Missing English

May 31, 2012

I don’t miss much about the UK.  My 4 years there were mostly a strain and I call that period of my life ‘My Great Depression’.  I was glad to see the back of London.  Now that I live in a place with a better climate, I realize the extent to which the damp, grey British weather and the aloofness of Londoners influenced my moods.  My state of mind mirrored the weather.  On cloudy damp days, I tended to be down in the dumps but on sunnier summer days, I was chipper with a spring in my step.

I wish I had been more resistant to the power of my environment on my psyche but you honestly can’t help it.  The flatness creeps up on you like in that classic frog-in-hot-water analogy and, before you know it, a dull misery has twisted itself around you. You can’t shake it off because it is only when you leave London that you realize what is causing this blankness in the first place.

Imagine waking up and, most mornings, looking out the window and seeing a cheerless, iron-dull sky that is the colour of an old bruise.  I regularly walked to and from the station in cold, steam-bath type rain.  The comedian Doug Stanhope commented on the 2011 riots and was amazed that buildings burned so well in such a damp, mossy place.  He said he struggles to keep a cigarette alight for long in the UK.

I’m getting side-tracked with the negatives.  I actually wanted to talk about something good about the UK, something I miss about it.

One of the main things I miss about England is English.  These days, I am immersed in French and it is endlessly difficult to tune my brain into this delicate, sing-song language.  I appreciate the days when I could arrange something as straightforward as a car service without breaking out into a sweat.  In February, I was in the UK for two days for work and I felt I was back in my hood because I could speak English freely to shop assistants, taxi drivers and waiters.  Funnily enough most of these people were Romanian, Indian, Pakistani or Polish but at least they understood me.

Many people in England speak English badly which is surprising considering it is the home of the language.  Most people express their feelings using various derivatives of the eff word.  If someone is not part of the effing ‘innit’, ‘allo allo’ brigade, then they can be long-winded, verbose and a bit high falutin, particularly in emails.  Being succinct and crisp is a skill.  Winston Churchill once said, ‘I’m going to make a long speech because I’ve not had the time to prepare a short one’.

When I lived in London, there were certain London-isms that are not technically good English but have been absorbed into the day to day lingo.  During my 2 day stay in the UK in February, I heard them all repeatedly:

1.     I couldn’t be arsed

If you live in London, you hear this all the time.  People say, ‘I was exhausted this morning.  I couldn’t be arsed to get out of bed.’  I used this expression often so I would say things such as, ‘I couldn’t be arsed to trek to Tesco in that traffic’ or ‘I couldn’t be arsed to attend that boring meeting’.  Then someone told me that people are actually saying that they couldn’t be ASKED, not that they couldn’t be ARSED.  I didn’t know that.  All of a sudden, I stopped using that expression, maybe because subconsciously saying ‘arse’ was much more satisfying than saying ‘ask’.

2.     Are you alright?

When born and bred English people ask you how you are, they may say ‘Are you alright?’  Whenever someone said that to me, I jumped on the defensive, wondering if I looked washed out or harassed or had dark rings under my eyes.  I thought it was a euphemism for saying ‘You look like shit.  Are you ok?’

Actually ‘are you alright’ is a way of saying ‘how are you?’ and they would be taken aback if you said anything other than the perfunctory ‘fine thanks’.

3.     Hugely

This word is hugely popular.  People have replaced the word ‘very’ with ‘hugely’.  Someone may say, ‘Thanks for your email.  It was hugely encouraging’.    I even saw it used in the Daily Mail and I found it hugely irritating but then again, that newspaper is hardly the bastion of literary journalism.

4.     I hope this email finds you well.

This expression grates my inner carrot.  In a work performance appraisal, I was once criticized for being too direct in emails and ‘not respecting the British culture’.  I asked for suggestions on ways to change and was told I should fluff up my correspondence more and lead in with ‘I hope this email finds you well’.  I used to sift through endless emails and it was quicker if they were direct but polite.  If I want to chat about someone’s health, I will ring them.  No one else seems to froth at the mouth over this vacuous expression.  So maybe it’s just me.

As you know, I enjoy writing.  I love reading too.  During this period of learning French, I have a new appreciation for languages and communication and I have become more interested in the subtleties and nuances of my mother tongue.  I have new sympathy for the voiceless in the world, for those who feel powerless to make themselves heard.  I now appreciate that one of the greatest privileges in life is to express yourself and to communicate in a way that makes yourself understood.


The Paradox of Choice

May 18, 2012

This Saturday, we are going to Greece for 5 nights.  When I discovered I was pregnant, Alastair and I decided to take some leave in the spring so we could have one final adult-only holiday together.  We had nowhere specific in mind but had a vague fantasy of something involving a buffet, hot weather, palm trees, blue sky and icy drinks with mini-umbrellas in them.

Organizing this trip has been an absolute bloody nightmare.  Geneva is not a hub airport and flights to beachy places only begin around July.  We didn’t want to go anywhere too far or too exotic (like SE Asia) because I don’t want to catch a tropical disease or step on a hypodermic needle while I am pregnant.  Al has a short window of opportunity during which he can take leave.  My original holiday dates were cancelled so I could cover for a colleague who bust her knee in January and, 5 months later, is still booked off work and is apparently unable to use both her hands and brain.  I needed flexibility but the downside of bargain basement holiday packages (of which we are big fans) is that they are ‘take it or leave it’ and there is no room to manoeuver.

Eventually I found a German only website that offered a flight and hotel package departing from Zurich that was in our date range.  It took me 5 weeks to find this random website and, when I did, it took me a further 5 hours to choose our hotel from pages and pages of options.  I should have closed my eyes and randomly selected one in pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey style.  They are all more or less the same.  Instead, I checked out the pictures and descriptions and then hopped on to TripAdvisor to see how Joe Public rated the appealing hotels.  I sifted through reams of irrational mambo-jumbo – ‘Greece needs more trees’, ‘Greece would be great if there were less Greeks’, ‘pillows were too hard’, ‘pillows were too soft’ and by the time I settled on a hotel, I had heart palpitations from the confusion and anxiety of it all.

Many people enjoy daydreaming about trips and foraging on the internet for deals.  I don’t.  I hate it.  I like going on holidays but I don’t like organizing them.  Sifting through endless packages and transport and accommodation options saps me of energy because I stew over the possibilities and I can’t make a decision quickly.

When there are many choices, it makes me think that hidden among them, is THE BEST option and I must find it.  I see something I like but then I wonder if there is a better and cheaper option lurking round the corner so I dig deeper and deeper.  I would have been much happier selecting a Greek hotel from a pool of 10 instead of 110 because the higher the number of appealing options, the more tradeoffs there are and then there is greater potential for regret.

This reminds me of a great book I once read called ‘The Paradox of Choice’ by Barry Schwartz.  It is brilliant – you should read it.  It was all about how we are more anxious and our lives are less happy because we have too much choice these days.  Some choice is good but more choice is not necessarily better.  We need control and autonomy … but not too much.

In some areas of my life, I make bold decisions quickly – our Geneva move is an example.  I struggle with smaller decisions where there are many attractive options, such as selecting a restaurant, a hotel, a DVD, a bottle of wine, an ice cream flavour or something to eat off a menu.  Alastair and I are both useless when it comes to choosing restaurants, particularly when we travel. ‘Should we go here?’  ‘Should we go there?’ ‘Julie, you decide.’  ‘No Al, you decide’. ‘You decide.’  ‘No, YOU decide.’ ‘You choose.’  ‘No YOU choose.’  It’s exhausting.

Our trip to Florence in 2009 is a prime example.  We wanted an authentic, value-for-money Italian lunch in a vibey restaurant away from the hordes of uncouth American students and snap-happy Asian tourists.  We stopped at every restaurant and examined menus on the windows.  There were plenty of places that looked good enough but we wondered if there was something better round the corner.  We walked and walked until my feet were smoking.

We realized that perhaps the first restaurant was best but by then we had trotted so far away from it and it wasn’t worth backtracking.  We were hungry, tired and irritable so we fell into any old place and it turned out to be a tourist trap next to a famous museum.  The irony was that, in our quest to find a decent place, we settled on the rip off type of restaurant we were avoiding.  My damp toasted cheese sandwich cost over 10 Euro.  It oozed luminous, candlewax cheese and was paper thin, as if a fat Italian Mama sat on it.  I was cross with myself for missing out on a better restaurant and I assumed it must have been out there, what with all those options.

A generation ago, women had three career choices – nurse, secretary or teacher.  Now we can be anything we want to be.  It is good to have more choice but the range of possibilities has made many of us dissatisfied and disappointed because we wonder if we picked the right path.  If we only had three career options, there is not much scope for regret and contemplating ‘what if’.

Nowadays, because we have so many choices available, we don’t settle for good enough anymore.  We want the best.  And maybe good enough would be just fine and is all we need.

All these possibilities in life raise our expectations.  We assume the perfect career, perfect holiday, perfect restaurant, perfect outfit, perfect wedding venue, perfect car and perfect house must be out there and, when we make a final decision, we hope we’ve chosen that one.  The thing to remember is that modest expectations leave room for pleasurable surprises.  Perhaps our standards have become too high.  In his book, Barry Schwartz says that the level of pleasure and satisfaction we get from material goods and experiences has as much to do with how it relates to our expectations as it does with the quality of the experience itself.

I know I should chill out, make the best of my decision and not look back.  Good enough should be just fine.  But I can’t help thinking that, after all the angst and effort I put into finding a good holiday, it better be jolly perfect.


A Whole New World

May 11, 2012

My pregnancy is opening me up to a whole new world.  I feel like Alice who tumbled down a rabbit hole and now I have landed up in this new and exciting wonderland.  I wander around in aimless circles, dazed and overwhelmed by the responsibilities, possibilities and choices.  My entire life is changing and I am forced to think about topics I never even vaguely contemplated before.  I have to consider things such as birth plans, stem cell preservation, brands of sterilizers and whether I should buy a manual or electric breast pump or go for towelling vs. disposable nappies.  I realize how little I know and how much I have to learn.

Many people have been prophets of doom and warn me that I will struggle living in a foreign country without family around or a maid to help with housework.  I have been told to enjoy my self-focussed lifestyle and savour luxuries, such as sleep, while I still can.  I hear babies are a lot of work but somehow I am convinced it will be different and much easier for me.  I mean really, how hard can it be?  I picture myself breastfeeding with one hand and vacuuming with the other.  That’s my plan.  I’ll manage.

There are so many bells and whistles in the baby world these days.  I can’t remember much about being a baby around 32 years ago but I am convinced that I didn’t have all these fancy gadgets and gimmicks and I still turned out ok.  If I were to start my own business, I see first time mothers as a great target market for they are easily manipulated.  I know this because I am one of them and I am a sucker for anything that promises to prevent cot death or stimulate brain development.  I am gullible enough to buy my baby the world if advertisers tell me that the world is what it needs.

The possibilities can be paralyzing.  Our local baby store has rows and rows of prams of different shapes and sizes.  They perform an array of functions and can morph into different gadgets such as car seats or travel cots.  It stresses me out because I am not 100% sure whether I need fancy extras.  All I want is a box on four wheels in which I can pop the baby when we go for a walk round the block.  I don’t want a pram so complicated that I need a manual to understand it and I also don’t need one with that has ABS brakes, power steering and also converts into a picnic table and couple of chairs.

The problem with having to make so many decisions is that most of the time I give up and end up not making one at all.  Last weekend, Al and I shopped for a changing table, a comfy breastfeeding chair and a cot.  After about 5 hours of roaming around furniture stores, we left with a new tv cabinet and a coffee table for the lounge.

One of the most fascinating things I have discovered during this time is internet discussion forums.  I am wary of the hysteria and hypochondria of the internet and you should never ever use Dr Google to diagnose a malady because you will be convinced you have two weeks left to live when, in actual fact, you just have flu.  I take what I read with a pinch of salt and now I mostly read online pregnancy discussion forums for entertainment rather than insight.

Internet discussion forums and comments at the bottom of news articles give great insight into how other people live and think.  It also reveals the loopyness of parts of the human race and that is disturbing.  People are outspoken and graphic especially when they use a pseudonym and comment under the cloak of anonymity.  Opinions on some topics are so polarizing and I wonder whether people really know what on earth they are talking about.

The problem with exploring the net for answers is that one site leads into another and I get stuck in the maze of it.  Some of the sites are unintentionally funny and I can waste hours rocking in my chair and chortling to myself.  For example, at the bottom of an article on selecting the right hospital, a lady warned cyberspace how dim men can be.  In Switzerland, you can pick a hospital where you want to stay, kind of like how you pick a hotel.  She described how during her pregnancy, she was tired, sick and busy so she left choosing the hospital to her husband.  When he presented his final choice, she asked for a summary of the criteria on which he based the decision and he just said, ‘The parking’.

Recently I’ve developed a stitch-like ache on my right-hand side.  I googled my symptoms and clicked on a forum where a women called Mary raised a similar complaint and others commented with suggestions and reassurance.  There were about 20 comments and all seemed to be from women.  Mary expanded on her symptoms with statements such as, ‘I feel bloated.  I am uncomfortable.  I can’t sit for long.  The ache is in my side, not a shooting pain, just a generally uncomfortable feeling’.  In the midst of affirming, coherent comments by women called Angela, Michelle, Sue and Ellen, there was a random one by ‘Bob’ who simply said, ‘Mary, a poo may help.’  It cracked me up.

Charlie Brooker is a brilliant writer at The Guardian.  His wife has just had their first child and he wrote an article on the experience.  You can read it by following this link.  My favourite part of it was when he said this:

Apologies for swearing in the presence of a child, but the first thing I thought was “Fuck me”. Not just as an expression of surprise, but as a mission statement, as in: “Fuck me and what I want – from now on, my task is to protect you, whatever or whoever you are.” Prior to the birth, other dads had warned me that “bonding” might not happen for weeks, even months. Also, I was worried I might simply feel nothing. Instead I felt reprogrammed, head-to-toe, in an instant. That was a shock.

I am only 6 months pregnant and I already feel reprogrammed from head to toe.


How big is your carrot?

May 3, 2012