Imagine London. What do you see? Tudor-style buildings? Pubs? Castles? Double-decker buses?(Ro's favorite-- she loves when Vin rides with us because he always takes her up top). These are all things you undoubtedly see here, and are truly a part of the life. But there are some things that have surprised us about London along the way, so without further ado, here is a list of Top 10 Surprising Things About London.
10. Fashion. Think London and think funky teeth and 80's fashion sense? You think wrong. London people are HOT. Like so hot, I kinda don't love Vin working downtown which is a Mecca of pencil skirts, heels, and perfect makeup and hair (does it not move in the wind?). Even away from freakish-hottie-robot-businessmen and women, everyday fashion is just more experimental, more exciting, and more fun. Especially compared to Boston, where everyone looks the same and buys the same (pricey) brands. Like London food, I think it's the international influence at play here when a woman pairs leopard tights with a neon shirt and a polka dot skirt and totally pulls it off. I love to ride the bus and just watch people walking along. In the States, you would question a guy who chose to sport ripped denim shorts with high tops and a funky top. Here, you don't bat an eye.
9. Which is probably why charity shops are so big. At home, we reserve Goodwill for the budget-conscious or costume-hunters. Here, charity shops are super cool. Along a High Street you will find several different charity shops that are often indistinguishable from the fancy boutiques. I have found several great finds, including a precious Burberry skirt for Ro for like £5 and a gorgeous Topshop blouse I rocked at church this morning (ha) for £7.
8. But speaking of fashion, there is one fashion choice that simply shocks me every time I see it: full burqas. Walking down the street you will suddenly see a woman who has chosen to cover herself entirely but for the eyes. Perhaps the most surprising thing about it is how I am surprised when I see it. Every time. It sort of takes your breath away-- I am always instantly reminded of the Masked Angel from Mahbod Seraji's Rooftops of Tehran. But another surprising facet of the burqa is all the contradictions it often accompanies. I have seen a mother choosing a toy makeup set for her young daughter, I have seen a woman taking photographs of the stunning Victoria's Secret Fashion Show window displays in Maryelbone, I have seen a woman just perusing the racks of the Gap, all clad in their burqas. I am always also surprised by how often the women are accompanied by their young, stylish husbands.
7. Stroller Games. Which leads me to another cultural observation. No matter the nationality or the language, mothers are forced to meet and manage a sometimes contentious little area: the stroller section of the bus. There are many little rules you have to learn before you can brave the bus on your own with a stroller (or buggy)-- I actually sat my friend Jaime down when I first came, and drilled her on the details. Sounds silly, but there are rules, and the first rule of this sometimes-Fight Club is that only two strollers are allowed on a bus at a time. As you stand there with your buggy attempting to stay upright while the bus lurches around corners or comes to a quick stop, you are also shifting and making room for other moms or nannies and their buggies. Sometimes you chat, sometimes you smile and wave at their babies, sometimes you help hold their stroller for them, all the while knowing you often don't even speak the same language. I have had one mother give Ro a little flag, and another give her a snack, and another literally caught her and held her as I was trying to put her in a seat (since the bus driver* let on a third stroller and then took off quickly before I had a chance to fold up and make room). It's just a funny little area I don't want to forget about. (*Another thing, people often thank their bus driver when they exit, which I find so polite and sweet. "Thank you, drivah.")
Okay these are getting long, so I'm going to rush through these last ones. My husband says giving 50% is better than giving either 100% or 0% (since I don't have time for 100%!) so I'm workin' on it.
6. Plumbing. No matter how much you clean your toilet, it's going to look dirty. There, I said it. Seriously, England, it's 2013. Take a page from American toilets and make them right.
5. Speaking of taking a page from America, did you know you can shop at TKMaxx here? That's right, not TJMaxx, TKMaxx. There are several things like that here, owned by the same company but not the same name. HomeGoods is HomeSense. Goldfish are "Fins" (and taste better here for some reason). But with that said, I would LOVE for someone to open a Marget. Jarget. Yarget. I don't care what you call it- I miss Target like none other, and there is simply no equivalent here.
4. Which, combined with pain in the ass mail restrictions, and having no car, makes shopping a total pain sometimes. Even ordering from Amazon (.co.uk!) is annoying because here's the deal: you have to be home to get your delivery. People literally stay home sometimes just to get deliveries. I'm used to big ol' subscribe & save diaper boxes sitting on my front step in Newburyport. Here, you have to sign for things, unless you get lucky and they leave it with a neighbor (neighbour). Oh, and if you get something from the US, you have to pay extra money as a tax if the value is over £35. We had to pay like an extra £30 to receive the box with our AppleTV which we had accidentally left at home and had to have shipped to us. And it takes them forever to calculate how much they're going to charge you. So if you send Ro a Christmas gift, please give it the lowest possible value on the customs sheet or she may not get it until after the New Year!
3. You can't buy boxed Mac & Cheese here. In fact, they don't even understand the allure and appeal of powdered cheese and pasta at all (although it's not as bad as the Russian mom at swim lesson who asked me how stoned must the American have been who invented peanut butter and jelly- ha!!). Motherhood is just easier with Annie's sometimes.
2. Dogs in restaurants and pubs. This is a weird one, and one I loved until someone got a little dog excited at Outsider Tart this morning and it peed on the floor while I was eating my French toast. Seriously? But sometimes it's cute and charming and always entertains my kid.
1. Speaking of entertainment, there is such a concerted effort to entertain, educate, and better our children. It's fantastic. Every museum caters to children with "discovery bags" or special exhibits and displays. Children's theatre here is huge-- too bad I'm just always afraid my kid will be the one who is going to get scared by something and freak out and have to be hauled out of the place, wasting our £20 tickets or whatever. We do definitely take advantage of the playgroups, which are huge organized events and not just groups of kids playing together in someone's home. Every Thursday we go to "Sunbeams" at our church where the traditional sanctuary is transformed into a kiddo wonderland. They move chairs out of the way and replace them with toy stations and even a bouncy castle. It costs £2/time and even has story time and singing (Ro's favorite, although she has surprised me with some bouncy castle enthusiasm lately). The church itself is super kid-friendly. It's no LifeChurch.TV (which my fam attends in Oklahoma and I totally love) but it's super surprising for what I would imagine behind the beautiful traditional facade. During services, they keep a "soft play" area in one little transept where kiddos who eschew the crèche (nursery) can enjoy soft toys while their parents listen to the service. We have also joined the kid-welcome Bible Study right before Sunbeams that is only occasionally interrupted by snack requests, potty breaks, and tantrums.
And I just have to add one more because it is so AWESOME.
My honorary #1 Most Surprising and Most Awesome Thing about London: if your child has made you absolutely crazy at some playgroup or other social function, you can take advantage of wine delivery. Seriously. And cigarettes, but that's just nasty. But for real, when you order a delivery pizza, you can often order a delivery bottle of wine as well. Stop it.
Okay, that's my London Top 10 (okay, 11) Surprises!