Saturday, 30 October 2010

American Things I Still Do After 11 Years In Britain

WEDNESDAY: Because it's very cold outside, and the Winter Garden has suddenly become overpopulated with children's school groups -- not to mention the usual lunchtime congregations of office workers and OAPs -- I've been eating my lunch this week on the only inside benches available: the ones in the Millennium Galleries lobby. Yesterday I ate my haloumi sandwich inches away from the greeting cards in the museum gift shop, and today I'm under the skylight shade of sculptor Johnny White's cutlery dog tree, officially called "Barking Up The Right Tree". Not far away is a newspaper board for the Restless Times, today's headline reading WOMEN TO BE RECRUITED AS BUS CONDUCTORS. As this is part of the "Restless Times" art exhibit, featuring British art from 1914 to 1945, there's no need to worry about a social regression.

The only thing I have to worry about is my benchmate who has started to sniff loudly and toxically, as if any minute he'll cough and sneeze his autumn cold or flu germs in my direction. I'll have to start humming loudly to drown it out -- oh, thank god, another chattering herd of sprogs is approaching.

My lunch is a gentle-on-the-stomach tuna sandwich made with yogurt, capers and caper vinegar, sun-dried tomatoes, cumin, and thyme. Fruit is all orange -- satsuma, black plum, and peach -- suggesting plenty of protective vitamins. And the school group currently passing by is teenaged and chattering away in Spanish. May sunshine fruit and Spanish keep the viral wolves at bay. ¡Vete! ¡Vete!

I realised the other day that after 11 years of living in the UK, whenever somebody sneezes I still respond with "Gezundheit!" As I never hear Brits use the term so popular in America, I do consciously try to say either nothing or the very British "Bless you", also used in America. But having grown up in the land of Freedom To Not Worship I do resent having to use an expression with such religious connotations. So I usually say nothing. But the occasional "Gezundheit!" still escapes fairly regularly, even though nobody ever thanks me for the sentiment.

Another adjustment I still haven't made in all these years is saying "Ta" for "Thank You". Saying the extremely British "Sorry" for "Excuse Me" (or "Ouch! Watch where you're going, you clutz!") and "Cheers" for "Thanks" both come second-nature to me, and of course "Thank You" is always easy to say. But although I occasionally text "Ta", simply because it's one-third the length of "Thanks" to type, I can't utter it vocally. If somebody in a shop gives me change I must say "Thanks" or "Cheers" because I'd feel like a total fool saying "Ta" in my American accent. I may as well say "Doodoo" or "Titty" for the way it makes me feel.

So to my British friends, all I can say is "Sorry" -- and get off my foot, thank you very much!

FRIDAY: I'm in the University Atrium today, sitting at a quiet table on Level 4 with a peek-a-boo view of the Park Hill Flats. I'm eating another tuna sandwich as slowly as I can in an attempt to stay as relaxed as I can. Stress is having its way with my stomach, and although life is getting more stressful every day with no relief in sight, I must be kind to my stomach. There, there...

If I were writing this in America I'd be inclined to go into the details of my stomach's woes. But as this is Britain I shall stick to the local standards. In other words, I won't replying honestly to the question "How Are You?" -- or the more common "You all right?" This is another British phrase with which I've never felt very comfortable. When somebody says hello followed by a cheerful "You all right?" the custom is to smile back and say a cheerfully automatic "Yeah!" Regardless of how you are feeling, never reply with the truth, even if you're lying in a pool of blood with a dagger projecting from your abdomen. "You all right?" is the same as the American "How are you", only in America one might be inclined to reply with either a sarcastic "I've been better, thanks" or perhaps a more traumatic "AAAGGGGHHHEEEEIIIIHHH!" But here in England, although it would probably be acceptable to ask the passerby if they might be so helpful as to give 999 a ring, it would be considered tediously invasive to go into any detail as to why you might need the emergency services -- and, of course, why you aren't disposed at the moment to phone them yourself.

I freely admit I've failed to adopt this British art of understatement. I suppose it's because that having been brought up American, I obviously identify to some extent with Woody Allen. After all, most urban Americans, regardless of whether they're Catholic, Protestant, Moslem, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, or Jedi, will admit to having grown up with a Jewish mother. And complaining about what ails you is just part of the national identity.

Still, I'm going to try my hardest to avoid telling you all about my bad stomach...

NEXT MONDAY: I'm sitting in the University library cafe nibbling very slowly on a sandwich with leftover sautéed basa and prawns and salad. It's a very simple sandwich; but as I promised not to talk about my bad stomach I'll leave it at that.

THURSDAY: What a lovely sandwich for a ridiculous day crowded to bursting with people and tasks. It's a mixture of blue cheese brie and smoked Bavarian on a ciabatta roll -- my sandwich, that is, not the day. It's plain and simple, like a view of the Blue Alps. It's surprisingly good, like having a leisurely French picnic next to a roaring bonfire. Très bon!

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