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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Melbourne Girl Gives London a Burl, Comes Up a Doozey

QUESTIONS FOR KYM HAMER
This Australian sales and marketing expert, now a London expat, says that while the UK has its drawbacks — it doesn't offer the outdoor life and many of the natives are whingers — there are attractions a plenty, including, strangely enough, the weather.

Where are you from Down Under? I was born in Brisbane, then moved to Cairns when I was 9. Eighteen months later, Mum, my sister and I moved to Melbourne — so I consider myself a Melbourne girl.

What brought a Melbourne girl to London originally? A fling! Long story — really crap on arrival ... but hey, it got me here!

How long have you been in the UK at this point? Six-and-a-half years. 

As a kid, did you think you would ever leave Australia and make your home in another country? Dreamed about it but not as anything I ever actually thought I'd do.

Really? I was under the impression that many antipodeans emigrate to the UK. They see it as some kind of rite of passage. I didn't think about it like that. When I first got to London, I picked up a book called Australian Expats: Stories from Abroad, which charts 33 Australian expat journeys. The Foreword opens with a quote from Auden: "... To be free is often to be lonely." The editors point out that despite the loneliness of being an outsider, "to be free is also to be enriched, humbled, exhilarated, enchanted, challenged..." The desire to be free really was — and still is — a powerful motivator for me.

I'm in awe of your Auden (no pun intended) quoting ability. Where did you do your education?  Australia. I actually did two degrees at the same time. I applied to one of the first two-degree curricula offered at Monash University in Melbourne. I earned a business degree (Marketing) and an arts degree (Psychology).

It's refreshing to see a truly Renaissance person making her way up the corporate ladder, something that's also in evidence on your very entertaining blog, Gidday from the UK. What is your day job nowadays? I'm on contract for Associated News Limited, part of Daily Mail General Trust, a business that is privately owned by Lord Rothermere. I'm the sales coordinator for www.localpeople.co.uk, a network of community-based Web sites. I've been there nine months.

Have you always worked for English companies, or is this something new?  I've worked for three companies before this and, come to think of it, all are of English heritage but were bought up relatively recently by overseas interests: Tetley Tea, now owned by the Tata Group, which is headquartered in Mumbai; Interpet, bought by the U.S. company Central Garden & Pet just before I joined; and Alpha Group, bought by the Italian-based Autogrill while I was there.

The U.S. and the U.K. are said to be separated by a common language. Is the same true of Australia and Britain? The problem for Australians in Britain is that we presume to speak the same language and have a similar culture — after all, Australia is still part of the Commonwealth. So when the inevitable miscommunications happen, they are more of a shock than if you were learning a completely different language and culture. Australians have a tendency to say what they think, and that can get you into some sticky situations.  It's been one of the biggest challenges for me, particularly in managing staff.

The United States may have broken away from Britain and become a republic, but I sense that my experience of London overlaps yours in some crucial ways. I would wager, for instance, that you are over-scrutinized by the natives on your use of the Queen's English. I'm sure you can relate to the trouble I've had with the word "pants." English people say "pants" to mean underpants, but for us Australians and you Americans, "pants" means trousers. You know you're an Australian living in London when you mention your "pants are wet" — because you stepped in a puddle — and everyone gives you weird looks.

Plus Oz has its own patois. I once told someone at work I had been for a fossick on their desk, and they looked horrified until I told them that it meant rummage around!

We haven't even broached the issue of Australian pronunciation. Another minefield. My boyfriend is English. Some time ago, I mentioned to him I was going to Sainsbury's to buy charcoal chicken (I think you call it rotisserie chicken in the U.S.). He thought I'd said "chuckle" chicken. We still have a good chuckle, as it were, about that. Australians tend to put equal emphasis on their syllables, whereas the English put the emphasis on the first syllable and then let the rest of the word fade a bit: e.g., South-Wark versus Suth-ock. (I'm referring, by the way, to Southwark, a borough in South London that is home to the famed Borough Market.)

But at least you don't have the constant ear-bashing, as I did, about the misguided policies of the government back home. Actually, do people in England even know that Australia now has its first woman PM? Ha! Not until I tell them. And given she's just announced a General Election, it may not be for long!

What would you say is the key difference on how Aussies look at life compared to Brits? Australians are MUCH more outdoorsy. They may not be necessarily sporty but we have this whole thing about fresh air. I love to go outdoors even in the dead of winter. English people have this annoying habit in winter of turning the indoor heating up to tropical levels and then walking around in tee shirts. I feel like saying, "Put a bl**dy jumper on, you twit ... saves money and the environment!"

Interesting. I feel the same way about Americans in New York Citythey seem much more wasteful of energy than citizens of other developed countries. So can you trace your roots back to Britain is that something Aussies like to do? My stepmum's from Ramsgate and still has various relations there. Mum's dad was Irish and descended from Bernadette Devlin, who was the first woman in Irish parliament. I should also mention that Dad is Dutch, so I enjoy popping over to Amsterdam and exploring the restaurant scene in hopes of finding the "home cooking" my Oma used to make. Bit of a mixed breed I am, as are most Australians.

After six years, would you say you've become anglicized? I don't know whether I'm anglicized, but my life is very different over here. In Melbourne I was always out and about with friends at the ballet/theatre/dinner/parties and never really considered myself a "home person." But here in London, I treasure my weekends at home. Maybe it's a combination of living here and reaching this age and stage of life.

How did you come to settling in Kingston-upon-Thames? I went flat hunting about a year after I arrived. I had been in a group share and really craved my own space. I knew when the letting agent was driving me up the hill in Kingston that I wanted to move in, even if the flat was  a hovel. The flat is quite small, but for me it is a haven, not a hovel. Kingston is also where I met my boyfriend, Jeremy. We chatted on each other's doorsteps for about three months before becoming a couple.

Besides Jeremy, have you gotten to know other British people well? Until I started working, my friends were mainly Australian and to this day my two closest (one of whom I met a week after I got here) are Aussies. But I have a mix of friends.

Has your relationship with Jeremy brought you any closer to English people and culture? Having an English partner (he has two teenage kids) has definitely increased my exposure to English ideas and attitudes. I don't always think about it, but then someone comes to visit from Australia and I notice how much my perspectives have shifted. Jeremy, by the way, is no stranger to Australia. His aunt and uncle emigrated there about 40 years ago, so he has Australian cousins. I would also say that despite his English roots, that man o' mine does a mean BBQ!

When did you start up your blog and for what purpose? I started Gidday from the UK almost exactly two years ago. I saw it as a way for family and friends to get to know the everyday stuff in my life as opposed to the "highlights package" I would deliver in sporadic phone calls. I usually post twice a week: there's an auto-email that goes to 10 of my family and close Aussie friends (who find "following" a significant challenge!). When I started, I found it cathartic and realized that I hadn't written anything that wasn't for business since I'd left school to go to uni. I loved writing in school, and didn't realize how much I missed it.

Do you still keep in close touch with friends in Australia? Not all of them. Distance is difficult, though I think if friendships are strong, they can be sustained. Mum and her partner have just been over to visit. We did some touristy things: Brighton, London Eye, Harrods. We also just hung out. For my mum, hanging out in my life and seeing what I love (and don't love) is the best way of coping with my being so far away. It helps her "see me," she says.

After a while, it can become harder to share things with folks back home. There's this e-mail I got from an Aussie friend: You Know You Are an Australian Living in London When… The answers range from "You catch yourself complaining, then cut yourself off, afraid you’re becoming 'one of them,'" to "You can walk into your kitchen, bedroom and bathroom by pivoting on one foot." That is absolutely so true. It really sums it up. Only those who've done it — i.e., moved to another country, what you have called seeing the elephant — "get" the challenges and the upsets that make up the expat experience.

Could you ever go back to Australia to live, now that you've made this kind of leap? I can't imagine living anywhere other than London, and I never thought I'd say that of anywhere. I love the cultural and political diversity, the history everywhere one looks, and having four proper seasons each year. That it has snowed seriously in the last couple of years thrills me, although autumn remains my favorite time of year. And nothing can beat the sense of celebration on a glorious English summer's day, as I'm sure you remember. I also think public transport over here is fab — you can get yourself absolutely anywhere with a bit of creativity. In Australia if you don't live close to "town," you really need a car.

Wait, doesn't Melbourne have four seasons? No snow though!

How does the food in London compare? Besides being more expensive... I don't eat red meat so traditional English food is a bit lost on me. I miss good Chinese food and I do think Australia has a real edge on lighter cuisines like Thai, Vietnamese and seafood. That said, Indian food in London has been a real joy to explore. I have also liked trying Caribbean and Moroccan food here, which we don't get at all in Australia. You are right about the £££. For that reason, I've taught myself to cook and even to make things from scratch. My latest triumph was taking a glut of onions (I get an organic veggies box delivered every week) and turning it into this amazing relish ... yummo!

So I have to ask: have you seen any elephants? There was an elephant parade in London recently, to raise money for saving the Asian elephant, which is on the brink of extinction. There were these huge, brightly painted elephant sculptures in Trafalgar Square, outside the Victoria and Albert Museum, in Green Park, and near the Tower of London, where I took my mum (that's where this photo is from). I've also driven through Elephant and Castle on the way to Islington to visit friends a few years back — but  I don't suppose that counts?

It does, it does! I take it that your various elephant sightings, metaphorical and otherwise, have more than made up for the trials, tribulations and hardships you've experienced on your journey. Yes, life has a richness for me now. To use yet another adage: "You know you're an Australian living in London when..." — wait for it! — "you used to think the grass is greener back home but now realize the grass is greener wherever you are now."

14 comments:

ML Awanohara said...

Hello again, Kym. Thanks for doing this interview. I was particularly struck about what you said in terms of the expat life putting something of a barrier between you and those at home. It brought back to me a sensation I used to have a lot while living in the UK. At some point during my expat years (even before I added Japan to the mix), I became aware that a gap had opened up between the person I'd become in England and the one I used to be in the United States.

But what was even more interesting, I could still be my American self when friends came to visit or I went home for a while. You could almost see a switch flip as I went back to being my native self.

Try as I might, I wasn't able to be both selves at once. When I'd been back in the U.S. for a few days, I could no longer conjure up my English self--and vice versa. Never the twain shall meet. (Actually, I exaggerate slightly, but there was something of a disconnect.)

I wonder if that's how the mind copes with change on this scale? I actually found it rather disconcerting, this new-found ability of mine to compartmentalize my life experiences.

I understand that Australia has more of a common history with the U.K., but having been down under myself (albeit only to New Zealand), I can see it has its own unique flavor and in some ways has more in common with Asia Pacific than it does with Europe. (A picture says 1,000 words, and that poster of the Third Annual Invitational Fossick says it all for me!)

Question: Do you find that you have this compartmentalizing capacity: is there an Aussie Kym and an English Kym at this point?!

Kathryn Allison said...

Kym and ML, I apologise for my fellow countrymen's rudeness in criticising your use of the English language. (I'm not being sarcastic!) If there's one thing I've learned from living outside the UK, it's that English is a common language with many accents and dialects, of which British English (and its regional subdivisions) is only one. Unfortunately, people who have never lived outside their home countries for any length of time fail to see this. As an English native in the US, I've been on the other end of this argument; when discussing how one should say 'fox' or 'box' (with an English short 'o' or the more drawn out New England 'ah' sound) I was gobsmacked to be told, 'But Bahx is phonetically correct.' Well, yes, in these parts I suppose it is. However, there are tens of millions beyond the Atlantic ocean who might disagree...

As for Australians speaking their minds and Londoners not liking it, I suggest that Kym should relocate immediately to Yorkshire. You won't have that trouble there!

Kym Hamer said...

ML not compartmentalised but more like it's bits of both in the melting pot and different circumstances bring out different flavours. Maybe that's where the expat feeling of separateness comedy from. You don't fit really as one or the other any more but something in between...like a whole different culture!

Kathryn, when I had my first few jobs here it was the Northern county reps that made me feel most at home so your chaps did you proud. Although I cannot distinguish between all the different 'accents' so could not claim to have recognised a specific Yorkshire fella.

Kathryn Allison said...

Kym, I have the same problem with American accents. I can tell whether someone's from the north or the south, whether someone's from shouting distance of Boston (Rhode Island accents always confuse, because they're a mix of Boston and New York, it seems) but the nuances between New Jersey and Brooklyn, Maine and the rest of New England, etc, leave me baffled. And here's the sad part: once upon a time, I could have told you where someone came from in England. Now--I kid you not--I actually have trouble understanding English regional accents. I watched a DVD of Peter Kay last time I was home, and couldn't understand about a third of what he said.

Kym Hamer said...

Ha ha...Kathryn I can relate...I think my big faux pas is when I forget that I actually sound different from everyone around me. It all just becomes 'talking'! And then comes the rude awakening...

Kathryn Allison said...

I know! That slight feeling of surprise when someone says, "I hear an accent--where are you from?" followed by a pigheaded desire to say, "Oh -- [insert current town of residence]"!

Carrie said...

As someone who moved to the US from Canada, there's a lot of talk about the "brain drain" -- an obligation to stay within Canada and contribute to the country...is there a similar worry when Australians move abroad?

Peter said...

I really enjoyed this as a piece of original new material. It's fresh and interesting.

ML Awanohara said...

Ta, Peter. Kym may have Irish ancestry (like your good self), but she is a cut above your everyday Sheila. She is a happy little Vegemite, as bright as can be (in at least two senses!).

In reference to Carrie's question about the brain drain: Carrie, isn't the Canadian government making a concerted effort to attract skilled workers from the UK to replace brains like yours? Announced a couple of years ago, it has been likened (ironically enough, given our subject!) to the assisted passage scheme which saw over a million "Ten Pound Poms" migrate to Australia after the Second World War. Kym, I wonder if Jeremy's aunt was part of that migration?

With all these schemes afoot to get people out of Britain, it's a good thing Kym--the kind of person whom no one would ever take for a drongo--decided to give London a burl and came up a doozey.

Kym, do you think anything could ever induce you to leave the UK? What about when your mum is getting older and can't make the long journey? (That was a huge factor in my decision to repatriate...)

Kym Hamer said...

ML I really don't know is the answer right now - given I made the decision to emigrate in about a week and had everything organised - visas, bank accounts, apartment rented out and furniture packed for shipping etc - in the two months over Christmas, I guess anything is possible.

Carrie, there was a lot of talk when I left Australia about Brain Drain but more in science/research arenas with overseas institutions and agencies benfitting from far better funding. I also remember an article from the Melbourne AGE that Mum sent over after I'd been here about a year and its focus was on those who had returned to Australia on the advice that overseas experience would set one above the rest from a job perspective only to find that this was not the case.

So many questions aren't there? But I'm just immersing myself in the journey and seeing where it leads...much like how I approach life.

Kym Hamer said...

Kathryn, BTW welcome to Gidday from the UK too - you are my 8th follower...how exciting! Do you have a blog or do you just 'fossick about' for the best elsewhere?

Kathryn Allison said...

No, I have a blog called Marmite and Fluff, which is at www.kathrynallison.com.

I just put the google friend connect thingy on the website, and it looks really pathetic with only one follower on there (me) so if anyone feels like taking pity on me....

Corianda said...

Great post ML and Kim, living in another country can be horrifically scary !! I remember my first Canadian winter, not knowing the basics, like layering clothes or the certain, undisputed need for ear muffs. Pros far outweigh the cons in my book though.... such an amazing experience being taken completely out of your comfort zone...

ML Awanohara said...

Thank you so much, Corinda!

Returning for a moment to Kate's suggestion that Kym relocate ASAP to Yorkshire: I see that Katy Guest has a column in today's Independent on Sunday providing her top ten reasons why the North is as good as the South. (She found the question itself insulting: "just ten" and "as good"!)

Almost needless to say, "straight talking" appears on her list.

Incidentally, what prompted Guest's post is the news that Peter Salmon, the BBC North director responsible for moving 1,500 staff jobs from London to Manchester, is refusing to leave his £1.85m four-bedroom home in an anonymous suburb on the outskirts of south-west London for the open spaces and fresh air of the North-West.

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