At the start of my third year, we found out that in order for me to re-new and extend my marriage Visa, the laws had changed, and rather than fill out some online forms and show some mail with a valid U.K. address, I had to take an actual citizenship test to grant me a 10 year Visa, or an Indefinite Leave to Remain status. This sent me into a complete tailspin because I haven't taken a test since high school, and even then, I didn't do very well. Usually, just skimming by on luck & prayers. So, we ordered all the study material and booked the test date. It was daunting, and expensive, and the pressure was insane because my original marriage Visa would be expired and if I didn't pass the test and get my ILR status, I wouldn't be able to stay with my wife and continue building our life together over here.
I was in complete panic mode when I went to take the test. Everything was very "official"- the office, the proctor, the rules, the process. It was like being at a detention centre, and your only hope of getting out into the free world was to pass this test. There was 13 people in my testing group, none of which were American. It was all very regimented, explained carefully, and timed. I had 44 minutes to complete 24 questions and I could only miss 7 in order to pass. The questions covered numerous topics from government, history, religion, education, transportation, immigration, holidays, sports, dwelling, society and culture. It ranged from questions like "The Grand National is a _______?" a.) tennis tournament, b.) auto race c.) horse race or d.) building in downtown London" to the more difficult, like "King Richard III of the House of York was killed in The Battle of Bosworth Field in what year? a.) 1498 b.) 1485 c.) 1490 or d.) 1495" I had spent 2 months taking 15 practice tests online a day, I had read each chapter in the study manual, I took the practice questions at the end of every chapter, I would review the topics with anyone who would listen to me (by the way, I learned that most Brits couldn't pass this test if they're lives depended on it!) The entire time I was studying, I would think to myself, "I am never going to be able to retain all of this!" and "Why did I party so much in school, I don't have enough brain cells left for something like this!"
Somehow on that dreary day, in a stuffy, drab office in the centre of Croydon, where I was sat, sweating, with heart palpitation, filled with second guesses, gut instincts, and dry mouth, I passed my test. I don't know what my score was because it's just a "Pass/Fail" answer from the official, but I do know that when I heard "Well done, you. You've passed," from the proctor, I nearly vomited in my lap.
The relief was unbelievable. I ran out of the office, clutching my form that was stamped with "PASSED" and hugged my wife and took a deep breath, as my knees wobbled the whole walk back to the car. From then on, there was a lot of paper work, appointments at the Public Inquiry office, interviews, payments, proof of marriage, residency, work, and finally, I got my newly issued ILR card which allowed me to travel and stay in the U.K. for the next ten years. The timing was perfect because we had tickets to fly back to The States in three weeks for a family visit and without the official status change, I would likely not be allowed back to the U.K. So, now I was a legal resident of the United Kingdom, with all the proper documents, cards, identification and proof I needed to relax and remain in this new life that I….and everyone around me has helped make happen.
It was all very confusing because the first thing anyone would ask me after that was "Did you have to give up your U.S. citizenship?" The answer is no. I have an Indefinite Leave to Remain status in the U.K., making me a legal resident, but I am still a U.S. citizen. I still hold an American passport, and I'm still legally, an American. I was really fearful about that because I hadn't made any long term decisions about my US status, and because all of this happened so fast, I was worried that I "wouldn't be American anymore," and as stupid as that sounds, it was really important to me.
Three months after my passing of the UK test, my best friends from the States were coming over for their very first visit to the U.K. and I was super excited to show them everything, including what my life was like over here. It was intensely thrilling to finally have them here, in the flesh, immersed in my day to day life, seeing my neighbourhood, meeting people I've only talked about, doing the things I've rambled on about in phone conversations and emails, laughing about the little cars, the tiny houses, repeating the last word a British person says because we just have the uncontrollable urge to imitate it.
It was all hilariously fun but there is a moment…when anyone visits, really- a friend, or my parents, that a quiet, important conversation happens and they say, "It's all so perfect and lovely, you must be so happy. (PAUSE) Are you? ...Happy?"
Instinctively, my answer is always "Yes! Of course I am!" and not because it's bullshit, but because it's true. In just the past 7 months, my wife and I have bought a brand new house just around the corner from where we were living with our fairy godmother and international bestie for the last three years. We already loved the neighbourhood, we're close to the train station right on the High Street, in a gated little, tiny development, and we didn't have to change banks, doctor's, dentists or Jem's route to work.
My parents visited from the States, just as we moved in and helped us with little things, like stocking kitchen utensils, fox proofing the back yard and installing shelves, mantle pieces, buying bath mats and exploring each and every store within walking distance. My wife's mother has visited from Australia and given the place her seal of approval, a glowing review, cooking all kinds of great meals, loading our freezer with leftovers, and helping get our back yard and garden gorgeous with her amazing green thumb. We've had friends spend a weekend, we've had one of Jemma's friends from Australia stay with us for a few months while he made the move to England and got on his feet. We have a guest room, and our location is perfect, just a 40 minute train ride to get to central London. Ahh….Living in jolly ol' England, a hot, amazing wife, a new house, a writing career, a supportive family and circle of friends. Seriously, I couldn't ask for more.
I may love my life and I may like it here, but do I love it? Love is a strong word and I'll be completely honest with you, it ain't all roses and tea cakes.
Sometimes stuff just gets to me.
It happens. Especially..ESPECIALLY ...after a visit to the States. When I come back here, I look at things differently. I miss things. I miss important things like air conditioning, the swirling flush of a toilet, the ease of getting in your car without crumpling into a taco formation, just going to a mall to shop, a drive-thru car wash that doesn't close you in like a caged animal, a 24 hour drive-thru Dunkin Donuts whenever you feel like it.
Most of all, I miss variety and options. I don't know if it's because I don't drive, or because I work from home, or just simply because my life is just so completely different from what it was for over 25 years, having all kinds of options at my finger tips, but lately I notice that my "options" are limited here.
There is very little spontaneity in life here in England. A night on the town means researching your journey- are you taking a train or Tube to get into London? Have you purchased your tickets? Are you taking a car service? Have you booked your ride? Are you driving yourself? Do you know where the car parks are? Did you find your walking route on your "maps" app, so you know where you are walking to once you park? Did you go online and pay your car's congestion fees? Have you booked your reservation at the restaurant? All this thought for a burger at Shake Shack in Covent Gardens.
Watching late night TV? Get a craving for a snack? You better hope you have something in your kitchen because there are no McDonald's on every corner. There is (maybe) ONE in each city and it's usually closed by 11pm and not close by. No Wendy's…period. No Burger King every 3 miles. No 24-hour KFC for some popcorn chicken. No Dairy Queen….period. No franchise ice cream parlours anywhere, in fact. Just a day time (11am-5pm) "Mr. Whippy" ice cream van in the parking lot of a "B&Q" or garden centre, if you're lucky. By "Mr. Whippy"- I mean ice cream that's infused with air and for some odd reason, isn't even really cold. There are no "7-11" stores to grab a Slurpee, a Slim Jim, and a bag of Bugles. No 3am Taco Bell run, in your slippers because you never even have to get out of your car. Nope. Not happening.
Let's discuss leaving the house…for anything. I'm not quite sure why, but every person in England carries some sort of bag. Man, woman, child…doesn't matter- they have a bag. I have absolutely no clue what's in these bags, but I rarely ever see a person without one. I suppose, when you think about it- chances are if you're a kid, you have school crap in there, your electronic devices & games, perhaps your gym clothes, your lunch, your Oyster card for travel, your locker & house keys, a comic book, your weed (I'm KIDDING!) and a few pound coins for a kebab after school.
Men & women, especially those commuting to work have similar things, I'm sure- keys, electronic devices-a tablet, phone and a laptop, an umbrella, change of shoes for after work, wallet, travel cards, food (biscuits, granola bar, crisps, a wrapped up half-eaten ham & cheese sandwich), bottle of water (possibly 2), perhaps a light jacket or scarf for the unpredictable weather, a notebook, a paperback book, pens, sunglasses, tic tags, medication (if needed), spare socks, spare pantyhose, a crumpled pack of cigarettes, lighter, work ID badge, a hat from last winter, and tons of free floating coins. Every time they leave the house, it's like they know they'll be gone for 12 hours or more and are completely prepared for anything the day may hold. At all times. Me? I'm used to doing the "3 pocket pat down" with one hand on the doorknob. Keys? Wallet? Phone? Go. So, the concept of carrying a day's worth of things at all times is completely lost on me and it always amazes me when I see it. All kinds of people: bicyclers, walkers, bus riders, commuters, old, young, men, women, children, locals- doesn't matter. They have a bag: a knapsack, a rucksack, a shoulder bag, a travel bag on wheels, a cart-like bag they drag along behind them, a messenger bag, a grocery bag, a pouch, a hand bag, a book bag, a gift bag, a knitted sweater bag, a waterproof Timberland camping bag, a sport bag- you name it and someone is carrying it. Chances are they have smushed that bag into someone's arm or face, got it caught on a handrail at the station, tripped someone with it as they set it on the floor of the Tube carriage, stopped elevator doors from closing as they squeeze themselves in, or knocked something off a rack in store with it as they turned around to say "Sorry," for bashing someone with it in a tight aisle. Doesn't phase 'em in the least.
Driving? I can't even get into it about the driving. Driving over here is something that really can't be explained, it can only be witnessed to be understood. The streets are so narrow, with cars parked on both sides so what is supposed to be a two lane road is basically a risk-your-life pathway full of stopping, swerving, hand gestures, "no, you go"-headlight flashing, slowing up, gunning the gas, brushing against curbs, avoiding cyclists, holding your breath and squeezing past another car at a crawl to be sure you don't swipe one another-tucking in side mirrors, being aware of motorcycles whizzing between cars to get to the red light first, easing over speed humps, jamming on brakes for pedestrians with an insane amount of self entitlement, chancing life by guessing if it's okay to go around a bus, or dodging sneaky foxes. And the roundabouts. Ugh. Please. I can't even.
And then there is seeing something like this:
I mentioned variety and options. I guess that's the thing about being from the States- there is so much, so often, and so many options for every single thing.
Well, living in England is like living in an Aldi. You know about the Aldi chain of stores, right? Less options, more savings. Well, that seems to be case for England.
They have certain things and MANY of those certain things- and only those things.
Like..there are 5 kebab stores within a a half mile radius. There are at least 8 Thai or Indian restaurants in every neighbourhood. There are 4 fish & chip shops on every High Street. And curries.... My god, they love a curry over here. Ask a Brit was a typical week's menu was for them and I'll bet it goes something like this: "I had a curry 3 nights this week, a Thai take away twice, fish & chips once, and a lovely roast on Sunday." So, needless to say, they are a little set in their ways. I can't find a seafood restaurant anywhere, the only halfway decent, REAL hot dogs (one that isn't a fucking SAUSAGE) are at Costco, and don't get me started on the flavours of "crisps" they have over here. At first, you think it's a good thing, like when Lays came out with "Dill Pickle" chips…but, over here you see flavours like this….
..."Prawn Cocktail", "Roasted Chicken", "Flaming Steak", "Worcester Sauce", "Smoked Canadian Ham", "Pickled Onion", "Sweet Thai Chili", "Wiltshire Ham & Mustard", "Haggis & Onion", "Tomato Ketchup" and "Lamb & Mint". Don't believe me?
Needless to say, I'm always amazed that I can't walk into a local shop and get some sliced Havarti cheese for sandwiches. Or even a package of sliced Swiss. Sliced Colby. Nope, most of the time to get stuff like this, you have to go to a specialty delicatessen, or that particular area of the grocery store. You can't just whiz down the lunch meat aisle and grab a pack of sliced Monterey Jack. Nope- all you'll find in the packaged area is 900 different types of "mature" cheddar. Good luck with NOT getting sick of that. Mature, extra mature, Red Leciester, gold, white, aged, sliced, block, packaged, annnnny kind of cheddar you want. IF you want cheddar.
Have I mentioned the insane obsession with baked beans? You know that deal. I don't have to tell you, but this a typical "full English" breakfast:
Yes, beans. Yes, tomato, mushrooms, weird hammy-like "bacon" and (gag) blood sausages. It's breakfast! Keep it simple. Grab & go. Sheesh.
I. Can't. Even.
But…enough about food- because there really are some great pubs with the MOST amazing menus I have ever seen and that's often the way to go for choices. Besides….who couldn't eat fish & chips twice a week?!
Let's talk space. In general…space. The area around you, space.
There is never enough over here. I'm serious. Not enough to park in, not enough to shower in, not enough to wash your hands in, not enough to store things in, not enough to grow into, not enough to walk through, not enough to drive through, not enough to lay on, not enough to sit at, not enough to put clothes in, not enough to cook in, not enough to sleep in and not enough fridge and freezer space, not enough to hang a coat or store your wellies, not enough to socialise in and not enough to stretch your arms out wide without smacking someone in the face. Ever. No matter where you are.
Things are tiny here. By things, I mean EVERYTHING. Sinks, faucets, handles, wardrobes, showers, storage space, rooms- in general, kitchens, bathrooms, houses, flats, cars, roads, stores, aisles in stores, parking spaces, chairs, cafes, yards, portion sizes, BBQ grills, beds, shopping carts, tiny tables, tiny bags of crisps, even SODAS are small:
But, I'll tell you this- when it comes to televisions- they go big. Yep, telly's, books, vocabulary and bags. No compromising on those things. LARGE, my friend. They go LARGE.
Every summer, I question why people don't have air conditioning here. I get that the weather is ever-changing (or the politics of weather, what with the global warming debates and all-is changing) So, it goes from a few years of brutal winters to a more milder few months. It goes from a year or two of constant flooding, to a near drought. It goes from a blistering summer to a breezy, lovely season. But, one thing is for certain, if you have sun…you have heat. I don't care if it's a mild heat, or a minor heat, or there is no humidity, it's a dry heat, whatever- heat is heat and summer brings it- in some form or another. The minute I complain about the heat over here, someone will instantly say, "Aren't you from FLORIDA?" Yeah, I am and the only time I was ever hot in Florida was if I was walking to my car because every single place in existance-office, home, store, theatre, cafe, etc. has AIR CONDITIONING. Windows get tinted, overhead fans are installed, some places go as far as to have cooling water misters spraying the air, every car has air conditioning, people have plug-in mobil units in their sheds, or on their patios- there is no need to suffer EVER. So, yeah, I'm from Florida, where it gets up to over 100 degrees -but it's never more than 76 inside and ice is abundant.
Over here in England (probably safe to say, all of Europe) they never felt a need for it. "Open the windows, get the air circulating… it's fine." Sure. It would be, if the windows HAD SCREENS. So, now along with a mere breeze, on day where there MAY be one available, you open your windows to let it in, along with every spider, fly and bee within a square foot of your house. Your cat goes berserk, jumping, swatting, knocking things over to chase any moth or mosquito that enters your domain. You wake up with new bites every day, you have marks on every wall from the last thing you swatted to death, there is a never ending humming, buzz-like sound coming from every room in the house because of the £8 desk fan that must remain on and oscillating at all times to keep the air moving which gives us the false impression that it's "cooling off nicely" and by 2pm, when the sun is scorching into every window, regardless of what side of the house you THOUGHT didn't get the sun, and your sweating away, drinking your tiny Diet Pepsi with 2 pieces of ice because your tiny freezer can't hold more than a few ice trays, thinking, "How the fuck do they do this summer after summer?!"
Well..they don't know any different. These are people who plan vacations to Spain or Italy in July and August to roast themselves like the very sausages they savour. These are the true Brits. Then there are the Brits who've been to the States. These are the Brits that get it. They get what a luxury things like space, options, big portions, air conditioning, giant, open roads, big trucks and cars, yards with swimming pools, rooms with actual closets, 2 litre sodas, 24-hour drive thrus, giant bathrooms, massive freezers and electric bug zappers are all about. They get what I miss. And they make sad, pitiful eyes and nod their heads knowingly when I talk about it, almost tearing up with me. I long for one day where I don't give my poor wife a report on how much I've sweat in one afternoon, as she walks in the door from work.
Even the lesbian community, which I used think was so different over here-isn't really all that different. There are cliques, and groups that are impenetrable. There are promoters that think the sun rises and sets by them and their same, old tired events. There are the drinkers, the dancers, the DJ's, the girls who push their "feminine visibility" quest down your throat with their heels and lipstick and there are butches with bad haircuts that fall under the category of Lea Delaria. It's the same every where, I've concluded, you just have to find the friends you're most comfortable in and hang on for dear life.
Look, I've basically accepted the fact that there are things over here I may NEVER get used to. Things that will always make me wonder. Things that I'll never understand. Like...
Seeing a girl with hair dyed the colour of Hawaiian Punch or grape Fanta.
Knowing the nightly news weather report is just a simple map with a few numbers and some arrows for what direction the wind may blow, with no radar, no satellite imaging, no temperature gauges, no long range forecast, just a simple statement in the top corner of the screen saying something like "Delightfully sunny" or "Dreadfully wet" and a person who looks like they just finished a shift at the O2 store announcing it.
I have to accept things like it's shopping online all the time because getting in a car or taking a bus to a store is so incredibly inconvenient.
I have to accept that everyone starts their sentences off with "Right" or "Sorry" and end their sentences with a question all the time. "Well, it's 2 for 1 down the pub, INNIT?"
That the "mall" is really a town centre and some stores are indoor... and some stores are outdoor.
That people over here use FAR too many words in one godforsaken sentence (i.e.: Stephen Fry at the BAFTA Awards every year)
That people over here think 2 inches of snow is a reason to close every business and stay home.
That biscuits are cookies, that "tea time" could mean a meal, not a drink.
That football is soccer and people may cry when their team loses.
That self expressive hair cuts are the norm.
That gas is petrol, wind is gale, and farts are wind.
That I always hear "God Bless America" in my head when the England National Anthem plays.
That you have to pretty much say "still" water and not just "water" when asking a server.
That chips are french fries and burgers aren't so great.
That "scampi" is some weird blend of shrimp, langostino and crab in a tiny blob that's batter-coated.
That not a day goes by there isn't 4 traffic accidents on the M25.
That a place may be 8 miles away, but it could take you 90 minutes in traffic to get there.
That "taking the piss" means "making fun of…" and not actually going pee.
That cyclists think they are better than everyone, even with butt sweat stains on their latex shorts.
That "rain" could mean a downpour that lasts all day, or 11 drops.
That every pub has it's "clientel"- working class blokes, uptight professionals, or casual neighbours and they smell as such.
That people over here will spend an hour creating the perfect fire on their BBQ grill to make a friggin' sausage and in the winer, just push a button on their fireplace to light it up.
That people here think a beach has rocks.
That there is a weird international store on every High Street with fruit and meat you've never seen before and owners you wouldn't want to sit next to on a plane.
That there are fucking steps and stairs everywhere.
That people here think custard is the greatest thing ever.
That "Cheers" can mean "Hello", "Yes", "Good-Bye" and "Thank You."
That people over here take enormous pride in their gardens.
That they call a grocery cart a trolley. It's not the thing on a Rice-A-Roni box or that's in San Francisco.
That buses & trains will hardly ever run on schedule.
That Gary Barlow is some kind of National Treasure.
That people over here actually sit in the park, with their bag, a book and a bottle of water, unlike in the States when you go to park to either play basketball or walk your dog.
That the cracks in your walls are 'normal' because every house 'settles'.
That a worker that's doing your painting, or dry wall or repairs is likely to ask you for a cup of tea and use your bathroom, like he's a fucking a lodger or something.
That you may get stuck behind a horse drawn carriage on your way to the store.
That a full season of "Downton Abby" is 8 episodes long.
That they call dessert "pudding".
That people listen to talk radio like the gospel.
That hotels and bed & breakfasts most people think are quaint and adorable are really just old & shitty.
That people over here, as a rule, are generally uptight (and they can't help it).
That I will not ever spend a summer day without a Dyson fan blowing directly into my face.
That I will never stop missing my family and my Stateside friends & cats. It doesn't ever get easier.
That I will always need to look at the street to see what way traffic may be coming….
The cool thing is that there a lot of things that I love about being here. I love how every time we drive into a different town or a village the view is exactly like a pop-up storybook and every bit what you'd imagine England to look like. I love when we hit a certain stretch of country road and on each hillside are sheep, cows and horses for as far as your eye can see.
I love seeing old farm houses and knowing the same family has probably lived there since 1940. I love the view of Brighton as you head toward the beach and see the ferris wheel and pier. I love the gay scene there. I love that you can find the perfect mix of new & old in London. I love that you can get tickets to see live tapings of TV shows all the time and that it's completely accessible and easy and fun to go to. I love the local festivals. I could go to a festival every weekend if they had 'em. I love that my take on why people here are so uptight is because they spend their whole lives thinking that they could possibly run into a Royal unexpectedly and have to "be ready". I get it. I feel that way about maybe one day running into Adele.
I love what good sports they are when Americans try to imitate their accents, just like how we are good sports about British people taking all the good leading movie roles with their perfect American accents.
And, I think it's culturally wonderful when we all come together and imitate the Chinese waiter by saying "Oh, ha-roh, we get flied lice," after he walks away.
I know I joke about this being like the "land that time forgot" but the fact is I respect the way they hold their traditions and history so dearly and in such regard that they don't ever want to change things. It's sweet and I am proud to pretend to be a UK citizen (without the accent) most of the time.
The simple fact is the longer you are away from something, the more you miss it. Also, the longer you are immersed in something, the more you grow accustom to it, so I think I'm in the process of finding the perfect balance of the two.
Let's face it, England is a tiny little spot in the UK, and considering it would be like taking everyone in the state of Texas and cramming them into say…Delaware- they all seem to get along well. They are courteous with their local driving, they have very little crazy gun crime, they submit to the cattle call herding of Tube travel, they seem fairly respectful of their government, for having free National Health Care, they don't seem to be spilling out into the streets with diseases or anything, and regardless of the jokes about bad teeth, you don't see that very often and they are all incredibly polite about EVERYTHING, always chipper and friendly. They don't mind not having giant things, like road ways, streets, houses, cars, portions, it's like the are perfectly okay with what they don't know to miss. It's actually a pretty blissful way to live. So, it's lovely just to observe it and learn the ways of living in a more simple manor. With the things you need, and not so much with all the things you want. It's a lesson for me, every day.
But the thing I love most of all is that after 3 years of a long distance relationship, wondering if we would ever figure it all out, I can wake up with my gorgeous, ridiculously patient wife, in our own home every single day, even if it is far away from everything I've known for the last 42 years.