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, 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.
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!