Once in a while the strangest blonde moment creeps up — no offense to the blondes, just using it as a cliche — that truly embarrasses me. We were driving along the dusty backroads of the French countryside (Normandie!) when the Hubby looks skywards sharply, points a finger, and says “Hawk!”.
Me (puzzled and looking up): PORK? (I swear I heard him say “Pawk”, as in the British pronunciation for “Pork”)
Hubby (even more puzzled): HAWK! Big bird. Hawk!
Me (realizing the absurdity of a high-flying piece of meat, and trying to be cool about the sudden drop of IQ): Oh, HAWK, right. ok.
Hubby: Pork? Why would I say “Pork”? I was pointing at the sky….
Me: I don’t know. That’s what I thought I heard. But hey, you never know. You know what they say — “when pigs fly….”
Nonstop shaking of head and laughing between us. You’d think by now these lost-in-translation moments would long have banished. Oy vey.
I realize that I haven’t posted in a while; and I am a little half-hearted about jump-starting it with a grumble. In particular, it will be about (the virtually non-existent) customer service in the UK…. again. It’s the one thing about UK life I can’t quite get my head around, just because it’s a puzzle that in a country where everything is about civility, politeness and niceties, very few stores (or “shops”) seem to be able to get it right.
Today I headed into town to run a few errands at the bank and the post office. Too early for the return train — and yes, I DO have to rush back home as I have a conference call to Chicago by 9:30 Central Time — I decided to go to Debenhams to use up an expiring gift card. The gift card had a 24-month lifetime, and we got it as a wedding gift 2 years ago. Hence the urgency to use it before its expiration. I got a few small things at the home section, and headed up to pay. Here goes the convo at the till:
Cashier : Hi, you alright?
Me : Hi, yes, I’m good how are you (waited for her to scan the 2 items, tell me the total, and then I handed over the gift card)
Cashier : (peering from the top of her bifocals for some time and swiping it) — Do you know how much money you have on the card?
Me : (slightly surprised why it was up to me to tell her how much was left on the card — she could swipe to find out couldn’t she? — and trying to remember how much I had left on the card). Hmmmmm…. I’m not too sure. I think I might have around £120-something on it….
Cashier : (looking back at me) So, in other words, — you do not know…..
Yup, those were her words — “so in other words, you do not know….”
I am only slightly amused, but mostly annoyed at myself, for being thrown off by comments like these, especially when they come with an accent and a nose in the air (literally, as it tried to hold up her bifocals). I am not too sure whether to react the “American way” of always being right as customer; or to tread the polite line of putting sales staff softly in their place by a slight change in my intonation, the right choice of words, or the just-enough raise of my right eyebrow. It really is tricky to make that split-second decision to either dare to be yourself and risk awkward attention; or to live as the Romans when in Rome and tone everything way way down. I just know that each time I come over to the UK, I do not stay long enough to get out of the mode of being the visitor or the outsider, and to know how to deal with situations the way locals do. But because that is my choice and this is my life, for now all I can do is sigh. Until I get it right, if they don’t.
A chunk of my time when I am in the US is spent outside of Chicago. In “CowTown” as I call it, — a busy little city at a corner of a state that shares a border with Illinois. The reason for the prolonged stop here is one of my major clients. I drive down from Chicago to do practically what an in-house counsel does: make sure everything is in order from ongoing litigation, to their labor, tax, immigration, contract, and business matters. Often I collaborate with local practitioners (by “local” I mean those licensed to appear in court in that state), which often makes me wonder whether or not I should just make life simpler and apply for reciprocity in this little state to add to my New York one. But that would mean less fraternizing with other practitioners (the banter can be fun), and more work for me (bad). Better not. And anyway, the travel to CowTown is but fair. The client pays for my plane fare to and from. Who am I to complain? Until I slow down and prepare to sit for the QLTT, and qualify myself as a solicitor in jolly olde England and Wales, Life will continue to be bi-coastal. Or maybe I should reinvent myself and do something other than lawyering. Maybe tight-rope walking or aeronautic engineering. Did I go on a tangent? Back to the topic. Small towns/cities. Ah yes, small towns and cities, such as good ol’ CowTown, DO have their charm. Life is slower. Streets have no sidewalks. Food is greasy. Walmart is busy (at night it also becomes Meth Central). People take time to smile and chat. People behind the counters are sunshiney and chirpy, and… can we just cut the crap and get the lines moving quicker please!?
And quite unlike it is in Chi-Town, people here in CowTown have their gym in a box. Yup. The handful that I know have a common denominator : a Wii console with all the bells and whistles, which they use for exercise. What a beauty. Recently, I even got to run a virtual bike race at “Wii Resort” against a 4-year old with pigtails. I need not tell you who between us got to the finish line first, and who pointed her little finger upwards and laughed a hearty “hahahha you lose!”. Suffice it to say that, well… it wasn’t me, and mostly it was because I didn’t quite know the rules of the game which included, inter alia, that I had to go slow on the pedalling once in a while, to manage my energy level lest I get disabled and dizzy and faint. At least onscreen. Which is precisely what happened. Ceteris paribus therefore not knowing the rules caused me to lose to someone 1/10th my age. I do not care if you’re thinking the lady protests too much. It’s always good defense: I-didn’t-know-the-rules-and-that-I-could-slash-could-not-do-that. Good faith always accounts for something. Even in Wii matches. And believe it or not, all the humiliation of losing actually made me more interested to get my hands on one of those gadgets. I checked out Best Buy. A “bundled” set for 2 players would cost $260 at Best Buy (with sales taxes a third lower than Chicago), and the basic set for a single player is a $199 special at Target. I asked the guy at Best Buy if the baby will work in the UK, and he assured me that I only need an “adaptor” to plug into the electric socket. But otherwise, the toy is, for all intents and purposes, multi-jurisdictional.
And so that afternoon over the phone, as the 6-hours-ahead hubby called to say good night, I deliver the important news: “Sweetheart (*you need a term of endearment in these times), we really, really need to get a Wii.” NEED. Not just want. We need it for exercise. As flab-buster. To maintain good health and wellbeing. The other end of the line is quiet. The hubby is appalled. He is a non-believer of virtual life. Methuselah thinks exercise should entail gym equipment, a racket, a ball, wheels, or at least REAL sunshine. He tells me he can’t believe I am going the way of the young and misguided who type before they can write, and who live full lives in the Non-Real realm. And then he throws me this punch: “And what will they think of next? Wii sex?” Then it was my turn to be quiet. — NOW WHERE ON EARTH IS MY BADMINTON RACKET?
Some shots from the weekend (scroll pointer over photos for description):
The Brits rarely hardsell anything. They are the masters of underplay and understatement. And even when they must toot their own horn, — what in the cut-throat world of marketing — they seem to be reluctant about going all-out. I found this packaging on Marks & Spencer’s Rich Team Cream Fingers quite amusing: “Really rather good”. In America, there would be no qualms about something being “ooh oom good” or “finger lickin’ good”. But M&S proudly declare these little sweethearts to be, uhm …. “REALLY RATHER Good”. “Really rather” sounds like an oxymoronic pair of adjectives that cancel each other out. But somehow, knowing their British origins, it adds to its charms. That tendency to false modesty which really translates to “Go on, YOU tell us it’s really good, because we’re not going to!”.
They are proud in their humility. Proud that they are not proud”. ~ Robert Burton (British Clergyman) 1574-1640.
It’s all in the ears, and to be honest, there really have been days here in Jolly Olde where I could swear I do not speak English. We live in the “northwestern” part of England (middle part of the UK), and people here have “broad” accents. I often wonder how C is able to tell spot a “northern” accent, or a “Liverpool”, Scottish, Welsh (ad nauseum) accents. For me, its simpler. You either have the BBC accent, or a “was-that-really-in-English?” accent. Really, there must be something wrong with my ears. But anyway, I am of the conviction that there are way too many variations on the theme of English going around in the world. Not the least of which is…. Chinese English. Especially of the kind where either some high-tech, unreliable translation technology is involved; or perhaps an English-Chinese dictionary that just didn’t make it through quality control.
Recently, I found a box of “Health Bath Salt – Natural Bathing Product” in a friend’s bathroom. The product was “made in China” and of course, the info on the box was mostly in Chinese. Except one of the side panels which had — yay! — some info in English….. Or is it? Here goes —
Ingredients: Natural solar salt, vitamin E, spice food grade pigment.
Usage: Add 1 pack per use to the bathwater.
Bathing: 5-10 minustes
* Cleaning and moisturizing the skin.
* Sweat deodoring and refreshing.
* Smells of Charming Odor
English is a funny language; that explains why we park our car on the driveway and drive our car on the parkway. ~Author Unknown
A couple of days ago, while walking down the streets of Canterbury (Kent) towards the center, I found this little sign by the under-serious-renovation St. Mildred’s Church:
Yeah, I too always thought signs best served their purpose when they are very simple notices. If possible even understandable by older kids. In the US, this same sign would probably read “Watch Out (or Keep Out). Falling Debris.” But this one looked, amusingly, more like a legal document. “Falling Masonry”? and “Inclement Weather Conditions”?? As I often tell the hubby, …. “seriously, who talks like that in daily conversation?” :)
“Separated by a common language” — how often have we heard that screech used to describe the divide between good ol’ Jolly Olde, versus the Colony across the pond. You know the proverbial usuals —
“MIND THE GAP” instead of “watch your step”;
“TO LET” instead of “For Rent”;
… “TOILET” instead of “rest rooms”
and the list goes on. I’ve seen a road sign that said —
“BEWARE : These Roads May Tend To Flood During Rain”,
and pointed out to C how “CAUTION – ROADS MAY FLOOD” would’ve made a much smaller signboard.
The uber-nice hotel we stayed in Canterbury brags of “Easy and Quick!” (note exclamation point) access to the Internet. But where’s all that quick-and-easiness that when the textually-challenged guide/instructions tell you this? —
Yeah! — “24 hours from 12 to 12 unlimited usage”. (or 11 to 11, 10 to 10…. so on :)). Ok, let’s go through the instructions. Step 1, check. Step 2, check. Now, Step 3 — serious stall. “Select ARGUMENT”? — Hmmm, I had to consult the hubby on that one. Might we even draw swords at some point if the argument gets too heated? [Note: To be fair, the hubby confirmed that he, too, was “a bit confused” by the use of the word “argument” here, and that the usage is somewhat questionable.]
“Whilst” is still happily used in everyday conversation. “Licensed Premises”? — ok. “Within sight of an accompanying adult at all times” — yes. Just dig it. This is all “PLEASE KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR KIDS” in legalese. or in English. :)
Over the weekend, C and I had dinner with Charles and Elizabeth at our favorite local Chinese buffet place, creatively named “The Chinese Buffet”. Charles was C’s classmate from way-back when they were yay high in primary school, and Elizabeth is Charles’s wife. I first met the couple when C’s friends threw a “welcome and post-wedding congratulations party” for us in late June. This dinner was our turn to introduce them to one of our eating haunts before they show us theirs next.
As expected, dinner conversation (and bantering) centered on C and Charles’s childhood and growing up antics, their college escapades, and exaggerated stories about their good friends and worst enemies — the usual and expected he-men legends men try to concoct to impress their wives (hmmm….). They also traded updates on their other passions (read: sports) : C’s motorsports, and Charles’s target shooting. And so it went, until out of the blue, or what seemed to me like out the blue, the conversation went this lane:
Charles (to C): So, are you now into property? (the usual silent “r”– thus pronounced “propeh-tee“)
Me (thinking to myself): Oh, is Charles selling us real estate?
But as the convo progressed, I found myself losing my way — one of those many moments of panic, now becoming common with me, where I hear English words, I know its English, yet somehow can’t really make sense of any word. It was only when Elizabeth mentioned “silver needle” and its “exceptional, smooth taste” that I suddenly realized that Charles had asked about “proper tea” (since he observed that C and I were drinking Chinese tea), and not “property” as I mistakenly thought. I found myself silently amused, feeling slightly silly, and made a mental note to tell Craig about how my ears have (again) played tricks on me with the sleight of a British accent (one of many).
So earlier today, I mentioned this to C. And this is how the conversation continued:
C : What? “Property”? No, of course not. I knew very clearly that he was talking about “proper tea”, you know — “real tea”.
Me: Yeah, But I thought he was talking about “property”, you know — “realty”.