Small things, like a trip to the grocery store, become an exercise in sociological discovery: do the lights on the checkout lanes mean that lane is open or closed? Do I provide my own bags? Do they charge for plastic bags if I don’t have enough of my own? Do I pack my own groceries, or will the checker pack them for me?
All these things that I don’t know are running through my head as I lay my items on the belt. It only takes a single comment between myself and the checker, though, for her to realize I am not a local — my American accent betrays me. And then I’m free to ask all my questions and we sort it all out, and I’m on my merry way with plenty of newfound knowledge about grocery store conventions in the UK.
It’s bad enough being clueless on your own, but when you add children into the mix, it complicates things even further.
For our first days in England, each restaurant we entered was a minefield of deciphering social conventions. Do we stand at the entrance and wait to be seated or can we pick a table ourselves? (We encountered both types of places in the first few days.) Will there be a children’s menu? (And will it have any items that don’t come with peas?) Do we wait for a waitress to take our order, or do we order at the bar? (Depends on the establishment, the time of day, and how busy the restaurant is apparently.) Do people in England really eat burgers and fries with a knife and fork? (Yup, some of them do.)
Matt and I spent each meal watching the people around us, explaining things to the kids, trying to decode menu items we didn’t completely understand, and wondering if everyone else in the room could tell we were foreigners just based on our restaurant behavior.
Now, two months in to our stay in England, we’re slightly more familiar with the way things are done here. We’re finally comfortable with grocery shopping, we’ve got restaurants basically down, and we’re slowly learning the nuances of the British private school system. But that doesn’t mean that surprises don’t pop up, like when we arrived at Back to School night and were offered glasses of wine. Or when I had to drop my car at the mechanic and instead of giving me a loaner car to take home, the mechanic drove me back to my house in my own car and then took it back to the shop to fix it.
Every new experience broadens our horizons, though, and makes it easier to take on the next challenge with a little less fear and hesitation. Each time we learn a new way to do things, we expand our understanding of our new home, and we equip ourselves to deal a little better with the changes we face each time we travel somewhere new.
It’s hard work learning a new culture, but it’s worth every minute.