Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Fun with language, part 3

It happens to me at least 3 or 4 times a week. Julia will be happily telling me about her school day when her words suddenly stop me in my tracks. "Wait, your teacher is encouraging you to use what???" I ask her in sudden bewilderment. Each time she smiles patiently at me, as if I am a small, slightly daft child who needs remedial education. "Rubbers," she'll reply with a slightly exasperated laugh. "I've told you this a million times. We have to use rubbers so we don't make mistakes."

She'll get the exact same lesson back in the US someday, I imagine. But there, they'll call it Sex Ed, not Handwriting Practice.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Shall I natter on about this a bit more, then?

Julia caught a ride home from a birthday party this past weekend with a friend. "I've never heard Julia talk so much before," her friend's mother smiled at me as she helped Julia out of the car. "Her accent is adorable!" Momentarily surprised, I very nearly told her that she had the wrong child. It's Evan who is sporting quite a strong -- and definitely adorable -- British accent these days. Julia, in contrast, abruptly dropped nearly all traces of her British accent after our trip back to the States last spring ("I'm American and that's how I want to sound," she declared with a sudden sense of national pride which has surprisingly not waned since). My confusion soon passed as I realized that of course, it was Julia's American pronunciations and expressions that sounded so cute to the British ear. Here, she's the one with the accent.

The fact that Julia's speech, while normal and unremarkable to me, struck her friend's mum as charmingly different was yet another reminder of the differences between American and British English which I wrote about last week. While Denzylle may be correct that I have overgeneralized somewhat in extending the speaking patterns I've noticed among the people I've met here to the entire British population, I think few would argue that there are decidedly quite a few differences between the ways English is spoken in our countries. I still maintain that those differences include how words are put together every bit as much as how they are pronounced.

I suspect that Mobile Em may have been right on the money, however, when she suggested that my examples of verbs followed by prepositions simply indicate differences in word choice rather than actual errors, "wrong" as they sound to my ear. Thanks to Cami, therefore, for reminding me of one rule which is decidedly different; here, a group is always plural even if described as a single entity (i.e. "Waitrose do a lovely job"), whereas in American English, the entity is always singular even if it represents the group as a whole ("Watirose does a lovely job").

For those of you left wondering (Iota), yes, the problem with D was the lack of a question mark; the "please can you" construction is decidedly British (Americans would likely say "would you please" or "could you please"), but I don't think there's anything technically wrong with the sentence by American standards other than the punctuation. And for what it's worth, I hear "please can you" statements come out of Evan's mouth regularly these days and while I'll confess it sets my teeth on edge a teeny tiny bit sometimes, I'm generally (to steal yet another non-American expression) not bothered. Hell, I'm just grateful that someone's teaching him to say please. Of all my over generalizations about the British way of life, the extra emphasis on politeness is my absolute favorite. (I trust that my self mockery translates equally well into both British and American English here?)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

I hold these truths to be self-evident (but the British appear to disagree)

Here's a little pop quiz for all you grammarians out there. Pay close attention to prepositions and punctuation. Which of the following sentences are correct?

A) I live in London Road.
B) I need to be there for 11:00.
C) They should arrive Wednesday next.
D) Please can you help me with this.
E) I need to chat to you about something.
F) none of the above
G) all of the above

The answer to this quiz, I've discovered, is completely dependent on whether you are American or British. To an American ear, it is clearly F. Not only is each and every one of these sentences wrong, each of them (if you are a grammar nut like me) is wrong in a drag-your-fingernails-slowly-and-painfully-down-the chalkboard kind of way. And yet, here the answer appears to be a resounding "why are you asking me such silly questions" G.

I not only hear people structure their sentences like the ones above every day, I also read this kind of language in advertisements and other presumably edited for accuracy documents with regularity. Either no one pays attention to any grammatical rules whatsoever in this country or the rules are simply different. As my British friends and acquaintances strike me as intelligent, worldly people in every way other than their cringe-worthy (to my ear) grammar, I am forced to assume that it is the latter.

I have always thought grammar to be one of those things that is pretty darn black and white. Either you've said it right or you haven't, and I must admit to a terrible snobbery when it comes to the opinion I form of anyone who says it wrong with any regularity. And yet now it appears that the rules which I have always endeavored to abide with such devotion are actually not so invariable after all, at least not once one leaves American soil.

This leaves me in a tight spot, I must say. Either I adapt to a new set of standards which sound uneducated to my American-educated ear or I continue to say things my way, which -- now that I think about it -- almost certainly must sound equally incorrect (and probably just plain dumb) to the British public. Ouch. So what's a grammatically conscious displaced American to do? Good question... I'll have to think on about on about it for a bit.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Homeschooling the holidays

One of the first things that we did when we arrived in the U.K. last year was to purchase a mobile phone. The inexpensive pay-as-you-go clunker which we selected had few options or accessories (though it did a perfectly serviceable job of enabling us to call and be called). Its one distinguishing characteristic was its ring tone -- a tinny, scarcely recognizable rendition of REM's 1991 hit "Losing My Religion." It was, though I didn't realize it at the time, an apt theme song for my tenure in this country.

Judaism played a big role in my life and in the lives of my children in the U.S. As an interfaith couple, Paul and I have always struggled a bit to find the right religious balance in our lives, but our kids -- whom we are raising Jewish -- never lacked for Judaic identity and influence. Temple preschool, Tot Shabbat, holidays at Grandma and Grandpa's, even lighting the Sabbath candles each week were all a regular part of their existence. We were part of a Jewish community in the States and that, in hindsight, made it awfully easy to be Jewish.

In direct contrast, our London lifestyle has proved to be an almost entirely secular experience. Without a built in community and classroom reinforcement, my kids' Jewish identity seems to disappear a little bit more with every passing month. Joining a synagogue when we're only here for a short time seemed unnecessary, but I did originally figure that I could easily keep my kids' religious education up on my own. I hunted down challah on Friday evenings for the first few months, making sure to say the prayers with my kids. But life got busy, and without the preschool influence and the social aspect of the holidays to keep my kids engaged, the whole Judaism thing has really fallen by the wayside for us far more than I'd anticipated. The fact that we are Jewish is just not a daily factor in our lives here.

Today is not just any day, however. Today is Rosh Hashanah -- the Jewish new year -- one of the holiest days of the year. While I've been able to forgo religious commitment and connection most of the time, today it weighs heavy on me that my children and I are not in synagogue. (I did look into obtaining high holiday tickets, but with no local worship options, the prospect of traveling a long distance via public transportation to pray with a community of strangers felt somewhat less than appealing.) The kicker came when I announced a few days ago that Rosh Hashanah was fast approaching. "What's Rosh Hashanah?" my formerly Jewish educated children asked. I have to admit, I kind of freaked out.

And so, today, we have had a non-traditional holiday around here. I kept my children home from school to mark the occasion as a family, and promptly at 9:30 this morning, we all sat down at the kitchen table to figure out just what this Rosh Hashanah thing is and why it is relevant in our lives. Using the dozen-or-so page booklets which I'd created for each child using web-based resources, we read about the holiday and its meanings. The kids colored pictures of shofars while we listened to the sounds of the shofar blast online. They completed mazes and word hunts and more coloring sheets to reinforce key Rosh Hashanah themes. While we snacked on apples and challah dipped in honey, children's holiday music played in the background (thank you, World Wide Web) and the kids and I soon joined in. Julia made some resolutions. Both kids did a craft project. And finally, everyone watched a lovely film with a moral which teaches the importance of being a good person. (OK, it was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. But seriously? Filling a whole day with enriching and meaningful activities for the 3-5 year old set is HARD.)

God willing, this will be the only Rosh Hashanah that I ever spend at home in sweats and fuzzy bedroom slippers. I sorely felt the absence of family and friends and a Jewish community today (though I haven't necessarily missed the fight for a parking spot near the temple or the hunt for high holiday-appropriate attire). I look forward to returning to familiar prayers and shared prayerbooks in over-filled sanctuaries next year. But by the same token, there was something really special about the way we spent Rosh Hashanah today. I had fun teaching my kids about their heritage, and their enthusiasm for the lesson and activities was really gratifying. Today, we came a little closer together as a family and we celebrated something that plays an important role in who we are. There are worse ways to start a new year.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

School daze

Thanks to all of you who've gotten in touch to check on Evan... despite the pathetic bend of his shoulders on his first morning of school, he's actually had a relatively pain-free school transition thus far. I know my son better than to get my hopes up after a few good drop off days, but he hasn't cried or clung to me since that first morning (which is a dramatic improvement over last year when he routinely wailed each time I left him, only to settle happily into the school day as soon as he was good and certain that I was out of manipulatable earshot).

Evan completely adores his new teachers, his new classroom and pretty much every single thing he's done in school to date, to the point that he keeps up a running commentary about all things school-related from the second I pick him up at school until long after his head hits the pillow at night. ("And then, on Round FOUR of Freeze Dance, someone moved her elbow. I'm not sure who that someone was. It was a girl, though. I don't know all of the girls yet. There are way too many girls in my class. There should be more boys. And it wasn't fair, because when the girls coloured in their bears for the classroom wall, their bears had ballerina outfits on and the boys' bears were just boring old bears. I like colouring in, but I didn't want a boring old bear. I wanted to... Mummy? Mummy? Are you LISTENING to me, Mummy?") So, Evan. Yeah. Completely fine. And, uh, pretty darn British these days.

As for Julia, she is also utterly entranced by the magic of Year One. She adores her new teacher (as do I -- my kids clearly pulled the cream of the crop in teacher assignments this year), is excited about being back in school with her friends and is overjoyed to be learning again. Having seen her curriculum for the coming year, I must confess to being a bit jealous... she'll be tracing changes to homes both architecturally and internally in her History unit and weaving together natural materials to learn about texture in her Art unit and identifying sources of light in Science and creating an improved playground plan which she'll map out in Georgraphy and... I think I pretty much want to go back to school and be in Miss B's class, truth be told.

Fortunately, I seem to be getting the full curriculum second hand, at least for now. Evan gets 3 hours and 20 minutes of uninterrupted monologue time between the end of his school day and Julia's before he has to do battle with his sister, who appears similarly obsessed with sharing every second of the wondrous new experience that is Year One with me. ("We took the coach to Games today and Eve was my parter. Some kids did it wrong and didn't share the window seat, but Eve and I did it just right. First she sat in the window seat and then I did. We talked about a lot of things on the coach but I can't tell you about any of them because they're secrets. But I can tell you a secret about school. Do you know what we did today? We had Brain Gym. Do you know what Brain Gym is? It's exercise for your MIND! Isn't that silly? And tomorrow, we have real Gym and that means we get to go in the little door, and... Mom? Mom? Are you LISTENING to me, Mom?")

So everyone is off to a happy start to the school year and everyone is learning new things. Evan is learning about gender differences, apparently, and Julia is learning about secrets. And me? I'm learning how to get us all up and out of the house on time again. I'm deciphering Julia's complicated schedule of track suit days and uniform days (we received, I kid you not, a three page memo about what the kids are supposed to wear to school each day. Whatever happened to the school uniform eliminating the need to think in the mornings? Every day has a different set of requirements, all of which I expect to screw up on a regular basis. Julia appears to share this lack of confidence in me, as she's been consulting the memo "just to make sure" when I hand her a pile of clothes each morning). I'm attempting to keep track of Julia's show and tell needs and Evan's "bring in something red" assignments. I'm trying to get someone in the school office to get back to me about the fact that my daughter has eaten nothing but bread and water for lunch to date. And I'm struggling to figure out how to piece together a bit of time for myself in between a full schedule of school runs and the endless carting of children to other enriching activities (our fall schedule sounded great on paper, but is turning out to be too closely timed to allow for silly little necessities like getting from Point A to Point B). How this differs from what our lives would have been like in American suburbia, I have no idea. Perhaps that's the real lesson here. When you've got school age kids and the school year is in session, it pretty much ceases to matter where on Earth you actually are. So much for the exotic expat experience. But how lovely to know that the joys and drudgery of motherhood are universal, no?

Friday, September 07, 2007

The flip side of freedom (a newly unencumbered mother's limerick)

I grinned as I set off alone
But that smile soon turned to a groan
For to cart all my loot
With no pushchair boot
Made me mourn how my children had grown

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The end of the beginning and the beginning of the end

There were confident smiles...
And shaky tears...
(Transition is never easy, you know.)
But in the end, they scooted off to school...
...and thus began our second -- and final -- year in London.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The apple

Today is one of those days that I have been looking forward to with equal parts of anticipation and dread since before I even gave birth to Julia. Today is my baby girl's first day of kindergarten.

She won't be there, of course. She's 3700 miles away from the classic brick building that I used to picture her marching proudly into, backpack and lunch box in hand. While her peers back home enter the hallowed halls of the "big kid school" which we used to wave at every time we drove past it, she'll be playing with her younger brother today and enjoying her last day of summer holiday. Tomorrow, she'll follow a different back-to-school ritual, racing down a London street on her scooter and completely ignoring my pleas not to mess up the perfect pleats of her starched uniform until she's at least entered the school building. She'll walk into her new classroom an experienced Year One student, not a tentative kindergartener. She'll greet old friends and settle easily back into the rhythm and routine of the school day, secure in the knowledge that she's done this all before already. I won't cry or feel wistful as I see her off; after all, I've done this before, too.

Julia will never have all of the pomp and circumstance of an American child's first day of kindergarten. The timing of our move and the difference in academic age guidelines inadvertently robbed me of my parental right to celebrate and mourn this rite of passage and the passage of time. I'm certain that the first day of a British child's reception year is an equally bittersweet milestone here, but we somehow missed even that experience, arriving here as we did a week into the school year last September. There was a scramble to find a school, a flat, an overpriced uniform. When the pieces all finally fell together, we breathed a sigh of relief and hurriedly dropped Julia at her new school before racing to meet the estate agent and pick up the keys to our new home. That she was embarking on a new stage in her academic career felt far less notable than the fact that we had managed to find her a school place at all. By the time we knew what had hit us, Julia had already adjusted and the milestone was behind us. Too late by then to cry tears of pride and wonder at how the time had flown.

There is a tradition in our New Jersey hometown that all incoming kindergarteners receive wooden apples with their names on them at orientation. They wear these apples around their necks on the first day that they enter school, and then again over their graduation gowns on the day they leave the system 13 years later. I've loved the idea of that tradition since the first time I heard of it... loved what it signified about small town living and loved that we were raising our kids in a community which fostered these kinds of traditions. I couldn't wait to see Julia get that apple at 5, smiled to envision her wearing it again at 18.

Things rarely work out the way we expect that they will, and I don't have a kindergartener with an apple around her neck today. Despite the fact that Julia was born into that community and will likely live the majority of her years there, I won't have an apple-adorned high school graduate 13 years from now. Those images which I so looked forward to will never exist except in my imagination.

This London experience is worth far more than a wooden apple, of course. Instead of the continuity an apple's presence on Julia's graduation gown would have signified for me, its absence will be a reminder of our time here and the unexpected and special path our lives took during these years. I'm sure that the sight of her unadorned gown will be every bit as powerful at symbol for me as the apple would have been. And truly, I wouldn't want it any other way, wouldn't wish these years away for all the apples in America.

But just for today, I'm felling a little bittersweet about the life that we're not living and the things that we've sacrificed for what we now have. I'm picturing all of Julia's American friends proudly marching off to school for the first time with their apples around their necks. I'm picturing the photo which I always assumed I'd take of a 5 year old Julia on the front step of our house early one September morning. And I'm wishing that I had one of those silly apples to drape over Julia's British school uniform tomorrow, if only for the picture that I'll take on the front stoop which isn't narrow of the house that isn't yellow on the first day of the 2007-2008 school year.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Well, colour me British

So, uh, guess what I ordered when we went out to dinner at yet another gastropub on Friday night? You betcha. I asked for the fil-let. And I did it with a straight face, no less.

Not only that, but I somehow managed to convince a dining partner (one of our American house guests) to order his steak the same way.

My assimilation programme is apparently now complete.