Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love early in the new millennium, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

Hello, Stranger, Would You Watch My Baby?
A Wary Former City Boy Struggles with Small-Town Neighbourliness

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Illustration by Jeff Cohen 

“British reserve” is a behavioural trait that’s allegedly so common in the UK it’s become a cliché.  Movies, books, even Brits themselves perpetuate the stereotype of a guarded people genetically predisposed to bottling up emotions and not making waves – “Keep Calm and Carry On” and all that. But if the cliché is true, someone neglected to tell the good folks of Southsea, the little laid-back village in which my partner and I now reside, nestled between the larger city of Portsmouth and the English Channel. After decades of living in sprawling, impersonal North American metropolises, we now find ourselves in close quarters with a community of characters who are anything but reserved. Indeed, they are an exceptionally chatty lot, alarmingly liberal with their warm greetings, all too willing to share intimate details about their personal lives, and trusting to a fault. 

Just how trusting became clear during an unnerving visit to a village barbershop. I entered the shop on a sunny spring afternoon to find the barber busy with one other customer, a 20-something gentleman accompanied by a child no older than two, who’d been deposited in an adjacent barber’s chair. When the customer’s cut was completed, he rose to pay, only to discover he didn’t have enough cash on him. (This particular establishment doesn’t take credit or debit cards.) The barber assured him that it was okay to come back any time before closing with the money, but the young man said no-no, he’d sprint over to the ATM at once, but would it be all right if he left his child behind while he did so? He shot a quick glance my way so as to include me in his impetuous proposition. Before I had a chance to protest, the barber agreed and the man plopped the kid down in a waiting area seat next to me and bolted out the door. I eyed the infant anxiously as it cooed and babbled and rocked unsteadily on its plastic perch. The barber was preoccupied with sweeping up around his station, so essentially it fell to me to make sure the tyke didn’t fall over and bust its head open. At one point, it looked about ready to topple, so I thrust my arm out as kind of an impromptu safety railing. The rugrat giggled and clapped.

A short time later, the man returned, collected his progeny, thanked us kindly and departed, leaving just the barber and myself. I barely had time to breathe a sigh of relief when the barber turned to me and said, “Say mate, would you mind watching the shop for a minute while I run to the bank?” Now, mind you, I had only recently chosen him as my go-to wash-and-cut guy after sampling a few other stylists in the vicinity, so I was by no means a longtime regular patron. “O-Okay,” I stammered, not entirely believing what was being asked of me. But sure enough, the barber exited the shop, and the paranoid city boy in me braced for an invasion of armed robbers or for a gang war to break out over by the pomades. Of course nothing happened. This is sleepy Southsea after all, not the mean streets of Chicago or Los Angeles. Still, I was taken aback by the unexpected child-minding and shop-keeping duties that came with my £10 haircut. I’m glad I didn’t request the £30 dye job. I might’ve had to perform open-heart surgery or something.

Around these parts, they bare their souls as freely and easily as they hand over their kids and businesses. Phobias, foibles, fetishes, seemingly no topic qualifies as TMI in conversations with the locals. I’ve learned that my too-trusting barber, who is actually a lovely, funny guy, used to have 64 body piercings, including several in wince-inducing locations. (It was a youthful phase, he insists, though his nipples remain accessorized.) The genial woman who runs the dry cleaners spontaneously confessed that she once got so drunk at a pub on Christmas Eve that she came out of the bathroom with her skirt on inside-out and upside-down. (An impressive logistical feat, I must say.) Even the briefest of encounters can be fraught with revelations. The brawny bloke who delivered our groceries recently was in our flat just long enough to inform me that he is deathly afraid of flying, but being a devoted father, he took his two young sons on a recent holiday to New York. They repaid his kindness by teasing him about spying gremlins on the wing of the plane. (Brats!) A clerk at a nearby mini-market confided to me that she was handing in her notice that day because she’d had enough of rude customers and because, although she got along well with her co-workers Tommy and Angela (Tommy was standing next to her), most of the staff there was vile and had called her terrible names behind her back. She was also gleeful that her abrupt departure meant her manager would be down a shift supervisor and maybe then he would finally realize what a hard worker she’d been but ha-ha, it would be too late. My response: “Um… so how much for the roll of mints and the Diet Coke?”

These occurrences, and others, are examples of a persistent neighbourliness that has infected our village in epidemic proportions. Strolling through town, I get a shocking number of smiles from passersby, so many that I sometimes feel I should inspect myself to make sure my fly is done up and I’m not trailing a streamer of toilet paper from my shoe. Once, out of the blue, a tattooed and dreadlocked antiques dealer popped out of his shop doorway as I passed and offered me a chocolate ice cream bar. I count it as a brave step towards assimilation with the locals that I took the treat and ate it. The city boy in me wanted to immediately phone poison control. I’ve been asked by two elderly ladies to help them cross the street, by another two to retrieve items for them from high supermarket shelves, and by yet another for assistance in guiding her wheelchair down a steep seaside path. This strikes me as a suspicious amount of geriatric aid given the brief time we’ve lived here. I called Toronto home for nearly 14 years and no senior citizen ever asked for my help, and they had to navigate their walkers over treacherous stretches of ice and snow. (True story, I saw it happen.) Is it merely because retirees are plentiful on England’s temperate southern coast? Or is something more sinister afoot? Perhaps there’s a cabal of oldsters who make sport out of getting unwitting expats to do things for them. I’d best be on my guard at street crossings from now on.

I related a couple of these encounters on Facebook and a dear friend from Florida astutely concluded, “It’s like the [American] South, but with different accents!” This post may be at heart more of a universal account of small town life than a distinctly British tale, and the experiences I’ve described may be commonplace in wee hamlets and whistle-stops across the globe. But it’s the marked contrast between the standoffish, stiff-upper-lip preconception of the British psyche and the gregarious, guileless reality of my Southsea neighbours that I find rather interesting and worth blathering on about. Sadly, ice cream from strangers aside, I think it’s too late for me to learn to be as fully open and trusting as they are. That wary urban dweller within has taken up permanent residence, I’m afraid. But I’m bound and determined to encourage these admirable traits in my kids. Oh, not my own biological offspring – I don’t have any. I’m referring to the children of random townsfolk that I’ll no doubt find suddenly left in my care from time to time.

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2 thoughts on “Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

  1. Pingback: Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie | dugoutdiscs

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