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AN OPEN LETTER TO MEGHAN MARKLE FROM AN AMERICAN EXPAT

Dear Meghan,

So you’re marrying a Brit and about to embark on the adventure of making a life for yourself in the UK. Congratulations!

As a fellow American who fell for the charms of a subject of the British crown (although not quite so close to the crown as your bloke), allow me to share a few words of advice about living in this green and pleasant land.

First, one of the reasons it is so green and pleasant is because it rains. A lot. I know this is a stereotype of the country, but I do recommend investing in a robust umbrella, even if you’ll never need to carry it yourself. I favour the American brand GustBusters, but the British design company Balios may be a better match for your new position. And it’s not just rain: weather in the UK can politely be described as changeable, and it is worth investing in a wardrobe that takes into account fog, wind, and, on occasion, scorching sun (seriously). Oh, and snow. You may have already gotten a taste of this earlier in the year, but whenever there is a dusting of snow the entire country shuts down, grabs anything that can be used as a sledge, and heads for the nearest hillside.

That word “sledge” brings me to another aspect that I suspect you’re already getting acquainted with. It’s said that America and England are two countries separated by a common language, and I would agree with that to a great extent. Spelling varies with a proliferation of extra Us, and Z (pronounced zed and not zee) transforms into an S when describing how to personalise an organisation or dealing with similarly prefixed words. The letters R and E switch places in words like theatre and centre, and then there’s programme, which I can’t really explain.

And the accents! While that is often part of the appeal of the British to an American audience, they (we) tend to lump everything all together into a general “Downton Abbey” category. But Brits can use accents to pinpoint where someone is from at the city level (and don’t get me started on the class aspects—I recommend Kate Fox’s Watching the English as a cheat sheet for social cues). The voice and dialect are just as important a way to learn about a new person as smells are to a dog … and potentially just as invisible to an outsider. There is a dizzying mix of names and sounds: Brummie, Geordie, Scouse, Mancunian. My recommendation? Start with larger areas: if you can manage to successfully separate and identify Irish, Welsh, Scots, English, Australian, and New Zealand in your first year, you’r doing well, and can consider graduating to regional accents before taking on the final challenge: deciphering Glaswegian.

Over the years, the words themselves have developed different meanings. I have been here nearly 15 years now and I am still learning new vocabulary on a regular basis. The main thing to remember, whether a royal or not, is to never discuss your pants in public. When ordering food, fries are chips, chips are crisps, and cookies are biscuits (and, sadly, buttermilk biscuits are not scones … but do try the scones, preferably with clotted cream and jam). It’s a shopping trolley, not a cart. A sidewalk is the pavement and the pavement tarmac (or simply “road”). It’s not a faucet but a tap. And so on.

Photographs of buildings in the Cotswolds

Speaking of taps, there are a few quirks you may need to get used to. First, mixer taps, where hot and cold water are combined to form warm water from one spout, are considered a radical innovation in building design. My house is practically brand new, being built post-2000 AD, but even it insists on having a hot tap and a cold tap, so your choices when washing your face are either bracing or scalding (it’s called a flannel here and not a wash cloth, by the way).

Then there are showers. There has been a cultural shift from tub to shower within my lifetime, but for some reason the Brits of the past were inordinately fond of baths, and many old buildings (and, if I remember correctly, you’ll be moving into a rather old building) still hold on to these relics, with showers of varying effectiveness bolted above the tub.

You’ll also notice when it comes time to dry your hair that there are no electrical sockets in the bathroom. This is a safety feature and I completely understand it … but it does mean you need to find another place to do your hair or invest in an extension cord. You will also have to get used to remembering to turn the electricity on and off at the socket. And don’t get me started on the fondness for storing the washing machine in the kitchen (although I suspect that your new abode will have a separate utility room or three).

When leaving the house, your choice of how to get from A to B is far broader than in the US, although I am assuming that you will not be taking the tube to get around London. Beyond this pretty efficient metro system (a subway is a pedestrian tunnel under a road), there are also buses and trains. There tends to be a lot of grumbling from the British about public transportation not running on time (and it often doesn’t), but compared to where I grew up in the US, which had zero public transportation options, it’s a decent system and means you don’t really need to own a car unless you want one.

If you do decide to drive/be driven, British roadways may take a little getting used to, and it’s not just because they drive on the left: from largest to smallest there are motorways, A roads, B roads, and country lanes, the latter which my SatNav system tends to insist are the quickest way to travel (they are not). Even when sticking to larger roads, it’s not always possible to get from one point to another easily; for example, covering the 25 miles from my house to my in-laws takes an hour (speaking of which, your in-laws’ house at Highgrove is lovely; I hope you and Harry get to spend some time there). However, I suppose if you’ve had practice on the LA freeway, you will be used to a skewed perspective of time and distance.

Making things a little easier for the American transplant is that distances are given in miles and not kilometres, although gas (petrol) is measured in litres and not gallons. Other measurements may take some getting used to. Inches and feet are still used, but weights are typically given in stones (14 pounds) or kilograms. Time can be given using the 24-hour clock, and dates are typically given before the month.

Photographs of the English landscape

All of these little titbits (yes, that’s the British spelling) can be learned.  Where being married to a Brit—and immersed in a different culture, no matter how similar—can toss up problems is with a lack of a shared background. While much of the popular culture of the US and UK is similar, driven, as you know, by Hollywood films and television, there are a lot of British quotes and characters that are likely to leave you drawing a blank, from childhood staples like the Magic Roundabout and Postman Pat and his black-and-white cat, to the cunning plans of Blackadder’s Baldrick.

Oddly enough, much of these cultural touchstones revolve around the famed British sense of humour. While Monty Python, Mr. Bean, and Benny Hill have been more or less successfully exported around the globe, Father Ted, Fawlty Towers, and the Two Ronnies and their four candles are less well known abroad, but are almost part of the national DNA. And it works both ways. I’ve had to introduce my husband to the joys of Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on first?” sketch, I Love Lucy and the classic Vitameatavegamin and assembly line numbers, and Carol Burnett’s curtain dress, although we did manage to find a common language in Friends.

Pivoting to another area of culture that tends to get overlooked, the British take their holidays seriously, in both senses of the word. After all, “holiday” does double duty in the UK, meaning both “vacation” and “a seasonal event”. There are Bank Holidays, random days off beloved of office workers everywhere (we were rather disappointed not to get one for your wedding, but the Late May Bank Holiday will suffice). Then there’s Christmas, which is celebrated with a secular joy starting around September. The day itself sees much attention paid to the humble Brussel sprout, which is virtually ignored the other 364 days of the year. Then there is the Christmas cracker, a party favour filled with bad jokes, cheap toys, and a paper crown that everyone wears until it tears or you get tired pushing it out of your eyes. Oh, and Father Christmas (a.k.a. Santa) tends to get sherry and a mince pie instead of milk and cookies.

Fireworks occur on 5th November instead of the Fourth of July. While this means that it gets dark early and the festivities can begin sooner, you will likely be freezing and huddling around the bonfire for warmth rather than a sense of celebration. It is also likely that you will spend a lot of time explaining Thanksgiving. “Thanksgiving is bigger than Christmas, right?” is a question I’ve been asked more than once by British friends and colleagues. This causes me to imagine a ranked list of holidays: Christmas at the top, Arbor Day at the bottom, and perhaps Presidents’ Day somewhere in the middle While Black Friday sales have crossed the pond and taken root, it still takes time to describe the potent concoction of pilgrims and Indians, family and friends, food and football, and their hold on the American psyche.

The pilgrims remind me of the final topic I wanted to mention, and I admit it’s the elephant in the room: immigration. What I find odd is that if you were to ask the average person on the street, neither you nor I are likely to be considered immigrants. I’m not sure why when we most definitely are according to the dictionary definition of the word. I tend to use the word “expat” because it has less baggage and there is an element of choice in it, but there’s no getting around that you are considered a foreigner by the government. My assumption is that you will need to go through the same hoops as any spouse: a two-year temporary visa (what I call the probationary wife stage), then you can apply for indefinite leave to remain after taking the Life in the UK test, which tests whether you can memorise information that no person born in Britain actually knows or needs to know to function on a day-to-day basis (actual practice question: How many children and young people up to the age of 19 live in the UK?). Each stage of the process will cost a great deal of time and money.

So, is it all worth it? Even without the addition of HRH to my name, I can say, without a doubt, YES. Providing you’re marrying the right person (I did, and I hope you are too), the rest of the country is a bonus.

History is written on the land in a way that, for an American, is both novel and exciting. It is a place where you can stumble over the distant Neolithic at places such as Stonehenge and Avebury, see the outposts of the Roman Empire at Hadrian’s Wall or Bath Spa, visit medieval castles in the Welsh or Scottish borders, experience the luxury of stately homes and gardens (admittedly you may get a slightly more privileged view than the average National Trust member), and enjoy the technological and scientific marvels provided by the Victorian age and beyond.

Then there’s the natural beauty. The compactness of the country belies the sheer variety of landscapes: ancient woodlands, rugged coasts, moors, mountains, and gently rolling hills can all be found within its borders. Added to this is the olde worlde charm of thatched cottages, black-and-white timber framed buildings, and dry-stone walling that dot the countryside. The sights of London are just as enthralling as when Samuel Johnson made his famous proclamation.

It’s a country of learning and literature, having given the world Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, and Dahl. As an introvert, I feel right at home with the British reserve and stiff upper lip, but the modern Brits are generally a pretty friendly bunch. And politics? Well, nobody’s perfect. The colonialism of the past and Brexit of the present are of course deserving of the serious attention they deserve, but that’s something you can catch up on after the honeymoon.

I have to confess that I will not be watching your wedding tomorrow. Instead, I will be out with my own husband enjoying the best of what my patch of the UK has to offer, but I just wanted to officially welcome you to your new country – you picked a good one.

With best wishes,
Elaine

Wedding Photographs

PS: Thank you for selecting Surfers Against Sewage as a charity recipient for your wedding donations! As someone who has been battling against litter in my own community for the past several years, anything that helps draw attention to marine rubbish and littering in general is much appreciated. Could I ask a teensy-weensy little favour, from one American to another? Please use your position to advocate for behaviour change policies that will help break the country’s litter habit. The UK is a beautiful country, but some of its residents need to be reminded of that.

PPS: And if you can do anything to encourage people to use reusable water bottles and coffee cups, that would be marvellous, thanks!

PPPS: The answer is 15 million.

Elaine Massung Off the Beaten Track
Love to explore? Go Off the Beaten Track and enjoy the beautiful English countryside with this free eBook. Subscribe to the MissElaineous mailing list to have it delivered directly to your inbox.

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2 Comments

  1. September 26, 2018 / 3:18 pm

    A funny, factual and personable take on English life that’s sure to win over any ex pat.

    A great and informative blog that made me smile.

    I also loved your wedding photos.

    • admin
      Author
      September 29, 2018 / 7:57 pm

      Thanks, Frances, I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

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