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Tag Archives: United Kingdom

There’s a joke, sort of, that I remember hearing around military bases in Europe. An American family moves into a host-nation community. For the sake ease, lets say it’s an American family moving into a neighborhood of Belgians. The new neighbors want to make the American family feel comfortable and welcome, so they invite them over for a “Barbecue.” Hot Dogs and Hamburgers are served. Yet, all the Belgians are wearing ten gallon cowboy hats, and they say the words “Fuck” and “Shit” after every sentence they say in English. Then, they begin to talk very lovingly about handguns and rifles. They even bring out the firearms and fire off a few rounds as “target practice” on some empty beer bottles. The Americans are aghast, speechless. Suddenly concerned, the Belgians say, “But we were only trying to be sensitive to your culture.”

Of course, I’m exaggerating a little to prove a point. Two people of different nationalities and cultures misunderstand each other all the time. In a way, it’s a lot easier to get into one of these misunderstanding if you’re coming from countries that are culturally related, like the USA, Canada, Australia, and the UK. The misconception of a “shared” English language, leads to a bunch of faux pas. For example, it’s perfectly acceptable, in England to say to a woman, “Can I Knock You Up?” It means, “Can I come to your house in the morning and knock on your door?” not “Can I get you pregnant?” In the US, saying “I’m stuffed” after a meal means you’ve eaten too much. In England, “Stuffed” means something sexual.

The story about the Belgians, however, contains a slight cultural arrogance — it assumes that it’s the Belgians (or other nationalities) that are responsible for cultural misunderstandings with Americans. Any American living abroad has likely heard tales of American stupidity — it’s where the term “Ugly American” comes from, when describing the moronic antics of American tourists. The Defense and State Departments always warn ex-pats to not act like and “ugly AMerican,” and to blend in as much as you can. Sometimes, the desire to assimilate has strange results.

I know, because today, I’ve been a bit of an “Ugly American” by complete accident and attempted goodwill. My family has spent a lot of time in the United Kingdom — in England, and in the self-governing colony of Bermuda. So, we’ve experienced “Boxing Day,” the 26th of December. In the years since, my parents and myself do stop to wish each other “A good Boxing Day” — for my family, when we lived in Germany, it’s like how we used celebrate Nickolaustag on Dec. 6 (I would wake up to find presents stuffed into my shoes). So, “Happy Boxing Day!” we’d say to each other, not knowing exactly the history of “Boxing Day.”

So, today, I’ve been giving everybody good “Boxing Day” wishes through email and other wise. Even to a Canadian friend and fellow writer, as I sent her a copy of my book, 10$, and a contract for a poem she wrote for Death In Common. Then, I start wondering — why do the Brits and Canadians have a bank holiday on 26th? I googled and cringed at the results:

…the one thread common to all is the theme of one-way provision to those not inhabiting the same social level. As mentioned previously, equals exchanged gifts on Christmas Day or before, but lessers (be they tradespeople, employees, servants, serfs, or the generic “poor”) received their “boxes” on the day after. It is to be noted that the social superiors did not receive anything back from those they played Lord Bountiful to: a gift in return would have been seen as a presumptuous act of laying claim to equality, the very thing Boxing Day was an entrenched bastion against. Boxing Day was, after all, about preserving class lines.

So, in short, I’ve been treating everybody as if they were either my servant or of a lower social economic class, today. Yes, I’m a complete and total, grade-A .moron. I’ve already sent a quickly worded apology to that Canadian friend of mine. And this blog post is my general mea-culpa to the world

In an earlier post, I mentioned that overseas brats/third culture kids strive harder than their stateside counterparts to create/embrace their own culture (or somebody else’s). Is it an irony that the band “America,” who once attended London Central High School, would have chosen any other name? Via Wikipedia:

Eventually the trio dubbed themselves America, honoring the name of the homeland they had hardly ever seen during their many travels around the world.

Which reminds one of the constant misperceptions the bands has had to endure:

Contrary to popular belief, the choice of the name “America” had no political overtones, and the group has consistently avoided political or patriotic use of its name.

Anyhow, here’s their song “Horse With No Name”:

The History of The Great War comprises 28 volumes, with the narrative drawn from official sources.   Military Operations: France and Belgium, 1914 is the first volume, as put together by Brigadier-General Sir James E. Edmonds.  It’s from that one finds the following description of the town and geography:

The ground on which the British Army had taken up its Map position was a narrow belt of coalfield which extends roughly for rather more than twenty miles westwards from Maurage (6 miles east of Mons) along the Mons canal, and has an average breadth, from the canal southward, of two miles. South of this belt the country gradually rises to a great tract of rolling chalk downs, cut into by many streams and with numerous outlying spurs. Every inch of this territory has in bygone days seen the passage of British armies; name after name is found upon British colours, or is familiar in British military history.

On the ground occupied by the I. Corps, that is to say, roughly from Givry northward to Spiennes, thence westward almost to Paturages and thence southward again to Quévy le Petit, the chalk comes to the surface; and there is even a little outcrop of it within the salient or loop of the canal around Mons. This small area is cut up by wire fences, market gardens, and the usual artificial features which form the outskirts of a provincial town ; and it is noteworthy that across this tangle of enclosures no fewer than seven different roads diverge from Mons north-east and north-west to as many bridges. At the base of the salient the ground rises gradually from north to south, for fifteen hundred to two thousand yards, till it culminates in three well-marked features. The first of these is Mount Erebus, a round hill immediately to the south of Mons; the second is a great whale-backed hump, about a thousand yards long from north to south, very steep upon every side except the eastern, and crowned by two summits, Mont Panisel on the north and Bois la Haut on the south, the whole called by the latter name. The third is the height known as Hill 93, which lies south-east of Bois la Haut and is divided from it by a shallow valley. This last hill was of considerable tactical importance, since from it and from Bois la Haut observation and cross-fire could be brought to bear upon the ground eastward about St. Symphorien. But Bois la Haut was in parts thickly wooded, and consequently from its northern end, where there were hospital buildings, there was little field of fire.

West of Mons the line of the canal is straight, and the actual borders are clear; the ground on both sides of it is cut up by a network of artificial water-courses, chequered by osier-beds, for a breadth of a mile or more. But the opening up of the coal-measures has turned much of the country immediately south of this watery land into the hideous confusion of a mining district. The space occupied by the II. Corps in particular, within the quadrangle Mons-Frameries-Dour-Boussu, was practically one huge unsightly village, traversed by a vast number of devious cobbled roads which lead from no particular starting-point to no particular destination, and broken by pit-heads and great slag-heaps, often over a hundred feet high. It is, in fact, a close and blind country, such as no army had yet been called upon to fight in against a civilised enemy in a great campaign.

 

The Bermudian News Network has a short, but to the point, time line of Bermudian History.  It starts from when Juan de Bermudez first sighted the island chain in 1505 and ends 8 years ago, on the year 2000.  Some snippets are:

1973
Governor Richard Sharples and his aide are assassinated.

1977
Erskine Durrant “Buck” Burrows and Larry Tacklyn, convicted of the 1972 murder of Police Commissioner George Duckett were executed. They, along with three other individuals, were named by an inquest as being responsible for the assasination of Governor Sharples. Widespread riots follow.

And:

1995
An referendum on independence from Britain is held — 25 per cent of Bermudians vote to cut ties with the UK. The oppostion PLP called on its supported to boycott the referendum. The turnout was 57%. The US and British navies close their bases in Bermuda.

When my family lived in the United Kingdom, my father worked in one of the DODDS London offices as a PPS Coordinator. That meant that he had to travel a lot and consult with schools across Europe. That also meant lots of conferences. Simply put, he wasn’t home much, leaving my mother to often fill his parental role too. I was about seven at the time, my brother, 10 or 11. My sister, however, was full into her awkward, hormone crazed hell of her teenage years. To say that she had problems, is a little true and unfair. Most people have some sort of issue when they’re teenagers, but my sister’s life is a little more complicated then that. At the moment, I’d rather just leave most of her life’s story there.

At any rate, when you grow up with two other siblings, certain things become battlegrounds within the home. The most contentious, however, seemed to be the television. My brother and I always wanted to watch cartoons, and my sister always wanted to watch tabloid television. Top of the Pops — a weekly countdown of what’s on the pop music charts — was one of her favorites. Even more, we had just gotten a VCR, and often, my sister wanted to not only watch it, but record it, so she could watch it again right afterwards. Sometimes, that wasn’t enough. She’d not only repeat her viewing, but do it several times, locking up the only television in the house. As one can imagine, this had the potential, every week, to turn into a huge yelling match.

One week, it got more vicious than others. My mom, this time, instead of just intervening, walked into the living room with one hand behind her back. “Give me the tape,” she said to my sister.

My sister complied. She popped the tape out of the VCR and handed it over.

My mom set the tape on a nearby table. She had been hiding a hammer behind her back. And she swung, hard, many times, until the tape was just a shattered bit of plastic. Then, she opened the back sliding glass door, and flung out on the flagstone terrace next to our back yard. “That is all,” my mom said, She stomped out of the room, leaving my sister mortified, speechless.

When you’re a foreigner in a country, you don’t know a lot of the culture and customs of your host nation. It’s natural, and no matter how much one studies up before moving, you’re never going to know as much as the natives. Sometimes, that can lead to some embarrassing gaffes. Sometimes, that comes with language, as even the idioms are different in America as they are in the United Kingdom. For example, it’s perfectly normal for a guy in England to say to a girl, “Shall I come knock you up tomorrow morning?” He’s laterally asking if it’s okay to come knock on her door. On the other hand, an American should never saw, “Wow, I’m stuffed” after eating dinner at a neighbor’s. “Stuffed” can have a sexual connotation in the UK.

One of the more memorable cultural slip involves my mother. At the time, I was going to first grade at West Ruislip. My mom usually packed a ham sandwich, some carrots, and a box of apple juice into my lunch. One day, she opened the fridge and noticed a lack of juice boxes. So, she grabbed what she thought was a soda and put it in. You see, in the States, there’s a minor cola company called Shasta. She had often seen it on the grocery store shelves in New Jersey. When she grocery shopped at High Wycombe’s Tesco days earlier, she thought she was buying Shasta, but she misread the name on the can. In fact, she’d bought a six pack of shandy.

In the UK, shandy is usually a mixture of cola and beer or lemonade and beer. Yes, my mom sent my to school with a beer in my lunch bag. Once lunch period came around, I ate the ham sandwich and popped the can open. After the first sip, I knew something wasn’t right. I’d never drank beer before, but my dad drank beer all the time, so I knew the smell. Carefully, I stood up, found the nearest trash can and threw it out. The rest of the day, I was paranoid about the teacher smelling my breath. Nothing happened, though. My mother and I both got lucky in that regard, because that could have lead to an awkward call from the prinicipal, especially if didn’t have the sense to throw it out and got hammered.

The 1970s was a bleak, violent decade. America fought in Southeast Asia, the economy sputtered and suffered from stagflation, and there were a number of homegrown radical movements that used violent methods. Of these the SLA and the Patty Hearst Abduction comes to mind, as well as the actions of the Weaterman Underground. The United Kingdom suffered similarly, minus the conflict in Vietnam. Much like the US, the UK had it’s own counter culture with it’s particular violent outgrowths.

In the UK, The Angry Brigade planted bombs, but didn’t kill anyone. As Martin Bright writes:

In the series of 25 bombings attributed to them no one was killed (one person was slightly injured), but they were a serious embarrassment to Edward Heath’s government. For a brief period between August 1970 and August 1971, the authorities were unable to stop a group of left-wing adventurers bombing the homes of Tory politicians, as well as government and corporate offices.

Eventually, suspects were nabbed, but after the police raids, the alleged perpetrators become wrapped up in counter culture imagery:

It didn’t take long for a mythology of hippie outlaws and their molls to develop around the two couples from Amhurst Road. This was helped in no small degree by the Angry Brigade’s own ironic propaganda: one early communiqué was signed ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ and another ‘The Wild Bunch’. The prurient drooling began even before the four had been identified. ‘Girl slept with bedside arsenal’ claimed one tabloid, while another screamed, ‘Dropouts with brains tried to launch bloody revolution.’ Meanwhile, a Sun reporter produced a bizarre story headlined ‘Sex Orgies at the Cottage of Blood’ about a house where the four were once said to have stayed. Here they were said to have ritually sacrificed a turkey while indulging in the nightmare revolutionary cocktail of ‘bizarre sexual activities’ and ‘anarchist-type meetings.’ Even the broadsheets couldn’t resist. On the weekend after their trial was over, The Observer used the by-now iconic pictures of the two 22-year-olds as an eye-catching addition to its table of contents. What the press didn’t know was that every time they used the images, they were contributing to a defence group fund. In a move that demonstrated a canny understanding of the media’s thirst for images of pretty girls, Creek and Mendleson had a set of photographs secretly taken during the trial and gave the copyright to friends to manage.

Now, it’s more than 30 years later. Much of the resulting trail has largely been forgetton, especially as a new generation has sprung up.