Top Ten Things I Love about England June 25, 2012
After nearly two years in England, spotting the Union Jack on everything from tea towels to Land Rovers no longer strikes me as odd. Framed photos of the Queen are simply normal. I’ve quit pointing out double decker busses and London cabs. I can drive clockwise in roundabouts with the best of them and order a cup of tea without an interpreter. The differences are endearing, but here are the top ten things I have truly grown to love.
Fish and Chips
It doesn’t get more English than this: half a fish, filleted and drenched in batter, deep fried to a golden crisp and served atop a pile of chips. I know my American friends are thinking they’ve had fish and chips before. Au contraire, mon frere. When you walk into a chip shop here there is not a chair in sight. You get in line, order across the stainless steel case, attempt to answer questions about salt and sauce, then wander out onto the sidewalk with a huge pile of fries topped with half a deep fried fish wrapped in butcher paper. You know you’ve gone native when you can eat it with the half popsicle stick / half toothpick provided while walking down the street.
I suspect this is the same as heavy whipping cream in the states, but I have never had anyone offer to pour it over a piece of cake for me back home. It is also served whipped to perfection with scones, jam and a pot of tea just about anywhere in England. Quite lovely indeed.
Free Health Care
Our experiences with the NHS (National Health Service) have been thankfully limited, but the slightly higher taxes are well worth the free medical service if you ask me.
Physically, we’ve had a few regular check-ups, two trips to the emergency room, one relatively minor surgery and a night in the hospital due to an adverse reaction to a medication. Do I feel that we have received good quality health care? Yes. Were there some long waits and old furniture? Yes. Did I miss paying my monthly premium plus twenty percent of every visit, lab test, x-ray, anesthesiologist service, et cetera? Absolutely not.
Mentally, it has been an opportunity to reduce my overall stress levels. It’s not that I believe they have some sort of medical utopia going on here, it’s just that I’ve relaxed those worry muscles that got so much exercise back home and here are just a few reasons why:
a) I don’t feel like I have to check my account balance before I call the doctor or take my kid to the emergency room.
b) We have a trampoline! I am not afraid of being sued, lose my house or at least not be able to send my kids to college because an uninvited guest breaks their neck in our back yard when we aren’t even home.
c) I have not had to postpone buying shoes for the kids or going on vacation until I get my medical bills paid off since I moved here.
There is no perfect system, but this one offers a peace of mind I didn’t know it was possible to have until I experienced it. And, when my mom comes to visit next month, they’ll take care of her during her visit…all for free. Thank you, NHS.
5 weeks of Paid Holiday
Need I say more? I really couldn’t believe it until we lived through the first year here and my husband didn’t get fired for not showing up. The average time off is 20-25 days of holiday plus 8 bank holidays (similar to our standard holidays). You don’t even have to work there for twenty years to get it either, most jobs start off with four or five weeks. You can even take two weeks…get this…in a row! They call it a fortnight here. I had to look the word up–probably because I have never had a use for it. In fact, I’ve never had two weeks off from a job in a row without giving birth.
It’s not that I’m unique in being stunned by the beauty of England. People travel from all over the world to walk the hills and mountains (aka fells) and coastal footpaths. I’m amazed at how extensive the trails are, even in my own back yard. Literally, there is a public footpath on the other side of our back fence and it’s fun to watch the leisurely parade of people walking dogs, kids coming home from school and groups of elderly people in North Face gear with their walking poles every Saturday. We have several footpaths we can choose just to get to the school on the other side of the village. On holiday in northeast and southwest England, we didn’t see one beach littered with a giant “No Trespassing” sign, marking the end of the measly section open to the public. Another thing I love about walking through a field in England is that I have stopped looking over my shoulder, expecting someone to come flying along on a four-wheeler with a shotgun yelling at me to get off their land. Thank you, Ramblers!
We have stayed in six Youth Hostel Association properties this year and have had wonderful experiences in all of them. They are starting to cater to families more, with rooms that offer en suite baths with several bunks and even some with a double bed for the parents. It’s hard to choose a favorite because there is so much to consider–the rooms, self catering kitchen facilities, game rooms, the lounges… but Whitby is absolutely lovely and Ambleside in the Lake District is an old hotel right on Lake Windermere. I could blog about each one.
At first, I was in a bit enchanted by all of the history at our fingertips and quickly became queen of the day trip. We took buses and trains and cars, attended a joust and a fake beheading—even went to a castle, an abbey and a minster all in one weekend. The boys have been quoted as saying, “Aw, Mom, not another castle!” I don’t regret these trips, especially the one to The Forbidden Corner, an utterly unique combination of garden and maze and Alnwick Castle, where they filmed a bit of Harry Potter, but I would caution new expats about overdoing it. Storming the walls, sneaking in and playing hide and seek are fun, but even cool crumbly old castles get a bit boring after a while. It does help if you find out a bit about the history before you go, but kids can only be wow-ed by so many tales and tidbits in one weekend.
240 Power for everything
OK, this one has it’s drawbacks, but it makes boiling the kettle a one-minute affair. Toasters, hair straighteners and other things that get hot do so in a jiffy.
I have to admit that 240 power would also make my ‘Top Ten Least Favorite Things About England’, if I had such a list. Apparently due to risk of death, there are no plug-ins in the bathrooms and the light switch is either outside the bathroom or in the form of a cord hanging from the ceiling. This was particularly unnerving in the first couple of days off the plane as I groped around in the dark and looked particularly touristy in public places as I searched for switches. It does explain, however, explain the extremely long cord on my hair dryer.
I know I already listed holidays–but that was about parents and pay. The kids are out of school here for a week or two 5 times a year. Yes, five times a year, plus the six weeks off for summer break. They get two weeks off around Christmas and another two weeks around Easter. These long holidays are between the three school terms, but it doesn’t stop there. They also get a week off in the middle of each term, thus 5 holidays. Whew. It wears me out just writing about it.
It makes my top ten list not because it is a holiday, but because it is enough of a holiday. Combined with the 4-5 weeks of vacation that parents have here, it offers a wonderful lifestyle for families. It makes the over-planned, inevitably stress-inducing seven day maximum American affair back home seem like the scene from a bad movie. Here you can actually get around to some of those things you want to do around the house, like bounce on the trampoline, play a full game of Monopoly, laugh at your kids for playing in virtual space from two separate computers in the same house, have a cake flop completely and try again, finish a book, putter around at the library, or give blood (lack of time is no longer excuse) and visit Europe–all in the same year!
This bonus would, however, also make my ‘least favorite’ list because it’s not exactly cheap to arrange a sitter for seven weeks out of the school year.
Being called “Love” by random people
They say it like they really mean it, too. It’s so endearing. It is a bit like being called “honey” in the southern U.S., but I lived there long enough to tell that they didn’t always mean it. You can say “honey” in a relatively derogatory tone, but it’s hard to be mean when you call someone “Love”. Love it!
Mom, I need a rubber November 7, 2011
First thought: You need a WHAT???
Second thought: I have stopped breathing–not good. I need oxygen if I am going to interrogate him to within an inch of his life…
Third thought: (Reality flickers in like headlights in the distance.) He is doing homework. In England. Oh please tell me my eleven-year-old is not in need of a prophylactic. Of course not….homework…in England…he just needs an eraser!
Good thing we didn’t move here a few years later, he would have been grounded for life–homework or no homework.
Fourth thought: I should put this adrenalin rush to good use and scrub the limescale off the shower door.
Thank you, I think… November 1, 2011
Card shopping in the UK is not for the faint of heart. Let’s just say I doubt there is anyone in this country with the job title “Greeting Card Censor”. After blushing in the card section of many English shops, the shock factor has finally worn off. I have simply learned to steer clear of the postcard section at seaside resorts when I’m with the boys, unless, of course, I am looking for a segue from sand castles to sex education.
I’ve been trying to lighten up. It’s just part of the English sense of humor (wink wink, nod nod), right? When in Rome and all that.
So, last week I decided to just march right into the local grocery store and face whatever the cartoonists could throw at me. I just needed a couple of thank you cards, what could go wrong?
In the American South, they have a phrase used by locals just prior to engaging in highly reckless behavior that typically results in disaster, usually coupled with a heap of embarrassment. It goes like this, “Hey, y’all, watch this!” I should have just said that.
After my face returned to it’s normal color, I was left to ponder whether the Brits are pushing sarcasm to a new level, or they really believe that canine reproductive organs are indicative of positive qualities in a human being. It took me a week to finally ask a local if this indeed constituted a compliment. I could tell by the way her face immediately lit up that it was true–they definitely consider ‘dog’s dangly bits’ a good thing. Apparently, humor based on private parts does not stop at cartoon cleavage.
I know I resolved to lighten up, but it’s just so hard. I have to agree with my 8-year-old who called this card “inappropriate” (note to self: steer clear of card aisles everywhere). Maybe some day I’ll get used to it. But in the mean time, if I find myself in need an animal analogy to express my gratitude, I’ll be sticking with “You are just the bees knees!”, thank you very much.
Ultimate icky crisps June 2, 2011
Royal Kryptonite May 30, 2011
Glossy magazines and the famous people who grace their covers have never been my thing. You can ask my friends–I was the last to know who shot JR, couldn’t be bothered to keep up with Friends, only recently figured out that the Sheens are related and can’t tell you the name of one American Idol winner. I am a certified media lame-O, known to actively avoid anything that gets a lot of hype. That usually goes double for stuffy ceremonies, so the fact that Will and Kate have me hanging on their every move has me completely baffled. How did that happen? Why do I care about these two people I couldn’t pick out of a photograph a year ago??? I have no idea! It’s like royal Kryptonite. Can’t…stop…gawking…aaarrrggghhhh
We watched the whole thing on TV (and yes, even recorded it) and attended a fabulous street party that afternoon in my big giant hat, of course (and jeans–I haven’t gone completely mental).
I even survived the onslaught of marketing mania and came out with only one souvenir mug, the commemorative edition of Hello magazine and a few trading cards. Oh, and the official stamp collection. (insert a photo of my best friends rolling around on the floor laughing here)
I thought it would end once the wedding was over and the brain numbing fog would clear, but oh no. Just yesterday, there I was, shushing the kids and perking my ears, frozen dead in my tracks to hear the latest news of their whereabouts and goings on.
Oooooohhh, they are going to Yosemite National Park (nice choice)…staying in the hotel that inspired the movie The Shining (how cool is that?)…it’s 5 star (of course)…the queen stayed in the adjoining suite in 1983 (wouldn’t want to be copy cats, now would we?)…there will be no maid-in-waiting for Kate, she’ll dress herself and do her own makeup on this trip (isn’t that just downright peachy, I think…as I blissfully ignore the fact that their honeymoon cost enough to make a serious dent in our state budget deficit back home).
Maybe I have been sucked in because of a genetic predisposition to all things English, as my maternal great great grandfather was a photographer in London. But then again, I haven’t exactly bothered to take up watching cricket, rugby or football (soccer), or keep tabs on Simon Cowell’s latest version of the Gong Show, so it isn’t really even a few things English, just Will and Kate.
Actually, I think it has more to do with the fact that it’s like a fairy tale you can actually believe in…well, as much as anyone who is actually married can. No offense, but there was nothing fairy tale about the wedding of Will’s mom and dad to me. The only thing I remember was feeling sorry for Diana, thinking it was too bad that such a sweetie was marrying that stuffy, arrogant, big-eared dork (but, then again, I was only ten years old). Kate is a small town, down to earth family girl, and Will is a real live prince. They met at college and lived together before deciding to take their vows, just like most people I know. They shop at the local stores and cook for themselves. And then there’s the fact that they bend the royal rules a bit, oh so endearing.
It could also be that William looks a bit like my husband did when we got married. I thought it was just me, but when our friends and family started saying it, I had to drag out the wedding album. I’ll let you be the judge.
The shops are filled with memorabilia galore (not…going…shopping) and the news is abuzz with the upcoming trip to Canada and California. People are still going on about the dress and the coach and the hats and the kiss, and laughing about the similarities between the royal couple, the princesses and Disney’s Cinderella. And alas, so am I.
Maybe someday I will free myself from this royal headlock, but for now, I’m just going to enjoy the ride. Since I don’t watch football or the X Factor, it gives me something to chat about with the natives.
dazzled and confused April 4, 2011
I attribute our success to the countless hours spent glued to the laptop screen taking practice tests. My favorite questions are the ones about using “dipped headlights” to prevent “dazzling” oncoming cars. (I didn’t even know you could dip a headlight before I moved here.) When I read those questions I can’t help but picture a driver sticking their arm out the window and jiggling their spread-eagle hand with a huge fake smile plastered on their face. Good times.
The bad news is that we still have to take the driving test. Unfortunately there is no laptop involved this time.
People ask me what is so hard about passing a driving test. These characters usually fall into one of two categories. They are either people who hold a British driving license and took the test about 30 years ago OR they are American. In response to both groups I would like to present Exhibit A: a photo of my husband making the universal sign for ‘what the @#$?’
The British folks are likely wondering just what the problem is and the Americans are wondering what those signs mean.
For my American friends, the sign means that the national speed limit applies here. The national speed limit on a single carriageway, like this one, is 60 mph. There are rarely middle of the road speed limits posted here. You are either in town with a posted speed limit of 30, or out of town where it is 60 mph. (The signs on the opposite side of these is 30 mph, clearly fair warning for drivers coming the other way that they are entering a village.) The motorways are 70.
Does 60 mph seem appropriate for a road like this? (insert raised eyebrows, cockeyed lips and tilted heads here) Now I know that the Brits are saying, of course you wouldn’t go that fast around a corner like that, and they would be correct in quoting the Highway Code. You are supposed to be reasonable and adjust your speed to meet the road characteristics and conditions. But for those of us who are used to relying on a 10, 15, 20, or 25 mph sign indicating the maximum speed limit for the turn ahead (with the speed you actually plan to take the turn then calculated in a split second using a complex equation with variables like ‘who else is in the car’ and ‘if you feel lucky’), a sign indicating a top speed of 60 is a bit vague.
We should just stop our sniveling and get on with it, say the Brits, but those self same scoffers are clearly not planning to pay someone to climb in the passenger seat, critique their driving and hand out a verdict anytime soon.