Nessie, Haggis and Royal Babies

Today marks two years since the kids and I emigrated to America.  In some ways it seems like not that much time has passed (such as when we met up with friends in Lochgilphead in July and it felt like we had only been gone for weeks) but in many ways it feels like ages ago, not quite part of another lifetime but not far off.  For example, we bought our house just over a year ago but already it feels comfortably like home, as if we have lived in it for years.  I reread my first year immigration anniversary post and realised that a lot of what I wrote then still stands now so settling is clearly a slow and gradual process for me; but I am definitely more comfortable with things than I was this time last year.  Things that were initially unsettling, discombobulating, strange, alien and stressful have now largely settled into the rhythm and groove of everyday normality with the occasional panicked peak of being a stranger in a strange land.

From the very first, my Scottisness has been a talking point.  A week has yet to pass without people commenting on my accent, always complimentary, usually an exclamation of, “I love your accent!”  Often that is where the conversation on my accent ends but sometimes I am asked where I am from and that prompts further conversation.  Some of these can be quite peculiar.

Last Winter I fell into conversation with a chap who heard my accent and enquired if I was Irish.

Man: That’s not a Philly accent.
Me: Well spotted.
Man: My family are Irish.
Me: That’s cool. I’m not Irish though; I’m Scottish.
Man: Yeah, my grandparents came over in their 20s.
Me: Uh huh.
Man: So where in Ireland?
Me: Sorry?
Man: Where in Ireland are you from?
Me: I’m not. I’m from Scotland.
Man: Oh. It’s just that you sound a lot like Sean Connery.
Me: Sean Connery is also not Irish. He is also Scottish. Like me.
Man: Cool.

It is perplexing the number of times I have had the “I am not Irish” conversation.  I think more people guess I am Irish than guess accurately that I am a Scot.  I sometimes also get New Zealander and South African.  I think people just hear accented English and plump for an English speaking nation.  I had assumed that Americans would be much better at placing accents given there is such a diversity of accents and dialects in the various regions of the US but apparently not.

When people do know I am Scottish, all sorts of bizarre small talk can ensue.  One of my favourites was when, not long after moving to America, I was asked at the supermarket checkout, “Do you believe?”  I was desperately confused by the question.  Having had a lot of strangers ask me what religion I was since my arrival, my first thought was that I was being asked about faith.  But why would someone be asking me about religion while beeping my groceries?  I must have looked dim for long enough that the checkout lady offered a follow up, “Do you believe in the Loch Ness Monster?”  Oh!  Much easier to answer.  She looked quite crestfallen when I replied, “I believe Nessie is good for tourism”.  Did she really think I was going to reveal that I had been given a private audience with the beastie?  That was not the only time I have been asked about Nessie but it was certainly the oddest.

Haggis is another topic of conversation.  I think Britain still has a reputation for terrible food (which is unfair – you can find wonderful and wretched food wherever you are in the world) and the very notion that someone might eat the heart and lungs of a sheep all chopped up and stuffed in its bladder is barf-inducing to some and the idea that such a recipe would become a national dish is truly mystifying.  But, of course, many nation’s have a simple peasant dish to serve as their national dish.  It is just the fact that Scotland’s is a whole bunch of innards that captures the imagination I suppose.  Mostly people just want to know why.  Why?  Why would anyone eat such a thing?  Just why?  I can then take the conversation along a historic or gastronomic track.  The former involves explaining a bit about crofting practices and the economic need to use every part of an animal and the latter involves explaining that haggis is actually very tasty, thanks to the mixture of oatmeal and spices – though, of course, since I don’t eat meat I only eat vegetarian haggis.  I managed to horrify my son’s class when they thought I was going to make them eat haggis.

The expansion of the British royal family has led to two periods since my immigration in which people have asked my opinion about royal babies.  I don’t tend to have opinions about babies, whether royal or serf or anything in between.  People also tended to approach the subject obliquely and without any context so that I again found myself in a state of befuddlement.  “What do you think of the baby?”  I was asked, again at a supermarket checkout.  I asked what baby and was met with the reply, “Baby George?”  I still had nothing.  Was this some TV programme the checkout person assumed I watched.  “Prince George?”  Oh.  The penny dropped.  It’s always nice when people who want a baby have one.  That’s pretty much my sole opinion on the matter.  And, of course, it was repeated when Prince George’s little sister was born a few months ago.  I was quicker on the uptake with that conversation starter though.  I get asked about the Queen a lot too.  And Downton Abbey.  I think many people think the two are related.

The popularity of the Outlander series of books and the subsequent TV show is also something people ask me about a lot when they identify my accent.  They always look disappointed in me when I confess that I have neither read the books or seen the TV show.  Before I had ever heard of the books, I fell into conversation with an older lady in our library once because she heard my accent and wanted to know what I thought of them.  She looked downright affronted when I told her I had no idea what she was referring to.  She looked like she thought I should be stripped of my Scottish identity.  Then it emerged that some of the teachers at my sons’ Elementary School were obsessed with the books – totally obsessed – so they would ask me about all sorts of things to do with Scotland.  One asked me to email her photos I had taken of Scottish castles and was over the moon when I did so.

Ever so often, someone will hear my Scottish burr and will engage me in conversation about travel to Scotland.  It might be that they want to share their experience of visiting the country and tell me how much they loved it there, despite the weather, or it might be that they are planning a trip there and want some personal recommendations.  That’s always fun.  I think Scotland is one of the most beautiful, historically rich and culturally interesting countries in the world and I am happy to be an Ambassador – though I don’t forget to mention rain and midgies.

I welcome all of these little interactions about my Scottish accent and identity.  I like being Scottish so I am happy to chat about it.  The reaction people have is overwhelmingly positive too which is a welcoming feeling, especially at times when I might be feeling a little alien and adrift.  I am quite happy to be “different” and my difference sometimes prompts people to be very helpful and make suggestions as to places to go, things to see and do.  Indeed in the two years that I have lived in Pennsylvania, the only anti-immigration sentiment I have experienced directly was from a man, whose surname I noted was Italian, who felt it appropriate to tell me that people like me were coming over here and making the economy worse because we were stealing all of the jobs that proper Americans should have.  Sigh.

As a final note on Scottish accents in an American context, as my kids accents and vocabulary are drifting into the Mid-Atlantic, they have become much more conscious of my accent.  “You are just SO Scottish!” they proclaim.  I find that quite comforting.

 

Becoming Mom

My sons finished the school year on Tuesday morning.  It is hard to believe that school is over already as the time seems time seems to have passed so quickly – even eliminating the fact they started the school year in Scotland and had a period of being homeschooled in England before we actually emigrated.  They each came home with so much paperwork from school that they really would have had to hire sherpas if we didn’t currently live next door to the school.  Overwhelmed, I piled it all up on a table and let it intimidate me for a day before I started delving into it, determining what should be added to their memory boxes and what should be recycled.

This whole business of sorting the wheat from the chaff should have taken me less time than it did simply because I found a lot of their work quite diverting.  Among my eight year old’s rainforest of paper there was an alphabetic writing prompt.  For every letter of the alphabet, there was a question (with a tied-in key word) that invited him to develop a pithy, personal piece of writing.  C was for collection and he was asked to share what he would collect if he could collect anything at all.  My eight year old duly answered that he would collect glass human eyes because they are cool and different and “because my mom has always wanted to collect glass eyes”.  So very weird but also very sweet and thoughtful.  My seven year old wants to collect animals bones. I love my little weirdos.

But I digress.  The point of this anecdote is that in several more examples I was referred to as “mom” and not as “mum”.  I have written before about how I feel about what this exchange in vowels means to my identity but to see it on page after page really drove the point home.  In order to make himself understood by his peers, in order to fit in conversationally and abide by American spelling conventions, even the most non-conformist – diligently, defiantly, determinedly non-conformist – of my sons has capitulated to conforming.  Out of curiosity, I then quickly skim read writing by all of my other sons too.  All of them were referring to me as “mom” in their written work.

I accept it and I understand it and, therefore, I support it but by jings it feels very odd indeed.  It feels weird enough reading it but if they start actually calling me “mom” then that will feel even more alien.  It’s only been eight months and my children are being Americanised.  Little transatlantic Pod People.

An Exchange of Vowels

I became a mother almost eleven years ago when, after an arduous 56 hour labour, my oldest son made his way into the world and transformed me into Mummy.  It was a new and much longed for identity which was made more concrete when my other sons arrived in the world, one after the other.

But here in America I am not Mummy or even Mum (because my oldest kids, at 10 and 8, are getting too old and too cool to maintain that final syllable).  Here, I am Mommy or Mom.  It’s just a switch of a single vowel yet the label feels very different.

I get that my kids are striving to fit in at school and use terminology their peers understand and, for that reason, I am not against the change in nomenclature.  It is, however, odd to discover that I feel quite strange about suddenly being Mom.  I feel certain that my children, especially the younger ones, will take to calling me Mom at home too, so that it’s not just a school and playground thing.  Gradually I just will be Mom and not Mum any longer.  It’s not just a title to describe my role; it’s a label that signifies a very important element of my identity; that is indicative of my most special, wonderful relationships ;it’s my job description; it’s who I am.  Maybe I am being overly sensitive about it because of the other things that have been happening to my identity since I relocated here but that single shift in vowel sound feels weird on me.  I’ve been a Mum for over ten years but am I ready to become a Mom?

I am definitely not opposed to it – whatever makes my kids comfortable and content is absolutely OK by me – but it’s going to take some getting used to.

Driving and being driven up the wall

I got my UK driving licence at the age of 17 – the minimum legal driving age there – and I somehow managed to pass not only first time but with an entirely clean test sheet.

I had had no more than ten formal lessons, a few trips around industrial estates with my Dad to practice maneouvres and my Grandad had made me do stunt driving a la Starsky and Hutch, like reversing around a series of cones, even though that was never going to form any part of any test.  But still my instructor thought I was going to fail.  Luckily this was in the age before separate theory tests.  I still have no capacity for memorising statistics and numbers.  There was never a chance I would be able to accurately recall all those stopping distances.  Had there been a written test back then, I am sure I would have failed it at least once.  But back then knowledge was assessed as part of the practical test so I didn’t let it vex me so much.

My instructor decided it would be best if I did not sit the test at the nearest centre because I was constantly driving to where I thought I should go rather than where I was being told to go.  I was just too familiar with the roads there.  So instead it was decided that I would sit my test and the next closest testing centre which was a much smaller town.  I soon sussed out that there were really only two routes I could ever be taken on my test since only those two routes would permit all of the components of the test to take place.  I, therefore, set out to memorise every details of those routes even down to how many turns of the wheel were required to reverse perfectly around each corner.  Still my instructor was sure I was going to fail and that the test was just going to be a learning exercise.  That may have been because his attempts at getting me to do an emergency stop always resulted in me gradually rolling to a stop that could have mowed down several grannies.  I just couldn’t seem to get myself to reflexively respond to a faked emergency.  A tap of a newspaper on the dashboard was not a nonagenarian stepping off the kerb after all.

It transpired, however, that my driving examiner was a talker.  As soon as he got in the car, he asked me about my fairly rare surname.  He was able to geographically pinpoint my paternal family origins – Aberdeenshire – because of it and told me that he was also from Aberdeen.  And so followed a test that was really just a monologue from him about Aberdeen and travelling in Scotland and places he had lived with the occasional interruption for him to say, “Turn left ahead” or “do a three-point turn here”.  I am pretty confident that most of the time he was not paying full, focused attention to my driving.  He asked me to park up and I knew that was the driving element over and that I was now going to be asked some questions to assess my knowledge.  As soon as he held up a picture of a triangle with a cow silhouette in it and asked me what this sign meant, I knew I had passed.  All the questions I was asked were very basic, the most challenging one being what colour the cat’s eyes are on a slip road.  He informed me that I had passed.  Phew!  But it was when he showed the paperwork to my instructor that he and I were both dumbstruck because there was not a single fault recorded.  It was a flawless test.  Except that I know it wasn’t a flawless test: I just had an examiner who was so busy gabbing that he had not noticed my minor errors (though none of those would have led to a fail).

So that was how I passed my first driving test and became a qualified driver: no specific theory test and a hyper-loquacious examiner.

Now I am in the process of undergoing my attempt to become a fully qualified driver in the US.

Since I finally – finally! – have all of the documentation I need, today I went to the driving centre to obtain my learner’s permit.  I thought all I was doing was obtaining the equivalent of a UK provisional license – a permission slip to start learning to drive, the first hurdle in becoming a fully-fledged, licensed driver.  

Then came the bombshell that to even obtain the learner’s permit I had to take the Knowledge test.

Gulp!

I have not read the Pennsylvania Driver’s Manual.  I have flicked through it and I looked up some specific things to ensure I was not breaking the law in the meantime (since I am legally driving using my UK licence and international licence).  I have not, however, studied it in any way.  The pass rate is 80% with 18 questions.  I had that sinking feeling.

I was directed to a little booth containing a touch screen.  I poked a button and my test began.  Multiple choice questions appeared on the screen, I made a selection, confirmed that selection and then the screen would indicate correct (green for go!) or incorrect (red for “You are never going to drive in this country ever, you dimwit!”).

And I was getting green after green.  How was this possible?  Partly it was luck I’m sure.  A rash of questions involving statistics would have scuppered me for sure.  I was finding I could answer them without much brain-ache by dint of over two decades’ driving experience and simple common sense.  I did get two questions wrong: one because I guessed the wrong level of fine for a drink-driving offence (I wrongly erred on the side of harshness) and one because the question and potential answers were so riddled with American terms I could not stitch them together into something coherent to allow me to comprehend what was being asked of me.  So I guessed and got it wrong.  That was the penultimate question.  I got the last one right and a screen appeared congratulating me for passing.

Really?  I passed? Phew!

It didn’t all go as smoothly though.  Being me and my luck there had to be a glitch.  That ruddy lost hyphen struck again!  My SSN was one of the critical components of my permit application and, of course, in their wisdom the Department of Social Security had failed to insert a hyphen in my surname. It transpires there is also not a hyphen in my surname as it appears on my green card.  I am scheduling in some primal screaming just to vent my frustration over this lapse in punctuation.  Neither of these documents, therefore, exactly and precisely correspond to my passport, which records my surname accurately.  There was some humming and hawing, some referring to superiors, and finally they decided that the SSN was the over-riding supporting document and that, therefore, my driving permit was going to have to be issued sans hyphen.

The Curse of the Lost Hyphen strikes again.

Slowly but surely US bureaucracy is eroding my identity.

But my quest to have a US driving licence is progressing.

Giveth and taketh.

More ranting and raving

Yesterday I ranted about the challenge posed to me attempting to do something as simple as having my name added to our household electricity bill since I desperately need some proofs of address.  I won’t rehash the details because it’s all here in this blog entry:

https://pictinpa.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/lost-hyphen/

Having explicitly asked yesterday’s call centre person what I had to do in order to have my identity verified by the electricity company, I verily sent my husband off into the city this morning with my SSN, my passport and my UK driving licence.  The electricity company’s office is on the same street my husband works on so we deemed this to be the most efficient approach.  Mr Pict arrived there bright and early and explained the scenario.  The member of staff there looked up our account information and found there was no record of yesterday’s phone conversation or request so Mr Pict was informed that they could not comply with the request to verify my ID since there was no record of the first stage of verification, namely his authorisation of me to be added to the account and my providing permission to be added to the account plus all of my basic details.  Great.  So he was told to get me to phone the customer services line again and ask for the note to be placed on the account.

So I phoned up and explained the situation and was immediately put on hold.  And I was on hold for a while.  Long enough to multi-task getting my youngest ready for nursery, emptying and loading the dishwasher, clearing the breakfast table and putting our outdoor coats and shoes on all while having the phone gripped between my neck and shoulder so I could hear when the call centre person came back on the line.  Also long enough to hear everything I ever wanted to know about the electricity company several times over.  Finally she came back on the line.  This is how the conversation proceeded:

Her: There is now a note on your account stating that your husband made a request to amend the billing details this morning.

Me: OK but is there also a note stating that you have spoken to me and have gained my permission to be added to the bill?

Her: I will do that for you now, ma’am.  However, I cannot include a note making reference to verification of your identity at this time.

Me: Even though I went through all of that with the man I spoke to yesterday and it appears he just failed to enter a note about it on the system?

Her: Did you provide your social security number when you spoke to my colleague yesterday?

Me: Yes.

Her: And your driver’s licence was verified also?

Me: No.  I don’t yet have a US driver’s licence.  I arrived in the country in October.  I was told yesterday that I could submit my passport and UK driving licence, which is also a photo ID, in order to have my identity confirmed.  So can you make a note of this conversation now in the account records?

Her:  Let me just go speak to my colleague, ma’am.

And then I was back on hold for a while longer.  Meanwhile, of course, Mr Pict is still in the company’s branch in Philly as they await the note from customer services appearing on the account details.  Also meanwhile ensuring that my youngest child is definitely going to be late for preschool.

Her: It seems you were given some incorrect advice yesterday.  Both your husband and yourself would have to be there in person to have your identification verified.  Is it possible for you to do that?

Me: Only with great difficulty and inconvenience.  The staff in the branch in Philadelphia that my husband just spoke to seem to think they can verify my ID as soon as the note appears on the system so can you just ensure that note is present, please?

Her: I have entered a note as requested.  Is there anything else I can do for you today, ma’am?

Me: Nope.  Thank you.  (Through gritted teeth.)

So I then quickly phoned Mr Pict and explained the whole mess to him while dragging our youngest son along the street at full tilt to ensure he actually made it to preschool before the session ended.  He then had some to and fro and a lot more queuing to do while the people in the city branch waited for the note to appear.  And waited.  It never did appear.  Again.  Mercifully, however, because my husband is super-likeable, someone there took pity on him and decided to override their pitifully stupid system and verify my identification documents.  Job done – in as half-arsed manner as possible.

That was this morning’s stress.  This afternoon’s stress was communication from my husband regarding our bank card.  Our bank had been in touch with him to inform him that our card was one of those caught up in Target’s security breach so they were having to void our debit cards and issue new ones.  Thankfully there had been no fraudulent spending on our card so we don’t have to deal with any of that but it still means up to five days without any means of paying for anything or withdrawing cash.  Great.

And now I get to fill out an insurance claim for all the broken and missing items from our shipping consignment.

What a great day this is turning out to be.  I need a do-over.