I saw an article yesterday reminding everyone that London’s iconic “Gherkin” building is ten years old. I’m not familiar with it at all. Oh, I know what it looks like, where it is and that its real name is its street address, 30, St. Mary Axe, but it’s not part of my London. I left in 1990, so the Gherkin, along with the Shard, the new St. Pancras station and many others (not to mention numerous new tube lines) weren’t there when I lived in London.
For four years of my working life I lived in Wimbledon, and these days, despite visiting various friends each year, I can barely navigate my way around. The train station had no shops, and the dreaded one-way system didn’t exist; the only thing that looks remotely familiar is the village High Street.Ditto my homeland of Tyneside, although I must admit, large portions such as the gorgeous Quayside and the Fish Quays have changed for the better. The Angel of the North, constructed between 1994 and 1998 is a welcome home for me whenever I return on the northbound A1, but I am still conscious of it being “new”.
And certain parts of daily life are also unfamiliar, – alien even. It’s no surprise that I use some American words without even pausing to decide between that and the British English equivalent. None of that “Blimey, I can’t remember whether it’s the bonnet or the hood” malarkey that often besets expat Brits. When I left the UK, most of us weren’t on the Internet, so words like “dongle” are not in my vocabulary, but “flash drive” or “USB” are. Similarly, since phones that we carry around in coat pockets are a post 1990 thing, I call them “cell” rather than “mobile” phones. Cars didn’t have any kind of assistance for the driver other than a rear view mirror, so for me, it’s “GPS” rather than “sat nav”. I haven’t’ consciously gone native, I just didn’t grow up with the British English names for those things.
Even the littlest of things can make me feel like I’ve just been released from a 25-to-life-prison term (with one year off for good behavior). I’m quite the pro now, but when I first encountered a British supermarket trolley/cart that required the deposit of a pound coin, I picked up a basket instead. Not being the most mechanically minded person in the first place, I couldn’t figure out how the whole thing worked (honestly) and didn’t want to ask. It’s not that I’m shy, but I’ve found in the past, that because I don’t have a foreign accent, people just look at me sideways when I can’t do the simplest of British things. What sort of Brit doesn’t know how to release a supermarket trolley for crying out loud? Or take paying in a restaurant. All over the UK you find tableside credit card processing, which sadly, hasn’t really caught on over the Pond yet. It’s quite flummoxing not getting that small piece of paper to sign and again, if the waiter thinks you’re from the UK (which I am) they don’t appreciate why you haven’t a clue.
When I left, TV had Teletext but that was pretty much it. Satellite remotes have me staring blankly at them and no amount of instruction from my mother seems to sink in.
(Having said that, no matter where I am, when faced with more than one remote, I invariably falter.) Talk of BSkyB, Sky+ and Sky+HD might as well be in, well, Greek and the celebrities that weren’t still in primary school when I left are barely recognizable – apart from Lulu, that is.
So yes, going back home these days is very much like waking from a long, long slumber. Everything is vaguely familiar but when it comes to the details, it’s all passed me by.
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.