Wednesday 11 March 2009

Conspicuous combustion

Friends from "home"* keep asking me about the unemployment rate here, and whether people seem as scared as they do in the U.S. I usually say no, because our experience is such that we tend to hang out with creative types who've always had to scramble, who've never owned a stock that didn't come in a cube. We just get on with things and, luckily, find conspicuous consumption pretty boring anyway. Also, there is a safety net in Britain, in the form of certain amenities such as national health care; and we are not assaulted daily by Faux News, MSNBC, and on and on—as previously mentioned, we listen to the radio, and we read. The anti-hysteria filter works better that way.

If you catch a second of someone like Jim Cramer screaming at you from your TV, your nerves are bound to fray; even tuning in to Jon Stewart online for U.S. news (hey, I vowed in January 2001 to get my TV "news" only from him, and I have largely stuck with that strategy), it's hard not to feel the fear. Which is what they want—they meaning the military/industrial complex that wants you to listen to the advertisers and buy buy buy till you forget that your tax dollars are funding its wars. Short-sighted strategy, that one. There is nothing left to buy, as America consumes more than it produces; the well is dry. An artist would call it a major block.

Not to downplay my compatriots' real economic problems though. If I were still in New York, I'd be flipping out too—from the comfort of a cardboard box. As Michael Moore pointed out in Sicko, nobody in Britain goes homeless as a secondary condition of getting cancer. Why people aren't rioting in the streets for nationalized health ... oh, yeah, they're too paralyzed with fear. Meanwhile the freakshow on the right is already blaming Barack Obama for the recession and ex-home-owners for the credit crunch. It would all be really funny, but it's freaking scary.

Of course, Britons are are scared too. I mostly try to ignore it—stick my head in the sand, maybe, but I can't do anything about the threatening global recession. As a freelance writer who's been in the country less than two years, I can't even get a credit card, so it can't be my fault....

Is there as much of a culture of fear in Britain? That seems more the question. Not in my experience. But fear does manifest, in weird ways: for instance, the macabre Jade Goody deathwatch. Perhaps the impending fear of financial (worldly) loss is linked to a primordial fear of death. Just for fun I Googled "fear of death" and Wiki's entry on "Existential crisis" popped up. Veddy interestingk. Jade's tabloid death vigil gives me the chills, and it makes me wonder about the people who pay to read those papers, as well as the publishers. (For the uninitiated, print journalism here plays a very different role than it does in the States—it's weird enough to make even a writer celebrate the death of print.) But perhaps I shouldn't judge. At least someone's making some money. The Goody fascination is a diversionary tactic; a Princess Diana for 2009. The sadness of it makes my head want to implode; whereas if I were in America now, I think, my head would explode from all the screaming. So, I switch off. Time to take stock and make soup.

* I use quotes because home is a really theoretical concept to me now as an expat/immigrant. As my (East) German friend once said when I asked him if he ever missed it, "Home—that's an interesting idea."

Saturday 21 February 2009

Manahatta to Albion

One characteristic of my life that's changed since moving here is that I listen to an awful lot of radio. My routine in New York was to switch on the tube and NY1 first thing in the morning, just to take the temperature of the world before venturing out into it; and while I do miss that particular ritual (and Pat, Roma, Kristen et al), I have since established a new one: waking with BBC Radio 4 and, later, turning over to the World Service. It's a ritual I share with millions of people all over the globe, the "men and women, so cut off by the snow, the desert, or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them," as George V said in the first Royal Christmas Message in 1932. I think it is a certain sense of being castaway that sums up living abroad to me, at least sometimes, and makes me grateful for the calm, dependable presence of the BBC.

Radio 4 had a program on Monday, Island Dreams, that examined how "the idea of the island" captures the British imagination. From Lord of the Flies to "Desert Island Discs," the island as metaphor figures prominently. It's part of our psyche as an island nation, the presenter proposed, this fascination with being cut off, alone, stalwart. It's a fascination I happen to share—it's funny that I've essentially just hopped from one island (Manhattan) to another (British).

Before I moved here permanently, I spent a week one August on the island of Eigg, in the Inner Hebrides, with my husband to be. We rented a television-less former croft and spent our days hiking around the cliffs and moors. In the evenings we'd come back, exhausted, and cook our supper in the small kitchen, looking out the window over the sink toward the sea, and we'd listen to the news, and the Book of the Day, and finally the shipping forecast. We were utterly, blissfully alone, my fiancé and I, seeing almost no one else that week, save the sheep and cows; the radio kept us tethered to civilization, just enough.

When I returned to New York after that week I kept up with Radio 4 on the Internet for a while, before sliding back into my city ways: too much television, too much everything. It was that trip that convinced me I was ready to leave Manhattan, and so I proposed that it was I who should move to Scotland, not he to New York. Within the year we were settled.

It is, by the way, my goal to visit every single one of the Hebrides some day.

Photo © Robin Gillett

Monday 9 February 2009

Biometrically yours

It seems I'm not the only one who's been having trouble with the Identity Card for Foreign Nationals. After splashing out for "premium service" so I wouldn't have to mail in my passport, I still had to send the damn thing to Bristol because of an error on the card they sent me. Fortunately—due to the media coverage, I'm wondering?—my passport was returned safely within the week, and this with all of England practically shut down from the snow. "We haven't had snow like this in 18 years! You can't expect us to remember how to use plows!"

At least the UK Border Agency had the manners to include with my passport an almost apologetic letter: "We are currently investigating how your nationality was entered incorrectly onto your card, so that we can take steps to ensure this does not happen again." Given the threat in earlier correspondence that the onus was on me to correct any mistakes, on punishment of paying another 600 pounds, this was groveling. Anyway, it is extremely comforting to have my well-traveled little passport back at home. The old girl certainly gets around.

Still, I have to keep my complaints to a minimum: This weekend I read, in one spellbound sitting, Mende Nazer's memoir, Slave. Check it out if you can, it's amazing. I read a good part of it aloud to my husband at the kitchen table (a pastime I highly recommend—it's like homemade radio). We were enrapt. Afterwards, to my husband's visible relief, I vowed to quit—well, tone down—my bitching in re: my own petty complaints about being an expat; it's not as if I'm seeking asylum. Perspective is always a handy thing to have. Also, a passport.

Photo © Robin Gillett

Monday 26 January 2009

"Mistakes? We don't make mistakes."

Due to what I'm hoping is merely a Tuttle v. Buttle situation, my application for a credit card was rejected! The letter "regretfully informing" me, however, had my last name misspelled, with a T instead of a G. Life imitates Brazil. So I'm trying fretfully to word a letter to the bank in hopes it's all a silly clerical error, so we may buy a flat someday, over the rainbow.... I hope it's not just a sign of how bad things have gotten, where no one can get any kind of mortgage at all. True, my understanding of the world of finance is little more sophisticated than Beatrix Potter's explanation of credit in The Tale of Ginger and Pickles: "The customers come again and again, and buy quantities, in spite of being afraid of Ginger and Pickles." All of us "credit crunched" can, I think, relate.

Ah, well, so maybe things are a little panickier than I've wanted to admit (a friend has an excellent article in the Huffington Post observing current mood differences between London and New York). Still, life goes on. Here's a fun fact: After two years of living here with a "temporary leave to remain" visa as the spouse of a Briton, I must, by May, apply for "permanent residence." In addition to paying a princely sum for this whole process, I must sit a "Life in Britain" citizenship test, even though I'm not (yet, anyway) applying for citizenship. Well and good, but this thing is ridiculously difficult. The BBC website had an article about the test a few years ago: "Could You Pass a Citizenship Test?", with a sample so that the average Brit can test his/her "local knowledge." Apparently, this test thing is a recent move; perhaps a gesture from the government that they are attempting to stem the tides of The Dreaded Immigrant?

The problem is, the multiple-choice questions seem to deal mostly with statistical data, which terrifies me—plus, as my Scottish husband points out, they are totally Anglocentric! Sample question (from the study guide I downloaded): "What percentage of English people regularly attend church?" Are they kidding? This is necessary information for assimilating and contributing to the nation? "What is the population of the U.K.? 61 million, 62 million, 59 million, or 60 million?" Whatever happened to that famous British sense fair play? That's just not cricket! My husband has printed out parts of the test to show his family, all of whom commiserate with me about having to memorize all this data, and they assure me they'd fail miserably themselves.

But the punchline: Stated prominently on the U.K. Border Agency's website and on the study guide is that the test must be taken in the English language, unless one lives in Wales, where one has the option of sitting the test in Welsh. HA HA HA HA HA HA!!! If you are more fluent in Welsh than English, it's because you were BORN IN WALES, SO WHY WOULD YOU BE TAKING A CITIZENSHIP TEST?!?!?!?!! I don't know, maybe this is some really sick form of racism toward the Welsh, who knows. I'm still learning!

Ah, bureaucracy. "It's been confusion from the word go," as Kurtzmann says in the movie.

Thursday 22 January 2009

Let's talk about that hat

And now for a little light relief—Ms Franklin's hat (my current fave is Jon Stewart's). I just thought I'd add my observation that the wearing of a Serious Hat to a Serious Occasion is a thing from another generation, to Americans anyway. British women, on the other hand, still do hats. Not just to weddings and funerals, not just the old ladies, but young things too. I'm not so young, but when we got invitations to the Queen's annual summer garden party in Edinburgh last year, I was all aflutter when I realized I'd have to wear a hat. "Tiaras will be worn," as they used to say; one just doesn't attend these sorts of things bareheaded. It was intimidating, the prospect of a hat, but man was I excited to see the Queen (my mother-in-law is involved in our local community council, and when colleagues of hers eschewed the event, we snagged the tickets). I feel mixed things about the royal family, of course, being American and all that; I can empathize with my Scottish fellow travellers, some of whom are vehemently opposed to English rule with all its history. But, holy cow, the Queen! So off I went to shop for a hat. Enclosed is a picture of me on the train to Edinburgh on the day, wearing a bespoke "fascinator" from V.V. Rouleaux ("bespoke" means "I was robbed"). It's barely visible, sorry. I shied away from the Serious Hats—didn't think I could pull one off—but on the other hand I worried whether a fascinator would be "enough" and "appropriate" to the occasion. The salesgirl assured me it was the same as a hat, for all intents and purposes. And having one made expressly for me felt validating. Still I felt really dumb in it. When we arrived at the party, though, wow—you should have seen all the gorgeous hats! Every lady there was worrrrrrkingggg itttttt. I shoulda gone for it. Next time. I've been schooled, now, in The Hat.
Anyway, last night I had some serious fun with Ms Franklin's hat, Photoshopping my friends, my husband, my dog. Hats are cool! In that so-uncool-it's-kinda-cool way, which, trust me, I should know about.

Wednesday 21 January 2009

No longer a Bush Exile

No, not moving back, I'm just sayin'! Actually I'm a little hungover from all the emotion—yes, and the bottle of bubbly. A measure of my Americanness (Americousity? Americanicity? hmm) is that I still can't drink during the day without getting a headache. Anyway, my husband and I watched the coverage on the BBC for hours and hours, and both of us crying like babies. When Biden was sworn in it started to dawn on me that it was all really happening.

Later, much later, we took the dog for a walk by the river and Glasgow was so quiet, it felt like the whole thing was our little secret. The Inauguration feels like an omen of good things to come. I won't argue about how hope isn't enough, that a lot of work lies before us all, personally and politically, but everything feels finally possible. Perhaps it always has been, it just takes a different viewpoint.

Thursday 15 January 2009

My credit crunch

The thing about being a transplant is, the most mundane, trivial things can add up to make life feel totally surreal (and I won't even get into the language barrier—oh yes there is one). Today I'm going to Barclays bank to apply for a high-interest credit card, for without one, I cannot get a mortgage. Isn't that a kick in the head? I worked and scrambled and paid my rent for 20 years in Manhattan, but now that I'm in the U.K., I have no credit history here and must build one from scratch. So the advice is, get one of those terrible 34.9 percent interest cards (the "normal" ones with low rates reject me because I haven't lived here long enough), charge the groceries once a month, and voilĂ , a credit history.

It works the same for immigrants in the U.S., so I'm not complaining, it's just a little humbling. It sort of makes you feel like a nothing—which is ridiculous. One isn't one's bank account. Or lack thereof (you can apply only for the most basic student-type savings account here too). If only I still had my 18-year-old figure to go with my slimline accounts.

In other news...I have a lot of news. Various updates, stories, and new links coming shortly as I am determined to get this blog thing off the ground this year. Trouble is I kind of hate blogs; I was envisioning more of a website full of resources, but the longest journey starts with a blog.