Ready Study Go: Brushing Up on All Things British (and Welsh and Scottish and Northern Irish) for the Life in the UK Test

[Blogger’s note: I’m an American expat twice removed, having relocated to Canada early in the new century and then to the southern coast of England in 2016. This post details an important event in my immigration journey that had me stressing over an exam grade for the first time since my student days decades ago. ]

You know the classic anxiety dream where you’re at school and the teacher announces a pop quiz for which you are totally unprepared? Also, for some reason, you’re wearing nothing but tighty-whities? I felt a similarly palpable panic while wide awake and en route to take the Life in the UK Test, a requirement for immigrants like myself who seek permanent residency in Britain. Mercifully for the townsfolk I passed on the walk to the test centre, I was fully clothed. And sufficiently informed, or at least in theory: I had read and re-read the three-volume study guide published on behalf of the Home Office, the governmental department that rules on visa applications. I had also taken more than 40 practice tests, both in the guide and online, and passed them all – out of 24 questions, you’re allowed six incorrect answers and I had not missed more than four.  And I’d been through a comparable process in Canada when I applied for citizenship there. Yet I couldn’t shake the unnerving sense that I was going to blow it. Long-suppressed memories of my scholastic shortcomings in adolescence resurfaced on cue to fuel this fear – the C- on that baffling algebra exam, the D for that botched frog dissection in biology, the essay that was returned so full of red marks it looked like a crime scene. Let’s just say I was never the teacher’s pet.  

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This Must Be the Place: Putting Down Roots – Finally – As a First-Time UK Home Owner

Chapter Seven: Oh! You Pretty Things
(Wherein the Author Reveals a Frankly Unsettling Obsession with Home Accessories)

I can’t walk through our downstairs living room without looking at the mirror. Not in the mirror, although I occasionally sneak a peek at the old mug in passing just to make sure I don’t have mustard in my goatee or my eyebrows haven’t fused together overnight or something. (I live in mortal fear of the unibrow.) No, at the mirror, a simple oak-framed piece of glass, the latest addition to the still-evolving décor of our flat. It’s as Scandi-minimalist as they come and possibly too plain for many tastes, but to me it is a thing of unparalleled beauty and elegance. Not only does it bounce light around a somewhat dark space, but its blond wood frame is aesthetically harmonious with furniture pieces nearby, so it ties the room together with aplomb. And when the hubby put it up, he couldn’t have positioned it more perfectly on the wall – dead centre over the sofa – so I’m proud to say that it’s very, very well-hung.

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Steppin’ Out: My Reluctant Reentry into a Post-Lockdown World

BLOGGER’S NOTE: Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on people across the globe. The intent of this series is not to make light of the pandemic in any way, but rather to examine the author’s idiosyncrasies, which existed long before the virus and, all being well, will be there long after. In these uncertain times, we must continue to take every available measure to protect our personal and communal health. Thanks for reading and stay safe.]

One thing I’ve learned in these many months of hand sanitizing, nasal swabbing, and banana bread baking is that I am a creature of habit to the max. Admittedly, I’ve shown signs of this tendency in the past – for instance, I’ll eat the same thing for breakfast every day for weeks before I force myself to switch it up. But under the string of lockdowns imposed on Britain due to the coronavirus, I morphed into my super-boring alter-ego, Captain Routine. While others bemoaned the tedium of one day blurring into the next, I reveled in the same old same old. I went grocery shopping at the same time every other day – mid-morning, before the lunch rush. I stuck to a fixed rotation of exercise walks, ambling in an easterly direction one day and west the next, traipsing south on the third day and north on the fourth before starting the cycle over again. I listened to an album every time I sat down to lunch – just one, all the way through, though I permitted myself the whimsy of choosing from a variety of genres. And I worked on this blog most weekdays from 2:00 pm until 3:30 or so, allowing for breaks to surf Amazon and Discogs. (Given that I’ve only managed to produce one post every couple of months, I’d say those breaks were many and lengthy.) It’s been a regimented, repetitive existence that has suited me just fine.

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This Must Be the Place: Putting Down Roots – Finally – As a First-Time UK Home Owner

Chapter Six: The Everything Room
(It’s a Man Cave! A Music Hub! Guest Quarters! It’s Also a Floor Wax!*)

So far in this series on the thrills and spills of property ownership, I’ve tackled such sexy subjects as sump pump maintenance, storage shed de-cluttering, and bath towel symmetry. And readers have responded by staying away in droves! Just kidding, air kisses for my core group of beautiful masochists who have stuck with me as I’ve nattered on about DIY and decorating minutiae. I humbly request that you indulge me again for this latest effort, a rather giddy love letter to my favourite living space in the Portsmouth pad that the spouse and I have called home since late 2019. Huzzah! It’s the upstairs sitting room!

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This Must Be the Place: Putting Down Roots – Finally – As a First-Time UK Home Owner

Chapter Five: Better Living Through Bath Towel Symmetry
(The Making of a Martha Stewart Wannabe)

[WARNING: The following post contains first-world problems that some readers may find exceptionally silly. Discretion is advised.]

I stepped back, took stock of my efforts, and let out a heavy sigh. Nope, still not quite right. The spouse and I had just bought two new John Lewis bath towels, Dusty Green™ and Dark Steel™ to match our bathroom tiles, and my mission was to get them to hang together perfectly on the radiator/drying rack. I expected nothing less than precise straight lines and crisp right angles, with the towels displayed in a fetching stair-step pattern – the dark grey towel on the top rung to the left and its green mate peeking out underneath to the right. But the several attempts I’d made thus far had failed to meet my stringent standards. This time, the one on the lower rung drooped at an unacceptable slant. Gingerly, I tried to straighten it, which only succeeded in making them both go cockeyed. What was I doing wrong? Continue reading

This Must Be the Place: Putting Down Roots – Finally – As a First-Time UK Home Owner

Chapter Four: Oasis (Not the Band)

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When the spouse and I began the epic quest to find our forever home last year, we tried to be open-minded… ish. We were flexible on the location, so long as it was within walking distance of the hubby’s office. (Of course, COVID-19 has rendered that condition indefinitely irrelevant, as his office closed in March and he’s been Zooming from our dining room table ever since.) We were also open to a broad range of property types, including terraced and detached houses, bungalows, flats and two-storey maisonettes – a new and glamourous-sounding term for this uncultured Yank. Out of the 40 prospects we viewed, the only one rejected on sight was an overpriced penthouse flat inhabited at the time of our visit by the tenants from hell, whose decorating style might be described as Extreme Urban Squalor. The tangle of bras drying on the radiator in the lounge added a certain je ne sais quois, while the half-eaten pot of stew decomposing on the kitchen counter infused the dingy rooms with aromas of bad meat and worse life choices.

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This Must Be the Place: Putting Down Roots – Finally – As a First-Time UK Home Owner

Chapter Three: The Dreaded Shed

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The coronavirus has put the kibosh on a slew of social activities for the time being, forcing many of us to conjure stay-at-home alternatives to fill our days. Bread baking has seen a rise in interest, as has posting the hit-and-miss results on Instagram. (Sorry, @theaussiebaker, but it appears you’ve seriously singed your buns.) Some dedicated fitness buffs have created home workout routines in order to beef up or slim down. I know, it sounds cuckoo to me too. My pal Tim is learning a bit of French, which will come in handy if he’s ever again able to travel to France, or even order in a French restaurant. (This COVID-19 is merde, non?) More than a few of us have even resorted to awkward video chats with friends and family to stave off boredom. Will Aunt Karen ever get her microphone to work? Tune in next week, or the week after, or the week after, to find out! Continue reading

This Must Be the Place: Putting Down Roots – Finally – As a First-Time UK Home Owner

Chapter Two: Pump and Circumstance

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Mea culpa. In a previous post on adjusting to life in the UK, I dismissed the widely held view that it is exceptionally rainy here, noting with premature smugness that the weather in the months since my arrival hadn’t been any more inclement than anywhere else I had ever lived. Well, this past winter definitely dampened that naïve notion. From mid-November through the holidays and into the new year, the forecast was persistently grim for much of Britain. In Portsmouth, the coastal city that my spouse and I call home, steady downpours occurred almost daily. And though the clouds parted for brief interludes, you could always count on one thing: At the exact moment you left the house to run an errand or whatever, the heavens would open up. The deluge didn’t subside until March – clear skies greeted us right around the time we were all ordered to stay indoors to keep the coronavirus at bay. Isn’t it ironic, Alanis?

So yeah, newsflash, the possibility of looooong soggy spells in Britain is all too real. As such, homes that have areas below street level, like the two-storey flat the hubby and I bought back in October, need extra protection against flooding. This is why there’s a sump pump on our property. Having hitherto lived my life fully and freely above terra firma, I’ve never encountered one before. In the aftermath of the stressful incident described below in vivid detail, I Googled “what is a sump pump and how does it work,” and discovered that it’s an electric pump system that propels excess water through a pipe up and away from the house and into an external drain. Whether this is done by physics or by Order of the Phoenix-approved wizardry, I’m still not sure.  (Wikipedia has the full breakdown, but it’s a lengthy entry and I lost interest pretty quickly.) On a Googling roll, I then did a search for “sump etymology,” because who would name something “sump” on purpose? I learned the term is derived from a “Low German” word meaning “swamp.” Obviously, then I had to Google “Low German,” because that sounded kind of judgy and, well, things just spiraled from there. Continue reading

This Must Be the Place: Putting Down Roots – Finally – As a First-Time UK Home Owner

[Blogger’s note: I’m an American expat living in Portsmouth, England, with my British-born spouse. We moved to the UK together a few years ago and lodged in rental accommodations for a time, but eventually the property bug bit us and we purchased a flat of our own – a first for this fifty-something vagabond. Here you can read about the lows, the highs, and the near-constant DIY that have followed. Check back soon for the next installment in the series!]

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Chapter One: The Welcome Rat

Plump and bewhiskered, with a greasy brown coat and a long naked tail straight out of children’s nightmares, the uninvited guest seemed to take no notice of the two hulking humans peering at it disgustedly from above. It didn’t squeak, didn’t scamper away, didn’t try to gnaw at the nearest ankle. It just wobbled woozily in place, its eyes squeezed shut, its demeanor listless. I’m no expert on rodent behaviour – everything I know about rats I learned from the movie Ben — but something about this one seemed off. Was it sick? Had it lapped up a spilled pint in one of Portsmouth’s panoply of pubs and was now pissed out of its tiny mind? Or had it merely paused for a moment of quiet respite away from the, um, rat race? I got my grim answer when my partner pointed out the poison traps nestled in nooks around the courtyard where we stood, at the entrance to the flat that just minutes before had become ours. (We have since learned that such traps are common around these parts.) Poor little guy, I thought. Then a second later I thought, I am not picking that thing up if it expires right here.

My new life as a home owner was off to a bumpy start. Continue reading

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 in the early 2000s, 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.]

Dinner, Supper or Tea: What Say Ye? Hashing Out the Terms for British Daily Meals

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My spouse and I are about to celebrate the third anniversary of our move to the UK, and every once in a while, when I’m feeling cocky, I’ll think I’m ready to graduate from an entry-level understanding of British life to at least an intermediate status. Then, inevitably, I’ll be confronted with a humbling reminder that I still have lorry-loads to learn.

Take the confounding conundrum of what to call daily meals in Britain. Stateside, the terms are easily digestible. Virtually everyone in North America calls the first meal of the day “breakfast” and the midday meal “lunch.” For the evening’s repast, the folksy “supper” lingers in certain areas – I can recall my dear old southern grandmother beckoning us kids to the supper table – but “dinner” dominates in our pop culture-steeped minds and hearts. After work, we may fill our bellies with a Swanson’s TV Dinner or a KFC Dinner Box or, in Canada, a Kraft Dinner. (Mac ‘n’ cheese to the rest of us.) A few years back, US advertisers force-fed us the slogan “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner,” much to the horror of vegetarians and contraction-phobes across the country. If we invite that special someone over for dinner and a movie, perhaps we’ll watch the classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or the somewhat less lauded Dinner for Schmucks. And if we find ourselves lucky, in love or otherwise, we might exclaim, “Winner, winner, chicken dinner!” Though we shouldn’t get too attached to that catchphrase du jour as it’s sure to join “Whassup!” and “Gag me with a spoon” on the fad compost heap any day now. Continue reading