When I lived in Bath the year I studied abroad, I didn’t actually get to know that many Brits. My program(me) was all American students from colleges on the East Coast, and we all pretty much stuck together for everything. So other than our British professors and administrators, I didn’t befriend anyone my own age from here. I briefly, sort-of dated some local bloke named Ian, if you could call it dating. Our interactions basically consisted of drinking Bacardi Breezes at dance clubs and text messaging. He did threaten to buy me dolphin jewellery, so you could say it was pretty serious.
I’m feeling a little homesick on the eve of America’s birthday, I must admit. I opened up my Instagram feed and saw picture after picture of American summer activities, as people are spending their holiday weekend at the beach or pool, having a BBQ with friends, watching fireworks and waving sparklers, eating corn on the cob and slices of watermelon, roasting marshmallows for s’mores, or drinking beer at a baseball game.
Sometimes I want to share a story of something funny that happened or a cultural observation but it doesn’t really warrant a full blog post, so I’ll just cobble a few together once in a while and call it “Anecdotes.” Enjoy!
Tea for Two (and Under)
For a while, I was confused about kids having “tea.” That’s what people here call the children’s dinnertime, which is early, and then typically the parents eat dinner together after the kids are in bed (how civilized!). But from my observation when my daughter had been invited over for a play date and tea, there was no tea for the kids. (Though a play date does always include tea for the mums, and usually biscuits or cake.) This was puzzling. Mums will say “the kids are having their tea at 5” or “what are you giving them for tea?” I finally worked out that the term probably stems from “high tea,” which is traditionally a smaller dinner meal served early. High tea was what the working class had for their supper, whereas “afternoon tea” was what the upper class had to bridge the gap between lunch and their later formal dinner.
I have also been wondering what age English people start drinking tea. It’s such an integral part of their culture and daily ritual, and is certainly the first thing offered when anyone enters someone’s home or is in need of comfort, but when does that start?
One afternoon I was at my friend’s house, and we were drinking our tea while our girls played together before we took them to their swimming lesson. Her younger daughter, who is 10 months old, bumped her head on the table. My friend did all the normal motherly things you do when your baby is crying from a bump, and then she said, “Do you want some of mummy’s tea?” and offered her mug to her baby, who eagerly took some sips (the tea is typically mixed with a lot of milk here) and calmed down. I said, “That’s the most English thing I’ve ever seen.” “Well it’s just comforting, isn’t it?” she replied. So that answered my question: Apparently you’re never too young to drink tea in England!
Tales From the Fitting Room
I was on a quest to find a dress to wear to a wedding, so I went to the John Lewis department store in Sloane Square, a posh shopping area, to have a look at the options. A nice sales lady walked me all throughout the store picking out dresses and making suggestions for me, and then led me to the largest, most elegant fitting room I’d ever seen, and got me some black heels to try on with my dresses. Of course, before I could even try on one dress, Baby R made it clear she was hungry, so I plopped down in one of the multiple plush chairs. I realized I was nursing her on a velvet pillow under a chandelier. It was basically the opposite of the time I nursed her standing up in a public bathroom. “Don’t you DARE spit up or blow out,” I warned her. Unfortunately, the saleslady kept popping her head back in to check on my progress, and I finally had to admit to what I was really doing in there. And ultimately, I didn’t buy anything. I just ran away when she wasn’t around. Worst customer ever.
I was also asked if I needed a hat or fascinator. Now my goal is to get myself invited to an English wedding while we’re here so I can have an excuse to wear one.
When we first came to this area of London to look at potential houses and schools, M and I went to dinner at an Asian restaurant called Banana Tree. Next to our table was a long table of about eight men in their 20s, out for a lads’ night. As they looked at their menus, one of them suggested, in all seriousness, “Who’s up for bubbles?” and they proceeded to order Prosecco for everyone at the table. As these apparently straight men sipped their “bubbles,” I said to M, “This would never happen in America.” Straight American dudes out together will ALWAYS order beer, unless they are getting cocktails, but those have to be the types considered “manly,” like Scotch/Bourbon/whisky drinks. We had never seen a group of eight guys all drinking out of Champagne glasses. Just another cultural difference we found amusing! Now we love to say to each other, “Whooo’s up for bubblllles?!”
A lot of people have asked me if E has an English accent. The answer is yes, somewhat, much more so when she has been in school or around people from here more. Anything new she learns at school she learns in a British accent, because that’s the first time she’s heard it. This goes for songs, too.
When she’s with just us for a period of time, the accent wanes, and it nearly disappeared during our two weeks back in America. It’s like a child being fluent in two languages. She tends to talk to us in an American accent and use American words, but then uses British words and pronunciation when she’s talking to Brits. It’s really funny. Sometimes she’ll say something in a British accent to us and then actually correct herself, like maybe we didn’t understand that! Tomato, tomahto.
The Big Scream
When M’s parents were visiting us in November, over American Thanksgiving, I suggested we all go see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them while E was in school. “There’s this cool thing at the local cinema,” I told them, “called ‘The Big Scream.’ You can go see a new-release movie and bring your baby along.” They keep the lights on really low so you can see what you’re doing if you need to attend to your infant, and keep the sound lower for the previews. What a nice idea! Sounded great!
WRONG. It sounded like 250 crying babies. The morning matinee was completely sold out, which meant every single seat had a person with a baby in it. And those babies had terrible movie theater manners. (Mine was an angel and slept through the entire thing. Should have just gone to a regular showing, no one would have known she was there, and I would have actually heard the movie.) Crying, feeding, changing nappies in the aisles… My father-in-law will never forgive me for taking him to that. He just kept looking over at me with an expression of complete incredulity. He claims he has tried to explain what it was like to people back home, and no one believes him that it was really that absurd. Sorry, Pops!
“MOMMY WHO ARE YOU TALKING TO?” E demanded from her car seat in the rear, as I annunciated coffee words out the car window at a sign. It occurred to me my city kid had probably never been through a drive-thru before, or at least doesn’t remember having been.
“It’s finally happened,” she was probably thinking; “Mommy’s finally cracked.”
Then a magic arm reached out and handed me my coffee and I revved the Prius and was on my way.
God bless America!
We were back in the U.S. for two weeks, our first trip back since August, and Baby R’s first trip outside of London.
The trip from London to Portland, Oregon, is loooong. We were lucky enough to fly business class, so it was significantly more pleasant than it could have been, and both girls did pretty well. These ages are good for travel. E is old enough where she can be entertained by the TV and movies on board, and can listen and follow instructions, and she’s potty trained. And R is young enough that she isn’t able to move around, doesn’t take up much space on my lap, and doesn’t need any toys, snacks, or purees packed for her. By the time she’s 1, it will be so much harder. This is our brief window for manageable long flights with her for a while! I even braved flying back alone with the girls, so I could stay a few extra days after M had to get back to work. It went surprisingly smoothly (again, much of this was thanks to flying in business class), and I got lots of assistance from a really sweet flight attendant. I think this may be the only time I have ever filled in the feedback form on an airline website with something positive to say.
The 8-hour time difference is hard, too. The first morning we were there, E woke up for the day at 2 a.m. “Daddy, I’m not tired,” she said. “You have jet lag,” he told her. “My legs are fine,” she replied. And so they were up.
It was interesting to see how E has adapted to the London way of life this trip. She’s now used to walking everywhere (well, I walk, she rides on the Buggy Board), so having to get in and out of a car seat to go anywhere was a change. And certainly R had never been in a car that much. Sometimes I miss having a car, sometimes I’m glad we don’t have one, but you know what’s an under-appreciated aspect of having to drive everywhere? The car seat nap.
E gave up naps when we moved here, but she was consistently falling asleep in the car this trip, either as a nap in the afternoon or if we were out for dinner and getting home late. Then we could just transfer the tired teddy bear to bed, no prolonged dawdle-y bedtime routine necessary. Our car-less lifestyle doesn’t allow for that to ever happen!
Later the same day as the Starbucks drive-thru, both kids fell asleep in their car seats and, I’m no fool, I wasn’t going to give up some gifted rare moments of peace and quiet, so when we got to the shopping center that was my destination, I just parked and sat in the car for a while. But then I got really hungry for lunch. Oh, look, a Panera Bread! Oh, look, you can order online from your phone…! I ordered my lunch, waited 10 minutes, and then literally ran inside, located the pick-up shelf, snatched the bag, and ran back to the car, praying no one had seen the two little ones asleep in a car by themselves and called the police in the 30 seconds I was gone. Mission accomplished. I felt properly suburban sitting there in a shopping center parking lot eating the Fuji Apple Chicken Salad I ordered from my phone.
My dad texted me that he was going to the grocery store, did I need anything? “Yes, come find me in this parking lot and sit in the car with the kids so I can go into Old Navy,” I replied. “And also more yogurt.” Grandpa to the rescue!
The news coming out of the U.S. right now is alarming. Terrifying, even.
My grandfather, my father’s father, was an immigrant to the United States of America. His family came from Hamburg, Germany, to Ellis Island in 1923 and made their way across the country to Oregon, where his uncle had found work in a lumber mill.
When he started school in Oregon, at age 12, he had to start in the first grade, because he didn’t speak English. And you know what that immigrant went on to do? He worked hard for many years, and put himself through college at the University of Oregon, and then got his Ph.D. from Cornell University, and eventually became a tenured professor and department chair at Oregon State University, and a Fulbright Scholar. In short, he became a fine, upstanding American citizen who made many contributions to society, and was the embodiment of the American Dream.
What made America so great for so many years? Hard-working immigrants like him, who came to America for the chance to have a better life. If you ask me, America needs more people like that, and fewer people like this:
Oh, but it’s not like he was a Muslim. He’s white, he’s fine. Uh, let’s not forget that in the first half of the 20th century the Germans WERE the terrorists.
And what would the future have held for my erudite grandfather if his family hadn’t been given the chance for a new life in America? Well, Germany in those years wouldn’t exactly have offered him opportunities to do good things with his life. Staying in Germany would have meant what for him? Recruited to Hitler’s Youth? Turned into a soldier, discouraged to think for himself? Forced to fight in a terrible war, on the losing side, making him a bad guy in the history books? Made to see and do horrible things—if he lived that long.
We should be opening wide the gates to the innocent people who want no part of a war they are caught up in just because they happen to live there. I’d much rather put my tax dollars toward helping them get a fresh start than toward a wall.
I don’t know what the feeling on the ground in America is right now, but the whole world seems to be watching the White House and holding its collective breath to see what comes next.
The one thing that gives me hope is that the world is also seeing the many Americans who are speaking out and demonstrating that they disagree with these policies and plans set forth by the new president. I hope the world realizes that not all Americans are on board with this insane agenda. On the contrary, millions appear to be loudly against it.
Keep it up, dissenters. Exercise your right to free speech and tell the world how you feel. They’re watching and listening very closely.
We are all just humans and we need to treat each other better, and help those in need. And that’s the lesson I want to teach my children, too. There’s a retail chain here called Jojo Maman Bébé that sells clothing and other things for babies, children, and pregnant and nursing mothers. In February and March, Jojo is running a clothing drive called From a Mother to Another, collecting hand-me-down children’s clothing at all its shops and sending it to displaced Syrian children in Lebanon. I’m going to get E involved in picking out some of her outgrown clothing to donate to children who could use them. I think she’s old enough to have a (simple) discussion about kids who don’t have all the things she takes for granted. It’s a very small thing, donating some used clothing, but I hope it will plant a seed in her to want to help other people, even ones she will never meet. Because it’s the younger generations that are going to inherit this messed-up world, and I truly hope they can do better.
Happy birthday, Dad. Thank you (and Mom, too) for teaching me to care about other people, even strangers, and to want to help those who are less fortunate. Your lifetime of humble, tireless volunteer work is an inspiration to me. And to think, you learned your ethics from an immigrant.