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.


Aliens can never blend in completely

February 3, 2011

I‘ve lived in London for 4 years and we’re moving to Switzerland in March.  I have a British passport and the right to live in the UK but, no matter how hard I try to slot in with locals, I’m still an outsider.  I am proud of my South African accent but it also gives me away as a foreigner and I struggle to blend in completely.  I’ve become a legal alien.

Living in a foreign country puts you on the back foot unless you speak the language with the accent and fluency of a local.  In the UK, I feel less assertive in standing up for my rights.  I thought this was just a self-confidence issue of my own but one of my South African colleagues feels the same way.  We know we can’t whinge and whine and wag our finger too much because the Brits have every right to say, ‘This is how we do things here and if you don’t like it, sod off and go back to South Africa’.

I didn’t realise I was more passive in the UK until I arrived at Johannesburg International Airport in December 2009.  The check in queue for domestic flights to Durban snaked all the way down the concourse.  I thought, ‘This is ridiculous.  Unacceptable!  I must sort this out and jack these people up!’  Off I marched to investigate.  At the front of the line, I saw five SAA staff members huddled together and ‘serving’ one customer at a time.  One of them was engrossed in her cell phone.  Another was yawning.  Another had her pinkie finger in her ear and was bobbing it up and down.

I nominated myself Person-in-Charge and announced to the queue, ‘This is complete and utter madness.’  I asked to speak to the manager.  I insisted they explain why it takes five people to serve one customer.  It probably wasn’t necessary for me to bark and froth at the mouth and I could have been more graceful.   But my point is that I had the courage to stand up for my rights in the way I don’t in the UK.  If the same thing had happened in a queue in London, I probably would have stood there, waiting for someone else to take control just as the deer-in-headlights foreigners did in the check in queue in Johannesburg.

When I am in South Africa, I feel my rights and I act with a confidence and boldness that comes from being on my home turf, on the soil where I belong, in the place that has framed my life story and the country where the people I love live.

The Geneva move is going to be a struggle as I am even more on the back foot because I can’t speak French.  I am learning but I only know words like ‘The grass is green’ and ‘The boy sleeps’ and that doesn’t help me negotiate rentals, coordinate suitable bank accounts or get the best insurance deals.  Every time I phone Switzerland, I feel like a cowering, apologetic Oliver Twist with my hands out begging for their help and advice in English.  ‘Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir’, I say as I kiss up to them.

Switzerland is very strict and rules based and Alastair and I will be obedient legal aliens.  You can’t work on Sundays, must recycle in a certain way and, if you live in an apartment block, you can’t flush the toilet in the middle of the night so I suspect we will diligently coordinate our last wees for 10pm.  We will follow the rules and do as we’re told while we bumble around and find our feet on the unfamiliar Planet Switzerland.

Ducks not doves – but it’s close enough for me!

December 15, 2010

This month the three of us went to Geneva – Alastair, me and The Black Dog. 

 Al’s been offered a job in Switzerland and we needed to see if we could live happily ever after there.  I believe you can tell within a few hours whether you can thrive in a city or not. 

 It was way back in 2005, on my first visit to London as an adult, that I realised the city and I didn’t gel.  I arrived at Stansted Airport from Dublin at 6 o’clock in the morning and made my way to my cousin Hayley’s flat.  I emerged from Archway Tube Station and blinked into the spring sunlight.  I looked at my map and it wasn’t clear which direction I was facing or where I should turn.  I asked a tattooed, fat-bellied construction worker for directions and he said, ‘Luv, turn left then right, then right then left, then left again’.  I glazed over and all I absorbed was the first turn left then right and I thought I’d be fine from there.  I wasn’t. 

It was as if someone had blindfolded me, turned me round and round and then taken it off again.  I dragged my two bags and 30kgs of luggage through the quiet, unrecognisable streets.    I was hot and tired and I could feel lines of sweat dripping down my back, tickling me as they converged in the crack of my back side.  I got to a random street corner, stamped my foot, flung my bags aside and thought, ‘That’s it.  This place sucks’.    I then bellowed ‘Hayley!  HAYLEY!!  HAAAAYYYYYLLEEEYYY!’ and hoped she would magically emerge from one of the buildings.   Ever since then, London and I haven’t got on.

I have a wild imagination and when Al got the offer, I had visions of skiing on weekends, yodelling and skipping with joy across the mountain tops like in Sound of Music.  I had to root myself firmly in reality and force myself to control my fantasies during the weekend, which felt a bit like stuffing a lid on a steaming pot. 

The weekend wasn’t a holiday.  It was emotionally exhausting.  The opinionated ‘yes’ me and ‘no’ me played tug of war in the bag seat of my brain and it wore me down.  There’s some litter in street.  NO!  It’s so peaceful.  YES!  That building looks a dump.  NO!  This place is cleaner than London.  YES!  Where are all the people?  It’s too quiet.  NO!  The scenery is beautiful.  YES!  We don’t speak French.  NO!  But it would be fun to learn a new language.  YES!  I’ve just had the most expensive, effing pizza of my life.  NO!  NO!  NO!  Yes no yes no yes no yes no. 

My first impression of Switzerland was of precision and cleanliness.  My life experience so far has taught me that this is not necessarily a good thing as precision comes with loads of bureaucracy.  Nevertheless, Geneva airport was clean and clinical and I would happily have had an appendectomy right there in international arrivals if I had to.  Even the Swiss flag looks like something out of the Red Cross.

Geneva has been voted one of the most boring cities in the world.  Why would we want to move to a city with those credentials?  It doesn’t bother me though as it means fewer tourists.  No Asian families taking photos of post-boxes or street lamps.  No tourists ambling along the pavements, gazing at their surroundings and clogging my path.  What the city lacks in exuberance, soul and sparkle, the surrounding countryside makes up for.  It is deeply and endlessly gorgeous and as we walked along the lakeshore, my spirit felt light and free.

The week before we arrived, Geneva had the fourth largest snowfall since 1895.  This made the landscape crisp and clean but we were concerned because, while freshly fallen snow is stunning, it is like heavenly tip ex and temporarily covers a multitude of sins.  We wondered, what is lurking beneath all this snow?

The price of things in Geneva is unreasonably exorbitant.  On our first evening, we were on a quest to find something affordable to eat.  Even McDonald’s was too steep.  Eventually we settled on a pizzeria and I ate the most expensive Margeurita of my life.   I stared at my pizza forlornly because it felt as if I was just eating cash for my supper.  I couldn’t bear the thought that a simple little pizza was costing over R300.  And that’s cheap!  The average price for a spaghetti carbonara was around 40CHF/£35/R350. 

I wondered, ‘If pasta costs so much, how will I afford run-of-the-mill hygiene expenses like a hair cut?’  I pictured myself in front of my mirror, hacking away at my hair with the kitchen scissors the way I used to do when I had a fringe.  Al’s salary is adjusted for the extra expense but you can’t justify the Geneva prices for a spaghetti carbonara or haircut no matter how much you earn.  It’s ironic that 250 global NGOs are based in a place like Geneva where the price per person for a simple office lunch could feed a family in Sub Saharan Africa for a month.

After all the too-ing and fro-ing, yes and no’s and pros and cons, it came to this:  We are weary of London and we need a change.  Britain is depressing me and I’m watching it become a nation state equivalent of Asda.  London is cold and anonymous.  My favourite writer Charlie Brooker is correct when he says, ‘Rather than break their stride, pedestrians in London would blankly step on your face if you were dying on the pavement, quietly tutting at the blood on their shoes.’  Maybe the Swiss would stomp on my face too but at least I would bleed to death in picturesque surroundings.

Most exciting of all, I think The Black Dog may not enjoy my company as much in Switzerland and I’m hoping I can leave her behind in London.

 I have felt lost, alone and directionless for many months.  I recently had a picture of being stuck in snow and a dove suddenly appears to guide me in the way I should go.  While we were in Switzerland, I would have loved some literal sign of the dove as a definite, overwhelming confirmation.  On our final day, we walked on the lakeshore.  We saw hundreds and hundreds of ducks in the water.  They were cold and still but they were a community and seemed happy and settled.  I didn’t see any actual doves but I saw ducks and felt peace.  That’s good enough for me.

Al has a 3 month noticed period and resigned today.  From now until March, we’ll walk across the carpet to the light of the open door.

Are you living or just breathing?

November 12, 2010

One morning during rush hour, something was different on the Washington DC subway.  A musician named Joshua Bell played his violin on the station’s concourse while commuters hustled passed him.  He played 6 Bach pieces for 45 minutes.

No one noticed.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  Six people stopped briefly.  Twenty people tossed a few coins into Joshua’s hat and he collected $32 in total.  A 3-year old boy was mesmerized by the music but his mother shooed him along because she was late for work and had to drop him off at school.  Few people bothered with Joshua, especially if you consider the thousands of commuters that pass through the station every morning.

Joshua Bell is not just any old rookie violinist.  He is one of the best in the world.  In fact, he is so good that he once played an intricate piece of music on a violin worth $3,500,000.

The Washington Post organized Bell’s violin playing experiment on the subway and the results were exactly as they predicted.  No one noticed the same music that two days before Bell had played to a heaving theatre in Boston where tickets had cost in excess of $100 each.  No one realized that they were walking past a world-class musician who was playing for free.

I am sure the same thing would happen in any London tube station.  As you know from my incessant whining on this blog, The Black Dog is my regular ‘companion’, following me around like toilet paper stuck on the edge of my shoe.  One of the reasons she hangs around is because the anonymity and aloofness of London eats away at my sensitive, friendly soul.

My career upheavals have tainted my perception of the UK but even if I had a great job, I still think living in London would piss me off.

People in London live in oblivion in the same way that fish swim past each other in an aquarium.  We don’t notice things around us.  This week, I charged on to the bus and a man barked at me about how I had pushed in front of a lady with a baby.  I was horrified – I didn’t even realize what I had done!  Shame on me but that stupor is an inherent part of human traffic in London.

One of the things I noticed about South Africa during my trip there in September is that Africa is awake. I love listening to African music and the drumbeat reverberates into your core and makes you feel so alive.  Traditional African rhythmn captures the spirit and energy of the continent.  We are alert.  We are awake.

I’ve been reading an amazing book by Zimbabwean author Peter Godwin and he writes that in Africa, we live and love more vividly because life is infused with constant tension. He says, ‘In Africa, you do not view death from the auditorium of life as a spectator but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue.  You feel perishable, temporary, transient.  You feel mortal.’

Maybe in big international cities there are so many stimuli vying for our attention that we subconsciously switch off as a defense mechanism to control what grabs it.  In places like London, people live in frenzy, as if they are stuck in the ocean on a sinking ship with not enough life jackets for everyone.  Maybe people live in this dazed rush to anesthetize themselves from the fear that there may not be a life jacket for them.  We’re busy but not awake and we don’t honour own consciousness enough.

I recently read the book called Pollyanna.  I aspire to be more like the perceptive optimist Pollyanna.  I came across this gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous (as she would say) conversation between her and her Aunt Polly.  Pollyanna says:

Oh of course I’d be breathing all the time I was doing those things, Aunt Polly, but I wouldn’t be living.  You breathe all the time you’re asleep, but you aren’t living.  I mean living – doing the things you want to do:  playing outdoors, reading (to myself, of course), climbing hills, talking to Mr Tom in the garden, and Nancy, and finding out all about the houses and the people, and everything everywhere all through the perfectly lovely streets I came through yesterday.  That’s what I call living Aunt Polly.  Just breathing isn’t living!

I don’t want to just breathe.  I don’t want to miss out on good things around me.  I want to live too.


Waiting for the dove

October 25, 2010

Lately, my old and familiar “companion” The Black Dog has been nipping at my ankles more than usual.  He’s everywhere.  I wish he would leave me alone.  He’s there when I wake up, he travels with me on the buses and trains and he sits at my feet at work.  He refuses to get lost.  [I keep referring to it as a ‘he’ but I think it could actually be a ‘she’ as I suspect it’s pregnant with little Black Puppies].

It’s late October and getting colder in London.  Leaves are falling off the trees, the days are shorter and soon we will change the clocks for Daylight Savings.  The Black Dog thrives in this kind of dreary weather.  While it is literally approaching the winter months in the UK, I feel as if my soul has been in a permanent winter for most of this year.  The reason is because I’ve been searching for my mislaid mojo, my ‘oomph’, my zest for life and I can’t seem to find it anywhere.   In fact, I don’t even know where to look or how to search for it.  I often feel like I am a car with the accelerator going full throttle but am in neutral and so I’m burning out while standing still.

That’s the background to the story I am about to tell you.

Our multi-site church has recently acquired another building in South Kensington.  It is an old, traditional and ornate building bordering on cold and austere.  Al and I were early on Sunday afternoon so we sat in our chairs and gazed around at the decor.  Al pointed out a huge brass cross at the front of the room and on top of it there was a dove flying out of heaven.  ‘Hmmm, that’s pretty’, I whispered and didn’t think anything more of it.

At the end of the service, during the prayer time, the minister said that a few people had been praying before the service and had some words and pictures of knowledge they wanted to share. I listened to about five of these really sweet words but they were too dramatic and specific to apply to me.

I kept my eyes closed and my head bowed.  I then heard a man say this:

I have a picture of someone in a place where it is winter.  The ground is covered in snow.  In fact, there is so much snow that they can’t see where they are going.  They have a shovel and are trying to move the snow but it is so heavy and it seems pointless because they have no idea in which direction they should be shovelling.  Then, all of a sudden and out of nowhere, a dove appears.  The dove flaps its wings and begins to fly.  It leads the person with the shovel in the direction they should go.

I was stunned.  ‘That’s me!’ I thought.  I’m stuck in a permanent winter and I can’t see my way out of the snow.  I have a shovel and want to clear a path out but I don’t know how and in which direction I should start.

When I woke up this morning, I opened my eyelids and stared straight into the eyes of The Black Dog with his wet nose touching mine and his hot, morning breath on my cheek (It wasn’t Alastair – he was still asleep).  I wondered, ‘What happened to the dove and the shovel and the direction and the snow?’  Surely I should now spring out of bed and shout with complete glee ‘Good morning God!’  But I couldn’t.  Like usual, I sighed and mumbled ‘Good God, it’s morning.’  Why?

I realised that the picture was of a dove that will come soon but it’s not here yet.  I must wait.  I must keep a look out because it will happen in the future but not now.  In spite of this, I think the words from last night made the wick of the tiny tea light candle in the darkest, deepest part of my soul glow a little brighter.

I’ll let you know when the dove arrives.

It’s raining, it’s pouring …

August 30, 2010

This summer has been the best one of all in the 4 years I have been living in the UK.  It’s been reasonably hot and we have had absolutely no rain.  Richmond Park and the Wimbledon Common have been as dry as the South African bushveld and I couldn’t care less.  I don’t want rain.  I know it’s important and we need it for plants and crops and to avoid water restrictions.  But I don’t care.  British weather depresses me and, after my usual navel-gazing, I’ve decided it is the rain and grey clouds that irritate me most.

Rain in the UK is unique.  It doesn’t come pelting down in one big torrent as it does back home.  It dribbles incessantly and unpredictably and feels like walking in a giant, cold steam bath.

This means I can never figure out if I need my umbrella or not or, Murphy’s Law, I forget it altogether.  In South Africa, I never even owned an umbrella. I now have a growing supply of cheap brollies, like my stash of Bic pens.  People often forget their umbrellas at my house, which is also convenient and has helped me build up a collection.  The thing with cheap umbrellas is they are so flimsy and they turn upside down at the slightest wind that then renders them useless, especially when your hands are tied up with shopping bags.

People get into a tizz when it rains and that irritates me too.  I think Londoners wake up, look outside at the weather and, when they see rain, they panic and think, ‘Code Blue Code Blue’. People rush rush rush on the pavements, looking only at their feet so they don’t step into a puddle.  They never look ahead and consider that they may gauge my eyes out with the spokes on their umbrellas.

People hate getting wet. I can picture them going ‘ew, ew, ew’ in their heads and I want to bellow at them, ‘For goodness sake, it’s only water and you won’t dissolve.’  Walking in the rain is stressful for me because I try to look at my feet and ahead of me at the same time.  If you wear glasses it’s even more complicated as they mist up or get full of droplets like a mini windscreen.

Rain also annoys me because people equate rain with cold.  They dress in their winter woolies and refuse to open train windows lest a rogue droplet hits them.  This means that trains steam and the windows sweat and each carriage turns into a giant germ filled petri dish.  When people hop on a bus or train, their first instinct is to shake their umbrellas like a wet dog.  On crowded public transport, we are forced to cram together so I end up touching everyone else’s wet umbrellas with my trousers and I get a soaked bum or patch on my leg. I always envy kids in their McLaren prams that are covered in plastic sheeting.  It must be like sitting inside a dry beach ball.

London seems to always be covered with a grey, waterlogged blanket of clouds and no ones knows when or for how long they will dribble.  I wish they would open out, empty themselves once and for all and then disappear.

I’m contemplating whether I should buy a special lamp that gives off the same type of light as on a clear summer’s day.  It helps people who suffer from S.A.D (Seasonal Adjustment Disorder).  I’m hoping it will help me get through another grey winter.  It costs £50 and that seems a lot but, when I think about it, it’s actually a small price to pay to make me H.A.P.P.Y for over 6 months.

Ability is nothing without opportunity

August 20, 2010

I never expected it would be so difficult to integrate myself into British culture.  I thought that because I spoke English in South Africa and have Scottish roots, I would slot in as if I lived in the UK all my life.

Living and working in London is tougher than I ever imagined primarily because Londoners are generally cold and grey, like their weather.

The work environment is a monolithic, immovable beast that is addicted to bureaucracy and rules and is generally afraid of change.  As we know, Britain is one of the oldest and most established countries in the world and I think this mindset is engrained in its people.  They are naturally inclined towards a rigid, do-it-as-we’ve-always-done attitude.  Mind you, the accounting firm at which I worked embarked on a massive change to their internal computer system and people initially embraced the change with the excitement and glee of a three-year old on Christmas morning.  But that was because it promised free trips to the US, an opportunity to stay at 5 star hotels and do a bit of travelling on the side at the company’s expense.  Thanks to the recession, the freebies stopped and so did people’s can-do attitude towards the change.

I have to chuckle to myself at the interview process at companies in the UK.  Organisations remind me of a medieval castle with a moat surrounding it and the drawbridge raised.  During the interview process, you have to beg, plead and do all sorts of hoop jumping to get them to let you into their fortress. You are not an individual with potential – you are a CV of past experience and qualifications.  They focus too much on depth not breadth and, because the market is so competitive, they are not obliged to give people an opportunity to try new things and demonstrate their competence while on the job.

The funny thing is that I have never noticed such a bored and unfulfilled workplace as I have in the UK.  When you get through that drawbridge, you realize you could have done the job in your sleep.  People are specialized to the extent that they don’t feel connected to a finished product anymore.

When I joined a startup consultancy, one of my colleagues at an accounting firm told me I had guts and I must accept that the sales process in the UK is a harsh, grueling slog.  I scoffed at him and thought he was a killjoy.  Reflecting back on that moment, I realize that he was right.

Two of my favourite British writers, Christopher Hitchens and Marcus Buckingham, have achieved phenomenal success in America.  They moved there shortly after completing university in the UK.  I have read and listened to many of their interviews and found their perception of the UK to be the same as mine.  They are born and bred Brits and their illuminating insight made me sigh with relief that it is not just me.

Marcus Buckingham:

In England the streets are small, the cars are small, the dreams are small.  I could not have done in the UK what I have done here.

Christopher Hitchens:

In England you keep feeling like you have to pass through a series of tests and hoops.  In America, you can take the chance and say, ‘Here I am’ and ‘Try this’.  You don’t feel as if you have to go through these stages of evolution and mature in the cask like a fine old vintage that will go sour before it’s ripe.