It’s not cricket*

I had a great ex-pat moment at the weekend. As we were driving to a friend’s house in Brazoria County, Middle of Nowhere, Texas, I glanced across the fields and spotted a group of people in the distance all dressed in white and running around as though they were playing some kind of sportsball.

“Oh, look,” I said to my husband, “there are people playing cricket!”

Because I’m British, and programmed to assume that men wearing white trousers and white shirts + throwing a ball around in a sunny field = a game of cricket.

English Village Cricket

Then my brain caught up slightly and determined that the chances of cricket happening in Middle of Nowhere, Texas, were pretty small. Maybe infinitesimal. And then we drove past a signpost like this one:

Hitchhikers May Be Escaping Inmates

And as we got a bit closer, I realised that the village green was in fact a square of concrete surrounded by razor wire, the cricket whites were all-white boiler suits, and the men were actually playing basketball. In jail.

And I was quite pleased we hadn’t turned off in that direction hoping for a cup of tea and some strawberries.

*It’s just not cricket. British phrase meaning something is unfair or unsporting.

Posted in Britishness, ex-pat life, sports | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Conversation with an American tourist

While the kids were getting their hair cut recently, the grandpa of another little boy there heard my accent and starting chatting. He’d taken a trip to England and wanted to tell me all about it. Or at least he wanted to play a kind of geography-themed Twenty Questions with me.

Clue 1: the main place they’d visited was a little south of London. Here he looked expectant while drawing a vague air circle which I took to include anywhere from maybe Dover to Salisbury. I hazarded a guess at Stonehenge as a common vacation destination, but got a blank look.

Clue 2: it was a pretty place beginning with the letter C. Croydon and Crawley sprang to mind, but neither could be described as pretty, even by a misty-eyed American tourist. I  shrugged apologetically.

Clue 3: there was a church there. His ancestor had been a preacher in that same church a long time ago, and the church was still there! So, a picturesque place with an old church, in the south of England. Not narrowing it down much, especially when you’re as geographically challenged as me. Was it a large place or small, I asked, thinking perhaps he’d been to some hamlet unheard of except in a ten mile radius.

Clue 4: it was a what-do-you-call-it? Not a town. A village? No. A county? Yes! A township. He’d obviously misheard me. At his hopeful look, all I could do was shake my head and apologize again.

A sideline of conversation had meanwhile revealed that during this vacation they had also travelled through the Cotswolds, Normandy and Ireland. And that our roads over there are real narrow. Privately, I wondered whether this mythical location was even in England.

The grandson was being dusted off and unsheeted from his haircut. Grandpa was still snapping his fingers in frustration and I was feeling as dumb and pathetic and culpable as only a Brit can in this kind of situation, when he had an epiphany.

“Canterbury!” he said. “That’s it. Canterbury.” Upon which, smiling broadly, he thanked me for the conversation, and left.

Canterbury-Cathedral-Church-of-England-1890-1900

And now I’m wondering, were this family really descendants of the Archbishop of Canterbury? Could you describe the head of the Church of England as “a preacher”? And Canterbury Cathedral, “a church”? At times this common language of ours raises more questions than it answers.

Posted in Britishness, communication | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Cup of tea?

After a total of seven years in Texas, I had started to consider myself reasonably fluent in American English. I’m way past the crisps/chips, chips/french fries stage. I know that, defying all expectation, the entrée is not the first course in the restaurant. And if someone remarks on my pants, I no longer look down to check whether my underwear is on show. I wouldn’t claim to blend in – I mean, I can’t even order tomato basil soup without everyone falling about laughing – but this week I realised that I’m about as culturally integrated as someone wearing head to toe tweed, shouting, “I say, old chap!”.

A friend came round to my house for the first time. Because I’m British, I offered her a cup of tea. Because she’s American, she politely declined, with the small smile that has become familiar to me over the years of offering Americans cups of tea. It’s part bemused, as though I’d offered them a bowler hat to wear, and part delighted that, yes, living up to stereotypical cultural expectations, those Brits really are obsessed with drinking tea. (We’d hate to disappoint).

Tea

Having expected the rebuttal, but being unable not to make the offer in the first place – cultural OCD, if you like – I countered with, “Well, would you like a coffee?”. Feeling rather smug and cosmopolitan, I was a little crestfallen when the you-Brits-and-your-tea smile escalated into actual laughter. Apparently, I had just compounded my cultural faux pas. It seems that in America they drink coffee. Not a coffee or some coffee. Just coffee. Wow. All this time, and I’d never noticed the lack of units of coffee drinking.

So now I’m wondering: why this ethnolinguistic subtlety? Is it due to the American concept of bottomlessness? Have unending refills of drinks in restaurants eroded, not just the “cup of” or “glass of” from a beverage, but even the article itself, so now one just drinks “coffee” until one decides to stop?

Or is it the other way around? Does British etiquette not allow a guest more than “a” coffee before she is expected to take her leave? I’m stumped, but gramatically fascinated.

Coffee

Afterword: my friend refused the drink anyway. She probably didn’t trust my British coffee-making abilities.

Posted in communication, ex-pat life | Tagged | 5 Comments

Not musical

If I ever have to torture anyone – for, you know, information, or whatever – I plan to buy a really crappy old piano and lock my subject in a small room while it’s bashed back into tune. Seriously, I had no idea what an untuneful process tuning a piano would be. Yes, I do realise I sound like a complete idiot, but bear with me. I mean, you’ve already glossed over the idea that I might one day need to have someone tortured, so you may as well suspend your disbelief a little longer.

AKA torture device

I’ll go back to the beginning. To the part where I am not from a musical family. See, the piano-tuning comment is starting to make sense already, isn’t it? By chance, I married someone who is from a musical family. And by the laws of genetics, our children inherited a modicum of musical – well, I won’t go so far as to say “talent”. Let’s stick with “enthusiasm”.

Having persevered at their piano lessons for over a year, we decided to reward the children with an upgrade from the flea market electronic keyboard they were previously practising on. I’m not sure they felt entirely rewarded once they realised that they couldn’t press a button on the real piano to make it sound like a set of drums or a very squeaky guitar, but at least the bottom five keys don’t give out a haunted house style multi-octave crash every time you touch them.

Haunted House

Scary. Which brings us to the bargain charity shop piano I recently bought, and the need to have it tuned. In hindsight, maybe I should have learned by now that flea markets and resale shops are not necessarily the best places for the purchase of fine musical instruments, but hey, the pianists of the family are six and seven. And I’m practically tone deaf, so, whatever.

I had expected the tuning process to go a bit like this: <slightly offkey> “plink, plink.” Listen. Fiddle in the depths of the piano. <less offkey> “plink, plink”. Repeat until tuneful.

Nooo. Whatever TV show gave me that idea must have been the piano-tuning equivalent of the geology expert on Bones or CSI announcing, in revelatory tones, “It’s sedimentary sandstone.”

Instead, picture one of those toddler music lessons where every kid is allowed to bash his or her plastic instrument with as much force as possible. Substitute real instruments and a construction crew in this scenario and imagine the noise. That’s what tuning a piano is like. I swear, at one point, I discovered the resonant frequency of my sinuses.

And after a six-month interval of listening to halting, back-to-back repetitions of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, I get to have the device tuned all over again. I feel so lucky my children are musically inclined.

Posted in kids, music | Tagged | 1 Comment

This was made possible by…

Having ranted recently about the pressure to volunteer for things my kids are involved in, I’ve only gone and been awarded the Volunteer of the Year prize by the school PTO. Ah, the irony. I suspect that, out of the many parents who give their time willingly and cheerfully on a regular basis, the nominating committee chose the grumpy Brit just for a laugh. Yes, the joke’s definitely on me.

Actually, this being America, I reckon I’ve happened upon the method of creation of the country’s legion of perky helpers. There’s clearly a grass-roots movement to isolate and convert the grudging, the cantankerous, the ones who shun all human contact in favour of, I don’t know – running a school website, for example. These individuals are the target of a sustained campaign of appreciation. Any small task they carry out is subject to grateful and sincere thanks, culminating in the deployment of a shiny trophy at the end of the year to really rev up the volunteer spirit.

America, I’m on to you. I’ll wear the team t-shirt, but you’ll never induce me to look happy about it. Four decades of conditioning limits my public outbursts of enthusiasm to a polite golf clap and a rather forced smile. Sorry about that. But thanks for the shiny trophy.

Posted in Britishness, ex-pat life | Tagged | 3 Comments

Softball Mom, SUV plus pom-poms

When my seven-year-old begged me to be allowed to play softball, I naively thought that this would be much like any kids extra-curricular sporting activity.

I’ll spend a couple of afternoons a week driving her to and from practice. There will be some bleacher-sitting, cheering and commiserating. A pre-season hour in the store buying sports kit. Weekly washing of uniform, twice-weekly frantic searching for misplaced sporting items, and at least one last-minute trip to the store for replacements.

I actually quite enjoy spending weekends in the park on the receiving end of my daughter’s bruisingly enthusiastic practice throws and even more bruising scorn at my (lack of) pitching ability. These things are all part of the great modern tradition of being a Sports Mom. I have the SUV, I thought I was prepared.

PLaying softball

What I didn’t expect was the two page list of parent “volunteer” jobs I’m supposed to sign up for, the calendar of fundraising events I’m expected to support and the pre-season parents’ meeting I (and my chequebook) are required to attend. As well as the dues we’ve already paid, each team has to find a corporate sponsor. There will be a parent-produced team banner to go with the parent-organised uniform, socks, hair bows, team photos and end of year trophies. Parents staff the concession stand, keep score at games, and clean up the dugout, stands and field afterwards.

I’m not opposed to pitching in (Ha – see the softball metaphor? That’s how much of a team player I am) to pick up some trash or have the occasional t-shirt printed, but there’s something so excessively peppy about the whole affair that brings out my inner Grumpy Brit. If I want to attend carnivals or crawfish boils, I can. I just don’t see what that has to do with a bunch of girls hitting a ball around a park. Please, America? For once could it just be simple?

Posted in Britishness, kids, sports | Tagged | Leave a comment

Damned kids

Warning: I am about to make light of a serious issue.

After school yesterday, my six-year-old told me she’d had a talk with a fellow first-grader during recess. Her friend told her that she wouldn’t have a very nice life because she doesn’t believe in God.

Wow. That’s some serious religious intolerance that kid has picked up from somewhere. And, how do I even start discussing this one? But wait, there’s more:

“And, Mummy, he says if I don’t believe in God, then I’ll go to hell.”

God

Oh. My. <Insert deity of your choice here>. I have managed to keep a straight face while explaining to children that the stuffed rabbit doesn’t have feelings and probably didn’t mind her ear being nibbled. I’ve had an entirely serious conversation about what we’d do if the Force was real. But explaining the concept of an atheist being sent to hell? Too much. My irony circuits just overloaded.

So, yes, my kid experiencing prejudice at school due to her (lack of) religious beliefs = bad.

Her entirely seeing the funny side of being condemned to a place she doesn’t believe in? As the adverts say, priceless.

Posted in kids, religion | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Poor Expectations

Recently, the kids’ dentist told me I should write a book on raising children. I’m fairly certain he wasn’t being sarcastic. This, coming from the great state of Texas, is an example of what I like to think of as the American Over-Compliment.

It’s delivered with complete sincerity and is pretty much the antithesis of British understatement (where “not bad” is generally accepted to mean “excellent” and “quite good” can be interpreted as “absolutely pants-wettingly brilliant”).

Applying the same algorithm in reverse, when told my children are well-behaved, I interpret this as, “Well done. Your children have spent longer than thirty seconds in a public space without obviously terrorising anyone, breaking anything, soiling themselves or otherwise causing a nuisance.”

When my kids are complimented on their conversational skills, I am grateful that they have managed to respond to simple questions, if not articulately, at least with words rather than grunts, and without the use of the word “like” twice in each sentence. (I will lower my expectations before teenagehood sets in.)

And when praised for their oral hygiene or manners, I have now learned to smile gracefully and say “thank you” as if this behaviour is a spontaneous natural phenomenon and not due to several thousand daily iterations of “Have you brushed your teeth yet?” or “What do you say?”.

I think the cultural difference is that Brits have a tendency to expect the worst. When we’re proved right there’s a certain amount of self-righteous tutting, told-you-so-ing and head-shaking. When we’re proved wrong, we’re too annoyed at having our expectations dashed to be pleased. Examples other than children behaving well in public include, but are not limited to: the weather not being rainy, your train running on time, waiting for less than an hour in the post office.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to write my parenting blockbuster. I’m thinking of calling it “How to Yell Like a Fishwife”. I think you’ll particularly like the section on positive reinforcement, provisionally titled “Well, Yes. I Should Jolly Well Hope So.”

Posted in Britishness, ex-pat life, kids, writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Sh*t Boys Say

Strapping a couple of five-year-old boys down in an enclosed space is as fascinating an experiment as you could hope for. Including the ones I remember fondly from 5th Form Chemistry which ended with the partial loss of eyebrows or the use of a spatula to herd escaped globules of mercury across a graffiti-pocked desktop.

I should perhaps clarify that my friend and I take turns transporting our sons to and from pre-school, so they spend a lot of time sitting in the back of the car together, where one of us has the opportunity to listen to their conversations. We almost never carry out actual experiments on them.

Some days there’s nothing but bickering. When the bickering escalates to squabbling, my approach is to drown it out by turning up the radio. I’m not sure about the neurological effects of trad Irish music at 90 dB, but it might explain some of the subsequent backseat dialogue.

There is the occasional proud moment, usually documented by a #humblebrag on Facebook or Twitter:

  • “Five-year-old boys discussed the workings of the internal combustion engine all the way to pre-school. Makes a change from farting noises.”
  • “Cian explained the geological timescale today, with reference to dinosaurs and great-grannies.”
  • “Boys demonstrating detailed knowledge of the Star Wars universe. Shame George Lucas didn’t make C-3PO fluent in six million forms of picking up dirty socks.”

And some less proud moments, like this morning’s topic of conversation, as related by my friend and co-carpooler: “Animals that have pooped on my dad.”

It reminds me of the trivia game they played on Friends where Monica has 11 categories of towel and Chandler’s TV Guide comes addressed to Miss Chanandler Bong.

Q: Rory, according to Cian, which animals have pooped on his dad?
A: The correct answer is bird and fish. Big sister is not technically an animal, whatever Cian says.

Q: Cian, what is Rory’s talent at pre-school?
A: Farting, correct. And yours is garlic breath, yes.

Q: Rory, what does Cian say is his favourite colour of nail polish?
A: Punk black.

Q: And what is his actual favourite colour of nail polish?
A: Girly pink.

Q: Cian, where is Rory’s preferred place in a group photo?
A: Yes, it’s a trick question. Rory has never been known to willingly participate in group photos.

Heaven help us if they’re still friends at fifteen. Just remind me never to eavesdrop on their conversations.

Posted in communication, kids | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

There’s nothing in the world as exciting as a cardboard box

…except maybe someone handing you the keys to a brand-new Ferrari idling on the start line of the Nürburgring and inviting you to go crazy.

Or perhaps a chance meeting with your favourite celebrity in which he/she tags a photo of you together on Facebook and promises to look you up next time they’re in town.

Or – yes, if you’re going to be really pedantic, there are plenty of things more exciting than a cardboard box. But I stand behind my attention-grabbing, if less than strictly accurate headline.

Thanks to some enthusiastic but badly-timed online shopping this week, I find myself with an excess of cardboard boxes. The UPS truck pulled up with my delivery just as the recycling truck disappeared in the distance, not to be seen again for two weeks. That’s worthy of an Alanis Morissette song, right there.

Once I swallowed the urge to stand in the middle of the street and shake my fist at the receding bin lorry or fall to my knees on the front doorstep shouting “Curse you, Amazon!”, I gave the correct British response of a small headshake and an “oh-well” expression, and stacked the empty boxes neatly by the back door.

At kid home-time, the area was transformed into an ocean afloat with remarkably unseaworthy-looking rectangular, brown ships.

The following morning, I walked in to find one child wedging itself, with the help of its sibling, into an unsettlingly realistic – although brown – coffin.

That afternoon, scissors and crayons were engaged in the construction of set, signage, props and costume for a play, to be staged this weekend. The central characters will be a (rectangular, mostly-brown) R2D2 and Princess Leia, who will carry a (two-dimensional, brown) lightsabre. The action will take place on a (small, brown) bridge, the audience will be directed to their seats by (brown) signs and handed (brown) programmes. See? Hours of excitement. And never mind the kids: if I could get a big enough box I would totally make myself a little house, stock it with cushions and junk food and refuse to come out for a whole weekend. Hmmm. I wonder what’s the largest thing Amazon delivers…

Posted in Britishness, kids | Tagged , | 2 Comments