Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Going home

I spent the better part of this morning's breakfast hour prancing around the flat and singing America from West Side Story in an abominably awful Puerto Rican accent. My kids were amused at first, then a bit condescending ("you could at least pronounce America right, Mom," Julia grumbled), but they understood why I was acting so uncharacteristically giddy before I'd even had my morning coffee. We're all a little excited about the fact that we're going to set foot on American soil tomorrow for the first time in nearly seven months.

For the next two and a half weeks, we'll be in the States for our first return visit since moving to London, initially with my parents in New York and then with friends and family in New Jersey. Do you know what that means? That means that for the next two and a half weeks, I'll be greeted by loud New York accents rather than polite British silence (ah, brusque New Yorkers, I've missed you so...). I'll be able to flush public toilets with my toe and I'll know instinctively which way to look before I cross the street. I can let my kids out to play in the backyard alone and I won't have to press a single uniform. I'll be able to pay for things without surreptitiously trying to find the number on each coin to make sure I've counted out the right amount first. I'll drive to my destinations and I'll shop at Target and Trader Joe's. I'll be surrounded by people I love and places that are as familiar and comfortable to me as my own skin. I. can't. wait.

Packing! I should be packing right now! And yet, what do I need to pack, really? Empty suitcases to lug back all of the life necessities I plan to purchase at rock bottom American prices in the next few weeks? An outfit or two to get us over the hump until I can get to the mall are really all we need. (Everything's free in A-mer-i-ca!) And so instead, I am spending the time before we depart doing what I do best: obsessing about what's to come. (That and dozens of little loads of laundry. I am just too proud to arrive at my mother's house towing bags of dirty clothing like a college student.) Because as much as I can't wait to get to the States? I'm terrified of how I'm going to feel once I get there.

In the past month or two, London has really begun to feel a bit like home. I've made great strides in figuring out how to live here and I've gone so far as to start to enjoy it. Yes, there is a major part of me that craves the coming weeks, that can't wait to be in comfortable and familiar surroundings with comfortingly familiar people. But there is also a piece of me who worries that going back to the States right now will upset the applecart just enough that I'll have to start all over again adjusting myself to British life when we return. As much as I can't wait to reinsert myself into a world I love and miss, I worry about whether I'll enjoy myself too much, at the expense of the world I'm building here. I'm afraid that once I get there, I simply won't want to leave. A little taste of all I've left behind may be the kiss of death for the fragile existence I've made for myself in London.

There is also another concern, and it's one I'm afraid to even whisper aloud. But it's the one, if I'm being honest, that worries me the most. I've spent the past months here reminding myself of the life that awaits me back in the States. "It's OK if I never fully fit into social circles here," I've assured myself more times than I can count, "and it's OK if I never feel fully at ease here. I have a place where I belong that I can return to." That knowledge, and the phone calls, emails, cards and letters I've received from friends and family back in the US, have gotten me through more uncertain and overwhelming days here than I can count. And now? Well, what happens if I get back to that familiar world and discover that even though it hasn't changed, I have? What happens if I come to find that I don't actually belong anywhere any more?

One thing is for certain; I can't wait to get home. But what I think I'm going to figure out over the next few weeks is whether that's going to happen when we touch down in the US tomorrow, whether it's going to happen when we touch down in the UK eighteen days later, or whether it's simply not going to happen anywhere at all for a very long time. And that's a question that I'm not sure I'm ready to know the answer to just yet.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Pish posh

Julia had a friend over for a playdate this past Friday who had never been to our home before. The little girl shed her coat and dropped her school bag as soon as she'd walked into the front door of the building and was clearly confused when Julia informed her that we still needed to go up a flight of stairs before we would actually be home. She looked around in surprise when we entered the flat, obviously thrown by the small space in which we live. I overheard her asking Julia why she doesn't have a TV in her room and whether we actually had a toilet ("we have three," Julia proudly informed her). And as she gazed out our back windows at the big garden behind our house, I felt grateful that it was a rainy day and I would not have to explain why we do not have the right to enter the beautiful green space below.

In the child's defense, she was nothing but polite and well behaved the entire time that she was here, and she was an absolute pleasure to have over for a playdate. She covered her surprise at our home reasonably well, and I doubt that Julia even aware of it. Even as I noticed her initial discomfort, I couldn't fault her for it; I've seen her home and the homes of many of their other friends, and they quite simply don't look like our little flat. I kind of doubt that this little girl even knew what a flat was or had seen one prior to entering ours.

This three bedroom flat is worth at least double what our five bedroom house in New Jersey is worth. Without the financial assistance of an expat package from Paul's company, we would never even consider laying out the kind of cash required to live here, let alone the exorbitant tuition for my kids' posh London private school. I didn't think twice about these things when we first made the decision to live in this area of London; if we could have the best -- on someone else's nickel, no less -- why shouldn't we enjoy it for a few years? In hindsight, there was more at stake with that decision than simple economics.

In many ways, I was correct that this would be a fabulous place to live. The area is leafy and green, yet urban and interesting, giving us a "village within the city" feeling that truly encompasses the best of both worlds. That kind of real estate comes at a price, of course, and we're grateful to have a package that enables us to enjoy it. But Julia's classmates are permanent residents of this area. They're not here temporarily, and no one is providing them with any kind of subsidy for housing, school, or anything else. They are the kind of people who easily shell out over $20,000 per kid per school year for private school just because that's what school costs. Even if it cost far more, they'd just lay that out, too, and I doubt they'd even flinch as they wrote the cheques. Their homes are large enough to provide the gracious living space their lifestyles require; in other words, no flats for these folks. They own single family homes in this area, purchased at costs I cannot begin to even imagine. In some houses, butlers answer the door, and in nearly every house, there is at least one full time housekeeper or nanny. Some of these kids are used to having more than 4 full time employees in their homes to meet their daily needs. I am the only mother picking my child up at school every day with the other child in tow. I am the only mother thinking about the hassle of ironing all of those damn uniform pleats. These are the children of very wealthy people, the names of one or two of whom you would easily recognize if I were gauche enough to drop them. And in the midst of them all, our little family is clearly out of its league.

I've experienced every bit as much culture shock during my encounters with London's upper class as with British culture in general, maybe more. Just as my accent marks me as a foreigner, my address marks me as not being of their world. To be honest, it's not a world I particularly aspire to; I'm pretty happy with our upper middle class American existence and consider this exposure to the upper class nothing more than an interesting foray into a different kind of lifestyle. But every time I pick Julia up at a playdate in a grand home or welcome a child born into privilege into our small flat, I wonder whether I've really done us any favors in choosing to live in Northwest London.

Would we have been better off settling in a different area, one that more accurately represents our own socio-economic status? The question is purely academic at this point. This is our London home, and this is where we will remain for as long as we remain in the UK. That people are different here quite irregardless of their nationality is simply yet another learning experience for me. But it is a learning experience that I am not anxious to share with my children, I must admit. For now, Julia and Evan remain oblivious to the difference between our lifestyle and that of their classmates. But at some point, they're going to want to know why we don't have a bulter, or even a private entrance to our home. And that's where the real hard learning here will begin, for all of us.

Friday, March 23, 2007

A new kind of Thursday night drama

I was watching the premiere of Shark last night, which Channel Five is promoting as the hottest new drama to hit American television screens this year. (As an aside, are any of you people actually watching this program, or is that marketing-speak for "we acquired the rights to this show before we realized what a dud it is and now that we've paid for it, we plan to jam it down your throats"?)

First I thought the problem was my television, so I turned the sound up a bit. Then I thought the problem might be that I was lying down and one of my ears was essentially blocked, so I sat up straighter. And finally I called Paul into the room.

"Listen to this show for a minute," I begged him. "Can you understand a word any of these people are saying or are they all just talking way too fast for you to follow?"

He listened. And then he started to laugh at me. Apparently, he was having no trouble whatsoever following the dialogue, which he assured me was proceeding at a regular American pace. "Oh my God," I wailed. "I totally can't follow any of this! It's ridiculously fast for me!! I think Americans talk too fast now!!! I'm becoming British after all!!!!"

Paul just shook his head at me, though I wasn't sure whether it was my lack of comprehension or my overly dramatic reaction that he was responding to. "I'm going to read about this in the blog tomorrow, I just know it," he muttered as he walked away.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Clearly not a true Brit quite yet

"That's why I love living in London," the school secretary remarked cheerfully to me this morning as I brushed fat snowflakes off my collar while parking Evan's stroller underneath a magnolia tree that was in full bloom. "You can experience all four seasons in a single day."

There is an emotion associated with this bizarre weather, to be sure, but "love"? Yeah, that one didn't exactly spring to mind for me.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Hey Todd, did you know that "blog" is short for "web log"?

I was up at an ungodly hour this morning saying goodbye to the friends who've been staying with us since last Wednesday (insert collective "so that's where you were" here). After they left in a flurry of sippy cups and final potty trips and passport checks and farewell hugs, I climbed back into bed thinking how empty this place felt with only 4 of us in it once again.

This past week, we've been the slightly-less-than-gracious hosts (because who the hell can be gracious 24 hours a day with so many small children underfoot?) to good friends from our NJ days. Our friend Todd had a series of meetings to attend right outside London this weekend, and after an insane amount of arm twisting and downright groveling on my part, his wife Lauretta decided to bring the kids along for a little British holiday. I can't imagine what she was thinking (I will now confess, despite my constant assurances to her that it would all be a snap, that I would probably never have had the chutzpah to travel with my kids that way), but boy am I glad she was willing to take the plunge.

Lauretta was my first Mommy friend. I met her in a postpartum exercise class which I joined when Julia was about 7 weeks old and recognized her as a kindred spirit nearly immediately. (I dropped the class as soon as I'd met some other new moms. It was never really fitness I was after.) Paul and Todd clicked equally well, as did our girls, and when we both gave birth to sons a few years later, the boys became fast friends as well. Our families were so well suited to each other that when they announced plans to move to Connecticut about a year and a half ago, I knew that every member of my immediate family would feel the loss. I was right; we've stayed in touch sporadically and they remain the kind of friends with whom it's just easy to pick up where you left off, but we've definitely missed having that kind of easy friendship right around the corner.

Showing them around town this weekend was fun, and it reminded me -- as having guests always does -- of just how far we've all come in terms of acclimating to London life. But the very best part of the visit by far was seeing everyone gel so nicely, even after the year and a half we've spent apart from each other. There was literally not a single argument between any of the children for the entire duration of their visit, which as every parent of a 3-5 year old knows, is probably a near impossibility. Evan and Owen drove trains and raced cars and dressed up in Wellies and giggled incessantly for 5 days straight. Julia and Anna created incredibly imaginative storylines, produced a plethora of art projects and giggled incessantly for 5 days straight. You would never have known watching these kids interact that they had ever spent a moment apart.

Granted, no one wanted to go to sleep at night and the exponentially increased requests for potty trips and ice cream breaks and shelter from the wind made serious sightseeing little more than a pipe dream, but none of that spoiled our visit. When Covent Garden wasn't working for the kids, we just hopped a double decker bus out of there and let the cool mode of transportation serve as their entertainment for the next hour. When a race out of Regents Park to avoid a sleet storm left the kids tired and cranky, we just ducked into a Hungarian Patisserie for enormous bowls of ice cream. And when everyone finally passed out at night, we just opened more bottles of wine and commiserated over whiny children who fail to see bed as the great mecca of rest and rejuvenation that it truly is. Simply put, we enjoyed each other's company, even though I think a separate adults-only visit is in order if our friends ever want to actually see the city of London.

I don't know if Todd and Lauretta will ever want to travel with their children again after this experience, especially since by now they've gotten to Heathrow and realized that they left their stroller behind (best of luck getting through security and customs without something to contain Owen, guys...). I do hope that they'll be back here, as their visit was a true highlight of our London experience to date. But even if we don't end up seeing them again until we return to the States, I know for sure now that our time spent apart will just make for some interesting conversations when we next find ourselves together again. This weekend showed me irrefutably that true friendship does not require constant care and feeding to survive.

I'm always conscious of the fact that when this adventure is over, my family and I will have to return to the States and reinsert ourselves into a community that managed quite nicely without us around thank-you-very-much. I worry a lot about what's happened without us and what we haven't shared with people and whether it might turn out to be even harder to fit back into our old lives than it has been to create a new one for ourselves here. I've always hoped that with true friends, none of that would matter, but I've never been quite sure that would be the case and so I've worried about it nonetheless.

I'm going to stop doing that now.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Tomato, tomoto

"Julia, do you say to-mae-to or to-mah-to these days?"

"To-mae-to. Definitely. But... when I talk to my friends, I say to-mah-to so they'll understand me. And I spell it to-mah-to on my school work so that I don't get it marked wrong."

"Um, Julia, there's only one correct spelling. It's the same word; people just pronounce it different ways."

"Really? How do you spell it?"


"Oh. Well, then I'm going to get it marked wrong."

"How were you spelling it?"


Makes sense to me...

Thursday, March 08, 2007

My big picture

As much as I try to keep my eyes open and really see what's around me here, I've lived in Northwest London long enough now that some of the things that wowed me at first are simply starting to look familiar. Yes, it's a beautiful area. Yes, there are many things about the architecture and the signage and the neighborhood itself that are quaintly and uniquely European. I love to admire and appreciate those sights. But I walk these streets pretty darn regularly, and it's hard to really see those things day after day after day. Over time, the sections of sidewalk where I have to maneuver the stroller carefully have become more notable to me than the stately Victorian houses or the cute little shops that line those sidewalks. Figuring out what to serve for dinner consumes enough of my attention that the beautiful selection of fruits and vegetables at my neighborhood produce stand is a domestic challenge as much as it is a sight to behold. The streets are lovely, to be sure, but making sure my kids don't charge into them without holding my hand takes precedence over gazing at them most days.

There is one exception. One street which I walk down regularly never, ever fails to capture my attention. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of cobblestone streets lined with mews houses in London, and quite a few probably look just like this one. But this one is part of my daily routine, a path I tread regularly, and for whatever reason, it has captivated me. I have never once walked down this street without pausing to admire it, never been able to make it to the next intersection without pinching myself in disbelief that I live here. This street is my perfect mental image of picture postcard Europe. Had I walked down it once on a vacation, I know that I would have loved the view and I might even have taken a photograph for the album. "Remember that pretty cobblestone street we saw in London?" But this isn't a one-shot sight for me. I've had the pleasure of walking down that road again and again, day after day after week after month. And somewhere along the way, stopping to admire the sweeping view, the tiny houses, and the picturesque doorways has become my reminder to savor this experience, the big picture that puts my trivial daily complaints and concerns into perspective.

Our flat has become home by now, our surroundings familiar. I've started to say things like "would you prefer to go to Barcelona or Amsterdam next month" without laughing out loud at the sheer audacity of the fact that such options are even available to us. People aren't even asking me how we're getting on here any more; they just seem to presume that we've settled in, and quite frankly, they're right. I consider myself American and I look forward to living there again soon, but 6 months into our expat experience, I'm beginning to make a home for myself here in London even if it will never be Home with a capital H. Our day-to-day lives don't seen so exciting or adventurous or exotic any more; for now, this is just life, with all the mundane good and bad that regular life entails. Good, healthy changes, all of them. But that one street? It still gets me every time. And I hope that's one thing that never changes for me here.

Monday, March 05, 2007

You can take the boy out of America, but you can't take the American out of the boy

"Mommy, mommy, guess what? Lilly brought biscuits to school for her birthday today! And Mommy, mommy, do you know what? Biscuits taste JUST like cookies!"

Thursday, March 01, 2007

A moving target

A friend asked me the other day what I miss most about the U.S. My answer was immediate: I miss going to Target.

It sounds so silly, really, and I swear, it's not about the funky or functional merchandise, or actually, anything specific I might buy on a Target run. A single trip to Target just simply encompasses almost everything I find myself missing here in the UK.

I miss being able to walk out a door to my garage, climb into my big ole' SUV and have it take me anywhere I want to go. I miss the wide roads and clear signage and driving rules that I understand and can instinctively follow along the way. I miss NPR and American radio stations to listen to as I drive. I miss cell phone calls from friends who need me to pick something up for them or who want to bring Julia home from school for a playdate or who just have a funny story to relay to me. I miss arriving, parking conveniently and walking in to a wealth of choice -- dozens of brands, hundreds of items and a
certainty about where to find what I need. I miss stopping to chat with friends, acquaintances or possibly even an outgoing cashier or two. I miss being able to buy whatever I want without worrying about how I'm going to schlep it all home. I miss paying in dollars without converting from pounds or cursing the costs.

More than anything else, I miss taking it all for granted. I probably went to Target upwards of once a week before I moved to London, and I never gave any of my actions a second thought. I know with certainty that while I'll do all of these things again some day, but I'll never do them without really thinking about how uniquely American the experience is.

When I return to the States, I'll miss the easy exercise of doing my errands on foot even as I relish the convenience of my car. I'll marvel at the size of the carts and wonder whether anyone really needs that much merchandise even as I pile in enough impulse purchases to fill one up. I'll be overwhelmed by the number of shampoo choices available to me even as I fall prey to the fancy packaging of a new overpriced brand. I'll be thrown for a loop by the friendly clerks who chat with my children after the hands-off customer care approach I've become accustomed to. I'm sure to notice how big and ugly the big department store, the strip mall in which it is housed and the busy roads that lead to the parking lot all are in comparison to the stately homes, cobblestone streets and charming shops of Northwest London.

In only 6 months, living in the UK has already changed me and my outlook in myriad subtle ways. I miss the conveniences of my old life, but I no longer see them as the only way. I have a foot in each world now, and I can't help but wonder if I'll ever be able to firmly plant them side by side again. The ability to pick up shaving cream, a swimsuit, stickers, slippers and shortbread all in one place? What I wouldn't give for that right now. But the ability to enjoy those things without also questioning them and, in some cases, perhaps even rejecting what they represent? I couldn't get that back even if I wanted to.