Reversepilgrims Blog

a northwest family moves to the UK

Top Ten Things I Love about England June 25, 2012

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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.

Double Cream  

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, losing my house or not being 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.

Endless footpaths 

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!

Youth Hostels

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.

Castles and Abbeys and Minsters, Oh my! 

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.

School Holidays

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!


more icky crisps August 4, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — reversepilgrims @ 11:28 pm
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I stand corrected on one aspect of my crisp rant–there are decent potato chips in England, and they are made by Walkers. But, I am not backing down on my assessment that most of the flavors are enough to turn a goat’s stomach and caution my fellow Americans in search of a homey snack to stick with the “Ready Salted” variety.

Here is another icky example, Irish Stew. Apparently it was a fun flavor put out for Walkers’ version of the world cup. Not only did they come up with creepy flavors from the UK, they spread the wealth and made chips in flavors for all the countries listed on the back of the bag. For the Americans they made Cheeseburger. I know that is as about as American as you can get, but in a chip? And then there’s Bratwurst and Spaghetti, eeeewwww. It could just be part of that English humor I completely fail to grasp on occasion, but that’s world cup fever taken a bit too far if you ask me.


Optional but really tasty July 28, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — reversepilgrims @ 8:20 am
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The universal word on the street about English food is, no offense to my new friends, it stinks. I was cautioned to at the very least be prepared for disappointment. I say yes and no.

There are things I adore, such as the ham, the incredible cream-filled baked goods and the fish and chips, so much so that my gall bladder hurts and I’ve had to cut back on all of the above. The bread is yummier. From sandwich slices to hamburger buns, every biscuit, baked good and bap I’ve tried is chewier, softer and generally tastier.

Carrots in the basic bulk bag taste like they came straight out of the garden and the potatoes are actually flavorful (I haven’t seen a russet since I’ve been here, and they serve “jacket potatoes” (baked potatoes) all over the place). I am also a beet fan and I was thrilled to find that they have peeled, cooked beets sealed in packages in the produce section, all the yum without the fuss and/or the rubbery texture out of a can! The fruit is from this side of the globe, a little different, but still lovely. It is simply obvious that most of the meat and produce have not been trucked from ten states away. All hail the local farmers!

They have most of the same items, but they just don’t call them the same thing. I usually end up describing the food I’m looking for to the nearest unsuspecting Grimsby resident and we end up touring the store looking for it. They don’t have tater tots, but they do have “rasties”, which are flattened hash brown patties—not the same, popsicles are called “lollies” and they all drink something called “squash”. When the first person offered it to me I said a quick little prayer, ‘please don’t make it zucchini juice’, and it must have worked because I got a glass of something like fruit juice that they make by mixing a concentrated liquid with water to taste. You can even get it in restaurants, with no ice, of course. The versions I’ve had include either orange or black currant and are sugar free. The kids like it. Most of it comes “double strength” and trying to add a capful or a spash to a glass can get quite messy. A normal family could just mix it up in a pitcher, but of course one of our boys likes is weak and warm and the other likes it strong and cold. Shocker there, I know.

The food packaging just cracks me up, too. It is as if the marketers are a little more lighthearted here. In the directions for making macaroni and cheese, it lists the ingredients to add as water, milk and butter (optional but really tasty), see the photo. Ha!

And now for the part where I agree with the masses. Food tends to fall into three categories for me—‘Love it’, ‘leave it’ and ‘vow never to eat or even smell that again if at all possible’. Their version of a potato chip, generally called “crisps”, definitely fall into the final category. (Warning: the next sentence could cause serious appetite loss). Common crisp flavours include smokey bacon, t-bone steak, worcestershire sauce, tomato ketchup, savory chicken and prawn cocktail. After I got over the initial shock and waves of nausea, I ventured down the crisp aisle once again, sometimes you just crave salt. I could be missing out, I thought, so I decided to be brave and try a flavor or two (see photo of the bags I took…right before I threw them in the rubbish). The cheese and onion was in the “leave it” category at best, and it was all downhill from there. The smokey bacon made my stomach churn and the savoury chicken actually induced a bout of nausea that I fought off for several hours. If anyone in my family even suggests going down that aisle in the supermarket I give them a quick “No Crisps!” with a thick accent like Edna from the Incredibles when she delcares ‘no capes’ for superhero costumes.

Oh, and they are apparently obsessed with biscuits and/or buns with sultanas (raisins) and/or currants in them. They come in all sizes and sorts and they take up entire sections in supermarkets. I have tried several versions and I have to admit, the allure remains a mystery to me. My best guess is that it is akin to the apple pie in America.

At our first neighborhood barbecue on Sunday I was introduced to a spice concoction called “American Chip Spice”. It comes in a short, round white shaker complete with the picture of a US flag rippling in the breeze and lady liberty herself on the front. They use it on chips (fries) and burgers and all sorts of things. The kitchen full of Brits expressed a bit of indignant outrage that I’d never even heard of it, as they had been conned into thinking this little shaker came straight off our tables. It could be a midwest or east coast thing, but I’ve been in 45 of our 50 states and had never come across it. I did a little research just to make sure I wasn’t missing this product at our local QFC and apparently it’s a local thing. Here’s the website I found: complete with this description: “Originating in Kingston upon Hull, East Yorkshire in the North East of England, today it is most commonly available in chip shops & takeaways in the Hull & East Yorkshire area and has cult status among locals & people that at one time have lived in the area.” It tastes like your average msg-laden spice, a bit of barbecue, chili and ranch all rolled into one. Not bad. The one thing that it has going for it is copious amounts of salt.

If there is one thing I can say about the food in general here, it’s that everything tastes like I accidentally bought the reduced salt version—crackers, mayo, ketchup, even the food you get in restaurants. In discussing the lack of salt in this country with another mother, I learned that the powers that be regarding health in the UK have declared salt a serious no-no. Just as a polite heads up, she told me that it would be seriously frowned upon to shake salt on my children’s food–she definitely wouldn’t do it in front of the queen. Now I am not one to shake salt on everything in the US, in fact I’m a salt wimp compared to many of my comrades, but I can even be caught shaking salt on Ritz crackers here!

Being the scientific geek that I am, I attempted to research the actual salt levels in Ritz in the 2 countries and found several interesting facts. There are 6 types of Ritz crackers in the US, plus 2 types of pretzels and 4 versions of a cheese-filled cracker. In the UK they have 2–original and cheese flavor. That tells you a lot about food choices here in general. As for the salt content, I’ve either uncovered a major inconsistency in the use of the metric system, a conspiracy or I simply can’t do the math. Even when I account for the deflated US serving size, the US version works out to a lot less salt–but I’m here to tell you that if there is less salt in the US Ritz, pigs are circling the globe in flocks as we speak.

So my verdict on English food–I’ll miss the bread and ham and fish and chips (liberally showered with salt) when we go, but I’ll likely walk in and kiss the floor of the local Safeway when we get home.


Parking lots and mail slots July 21, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — reversepilgrims @ 10:10 am
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Walking through the car park (parking lot) of the grocery store makes me feel like a giant. There are no suburbans, giant SUVs or trucks so big you can’t see over the tailgate here. Forget mere double parking, an F-350 could easily take up four of these parking spots. What football (soccer) moms drive here would probably fit in the back of most US minivans if you took out the back seats. One advantage is that you don’t have to constantly peek around the ends of vehicles as you wander through the parked cars, you just look out over the top of the whole lot as if you were 7 feet tall at a rock concert. Motorcycles are common and I find myself doing double takes often because they seem so huge, until I remember it’s all the other vehicles that are smaller. There is not much more parking space in the neighborhoods. You can see from the photo that everyone parks right up to their house and even a small RV hangs over the sidewalk.

A little boy at the swimming pool asked us if that was our “massive Dodge” out there, which absolutely cracked me up because it’s about the size of a Toyota Matrix. Although the four of us fit nicely in the passenger seats, the space behind our back seat is only big enough for two laundry baskets. One stacked up on the other, of course.

There are roundabouts everywhere. Even what would seemingly be a simple T intersection is a roundabout here. If there isn’t room for a center island, they just widen the intersection and paint a circle with arrows around it in the middle. It feels a bit like they replaced all the stairs with fireman’s poles. There is also a sense of sport about driving in the roundabouts, as if one could earn a medal for merging without slowing down. I have driven once, just around the village, not so much to actually get the hang of it as to keep my apprehension from getting out of control. I did fine, apart from smacking my right hand against the driver’s door when I reached for the gear shift a couple of times. Now I just need to get my game face on and I’ll be ready to venture out.

Some days the differences seem endless.

There are no mailboxes, everything just comes through the slot in the front door like uninvited paper guests. There is one general delivery of the day, but there are also random mailings and flyers that magically appear. Sometimes they are stuck there in the metal flap and others land so far from the door they seemed to have opened the slot and threw them in. It makes me grateful for the three deadbolts and loopy hotel peek-a-boo lock on the door.

There’s the fact that I can’t remember our phone number.  My close friends understand why this is so annoying to me–I am the kind of person who remembers phone numbers that I don’t even need to recall any more. My cell phone directory in the US was full, but mostly just to make things faster. My brain is completely wired for 10 digit numbers that come in packages with a set of parenthesis at the beginning and a dash in the middle. Here the phone numbers are 11 digits long. It’s not that I find the additional numeral excessive, it’s just that there is no punctuation. Who knew I would long for a little more formality in England? I’ve tried coming up with my own little system, but the numbers never seem to come at me in the same way. Some people will give you 2 or 3 numbers at a time, others just go for the first 5 and break it up from there, and I am left just blinking slowly at those who rattle off all 11 at once. There is a standard in that the first five numbers are for the area you are in and the last six are for the place, but that all goes out the window for cell phone numbers. So, I have settled on carrying my number around on a slip of paper and having people write down theirs–maybe I should put a trumpet around my neck, too.

I am not feeling overwhelmed so much as I am simply saturated. We have not only moved to a different country–yes, there are bank accounts to be sorted out and appliance shopping to be done—but we’ve also gone from a two-car family to public transit users, home owners to renters, and city folk to village dwellers all at the same time. Not one of the differences is particularly enormous, they all just catch me off guard for one small instant after another. If I were one of those cute little dogs, my neck muscles would be tired from all the tilting of my head and perking up of my ears.


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