An American Mom Lives in England for a Year
Food Glorious Food, Scones, Schools and more Scones!!
Well, let's talk about the food in England shall we? After some time has passed all that comes to mind is scones, lots of cream and a million pubs. When I originally decided to embark on this adventure with my family, I never considered "how many" changes I would have to make in my daily diet and lifestyle. I also did not consider that my children would have food and social issues as well the longer we were there. Not when they were with me because I could sort of make it work, but when I decided to put them in British schools, the menu's and the people were quite "different."
When we decided to live abroad for the year there were lots of decisions to be made a long time before we even left the US. For one thing I had a seven year old and a five year old and this was going to be a big change for them in so many ways. It was helpful that we had some family there, but it did not help with the "culture shock" at all. I think the biggest shocker of them all was when I finally realized what sort of "class" system they have there. I can tell you that I was not happy with the extreme separation in society that I witnessed there on a daily basis, even out in the country with loads of beautiful green pastures and sheep. It became apparent to me when I went to tour the local "public" (they are called private there but they are free) and noticed the difference in the way some of the people spoke. I had originally put my son in one of the top schools in Sussex which was an entry school to one of the top high schools in England and let me tell you, there was a huge divide.
I knew that I was paying a lot for my son's school, but what I didn't realize is how much more desperate the "upper class" were to have their children climb the ladder of the elite school system. It is not their fault, it is just the way the system works there. Most of the kids that go to these elite schools like Prince William and Prince Harry end up being the "top of their game" all over the world and in London. My son was in class with future leaders of the world, this I know for sure. Funny to even think of that at the tender age of seven. Since we had family near the "non-paying" school and my daughter was so young, I decided to "hold off" on putting her in the pressure cooker until I knew for sure my future there and frankly I was concerned that she would have a meltdown. My son was better at being challenged and was already advanced in the school system here, so I knew that he would be fine. At one time I could see myself living there for good, but over time I felt that it was a "harder life" there compared to my life in California. The weather was one factor even though we spent lots of time at the beach which was about a half hour drive from where we lived with pretty nice sunny days. We were able to hike up in the pastures all the time even when it rained and there were lots of very hot days too. Let me tell you this, when it rained it never stopped for a while. February was brutal and I ended up buying a sleeping bag sort of coat that I zipped up from my ankles. This really made my husband laugh and it was a good source of entertainment for the family. When three things happened at the same time... rain, wind and the cold I wanted to hop on a plane!! Getting places was another story. It would take a lot longer to get to places and the weather could alter things in a second even when I took a train to London or my husband was on his way back from there. Sometimes the trains would have problems and buses would pick people up and they would have to find their way back home some other way. Oh, and it is not easy to find a cab in the middle of nowhere when a train goes down.
Although I had visited England a few times for a couple of weeks at a time in the past, it can not compare to actually living there and trying to drive on the left side of the road every single day. There were many times that the navigation (Garmin) in my car took me down some odd lane in the middle of nowhere where I would be trapped by a tractor or a a sheep that refused to back up. There were also times when I tried to battle a few "round a bouts" with my children in the car. A "round a bout" is a round island in the middle of the intersection with cars coming from every direction. Until you get used to it all you can think of is your last rights. It got to a point that my kids actually became the cheering section in the backseat every time I made it through one safely. Honestly I almost had a heart attack many times.
Making friends was easy for me there and I did bond with some incredible women who I missed badly when I left. There was the adorable "flutter" of my very British Bohemian friend and mother Sarah and my French friend Isabelle who loved to meet me for coffee and soup on rainy days. She would say "this is so American" which I loved because she was French and most people would have this stuff at home and not go out. In fact the only coffee shops to go to were in local super markets or nurseries. If you were driving in the country for a long time and wanted a cup of coffee you would have to hit a pub. Most coffee shops were in London of course and Tunbridge Wells which was 20 minutes from my house, but it was such a hassle to get there and park! Small roads, tiny parking garages that were not built for bigger cars and confusion near the train station. No thank you! Not as easy as in California where you can stop on every block and eat! Oh by the way, I lost 25 pounds there because there was no Mexican food, nowhere to stop except for pubs (I don't drink) and I walked a lot more because I had too.
I was definitely more welcomed there this time around compared to ten years before my year long move there. I think because in ten years or so many Amercian corporations are thriving there now and we are more accepted in their culture in every way. I also feel television may have made a big difference in all this like the show "Friends" and other syndicated American shows. My children were treated like "rock stars" in their schools and they loved the attention, especially because of the way they spoke. My son was excelling in all sorts of sports and my daughter was academically ahead of her California Grade in the first three months we were there which really surprised me. I understand now why America is looked so down upon when it comes to the standards and the school system. The vocabulary there alone was so extensive for their age and it was really interesting to see what else was introduced at such a young age. Honestly it made school here look like Disneyland or a resort, but the kids were so challenged and this was amazing. My son was thriving in academics, social relationships and sports. Some sports he had never played before, but he went forward and tried so hard to do well and he did. He was the youngest member of the squash team and was already competing at the age of seven. Someone here laughed when I told them that since squash is not introduced in the states at such a young age. The one good thing too was that schools there went a lot later and there were less holidays and a shorter Summer break and this I feel is a good thing because there was less time to goof around and forget their studies. I think this would have been excellent for my children if they were teenagers there. Less time to get into trouble.
I spent a lot of time in London, but a city is a city. There is loads of stuff to see and it is different when you are not a "tourist." It did get to a point where I saw a restaurant on a corner that said something about a hamburger and I ran to it. After about four months living there and hearing things like "Banger and Mash" or "Kidney Pie" all I wanted to hear was "hamburger or burrito" with an American accent. I do not go to McDonalds here so I was not looking for one there either. I was just desperate for an American voice to say similar things to me or something that was familiar. I met quite a few Americans at the elite school, but they were no longer American because they had been there so long. They had gotten very quiet and reserved and when they heard me speak they even commented on how "British" they had become. I still felt really alone at times and was really thankful when my American Canadian friend came to hang out with me in London near my birthday. It was a big source of relief and I felt like I could continue with this journey now that I hung out with an old friend who sounded like me and knew everything I spoke about. Something so "familiar" brought a very comforting feeling deep inside.
Now, when I explain "upper class" and "lower class" I'm not being a snob, I'm just trying to explain the differences in the culture and show you examples of how it works there. The only "anti American statements" I heard was from some of the "lower class" who did not have any tact was when it came to food or insults. Of course the "upper class" would have THOUGHT of the insult but would never SAY it where the "lower class" just could not help themselves. One day when I was commenting on a big plate of food at a local store a frumpy lower class mom said "That is funny coming from an American." Like we were all fat and ate lots of food on big plates. Another time I was in the post office and a young mom from the "lower class" system was complaining about an American in a Mercedes in town and she was really upset. Now, let me tell you how very small this town was. It had one block of stores and a tiny post office. After she spoke for a while and right before she left I decided to embarrass her and not say much. So I bent down to comment about her baby so she could hear my voice. In shock she flustered around and then made some sort of comment about Disneyland and Americans in la la land and then she was off. So, as you can see there is still a bit of "anti American there." Like I said I never heard this sort of thing in the "upper class" areas and at the elite school, but I think it is because they deal with Americans a lot more in their social existence.
Overall I can go on and on, but the most important part of my journey was learning about another place in all sorts of ways. We did get over to France quite a few times and also Rome too. Being able to travel to so many places that are not too far away really makes you realize how much Americans really miss out on just because we are so far away from all of these very different places and cultures. A lot of people I meet here have never left the US and honestly I can say that this is very sad because once you are there a whole entire channel opens up in your mind and you welcome all sorts of new stuff and ideas. I mean my creative juices just kept flowing with all sorts of new inspirations. It could be places, people, different languages or just a different sort of cup of tea. It all adds to your "master plan" and I would do it again if I could which I'm planning to do when the kids are older. Next stop for a year will be Rome or France for sure.
I do intend to write more about my journey in England. After being there for a year, there is so much more to tell.