This is the tenth year that I have lived in the United Kingdom. It was just a few weeks ago, when I bought solar-powered garden fairy lights and was surprised that they didn’t work, that I realised there is still a lot I don’t understand about life over here, starting with the fact that THERE IS NO SUN IN DECEMBER TO POWER ANYTHING!
I will never forget the day I arrived, fresh off the
boat plane, at Heathrow airport, quivering in my coat as I queued in the passport control hall filled with cctv lenses blinking, officers stamping papers, scanning and some people being ushered into interview rooms, desperately afraid that I would be deported. I had all the correct paperwork, but I had heard so many horror stories of fellow Saffas being turned around and despatched back home that it was a profound reality I wrestled with as I inched along the painful line. Thankfully they let me in!
I think I did a pretty good job adjusting to life in England…I don’t wear my coat indoors anymore and I have a Tesco clubcard. After I got over the initial shock that nobody speaks the queen’s english and the realisation that I would have to ‘speak different’ to be understood, I assimilated well. I will never forget my first shopping trip to what I thought was the biggest supermarket in the entire world (it turned out to be an average-sized Tesco) where you could BUY BEER and CLOTHES and KITCHEN KNIVES, alongside DECAF Earl Grey Tea! Maldon Salt (which cost five times more in SA) and the variety of choice was astounding: 20 different types laundry detergent, 50 different types of cereal. I had no idea which brands were good, which were overpriced and which were downright crappy. That took quite a few years to figure out!
And in spite of all the new things I’ve learnt and the way of life I have adopted and made my own, there are moments where I still feel like a complete and utter foreigner. Here are a few things that I still don’t quite understand:
- The national obsession with cheddar cheese. There are so many different types of cheddar in the supermarkets and I have no idea what the difference is between mature, extra mature and mild – it all crumbles and is completely awkward to slice or grate.
- Wallpaper. In South Africa we just paint our walls. In some circles it would be regarded as terribly pretentious to have wallpaper. I have no clue what is stylish when it comes to wallpaper. The very thought that I would have to commit to one particular pattern on my walls for an indefinite amount of time makes me break out in a cold sweat. And from what I’ve heard, the process of removing wallpaper is a lot more complicated than just painting over a wall.
- Yorkshire puddings. Doughy, chewy air that are impossible to cut properly with a knife – or at least it always goes weird when I try. I don’t fully understand the protocol…are you meant to eat the pudding on it’s own with gravy? When I do that I generally feel ‘is this it?’ which I don’t get with the carrots or potatoes, for example. I can’t say a Yorkshire pudding has ever ‘completed’ a Sunday roast for me.
- Free cash machines. Doesn’t anybody find it funny that there are machines labelled ‘FREE CASH’!? I understand it means you don’t get charged for cash withdrawals…but it always makes me smile…it’s like they’re just giving it away, just because….you know, like FREE EGGS for FREE BEDS.
- Fake fireplaces. I don’t know, maybe it’s because in South Africa if you want a braai you just light a real fire, the concept of a fireplace that isn’t a ‘real’ fireplace was quite hilarious to me the first time I came across one. If your house doesn’t have an actual fireplace you can make one that looks like one but isn’t one – it’s quite brilliant really! They can be electric or gas, they can be ultra modern with pebbles that light up like coals or you can have a screen with a fake flame that flickers like the real thing…again the choice is astounding. Like the wallpaper issue, I wouldn’t know where to start if I had to get one!
- Conservatories. Okay so these look lovely but I’ve realised there are some unwritten rules and a logic that only British people understand how you furnish a conservatory (for instance, you can’t just put any couch in one! you can’t hang curtains in them!). Do you put heating in a conservatory? If not then you can’t really use it in winter…so what do you put in a room you can only use a few months in a year. It remains a terribly foreign concept to me!
- Parking on the street. You guys, the streets in England are ridiculously narrow (and don’t get me started on the country lanes) and yet people PARK ON THE STREET in both directions so that only one car can get through at a time and this doesn’t seem to be a problem for anyone!!! **white knuckles** The first time I parked on the street like that I was sure to get back to a car totally written off, but there it was, without the faintest of scratches – people had simply driven past it and not into it (?!). I do still hold my breath and avoid parking on the street where I can, but I have learnt to place a bit of trust in this ‘system’.
So one day, when I get my British citizenship you’re all invited over to celebrate in my new conservatory next to my fake fireplace and wallpapered hall for some cheddar cheese and Yorkshire puddings…and you can all park precariously on the road outside my house. That would be most appropriate I think!