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Expat Life Keeps You Humble

I suppose the same can really be said of travel in general, but with expat life, you don’t have the protection of the tourism status – “I don’t know what the heck I’m doing but that’s OK, I’m only here for a week”. And boy, there’s nothing like being thrown in at the deep end and making a fool of yourself on a daily basis.

When I first came to the States back in the dark ages (1990, to be exact) a lot of things were completely new to me. Like walking for miles (it seemed) to find a mailbox when I could have just put my letters in my own mailbox as out-going mail.If nobody tells you that the mail carriers will take your mail, how on earth would you know? And of course, when your mistake is eventually revealed, it’s always when you’re out with a crowd of people, who all find it cute or amusing.

It seems I wasn’t the only one confused about the American mail system though. Blogger UK Desperate Housewife in the USA remembers “On my second day at our USA home I skipped to the mailbox at the end of our road. It appeared that they key was not working. I tried many keys, wondered if a neighbour might intervene and kept trying throughout the day. When I told my husband about the problem he said ‘You just go round to the front of it and we’re box number six.’ ‘Oh’, I said, ‘I’ve obviously been trying the back of it.” ’That’s the postman’s/mailman’s side,’ said he. I have since found out it is a federal offence to attempt to access the mailman’s side.


Expat Focus columnist Michele Garrett still cringes at the mere thought of her faux pas, which went on for years. Thinking that her husband and his friends were all saying, “I can’t be asked” to express their disinterest in doing something, Michele took up the expression herself, using it in everyday conversations including those with her very proper mother-in-law. It was literally years before she realized that they were actually saying “I can’t be arsed”, and that’s what everyone thought she’d been saying too. Eek.

My American husband spent three years in London before we married. On one of his first days he recalls strolling through the office one rainy morning, wearing his brand new raincoat.

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As he passed one of his colleagues, the guy complimented him. “Nice mac” he said. My husband’s reply? “No, it’s Mark.”

I’d love to have seen the confused look on the other guy’s face, although my husband’s expression when I told him what a mac* was, made up for it.

American entrepreneur John O Morisano recalls “While an expat in Paris, I met a British expat and the 2 of us became fast friends (i.e. drinking buddies). One weekend my friend invited me to her parents’ house back in England to watch her brothers play rugby and enjoy a good home cooked Sunday lunch. Well the rugby was alcohol filled hilarity and the Sunday lunch was to die for. So to die for that I broke out my best British compliment for my friend’s mum and declared across the crowded table that this meal was indeed “the dog’s bullocks.”** Well to die for was apt as I killed all conversation and mum, the chef, just stared down at her plate speechless.

I didn’t find out till later that evening what bullocks actually were.”

Ah – sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

* Mac – short for Macintosh, a British brand of raincoat.
**Although the British phrase “the dog’s bollocks” means that something is really, really good, the phrase shouldn’t be used in polite company as bollocks are, in fact, balls or testicles.

Toni Summers Hargis has a new book – “The Stress-Free Guide to Studying In the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students”. (Summertime). She is also the author of “Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom” (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.

Read Toni's other Expat Focus articles here.

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