Running on Empty

A newspaper column on the Internet.

Category: UK Life

Stupid Reasons to Love the UK

When you’re living in a strange place, it’s all too easy to focus on what’s missing and what’s wrong. That’s particularly true at this time of year, when the holidays are close and family feels far and the weather turns icy and it’s pitch black at 4 p.m. like the place is run by goddam vampires.

Expats, everywhere, are famously good complainers. (I loved this list from Beijing writer Mitch Moxley about expats’ top complaints in China. I haven’t lived there, but I recognize the spirit.) Instead of indulging in whining or nostalgia, however, I’m trying a new mental exercise: conscious appreciation of all that is good about the United Kingdom.

Read more . . .


License to Ill: The Summer Weekend Road Trip

For each of the two summers we’ve lived in England, my husband and I have taken a weekend road trip to the countryside with our daughter. We do this because we sometimes forget ourselves and start to believe that we are normal people – civilians, if you will – and not parents.  We need this weekend road trip to remind us that this is not so.

Our daughter was five months old when we picked up the rental car last year to drive to a hotel in the Cotswolds. Those were not easy days. We had just moved for the second time in three months. We were still trying to pretend that the sour-musk smell in our new apartment would eventually go away. We were tired. This was our first official “vacation” with the baby. We still believed that stress was something we could pack up and get away from for the weekend, not something we now carried in our DNA and in a plastic Graco car seat.

The problems started at rental car pick-up. Our directions suggested that we drive through the center of London, on a Friday, at rush hour. This struck both of us as somehow the other’s fault. A travel tip: If a discussion about directions between two people in a relationship lasts for longer than 45 seconds, it is no longer about directions. It is about How you never listen, and Why you always do this, and How this is just like that time at Ikea. All the ads on Google Maps should be for marriage counselors. We got lost in London, and then we got lost in Oxfordshire, and then the baby screamed all night, and it took a full 24 hours before either of us uttered a civil word to each other. We returned home defeated, each of us quietly nursing the sinking feeling that we were never going to have a good time together again.

One year later, we were sat again in London traffic in another rental car heading for another weekend in the Oxfordshire countryside. Several significant changes have occurred in the intervening year. The baby is now a toddler who (usually) sleeps all night. We are no longer chronically exhausted and short-tempered. (We have also moved to a stench-free apartment.) We were spending the weekend with friends who don’t have kids, resulting in an advantageous 7:1 adult-to-child ratio. A friend was driving, a face- and marriage-saving arrangement for everyone.

Before we left the house I fed, bathed and dressed Lily in her pajamas, a superstitious ritual meant to ensure that she would sleep as soon as I put her down in the rear-facing car seat she is rapidly outgrowing. Of course she could not sleep in the car. Cars are a huge treat for her, and she was just so busy. She needed to watch the traffic, then play with her rabbit, then say “All done!” and attempt to unbuckle her car seat, then shout angrily when she had to go back in the car seat, then eat a breadstick, then play with the car seat sunshade, then sing “Wind the Bobbin Up” several times in a row. This was before we’d left greater London. London’s ring roads and motorways are all designed for use by no more than four cars at any given time. Friday evening traffic on a summer weekend – even a summer of endless rain, like this one – is slow. It started to rain. Things got slower. By 8 p.m., the hour we thought we’d arrive at the house, we’d barely left the city limits.

Lily stayed awake the whole time, mostly chatty, sometimes fussy, but without any signs of the meltdown that traveling parents dread. By 10 p.m. we were less than 20 miles away from the house. She was eating a tortilla chip. A piece got stuck in her throat. She coughed. She coughed again. Then she threw up, everywhere.

There was no stopping it once it started. She threw up four times in a row, an automatic assault of meals, drinks and snacks dating back hours. I managed to undo her straps and get her upright so she wouldn’t choke, then sat quietly acting as a human shield between a jet stream of sick and the rental car deposit.

We pulled off the highway and into a grassy lane leading onto some farmland. Justin and I stripped off her dirty jammies and cleaned her and the car as best we could with a half-pack of baby wipes. The driver bolted from the car and stood a few paces facing the fields, quietly gulping in fresh air and frantically tapping something on his iPhone. Probably scheduling a vasectomy or ordering a lifetime supply of condoms. Occasionally we’d look up and say “Sorry,” and he’d say “That’s okay!” in a too-high, too-fast voice that clearly said I will remember this horror until the day I die. Justin was disgusted. I think moms have a different relationship to their child’s excretions. Like yes, in a perfect world there would be economic equality and less carbon in the atmosphere and no regurgitated yogurt in my hair. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Cleaning barf off a Ford Mondeo really hammers that point home.

We rode the rest of the way in silence, in a reeking car, pulling into the house two and a half hours later than we intended and with another hour of scrubbing, bathing, airing and showering to come. But here is the difference. Last year, we spent the whole weekend waiting to feel like we used to feel on vacations before the baby came around, and then sniping at each other to cover up how disappointed we were that things were no longer the same. This year, we finished cleaning up the mess and went on to enjoy ourselves. We’ve wised up. We no longer expect to get away from it all. It’s good enough just to wrap up the life we have – mess and all – and take it on the road.

One Small Step: When Shopping Goes Wrong

Two things happened last month: my daughter officially learned to walk, and she outgrew her shoes. As an interim measure I Velcroed to her feet a pair of rubber-soled slippers that slapped awkwardly against the pavement and tripped her when she walked. The falls left her bruised. And angry. New shoes had to be procured.

“Ohhh,” said the saleswoman at the shop in our village when I pointed to the children’s shoes. I tend to hear this a lot from English people in business situations. It’s an apologetic sound, like they’re sympathizing with some sad piece of news, and it usually precedes the announcement that whatever service or transaction I expected to take place is definitely not going to happen.

“Our foot measure’s broken,” she said.

I asked when the measure would be operating again.

“That’s the thing,” she said, again with the apologetic sigh. “The owners aren’t sure if they still want to do children’s shoes here. So they don’t want to get a new measure until then. Until they decide.”

Surely you remember the little rounded ruler you placed your heels against as a child. The technology hasn’t changed. It’s not a complicated apparatus with delicate internal mechanics that you have to send to a technician in Switzerland for servicing. It’s a glorified ruler. An unglorified ruler, even, could serve the same purpose in a pinch. I just looked it up. You can buy a children’s foot measure for $9.95. You can also download a foot-shaped chart for free and then use it to help people buy shoes, at your shoe store. Even if you plan to discontinue your children’s line, selling shoes seems like an awfully handy way to get rid of your remaining stock. But I’m just an American drunk on capitalism. Don’t let me tell you what to do with your business.

We walked down the street to the boutique children’s shoe store.  Its shelves are sparsely appointed with butter-soft leather booties in the vaguely orthopedic style of comfortable European footwear. Discreetly-placed placards with phrases like “crafted” and “handmade” give the impression that every shoe was lovingly assembled by an Italian eunuch from the finest organic fairy skin available in the EU. The saleswoman brought us a small bootie of sky-blue leather that fit nicely on her foot. Then I asked the price.

“It’s £57,” she said.

Fifty-seven pounds, at the current exchange rate, is $89.49. You can buy round-trip airplane flights for less than that. I’m not spending £57 on shoes she will wear for a maximum of three months. I’m not spending £57 on shoes for a person who chews her toes.

“Thank you,” I said. “Do you sell Clarks?” (Clarks are the Gap of children’s footwear: dependable, unimaginative, ubiquitous.)

To say that she was rude doesn’t do her justice. She morphed into a parody character from a B-movie, a snide English snootypants dripping pretension and disdain.

“Ha. Ha ha ha ha,” she said. She really did laugh in that deliberately haughty false chuckle that people only use in movies when they’re telling Julia Roberts she can’t shop at their store. “We don’t sell Clarks. Our shoes are handmade. They are genuine leather. If you are looking for Clarks . . . well, it’s just simply not something we do. We offer a completely different level of shoe.”

You do no such thing, I should have said. You sell walking shoes to people who can’t really walk. You run a doll-shoe racket targeting bourgeois parents with class anxiety. You sell shoes for people who still crap their pants. But I didn’t. I said thank you and left, and I regret it.

The thing is, I had already been to the Clarks store in the next neighborhood over that morning. We walked in, I set my daughter down, and she ran straight out the door and into the street. I chased her down, scooped her up and carried her, kicking and flailing, back into the store. That is when she slapped me across the face.

You feel a lot of things when you are slapped in public by a person wearing a diaper. The first is sadness, because – for reasons that in that moment are totally unclear – you deeply love this person, and no matter what you may know about their rational capabilities it still breaks your heart a little to be struck by someone you love.

The second is rage.

It’s hard to hold a grudge against your assailant, who has already forgotten that her hand ran into your face and is nuzzled against your chest sniffling over the injustice of being denied the fun of running into the street to hug a big red bus. But there’s so much else to be angry about: the embarrassing stares of the strangers who watched you get schooled by a baby; how laughably weak your “No hitting!” admonition sounds; the reminder that you are no longer capable of performing the simplest tasks; the outraged voice in your head that thunders “Who raised this monster??” and then meekly remembers: you did.

(And after all, that the only pair of shoes in stock in her size were fluorescent pink with LED lights in the heels. She doesn’t need to dress like Roller Girl Barbie yet.)

As a new parent and an expatriate, I often feel at the mercy of forces I don’t understand. There are so many little misunderstandings, confusions, well-laid plans that don’t go as I expect. I never know if I’m doing something wrong, or if this is in fact the right way, and the right way just happens to be hideously awkward. We left the boutique and went to the park, where she tripped and lay howling on her back. I scooped her up and we boarded a bus to central London.

We went to John Lewis, the sturdy, sedate dowager of Oxford Street that offers working foot measures, a broad range of reasonably priced children’s shoes and, according to the logo on their shopping bags, an appointment to Her Majesty the Queen as Suppliers of Household and Fancy Goods. We bought a pair of tiny white shoes that look like miniature versions of those worn by Florida retirees. She tottered proudly around the children’s department without falling once. We accomplished the thing we set out to do that morning. If that doesn’t sound like a big deal then you probably don’t have kids.

Only one thing would have made the day better. I wish we had returned to the children’s boutique with its obnoxious saleswoman. I would have liked to pull open the glass door with its gently tinkling bell and usher the kid in, with her new shoes, newfound independence, and accompanying desire to use her new powers to destroy everything in sight.

“Big mistake,” I would say to the saleswoman as I quietly pulled shut the door. “Huge.”

A Right Royal Cock-Up: Watching the Diamond Jubilee

My family moved to London in April 2011, just weeks before the royal wedding, and the day after that spectacle I was watching an evening news program criticizing the BBC’s coverage of the event. The presenters were unbecomingly star-struck, the pundits grumbled, pointing out celebrity guests like Victoria Beckham instead of former King Constantine of Greece. They were concerned that this pandering, lowest-common-denominator attitude would not be rectified by the Diamond Jubilee.

That was the first I heard of the Diamond Jubilee, the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne. Like the commemorative paperweights or coffee mugs awarded at less nepotistic workplaces, Jubilees are doled out to monarchs after 25, 50 and 60 years of service. “Jubilee” refers to both the whole calendar year in which the anniversary takes place, and to the four-day pageant officially commemorating the milestone. It is an unusual word to associate with a woman who only smiles at corgis.

When Jubilee Weekend finally rolled around earlier this month, banks and other businesses shut down for a four-day public holiday. People held street parties all over England, while in central London thousands of flag-waving revelers lined the banks of the Thames and the Mall for a series of parades and concerts honoring Her Majesty. It felt like a repeat of last year’s wedding – Union Jack bunting hung from every vertical surface, a run on Pimm’s at the grocery store, horses, hats, bugles, and my daughter and I watching the festivities from a safe distance on the telly, marveling at the customs and ceremonies of this strange tribe we now live amongst.

In the run-up to the Jubilee I read an online debate analyzing Americans’ fascination for an institution it so bloodily rejected 200 years ago. There were a range of solid theories – we’re subconsciously longing for what we relinquished when we broke away from the Crown; the couplings and machinations of the royal family have the lurid appeal of a living soap opera; we are magpies who love brass buttons and furry hats – but none that quite capture the impression these archaic performances have on an outsider looking in, in the 21st century. It’s like watching Civil War re-enactors, or Darkon – the elaborate costuming, the commitment to staying in character, the sense that carefully choreographed human interactions are the only kind the participants are comfortable with. The difference is that an entire nation has agreed to treat it as real, with tens of millions of pounds of public funds annually shoveled toward the maintenance of a performance that seems of little benefit to anyone but the actors themselves. We let our role players use the parks and turn a benevolently blind eye when they show up at 7-11 in costume. We don’t let them open Congress.

And just like Civil War re-enactors who must endure the illusion-shattering effect of a car horns in the distance and kids on Razor scooters hooting from the sidelines, even Her Majesty’s most ardent supporters must contend with the reality that the monarchy’s power falls short of divine.

The centerpiece of the Jubilee was a boat parade on the Thames. Let your imaginations run wild, the event’s official website suggested in a breathless tone. Square riggers. Wooden launchers. Oyster smacks. If it floated, and was not a dead body, it would be proudly sailing past Her Majesty on the afternoon of June 3. It sounded like a lovely thing to do on a pleasant early summer afternoon, which makes me wonder if the Jubilee events were originally scheduled to take place somewhere other than England.

England has no summer. It has no seasons. For 340 days of the year the island sits beneath a gray, cloudy, drizzly sky that veers wildly between 50 and 63 degrees. There are a few dozen days of glorious weather sprinkled at random between April and October, but you can no more count on a sunny day in June than you can upon a winning lottery ticket coming into your possession. And yet people were shocked – shocked! – to wake up on Sunday morning and find rain dumping upon London (though not on Belfast or Edinburgh, a sign that God might be a Republican.)

As the wind kicked up, boats backed up on the river and the whole thing turned into a soggy, sorry mess, the army of television reporters stationed across the channels clung resolutely to the script that viewers were watching something magical. On CNN Piers Morgan called it an “orgy of excitement,” a baffling statement that only raises questions about the kinds of orgies Piers Morgan attends. The BBC collapsed upon itself, its coverage a pastiche of awkward camera angles, cuts to people clearly unaware that they were live, a minute-long shot of the controls of a ship, and a long debate between two presenters wondering if the trash boat currently on air was part of the parade, or was in fact transporting trash.

Someone noted on Twitter that requiring an 85-year-old to stand outside in the rain for hours is more assassination attempt than party, and in fact the Queen’s 90-year-old husband spent the rest of the weekend in the hospital with an infection. But there she stood, this tiny little white-haired lady, looking and smiling and waving and acting like this didn’t suck when so obviously it did.

I don’t know what monarchs do now that they can’t have rivals beheaded or commission portraits of themselves as virgin fairies. I don’t know how you justify the public expense or how voting taxpayer can conceive of him- or herself as a subject instead of a citizen. But as a woman who finds herself increasingly short on patience, I can respect what might be the Queen’s most singular accomplishment: to endure sixty years of tree plantings, garden parties, ship christenings, wing openings, polite chatter, endless parades and English weather without getting caught complaining.