Sunday, October 21, 2007

Post script

As an appropriate post script, my husband has just presented me with my 50th birthday present-a satellite radio for my mini cooper so I can listen to the BBC on my way to work...bliss!

Moving abroad

As my husband had a job with an international company, there was always a strong possibility that the chance to move overseas would arise. Although we moved to three overseas locations-The Hague, Tokyo and Washington DC, we always thought we would end up back in the UK for the children's secondary education. So we were not making a conscious decision to emigrate but just wanted the experience that life overseas had to offer. The move to Holland was relatively painless as it was not far, most of the Dutch speak perfect English and we could still get the BBC! Having three young children, my life centered around the school and we made friends and contacts fairly easily. Most families we met through the British school were transient like us and so there was a camaraderie and a bond between us from the beginning. We all missed the grandparent network and so filled that gap for each other. We missed our families but stayed with them when we went home for extended lengths of time and we realised thatin fact we probably spent more time with them in a year than we would do if we were living on the other side of London.

Living away for a while does change your perspective on your home country-you miss all the good bits but it is sometimes difficult after a few years to go back and try to pick up where you left off. Some things back home have not changed at all and it is easy to feel restless and frustrated. Friends and family back home sometimes find it hard to relate to your experiences and counter this by showing no interest in your stories. On our return to the UK after three years in Holland we had to navigate the notorious British procedure of buying a house and after one year of being taken for a ride by unscrupulous estate agents, fleeced by solicitors and gazumped twice, we were ready to move overseas again! That year also gave my husband the dubious pleasure of being a commuter: an experience he was more than happy to relinquish when the opportunity arose.

Our second move to Yokohama, Japan in July 1995 was more of a challenge in terms of distance and cultural adjustment. There we were very aware that we were in a foreign country with a language that was totally incomprehensible, at least for the first few months. We could not read road signs and when we got lost in Tokyo often had to ask taxi drivers to lead us to a recognisable landmark! In fact we rarely drove anywhere as public transport was excellent and parking was impossible. Before finalising the purchase of our car, we had to have a policeman round to vouch for the fact that we had space to park it by our house! I bought a moped and used it for all my regular visits to the post office, grocery store etc. There were frustrations with bureaucracy, medical care and house maintenance but on the whole we found the Japanese to be welcoming and considerate. The womens groups I joined were desperately keen to share their customs and traditions and my husband found that to succeed, working relationships with the Japanese are built on mutual trust and respect and that it was very important to be aware of cultural etiquette and manners.

We did feel a long way from home for this period in our lives-the World Service helped keep us in touch with events but newspapers were out of date by the time we received them. No Internet then of course. One of the most unforgettable days for us was the day that Princess Diana died. Because of the time change, we heard the terrible news before the rest of the UK and I recall phoning my mother on the Sunday morning before she knew anything about it. We watched the funeral service on TV and attended a church service locally and I was overcome not with grief per se but at my own emotional meltdown -I suddenly felt so far away from home.

Our last move came in 1999 when we were sent to Washington DC where we still live. We thought we would stay here a couple of years and then return to the UK just in time for my daughter to begin secondary school. However by this time there were no jobs back home that were suitable for my husband's career plan and so we have remained here and our children all attended high school in the USA. I am always asked what I miss about the UK and family and friends aside, these remain pretty constant: the history, the countryside and the pubs. In the last year I have gone back to work and my choice of employment at Folger Shakespeare Library in DC perhaps reflects some deep roots that I treasure and that will always be part of my character. I have always been interested in literature, theatre and Shakespeare but living overseas seems to have turned my interest into a passion and I find that my involvement with sixteenth century England is a way to keep alive a real sense of my cultural identity.

After University

After graduating in 1980 my fiancee, having been through the "milk-round" process, took up his first marketing job with a firm in Yorkshire and once his location was determined, I signed up for a Post Graduate Certificate of Education in a college close by as we were planning to marry the following year. Many of our university friends were on the same timeline and it seemed the norm to be engaged within a year or so after leaving university and marrying at about 23 or 24. Much has changed on that front with marriage being postponed until careers are really established. The choice to have a family later in life has also become more of an acceptable solution, medically and professionally. When we were beginning to consider having children, the age of 35 seemed to be too old whereas today that is really a very acceptable age to start a family.

My choice of teaching as a career turned out to be the best option for us as my fiancee was moved several times in the first few years of his employment. Teaching offered more flexibility than many other careers and I was able to find work each time we moved. After marrying in 1981, we lived in Putney, south London. We had made the decision that it was impossible to really plan two careers at once and as we knew that I would stop work at some stage to raise a family, we agreed to let his career dictate our movements in the early years of our married life.

After six years of working and once we could afford our own home, I had my first child and became a stay at home Mum. I had no hesitiation about this and never regretted this decision. I think my generation was very much on the cusp of the superwoman era-the woman who had a career, had a baby and went back to full time work within a week! Some of my contemporaries chose different paths choosing to return to work after a short while whether for personal or financial reasons but we were a generation that knew what we wanted and I felt no pressure to return to work and my working peers felt no pressure to stay at home: we did what suited our individual circumstances. While our family was young the DINKIES emerged-dual income, no kids. They seemed to have more of a "me first" mentality and their priorities seemed to be rooted in material wellbeing and professional success. I was glad to be out of the workplace where those pressures existed.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

University Days

After my gap year in the USA, I took up a place at Bristol University to read French. I had a single room in a hall a busride out of town and for my second year decided to move to a more central location. I studied French and perhaps was one of the last generation of students who chose to specialise in a subject just because I liked it. Today there seems a lot more focus on where qualifications will lead and certainly if I was seriously considering a career using languages, I would have to become a specialist in at least two or combine it with another subject such as law or business.

As a language student, I spent my 3rd year abroad in France and Switzerland and this perhaps consolidated my love of travel and willingness to move when opportunities arose later in life. I had to overcome bureaucratic red tape, obtain work permits etc and having safely navigated that a few times, felt equipped to tackle it again when necessary.

My own children are now just entering the university phase. Competition is certainly intense and the whole process of getting into a good university seems to start a lot earlier than it did for my generation.


I thought our generation had it tough having to make the transition to metric measurement and decimal coinage. But we were also the generation that has witnessed the technological explosion. I would guess that none of us used a computer until we were in our late 30's and now we have all had to become masters of the Internet, email and cell phones almost overnight. In addition,for me, returning to work after 20 years, my steepest learning curve has been technology as computers are now an essential part of my dailylife, for better or worse! I remember my Dad purchasing our first colour T.V set and holding out a year or two until the price came down. My parents never owned and still do not own today, a dishwasher, microwave, computer or cell phone. They just never felt the need and I think my Dad began to see his resistance as a matter of principle! My mother, under pressure from her children reluctantly took possession of a deep freeze in the 70's but never really adopted the mindset for it-as far as I can remember it usually only contained 2 loaves of bread, 6 strawberry yogurts and a packet of frozen peas...for 5 years!
My own children were brought up with technology and like all their generation see it as a essential part of their lives. They text and call their friends constantly and are all members of Facebook. They meet up with their friends and mix socially but the constant communication via the airwaves is amazing. When I got home from school I don't remember contacting my friends by phone all that much. We only had one phone which was in the hall and if you wanted any privacy the only option was to stand in the cupboard under the stairs in the dark!
Once boyfriends came on the scene I used to walk to the nearest public phonebooth, 15 minutes away!
Despite the convenience and practicality of cell phones, it seems to me that they are a plague of today's generation. I hate hearing other people's conversations and to talk on the phone while someone is running up your groceries strikes me as the height of bad manners. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned. We seem to be faced with the anomaly that there is an unquenchable desire to communicate with others but this communication is impersonal and at a distance. As a society, are we losing confidence or interest in talking face to face?

Holidays abroad

Our first holiday abroad was spent in Majorca in 1965. We were travelling with another family and I remember the excitement of running up to their house at 5am so that we could travel to the airport together. Vivid memories of the holiday include Mum sterlilising the water in the bedrooms with tablets to make it drinkable, learning Spanish dancing in the evening and drinking "lacos"-coco-cola with ice-cream in it! I also remember all the children buying straw hats that we called Beatle caps as they reminded us of what our heroes were wearing at the time. My mother had never learnt to swim as she had had problems with her ears as a child so my brother, Robin, and sister, Lesley and I had the fun of teaching her something new-in the lovely warm water of the Med.

We spent the next eight years or so visiting the same hotel in Scotland, meeting up with the same families. Our days were spent swimming, horseriding, golfing, playing badminton and tennis. In the evening there was Scottish dancing for everyone-I remember my crowd trying to do the steps at double the speed just for fun-much to the annoyance of some of the other residents!

Our next venture abroad was a Meditteranean cruise in 1973. My sister had left home by this time so it was just Mum, Dad, my brother and I in a very small cabin! My mother did not enjoy it very much as she likes to go exploring and felt rather confined on the ship. My most vivid memories are going to the disco each night and dancing to the "When will I see you again" and "Don't Rock the Boat"

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Teenage Years

I attended an all-girls private school, North London Collegiate School, and had to work very hard. Looking back, I realise how lucky I was to attend such a good school in such beautiful surroundings. I recently found my acceptance letter and as a parent struggling to finance 3 students through school and university, I was amazed to see the school fees in 1968 were 41 pounds!!

When I was not at school, I spent time with friends and drama groups. I definitely visited pubs when I was underage), but thankfully I just treated it as a place to socialise, and in the late 1970's, binge drinking was not considered a fun option. As a result, my parents were very trusting and gave me quite a long leash as long as they knew who I was with, where I was going, and when I would be back.

As a child, up to the age of about 12, my brother, Robin, and I enjoyed amazing freedom. As our house backed onto farmland and a golf course, I remember long summer evenings making tunnels out of hay bales, riding our bikes in the woods and even camping out in tents. Bringing my own children up in the 1990's, life was rather different, and if we had lived in the UK, the freedoms I had enjoyed as a child would have been unthinkable. However, at this time we lived in Japan, and my children were 4, 6 and 8. The environment there was extremely safe. I remember sending my 7 year old to the local convenience shop to buy milk, totally unaccompanied and not worrying at all about his safety. I also remember my daughter (just after we had left England) commenting with surprise about children as young as 6, walking unaccompanied to school, with their personal details on a label, for all to see.

My children grew up as teenagers in the USA, and two main factors have influenced their upbringing and have made it very different from mine. First, teenagers learn to drive at 15 and so by 16, many are driving independently. This has given my children great freedom, especially as we live in an area poorly served by public transport. As a teenager in the UK, none of my friends had cars, and we took buses, trains or walked to parties, discos, etc. Giving my 16 year old that amount of individual responsibility and freedom has taken some adjustment. Second, the legal drinking age in the USA is 21, and although students in college (17-21) undoubtedly drink alcohol, the excessive and dangerous binge sessions seem to be far less of a concern for me as a parent.

I had several jobs as a teenager: working in a teashop, a haberdashery shop, plus the usual round of babysitting. My first "proper" job at 16 was working in the knitwear department at Selfridges in Oxford Street, London. One thing I remember distinctly is directing confused tourists who were looking through piles of Pringle sweaters for the "St. Michael" label-they were after M&S next door! My first month's wages allowed me to purchase my very own record player at a cost of 68 pounds-was I proud of that!

As a teenager I read the magazine, "Jackie" and my shopping haunts included Biba, Laura Ashley and Dorothy Perkins. My parents gave me about five pounds a week pocket money with which I bought records, books and clothes.

After leaving school in 1975, I spent 4 weeks travelling round Europe with 2 girlfriends. Armed with a Euro rail pass and a huge rail directory, we set off. After 2 weeks on hot, dirty trains we decided to spend the rest of the trip in a small hotel just outside Florence. Our parents did not seem to worry too much about us going on the trip. Without cell phones or Internet we had no communication with them for a month but this was accepted as normal. My 17 year old son has just done a similar trip and my 16 year old just spent 6 weeks in Spain-regular bulletins and updates from Internet cafes went a long way to giving us peace of mind.

After "A" levels I spent a year at Troy State University, Alabama, USA, on an English Speaking Union Scolarship. I was treated like royalty and was most impressed by the hospitality I received. As I already had a place at Bristol University to read French, I did not need to worry about taking specific courses and so was able to pick and choose what I studied. I enjoyed American literature classes and remember being most impressed with a debating class.(Now I live in the USA and have noticed that debating is still a very popular class in schools and universities). I was also very involved with the university acting troupe. We used to tour the South and perform at schools-for some reason I was never given a speaking part!!!!But I was asked to be the vocal coach for the universtiy's production of "A Man For All Seasons"! I still remain in touch with a friend from my days in Troy, LizAnn: being so far away from home at a relatively young age made this friendship very special. My most vivid memories of this time are driving with a crowd out to a remote bridge and dancing in the headlights to Bruce Springsteen and the Doobie Brothers-there wasn't a whole lot to do in Troy!