Many moments in London I felt overwhelmed with a mix of feelings both old and new:
-Walking, walking, walking, walking:
In London I was as fit as I've ever been. I had no gym pass, didn't kill myself at Neil's gym like I do now, but I walked everywhere. All the time, rain or shine. We all did, and I think we walked more than most locals. When we arrived in London I learned school was about to start, and there were no guaranteed neighborhood schools. You had to find your place. I went to the Internet cafe, looked up children's schools, and mapped them out. The next day, Steve and I put the kids in the stroller and walked to every school on the map. St. Michael's Church of England School was farthest away on the map, and our last hope. We were exhausted by the time we got there. I clearly remember buzzing the door, and introducing ourselves to a woman who said she was into geneology and knew about Utah. She had just had a student leave the country for visa issues, and thought she could find a place for us.
Anyhow, the point of my story is that we walked a mile and a half each way to Jasper's school each day, there and back. Even in the city, that's a long way to walk--we crossed three different London neighborhoods! There was a bus that got you near there, and we took it when we were freezing. But the walk was definitely the most convenient and quickest and most direct way to go. None of the parents at Jasper's school could believe we came so far. They especially couldn't believe we came so far for an inner city school. But St. Michael's didn't disappoint in any way. Jasper's teacher, Miss Leah from Australia, was wonderful. And no uppity school could beat the education Jasper gained from having students of 200 countries at his school. His friend Abdo was Muslim and his mother picked him up in a nearly-full Birka. Asha was a second-generation Barbados Brit whose mother worked at the Charles Dickens House Museum. Sophie's dad was a "copper" on the streets of London.
Five years ago when we walked Ruby was in the stroller. We had a very nice double. Jasper could make it a good two miles at age 4, but when he was tired or slow we plopped him in the stroller, too. Visiting London this time, I was very concerned about walking with older kids whom I couldn't plop in the stroller. Sure enough, they whined and whined, and we walked and walked. But they got used to it. I was really proud of them. When they were really dead, we let them walk with their ipods. It felt really good to walk till your feet hurt every day, and hit the bed dog tired. That's how I felt most of the year we lived in London.
I used to have a love/hate relationship with the bus. I loved when it would finally come and rescue me and my kids from the biting cold. I loved to rest my burning feet. But I hated to fight my way on with the stroller, sometimes just to be met with glares. This time, I hopped on with my children and we rode upstairs in the top deck on the front seat every single time--Ruby insisted. It was her favorite part of the whole trip. So we loved those old double-deckers again this trip.
The Complicated British-American relationship:
I think most Americans would agree that living as an American in the UK you feel both a part of and apart from the people around you. At least I did. On the one hand there are no two countries more unified than the US and the UK. There is virtually no where else abroad an American could feel more comfortable. When my grandparents were missionaries in Africa and were offered a two-week hiatus to recuperate, they chose to go to London.
On the other hand, both Americans and Brits, when in the presence of each other, seem to define themselves by taking pride in their differences. I guess this is normal. But sometimes it gets in the way. Steve and I must have looked like locals again this time, because we were asked for directions several times again, just like we were five years ago. We fit right in, and felt annoyed with the noisy Americans on the tube (there are a lot of hotels in our old neighborhood), and laughed at how you could pick them out. But then we weren't British. There were times, like in November of 2004 when Bush was re-elected, when I was afraid to open my mouth for fear of people hearing my accent. And again, I had that experience where someone is smiling at you, being friendly, and then their expression drops and their demeanor changes as soon as they hear me talk. Either that, or I call attention to myself and mark myself as American by saying excuse me too often--being too openly friendly.
All of these feelings were brought back to me in the London Transport Museum on Sunday. This wondeful museum is largely geared toward children, so I was pleasantly surprised to see a very distinguished-looking elderly gentleman viewing the exhibits. Later on as we finished the museum, I caught up with Steve and the kids in a room with a fake train light flashing overhead. Two little British girls were running back and forth, trying to stay in the light, and Ruby joined in. I was confused to hear a loud voice yelling, in a perfect Oxford English accent. I suddenly realized this disembodied voice was yelling at us, at the children. Then this same distinguished gentleman appeared at my back, yelling even more, "ignorant, ignorant! If they do that now how do you what do you think they're going to grow up to be??" Not wanting to offend the man, but not being able to get a word in edgewise to apologize, I opened my mouth and said, "Come on, guys. Let's go." I forgot I would be so recognizable with so few words. The old man began berating us with renewed vigor, this time about Ignorant Americans, and how of course we think it's OK for our children to run around and behave like that here, in their country. Sure, as long as it's on somebody else's turf.
As we walked out of the museum I was crestfallen--almost on the verge of tears. I knew it was silly to let this one encounter get to me. I guess it just brought me back to reality. There were a lot of hard times in London. It was often cold and grey. I often felt like an outsider. No matter how comfortable I became, I was still an American living in England. I knew this all along. I didn't ruin my experience, and it doesn't ruin my memories. It's just every chapter of our lives: good and bad, black and white, sunny and grey, happy and sad, inside and outside.