On the right foot

9 Sep

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I found myself talking with someone new the other day.  She was new to Britain; new to town; new to the school.  Lots of newness.  A bright shining cup full of newness, and I found myself wanting to distill all my past two years into three or four intensely important dollops of wisdom to pour into that cup.  Everything I wished I had known, particularly about school life, in four minutes or less.

Is it bad that the first things I mentioned were lice, pinworms, fifth’s disease, and strep throat?  Because as I spent our first winter reeling to discover — Britain is full of cooties.  For any American mother experiencing the rather laissez-faire British attitude toward childhood nuisance illnesses, it is very nearly shocking to see these ailments go round and round and round the school.

Next up: the days of darkness.  I’m not sure how to warn people about the descent of darkness without sounding like a vampy extra from a bad Dracula movie.  But people, it is real.  Winter darkness, even at this relatively lower latitude, is enough to depress, to dishearten, to distress, to despair.   When the kids go to school in the dark, and come home in the dark, and there’s only a dim crack of sunshine around noon … I shudder.   I’ll be taking my daily dose of blue light starting next month, and gritting my teeth for solstice.

Realizing I was on a demoralizing roll, I still felt I had to mention that joining the school community was not as straightforward as the typical suburban American mom might expect.  Here on the blog I’ve alluded to what some people call ‘politics at the school gate’, and how difficult that was for me.  My first year at school was spent as the invisible woman.  It gets better through some complicated British alchemy of people ignoring you when you are outgoing and friendly, and then reaching out once you stop caring.  How to distill all this down for someone filled with fresh-faced excitement?  “It’s not like back home — but I’m sure you’ll be fine!”  Perkiness in the face of adversity.  How American of me.

And a final tip — I have a feeling no non-native adult person can understand the school uniform.  We come to it too late in life.  Just as our children grow up understanding ipods and tumblr as a first language, they pick up the requirements of the uniform, with its multiple socks and wellies and plimsolls and hats and blouses and swim caps and bags and trainers,  through some peer-fostered osmosis.  Just throw money at the uniform shop, and let the kids sort it out.

And then I realized that over quiet sips of a very nice coffee, I had just told this lovely new person that her children would be subject to disease, she would descend into seasonal affective disorder, British mothers would treat her like a leper, and she was about to lose all her money to an unsolvable uniform puzzle.  Oh, and did I mention the GIANT SPIDERS?   Welcome to Britain!

Sigh.  We’ve been in Camelot two years, as of this month.  England is beautiful, and this country is wonderful, but for these few things I wish I had been warned.  I wish I had been prepared.  So from me to you, if you are planning to move to England or to live here temporarily: it’s not all crumpets and jam.  Just try to embrace it.  Even when it’s freezing and dark.  I’m sure you’ll be fine.

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15 Responses to “On the right foot”

  1. Beakers846 September 9, 2013 at 9:21 am #

    Everything you’ve said is SO RIGHT! I think I forgot about a lot of it since we left, but this brought it all back. Jack was only in playgroup when we were there, but I felt so left out and invisible around all the other Mums at school. By the end I didn’t even pretend to try…thank goodness for the few nice ones who made it bearable! At least there are also a lot of good things about England to balance it out =)

    • Monique September 9, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

      I’m not glad that you were invisible, because I know that’s a horrible feeling. But I am glad (in a horrible way) to know it’s not just me. And you are right, lots of good things to bring balance, and those bright exceptional faces that cheer up a day.

  2. Helen September 9, 2013 at 9:37 am #

    I hear you!
    1) Yes, the cooties are a shock. I don’t remember constant rounds of lice etc when I was a child in the US. You didn’t mention impetigo, that seems to go around here as well. Even a suspected round of scabies! I feel like we live in Dickens’s London.
    PS We knocked the lice situation on the head when we discovered nits.net, which use the bugs’ actual biology to get rid of them, rather than coating your children’s developing brains in pesticides
    2) The Darkness. Well, the less said about this the better. At least this summer we all got a good dose of sunshine to stock up on Vitamin D
    3) The school gate. Yes. Been there. In fact I was actually turned down for coffee this morning by my husband’s cousin after dropping off our children. So it isn’t just British mothers who don’t know you who ignore you, it’s even the ones you are related to!
    4) School uniform and associated “kit.” And yes, the children do a far better job of keeping track of it than I do. I worry all day how to find an opportunity to bring forgotten shin-pads to school. But after a single episode of half the class being left out of PE due to forgotten shinpads, he never forgot them again. The children have long since realised that my multi-tasking swiss cheese brain cells are no match for their fresh brains and, as you say, peer-fostered osmosis.

    At least now you can get coffee in the UK, when I arrived here there weren’t even any coffee shops!

    • Monique September 9, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

      Oh, Helen, I’m laughing (with you, I hope) at this persistent un-sociability(?) of British mums, including cousins! Who turns down coffee? It’s just coffee! Oh, my.

      Dicken’s London, indeed. I spray my kids down with tea tree oil when they walk through the door every evening. Don’t judge me. 😉

      No coffee shops? Doesn’t bear considering. You are a strong woman!

  3. aubreyepp September 9, 2013 at 11:08 am #

    This has to be my favorite post ever. “Perkiness in the face of adversity.” LOL!

    Sometimes it’s like you’re inside my head. (A frightening place to be at times. For reasons unexplained I feel compelled to apologize…) Wish we dropped off at the same school gate. A little bit of commiseration with a kindred spirit is always welcome. This tiny little island is truly a bizarre place to live, and I adore the humor you bring to the tea table!

    • Monique September 9, 2013 at 4:58 pm #

      Help help, I’m in your head! 😀 I’m so glad for the community — real life and blogging — that *is* supportive and *is* caring and sweetens our tea with humor!

  4. Jeanne September 9, 2013 at 11:37 am #

    Don’t know if it helps, but we got regular notes from Wiggin St. School in Gambier, OH about head lice when my children were there. They made me itchy, but we never actually got them.

    • Monique September 9, 2013 at 4:56 pm #

      I’m not sure if lice ever makes anyone feel better, in the end. 😉 It’s not the fact of lice that is different, it’s the parental/cultural response. Here the response is mostly: “shrug”. And the lice make a carnival of the school. Home the response I used to see was: “ATTACK ALL BUGS DIE DIE DIE”.

  5. Sherrie Caltagirone September 9, 2013 at 10:39 pm #

    I found myself laughing hysterically and repeatedly saying, “Oh, I really like her!” Monique, you hit the nail square on the head! We had some newbies to dinner a couple of nights ago and I swear the conversation went down just the same way. There they were, shiny and optimistic with a twinkle in their eyes, and we were like, “BAM! Depression. BAM! Poverty (as in your own, thanks to the grocery store, the mechanic, and the school uniform shop). BAM! Isolation due to bizarre social strata rules.” Then of course we followed up with the obligatory, “Oh, but the travel is so incredible. Buy an English Heritage membership!” 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • Monique September 10, 2013 at 6:50 pm #

      Bam-bam-bam! I know, it’s like killing Bambi. But English Heritage/National Trust softens the wounds. 🙂

  6. Claire September 10, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

    I can remember being traumatized, as a Brit moving to the US when I was around 10 at the idea that there was no uniform and I would have to think of something to wear every single day!

    However, on the darkness issue, as we in Stockholm careen towards 4-5 daylight hours a day, I can only say… YOU HAVE NO IDEA 😉

    • Monique September 10, 2013 at 6:52 pm #

      Oh, I know! I know! I am whinging and weak and it isn’t nearly as bad as it could be! I couldn’t take living in North Yorkshire, much less Stockholm. Hope you’ve found comfort in adult fashions, after those traumatic childhood experiences. 😉

  7. Rebecca Forbes September 11, 2013 at 2:10 pm #

    I love intelligent, funny, insightful international women. I wish I was one…..:-)

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. And now for something completely different | Crumpets in Camelot - November 26, 2013

    […] know me.  At least a bit.  You know I spend my time crumpeting around, falling into fantasy land, wringing my hands or gushing over being an American in the UK, going gaga over history, enjoying a good bakery, […]

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