Monday, 26 November 2012

Ten Years Ago Today...

...on what I thought was a once in a lifetime trip to London (if I had only known how wrong I was), I wandered into a back alley pub in Covent Garden with my friend Ashley. I locked eyes with a shy, handsome stranger at the bar and, after a little help from Ashley, we started chatting. He had popped in for a quick pint with his brother after a job in town, having just driven five hours home from Plymouth the night before, and was nearly ready to leave until I walked in. Instead of going home for an early night, he ended up staying out with us until the wee hours of the morning. By the time we parted at 2 AM, he had told one of the girls with us that he fancied me (I'd never been "fancied" before!), and we had made a date for two nights later, which happened to be Thanksgiving. That was how it all started and how, nearly four years and almost a dozen transatlantic flights later, I became "accidentally English."

We've talked about how to celebrate this "anniversary" for some time now, thinking how romantic it would be to have dinner at the same restaurant overlooking Tower Bridge where we had our first date all those years ago. But the reality of having two children and a tight budget this time of year mean we'll probably end up having a curry and going to see the new James Bond film at the local cinema instead. And, yet, even though it may seem a bit boring to some people, it's the best way I could imagine spending our evening together. Anyone can have a romantic holiday romance, but not everyone goes on to build a beautiful life together.

Friday, 23 November 2012

British School Admissions 101

It doesn't seem like that long ago that I started this blog, when our little Crumpet was still baking away in my oven. Boy, how time flies. This week, I submitted her application for primary school to the local council. Even though she won't start reception, which is the British equivalent of kindergarten, until next autumn, the process starts now. And let me tell you, that process is turning out to be quite the educational experience in itself.

The whole idea of applying for primary school is a bit of a foreign concept to me (no pun intended). As far as I can remember from the three different elementary schools I attended -- all in different parts of the U.S. -- my mom just went to the school that was in our district, filled out some forms, and that was it. There was no choice in the matter, but there was also no competition to see who could get into the "best" schools. Here, it's a whole different ball game. There are several schools within our local "catchment" area, and we have to apply for the ones we want Crumpet to attend, in order of our preference, by mid-January. The council will review the applications and allocate places, and we will find out in April which, if any, of the schools we have applied for Crumpet has been accepted to. Yes, it's possible (unlikely, but still possible) that she might not be accepted to any of them depending on the number of other applicants within the local area. It's also possible she could be offered a place at more than one. Once she has been offered a place, we can choose to accept or decline, and if she hasn't received an offer from our first choice school, we can appeal and get a final decision in July. And let me be clear: these are state schools we're talking about, not posh private schools.

Slightly complicating the process is the fact that our first choice school is our local Church of England school, where The Other Half and his brothers attended many moons ago. It is a very highly-rated school with only a one-form entry, as opposed to three or four forms like the other local schools. Again, it is a state school, but faith schools have their own admissions criteria in addition to those of the local council. And let's just say that the criteria is pretty strict, and our history with the church and school (the fact that my in-laws were married there over forty years ago, The Other Half and his brothers were head choirboys, Crumpet was christened there, etc.) will not guarantee her a place. In fact, the competition for this school is so fierce that some parents have even resorted to downright devious tactics to get the vicar to sign their admissions forms, like printing up their own versions of the forms with a different set of criteria in order to pull one over on him and the local council. It has become an all-out battle for those coveted thirty places.

Luckily, we live in an area with several good schools, and our second choice school isn't necessarily second-rate (it's just much bigger), so I'm pretty sure Crumpet will get in there based on proximity alone. But the whole process is doing my head in, and I feel like Crumpet is applying for a place at Oxbridge with all of the drama involved. And to think that we'll have to go through the same thing in a few more years when she applies to secondary school...

Monday, 19 November 2012

Thanksgiving Small-iday

Every year since I moved to the U.K., I have cooked a Thanksgiving dinner. Some years have been bigger than others, but I always mark the occasion. The Other Half and his family have embraced Thanksgiving and always enjoy the excuse to get together and indulge without the stress and expense of Christmas.

This year's menu is going to be a downsized version of the classic Thanksgiving meal, partly because I am still recovering from jet lag after our trip to the States and partly because we'll be celebrating with a big meal at our neighbors' (another English/American family) on Saturday, and there's only so much turkey I can take. I will be cooking turkey breast instead of a whole turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, maple-glazed carrots, green beans with bacon and shallots, and caramel-pecan pumpkin pie with whipped cream for dessert. I also found a recipe online for pumpkin pie martinis that looks to die for, so I may make those as an aperitif. Then again, maybe that's better served with dessert so the dinner actually makes it to the table.

Crumpet is already getting into the holiday spirit. Today she happily set off for nursery school in her new Thanksgiving top, excited to tell her teachers and friends that "Thanksgiving is an American holiday for giving thanks for the things we love." To come to that sophisticated understanding of the holiday, we've been reading a new book I purchased while in the States called Thanksgiving Is... by Gail Gibbons. I wanted to find a book that explains what Thanksgiving is all about without being overcomplicated, and this is a really lovely book with lots of colorful pictures that does just that. Crumpet also discovered the delights of the Peanuts gang while in America, so she has been watching It's Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown for the past week.

Now more than ever, I think it is important to celebrate both American and English traditions, wherever we are and whoever we are with, so our girls can grow up appreciating both parts of their heritage. We may not be able to wake up Thursday morning to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade or spend the afternoon watching American football, but we can at least enjoy the flavors of the holiday and give thanks for our many blessings, which is what Thanksgiving is all about.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Home(sickness)

We are going home to the U.K. today. We are going home, but we are also leaving home. It's a process I should be pretty used to by now, but it doesn't get any easier. I should be packing, but clearly I am putting off that task. Instead, I am trying to fight off the first pangs of homesickness that I always experience before I hop back on that plane, wishing I had just a few more days here (while knowing a few more days still wouldn't be enough) and already thinking of our next visit but unsure of exactly when that will be.

I have lived in the U.K. for over six years now, and while it has gotten easier to think of London as home and even identify myself a little bit with the English, I still refer to North Carolina as "home" by default. I wonder if that will ever change. Every time I leave the States after a visit, I go through a bit of a grieving process.

I don't exactly miss the home (or hometown, to be more accurate) I left. I miss the idea of home, the mythologized version I have created in my mind. I miss all of the things I took for granted when I lived here but would bore me to tears and make me feel trapped if I actually moved back. More than anything, I miss the comforts of my childhood home: the smell of my mom's pancakes in the morning, tucking Crumpet into my old bed at night with my old stuffed animals, and several other experiences and emotions that are hard to put into words. I suppose that's nostalgia more than it is homesickness, since what I really miss isn't a place I can visit but instead the moments in time when I was most happy. I guess Thomas Wolfe had it right: "you can't [really] go home again."

Eventually, once we have settled back into our usual routine, I will come out of my funk. With time and distance, I will readjust to my life in the U.K. and remember that "home" is wherever we are as a family. I will remind myself that we are doing our best to give our daugthers the best of both worlds (England and America) and, above all, a happy childhood filled with wonderful memories of their own.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Making Memories

Our annual trip to the States is quickly coming to a close. We'll be back in England by the end of the week, and our time here will soon be just a memory. And I have made a point of making lots of memories for the girls during this visit, as it is Cupcake's first trip to the U.S. and the first time Crumpet has been truly excited about coming to America.

I say "making memories" because it really is a bit of a creation process. When you're lucky enough to live close to family, memories happen organically, but when you're separated by several hundreds or thousands of miles you have to go a little more out of your way to orcehstrate those little moments that become lasting memories. Weeks before my parents' and our annual visits to see each other, I make lists of places to go and things to do to maximize our time together and create those Kodak moments. In fact, I actually have a file on my computer dedicated to said lists. I know, it's kind of sad. I don't think that planning these memorable moments makes them any less special, but it does take away some of the spontaneity.

In a way, though, knowing we have a finite amount of time to spend together isn't always necessarily a bad thing. It kind of forces us to seek out creative ways to spend our time together and gives us the opportunity to play the resident tourist. Besides, when they reminisce years from now, Crumpet and Cupcake won't know that I pre-planned our s'mores-making evening or that our trip to the local bowling alley was anything less than a spur-of-the-moment decision (unless they read this blog, of course), and that's all that really matters.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Election Fever

Before I begin this post, I just think it's worth mentioning that when I logged on to Blogger just now I noticed that I have had 10,025 page views since I began this blog. Now, when you break that down, it doesn't seem quite so impressive. That's about 2,500 a year -- just over 200 a month -- since I started writing back in mid-2008. And when you consider that most of those views are probably by my mother, I guess it really isn't such a big deal. Still, 10,000 views does make me feel like a little bit of a cyber-lebrity.

Okay, now on to the post I originally intended:

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past two years, you'll know that today is election day, and after weeks of back and forth with my (former) local board of elections over my absentee ballott, I finally voted in person at my old polling station, which just so happens to be located at my old elementary school. How's that for a shot of nostalgia?

The first time I voted for president was in 2000, and I remember feeling a sense of excitement not unlike that of a child the first time she really understands what Christmas is all about. I stayed up late to watch the electoral college votes come in and felt genuinely cheated by the outcome of the race, hoping for some miracle in Florida at the eleventh hour. I remember feeling similarly enthusiastic during the 2004 election, but 2008 was when I had the biggest case of election fever. I had been living in the U.K. for just over two years and had had Crumpet only about six or seven weeks before the big day. Even though I was no longer a resident of the U.S., I felt the most invested in this particular election. I remember watching all of the debates online while Crumpet slept, and on election night I set my alarm for some ungodly hour so that I could check the results live online.

This election year has had a very different feel for me than those past. For some reason, I've felt a bit of a disconnect. Maybe it's because my personal life has been so full that I haven't really cared too much, or maybe it's because the longer I've been living outside the U.S. the less connected I've felt to American politics. (I've definitely been keeping up to date with my fair share of British political issues lately.) I haven't really followed much of the news, being very selective about those articles that I have read, and I've only really watched a few clips of the debates so that at least I'm not totally uninformed. I did watch some of the convention speeches, but I was actually more impressed with Elizabeth Warren's DNC speech than with either Obama's or Romney's, and I found myself kind of hoping she'd be on the Democratic ticket in 2016. My election fever has sort of turned into an election headache, and I'll be happy when the polls close and the campaign phone calls have ceased. Even Crumpet was less than impressed when I asked her this afternoon if she wanted to go help me vote for the President of the United States. Her eyes lit up for the briefest of moments, but then she said, "Um, maybe next time. I want to stay here and play with Grandma."

Perhaps my enthusiasm will return this evening when I settle in front of the television with my glass of wine to watch the votes being tabulated. But regardless of how jaded I feel about the election, I am very thankful for my (and my daughters' future) right to vote, a right I hope to gain in the U.K. soon.