A little of being a foreigner

A little of being a foreigner

I am an American Citizen, but aside from the legal documentation, I am culturally a foreigner. Because of this I have some experiences that I suspect others never have, or have less often.

Before I tell this story, I think you need to know about a difference between British and American homes that is really obvious to a visitor from one to the other: British homes are made of different materials than American ones.

In England, homes are almost all made of brick: one layer of breeze blocks, a void or a layer of insulation, and then a layer of more attractive bricks on the outside. Brick homes do not yield to the wind. When there were hurricane-force winds in October 1987 (‘The Great Storm’), these houses yielded rarely, and when they did, it meant rebuilding walls.

In England, roofs are generally covered in stone or terracotta tiles (US: shingles). In New Hampshire, they are usually covered in asphalt shingles (UK: bitumen tiles). Stone tiles will last decades to centuries and, though they are more expensive to buy, are better value long-term. My hypothesis is that the difference comes down to two things:

  1. Americans are more price conscious, even where value is concerned; and
  2. Americans sometimes suffer extreme winds that make ceramic tiles dangerous.

In that Great Storm of 1987, the tiles on roofs in England were ripped off and made shattering noises all through the night. Young me was scared that the sound of shattering was actually windows being broken. This was exacerbated because I had recently asked my parents whether lightning could break windows, which they had assured me it could not. And now, I am young and laying in bed, hearing the sound of shattering at regular intervals. Suffice it to say, my sister and I were destined to spend the whole of that night in my parents’ bedroom.

Yesterday it was unusually gusty for New Hampshire. Growing up in England, I remember frequent gales and periods of gusty wind, but in my five years in New Hampshire, I think I’ve only really heard the wind a few times. After the gusty period was over, we received a weather warning about unusually strong winds overnight, which was concerning.

We bought our house nearly a year ago and this might be one of the first periods of gusty wind since we have lived here. As it happened, the wind overnight was nothing to write home about, but the gusts did make the house creak in a way that would not be possible if the house was made of brick. The wooden frame of our house flexed slightly with the wind and that made a sound that could be heard from within. A baffling situation for a foreigner.

And then, because it was windy, I went out to get the trash cans (UK: bins) in from the road as soon as they were emptied. I had a brief conversation with our lovely neighbor (UK: neighbour) and, because of the wind, my accent, and perhaps some hearing difficulties, nothing I said was understood. Unfortunately, this seems to happen a lot. I have a pretty frequently-heard English accent, and yet I sometimes cannot get people to understand me.

What I find really weird about people not understanding my accent, is that they often think they have understood. I might say “A hot, blueberry coffee, please?” and their response will be “I’m sorry, what kind of sandwich?” At least in this example they ask for clarification, but often they are confused when I turn away the offending sandwich as something that is especially inappropriate for a celiac (UK: coeliac).

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