A tribute to culture shock and why it never pays to make too many assumptions, because ASSume makes a ‘you know what’ out of u and me…
For this weeks blog I’m doing something a little different as a tribute to Thanksgiving, and sharing a funny, creative piece I wrote a number of years back about living in the UK. My first Thanksgiving there I attempted to cook a massive turkey in an ill-equipped British kitchen. When I read the piece the other day, it reminded me that culture shock is indeed very real, and how our assumptions can often get the better of us. A perfect theme for a leadership blog, as we often jump up the “ladder of inference” to our detriment. I hope you enjoy this piece as much as I enjoyed writing it!
The Most Difficult Task
The most difficult task I’ve ever taken on, despite scaling the misty summit of Kilimanjaro and even ascending the higher passes of Everest, was cooking a Thanksgiving turkey in a tiny, ill-equipped English kitchen. To be fair, it was a rather large turkey. Much larger than I’d anticipated when I placed the order. Still relatively new to the UK, my mental kilo to pound conversion math was frankly a bit shoddy.
My first Thanksgiving in England was a bust. I’d been living in the UK only a couple of weeks, and having no friends, my English boyfriend Gareth took pity on me and hastily invited his mate Paul over to our little flat in Surbiton, a suburb of London. Paul brought his girlfriend Nikki, a tall, anorexic-looking woman with razor sharp features and a wry, forced smile.
The feast was held in the living room, which had been rearranged to create some resemblance of a dining area. We dined over bland, half cooked Brussel sprouts, as Gareth insisted that I salted food too much, and a couple of anemic Cornish game hens. I learned that day, turkey just wasn’t “done” in the UK. If you really were, as they say, “mad keen” to have it, you went down to the butcher shop and placed an order many weeks in advance.
Luckily there was plenty of booze, which Gareth and I didn’t hesitate to indulge in. Paul joined us in the liberations as Gareth and I proceeded to tell the drunken and somewhat inappropriate love story of our first meeting on a crowed Grecian beach while Paul appeared interested and Nikki pretended to be, as she pushed her food around on her plate and took polite sips of prosecco.
A few hours later, we bade them adieu, and I was rather proud of my first makeshift British dinner party. I asked Gareth to call them again for another meetup, but he never heard back.
This year was going to be different
But this year was going to be different. To start off with, I had real friends. Not just people I vaguely knew from the office or Gareth’s friends who felt compelled to take pity on me. Exotic expat friends. Kiwis (a term I’d just learned, the British term for New Zealanders), an American couple, a South African or two and a few assorted Brits for good measure.
I couldn’t help but feel pretty chuffed with myself, as the English would say. This small town east Texan girl had finally made it. Here I was, living in a much nicer Surbiton flat with real window boxes (we’d recently moved) and international friends. And I was going to dazzle them with a proper Southern American Thanksgiving feast, the likes of which my grandmother would even approve, complete with an actual turkey and dressing.
So back to the turkey. Luckily the butcher shop wasn’t too far from our little flat, and I went to pick it up a couple of days in advance of the party. I entered the store Gareth always referred to as “frightfully posh” (I’d decided that only the best would do), walked up to the gleaming meat counter with its long rows of carefully cut chops and steaks, smiled at the smartly dressed butcher in his crisp, white apron, gave him my details and politely waited. A few minutes later, the butcher reappeared, struggling with a very large white box.
“Here you are Miss.” He replied in a thick cockey accent, which to my untrained American ears sounded a lot like Eliza Doolittle’s Dad in My Fair Lady, as he plopped the box down on the counter with a mighty thud.
“This is mine?” I asked, my voice rising by at least a few octaves. The box was massive, and Gareth had taken the car to work that day. My mind was full of the logistics of the walk home, and how I would ever manage with this heavy burden.
Sensing my hesitation, “How many people are you feeding lady?” He asked, in a curious tone.
“Oh, eight to ten,” I replied, feeling very sheepish. I tried to sound nonchalant, like the hostess who had everything under control.
His large round, red cheeks shook with a hearty and somewhat condescending laugh, “Well Miss, if it’s ten to twelve of the Harlequins (I later learned the local rugby team located down the road in Twickenham) this might do the trick!”
I smiled, grabbed the box as fast as I could and hobbled out of the shop. The British have always had an amazing knack for making a person feel like a fool.
My slow, arduous Turkey Trek
Upon leaving I quickly sized up the situation. The butcher shop sat on the far end of Lovelace Gardens, near the train station. Our flat was at the other end of the street, past a large park, on the opposite side. The distance couldn’t have been more than a half mile, maybe three quarters at most.
Okay, so it’s only down to the end of the street and then across, I thought. I can do this.
I fortified myself, readjusted my handbag on my shoulder and started on my long, arduous turkey trek. I tried to occupy my mind with other things, how tasty this turkey would be, how golden brown and beautiful Wilbur would look when I pulled him from the oven (I decided by this point it was only fitting he had a name).
I came upon the park, stumbling under the weight of poor Wilbur, handbag having slipped off my shoulder and now banging against the box and found a bench to rest while I regained my breath. I looked down at my wrinkled pantsuit, not exactly the proper apparel for such an endeavor. After a few moments I started off again, doing my best to look completely natural and carefree as my arm muscles were screaming not just murder, but considering we were in the UK, bloody murder at me. I had attracted the notice of a few of the homeless men in the park. They sat their long tall boy cans of high octane beer down to watch the show.
“What you got in that box, Lassie?” One of them yelled.
“Wilbur!” I yelled back in my strong American accent. “He’s really heavy too. Would you mind giving me a hand?”
“Crazy Yank,” he muttered, and went back to his can.
“Crazy Yank indeed,” I muttered to myself, despite my proud Southern roots.
After about twenty minutes and multiple rest stops, I arrived huffing and puffing at the front door to our flat. I looked up and sighed.
I had forgotten that we lived in the attic of an old 4 story Victorian house with no elevator.
I managed to wedge myself through the small reception door with Wilbur and only just narrowly avoided slipping on my downstairs neighbor’s ever-present pile of mail. I made a mental note to curse him later, put Wilbur down and looked up the dark, narrow staircase that would have benefited from a rail or two. Unlike Everest, there were no ropes or chains to help me this time.
I fortified myself, swung my handbag around my neck to try to eliminate the jarring box-banging effect, and picked up Wilbur, ready for my summit accent. In a feeble attempt to distract myself, as well as practice this new mindfulness trend I had just read about, I decided counting the steps would provide a welcome distraction from the pain of my labor. As it turned out, eighty-three back breaking stairs in total. As I trudged at a good ole Southern “slower than molasses in the wintertime rate,” I was reminded of the day we first came to look at the flat.
“Oh my god Gareth, it’s so lovely!” I exclaimed, looking up at the house, it’s white brick Victorian façade partially covered by ivy gracefully snaking its way up the sides, complete with fragrant lavender out front, swaying in the light spring breeze. I’d tried and tried to get it to grow in Houston, but it just couldn’t handle the heat. It was every American girl’s London dream house. The only thing missing was Mary Poppins and her spoonful of sugar.
How many stairs did you say?
“Babe it’s great, but it’s four flights of stairs. Are you sure?”
After stair twenty I wasn’t so sure anymore. As I climbed the staircase got darker and my vision more and more narrow, one rickety paint peeling step after step, until I finally reached the top landing of our flat.
My arms were shaking. I was pretty sure my pantsuit was ruined with the mother of all sweat stains. I opened the door with a little too much unintended gusto, and it flew open, banging against the wall.
Great. I thought. There goes our security deposit.
I looked down at the sad, sweat stained, dented box. Having not the strength to lift poor Wilbur, I pushed the box inside the flat with my feet, closed the door and breathed a sigh of relief. The end was in sight. Luckily the kitchen was right off the reception area.
It was at that point I realized a very important fact that had alluded me up to this juncture. This was an American sized turkey fit for an American sized refrigerator, not a tiny British dorm room size cooler. And that wasn’t all. The tiny dorm fridge was located on top of the kitchen counter, which meant that I’d have to hoist Wilbur up off the floor to get him inside, assuming he would fit.
I sat down on the floor, looked at Wilbur in his pathetic box and wanted to cry. Instead I poured a glass of wine while I contemplated my next move.
And this is how Gareth found me, sprawled out on the floor, back against the wall, with a bottle of chardonnay, maybe a cheeky cigarette or two and my feet propped up on a very large box that inside held poor Wilbur who was quickly reaching his sell by date.
“Ummmm, hi Darling,” said Gareth in a cautious tone.
“Hi Darling,” I replied back in my best, slightly slurred impersonation of a British accent. The chardonnay was doing its job nicely.
“What’s in the box? And why are you sprawled out like a wino on the floor?”
“Pick up the box and you’ll understand,” I said with a tired smile.
Reeling under the weight of Wilbur, Gareth exclaimed, “Holy shit Shell! How big is this turkey?”
“Eleven kilos…twelve at most,” I replied in my most matter-of-fact voice.
“Have you completely lost it? A twelve-kilo turkey?”
“Math has never been my strong suit.”
When I noticed my feeble joke wasn’t returned with a smile I boldly carried on, “You see, to an American, 11 or 12 kilos sounds like nothing, until the day when the turkey finally arrives. Is it really 2.2 pounds to a kilo?”
“Bloody hell! How are we ever going to find a pan big enough to cook this?”
Another bad assumption later – How do we cook this thing?
“Oh shit!” I exclaimed with a laugh, as the wine had definitely kicked in. Assumption number two. I’d been so preoccupied with the simple task of getting poor Wilbur into the fridge and finishing off my bottle of cheap chardonnay, my mind hadn’t progressed to the challenge of actually cooking him.
Another bottle of wine later, we finally managed to hoist Wilbur into the fridge. Sighing with relief, it waned when I looked around at the disheveled kitchen. In order to relocate Wilbur to his frosty new home, we had to remove everything else, including the fridge shelves. After a rather large makeshift dinner of chicken curry, salmon on croute, pickles, doritos salsa, moldy cheese, expired cold cuts and a liter of slightly smelly milk, we finally began our hunt for the elusive cooking pan.
Gareth was convinced that the best way to accomplish the job was to find a barbecue cooking tin – a device we Southern Americans have no use for, as we have plenty of space and real barbecue pits.
A British barbecue tin is a large disposable pan made of foil, similar to the ones you find in the grocery store and use to cook your Thanksgiving turkey. But in England the purpose is different – you buy one of these kits, take it to the park, add charcoal in the bottom (it comes with a little disposable grate) and voila! – instant barbecue cooking device. These kits are typically sold at petrol stations (don’t ask me why) across the UK.
There was only one small issue with our perfect plan. It was November.
After our tenth petrol station we gave up, admitted defeat, and headed back, weary and dejected, to eat the rest of the displaced fridge contents before they spoiled.
Assumption number three – I’m sure the oven is big enough!
The next day after work I arrived at home triumphant with my new turkey pan, to find Gareth in the living room reading, curled up in front of our one electric heater which he demanded we only sparingly use, given the excessive cost to run it.
“How much did you spend on this pan?” Gareth asked, not looking up from his newspaper.
“You don’t want to know.” I replied, thinking back to the moment when I hastily handed over my credit card, my eyes beckoning the clerk to hurry up and finish the transaction before I changed my mind.
Gareth rolled his eyes in response.
Turkey day had arrived inconveniently on a workday in the UK, and I had ducked out of an important finance meeting to dart to John Lewis, the U.S. equivalent of a Nordstrom’s. There in a desperate panic I bought the only pan I could find that had a snowball’s chance of hell of accommodating Wilbur’s gigantic physique.
“Let’s just see if it works. It doesn’t look big enough from the looks of it.” Gareth was eyeing the pan dubiously.
And technically he was right. Thirty minutes later Wilbur’s bottom and drumsticks were sitting extremely snugly inside the pan. His large breasts, however, were billowing over the sides.
“Get a cookie sheet,” I demanded, between huffs and puffs of pushing Wilbur into the pan.
“We don’t have time to make cookies!” Gareth exclaimed.
“It’s to put under the pan! There’s bound to be drips.”
“Drips from what?”
“Gareth, a turkey contains moisture. Upon cooking in an oven, the moisture will escape. Have you been living under a rock your entire life? How the hell do you not know things like this!”
“Open the oven door!” Gareth growled back.
And then we hit challenge number three.
It would be fair to say that in addition to fridges, ovens in the UK are also rather small. After removing every rack, we placed the cookie sheet baking pan combo holding Wilbur on the very bottom of the oven.
“Is it safe to do it like this?” Gareth asked.
“Who knows,” I replied with an exasperated sigh.
We slammed the oven door shut and opened a bottle of wine.
Assumption number four – I’m sure it will cook in time…
When the guests began arriving hours later, the succulent smell of Wilbur was wafting through the flat. Knowing I was on the home stretch, I began to relax as I visualized my dinner party guests oohing and ahhing over a luscious, golden-brown Wilbur. I even had my phone ready at a moment’s notice to snap shots to send to my sure to be finally approving grandmother.
Everyone was really getting into the spirit of the holiday. Philippa, my South African friend, had even make a pumpkin pie. An unfamiliar treat in Capetown, she was relaying the recipe she had found online to me when we were interrupted by Gareth’s voice.
“Ahhhhhh Shell, can you come into the kitchen for a moment?” Gareth asked nervously from the hallway.
“Sure babe,” I said as I happily trotted off to help, my third glass of wine in hand. “What’s up?”
“Babe, I don’t think he’s cooked.”
“What do you mean, he’s been in there for five hours? That should be more than enough!”
“Well, isn’t this plastic thingee supposed to pop out when it’s done?”
“Yes, hasn’t it?”
“Well, maybe it’s defective. You Brits aren’t exactly known for great craftsmanship,” I said.
“I’m serious. I don’t think it’s cooked.”
It was at that point I excused myself to go out on the landing and do what any budding Betty Crocker would do – smoke a cigarette. As I took long drags of my Marlboro light I brushed aside disapproving visions of my grandmother shaking her bony little index finger at me. She would have known how big the oven was. She would have had a big enough pan.
My dreams of a golden-brown turkey quashed, we thus began an epic task to carve off the cooked bits of Wilbur in the hot, cramped kitchen. My new, also not within budget long-sleeved turtleneck became bathed in sweat as me, Gareth and Philippa (bless her) hacked poor Wilbur to death. The entire closet sized kitchen including the inside of the oven looked like it had been hosed down in turkey juice.
“Well, at least you can freeze turkey, right?” said Philippa with an awkward smile.
“Have you noticed the size of our freezer,” I asked, notably frustrated, as I pointed to the dorm room fridge. “At best it holds one tray of ice cubes!”
We carried on until we had a platter’s worth, piece by painstaking piece. I finally arrived triumphant in the living room, face red and shiny, with a heaping tray of cooked turkey meat.
Assumption number five – I’m sure my guests are carnivores!
Which proceeded to sit there, until as we say in Texas, the proverbial cows came home.
“Oh, I didn’t tell you we were vegetarians?” Christine asked.
As I looked around the group, a few others nodded that they indeed too had recently joined the vegetarian or vegan clique, or in my not so humble opinion, that insane group of individuals that no longer partake of delectable, succulent meat products.
Being from Texas, the undisputed home of barbecue, I had never thought to ask.
At least the South Africans ate some.