British Expat Interviews-Maggie Hall USA

As promised last week here is an interview with Maggie Hall author of The Mish Mash Dictionary of Marmite. A big thanks to Maggie for taking the time to answer my questions about being an expatriate in the USA.

Where do you originate from?

I am from Cleckheaton – right in the heart of the old West Riding Heavy Woollen District (now that gives my age away!) And for those who are saying ‘where’?, it’s between Bradford and Halifax, Leeds and Huddersfield. You know, close to Heckmondwike!

Where did you move too and are where are you living now?

My home base is Washington, DC. I’ve lived on Capitol Hill – just a few minutes walk to the US Capitol and the Library of Congress, a bit longer to the White House – for 26 years. Before that I had three years in Manhattan.

What made you choose to move to another country?

Actually I was ‘chosen’! I was posted to the New York bureau of the Daily Mirror, where I worked for 20 years. Those were the halcyon days of the good old Mirror, when they had such postings!

How difficult was the process of moving, do you have any advice for someone seeking to do the same?

I am the wrong person to ask. I left Britain under the protective umbrella of a company. My salary was enhanced with a ‘cost-of-living’ payment, plus all incidental expenses of setting-up-a-new home (amazing how much bed linen and a set of crockery can set you back) were taken care of. And I didn’t go through the trauma of making the decisions that go into leaving one life behind for another. Originally I went for just two years – and by the time I decided to quit my job and stay in the States as a free-lance journalist, I knew what I was up against. The only bit of advice I would give though is: do not, repeat do not, sell up!! At least not straight away. Knowing that you have a home to go back to (even if the tenants are in the middle of a two year lease) if things go pear-shaped, or you initially go through a difficult time in your new country, will help you survive it. The attitude that clicks in goes something like this: OK, I’ll hang on a bit longer, I can always go home, after all I have something to go back to…the next thing you know is that the bad-time is over. And you’re settled.

What are medical facilities like in your adopted country?

Well, as I am sure most of you know, in America if you have health insurance (frequently given as a benefit by the company you work for) there’s non-better. But if you don’t work for that big a company or can’t afford insurance (it’s expensive) it’s tough. Make that horrendous. It’s not that you are not going to be treated but when the bill comes rolling in – and you can’t pay it – your assets will be severely investigated so a payment plan can be worked out. They will get their money (if you have any) somehow!

What is the climate like and would it suit someone from the UK?

Whatever weather you like, it’s here in the States. You just have to chose the region that suits your needs. Here in DC we have four seasons: with the summer being far too hot and humid for many; the winters can be delightfully Alpine, sunny, crisp, snowy, frosty; the Spring and Autumn often with temperatures you can liken to the best of an English summer day. But if you like the snow, go to Minnesota where they’re under a blanket of the stuff from Thanksgiving to Easter.

What have you done to learn to speak the local language?

Obviously nothing. But from the day I got here I thought I should learn Spanish! And I am slowly doing something about that – with help from the Latinos who work in the indoor market we have on Capitol Hill.

Do you have any regrets about moving?

I don’t. Because to be honest I have not truly ‘moved’. I still have a home in Britain, where I spend the summer (to escape the torrid heat of DC!). And it’s not like I live at the other end of the world, or on some island in the South Pacific, where it would break the bank to get home – and several days to do it.

What do you really miss from home?

Friends, family….radio 4.

What are your plans for the future?

Never been any good at making plans! The only one I have is to carry on with my trans-Atlantic life – and traveling in between – as long as possible. There’s a lot of the world I still need to see and ‘am working hard at it!

But having said that, my book is ‘upsetting’ my plans. In the nicest possible way of course. For the last few years my husband Gary and I have spent the winter holing-up somewhere interesting. Not always warm but warmer than DC! Our m.o. is to fly somewhere (Easy-Jet and Ryan Air have given us some great economic head-starts to our winter sojourns) go into a cheap and cheerful hostelry, and ask around for a small flat or house – at a reasonable rate. We have had wonderful winters in Crete, Malta, Goa, the Azores, Mexico. But I have a feeling I’m going to have my head in a Marmite jar for a bit longer. After five weeks ‘back home’ promoting The Mish-Mash Dictionary of Marmite, now need to do the same in the States. Which will probably mean I – make that we – can look forward to travelling around the great expanse of this enormously varied country. The idea I have is to hit the road (or maybe the Amtrak) and hit on all the British Food Shops that most regions now have!

So how did I come to write the book? Let me tell you first off: they say that every journalist has a book in them – and that’s where it should stay! But frankly Mish-Mash is not a book, so much as a ‘bathroom reader’. When I told the publisher that’s what it was going to be, he said: Maggie, you’ve become far too American. It’s a bog-side-book!

Anyway, I wrote Mish-Mash as a result of two things going ‘wrong’ in my life. We did not, could not, plan a winter away last year because of my long, on-going struggle with US Immigration to get a Green Card. For years I stayed in the US on a special work visa. In the end I decided I should face up to the trauma of getting a Green Card – not realising it would be a true trauma. Suffice to say I dare not leave the country for any length of time in case I got summoned for my ‘interview’, which – thanks to Immigration messing things up – I missed first time round. Once is OK, twice is a cardinal sin!

So we would, I would, pursue my new-found ‘career’ as a travel-writer, moving around the US on short trips. But then that grand plan was torpedoed. Gary slipped on Autumn leaves, in the pouring rain, and badly screwed-up his knee. He was stuck, immobile, going nowhere. Suddenly rendered chief nurse-maid, neither was I. Not even an overnight trip. So I salvaged my idea of investigating Marmite – which I got in the mid-90s when the first silver lids came out. I couldn’t get my head round the fact that someone would spend £60 to adorn a Marmite jar with silver. Silver to put round you neck, in your ears, maybe. But on top of a kitchen cupboard staple….to replace a perfectly lovely, sunny yellow lid? So it got me thinking: what the heck is going on here; what sort of hold does the black-goo have on people?

I tried to sell the book idea because I was suddenly thrown out of work when Today (I covered the Americas for it for nine years) closed. But could not get a publisher interested. So I stuffed my Marmite file away on a top shelf and went looking for ‘proper’ work. But from then on it actually haunted me that someone else would discover what a good book Marmite would make! Anyway the combination of not being able to go anywhere, this winter past, played out in my favour. And even if Mish-Mash does not become the best selling ‘bathroom reader’ of the year, at least I’ve written it! So, thank you US Immigration and thank-you clumsy husband. The latter by the way is responsible for the book’s secondary title, ‘Tar-in-a-Jar’. As you will gather, he can’t stand the stuff!

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