Friday, April 7, 2017

In Case You Get to Be an Expat

At Trafalgar Square-- a great place to visit! There are fountains, giant lions*, and the National Art Gallery--which is free and has very clean bathrooms. 

A friend is getting the amazing opportunity to live in the UK for a time and thinking about this great adventure that her family is taking is bringing back memories from our long ago adventure in the UK. 

When the youngest was just under six months and the oldest four, Jim got a job opportunity with his company in the London area. We lived there for two years and then spent two more years in Aberdeen, Scotland. It was a great time for our family and we would do it again in a heartbeat! 

That being said, there are some challenges that we were not entirely prepared for. Going to an English speaking country seemed like an easy thing at the time. How different could it be, right? Well, though not a complete culture shock, it was more shocking than we expected. 

So here I have decided to write down what I would say to myself, so someone else, taking a brood of little ones to the UK to live for a time. 

Cars: The first shock was car size. We were picked up at the airport in a "people mover" or minivan that barely contained our stuff and our kids (only three of them, mind you). In fact, I ended up holding the baby to save space. I had to reach through various items in order to put my hand on the other two kids, or hand over a snack. That was the first clue that cars were going to be an issue. Our next rental was so tiny it barely fit the three car seats in the back--the door banged against them when it shut. We pretty much had mini-minivans the whole time (it was a long term rental, financed by the company, but the rental agency would trade them out every 6 months or so). Most of them did not have sliding doors. This was especially a problem since parking spots were typically very small, and the mini-minivan filled them up pretty well.

Food: Some foods taste different and some names are different and some things just don't exist there. One example of different tastes, for us, was ground beef. I did not like the taste so I would use ground turkey in most of my recipes. I struggled to find ground sausage, so I made my own (not sausages, but loose ground sausage). Taco seasoning was different---it seemed cumin heavy. So I made my own. Salsa was just not the same, until we found Costco.

You will find that some veggies have different names. Also, the produce departments of most grocery stores are not as aesthetically pleasing as your typical U.S. store. Basically there are just boxes of veggies placed on shelves and on the floor---right off the truck it would seem.

People don't seem to bake as much so that aisle is a little anemic. Also the selection of ice cream always seemed paltry to me. Most stores are closed on Sundays as well.

On a good note--we discovered Kerrygold butter in the UK. Best. Butter. Ever.

Oh, and cream for coffee. No such thing as half and half. There is single or double cream. Single is closest to half and half and double is close to whipping cream. Never found flavored creamers, but I made my own.

Finally, you bag your own groceries. This actually went from a negative to a positive as I learned how much pre-organization I could do by bagging my own. Now I wish I could do it here.

Going to the doctor: The local clinic is called the Surgery. You can just show up/call at your local "surgery" and get an appointment, no special NHS card needed or anything. Depending on your neighborhood this might be a same day thing or you may need to wait. Some doctors accept private insurance in which case you usually get in faster. Our experience in the London area was different from Aberdeen. In London it was easy to find doctors that took private insurance, even in various specialties, like ENT and OBGYN. In Aberdeen that was much harder. In fact there were no private OBGYN's and only one maternity hospital. Often the local surgery is located in some old house, and still looks a lot like an old house.

Doctor's offices are often much less clinical. You will take your kid into the doctors actual office--there is an old desk and a book case and a doctor's table. He/she may not wear a white coat, and they won't routinely weigh, measure, etc. For kids (or adults) afraid of doctors, this makes it a lot easier.

Going to the grocery store:
Many of the stores we went to had paid parking lots. There was also a charge for the use of a cart (buggy) but you get that back when you return the cart. You can also use a token. I had one that was attached to my key chain, but then my keys were hanging from the cart unless I unhooked it.

Also, the carts are four wheel drive. All four wheels turn--which is great when you want to move to the side in an aisle, or turn a sharp corner. However, when you have a cart loaded with food and kids it can get really heavy and therefore hard to control. My hips and thighs got a work out and my back was sometimes sore from maneuvering the cart.

You will find that many products which have various brand choices in this country, are limited to store brands there. The one that comes most to mind is plastic baggies and stuff like that. I could not get Ziplock brand at the grocery store. The store brand reclosable bags are usually not as good. But, if you can find a Costco, you can get your Ziplocks.

Homeschooling: Though legal in the UK (at least it was when we were there) it is mostly unheard of. People will give you blank looks and you feel a little crazy. However, as American expats you are pretty much left alone. There are homeschoolers there, but they seem to stay way under the radar. Even among the American expats it was rare, mostly because many of them are getting a free ride at the local American Academy which is often really high end education, low teacher to student ratio and a locus for community life.

Also, we found that the local surgery did not know how to deal with my school age (age 3 or 4 and above) kids when it came to check ups and vaccinations. That is all done at school so they didn't even have forms to write it down on. If you are going for a short time (less than 2 years), you can probably just keep with the US schedule for vaccinations and catch up when you return.

Houses are usually a lot smaller than typical American houses. If it is an old house chances are there are no closets. Often you will find wardrobes (as in "The Lion, The Witch And...") but they really aren't great for kids clothes. We ended up filling them with plastic storage bins and drawers. We also had a "wardrobe room" in a couple of houses--it was a very small room stuffed with wardrobes that held everyone's clothes. Then the bedroom was just beds.

So, think simple wardrobe. There are a few sources for cheap-ish (by UK standards) clothes for kids--Asda and Primark are two that I can remember. I also found that both carried basic school uniforms which were especially cheap, and came in handy for heading off curious questions from folks while out with the kids on a weekday. They look like they go to school, kinda.

Appliances: Most of your appliances will not work over there. Anything with a motor or heating element will eventually die...if not immediately. You can get those transformers (big thing that looks like a car battery), but it is a pain. My suggestion is don't bother bringing them. You can get connected to an American Expat Women's group and often get those things used because some other family is repatriating and needs to get rid of perfectly good stuff that won't work at home. At the time they had email groups and message boards to find this stuff, probably now it is Facebook.

Refrigerators are smaller and when a rental lists an "American sized fridge", it is usually something we would consider normal size. Sometimes freezer are small, or separate, or non existent. Washing machines are also smaller and sometimes located in the kitchen. In fact, it is not unusual to find a wash/dryer in one in smaller houses and apartments (flats). These take ALL DAY LONG and do VERY SMALL LOADS. This is another reason to avoid having too many clothes. Simple wardrobes are best.

Getting about London or other major cities: Can you say light weight stroller? If you are going to be on foot in London with small ones you may be carrying strollers and stuff up and down long stairs to get in and out of the Tube--not to mention getting on with everyone in tow. We used strollers and back pack carriers a lot.

You will learn fast to simplify, get kids to carry all their own stuff as young as possible and locate eating establishments with bathrooms. We frequented McD's, and learned about other great locations for bathrooms. Like the National Gallery---free, and fairly clean bathrooms. Also the building near the London Eye had clean plentiful bathrooms. Trips were planned by these locations. We also found nice bathrooms with changing nursing stations in department stores.

This is in Scotland. Notice the rain cover on the light weight stroller. It came in very handy!
Other stuff: There are lots of little things like different words for various items and quirky things about houses and you can familiarize yourselves with this stuff on youtube. There is a channel called Anglophenia that has some good information in a fun format. Some, maybe many, of the videos are not exactly kid friendly so be aware of that. There is one in which they compare a UK home to an American home and it is very helpful and true to our experience.

I am sure I will think of more, but this is a good start, I think!

* In case you love this Trafalgar lions and you love picture books, you need to read the Katie books. 

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