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.


Blogger Ginger said...

Delurking to say: I found this very interesting! I love reading stories set in England and learning about how different the culture is. I have enjoyed your stories of being an expat.

4:07 PM  
Blogger Lindyloo said...

Exposing Julia to this other world will be a great asset for her. She'll look back at this time spent living in Englad with fondness I'm sure. Hopefully she will continue to be blissfully ignorant of the 'class' society we live in. Just remember you have a GIGANTIC washing machine back in NJ!!

4:51 PM  
Blogger Tenille said...

"cheques" Hee.

When I was a kid, I thought apartments were *so cool*, you know, just like where the Jefferson's lived!

6:19 PM  
Anonymous Mom said...

Everything is relative. Your flat would look like a palace (3 toilets!) to the children who go to school in the neighborhood where I work. (Although having a TV in a child's bedroom probably has as much to do with a parent's approach to child-rearing as it does to class...)

6:46 PM  
Blogger Steph said...

I got a giggle out of "cheques" too! :)

This definitely does add another layer to adjust to! At least the kids are still oblivious to the differences.

9:58 PM  
Blogger Kristy said...

Have to say...have been wondering about this aspect of your experience -- particularly wondering whether you were waaaayyyy far more "well off" than I thought ;-) Knowing that it's all on someone else's dime? Makes me feel infinitely better. Because I'm mature like that. Your mom's right. It's all a matter of perspective. (And I'm glad you wer "gauche" enough to do a bit of name dropping privately ;-)

11:56 PM  
Blogger mk said...

(My gauche-tendency is showing, because I found myself just a tad too eager for some name-dropping. Eek.) In all seriousness, I must say, if ANY kids ever sounded well-adjusted, yours certainly do. From what I've read, when the subject DOES come up, I'll bet they will come through it with flying colors. And, it's entirely possible that there's a bit of cachet among the tot-posh set, in being buddies with a well-traveled American child. You never know...

10:53 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

Interesting. In our package for Australia, what we THOUGHT was the salary amount was actually the "Total Cost to Company" amount. So out of that amount comes our housing, schooling, food, medical insurance, savings/company contribution, etc. After looking at it that way, the so-called "salary" is significantly less enticing.

I have no idea what type of neighborhood we'll end up in yet. I don't think it will be too posh, as that part of Australia is a lot like the US -- you can find a wide range of homes in a relatively small area. Also, Brisbane isn't exactly London. Our kids' school will end up being more like $5000-10,000 a year. $20,000 a year is a LOT, no matter how you look at it.

As for your family not being a "good fit" or whatever, I would not necessarily say that's true. I mean, there are things on the outside that may appear glaringly different, but it looks to me like you've been making friends with your neighbors anyway, and they trust you with their children. I'm guessing the feeling is more on your side than on theirs. It doesn't matter where your kids live, they will be exposed to all kinds of different people anyway. Who knows, in the end it may serve them well, because down the road they may need the skills they learned while dealing with rich people. I always say, there's nothing wrong with rich people. Sometimes they're the nicest people I've met.

5:30 PM  
Blogger Dana said...

Culture shock is right. I never quite realized how class consciousness plays out there until I visited England with an English friend. It's something that makes the country completely foreign -- albeit fascinating -- to my experience, even though we speak the same language. Excellent excellent post.

12:55 PM  
Blogger Rosemary said...

I found this a fascinating read. We had somewhat similar experiences. My children went to "posh" schools (if posh is equivalent to very expensive private schools) and, while we lived on the Main Line, it was the poor side of the Main Line (it's all relative!). Further, our home was a "handyman special" when we bought it -- and ongoing project house for most of the girls' grade school years. Of course, now my SIL makes catty comments about my "spoiled" kids raised in a Main Line mansion (rolls eyes).

I'm looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on living in a more class conscious society -- or if you think it really is more class conscious.

3:46 PM  
Blogger Wife and Mother. said...

Seriously? Wow. And here I was thinking your flat was spacious and lovely and someplace I'd love to live if I lived in the London area. Try not to get down on yourself about not having hired help or a house with a private entrance. I think you found a great place, and hopefully the great location will outweigh everyone else there seemingly living far beyond your means (and I'm sure mine, too).

11:38 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi, I know this was written quite a while ago, and you're probably back in the US now? I am also an American thinking of moving to Hampstead--but for good. I love the idea of being so close to nature and the city at the same time. But, I'm afraid that raising children there will put them in a world "out of our league" where they will feel like outsiders and will live in a bubble where having butlers and servants is the norm. I'm lucky to have an inheritance that allows for the possibility of getting something on the west side of the Heath. But like you, we want to live a relatively modest lifestyle. As we seem to be of similar mindset, I'm wondering whether you still feel the same way about your experience there. If you were relocating for good, would you choose Hampstead? And if you don't mind me asking, which school did your children go to (we are also looking into private schools as all the good state schools appear to be religious)? Did you feel like despite their being many children from homes with servants, butlers (Is this a vast majority? Or just many?) there were also kids from more "normal" backgrounds that your kids could interact with? I would be grateful for any advice/insight you could give me! My email is
Kindest regards--Nancy

12:44 PM  

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