Archive for the 'Britain' Category

Virginia Tech: the bigger issues

At Virginia Tech, a horrible tragedy has taken place today. And the question is once again being asked all over the net – why is it that there is so much seemingly senseless violence in America?

Before I checked the news, I had a lot of posts swirling about in my head. I was hoping to write about something lighthearted. But this morning while I was enjoying my green tea latte and a few stolen moments with my husband then going to lunch with friends, I was oblivious that so many children – and that’s what they were in so many ways – had taken their last breaths.

The question of “why so much in America” has been asked so many times, causing reactions by Congress, parents, and even Michael Moore. We know it is a problem, yet we cannot agree on an answer. Is it the gun laws? Is it our fear-based society? Our tendency toward solving international problems with war? I don’t think any of these by themselves addresses the bigger social issue. But what that bigger social issue is exactly is hard to pin down. We all keep yelling for a bigger bucket, but no one is bothering to mention the giant hole in the roof.

Sidenote: at the time I’m writing this, not much is known about the gunman who also died in the shootings. We don’t know if he was a student or what his motive might have been. An eyewitness says he was of Asian decent. Was he even an American? An international student?

Here in America we value our individual rights above all else, and certainly it’s one of the reasons I love my country. Our bill of rights is the heart of each and every one of us. It is what makes the ACLU possible, for goodness sake. How could I not love it? But for all that yin love, there is a yang that follows. Individualism has a violent side when the rights of the other individuals are lost in too much hate, anger and misunderstanding.

I feel that the same forces that are allowing our capitalist/individualist selves to get out of control and ignore the warning signs of global warming are the same that drive an individual, in extreme cases, to let themselves slip down that dark tunnel into violence. In America, a big SUV like a Hummer is a status symbol. In England, to waste so much gasoline and emit all that nasty pollution is seen as incredibly selfish.

To achieve balance, the yin and yang should be equal. Why is it we as a collective American society cannot manage to find a dichotomy between individualism and community? Why cannot they both exist together? We are unbalanced. We need a cause to pull us together again and out of our collective selfishness. Can I suggest one?

My thoughts, prayers and heart goes out today to the unfinished lives of our nation’s best and the friends and families who mourn them.

News from across the pond

No, still no hard news on if we are moving or not, only to say that as of yesterday we’ve confirmed it is still a possibility. To cut the pain of uncertainty I’ve enjoyed reading the British news lately – my favorite (no suprise here) is the very liberal Guardian.

So, since we have no news ON England, how about some cultural commentary FROM England?

Apparently it isn’t just the United States that suffers from puritanical ideals when it comes to breastfeeding.  A woman was told to leave a restaurant when she was inconspicuously breastfeeding her child because, according to the cafe owner,  “I can’t have someone breastfeeding while another table is next to them eating.”  What, you can’t have someone EATING next to other people EATING?  In that case, sir, it’s time to close your doors.

Slate has a hilarious essay up on nursery school admissions in London to which I can totally relate. Of course I was looking for schools in the lazy, hazy countryside of Somerset, which although I like to play off as a low maintenance gal, apparently I’m even more high-strung on some things than most Americans. Oy.

This explains some things about the British diet. My problem besides the lack of items on any given menu and almost complete lack of restaurants can be summed up in four words: where are the veggies? And no, potatoes do not count. I suppose I’m a veggie nut and am not typical but I’d love to have a fresh greens salad that wasn’t drowned by a mayonnaise-like substance or a meal that wasn’t primarily light brown. Before you rail on me, keep in mind, again, I was in Somerset, where things are generally much more traditional. In my experience London itself has amazingly delicious dining options which rivals any I’ve ever tasted. By the way, articles like this with references to shops, brands and other British cultural self-evident assumptions that go completely over my head is part of the reason that I feel like a fish out of water “over there”. I’m even more of a dork in England than in my own country, which says a lot.

And a little insight on why housing is so darned expensive in England. Even in Somerset.

Dreaming of England

I love it here where I feel safe. Safe in the arms of him. These familiar arms have carried me through my life; the whispers in my ear tell of so many stories we share together. I laugh and I cry happily here. I am comfortable. I don’t want to belong anywhere else. I belong to America.

But in my sleep my dreams betray me.

I dream of her. Of fog-shrouded castles and of writing words with extra letter Us thrown into them. Of eating pasties outside of the chippy on the corner and seeing her familiar face in the features of the pub owner down the road. Of uniformed schoolchildren and my own children calling me “mummy”. Of the gentle curve of her thin winding roads and her sultry thick mud on my Wellies. Of time spent together at London shows and ancient cathedrals. Of wandering hand in hand with her through villages of thatched roofs and little brick houses that have leaned on each other for hundreds of years.

As much as my dreams are sincere they equally decieving. Life would be easier and more comfortable if I stayed in the arms of America. Life would be more romantic and exciting if I was able to melt into the dream of England. Yet I refuse to put my own selfish desires in front of my honor. But which road is more selfish? Which is more honorable? Truly I can’t tell what my own desires are any more – when am I dreaming and when am I awake?

So I live at the whim of my emotions. My dreams. There is still a possiblity I may leave, or that possibility might have disappeared a long time ago. Perhaps it never was there. Perhaps it only existed in a nightsong. I believe I shared some secret, unspoken language with her. I felt her dancing eyes and suggestive smiles she shared with me in a castle, a little old man waiving his cane, a rainbow.  Did England feel it too?

So I will wait. Until time whispers when it is the moment that adventure and comfort can exist together. I don’t know if that means my dreams or my reality will change, but I know that it will mean that they will become one someday.

Until then, I will have her in my dreams.

On being foriegn

When we found out there was a strong possibility we would be moving to England, I was nervous, yes, but also elated.  We love to travel and believe in global community.  What a great opportunity for us – and for the kids!

We had backpacked around western Europe a couple of years ago with a four-day stay in London, so English culture was not a complete unknown.  But as tourists, we had been hanging out where people were trained to understand and help us.  Where they had experience in “dealing” with “people like us”.

But when we were in England as quasi-residents, life was different.  Instead of visiting monuments and eating at touristy resturaunts, we were hanging around in grocery stores, gas stations, shops, schools and housing developments.  We were going about our lives just like normal English people, except we weren’t.  Even in a culture with so many similarities as my own, I found myself feeling like a bufoon more times than usual – which already is often enough in my own country.

Example.  When I didn’t quite hear the man helping me at the hotel, I said, “excuse me?” which in my own culture would be a polite way of asking him to repeat what he had said.  The man got offended, saying “See the sign?  It says “concierge”.  I’m supposed to be helping you.”  It turns out he was upset because I should have said “sorry?” instead.  Saying “excuse me” implied that he had done something wrong.  If you ever accidentally bump into someone on the street in England, remember this rule.

I felt like I constantly was having to apologize for my not knowing how to do simple things like lock my hotel room door or fill up my car with petrol.

During a conversation with a headmaster of a school about Church of England versus nondenominational school differences, the headmaster busted out with, “Well of course you’re Baptist…”

Um…..no.

And while listening to a radio call-in talk show, the topic was “is chewing tobacco sexy”.  The dj mentioned, in a serious tone, that “In America, as you know, everyone chews tobacco.”

I almost spit out my big wad of Skoal.

Driving on the wrong other side of the road

While we wait for more definite news to confirm or deny our move to England, I’ll be posting some of the insights I gathered during our 2-week stay across the pond.  First up – how difficult is it to drive on the other side of the road?

First of all, don’t get all “ugly American” on me and to the UK and use the phrase “the wrong side of the road”.  The English are sensitive when foriegners come to their country and imply thtat their way of driving is “wrong”.  In fact, there are good reasons why 25% of the world drives on the left.  In feudal society, the entire world road their horses on the left.  This was to enable a swordsman to have his right arm closer to his opponent if he had to use his weapon while riding.  Yep, ancient drive-by shootings!  In France after the revolution, aristocrats began trying to blend in with the commoners by walking on the peasant’s side of the road – the right – and risk being recognized and losing their head.   And in the American British colonies, our ancestors primarily drove on the left like the mother country until we gained our independence from England and changed to right-sided driving.  Yep, the newly-formed USA had a bit of a ‘tude, even in its infancy.

And can you imagine switching 25% of the world over to the other side of the road?  How would that go exactly?  With modern-day heavy traffic being what it is, the whole ordeal would have to be synchronized to the second.  And let’s not even think of the cost of the thing – road signs, replacing interchanges, and the necessary press to get the word out.

Not to mention the idiot drivers that might not take easily to the change.  Like…errr…me, for instance.

I wasn’t worried about driving until we were at the airport and I decided it would be a good idea to take advantage of PDX’s free wi-fi to check on UK driving laws, road signs and whatnot.  Sure, I know what a yellow light means.  But a yellow light at the same time as a red?  Intimidating.

I must admit, it was a bit harder to drive on the left side than I had envisioned.  Once the novelty of getting used to the steering wheel being on the “passenger side” of the car wore off, I noticed I was white-knuckling it.  First up, just getting your car to stay in your lane is harder than it seems.  It was easy to misjudge how wide my car was, especially on the left side, because I wasn’t used to sitting on the left-hand side of the car.  My left tires slid off the road a few times until I realized that I was trying to align the car by looking at the left painted stripe on the road.  That stripe would have marked the middle of the road back home, but here it was on the outside and far away from where I was sitting.  Once switched to aligning the car by looking at the center line, which was now on my right, I was golden.

Almost.

It didn’t take too long to get used to being on the left.  Since everything was the opposite side of what I was used to (steering wheel, road signs, etc.) my mind easily flipped the entire plane of driving existance around to be the mirror image of what I was used to dealing with.  The only problem?  When my brain did this, it also managed to flip-flop my right and left.  Therefore, when the GPS navigation voice told me to take a right turn, I’d turn left.  I had to resort to my grade-school trick of looking at which hand’s thumb and forefinger made an “L” to verify which was my left hand.

HedgerowI need to mention here that roads in England are narrow.  I’m talking no-thanks-I’ll-just-have-two-diet-pills-and-a-salad-leaf-for-lunch-then-purge-later skinny.  Often, at least in Somerset, there is a hedgerow or stone wall bordering one or both sides of the road.  There is no shoulder where you could pull over – just an occasional small dip in the mud every mile or so.  On an A-road (a primary 2-lane road), lanes are so skinny that there is only about a foot or two of extra space when two cars are side-by side.  And when two cars pass each other going opposite directions, as an American not used to such close traffic, my first instinct was to break and cringe, bracing for impact. 

There are good reasons, other than gas conservation, that British cars are so tiny.

And that is the MAIN ROAD.  On side streets, most are one-lane only.  This means that if you meet another car, one of you must a) pull over to let the other pass if you are lucky enough that there is room; or b) back up until you can find a spot to pull over. 

In Nether Stowey, a charming period village (read: very narrow, one lane streets flanked by historic stone walls on each side, designed for horses and not cars), I met a lorry (truck) coming my way.  Of course, I had been driving up a steep hill where the road had curved.  Since the truck was large, it was my job to find a place to turn out to let the driver pass.  My first instinct?  To back up looking over the wrong shoulder, making it near impossible to get a decent perspective.  After failing at that, I tried to turn into a driveway.  This meneuver required a good 30-point turn and its only effect was to lodge me almost sideways in the road.  After a good 5 minutes, the poor truck driver took pity on me, easily pulling over and letting me pass.  Our side mirrors had a bit of a handshake, then I was off again.

Here are some basic tips I found useful for driving in the UK:

  • if you are an American, you can drive on your valid US driver’s license if you are 17.
  • familiarize yourself with road signs and markings before you leave by reading the Highway Code online.
  • fuel in the UK is expensive – about 87 pence a liter at present (that’s $6.45 per US gallon).  Public transportation is plentiful.  Check train, bus and tube schedules and prices.
  • don’t even bother attempting to drive in London.  There is a high tax to do so, and it is crazy scary.  Take the tube – it goes virtually everywhere.
  • on the motorway, there are usually three lanes.  The first is for going just above the speed limit.  The second is for going fast.  The third is designated reckless driver lane.  Read: 110 miles per hour or so)
  • to align your car to the center of your lane, “sight your car in” by aglining the center line of the road with your right windshield wiper’s pivot point.
  • roundabouts go clockwise in the UK – not counterclockwise as in America.
  • you do not have to stop at a roundabout unless there is traffic where you’ll be pulling out.
  • when approaching a roundabout where you’ll  be taking the first “exit”, signal left and get in the left lane.  If you won’t be taking the first exit, signal right and get in the right hand lane.
  • when in a roundabout, signal left when you are going to take your “exit”.
  • learn the art of backing before you go.
  • when on a one-lane road, pull over for oncoming traffic if there is a place to do so.  Chances are if you can then the other driver can’t.
  • look over your right shoulder to back up.
  • pay close attention to “right” and “left”.  Your brain might try and switch them on you amidst all the confusion.
  • rent the smallest car you can get away with.
  • it is a good idea to rent an automatic if at all possible.
  • rent a car with a GPS or buy a TomTom.  Roads are very curvy and your inner-compass will be off for a while.  You’ll have enough to think about and won’t want to be wrestling with a paper map.
  • before you get to the gas station, find out if your rental car is diesel or petrol.  Hint: Petrol is the green nozzle.  Just like in the US, a diesel nozzle will not fit into a petrol car.
  • you do not have to pre-pay at the gas stations in the UK.

And if you make a mistake, don’t sweat it.  English people may stare in a dignifed sort of way, but they rarely honk!  (I managed to earn a couple anyway.)

Tour of a modern English home

The other day I had the chance to go through a 3 bedroom, brand new house on my own and I used the chance to snap a few pictures for you all.  What follows is a quick photo walk through of a typical, brand new, modern British home.

Some interesting general points I’ve found about British housing:

  • almost all homes are covered entirely with brick
  • although housing design is period from the outside, in the inside usually homes are furnished in a very modern way (think IKEA) which is absolutely gorgeous
  • most are attached on one or both sides to another home, especially if you live in a town
  • houses are much smaller than they look from the photos.  This house, for instance, comes out to around 1000 square feet – which is fairly typical and not at all small
  • but if you live in a period home (and pay for it), you can find very large estates with plenty of room
  • a stove is called a hob in England
  • appliances are usually much smaller than what we are used to
  • but kitchens are very beautiful and modern
  • the washing machine is usually in the kitchen
  • you must pay a tax if you have a telly (to support the government’s television channels such as the BBC)
  • the road you live in is probably very narrow; perhaps so narrow that only one car can fit down it at a time
  • if you have a garage, almost always it is a one car garage and often is not attached to the house
  • your yard is called the garden, even if it is only grass
  • you might have a conservatory, which is a glass-enclosed patio sitting room
  • if the bathroom has a shower, it is often electric
  • hot water is expensive and people often turn off the water several times during a shower to conserve energy
  • often, master bedrooms do not have a master, or en-suite bath and you share one bathroom with the rest of the family
  • Oh, and your bathroom is not called a bathroom at all.  If you need to go to the bathroom, you ask for the toilet or loo
  • bedrooms are usually just big enough for a bed and a dresser
  • usually in a three-bedroom house, one of the bedrooms is a single, meaning that only a single bed will fit

Overall, the British style is both period and modern, and very beautiful.  Enjoy the tour!

Kitchen

Kitchen, originally uploaded by american_mum.

Let’s walk through the front door. To the right is the kitchen – very beautiful isn’t it?


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