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!


move over Mario August 2, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — reversepilgrims @ 11:26 pm
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Today marks my second driving adventure in a row without a near miss. I’m not exactly ready to declare the roads of NE Linconshire safe, but I think I’m starting to get the hang of it. Parking lot driving is still an issue. My instinct is to swerve right if I meet a car head on, that’s going to take some serious neuron restructuring to address, and I can barely find my lane when I’m going forward, let alone back into it, so I try to find a spot where I can pull through to avoid incident. I also can’t help but feel like I’m trying to park a go-kart in a shoebox and find myself giggling when I get out as if I’ve just finished my turn driving the bumper cars. I’m really hoping this stage passes quickly, it’s a little more than slightly embarrassing.

With that, we have begun the search for a second car. The trouble is, we don’t know half the brands, and of the brands we do know, the models are all completely different. We were following a Toyota that looked nice today and I tried to read the name of it. “Auris”, I strained to read. “Yaris?”, my husband asked. “Fat chance”, I said, completely resigned to the fact that there is not one car that I have ever even heard of here. I would just buy a big land yacht if it made any sense, but with the narrow roads and all the weaving required, I’d be taking out mirrors on parked cars in town and never negotiate the roundabouts. I’ve decided that what I am really looking for is a hummer about the size of a Fiat. When I popped in the Ford dealership, I asked the salesman what the safest car they had was. He looked at me quizzically and stated that all cars have to pass safety tests. The look on my face gave away my dream of locating a miniature tank and he quietly wrote the name of the safety rating website on the back of his business card for me. “Thank you”, I said with sigh and a grateful grin.

My husband is on his first “holiday” this week. This is the first break we’ve had in our 14 years together where we’ve had no set plans, no plane to catch, no bags to pack, no guests to host or feast to prepare. We barely know what to do with ourselves and it’s only Monday. Why are we not freaking out about every last second? Simply because there is more where that came from. It’s July and he’s still got another week to use later in the year plus bank holidays (basically the 7-9 standard US holidays). Who knows what we’ll get up to! It is so refreshing to feel like we’ve got the time to relax and do some fun stuff without the stress of knowing that if we screw this week up, there goes our big vacation for the year. Quite a few people even take a fortnight off and still don’t use up all their vacation time. I had no idea what a fortnight was, probably because I had no use for the word. People here use the term when they talk about the two weeks they are taking off to go on holiday…without losing their jobs in the process.

I miss all of our friends and family, but I have to say it’s nice to just hang out and see what comes. I did luck out and get us into the Forbidden Corner, one of the UK’s top family destinations, for tomorrow. It is a garden with lots of tunnels and mazes, designed by a man for his children and eventually opened up to the public. It’s quite a drive at 2 hours, but it’s mostly on the motorway. Thank God for that because my neck couldn’t take 2 hours on the “A” roads. The highways here are not simply a slower, more annoying version of the freeways as they are in the US–fast zones dotted with traffic lights and 30 mph zones through towns. In the UK, if you are not on the motorway, you are in for a LOT of roundabouts. I’m not talking about the pleasant little slow down, look both ways and make your way across type of intersection–here you are expected to take the bloody things as fast as your car will allow. (Oh, and they have the 30 mph zones, too, but the beauty of them is that there are traffic cameras that simply check your travel time through the town and calculate your average speed. You simply get a ticket in the mail when you get home if you go too fast. From what they tell me, of course.) When we visited England the first time, I recall thinking that we’d gotten some crazy taxi driver as I fought the centrifugal force to stay upright in the back seat on the ride from the airport–left, then right, around roundabout after roundabout, all just to keep going straight. Looking back it was a rather cushy ride. My neck muscles are starting to shape up, but sloshing about in the passenger seat is not how I would choose to spend four hours of our first holiday.

Bon no Voyage!


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.


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