Moving to a foreign country has a knack for making you feel stupid in many ways, like a country bumpkin shambling about the big city for the first time, mouth agape at the skyscrapers and falling off of escalators, etc (see Crocodile Dundee).  Even if you’re fortunate enough to relocate to a country that speaks your native language, the culture shock is inevitable: food, dress, tipping, social customs, politics, traffic laws, transportation, the constant mental calculation of currency exchange…  After the initial excitement wears off, you’ll find that the whole shebang is pretty tiring. 

When I moved to the UK last year, it was with great anticipation and more than a little naïveté.  I understood that there was a national obsession with “football,” widespread enjoyment of peculiar and bland food, a Queen, handy access to H&M and TopShop, and most importantly, proximity to the “real” Europe. 

Overall, I think I’ve adapted reasonably well.  I’ve instinctively incorporated a variety of Britishisms into my daily vocabulary, can navigate the Tube like a pissed-off and harried Londoner, and can (sort of) appreciate baked beans with toast on a hungover Sunday.  But I was thinking recently about when I first arrived, and how many things that have become familiar were overwhelmingly foreign at the onset, specifically with regards to my flat.

I would be the first to admit that I’m not a particularly domestic creature.  Having mastered dishwashing and laundry, the rest of my household cleaning routine boils down to a shameful thrice-yearly vacuum and a monthly half-hearted bathroom scrub (the kitchen is the single space in which I am weirdly fastidious).  My apartment was, and is, the one area in which I have the opportunity to feel truly at home, so it was with enormous relief that I came from the airport, picked up my keys, and dropped my luggage in my brand-new flat.

Until I took myself on an introductory tour and realized that I had no idea how to operate my basic household appliances.  You would think, well, an oven’s an oven, right?  It can’t be too complicated.  Sure, except that not one item in the apartment came with an instruction manual – it was all just there, existing, in the expectation that I would naturally know how to use everything.  The washing machine glared at me, and implicit was the message: “If you can’t manage this basic piece of household equipment, you, Madam, are a moron.”

Yes, and oven is an oven is an oven, until you are burning pizzas or pulling out salmonella-riddled undercooked chicken because the tiny oven symbols (intended to be international, I’m certain) mean nothing to you.  And you shrink your clothes in the washing machine, and wash them with fabric softener instead of detergent, because nowhere on the bottle do the words “FABRIC SOFTENER” appear and you’re just doing the best you can, damn it, and the whole world is against you because you are too stupid to figure out what the seemingly unnecessary tray in the side of the washing machine is for.  Clearly, it is for something highly relevant to a successful wash, but you will never know for what, because you are an undomesticated asshole.

If I detailed what I went through to get internet connection and a phone line…  Let’s put it this way:  It took two months, cost over $600, and very nearly cost me my sanity.  Bribery and the threat of lawsuits were involved.  My friend Mark helpfully pointed out that when he moved to a third-world country, he got internet connection within three weeks.  This is because his third-world country was not run by British Telecomm, the worst service provider on the face of the earth, the Ford Pinto of telecomm companies.

But I can’t talk about that because I develop PTSD symptoms and it’s bad for my blood pressure.  Instead, here are some pictures of the appliances in my flat, which I am happy to say, after a year of training, I can handle like a pro.  The first few weeks, on the other hand, were a different story.

This is my oven knob.  You can see how the squiggly lines represent something totally different than the straight lines.  If you want squiggly heat, you want to go left.

My living room heater is not only highly functional for warming half of the room, but is also ugly and inconveniently located!  Accustomed to things like central heat and air, I was very interested to learn that this functions by heating bricks in the base, which take approximately ten hours to warm.  A closer look is warranted.

Input sucks heat out of the room, or something, and the heat is then transferred to the bricks (hence the “output” knob).  At the moment, this is set for “balmy within five feet.”

My bedroom heater is a different and more sophisticated animal, perfect for sucking every bit of moisture out of the air, so that you wake up sweating with a sore throat.  If you’re looking for a sick day, just turn on this heater and you’re guaranteed to be feverish and raspy-voiced by morning.  Note the extremely TINY NUMBERS, which correspond not only to temperature, but to timing as well (so, if you come home at 6:00 pm, the room can start inducing illness at 4:30, awaiting your arrival).  I had a colleague set this for me last November and have never messed with it since, even though he admitted he didn’t really understand how it works either.

This is a modern kettle, and the closest thing you’re getting to coffee in the UK.  Learn to like tea.

My shower turns on when you push the button.  The stream is so weak it takes me 20 minutes to rinse my above-shoulder-length hair out on the “high” setting.  The existence of “low” and “medium” settings is perplexing.  These are possibly for people with dreadlocks, or people who enjoy watersports and want to recreate the experience of being urinated upon.  Gently.

This is a string hanging from the ceiling of my bathroom.  After some trial and error, I discovered it is connected to the switch to the hot water heater.  So, if you’re into freezing cold water at all times, don’t pull this string.  If you’re into lukewarm tapwater (and I SO am), yank it once and never touch it again. 

This turned out to be a heater.  Don’t pull this string, unless you like mind-bending waves of dry heat accompanied by the sound of a jet engine. 

Now this was a great discovery.  I am a little embarrassed to confess that it took six months before I comprehended that the split flush mechanism was not just a nifty design scheme, but actually a water-saving deal.  You can choose between half and full flush!  This is the one thing I am in favor of.  Needless to say, I spent six months just pressing the whole thing and assuming all was well.

This is what basic cable looks like (top box).  You go to ASDA, pay 20 pounds (40 bucks), plug it into the TV, and you have about thirty channels, most of them terrible.  Then, when your box stops working for no apparent reason, you exchange it for a new one.  This is my third, and currently not working, so I have four channels of BBC at the moment, which is excellent if you like “Eastenders” and “Coronation Street.”  I do not, so this will be exchanged, again, shortly.  

Finally, this is what Sky TV looks like – hideous satellite ears protruding from historical buildings, but with DVR and 700 channels.  I do not have this because I am cheap.  Please note that circumstances permit excellent opportunities to spy on your neighbors as well, which is always a bonus until you realize your own penchant for wandering about topless and learn to close the curtains.