Care and Maintenance Of Your Brits

Congratulations!

Whether you’ve decided to adopt a Brit, befriend one, or like me, marry and have children with one, I’m confident you’ll benefit immeasurably by the addition.

Having a Brit in your life will enrich it. You’ll learn new words like twee and new uses for old words like fanny. You’ll enjoy hours of endless debate over the edibility of Marmite, and shake your head in wonder at why the Brit in your life can’t just call a line a line and leave Q to rest peacefully between P and R where it belongs. Scrabble is especially fun, like when your husband spells tyre in accepted British English on a triple with a ‘y’.

Jokes aside, you’ll find that proper care and maintenance of your Brits will go much more smoothly if you get used to a few things first.

Bunting

Oh my, do the Brits love bunting, those fabric triangles waving in the Atlantic breeze. A British friend recently asked me how Americans refer to bunting and was gobsmacked when I told her we don’t. Bunting in the US is something that happens in baseball. But in order to keep your Brit happy you must utilize bunting for every occasion deemed out of the ordinary: birthdays, anniversaries, celebrations, royal weddings, and sunny days. Bunting can also be found strung from corner to cornice in twee British villages with names like Mother’s Fat Bottom and Speckled Dick.

Tip: To keep your Brit happy, keep emergency bunting at the ready and whip it out when called for. To avoid disappointment, always err on the side of bunting.

G&Ts

In NYC, G&T refers to ‘gifted and talented’, aka, the program you hope your pre-schooler tests into so you don’t have to shell out 40K a year for private school. But not so in the land of Hope and Glory. Gin and tonic is practically a national pastime in Blighty. A g&t will be appreciated by your Brit at any time of day. After all, it’s five o’clock somewhere in the old empire.

Tip: Don’t confuse g&ts with Pimms, a summer drink made with lemonade (that’s not really lemonade, but Sprite) which will sneak up on you and knock you flat if you’re not careful.

Cuppas, Cossies, and Hols.

Your Brit will feel more at home if you adopt the habit of shortening all your nouns to adverbial sounding nicknames. Football is footy. Cookie is biccy. A bathing suit is a cossie and a television a telly. Umbrella is brolly and when you don’t need one and want to relax in the sun you can chuck a sickie from work. Barry is Bazza, Sharon is Shazza, and Gary is Gazza. Vacations are hols, Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt.

Tip: To your Brit, fanny’s a front bottom, not a bum and a bum is not a bum either, but, by process of elimination, a back bottom.

Put the Kettle On

If gin and tonics start at five, every beverage before is tea. There are approximately 500 different types of tea. Lipton is not one of them. There is a right way to make tea and a wrong way to make tea. But…pay attention because tea also refers to dinner, which for your Brit means lunch, which comes slightly after elevenses which seems to nestle between breaky and tea. More than just tea drinking, however, the ritual act of putting the kettle on is a metaphor for community, conversation and problem solving. If Americans stop to smell the roses, Brits put the kettle on.

Tip: Unless you want to send your Brit into fits of unhappiness and risk permanent displeasure, do not microwave tea. Builder’s tea is regular tea with sugar. I do not know why it is not Plumber’s tea or Electrician’s tea except that it is not.

Taking the Piss

Note: this does not mean emptying your bladder. Taking the piss is entirely different from taking a piss. The art of taking the piss, or banter for the posh folks out there, is the British knife-edge between gentle mocking and downright nastiness. Perhaps not surprisingly, most non Brits find the habit peculiar and off-putting, especially as the art is honed on family and friends. There is a complicated value system based upon how much piss one can give and/or take, and after twenty years, I am none the wiser as to how it works.

Tip: None. A twenty year learning curve and nothing.

There you go. If you properly care and maintain your Brits, I’m confident you too will enjoy decades of bunting filled joy!

Now, keep calm and put the kettle on. Unless it’s after five, in which case, crack open the gin.

 

 

 

 

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Like a Girl

female athletesWomen seem to be at orange level alert for sexism this year. Trailing behind most of the world, we Americans are poised on the brink of electing our first female leader, and if nothing else, the ascendency of Hilary Clinton has caused an uptick of articles examining not only the way we view girls and women, but the language we use to describe them.

For this old feminist, it’s a long overdue and entirely welcome sight.

Take, for instance, the coverage being given to the way women are being reported about at the Olympics.

Corey Cogdell-Unrein, a three-time Olympic medalist was identified in The Chicago Tribune not by her name, but as  ‘the wife of…’

Right after Katinka Hosszu broke a world record and won gold, a commentator suggested her husband and coach was the one responsible for her win.

Katie Ledecky, a record-breaking swimmer is referred to as a “female Michael Phelps” and comparisons are being made to how she ‘swims like a man’.

A commentator said The US Women’s Gymnastic team looked as if they were ‘standing in the middle of a mall’.

Language, and the way we use it, is ingrained and entwined with the way we see girls and boys, men and women. Girls and women who achieve, whether in sports or business or politics, are almost constantly compared and contrasted with the boys and men who achieved those things before them. Women are rated, marked, and judged against the same criteria as men–but more often than not, the traits which are seen as worthy and admirable in males (ambition, assertiveness, confidence) are seen as unattractive and undesirable in females (gold-digging, bitchiness, arrogance).

runners

When the majority of achievements have been male, it may seem natural and innocuous to compare a woman’s performance to one that came before. But by doing that, we’re taking away from HER achievement by bringing in the HIM. We are validating the female achievement only in comparison to the male’s. If Katie Ledecky goes on to win more lifetime gold medals than Michael Phelps, do you think the media will refer to the next great swimmer as the “male Katie Ledecky”?

Doubtful.

Lots of folks will claim mountains out of mole hills, but the way we talk to girls AND boys, the way we compare them, it makes a difference. Over years and childhoods, girls internalize those comments and comparisons. Girls are told they must act a certain way in order to achieve (tough, grit, perseverance) yet when they absorb those qualities, they are shunned, demeaned, and negatively compared to males.

(Think of the comparison of Hilary Clinton to Lady Macbeth–her personal and political ambitions must be nefarious and solely for personal gain, whereby the ambitions of her male challengers are alternately forgiven or seen as altruistic.)

The kicker? Both men and women do it. Even someone as staunchly feminist as myself has found myself on the verge of saying ‘like a girl’ from time to time.

I’ve found that when you’re thinking of how we use comparative language with girls and boys, ‘like a girl’ is a great litmus test.

Every time someone says ‘don’t cry like a girl’, we’re insinuating that girls cry more than boys, that it’s wrong to cry, and therefore it’s insulting to be likened to a girl.

Every time someone says ‘you throw like a girl’, we’re saying boys throw better and you don’t want to throw ‘like a girl’ because it’s not as good.

Every time someone says ‘you’re acting like a girl’, the girl part of that is negative. No one ever says you’re acting like a girl when they are talking about empathy or compromise do they? No, they use ‘you’re acting like a girl” when they perceive someone is doing something wrong, faulty, or cowardly.

Alternately, when we say Katie Ledecky swims ‘like a man’, that is considered a good thing. Until she starts getting shit for not being feminine enough, that is–or, until she becomes a threat.

Over time, ‘like a girl’ become synonymous with the negative aspect, ‘like a boy’, the positive.

Now, imagine you’re a girl who has heard that over and over. You hear it over and over because it’s the norm. You see it in print, in movies, in media. You see it and hear it so much you don’t even question it. Over time, you become numb to it, as if someone has applied Novocaine to your psyche. But it’s there, and each time young girls hear it, they assume that negative aspect. And each time we contrast a girl’s achievement by holding it up to a male one, or validate it against a male’s, a thin layer hardens. Eventually the layers are thick enough that the result is the inevitable chip women carry on our shoulders–the one which weighs us down with ‘no matter what we do, we’re never going to be as good as’.

runners 2So–it may seem silly to make a big deal out of making sure the media knows that calling Katie Ledecky the ‘female Michael Phelps’ is wrong. It may seem silly to insist that it was wrong from the Chicago Tribune to refer to a Corey Cogell-Unrein as “wife of xy”.

But for all the women out there bearing that weight, shining a spotlight on those little things can chip away at it a little at a time. And for those girls just starting out, looking up to the girls and women who shrugged that weight through life plowing a path for them, hopefully it will lighten the load.

 

 

 

The Girl in the (Expat) Bubble: The Best Kept Secret of a Broad Abroad

bubbleYou would think that after nearly four years in a country my day-to-day exposure to the language would render me fluent enough to understand, say… a television commercial.

You would be wrong.

I tried the other night: not a single Danish word penetrated my mono-linguistic brain.

As someone living in a country not your own, you hear talk about the expat bubble, that strange no-man’s land between local and foreigner, between real life and a life less ordinary. Usually the term is used to describe living with a false sense of reality. To an extent, that’s true. Most of us as expats are getting the spruced up, brochure version of the places we’re posted. The corners are sanded down, the finish is glossy. You’re kept far away from the grittier edges, firmly on the side of the greener grass.

Sometimes it can make you feel as if you’re not living real life, but an idealized one.

A big portion of that bubble is the advantage of remaining blissfully, ignorantly unaware of stuff that’s happening right under your nose.

You see, like many expats, I have spent my time abroad sitting pretty in a bubble of babel.

There are plenty of times when not speaking the local lingo can be a hinderance: public transport announcements are always fun and you never find out about the two-for-one scarf sale in time. But there are other times when non-fluency is a blessing.

“Undskyld, jeg taler ikke Dansk!” is a lovely, inoffensive way to ignore the grumpy woman screaming at me from the bike lane. (My time abroad has also taught me a well-timed middle finger translates across most linguistic borders. But that’s a post for another day.)

Most of all though, non-fluency in your local language allows you to move through your expat space in a cloud of relative innocence. In a bubble.

All things considered, Denmark is a remarkably safe place to live. But it’s even safer in my girl-in-a-bubble1bubble because, well, I can’t read the news. Or listen to it. For all I know all sorts of horrors are taking place in Hellerup, nastiness in Nørrebro, but in my bubble I remain, blissfully clueless.

Have you ever gone on vacation and nixed the newspaper or skipped out on the six o’clock news? You go about your days not knowing about all the bad stuff that’s going on. All the stuff that’s getting everyone else all riled up. Elections and gas prices and political in-fighting. Crime sprees and car crashes and all the other human misery below the fold. Have you ever noticed how nice it is to steer clear of all that news? Life just seems a little bit…kinder.

That’s a little bit what not speaking the language is like.

Views on the local political election? Nope, got nothing. The latest on the break-ins in Østerbro? Oblivious. Price-gouging of flødeboller and frikadeller? Where’d you hear about that?

I feel safe here, not only because Denmark is a safe place to live, but because I don’t hear about all the no-so-safe stuff. It’s quiet, because I can’t understand what the hell is being said around me. The stuff that gets the locals all riled up? I get to bypass it completely. I have no real stake in the long-term politics because I know I’m not going to be here forever. When I hear about forecasts for the welfare state, it doesn’t affect me in any meaningful way. When I hear about the zero growth birth rate? Oh well, they had a good run.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of bad news to go around. I’m American, just looking at the current lineup of GOP candidates is enough to make me run and bury my head in the sand, not to mention the state of the rest of the world. But my everyday, run of the mill stuff?

What? I can’t hear you! There’s really good sound-proofing in this bubble.

It’s safe and cozy in the bubble. It’s warm..ok, maybe not in Denmark, but you get the idea. The bubble isn’t necessarily all tangible perks–maids and tennis club memberships and exotic travel. It isn’t getting to live a life completely different from what you would back home. Personally, I’d like to think if I was living out some day-to-day fantasy it wouldn’t smell so strongly of lemon-scented cleaner and involve as much grocery shopping, but…I guess it’s faux real.

Fo’ real.

bazaar-bubble-editorial-fashion-harpers-bazaar-Favim.com-154459The language part of the bubble is the small kindness that is not worrying about everything going on around you. You’re able to cycle through your days just getting on with it. The food shopping, the laundry, your job, the dusting, whatever. I do all that. I just get to do it without worrying too much about the price of milk. Not because I can afford it when it goes up, but because I never read the article telling me it was going to go up.

Every now and then I have to prick the bubble and let some air out–usually when the milk has gone up enough that even I can tell. But for the most part, remaining slightly removed and aloof from your host country through language is probably the best kept secret of living abroad.

When you can’t understand the noise around you, it’s actually pretty damn quiet.

 

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters

There are times when I think of Fisher, bent over his bag of tools, and wish that he could build more than just objects, that he could take bones and skin and souls and nail and screw them together in different patterns. That he could take the raw materials and build me a new self while I watch.

goldsmithI have been marginally obsessed with the concept of creating ‘somethings’ out of ‘nothings’ for as long as I can remember. The idea of starting with raw materials and exerting force upon them; heating and cooling, shaping and molding, the act of piecing together in unexpected ways to affect transformation. It is almost magic.

Almost.

Recently a contemporary half-jokingly introduced me to others as a ‘wordsmith’. A day or two later a friend alluded to the pleasure she gets from my “wordmithing’. The word invokes visions of cramped spaces and brow wiping, of quills scratching over uneven parchment. It bespeaks of toil and sweat but underneath it all, skill. Beyond writer or author or novelist or blogger or any other word that describes the act of putting words together in a way that resonates with a reader, I think wordsmith is my favorite, the one I am a little bit in love with.

Wordsmith implies craft. Like a blacksmith or a metalsmith it involves the act of working with the base ingredient–molten steel or silver or language—and crafting it into something else; something different or useful, something shiny or new. Like alchemy there is a desire to turn base into noble, but there are no equations or incantations. No magic. What there is instead, is skill mixed with a touch of necessity. Not simply talent, but something which must be learned and studied, apprenticed and practiced, perfected with experience and time.

I work at my craft. I practice and toil and throw away sheets that have been hammered too thin, molds that are rusty with use. I burn myself and cut myself to get the best shine, to get the smoothest edge. I get frustrated when the material doesn’t respond in the way I want it to, when language doesn’t bend to my will or my tools, when a rough splinter catches on a sharp tongue. I go through the scarp heap to see what can be salvaged, what can be recycled. I fine tune and sand and polish. And then I sand and polish again. And again. I look for flaws and cracks, weak points where the work won’t hold. I could slap and dash, but there is no craft in that,no smith, only words.

blacksmith tools

Sometimes I shine and buff so much the finished product is rubbed too thin and does not hold up. And then—and then there are times when the material is pliant, warmed to my touch and ready to be molded. Those are the times when it is important to take a moment to enjoy the curve of a silvery sentence or the sharp point of a nail driven home.

Stories are the way we connect with one another as human beings. Tales and myths are how we understand, how we make sense of the world. I believe that each of us have stories to share and experiences to enliven the hive, but to imply that writing is something that anyone can do well takes away from the skill of it. To insinuate that simply putting pen to paper again and again will make you proficient takes away from the craft of it.

The idea of taking something and twisting it into something unexpected—this is my skill, this is my talent, this is my craft. My strengths are not as storyteller. My smith work involves taking the known and working it until it is seen in a different way. Sometimes it is fine tuning an idea or turning it around in my head until it can be viewed from a different angle. Many times it is simply crafting the language itself, the arrangement words on a page; sworn enemy adjectives that become sudden lovers, contradictory adverbs that glue themselves together in still wet ink.

letterpress lettersI take the raw words I have access to and work them. I heat them and bend them, hammer at them and pound them. Just as there are some that have a natural feel for a piece of metal under their hands, or those that can see a home where others see a pile of timber and sawdust, I can feel the weight of a sentence in words. You need to build up your strength to pound liquid steel into shape or to forge iron. You need to train your eye to see the faults in gold, the flaws in a sheet of copper or silver. Working with language is no different. Yet over time your movements become more like breathing and less like work. They become fluid. The feel of those base ingredients in your hand becomes familiar and comforting. It becomes second nature. It becomes home.

Practicing the craft is important to me. It fits in with my idea of doing an honest day’s work. I get great satisfaction from forging and transforming, from drafting and redrafting, from blank, white page to finished product. Sometimes I envy those that work with more tangible materials, particularly carpenters and wood workers, those who can take a piece of nature and turn it into something solid and beautiful; a piece of furniture which will withstand time, a structure to shelter treasures, a home in which to live. I do not possess the skill to raise a physical structure that can shelter my dreams. I hope that with continued patience and practiced skill, I will raise high the roof beams all the same.

 

The above excerpt is from an untitled story of mine from 1996