Lost in Translation

I read a post over at Life of an Expat Parent this week about some of the differences between Brits and Americans – what they say, and what they actually mean. It inspired me to dig out and finish this post which has been sitting in my drafts folder for a couple of weeks…

DorkyDad and I were sitting watching an old episode of Mock the Week a couple of nights ago when, for some reason, Jimmy Saville was mentioned.

Jim’ll Fix It?” said DorkyDad. “What the hell is Jim’ll Fix It?!

It was a TV show. He was a guy that wore shiny tracksuits and a big medallion, and helped little kids dreams come true, and then they got a big Jim Fixed It For Me medallion to wear around their neck too!” I said.

And then I realised how odd that sounded.

DorkyDad has been living in the UK for nearly seven years, and has adapted to this weird and wonderful country incredibly well. He swears a lot more now. He drinks pints of beer instead of bottles. And he laughs in all the right places when he’s watching The Full Monty. But occasionally something will come up in conversation – and more often than not it’s a popular culture reference like Jim’ll Fix It – where he just hasn’t the foggiest idea what it’s about, and I always do a fairly shoddy job of explaining.

The same is true in reverse too, of course. While a huge number of American bands, films, TV series, foods and the like have been popular in the UK, some of them haven’t made it onto my radar at all, and it’s only when DorkyDad mentions some previously unheard of thing in a matter of fact way that I’ll realise it’s another cultural touchstone we don’t share.

In no particular order, here are a few of the things we’ve had to explain to each other. This is a constantly evolving list, which I will continue to add to over the many happy years of our marriage that are still ahead…

Blue Peter. “Ta-da!” I’ll say. “Here’s one I made earlier!” Or “Well done! I think you deserve a Blue Peter badge for that!” Blue Peter was such a childhood staple for me – such an integral part of my upbringing – that I can’t imagine not knowing what it’s all about. I remember crushing aluminium cans into boxes and sending them off in the post. Organising Bring and Buy Sales for Romanian orphans. Laughing at Mark Curry trying to flip pancakes… That’s all stuff that’s pretty hard to explain twenty years later to an American. I guess you had to be there.

Flags. We have a flag in the UK. Several, in fact. We all know a Union Jack or a bonny Saltire when we see one. We just don’t all feel the need to hang them outside our houses like they do in the States. DorkyDad has tried to explain the flag thing. But I don’t get it. I really don’t.

Comedy. Fork Handles. Dead Parrot. Del Boy at the Bar. Apparently all totally unfunny to a non-British audience.

Carry On Films. It has been a long time since I’ve watched one of these, but I went through a bit of a Sid James fangirl phase (I know, I can’t believe I’m admitting that either), and I thought they were the funniest films in the world. I tried, lamely, to explain Carry On to DorkyDad one time. “Hmm, I think I know what they are.” he said. “It’s two guys isn’t it? Carry on Britain. Carry on up the Nile. All that.

Peanut Butter. Don’t get me wrong, I like peanut butter well enough. I’ll have it on my toast maybe one or two mornings a week. But I am not too fussed about whether it’s crunchy or smooth, or what brand it is. And I would never think to use it in any other kind of cooking. When you go to the States, you have to cast your eye over a good two or three shelves of chocolate before you can find one that isn’t peanut butter related in some way. They put it in EVERYTHING! And so far, we haven’t yet found a UK brand of peanut butter that satisfies DorkyDad’s palate. Thank heavens for Lupe Pintos mail order and our regular deliveries of Skippy Smooth. Peanut butter. I don’t mind it, but I’m not sure it’s worth all the fuss. Oh, and PB&J? Don’t even get me started on that. That involves a whole other level of jam/jelly/jello debate that I’m not strong enough for tonight.

Challenge Anneka. Well. There was this blonde woman who wore bright pink and blue Lycra catsuits and travelled around the country on helicopters and beach buggies, fixing things for people to a tight deadline. Like Blue Peter, I guess you had to be there.

Eurovision. Poor DorkyDad. One of our earliest dates involved him accompanying me to a Eurovision Party that some friends had organised. We all had to choose our country to back, and draw the flag on a wee sticky label to stick on our shirts. For a man who had no concept of what Eurovision was, and who hadn’t had enough to drink before we arrived, it was a uniquely terrifying and bewildering experience.

Mac and Cheese as a side dish. I LOVE macaroni cheese. I would happily eat it every day and get as fat as a whale. But in my head, it’s a meal in itself. You sit down to a plate of mac and cheese, and maybe have a side salad or something so you can forget about the half kilo of cheese and cream you’re eating and pretend you’re being healthy. What I can’t get my head around is mac and cheese as a side dish. You know, let’s have a steak… with mac and cheese. Or let’s have a pork chop… with mac and cheese. I’ll never say no to it – hell, no – but I always have to shush the voice inside my head telling me that I’ve got two meals on a plate instead of one.

National Treasures. We love us a national treasure, we do. Someone a bit kooky. Preferably someone who has overcome adversity – and if you can’t tick that box then you either have to be very clever or have given a lot of your money to charity to compensate. You don’t actually have to be British. You do have to be able to laugh at yourself. I’m thinking Stephen Fry, David Attenborough, Rolf Harris, Eddie Izzard, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Philip Schofield, Terry Wogan (help me out here, who am I missing?). Most of the people we award National Treasure status to (the Gold Blue Peter badge holders, if you like) are not people who are particularly popular in the States. I wonder why that is?

Thatcher. I know that Americans know who Thatcher is. But unless you’re British, and the images from the news of the poll tax riots (and obviously the miners strikes – although as a young un I wasn’t aware of them at the time) are imprinted on your mind, I don’t think you can ever quite get a handle on just how much she is disliked. I don’t think you will ever quite understand the strength and depth of feeling there is towards Thatcher in the North and in Scotland. I suspect that all street parties that are planned for when she passes away may give some indication though.

Creme Eggs. DorkyDad has tried a creme egg, once. But he claimed that he could feel all his teeth disintegrating with every mouthful. I guess they are an acquired taste. Funnily enough, he has tried Irn Bru once, and said exactly the same thing.

Perhaps this isn’t just something that we’re dealing with because we grew up in different countries. Perhaps other couples have these ‘things’ – foods, favourite TV shows, albums in their collection, childhood traditions – that they have to interpret for their partners too. I’d be really interested to hear any examples you’ve got, so please feel free to leave me a comment below.

12 responses

  1. Hahaha. I have been LIVING this post, especially when we are with our best friends and they are all reminiscing about their British childhoods. I’m sure I completely glaze over – I just have no frame of reference, whatsoever. Oh and Mac and Cheese is TOTALLY a side dish. He is so right.

  2. N and I have those things mostly because of the age gap; otherwise, being from middle class southern English families we’d be quite similar. But as it is, yes we have Blue Peter, but totally different presenters; the other day I mentioned bubble skirts and was met with a totally blank look; she actually thinks leather jackets and stonewashed jeans were a good rock look. And ironic liking is really a foreign concept.

  3. Mike and I have similar conversations. He frequently refers to bands/songs that I’ve never heard of, and most of my TV references (like SNL) go right over his head. Creme eggs, though – those definitely made it to America. They were the best thing about Easter when I was a kid!

  4. It’s all about the smooth peanut butter. FYI, you can get a rather large container at Costco, if you or spmeone you know has a membership. There’s also Kraft Dinner, which is different and better tasting then the Kraft Mac n Cheese you buy here – my mom has to ship it over to me but u do agree that its not really a side dish, more like a lunch. Oh, as for tv we had the Care Bears, which doesn’t seem to have crossed the pond this way or, like in another post anything SNL related like Wayne’s World, so my quotes get blank stares instead of laughs or the next line…

  5. Ooh, I had no idea the Eurovision party had been so much of a trial by fire… I hope it was okay for DorkyDad after he’d gotten over the initial shock of the insanity that is Eurovision! I’d love to watch it with you guys again some day – I wonder what DorkySon would make of it?

    On Creme Eggs and sugar levels, I had my first Butterfinger bar just recently. It made me feel like what I imagine God feels like, just before he has a heart attack.

  6. Brilliant… thank you so much for making me laugh on this miserable rainy morning (well in Munich anyway!)…. The Eurovision party especially made me laugh!

    Emma 🙂

    PS. You think the Americans are bad for flags. You should try living in Denmark for a couple of years where they are so obsessed they even decorate their Christmas trees with hundreds of them!!

  7. very enjoyable post, I’m a sucker for cultural difference chat, loved the eurovision bit though I think Jonathan is as bewildered as Dorkydad about it! I have to say I am with Dorkydad on the peanut butter, I won’t buy anything other than Skippy, which is really hard to get anywhere other than Sainsburys up here, and I do use it in lots of baking. And the national treasure bit – if our NT’s go schmoozing off to the States, being all popular over there, we wouldn’t like them so much. And you missed out Michael Palin.

  8. My Wookie immigrated here to the US from Ireland. (Funny. I never thought of him as an expat before.) We are often separated by our common language and cultural references even after 8 years together.

  9. Pingback: Lost in Translation : Love All Blogs

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