We have less than a week left in our little home away from home. Then we’ll be off for a family holiday. But there’s no getting around it: in just under two weeks we’ll be home.
Our adventure across the pond is nearly over.
I’m not ready.
Or, to be more precise, I’m not entirely ready.
I’m looking forward to getting home, to being back in our house, with our cats and our books and our kitchen. I’m looking forward to being back in our neighbourhood, to visiting our farmers’ market, to walking in our ravine. I’m looking forward to the fall with all of the new adventures it will bring (nursery school for E., a course directorship for me, an insane teaching load for Q.- ok, I’m not looking forward to that bit, and I’m neutral at the moment on the whole going back to the clinic thing). I’m looking forward to seeing our friends and our family, to giving the friends of mine who have had a really rough time of it this summer a big hug. I’m beside myself with excitement that one of my sisters is about to move back to Canada, and to the same city in which we live, after three years on the west coast of the U.S.A. I can’t wait for her to get to spend some consistent time with E., something she’s never yet had.
But at the same time, I’m going to miss the U.K.
It’s been a wonderful experience overall. I have loved, LOVED being back in the country. I’ve loved watching E. play in the fields, pointing out the bunnies. I’ve loved teaching him the names of the birds in our backyard. I’ve loved cycling in and out of town every day (except on the days when it rained on me the whole way, but those were, all things considered, mercifully few). I’ve loved having access to a really good library again, where the books are on the shelves when you need them, and the other patrons are silent as churchmice. Getting back to the library at home is going to be a rude shock. I’ve fallen in love with our little part of the world, even if I do still think the Other Place is prettier.
But I’ve also just really enjoyed being back in the U.K. I hadn’t been back since I finished my Master’s degree in mid-2004. At that point I’d been living here for two years, and I was ready to leave. I remember finding so many things about the U.K. incomprehensible the first time I lived here. I wasn’t in a good headspace for much of the time that I lived here. I was missing Q., struggling with my research, doubting my decision to stay in academia. I remember thinking a few months after I’d moved to Q.’s home country and moved in with him that it had more in common with my home country than either did with the U.K. And as it turned out, Q.’s country felt more like home after three months there than the U.K. did after two full years.
I’ve mellowed quite a lot on the U.K. since, and I’ve been struck over the summer by just how much I’m enjoying being here. Partly it’s because I’m in a different headspace from my last period of residence: even though I’m still doing research, and still fretting about my thesis and what I will do when I finish, it’s lightyears away from how I felt the last time I was here. Partly too it’s because I’m here with Q. and E., the people who mean the world to me. Partly it’s because (largely thanks to Q.’s tenured position, although my scholarship certainly helps) we can live relatively comfortably, rather than scratching out an existence on a graduate stipend. Q. actually said that himself the other day when we were idly chatting before dinner: “It’s amazing how nice this country is when you have a little bit of money.” And partly it’s because I lived long enough in Q.’s country to find the bits of it I didn’t like about it, either, so when I compare it to the U.K. both countries are now on a more even playing field (and the same goes for my home and native land, as I no longer look at it through rose-tinted glasses either).
Coming back now for a few months has given me the chance to rediscover all the little things I love about the U.K. without also being too strongly reminded of all the things I didn’t like about it ten years ago (and still don’t like now). I find myself wishing we could stay for another two months, six, a year, but I know even if we did this golden summer would still come to an end- literally and figuratively- I well remember what this country is like in November. And the longer we stay the harder it would be to ignore the problems, not least the fact that they pay their academics half as much while property prices are double or triple the cost. Every time I start to idly daydream about the sort of life we could have here, I’m brought up short by that one basic fact. If we lived here, we couldn’t actually afford to live in our village.
Q. is due for a sabbatical in the 2018-19 academic year. One of my long-term goals is for us to spend most of that year abroad. We won’t get another chance- by the time he comes up for sabbatical again, E. will be in high school, and I have strong reservations about disrupting a child’s education and life at that stage of his development. Q. is not entirely convinced of this plan (I think he thinks it will be too expensive), but I’m determined to make it happen. The obvious thing to do would be to go to Q.’s country, but I have to say after this visit I’m starting to wonder whether it might be possible to spend some of our time away in the U.K. as well.
So here, then, is my swansong for our golden summer, my list of remembrances: some of the things I love most about the U.K.; the things that I will miss most when we leave in a few weeks.
Given I’m a historian, it should come as no surprise that I love history. And the U.K. is filled with it: layer upon layer upon layer. But what blows my mind aren’t the grand sites, the Stonehenges, and the Ely Cathedrals, and the Hadrian’s Walls of this land. No, what makes me stop in my tracks every single time and shake my head in amazement is the casual way hundreds of years of history just exist here without anyone taking too much notice. Parts of our village church date to the 12th century. There are several thatched-roof cottages around the corner that are close to two hundred years old. While out for a walk the other day we came across a hamlet that had a cute little house in it: the house had a date written on the wall next to the front door from when it was built. 1738 it read. In a couple of decades that house will be three hundred years old. If it existed in my country it would be a major tourist attraction, but here it’s just one more house in the hamlet. I remember being stunned by this nonchalance the very first year I spent any real time in the U.K. as an adult, the year before I moved here to start my Master’s degree. I couldn’t get over the fact that the church near our archaeological dig was a thousand years old. And it still boggles my mind today.
Leaving aside the collective brain-melt that was caused by the birth of Prince George, it has been such a joy to be able to read the newspapers here again. We buy The Times every weekend on both Saturday and Sunday and it takes us the entire week to get through both papers. I love the articles. I love the book and film reviews- British critics are just so cutting and so funny. The international news coverage is excellent. The restaurant reviews regularly have Q. and I reading them out to each other crying with laughter. One of my favourite sections is in the Culture magazine in the Sunday Times. It’s called You Say, and it consists entirely of cantankerous Brits writing in to complain about a particular sports broadcaster, or a high budget BBC drama that turns out to be appalling (hello, The White Queen- don’t waste your time on it if it gets to North America), or the coverage of Wimbledon, or (and this is my favourite part) about what people had been complaining about the previous week. And Caitlin Moran. Oh how I love Caitlin Moran. If I could bottle her and export her to Canada, I’d do it in a heartbeat. There’s no getting around it: The Times’ columnists are cleverer, funnier, cattier, ruder, wittier, and more erudite than anyone else, in any other newspaper, in any other country, that I’ve ever read.
Pubs with Playgrounds
I know the pub as a British institution is in trouble. I know there are all sorts of statistics concerning how many pubs close each day in Britain, and how many villages are now without a pub. The pub in our village changed hands shortly after we arrived. It’s reopened now, but still isn’t serving food, so we haven’t spent a lot of time there. But it, and the pub two villages over both have playgrounds in their back garden. And it strikes me as such a civilized way to approach the drinking of alcohol. E. is still small enough that one of us has to run around supervising him, but I would watch families with older children where the parents would sit and relax and have a drink while their kids raced around, and then once the food would arrive they’d all sit up together for the meal, and then the kids would be back to zooming about while the parents had a chance to chat. Honestly, in my city, I think you’d probably be arrested for even suggesting putting a place to drink alcohol near somewhere there might be children. And I also know the British have a culture of binge drinking and a problem with alcohol-fuelled violence, but none of that comes into play on a lazy summer Sunday afternoon. One of the best days we’ve had here was a glorious summer Friday where we went to our local pub for a drink after work, and Q. and I could actually sit and talk for a while until E. grew tired of the toddler-friendly clubhouse and wanted to climb the (very steep) ladder to the (very tall) slide. And then we spontaneously decided to go get our bikes and cycle to the next village over to have dinner out, and when we arrived (me ever so slightly worse for wear having drunk rather a large glass of wine a little too quickly), we discovered that the second pub had a BOUNCY CASTLE set up in its front garden. E. just about died from happiness. So we ordered, and then he went on the bouncy castle until the mains came, and then he went on it again until it was time for pudding, and then we all cycled home full and happy and it was probably the most relaxing two and a half hours we’ve ever had in a restaurant since E. came along.
In the next village over from ours there is a manor farm that has turned itself into a bit of a shopping destination by converting many of the farm buildings into shops, including a foodhall that contains the world’s best butcher. Every piece of meat we’ve eaten this summer has come from there. All the meat comes from animals who had lives happy enough that I’m happy to now eat them. This is important to me, and it’s something we have to work hard at when we’re at home- I only eat meat from our farmers’ market. It’s just not an issue here. There isn’t the same culture of factory farming and high-intensity agriculture. I’m sure you can get meat in the supermarkets that has been raised in such a way that I wouldn’t want to eat it, but why would you buy meat from the supermarket when this country still has so many wonderful butchers? Butchers who really know their trade, who will listen to what you want to cook and will make suggestions about what to buy. Butchers who will prepare the meat for you. This meat probably is more expensive than the supermarket alternatives, but it’s astoundingly cheap compared to what we eat at home, so we’ve indulged. The other day we had friends over for lunch and Q. smoked ribs on our little bbq. They were ribs from the pigs that the manor farm raises. Our meat literally came from a mile and a half down the road. It doesn’t get better than that.
I will never, ever, stop being jealous of these: that all across the country there are rights of way that allow walkers (and often cyclists and horse riders as well) to trundle across country and around the edges of fields, to ramble and to roam, to walk dogs, to watch birds, to admire the landscape. I’m reading a fascinating book right now called The Old Ways, which is a history of sorts but also a geographical tour of the U.K. on foot. Every chapter just makes me want to put the book down and get out the door and start walking again. We’ve rambled all over our little part of the world during this summer, and one of our favourite walks takes us along an old Roman road, around a couple of fields, and home again via the church. I love that it is so easy to get so much access to so much of the landscape.
Again, I know that bookstores here are in trouble, and Amazon is everywhere (and causing a ruckus because it siphons its profits and hides them offshore and thus doesn’t pay enough tax), but every time I’m in a bookstore here (I adore Waterstones) it hits me again that the British just seem to be more serious about their books than we are. Their bookstores are things of beauty. I think Q. and I have done astonishingly well, being incorrigible bibliophiles and unashamedly so, to have only bought half a dozen books over the course of the summer. I had to stop going in to the Waterstones in the centre of town because I just ended up coveting everything I could see and I’d start to get depressed about how many wonderful books there were in the world and how few of them I would ever manage to read. Ditto when I read the book review sections in The Times.
The M&S food hall
Now, the Marks and Spencer food hall isn’t really designed for people who cook. You can just about do a full shop there- Q. once had a flatmate who made a point of trying to do just that every week- but really it’s designed for people who don’t want to cook but want to be able to pick up lots and lots of lovely tasty things that they can then eat without going to too much trouble. I’ve never bought any of their ready meals, and doubt I ever will, but I have fallen in love this summer with their pre-packaged salads. The British have a culture of pre-made sandwiches, which means you can get a decent sandwich from almost anywhere on the high street, from specialty shops like Pret A Manger, which was my old favourite a decade ago, to the supermarkets like Sainsburys, and even some of the pharmacies like Boots. But M&S is in a class of its own. I’ve eaten a fair few of the sandwiches over the summer, but it was their salads that completely ruined my ability to muster the energy to pack a lunch in the morning. How could I, when I had veritable feasts like their Fuller Longer Superfood Salad with quinoa, veggies, kamut, feta, pomegranate seeds, edamame, and a minty yoghurt dressing to tempt me? Or their sprouted pea and bean salad? Or their nutty vegetable salad with red quinoa and a soy and ginger dressing? They were two pounds each! I ate them all, and I ate well.
I understand that cricket is
a bit confusing completely incomprehensible to people who don’t follow it and don’t understand the rules. I successfully avoided learning how the game worked the entire time I lived in the U.K., but when I moved to Q.’s country, which is equally fanatical about the sport, I realized I was going to have to learn at least the basics. And, much to my surprise, once I understood how the game worked (most of it- I’m still not great with some of the field positions like silly mid-on and silly mid-off), I was hooked. I’m probably now a bigger fan than Q. is. I’m such a fan that I’ve been streaming a live-text commentary on my laptop while I’ve been in the library for this latest series (which didn’t end how I would have wanted it to, but oh well). Q. and I love watching the day’s highlights after dinner as well.
This goes along with bookstores and newspapers. The British just seem to care more about the written word than we do. And yes, I know that I’ve always lived in affluent parts of the U.K., in university towns, but I still think it’s true more generally. It’s much easier to get lovely blank cards here, so much so that I’ve stocked up and will be bringing fifteen or twenty home with me. And you can find gorgeous writing paper- for proper letters!- in any stationery shop or bookstore. And they still deliver mail on Saturdays.
From a practical, making my life easier, standpoint what I am going to miss the most, without a doubt, is Ocado. Because we don’t own a car, grocery shopping at home requires a lot of planning and takes up a lot of time. We have been spoiled rotten here. Q. and I sort out the menu for the week, and then I take an hour in the evening to log in to Ocado, do the shopping, check out, and then we just sit back and wait for our groceries to be delivered. We get a one-hour delivery window, we can book a shop up to 21 days in advance, it’s easy to get a refund processed if something isn’t acceptable (or they break the eggs), and the site remembers everything we’ve bought in our previous shops so shopping takes less and less time the more times you use them. Bloody brilliant.
Horses and Beaches
I am a small-town, country girl at heart. Q. grew up on the water and loves more than anything to mess around in boats. It’s hard to find a happy medium. It’s well-nigh impossible in my country, unless we end up moving to cottage country. And it’s a challenge in Q.’s since even though it’s relatively easy to find a spot of ocean, keeping horses requires a lot of land. The U.K. basically IS that happy medium. We’ve been on two beach holidays while we’ve been here, one up along the coast of The Wash, the other down on the south coast, so E.’s also had his toes in the English Channel. On both beaches, when the tide was out (and the tide went out a LONG way), there were horse and rider combinations happily walking, trotting and cantering along the sand. It’s just so easy to keep horses here. You don’t have the temperature extremes of both of our countries, there’s a very rich horse culture (and I mean rich in the sense of deep and vibrant- horses are not just playthings for the wealthy here), and there are miles upon miles of coastline. Watching those riders on the beach, seeing how happy Q. was to be back near the ocean, I felt a strong pang for what-could-have-been-but-won’t-be.
Its Size (or Lack Thereof)
There’s no getting around it. Our countries, Q’s and mine, are really BIG. Big countries with tiny (relatively speaking) populations. An astonishing diversity of landscape and geography, flora and fauna, rocks, and trees, and water (there are some in-jokes here for any Arrogant Worms fans). You can drive across either country, but it will take a LONG time, and, depending on the season- winter in mine, summer in Q.’s, you could be in serious danger if your car broke down. One advantage to spending time in the U.K. when you come from a country as outrageously massive in terms of its geography as ours are is you can’t get over how SMALL the U.K. is and how close everything seems to be. This is not, I should point out, how native Brits think about their country. They have a much different sense of scale. But for us, everything just seems to be so compact that we will do things like go to Hadrian’s Wall for a day. (I’m not joking- Q. did that the other week. I would have gone too except we both recognized that taking a toddler on a trip that consisted of a three and a half hour train journey each way interrupted by a full day of hiking along the Wall wasn’t our brightest idea). When we casually told our neighbours what Q. had done, they were gobsmacked. They literally could not believe it, that someone would have gone north of Newcastle and back again overnight. The disadvantage to the size of the U.K. is that you feel like you should be able to see everything because everything is so close. But you really can’t. See my above comments about the history of this place. It may not be big, but boy have they managed to pack a lot into this island.
So I again feel like I’ve only scratched the surface, that there’s still so much to see. I wish we’d had more time. I wish we’d been able to do more (although then I wouldn’t have had any time to actually do my work).
I guess we’ll just have to come back.