Tag Archives: culture shock

still singing Galway Bay

It’s taken me a few years, but I think I’ve finally mostly sorted Christmas in Britain in my brain.

Christmas, as Christmas, though not necessarily of much religious connotation, is a big deal in and of itself in Britain. This has taken some getting used to. Possibly the weirdest thing for me to swallow, aside from not being wished ‘happy holidays’ on a regular basis, is the fact that nativity plays are de rigueur in primary schools, but overall it’s the sheer assumption of celebrating Christmas that gets to me. (By the way, thanks to the Life in the UK Test–which I passed–I can now tell you with 2001-statistic accuracy what percentage of the population is Christian and which percentage is not. In 2001, that is.)

But I’ve learned to adjust–a paradigm shift with a slightly jammed clutch, but adjust none the less. There are some key points to remember and understand; admittedly this is mostly for my benefit and amusement, but this could be handy to anyone writing a themed fanfic in a UK-based fandom. Maybe. I suppose. Get a Britpicker, even if you don’t think you need one.
– Christmas takes on a bunch of aspects that in the US and Canada are assigned to Thanksgiving–bigass traditional meal of turkey and stuffing and veg sides with family, and specific television viewing (coughdoctorwhocough) thereafter. I’ve had people ask me what the heck US people eat for Christmas if they just had turkey a month earlier. The answer I’ve given is ‘sometimes turkey sometimes other things’.
– Christmas crackers are a small but crucial concept. These are tiny explosive devices with paper crowns inside, a joke that is appalling, and an item of the Cracker Jack box variety back when you actually got something okay in a Cracker Jack box. Those from elsewhere, think a Kinder Egg toy.
– One will be getting drunk lots as part of this holiday process, with family (potentially as coping mechanism) or on work nights out, or both. With regards to the latter, office Christmas party, yes, and then likely another night of pub and food with one’s department, and getting hammered on Christmas Eve or Boxing Day because it’s a bank holiday and one has nothing else to do save eat leftovers and drink all the things. See: coping with family.
– Remarkably little eggnog is quaffed, though. Except at Starbucks.
– Fake Christmas trees are far more common. If you asked me to surmise as to why, I would say ‘way less open land to grow Norfolk pines’, but I may be off-base here.

And…well, this is more than a point. Christmas music here is just slightly different, which gets me to what was going to be the point of this post until I went on a tangent.
I’ve gotten used to what I will hear in stores and malls and offices in the US for the holidays, that continuous piped stream of not-exactly-cheer-inducing sound. Unfortunately, the stuff I can handle most as background noise (and this may be because of upbringing) is almost non-existent over here, stuff like Mannheim Steamroller and Canadian Brass and even the darn Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Fortunately, some of the big band stuff’s crossed the big pond, but Britain has this unique concept of the Christmas Number 1. This is the lucky track on the top of the pop charts for Christmas week, which is often a Christmas pop song. So many try and fail to gain this spot. (Christmas doesn’t always win out, though. Gary Jules’ cover of Tears for Fears’ Mad World from Donnie Darko was #1 one year, which makes me grin in misanthropic and anti-pop glee.)

And there are a few tolerable things you’ll hear constantly over here that have never made it stateside–Slade’s Merry Christmas, Everybody, for a start. Let’s not talk about how I didn’t initially believe Noddy Holder was a real name for a rock musician as compared to a name JK Rowling dismissed for a houseelf. It’s just that no one here has heard Must Be Santa! It’s a damn shame.

With regards to things I’ve heard on both sides of the Atlantic, I’m going to take this opportunity to say that Wham!’s Last Christmas is the most ridiculous Christmas song ever, except for possibly Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime, which is purely insipid. I mean, seriously, how is a song about having your heart broken and telling that person ‘screw you, you’re not special’ full of the spirit of the season?

At least Fairytale of New York, which I love, is unapologetic about its catchy bleakness. It’s got just the right kind of self-aware attitude problem to be the ultimate in UK Christmas tracks…which, fortunately, is what it is.

Even if there’s no such thing as the NYPD Choir.

Don’t mind the weather when the wind don’t blow, part deux.

I know, talking about the weather is small talk and quintessentially British (also, by the way, quintessentially everywhere else I’ve ever lived). But it’s been six years since I last lived through a Scottish springtime, and I’m having a hard time adjusting.

Partially, I blame that on the fact that we had a ridiculously nice April, all things considered. It was sunny and warm and delightful for the better part of three weeks, which is long enough for you to get used to it, unfortunately. The last week and a half, though, things took a turn for the worse.

The rain’s not a problem. It’s pretty much expected, and at least it hasn’t been cold. It’s the pattern of rain that really does it, as it’s not something I’ve experienced anywhere else, a uniquely Scottish phenomenon.

It will be dark and dismal and windy, and then out of nowhere it starts throwing down rain. It might not be torrential by definition, but it feels like it with all the wind. Then, ten minutes later, it stops, and there will almost inevitably be a break in the clouds and a brief golden moment of sunshine, before the dark clouds blow back in again. And then it will do the torrential rain thing again for some time.

Really, it’s almost as if, and pardon me for getting uncharacteristically poetic and/or cheesy, the sun’s a parent poking their nose in the door after their child’s been squalling for them. Reassuring, before we, the children, are told to Get To Sleep and the door is shut.

Almost endearing, as long as you don’t get caught out in it.

Now run along before I start talking about being confused by sunrise/sunset times.

My thoughts, I confess, verge on dirty.

Sorry about the delay in posting. Yours truly finished up her work placement a while back, then promptly settled into dissertation work (should reeeeeally make a webpage to centre all that information, come to think of it) and didn’t get around to much blogging. Tweeting, yes. If you actually want to know what’s going on in my life, Twitter is vital.

And here I am in mid-May, about to ship myself back to the US, provided that Eyjafjallajokull doesn’t change its mind and blow a bunch more ash this way over the next 24 hours. While I’ll miss my loved one and friends, I eagerly await a three month period of (amidst wedding and dissertation chaos) decent Tex-Mex, warm weather, brewed coffee at low prices, World Cup news only when I feel like it, and substantially lower levels of jeggings.

Which reminds me of a little tidbit that I’d meant to share. Britain does a lot of things well, some things better than America (coughhealthcareandpublictransitcough). But a few things, they just Don’t Get. I read Nigel Slater’s Eating for England recently, and in one of the vignettes, he indicated that Americans were as hooked on instant coffee as Britons. This, quite frankly, is BS, mostly because I don’t know anyone in the US who drinks or has drank instant since probably 1988. Admittedly, that’s anecdotal evidence, but considering the reaction to Starbucks’ VIA last year, I wouldn’t say it’s too far off the mark. Whereas, in the UK, if you go to someone’s house or to an office or a university function, and they offer coffee, it will almost definitely be instant. Seeing as for tea, all you need is hot water and a bag, I suppose instant has a reason for being de rigeur.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck.

So I started thinking about coffee out there in the world, and decided that you could really just relate the taste of an average cup of coffee in a country to songs from said nation. Perhaps the metaphor’s a little stretched, but I think it’s still valid.

In Italy, it’s short and deep, like an aria. France, well-brewed and nuanced, like an Edith Piaf track. America…well, either you have the enamel-melting Starbucks sweetness of a pop song, or the strong grittiness of a Springsteen song; not to everyone’s taste, but vibrant. Your average cup of coffee in Britain, to my experience, is made from freeze-dried instant. In terms of taste, it’s about on the level of a drunk careening down the street at 3am bawling out ‘Come On Eileen’.

Now, it’s not that that doesn’t have its appeal, or that that can’t be borne. It’s just…I swear that daily I thank god my fiancĂ© was raised in a family that brews and drinks coffee, or we would have some serious problems. And no, sadly, for those of us raised on coffee, tea–even builders’–simply, simply can’t cut it in the mornings. Nor can a can of Coke. I need black coffee, and I will even settle for instant, Nigel.

Then again, there’s a whole blog post in the works…well, okay, in my head…about how I’m a food philistine in some cases (I dislike Brie rinds, for example). We’ll see if it gets written.

By the way, you can follow my culture shock, and possibly reverse culture shock in the coming months, on Twitter. I’ve been using #rhiisforeign to particularly highlight certain issues, including the latest general election, but since you can’t search back too far, it may be a moot point. Oh well. Follow me anyhow, if you like.

Cultural Disconnect (the first in a series)

Firstly, before I get self-indulgent, it really looks like things in Haiti are getting worse by the hour. If you can, please donate (I’m currently assessing whether dollars or pounds would be more effective) to one of the relief efforts, or, if you can’t afford to give money, pass on the information.
UNICEF (USA)
Oxfam (UK)
The Humanitarian Coalition (Cda)
MSF/Doctors Without Borders (int’l)

Amongst the other, considerably more worrisome news of the world lately, you may have spotted that the weather here in Britain has been massive, massive suck.

That is, more like rather nice winter weather for any US person north of the Mason-Dixon, and early spring for Canadians. Personally, I cope rather well with it. It’s nice not having to worry about wind chill, frostbite and whether or not your engine will turn over, leaving you stranded somewhere in arctic temperatures with no heater and a scratchy army blanket.

I digress. Honestly, I would be fine with the whinging and complaining that is done here in Birmingham with an extended period of temperatures hovering around 0 degrees C (32 deg F) and snow every other day. I could maybe even handle that the entire country shuts down when there’s more than an inch of the white stuff. Flights are cancelled, trains are delayed, people drive stupid, which is a problem in the US too, sometimes…

But no one in this entire nation seems to own a bleeding shovel. Or a sidewalk ice scraper. Some businesses may potentially have sand (kudos to the Selly Oak Aldi), but other than that, nothing. Also, there is a good deal more walking going on than driving. So let’s take a look at this equation:
(temps right above/below freezing + [heavy sidewalk foot traffic – adequate snow removal]) ^ damp weather

What does that equal? If you said MASSIVE DEATH TRAPS OF DEATH, you would be correct.

A good portion of anything that is not a main road here in Brum turns to a big sheet of slushy half-ice, and it has been this way for a good week, off and on. Some days are better, others are worse. And it is supposed to get up to 6.5 or so degrees C (44 degrees F) on Saturday, so that might clear things a bit, perhaps. Or the rain supposedly coming tomorrow. But I’ll believe that when I see it. My Swiss flatmate D and I are thinking of a shovel import business, as winters like this in the UK are becoming a bit of a trend thanks to climate change, but no one here really wants one, as my classmate Aaron put it today. My theory, which he agreed with, is that people here believe that ignoring it will make it go away. All I can say is that I plan on living here and I would rather not fall on my arse, thanks, as I’m thinking I may end up commuting like Hans Brinker on the canals in Broek.

There are many things I love about the UK. This, sadly, is not one of them. Though the walking penguin style is probably doing some good for my thighs.