left them, because they were big, and they were going to cost  a lot to ship, and we didn’t have the mental space to imagine our USA life with this stuff.

As for the things we did bring, some made sense:

  • electric toothbrush
  • electric shaver

Both of these require an American adapter to plug in, making us look like permanent tourists in our own bathroom.

My electric shaver was on its last legs back in Scotland. It’s worse now, it’s noisier, shaving is an exercise in patience.

This is the shaver I kept at work. I should be glad to toss it, but every quarter I oil the blades, hoping for one more run before the thing finally seizes up or delivers me a shuddering scar.

And some of the things we brought were just sad: 

  • stationery
  • batteries

And yeah, this stuff is running out now. I mail our rent check inside a Tesco envelope. And it cheers me, sending something so American in something so British. But I have 3 left. And what am I supposed to do? Buy envelopes?

Rebecca theorizes that I’m suffering from permanency-shock. That replacing our British tat means we’re staying, we’re stuck here whether we like it or not.

But I think it’s just that I’m cheap. I resent the fact that I brought  a 9 volt battery all the way to Tennessee only for it to fur up when I need it. Batteries are expensive here. I can’t bear to spend money on such things, and everything needs juice here. (Do they sell wind-up smoke alarms?)

I have a pencil leftover from my Scottish Government days, which says “No point to racism” (not my idea) and I take it to my classes, curious to see if any of the students will prefer it to the American (Made in China) #2 pencils on offer. It’s never chosen. It sits there, blue among the yellow, neglected.

English: Disassembled Philips electric shaver ...

English: Disassembled Philips electric shaver rotary head.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We also brought four clocks.

(This made sense, because they have time here as well. They think they have less time, but really, it’s the same amount.)

The one clock that survived the journey and is thriving, is doing just fine thank you, is the British birds clock, with hourly chimes ranging from the charming blackbird to the frankly terrifying nightingale.

Three of our clocks have broken. We patched one back together, but the other two are hopeless. We took them to a clock repair guy, and he kindly explained that he repaired real clocks, not crappy ones we were keeping for sentimental value.

And perhaps this is the reason time has felt so elastic here, that two years have seemed like a blink, like a decade. I’m not sure what to do with these British scraps but I can’t throw them away.

Maybe Rebecca’s right. Maybe I’m afraid of staying here. Nothing’s standing still, we’re all getting older, all of us, all changing, my language adapts and acquiesces, and I’ll suddenly realize that yes, trunk does make more sense than boot.

We were supposed to bring the best of us along for this American treasure hunt. That was the idea, and I think it happened. But there’s baggage as well, there’s rust and scars, and I’m scared to let it go.

Even my British passport is ready to fall apart. It expires this year, threatening to leave me laughably without papers, if I don’t cough up the $250 renewal fee.

There’s a pair of pottery cats that we kept in our front bay window in Scotland. They made the trip just fine, but it’s been smash after smash since we got here. House moves and high winds leave our long-tailed objets repeatedly in pieces.

They’re sheltering upstairs these days, on the top of the filing cabinet, away from the weather and human interference, and I seek to fill the gaps with Loctite repair putty.  I can glue tails back together but they’re still away from home, and that was the plan, but I’m still afraid of doing this forever.  And I guess the only trick to this is to live it.

American Hungry (Running out of options)

Las CebollasOur favorite restaurant has shut down. Before, if I wanted to lament the lack of decent food choices in town, I could afford to feel a little whimsy about it, but now I’m broken-hearted.

There are so many restaurants in Madison. We have four steakhouses in two blocks – Outback, Rafferty’s, Logan’s, Longhorn – this creates and illusion of choice and a reality of irritation.

And I understand now why it takes so long for the natives to agree on where to eat, why it’s so difficult to choose. Because you could have 20 good experiences at a restaurant, but if they get it wrong once, that’s it, you never want to go back.

I have some favorites, but mostly it’s like settling down to choose a movie on Netflix – is a choice of a thousand shitty movies (and Thor – I could watch Thor again) really a choice?

Steak 'n' Shake's California Double Steakburger - a restaurant I don't hate.

Steak ‘n’ Shake’s California Double Steakburger – a restaurant I don’t hate.

We become spoiled by familiarity, by security. I thought I had it figured out. For Mexican, we went to Las Cebollas. For “this is like a real night out and I’m going to wear a shirt with a collar” steak, we went to Longhorn (or rather, we let other people take us to Longhorn), for “getting home late and we don’t want to cook, and damn, I’m going to have a beer with this” Chinese we went to Panda Express. And then there are the extra-budget “I get the feeling  that someday something is going to go down at this place” options of Ryan’s and Steak ‘n’ Shake – my less than guilty pleasures that I love for the duration of the meal and then spend the rest of the day regretting.

There is the pretense at Italian food – the wide-eyed, cold-plated horror of the Olive Garden, and Fazoli’s, which has a menu and prices I’m tempted by but have been forbidden to enter. (It’s said that the food at Fazoli’s is like school dinners, but I liked school dinners).

And then there are the burgers, which I rarely buy but take seriously when I do.  I can enjoy breakfast at McDonalds but I couldn’t eat their burgers. I can love a #1 or, belt allowing, #2 at Sonic, but it has to be the right Sonic. Wendy‘s is great, but hey, is it really so great, or have I just turned it into something so mythical that it will inevitably disappoint? Checkers, oh dear, I will never go back to Checkers.

You don’t go to Burger King in Rivergate, even when you have coupons, because they will take forever and then give you the wrong order anyway, and so you will cut out the coupons but keep them in your car until they expire, and then throw them away, feeling like the worst victim of a zipcode lottery. The burgers help me understand why you can drive through a town with every fast-food place imaginable and still see nothing you want. And God forbid you’re sharing the ride with another adult – no one can agree, because we’ve all been burned by these nasty restaurant, because our tastebuds have broken, because we’re tired, and a little bit sickly, and already thinking about what we’ll do after dinner anyway, so why can’t we just have food injections instead?

When I arrived in Tennessee, the restaurants were a mysterious blur, and then I got to know them, and for a period of time that I can never get back, I loved them. Applebee’s, Chilli’s, O’Charley’s…I couldn’t fault them, mainly because there were so much more enjoyable than so many British restaurants – not so much for food quality, but just in the sense that they’re actually open and you can get parked.  But now I’m like the rest of us here, and I see the holes, and I feel ripped off even when the check is absurdly cheap, and the food is just not good, and I feel sorry for the staff, and most of all I wonder why, driving past, how all of these bad restaurants stay in business, why they’re so busy on a Monday night, and of course I know why – we’re just so damn lazy – and I look at restaurant customers and they’re not having a good time, this is nothing special, it’s not close to a treat – the only positive emotion on display is relief that we’re not at home, that there won’t be washing up.

In December we rolled up to Las Cebollas and the doors were locked and the lights were out. And now we’re screwed, because this was the one place we agreed on, the one place that was inexpensive but not nasty, where the staff were friendly but not cloying, where it seemed…authentic but that didn’t matter anyway, because I just know that Rebecca and I, we knew what we were going to have before we walked through the door, and we felt comfortable to have the best conversations of our American lives in that place. We worked things out in there.

And we’ll never know what happened to the owners, and I wonder if the staff are finding other jobs, and then I think, really? Were we that close? Were they on our Christmas card list? And this illusion of intimacy, of making a closed down business somehow about me, it’s one of the least endearing parts of my American assimilation.

So instead of the angst that I don’t deserve, we’ll look for a new place we can boast about (and if you don’t count the number of times we’re mentioned in the violent crime news stories on we are so very low of things to boast about in Madison). We tried Las Fiestas for Mexican, but it didn’t come close. There’s Fat Juicy Taco, which is special in a different way, but that’s in Hendersonville.  So the search goes on for a lazy-meal restaurant, for the place to go for dinner that costs under $30 for our big/little night out – or we face the alternative; flying back to Edinburgh once a week for a smoked sausage supper. And to be honest, I doubt anything we find here will ever come close to that level of raw indulgence.

Dear Murphy (2 years)

Dear Murphy,

I’m going to write. And then I’m going to stop. And I won’t mess with it.

I’ve been waiting a year to write this. And now I’m speechless. Maisy is sitting on the desk, crying for attention, rubbing against everything she sees. It’s like she knows she’s not the cat I’m focusing on right now.

Okay. It’s 2 years since you died. And now we have 3 cats. 3, as it turns out, is so much more than 2.

Maisy and Daisy, sisters we brought them home as kittens in January.

Daisy is a conventional house-cat  happy to chase flies around the house, affectionate, hungry. She has a variety of purrs, from needy to hungry, and the sweetest, sleepiest look on her face when she’s happy. Her grunty purr, her wind-herself-around-your-ankles as you walk downstairs as you head, surely, to the kitchen – that is my favorite of her purrs. She is our hungry cat.

Maisy is hysterical, with an emergency siren miaow, that’s at its most irritating when she wants outside. And she always wants outside. There are feral cats, around here, in a country of abandoned and neglected animals. There are multiple hazards, and Maisy is asking for it, she charges head-first into trouble. Maybe it’s this quality, the certainty that she will end up causing me grief, that makes her my favourite. She is slight, but she is a wannabe killer, of birds, squirrels, of anything we share the garden with. She is ready to fight, and she adores me, and yeah, sucker that I am, she is surely my favourite.

Maisy is named for our Scottish side, our Morningside, and Daisy for the South, our Daisy Duke. They’re both beautiful, I love my girls. Both these kittens are rarely afraid, and they are never afraid of me. This makes me happy. And they wrestle each other, romping and crashing through the house. And they both can yawn and miaow at the same time, which strikes me like a magic trick every time.

Sully, we found him by the swimming pool of our old home, abandoned and hungry. I fed him daily for two months, and then we took him with us to the new house. (It was during this time, when I was calling shelters and trying to find him a good home that wasn’t ours, that I realised how you broke me, broke the cat part of me.)

Sully is a big boy, with a growling miaow, eager to please but still so very nervous. He’s been let down, he’s been left behind. And it’s because of you that I took him in, because I made a promise, some absurd promise to a dead cat that I’d treat cats right, that I’d do the hard stuff.

We took Sully to a shelter but I couldn’t leave him there; ten minutes after letting them take him we were back to say we’d changed our minds. It was a very Disney ending for Sully, but it was you I was thinking of.

Rebecca tells me that my feelings about you, my guilt and shuddering grief that won’t go away, that this is a problem. She’s right about that. I’m still broken over you. I’m supposed to let it go, the shame of letting you down, and I’m supposed to let you go. But I’m afraid to do that. Neither of us have a Heaven to go to, there’s no reunion, and this wasteful, worthless grief, it must be better than saying goodbye. Writing it down,  it’s ridiculous, but I must have a good reason for holding onto these feelings. If it wasn’t doing something for me, I’d just fucking stop it, right?

Maisy doesn’t like it when I cry. She’s provoked, disturbed. I don’t cry often these days, I’ve managed to cut a lot of that out, which is good, which is an improvement on the first year.

It was a hard decision to get the kittens. Maisy and Daisy were Rebecca’s choice, which she was entitled to. I’d wanted adult cats, but there were too many that looked like you, and that would’ve been impossible. We were in the adoption part of PetSmart, where the rescued cats do their daily audition. It was a struggle for me to  keep my shit together. But we brought them home and it’s been a good thing.

Our 3 cats. They are nothing like you. They are not as clever, or stubborn, not as vicious, not (so far) as lethal.  I have grown to love the kittens, no confusion there, they are here to be adored. And I’m fond of Sully,  I want him to lose the fear and anxiety he exudes.

But I fell for you, the moment I saw you.

I’m just so very sad about you. You’d like this house, the sun, the garden. You’d like the kids. You always like hanging out with the kids. And given the choice, I’d make the swap in a heartbeat. Them for you.

But you broke, you died. And I remember that day.

And I find more, not less things to feel guilty about. The food we bought you, prescription stuff, expensive, turns out it’s crap compared to what we’re buying for the cats now. I should have done better research. And the vet? I agonized over that, checked out plenty, not like with you, finding the one closest to home. But of course, with better food and a better vet, you’d still be dead. We could’ve fed you fresh chicken every night and you’d still have gone out hunting.

Maisy and Daisy love to be held, something you never put up with for very long.

We have some photos of you on the wall in a single frame. I see those every day, that’s fine. And there’s a painting of our impossible-family, with you and the cattens together, and I can look at that. But I can’t look at other photos, I can’t look at video. Because if I do, there’s a moment of surprise, of unfamiliarity, because you don’t look like our every day cats. You’re from before, you’re from long gone.

But I think about you every day. And it’s part of my job of fixing myself, of surviving and succeeding in our American life, to pay respect and remember you clearly. And I know you’re so much more than those last few weeks.

This isn’t good writing, it’s not designed. I’m not going back to over it.  It’s just for me and you. I wanted to write something today, just something to tell you that things are different and yet they’re partly the same, that a lot of wonderful cat things have happened this year, and that I’m still ripped up. And that you’re the best one, nothing will ever come close again.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at your old photos, your snips of video. I’ll be clearer about how you looked, how you moved. I’ll feel closer, and that will hurt. But it’ll be a little bit better, too. And this is okay.

And the truth is, I’m better about all of this than I was 12 months ago. I’m still ruined, but I’m better. And next time, I’ll write something that’s less scattered. And in the meantime, I’ll look after our cats, because I promised you I would. And I agree, that’s a mostly crazy promise, but I feel better for sticking to it.

Murphy, I remember the day we found you, I remember the day we lost you, and I remember plenty of what came in-between. I love you, I miss you, and for now and forever, rest in peace.

Still moving (and shaking)

We moved again, our third in 18 months, and I suppose it was the least stressful, same town, keeping our zip code, but it was also the most irritating. It takes something on the scale of a house-move to let you know if you have your shit together, and in some areas, I clearly do not.

The new house is bigger, and the location is better. I’m not sure these benefits were worth the hell of moving.

So much stress and uncertainty at a time when I was thinking, “Wow, I think I might need a vacation after all.” But we’re here now, already playing host and entertaining at a time when I can’t even remember where the can-opener / light-switch / back door is.

Moving is an unsolicited opportunity to second-guess everything we’re doing here. Work, play, litter-tray location, it’s all up for grabs.  Continue reading

My one year American anniversary (Exclusive interview!)

one year anniversary candleThis month Fledgling Immigrant Digest is proud to bring you an exclusive interview with that most reserved, yet adorable, yet irascible (yet curiously alluring) Edinburgh to Nashville immigrant, Difficult Second Novel, on his first anniversary of arriving in the United States. 

Fledgling Immigrant Digest: How are you?

Difficult Second Novel: Bit tired. Also doing the allergic coughing thing a lot today. I’d like to change the air-conditioning filter to get one that can get rid of all the pollen and dust but I can’t find one at Lowe’s or online that’s the right size. It’s a nuisance. My eyes are so itchy, I reckon I’m a rub away from waking up with conjunctivitis.

I was just saying “hi”.

Oh. I thought maybe you were British.

I’m not.

Got it.

Interview continued on page 73.

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