Category Archives: Adventures across the pond

It’s the little things…

In the last four months, E.:

– watched the bumps racing on the final day of Summer Eights in Oxford
– played in Jesus Green and along The Backs in Cambridge
– walked on the moor with wild ponies in Dartmoor National Park
– ate dinner in more than one pub where the building was older than either of his two countries
– drove past Stonehenge
– toured a stately home
– tasted the waters at the old temple to Sulis Minerva in Bath
– saw two of the great cathedrals of medieval England (Salisbury and Ely)
– cycled alongside the canals of Amsterdam
– saw the Dutch Masters in the Rijksmuseum
– saw the Lipizzaners in their stables in Vienna
– went to the top of the Olympiaturm in Munich
– saw an original copy of the Magna Carta
– dipped his feet in The Wash and paddled in the English Channel
– toured caves which had been quarried from the days of the Romans onwards
– threw pebbles into the sea along the Jurassic Coast
– walked through the salt marshes in Chichester where the smugglers used to disembark
– visited the Roman Palace at Fishbourne
– walked the grounds of a village church, parts of which dated back to the Norman conquest.

He’s done more in the past summer than some people get to do in a lifetime.

He probably won’t remember any of it.

If he remembers anything, I bet it will be this:

We rode a double decker bus several times a week in and out of town, and he always, always sat on the top level at the very front where the big windows were.

And, according to the tally Q. and I made on our penultimate day in the U.K., we visited thirty-one playgrounds (including actual playgrounds, indoor play areas, and other locations that happened to have a play area attached, like pubs and tourist attractions).

Buses and playgrounds. Those will be his memories.

A perfect summer for a toddler, really.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Adventures across the pond, E.- the third year, What were we thinking? (aka travelling with small children)

A whisper of a wish

Exactly a week ago, Q., E. and I were in Bath. We ended up there for a couple of reasons: we had two nights to fill once our farm holiday was finished before we flew out of Heathrow; it was a convenient driving distance from the farm’s location; and it seemed like a good idea since we’re both ancient historians. I’d been to Bath once before, when I was studying in the U.K. a decade ago. Q. had only been as a child.

For a whole host of reasons it ended up not being a great day. The drive took longer than expected due to construction and detours; we got lost while walking in Bath upon first arriving because the maps we’d downloaded onto Q’s Kindle made us think the river went in a straight line (it doesn’t); because we got lost, we all became hungry, which meant that Q. was cranky, I was weepy, and E. just shouted “Some yunch! Haf some yunch!” from his vantage point in the Ergo over and over again; and after we’d finally managed to get some lunch, the Roman Baths turned out to be really busy, which meant that Q. didn’t enjoy himself because he had tourists wandering around like cattle, and I sped through it because I’d said I would look after E. so Q. could take his time, since I’d seen it all before. And while E. tried hard, and did find the main bath quite interesting (“Big green baff!”), there is only so much you can expect from a toddler, even (or perhaps especially) one whose mother can translate the tombstones for him.

After deciding to call it a day, and saying farewell to the Great Bath, we entered the passageway that takes you out to the exit (after passing the gift shop, and the tap from which you can try the waters- we all did, even E., and our general consensus was it would have taken some effort to drink more than a sip). This runs along past one area of the ancient spring around which the entire temple complex to the goddess Sulis Minerva grew up.

There was a quiet grotto, with a pool of still water, and a small sign which said that for thousands of years people had made their offerings to the goddess in this spot. It invited us to make our own offering, which would support their research and conservation efforts for a coin horde that had been quite recently discovered.

I dug through my bag and found a twenty pence coin. I gave it to E. “Make a wish,” I told him, “and then throw it in the pool.

E. tossed in his coin. It bounced off the rock and dropped into the pool. There were no ripples.

“Do you have any more change?” asked Q.

I dug through my bag again. “I’ve got a couple of pound coins.”

“I’m not tossing in a pound!” Q., with E. on his back, turned and walked towards where the water ran from a tap and there were little paper cups for tasting.

I waited for a moment, alone in the edge of the darkness, for once no other tourists intruding on my experience.

I tossed the pound coin in with a quick jerk of my wrist. My thoughts came unbidden.

A second child, Sulis, please.

As the coin hit the water, I was surprised to feel the pinpricks of tears in my eyes. I had a vision of other women, waiting here, kneeling here, wishing here. The weight of their longing pressed against my heart. My own coin glittered and fell, came to rest where once votive objects in wood and metal would have been consigned to the waters.

I waited another moment, alone with the goddess and her offerings, before I took a deep breath and stepped back out into the light to find my family.

There is nothing I want more.

Tonight I take my last birth control pill. May the goddess have heard me.

6 Comments

Filed under 2.0 FET#1, A matter of faith, Adventures across the pond, What were we thinking? (aka travelling with small children)

Through new eyes

I have a couple of ‘real’ posts I want to write- hopefully soon- two about closing perspectives from our trip, and two more about coming back home again, but I’ve been up since 1:30 a.m. for the second day in a row, and my brain is mush. Poor E.’s tummy has gone from bad to worse, and we’ll be taking him to see a doctor on Monday if it doesn’t get significantly better over the weekend. He is still bright and eating and drinking- it’s just that everything he eats or drinks immediately goes straight through him. He ate a pancake and a half at breakfast this morning, but needed three diaper changes to get through the meal. Poor little guy. He also suddenly looks incredibly thin- he has been a lightweight for a while now: he weighed 11.5 kg at his two year appointment in late April, and he was still 11.5 kg when we weighed him just before we left our flat in mid-August (to see if we could no longer rear face the U.K. carseat since it only rear-faced to 13 kg). But he’s looked healthy- long and lean, yes, but clearly well and happy and thriving, with muscles on his little legs, and bright, engaging eyes.

Right now he just looks sick. He has huge bags under his eyes, and the tummy bug has meant he’s dropped weight quickly, so his ribs and his shoulder blades and his sternum are all much more prominent than they should be. He’s clumsy and unsure on his feet because of the jet lag. We went to the park yesterday afternoon, and E. just wanted to sit on the swing and have me give him a blast-off every three minutes or so, and the rest of the time he just sat there, while the swing gradually wound down, basically comatose. He was ZONKED. One of the other mothers commented on how calm he was, and I felt I had to explain why because, to my eyes, he really did not look normal. Certainly not normal if you know E., but I think any parent would have looked at him yesterday and wondered what was going on. He did love being at the park and it was important to get some sunshine and fresh air to help with the jet lag. And while last night still had its moments once he first popped up crying at 1:30 a.m., he stayed in his room the entire time, and I did get him back to sleep by 5 a.m. He slept until 7, so we’re getting there. The old saying “It takes a day per hour of time change” proved (much to our distress) to be very accurate when we came back from Oz last summer, so hopefully we’ll be pretty much sorted by Monday given we’re only having to adjust by five hours rather than fourteen.

He’s clearly having a bit of trouble adjusting to being back in the big city too. Yesterday, so many of the things that used to be his favourites caused him grief. I put on laundry (our washing machine and dryer are in our kitchen on the main floor, so you can’t escape them): “Washing machina no go to moon!” (he hates the sound of the spin cycle). It was garbage day: “Garbage trucks too yowd (loud)!” We went for a walk in our neighbourhood: “Car coming! Another car coming! Mummy on street! Stay on sidewalk!” About the only things I can say have been unqualified successes are the garbage truck he was given as a birthday present by one of his little friends, the cats, and the stroller. Given he’s been so out of it and unwell, we’ve been using the stroller to go to the park, but it’s clearly a distance he can walk now, so I’ve already started to explain to him how the stroller will be going away for trips to the park. I’m undecided about what to do with it generally- we don’t own a car, and I can’t expect him to walk 2 km in each direction if I’m running errands (not to mention it would take about a billion years for him to walk that distance), but at the same time, it feels so ponderous and bulky after a summer using only the Ergo, and he looks somehow wrong, like he shouldn’t be in it. I think if we had a 2.0 now, and we had one of those little ride-on steps that attaches to the stroller that he could stand on when he got tired, that would be ideal. But the stroller itself, even though he loves it, just seems a bit too young. I noticed at the park this morning that the twins in our neighbourhood who are about six months older than E. are no longer in a stroller but walk to the park with their nanny (and twins with a nanny is really indicative of our neighbourhood). I need to think about it, and see what Q. thinks. We’ve already agreed that E. will be walking to and from nursery school once he starts, as that really is a distance he can manage quite easily.

It’s been interesting coming back to the house. I feel like we have SO MUCH STUFF. Our flat was pretty minimalistic, and while that was annoying at points (mainly when trying to use the kitchen), it also had some benefits. It was much smaller, so easier to keep clean. It was all on one level, so no stairs to worry about. It had easy access to an enclosed little garden so E. could run in and out (and in, and out) all day long.

Right now I’m a bit overwhelmed by our house. Our house/cat-sitter did a good job looking after everything, but you can tell that the house hasn’t had a deep clean in a while. And E. had a birthday party right before the day I left, and Q. and my Dad didn’t really try to organize his toys, so there is a LOT of stuff in the living room. Probably not a lot of stuff by many people’s standards, but before we went away I was rotating E’s toys regularly, and he would have one ride-on toy, his container of Megabloks, his wooden farm, and then a selection of different toys (vehicles, musical instruments, puzzles, blocks, etc.) on his set of low shelves, as well as three shelves of books on one of our narrow Billy bookcases. And that was it. Right now there’s just too much out- too many little cars and trucks, too many toys that probably aren’t all that developmentally appropriate anymore, etc. I want to get back to rotating things around, but I need to have a bit more of a think about how I’ll do this, since he now has an exceptional memory. Case in point- yesterday morning he put his toy trolley car in the loft of his farm, and then just before dinner became exceptionally concerned that he didn’t know where it was. He’d been playing with all his other vehicles all day, but he knew that one was missing. Maybe it’s not too cluttered if all the little vehicles are in one basket on his shelf, and all his Schleich animals are in another, but I don’t want him to have so much out that he gets overwhelmed and isn’t sure what to play with.

My study is a disaster. We’ve unpacked, and I’ve sorted the mail, but everything work-related I just put in the study to deal with later, so now I can’t see my desk. Plus the cats’ litter boxes were in there for the last four months and the litter we use seems so much more dustier than it used to be, so everything has dust on it.

We just seem to have STUFF everywhere. Books stacked on other books on the shelves. Kitchen cupboards crammed full. I wanted to clean out the two storage closets in our basement last winter but we never managed it. We’re going to have to get them done this fall- one of my sisters is moving back to our city, so I’m hoping to lean on her to amuse E. for a morning while Q. and I tackle them. I’m hoping seeing the house through new eyes will help us streamline things a bit better, and living without things for four months will make it easier to judge whether we really need them at all. I’m even considering trying to pare down my book collection which, if you know me, is completely out of character.

I’m very aware that this need for order and this desire to clean and streamline is another method I’m using to cope with my anxiety over the fall. I know I think I will feel better facing the chaos and stress that is coming if our house is clean and well organized. But to some extent Q. feels the same way- he commented that the house just looks a bit crowded and dirty, and had suggestions for putting some deep cleaning into our regular routine (as we are normally very good at the surface requirements and not as good at making time for the other details).

It is fun to step back and assess our house now that E. is almost two and a half, rather than not-quite two. I realized this morning that we no longer needed to store a large number of our DVDs on top of the bookcase because E. would rip apart their cardboard covers. And then I realized that E. probably wouldn’t even take them off the shelves anymore, which used to be one of his all-time favourite things to do every morning starting from when he first was able to crawl at eight and a half months.

So I gleefully put all the DVDs back on the shelves while E. was eating his way through his pancakes.

And then I (even more gleefully) sorted them according to genre. The categories basically boiled down to: Science Fiction and Fantasy (heavy emphasis on LOTR and Star Trek); British Comedy; Adaptations of Jane Austen, Richard Curtis films, and other British Rom-Coms; Family and Animated; Heist Films; Horse Films; and various TV shows, along with a few other bits and pieces.

Q. just shook his head when I bounced into the kitchen to tell him what I’d just done (hey- I’d been awake since 1:30 a.m.- it didn’t take much to excite me). But I was thrilled. Order restored.

We’ve made a number of changes that we probably would have made at some point over the summer, but being away has made it so much more obvious that things were set up for a much younger child.

We’re going to get down the large paintings that used to hang on our dining room wall and have been put away since E. could crawl since he would have been able to pull them down on himself.

We’re keeping the stair gates (we have seriously scary stairs) but are leaving the bottom one open.

We’ve put away the high chair and the drop sheets we used to put under it at every meal to try to protect the carpet (WHO puts carpet in a dining room??!!).

I’ve moved all of E’s plates and bowls and cups to a low shelf so he can choose for himself what he wants to use at every meal, and have done the same with his shorts and his t-shirts in the dresser in his room.

I  need to buy stepstools so E. can reach the sink easily.

We have a little boy in this house now, not a baby, not even a toddler anymore.

And there are some definite freedoms that come with that.

5 Comments

Filed under (Pre)School Days, Adventures across the pond, Anxiety Overload, Blink and you'll miss it, Butter scraped over too much bread (a.k.a. modern motherhood), Daily Life, E.- the third year, My addled brain, What were we thinking? (aka travelling with small children)

Pond crossings

We’re safely home now.

There’s a lot I would like to say, and many other posts I’d like to read (my feedly is a bit terrifying at the moment).

But E. woke up at 1:30 this morning needing a change, and then was so upset about being in a strange environment that he ended up coming into our bed for a cuddle. He was burning up- he must have caught something on the plane, or eaten something, as his entire digestive system is clearly massively out of whack. Anyway, we had requests for milk every thirty minutes or so, combined with intermittent crying, and then at 4:30 a.m. he decided he was ready to get up, so we all got our day under way.

When we put E. to bed last night at 8 p.m. I remember thinking that if we were unlucky he’d get up at 4:30 or so.

Starting the day at 1:30 a.m., after going to bed at 9 p.m., really hadn’t crossed my mind.

Q. and I have both been walking around in a jet-lagged, sleep-deprived haze. He’s gone in to work to do mindless administrative tasks. I’m continuing to try to get the house back into order. E. is at this moment, blessedly, napping. Poor little love. It is so hard on him, and he’s been so brave coping with all of the changes and the travelling. It took quite a long time to get our bags after we’d gone through customs, and E. kept saying in a depressed little voice that he wanted to go to our city. We had to keep telling him that we were there, and we just had to get our bags, and then we’d be able to leave the airport. He didn’t fall asleep in the car ride home, which we were half-expecting- he just completely zoned out. He seemed quite happy to get home last night- he was very excited to see the cats (he’d been telling me all through the flight that they’d be at the house), and all of his toys were new again.

E. did so well on the plane. It was almost eight hours gate to gate, with seven hours in the air. He slept for probably the first two hours (he fell asleep while we were taxiing to get to the runway- this is the second flight in a row where he’s done this- long may it continue). Then he was happy enough to “watch” an episode of the Berenstain Bears on endless loop (with no sound), commenting occasionally on the appearance of a school bus or a cat, while playing with his trucks, or his stickers, or my earphones, or the arm rest of the seat. He ate a good dinner of pasta and bread and fruit, and drank some milk and some water (although probably not enough). He had some snacks. He went for the occasional walk up and down the aisles with me, and had the occasional look outside of the window with Q. He did have a big cry right at the end when the pressure changes were hurting his ears and he was refusing to swallow, or yawn, or suck his thumb, but otherwise he barely made a sound.

Q. and I both watched TWO movies on the plane. Sometimes we were even watching a movie AT THE SAME TIME, while E. just did his thing between us.

This is just unheard of in our experiences travelling with E. so far.

The flight attendants and the passengers around us all commented on what a good little traveller he was, and Q. and I were really proud of him. He did get bored and frustrated at times and we’d have the occasional suggestion that he was “All done pane! Get off pane!”, but then I would pull up the map on the screen and show him where we’d started, and where we were going, and what was left to do, and he’d settle again. I have a number of friends with older children and they’ve all told me that travelling when children are between two and three was the hardest point. I have to say E. made it look easy yesterday, although as I pointed out to Q. when he commented on how much easier this flight had been compared to the ones to and from Oz last year, if we’d had another twelve or fourteen hours of travelling added to what we did, E. might not have held it together quite so well. Still, it was an unqualified success. He clearly understands the process of flying- going to the airport, checking the bags, clearing security and customs, waiting at the gate and watching other airplanes, boarding, the flight itself, getting off the plane, clearing customs, getting the bags, leaving the airport. I don’t know how much he remembers from the other flights he’s done, but I really do get the sense with him that he’s now a seasoned traveller and that none of what we do really surprises him.

Now if we could all get a bit more sleep tonight, we’d be golden.

4 Comments

Filed under Adventures across the pond, E.- the third year, What were we thinking? (aka travelling with small children)

Tactical errors with toddlers

This is a conversation Q. had with E. on Friday:

E. *very confused as to why Q. had just given his play road mat to someone who came to the door.* “Ee-mon pay wiff road mat! Dub-dub bus go into town!”

Q.: “Remember, E., we talked about this. Another baby is going to use your road mat because we’re going to go on the plane back home and there’s no room on the plane for the road mat.”

E.: *thoughtful* “No seat on pane for mat. Fee (three) people going on a pane. No seat for mat.”

Q.: “That’s right. Let’s sit up and have lunch.”

E.: “Go on pane now! Ee-mon and Mummy and Daddy and bunnies and Ee-mon go on pane now!”

Q.: “We’re not going on the plane today. We still have lots of sleeps before we get on the plane. We have twelve days before we get on the plane.”

E.: *gets down from chair* “Ee-mon no have yunch!” *Runs into his room, tries to climb into his crib and when that fails, pulls out his sleep sack and starts trying to put it on.* “Ee-mon have seep now! After seep, go on pane!”

When I got home that afternoon, it continued, culminating in E. still being awake and shouting “Go on pane! Ee-mon no go seep!” at 10 p.m. Luckily he’d forgotten about the airplane (or at least was no longer adamant he wanted to get on it RIGHT NOW) by the next morning, and Q. and I have agreed not to mention it unless absolutely necessary.

3 Comments

Filed under Adventures across the pond, E.- the third year, What were we thinking? (aka travelling with small children)

All good things

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.

The History
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.

The Newspapers
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.

The Butchers
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.

Public Footpaths
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.

The Bookstores
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.

The Cricket
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.

Stationery
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.

Ocado
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.

1 Comment

Filed under Adventures across the pond, Blink and you'll miss it, What were we thinking? (aka travelling with small children)

(Little) Toddler, (Big) Fears

There’s a public footpath not far from our house that runs between three thatched-roof cottages (I am not making this up- it’s unbelievably picture perfect). It’s a convenient short cut to get from our street to the main road. If we’re going to the village playground or the one shop it makes sense to use it.

The first half of it has mature trees on either side whose branches meet in the middle. Given E. went through a huge tunnel phase earlier in the summer it quickly became known as the tree tunnel. When the grass in the second half sprouted up and became so long that E. had to push his way through, that section became known as the grass tunnel. For weeks, whenever we had to go into the rest of the village, E. would demand that we “Go in tree tunnel and gass tunnel!”

Until one day, suddenly, he didn’t. Instead he asked to go by the road. “Ee-mon no want to go in tree tunnel, no want to go in gass tunnel,” he said.

Q. and I were both puzzled by this but we went along with it. There were always other ways to get to wherever we were going, and we’ve learned not to grow too accustomed to any particular whim of the toddler mind.

Last weekend, close to a month after E. suddenly stopped wanting to use the tunnel route, he and I were walking up to the corner store to buy a newspaper. When we reached the public footpath, I asked him, as I always do, which way he wanted to go.

“Go on road,” he told me in no uncertain terms. “Ee-mon no want to go in tunnels.”

“Why don’t you like the tunnels anymore, little love?” I asked him. “You used to love the tree tunnel.”

E. was quiet for a moment. “Maybe dog coming in tree tunnel,” he said at last.

“Oh, are you worried about the dog that lives in the cottage next to the tree tunnel?” There is, indeed, a dog that lives next to the entrance to the public footpath, a friendly but dopey and rather boisterous Chocolate Lab who usually comes over to say hello to anyone he spies and who isn’t always very good at respecting personal space. “He’s a nice dog,” I continued. “He’s a friendly dog.”

E. thought about this. “Maybe bad dog coming in tree tunnel,” was all he said in reply.

He’s scared of meeting an unfriendly dog in that narrow passageway, where he is so little and they are (so often) so big.

It was a real lightbulb moment for me. He’s been a bit more wary of dogs ever since his beloved Outside Bunny (a stuffed toy, I hasten to add, and not a real live rabbit) was picked up by a dog when he and Q. were outside weeding one day. Q. rescued her and no harm was done, but it clearly left a huge impression on him as we hear about “Outside Bunny getting eaten by a puppy!” on  a daily basis long after the original incident. I’d noticed he wasn’t keen to approach the (many, many) dogs we see out for walks in the village, but hadn’t realized just how worried he was about them.

“Thank you,” I told him. “Thank you for telling Mummy why you don’t want to go in the tree tunnel any more. We’ll walk along the road to get to the shop.”

We carried on to the shop, hand in hand, without incident.

It was the first time he’s been able to really work through his feelings and explain to us exactly what was bothering him.

When did he get so big?

4 Comments

Filed under Adventures across the pond, Blink and you'll miss it, E.- the third year