Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The first British man I ever dated once looked me in the eyes and said, “You do know I’m not Hugh Grant, right?”
The answer: Sort of? I was 22. He had an amazing accent and jaunty eyebrows. And I had grown up revering the BBC’s six episodes of Pride & Prejudice and British romantic comedies like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Bridget Jones’s Diary. Which may help to explain why every single guy I’ve dated since college has been English.
I have a lot of theories about why American women and English men are drawn to each other, all of which I’m happy to outline at dinner parties. It’s not just that we’re brainwashed to love the way they say “lovely” in that accent or to fantasize about making out in the snow while dressed in peacoats. Yes, I’m about to grossly stereotype, but American women are earnest and enthusiastic — we want to listen to you and hear about every emotional wound. When you pair that with a repressed British guy who’s always been told to shove down his feelings, it’s liberating for them. So liberating that they fall head over heels, take us back to their damp cold country, and marry us.
So let’s just say that I’m not surprised that while Prince Harry once dated posh party girls with fancy names like Cressida and Florence, he’s now chosen to settle down with a beautiful, brainy, sincere American named Meghan.
The last in my string of English men is my husband, who is from northeast England. I think it helped our relationship that we actually met on “neutral” territory, in China, and then moved to Australia for our first few years together. This meant that I didn’t feel the cultural difference between us as strongly, because we were both in foreign countries.
But then we moved to London, where only one of us was a foreigner, and I quickly realized that assimilating in England would be stranger than I’d anticipated. And because Meghan Markle and I are practically doubles (as we are both mixed-race, fire-sign women in love with British men, both living in London, and both friends with Serena Williams — one in real life and one in her imagination), I feel like I have the duty to welcome her and give her some tips about what to expect.
There are things an American in the U.K. will probably never get used to, like how there is seemingly only one flavor of Pop-Tart here, and that flavor is S’mores. Or how British people don’t know what strep throat is. Or how there are seven ways to say “bacon sandwich” and 141 ways to describe being “drunk” and not one sincere way of saying you are “super-excited.” People are also more skittish when you casually try to pet their dogs. (Please just let me pet your dogs, people of Britain!)
British punctuation will remain a mystery (I’ve never met a Brit who knows how to use a comma properly). Everything here is smaller and damper, including Orangetheory. Every Christmas, without fail, everyone will want to sing and play “Fairy Tale of New York,” a super-sad song about lost youth and ruined dreams that will make you want to kill yourself. Occasionally, you’ll overhear someone say “It’s blooming freezing in here!” and you will think you have wandered onto an old-timey movie set. It will become normal to take your own tea bags with you on vacation.
I also have yet to pull off using the excellent, colorful British slang. No matter how many years I’ve been here, no matter how very badly I want to, I know that I’ll never get a free pass to say: “Bugger this for a lark, because this bollocks boils my piss!” It kills me that no amount of time in this country or mastering of the manners will ever grant me this privilege. Even my own husband teases me when I try to talk like a Brit — even though I’m merely doing what sociologists would call “adapting” or “learning a new language.” I can understand, though; I also forbid him from putting on an American accent.
Maybe it’s because we both hate being mocked, but I also think this is the crux of why we work so well together — we like being different from each other. We don’t want to be with people who are just like us. For me, someone from small-town Texas, it was refreshing to be with someone who has different cultural references and had a completely different experience of growing up.
So my advice for Meghan in her new life is this: Embrace that difference when it’s fun and when it’s lonely. Drink tea even if you hate tea, because when you reject offers of it, people will interpret this as a veiled way of saying, “I hate tea and I hate you.” Recalibrate your radar for picking up on awkwardness and passive-aggression, both British specialties, and know that what you hear is often the exact opposite of what’s really meant. (If my husband says, “That’s interesting,” I now know that that means, “That’s not interesting at all,” just as “I don’t love it” means “I hate it — get it out of my face forever.”) Know that after years of living in England, you will become confused about where your loyalty lies — you will both avidly defend and scorn America depending on the day and issue.
But still, it’s not bad here, Meghan. We don’t have air-conditioning and our tacos are so-so, but we also have free health care, many fewer guns, J.K. Rowling, and easy access to Cadbury chocolate. And over time, you’ll absorb some of this country’s quirks.
I feel my years in the U.K. wearing down on me slowly — I’m now much quieter in public than I was when I first arrived. I drink more tea. I’m more prone to embarrassment. I’ve also become acutely aware of visiting Americans, because we as a people are so, so loud, and we always seem to be talking about Harry Potter. And from this same perspective, I see American men in a new light. When I come across them in the wild, I wonder: Who are these earnest people in baseball caps? Why are they always talking about how much money other people make, start-ups, and basketball?
Recently, after four years of living in London, I became a U.K. citizen. I attended a ceremony where I swore my allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II, and then I smiled a gigantic American grin while I posed for the compulsory photo next to a portrait of her. And you will be too, Meghan Markle — though I assume you’ll get to be in photos with the actual Queen.
So welcome to the club, Meghan. Now just let me know when we can get together and talk about Harry Potter.