Sunday, August 29, 2010

School's Out - but for how long?

This week, we take a look at the American school summer break:


Like most mothers, I love my children. I do. Honest. (OK, the one that's arguing (via Facebook messages) about a Mohawk hairdo for school is trying my patience but whatever.) Anyway, as I was saying, I love my kids - but three months off in the summer? Seriously?

For our non US readers, most American schools are closed for three whole calendar months during the summer. In the south, they tend to break up earlier (some time in May) and go back in August, although our school (like many in the mid-west) let out on June 8th and goes back September 10th. Aarrgghh! Even for the most maternal of us, that's a lot of child-time. It's also a bit ironic given that many working adults get a paltry two or three weeks off for the entire year.

Apparently it harkens back to the days when children were expected to help on the farm and thus were needed for the summer, but the last time I checked, that wasn't the case in most communities these days. Many schools here get scant time off during the year, compared with schools in England. We don't get a fall/autumn half term and only have a week at Easter. I would far rather have my kids under my feet around the house at various times during the year than a quarter of the year all in one go.

The long summer off isn't just exhausting, it's inconvenient and downright expensive for many families. Where both parents work, it means that children inevitably get booked into the infamous "summer camp", (which incidentally, doesn't always involve tents or indeed, overnights sleeps anywhere.) Although some cities run heavily subsidised programs, the spots are limited and you end up paying through the nose for somewhere to park your child for a few weeks.

Granted, the British school hols are on the short side, although from the age of 11 I got 9 weeks which was just about perfect. I think the two school systems should have a chat and come up with something half way between the two models. ( 9 weeks in the summer, 2 weeks at Xmas and Easter and little breaks in between.)



The summer school holidays are coming to an end here in Britain, and if it seems as if they have just begun, that is because they have.

Compared to their colonial cousins, British school kids get a paltry amount of time off for the summer. Granted, they make up for it during the rest of the year—the British school year seems to consist of a few weeks of classes, a few weeks off, a few weeks of classes, etc. I’m sure there must be some advantage to this system, but I can’t find any.

In the States, when school is on, it’s ON. They call it the school year because that’s what you do during it—School. In September and October you’re settling into your new life (you used to be a 5th Grader, now you’re a 6th Grader, and at the top of the Elementary School food chain) and making do with Columbus Day and Halloween for diversion. In November you look forward to the mini-break (not to mention the turkey) at Thanksgiving and then it’s Christmas, with a full week off. Spring is its own reward and by the time the flowers are out you are already anticipating the coming of summer. And finally, in the second week of June, after sitting in sweltering classrooms taking end-of-school tests for five days, you are free.

There is nothing to compare that day to, when you step out of school and see the whole of the sweet, sunny, sultry summer unfolding in front of you.

In summer, my friends as I would swim at the creek, ride our bikes, camp out in the woods or just enjoy lazing around in the hot, humid afternoons. We had no Internet, X-Box, iPods, but we were never bored.

I consider myself especially fortunate, as this long and languid period, for me, was punctuated by the Chatham Fair—the annual agricultural event held over the Labor Day weekend. We would go to the fair, look at the animals and exhibits, eat fried dough, cotton candy, candies apples, and then head for the main event—the rides. The Tilt-A-Whirl, the Ferris Wheel, the Scrambler, the Octopus—we would ride them all, repeatedly. Mostly without throwing up.

There would be car rallies, horse races and some has-been celebrity would put on a show in the grand stand and we would notice, as dusk settled around us, an autumnal chill in the air. Then the fair would pack up and leave town. We would have the next day—the first Tuesday in September—to find what clothes still fit us, get new hand-me-downs and steel ourselves for the coming year, where we would be back on the bottom of the food chain in the Junior High School.

Summer, to me back then, was a marvellous and magical time. I can’t imagine it being just a few short weeks off between semesters.

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Flag Fever

 As Toni's annual UK visit nears its end, she and Mike reflect on their respective flags.


I'm blogging at Expat Mum about the changes in the UK I see from year to year when visiting. In particular, I've noticed a huge increase in patriotism this year; or to be more specific, Union Jacks adorning everything from t-shirts in Asda to stationery in Debenhams. It really is amazing, and has me reflecting quite deeply.

In the US, although it is against the official Flag Rules (seriously) you can get the old Stars and Stripes flag on anything you want - T-shirts, underwear, china and dog leashes to name but a few. Many Americans also enjoy flying a huge flag on a pole outside their front door, or driving around with car bumper stickers declaring their national pride. While I think a modest amount of national pride is a good thing, this very public love affair often grates a little and I'm pleased to say I haven't come across it  in England so far.

On the other hand, although it's probably a little tacky, I LOVE the Union Jack merchandise all over the place. It's all done in a retro style so the flags look a tad shabby. Perhaps if the red, white and blue colours were loud and shiny, I wouldn't like it so much, but the wall clock in Next is lovely. Not that I would have it in a living room, but perhaps a child's bedroom with a red and blue colour scheme.

I've bought myself a huge flowery Union Jack bag from Accessorize, which I probably wouldn't carry around in England, but have no problem whatsoever in doing so in the US.  Do we become more patriotic when we're no longer domiciled in our country of birth I wonder? I have a few National Trust niceties around my house in Chicago which I probably wouldn't have bought had I lived in England.

And my biggest question is - At what point does this new Union Jack fad become as grating as the Flag flying in the USA? What do resident Brits think?


First, I have to say, as an ex-Boy Scout, a Reagan Republican and simply an American citizen, I find the use of the Stars and Stripes as a casual adornment to be a bit out of order.  Our flag, right or wrong, is more than simple piece of cloth; it is revered in a way others don’t quite understand and sometimes, quite frankly, find a bit frightening.  Flown from a pole, yes, even used as an insignia or a bumper sticker, but it’s not something you should make a pair of boxer short out of. 

But let’s leave that for the time being. 

All things being equal, I think the Union Flag makes a much better adornment than the US flag.  As a design, it has balance, symmetry and a lot more pizzazz.   It’s easily stylized and even a section of it is attractive as a design and immediately recognizable. 

Take a look at these: 

Which makes a better logo?  And which looks like an ad for a barber shop? 

I have noticed the increased use of the Union Flag as art recently and I have to admit I find it attractive. 

Personally, I’d like to see more Brits flying the Union Flag, but if using it to decorate various items manages to wrest it from the grips of the BNP, then I’m all for it. 

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Americanization of Britain

After a week in England, Toni ponders a few changes:

I've been back in England a week and was intending to blog about all those little changes I notice from one year to the next. You know, American words like shoo-in that seem to have crept into the local lexicon since last summer. Or the appearance of packaged waffles in the bread aisles of ASDA.
But no. I have proof positive that the UK is capitulating to American trends.

First, we had the use of the word "cup cake" instead of the traditional "fairy cake". Many others have blogged about this so I won't go into what it means for civilization and the western hemisphere; it is obviously a harbinger of Brits calling sweets "candy" and crisps "chips". Where will it all end?

Glancing through a copy of Good Housekeeping the other day my eye was drawn to one of those can't-live-without gadgets that are really a huge waste of money. Like rice cookers (what's wrong with a pan of water) and vegetable brushes (what's wrong with a nail brush? - Just kidding.)

This one comes to you from Lakeland, The Home of Creative Kitchenware. It's a CUPCAKE maker. (Even though it looks like a cross between a sandwich toaster and a Yorkshire pudding tray).

It's bad enough that Lakeland use the American term, but it also encourages consumers to step over to the dark (ie. American) side, by not having the patience to wait for said cupcakes to bake in a regular oven.

Oh no. Haven't got 20 minutes to spare. This must-have gadget bakes them in literally half the time.

Next thing you know Brits, your kitchen counter tops will be lined with toaster ovens, waffle makers, three gallon coffee makers and electric griddles the size of small ice rinks.

Step away from the catalogues. You have been warned.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Coming Home - Or Am I?

This week finds Toni back in her native land, with a few observations to make about it, and Mike reminiscing about recent trips “home” and what it feels like to be a stranger in your own country.


My 7 year old caused some mirth a few weeks ago when he told a friend that it was hot in England. I mean, it can sometimes be hot, but it's not a country that's generally known for its climate is it? Fortunately, the last few summers we've been there have seen relatively warm days in my mother's lovely garden, so that's obviously what's stuck in his mind.

However, we're now packing for this year's trip and the suitcase is mainly full of sweaters and long trousers. We've been in shorts and t-shirts here since early June, it's sweltering in Chicago, and now we have to fly to mid-60's Fahrenheit with occasional showers.

Come on England - this is our summer holiday fer cryin' out loud.

This whining apparently makes me sound more American than Brit (according to my mother), and now I'm worrying about what else I will complain about that it will make it appear I've gone over to the Dark Side?
Small fridges - well, it's hard not to really. My mother has a standard under-the-counter size fridge, which is perfect for her. It's when you quadruple the occupancy of her house that it becomes rather inadequate. I find myself buying food that has a four month shelf life, and encouraging my kids to eat everything the minute I buy it.

One bathroom - again, who needs more than one bathroom when you're living on your own? However, when the house is packed to the gills, it becomes a bit of a problem - especially when a need to pee is involved. Last year, we had so many people staying in the house that I walked over the road to my brother's house to borrow their shower. His only problem with that was I was still in my (bright pink and blue pyjamas) and he was washing his car in the drive way. I haven't seen him go that shade of red for a long time!
No air conditioning - well, that has sometimes caused problems, but this year it doesn't sound like we'll be faced with that one.

Roads that were not built for (two lanes of) cars - I know I  used to drive around these weeny streets, but I now find myself closing my eyes when I have to squeeze a car through a medieval market towns. Not a good thing when I'm the driver.

Speeding cars - ditto with them. I swear my mother reverses out of her driveway faster than I go forwards.
Maybe I'll just do my terrible American accent to go with the whining!


Like Toni, I often feel like a foreigner in my own country, but unlike her, I don’t find much to complain about; at least not at first.  In Britain it’s easy to find things to whinge about—laughably small appliances, cramped and uncomfortable flats, narrow, higgly-piggly roads and people who drive on them as if they are trying out for the Indianapolis 500, and a government that sits on your shoulder like a giant vulture ready to peck your liver out at the first sign of weakness.  But America is boundless and bold and unashamedly bounteous, offering everything you wish and holding out the promise of more.

Whenever I return to the States, I spend the first few days in a giddy state of delight, driving on wide, straight highways, enjoying unending hospitality, eating in good, inexpensive restaurants where the staff are abidingly cheerful and never fail to wish me a good day.  Even the weather is big and brash, baking you one moment, freezing you like a brass monkey the next and drenching you with sudden, though spectacular, storms in between.

But after a few days the vastness gets to me; I begin to miss the proximity of desired destinations and the palpable sense of history Britain exudes, and find myself longing for the snug and ancient little villages of Sussex.

And then I start to see the things that aren’t there: pavements are rare, and pedestrian footpaths non-existent, and public transportation, such as it is, is mainly the reserve of recently released felons or people too addled, old, poor or otherwise unable to drive a car.  Everything is an hour’s drive away and I suddenly feel myself attached to the rental car as if with an invisible umbilical cord, a feeling I don’t have in Britain, and one I don’t miss.

Then there are the bugs and other pests, all ready to bite and suck or otherwise make you uncomfortable.  And while medical attention is easy to find, it is difficult to pay for.

But I never complain; it would be churlish to complain when surrounded by such openness and opulence.  Instead, I file the feelings away and look forward to returning to the land I now call home, where I can, once more, begin missing the place that will always define who, and what, I am.

What about you?  How do you feel about visiting “home” and what do you feel when you are actually there?

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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Just Don't Call it Rounders

"Swinging Away: How Cricket and Baseball Connect" is a new exhibition at Marylebone Cricket club, celebrating the similarities and differences between cricket and baseball. The exhbition is being jointly hosted with the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown (where it will move next April).

In celebration of this exhibiton of the Pond summer sports, we revisit one of Mike's earlier posts on his own blog, in which he shares  his first impressions of cricket.

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10 July, 2007

Global warming my ass! It's the 6th of July, I'm sitting in the sun watching my first game of cricket (how very English) and the only thing I can think is, "I wish I brought my scarf and gloves." At least the rain, which has been constant since the middle of May, has stopped long enough to keep this from being a thoroughly miserable experience.

And quite an experience it is; I'm surrounded by cricket aficionados and have learned more about cricket in the past hour than in the previous 52 years. The two main truths this belated enlightenment has enabled me to comprehend are these: cricket is nothing like baseball, and what I'm watching really isn't cricket.

Let's start with the easy one: American's tend to think of cricket as British baseball because it's their national sport and involves a bat, but that's as far as it goes (and even that's a stretch, as anyone who has seen a cricket bat will attest to). For you Americans--and the substantial number of Brits who couldn't give a toss about cricket--allow me to throw out a few confusing facts:

-- In cricket, one person bats but two people run

-- They don't actually have to run when the ball is hit

-- They can run if the ball isn't hit

-- The ball isn't pitched, it's bowled

-- A strike means the ball has been hit, not missed

-- The object is not to strike out the batter but to knock a few bits of wood off of some sticks

So, as you can see, cricket resembles baseball in the same way that a squirrel resembles rat; four paws and a tail doesn't always guarantee you'll be hand-fed in the park. And that being said, what I'm watching now is to real cricket what Arena Football is to the NFL.

Real cricket games take, literally, days. The "20/20" game currently taking place is, sad to say, another American-influenced perversion of the traditional British way of life. It's fast-paced, exciting and devoid of all the stodgy trappings and strategic nuances that makes cricket such an acquired taste. Real cricket, I am told, involves picnicking on the lawn on a summer's day, drinking Pimms, reading the newspaper and chatting with your friends while the cricket goes on pointlessly in the background.

Here, it is almost like watching an American baseball game, except it's more exciting. The pitching and batting -- excuse me, bowling and striking -- is practically non-stop and anytime anything remotely interesting happens, rock music blares from the speakers and everyone cheers. All we need is a Wurlitzer playing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and I'd feel right at home.

Another disappointment is, these games don't feature players wearing the traditional whites. Instead, they have home and away colors, like an American football team, and merchandising is playing a larger role. It's sad, and oddly enough, I am actually feeling a tug of nostalgia for a game I have never seen and a tradition I have never experienced; maybe it's the beer.

One has to hope that at least somewhere in Britain the staid conservatism will continue ... hold on, here comes a Mexican wave ... now, where was I? Oh yes, conservative values, being true to the English way of life, and all that.

What's this? Cheerleaders! They are having cheerleaders out on the field during half time. Actually, they look more like color-coordinated pack of bewildered teenagers, and there's only four of them. How are they supposed to make a pyramid? Good God, they're dancing with a guy dressed up as a Shark to a Scissors Sister's song. It's like they're trying to pretend to be Americans but can't quite figure out how.

Now I am depressed. In the States, these girls would be laughed off the field; here, everyone just seems to be ignoring them, the way they would politely ignore a guest at a dinner party who is making a spectacle of himself.

Cheerleaders in Britain? That's just not cricket.

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