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On the right foot

9 Sep


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.

Guy Fawkes. Again.

12 Nov

Bonfire Night.  I wrote about it last year.  This year our school’s celebration was delayed by a week, putting us slightly off-sequence from the rest of the country.  But on a clear and chilly night, we finally had our fill of giant bonfires and rockets.

And super creepy magicians.  Okay, I apologize to what appears to be a dear sweet man who undoubtedly has a lovely family and probably rescues cats and orphans as a side hobby, but OMG he looked almost as scary as the poltergeist clown which I am still sure lives under my bed.

Let’s get that bonfire started!

Look at the size of it.  Toasty.

Love a good bonfire, even as it’s burning low.

A bit of the carnival scene while we waited for the fireworks.

And then – KaPOW.


I’m daring to try something new with my camera.  These shots were all taken on the manual setting.  Mixed results.  KaBOOM.

The big finale.

I didn’t have quite as much spirit this year as last.  It was pleasant to feel comfortable in the crowd — a bit familiar.  I did sing the Star Spangled Banner to myself  (OH SAY!).  Just a little.  We tried the rides, ate candy floss, waved crazy light sticks, Oo-ed and Aa-ed at the lights.  But my heart wasn’t in it.  Maybe last year I was overfull with the excitement of moving and discovery, and this year I’m too overwhelmed by the slog through chill and darkness to find that spark inside.  Maybe next year we can just have a cozy bonfire at home with some s’mores and warm cider and one of the bizarre ditties of Guy Fawkes:

So let’s bless the Royal Majesty, and bless the Royal son, sirs,
And may he never get blown up if to the throne he comes, sirs.
And if he does, I’m sure he’ll reign–so prophesize my song, sirs;
But if he don’t, why then he won’t, and so I can’t be wrong, sirs.


Time for lunch

26 Sep

I have a huge backlog of days out to share — as always — and — as always — I’m so busy running to the next thing I don’t seem to have time to sit down and write about any of it.  One thing I do have time for — every school night, every week, all year long — is packing school lunches.  We opted out of the school’s hot lunch this year and so five nights a week I pack three lunches and four snacks.  I turn on the mp3 player, line up the boxes, pull out the ingredients, and go to war.  Work, I mean: go to work.

I start with this:

 (No editing for lighting or tone.  Feel the raw force of late night lunch packing.)

And end with variations on this:

Lots and lots of this.

It’s fun, kind of like being on Top Chef: My Kitchen, but without the celebrity guests or 30 minute shopping sprees at Whole Foods.

I didn’t have any real objection to the lunches provided at the school, but I didn’t have any real attachment to them, either.  When the kids asked for packed lunches this term, I didn’t need much convincing.   I was getting a bit worried about the stories of the too-long lines and the all-I-ate-was-a-roll lunches and there-was-no-time-to-eat-anything-but-pudding tales.  I know I’m denying them a bit of cultural integration by packing their lunches.  I mean, they can now successfully navigate beans on toast, sausage and mash, jacket potatoes as a main course, and calling absolutely everything served after the main a ‘pudding’ — all new things they brought home and shared with me, to our overall enrichment.  (I say “overall”, because: Beans on toast?  Meh.)

Anyway, for lunch inspiration I check out Happy Little Bento or Laptop Lunches.  And then I cry, because I’m not that creative and I don’t have that much patience.  But I try to stock up on a variety of portable of fresh ingredients and keep the cupboards full of dry goods that I find acceptably nutritious and easy to toss in to round out the lunches.  It’s a work in progress.  Every night, every week, a work in progress.

How about you?  Do you pack lunches for school or work?  How do you keep it interesting?

Milestones and lessons

17 Sep

We’re coming up on our one year anniversary of living in England. We’ve seen a full turn of seasons. (Does England have true seasons? I leave that up for debate.) I’ve heard myself say “We didn’t get to see [insert castle or event] last year, let’s go this year.” I’m in love with online grocery shopping and home delivery. Two large vehicles passing side-by-side on a one-lane track blocked in by hedges doesn’t bother me a bit. I like the habit of ordering and paying for food at the bar and then sitting and enjoying a leisurely meal at any local pub. I’ve found a hard cider that I enjoy, and I devour mushy peas. I’m ready for winter, with my “happy light” set and bright. I — almost — know when to say “cheers” and when to say “ta” and can have a phone conversation with a native British speaker without leaving us both in tears.  I know my way around this corner of England and can — sometimes — even get somewhere without the satnav.

I suppose we’ve acclimated to our lives overseas.  It definitely took me longer than six months, but  finding a unopened box of salt water taffy when we did some clearing out over the summer didn’t bring me to tears, as it might have last winter.

Maybe going to Cornwall in the spring helped me ward off my usual summertime biological imperative to jump into the Atlantic, walk along a boardwalk, get a sunburn, eat ice cream and fries, and watch dolphins.  Anyway.

The kids are back in school, excited about their new year and jumping with all limbs forward into even more clubs and activities than last year. My dreams of a Parisian vacation have turned into fees for endless music lessons and tennis lessons and ballet lessons … and that’s okay. They’ve adjusted to this being our home, not our vacation spot, and they want to do all the normal things kids do day-to-day.  Still, the bulletin boards by my youngest’s classroom give me pause:

How much acclimation is too much, really?  Eyes to the side, I want to tell my kids: look around.  Who knows where the person in front is going — find your own path.  Hold your hands out, so you can reach high, or catch yourself if you fall.  Run.


7 Sep

The kids have gone back to school this week.  They ran off to their first day without a backwards look, as usual.  I’m once again looking in the rearview mirror and momentarily freaking out because I’m alone in the car.  Back to that strange untethered feeling of having sent my heart out wandering without me, of not being sure how to catch my breath in all the quiet.

Things have been a bit quiet here on the blog, with all the business of summer.  But ready or not, the start of school shuts the door to summer, and opens us to fall, to a regular day-to-day routine (hopefully something more interesting than mere drudgery) and to the possibilities of a new year.

I’ve been writing this blog for a year this month.  I’m still not quite sure what I’m doing here — this blog, this country, this universe — you know, little questions like that — but I still enjoy taking pictures and telling small stories, so I guess I’ll keep at it.  And … there’s always so much more to see.  Time to walk through the next doorway.

Shoes and lessons

7 Jul

And we finally say goodbye to school, and look forward to eight weeks of holiday.  The bright clean shoes the children wore to their overwhelming first day have worn thin — indeed, only our youngest’s shoes made it through the whole year.  They remind me of combat boots, full of honest wear, reflecting a long struggle both physical and mental.

Overwrought?  Maybe.  This year of school has been relentless, in some ways.  For the kids, and for me.

What we learned in the first year of English school:

1. “A” is “ants on your arm“.  And don’t forget it.

2. Being “told off” is the worst fate in the school world.  My children are motivated to avoid this at all costs.

3. Per son, re: the school lunches: “If you are American, avoid all hot foods except pasta.”  No comment.

4. Per daughter #1: “You can make lots of friends if you just go up and say hi.”  (Note this does not work with English mothers, but apparently it still works on their children.)

5. Per son, re: the playground: “Learn to play soccer, or if you can’t do that try “bulldog” or tag.”

6. If you fail to note/read/remember the important notice sent home once — and once only — you are SOL.  It will never be mentioned again, until the moment you drop the kids off and find out there is a super important parent assembly right then, which you absolutely must attend. This will happen at least once, I guarantee it.

7. Always keep a few pounds in your pocket for random poppy/pudsey/mufti/ice cream/olympic/charity of the moment fundraisers. Like daisies, you never know when or where school fundraisers will pop up.

8. Keep an umbrella in the car.  If it is going to rain, it will always rain during pick-up from school.

9. The school has its own smell.  It’s a smell so strong it has become sentient.  Redolent of cooked corn, old socks, wet carpet, stacks of paper, and zombie.  I keep a stash of tea tree oil by the door to neutralize it.  (Because — PS — England has cooties.)

10.  Everything is exactly the same as in the US, except for being totally different.

The kids have handled themselves well in school — they’ve managed to make friends, to adapt to their new situation, to learn, and to take pride in their achievements.  They have new accents, new jokes, new games,  new interests, new tastes.  They’re thrilled to finally begin their summer break, but are already looking forward to school in the fall.  That’s the good news.

Me? I found myself running in to an invisible wall separating some English parents from outsiders.  I don’t know if it is that English reserve, a bit of small-town thinking, a feeling against Americans generally, or if I’m just doing something wrong.  The English school mom social scene has not been a happy place for me this year.  (With some bright, shinning, wonderful exceptions — if you’re reading this, you know who you are.)   I’m happy to leave that struggle behind for a few months.

Goodbye to the school field for the summer.

I hope I’ll be blogging as usual over the summer.  Watch this space for many more day out explorations, as the kids and I take on the Midlands.  Who knows?  We also may bake a cake or two.

St. George’s Day

23 Apr

I don’t have a bead on St. George’s Day.  There’s no special pancake breakfast, no setting crap on fire, no shopping sales, no special stoneware from Emma Bridgewater.  (Wait, I lie, there is a special mug.)  Yet my kids got to pay a pound each today to wear red and white clothes to school, and the red and white flags of St. George — and of England — were carried joyfully all over the playground.   Apparently I should have worn a red rose in my button hole today.  I hope going to the gym and having my face turn bright red while doing sit ups will count instead.

Wikipedia has a lot to say about St. George, and my go-to cultural source, that cool school in Kent, has a page on his legend as well.

Of course, I find the dragon the sympathetic character in the story. I like modern retellings which have the dragon and George end up as friends, and the princess runs off and saves herself. Happy St. George’s Day, everyone, and many happily ever afters to you.