Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Falling Foul of Rule Britannia

Coming home should be easy right? Easier anyway. I had lived in Britain for 38 of my 39 years before we left. I knew the language, the customs, traditions etc. However, things change, things move on.

Two things which have been 'doing my head in' are recycling & health & safety.

We have been putting all our rubbish in one bin for the past 5 1/2 yrs abroad, & taking it to the roadside skip. Or if you are a very good citizen you burn it yourself, poisoning your neighbour with the fumes. If not, you dump it in the river, or throw it out of the car whilst driving along, leave it on the beach, wherever...

In fact before we left the UK, we were composting but there was no recycling collection. We took bags & cardboard & bottles to the bottle bank bins. That was it. Now we rinse, & separate our (soft) plastics, card & paper & glass. At least it all goes in one bin. But it reminds me once again just how law abiding & obedient Brits are, by & large. This would just never work in Albania.

But I have often wondered how it gets sorted & recycled. Or if it does even...My parents told me the story of how a friend in their village asked what happened to all the recycled stuff when he saw it being mashed up all together, in what looked like the regular rubbish lorry. The two Polish guys on the back of the truck said "Oh, it goes to landfill"

When this gentleman phoned the council they were, unsurprisingly, rather cagey about this, before admitting that once they had met their 'recycling quota' (for that month, year??) it all indeed went to landfill. So not only are we obedient, we are gullible & mugs too spending ages sorting stuff that is never recycled. The trouble is you don't know when it will be recycled & when it won't. I'm all for recycling, but only if it really is being recycled.

Now that we have a puppy, the recycling box is one more source of treasure & doggy delights & the cause of a few Mummy Meltdowns too as plastic chicken trays, milk bottles & cardboard get raided & strewn round the kitchen. That's not the council's fault of course, but mine for getting a dog.

Then there's Health & Safety. Where do I start? Let's just say it is a completely alien concept in either of the two overseas countries we have lived in, in recent years. So it has been a steep learning curve. I know about booster seats,, I am not sure about riding in the front seat & I definitely don't know at what age you can leave children alone in the house. But 2 health & safety rules recently took me completely by surprise.

1.) I went to fill the car up with fuel & my son got out of the car to watch & help (he had never seen self service!) Within seconds an authoritative & urgent voice came across the tannoy asking, "the woman at pump number six" to put her son back in the car immediately before any petrol defied gravity & splashed upwards into his wide eyes. Children, evidently, aren't allowed on the forecourt, I was informed. I dutifully obeyed, I was so dumbstruck (the art of public humiliation works well in Britain). My husband announced it was lucky for Tesco, he had not been there. He sees red at most Health & Safety rules in this country & can't stand any sniff of being 'nannyed'. I would love to know what he would have done! I presume though it's more an American import: the fear of litigation.

2.) I went to the tip to dump one of the many loads of abandoned tenant-detritus left in our house & my hapless son got out of the car again to help me. Within seconds a man, unmissable in his fluorescent jacket, marched over to me & told me to put my son back in the car as it was dangerous for him to be out amongst the hazardous skips of cardboard & garden waste. This was followed by "Can't you read the signs?" I had been looking right at all the skips trying to identify where a broken sandwich toaster might go, however, the signs bearing a 'crossed out child' were on the left hand side of the road, so no, I hadn't noticed.

Of course the thing I do now, which is infinitely more dangerous, is driving with a puppy in the car. Talk about distracting. She chews my hand as I change gear, tries to climb on my lap, so I have my largest handbag with me, barricading my lap. If I put her in the back she scrabbles through to the front. If I put her in the boot, the protesting howls & whines are very offputting, not to mention the sight of an off white ball of fluff pogo-ing in & out of my rear view mirror as she tries in vain to leap the back seat.

Now there should be a law about that. In fact I'm off to 'Petworld' or some such place tomorrow to find the canine equivalent of a strait jacket...
The picture is of the dog sitting on my boots (she misses me when I go out) poised above the recycling box, ready to find a delicious plastic milk container.

Observations of a OneTime Outsider.

People ask what we notice coming back here & I hardly dare mention two of the glaring ones because they are such sensitive subjects. But for the sake of documentation accuracy I will tell you. Suffice to say, I am not passing judgement, I am just observing:

1. the number of seriously obese people
2. the number of different nationalities living here.
3. the cost of living in Britain.

1. I have been to America many times & it feels like America in this way now. According to statistics 1 in 10 adults in Britain are obese. British women are the most obese in Europe, though still behind their American counterparts. In 1980 the average BMI for women (body mass index, healthy being anything between 18.5 & 25.9) was 24.2. Now it is 26.9 for British women. fro British men it is 27.4 (the 4th highest in Europe if you're interested)

2. Ok, so we live in Oxford & visit London, both of which are highly international places. We also have lived in the most homogenous society in Europe, so the contrast is stark. Nobody 'immigrates' to Albania, so apart from its handful of missionaries, NGO workers, embassy staff & for some reason a small Chinese population (the communist connection perhaps??) EVERYONE is Albanian. So much so that they really don't know how to treat ethnic minorities at all. A West Indian friend living there used to get called 'monkey' & such like in the streets.

But where I live here in Oxford, when I travel on the bus, I am a minority in terms of language certainly & colour sometimes. When I shop at Lidl, apart from elderly couples, I only hear other languages around me. I can't work out why other normal British families don't shop there. Ok so you can't get everything there but it's SO much cheaper, yet it's pensioners & foreigners who shop there, because, like me, they find Britain frighteningly expensive. Maybe other Brits aren't feelign as crunched by the economy as we are.....

The net result overall of all this is, it just feels very different &, to be frank, a bit disorienting. I am surprised it has changed so much in 6 years, but it really has. I guess living abroad you feel your 'Nationality' much more, I felt very British & identified strongly with my British roots. Coming home, I'm not sure anymore what that means....

3. As for the credit crunch, much as I said I want to have some space before commiting to anything, as well as training the puppy when we get it, decorating the whole house (which I keep putting off) & helping my children adjust, as the cracks are beginning to appear, I think I may have to go out to work to supplement the charity salary my husband earns. Maybe it's just 'set up' costs & once we have replaced the boiler, bought a car, decorated the house, things will ease up a bit.

One thing I loved about living abroad & working for an NGO, is they look after you & we could live within our means. Easily. And you could afford to have a cleaner, a shared driver, believe it or not, for the school run (it was cheaper than me driving everyday), eat out, employ babysitters frequently, travel, get private health care as part of the package, & stuff like tennis lessons etc were really cheap too. I guess I was very spoilt in some ways despite it not being an easy place to live. It's quite a shock, & one of the anomalies that whilst living in a developing country, with infrastructure issues, power cuts, pollution, horrendous traffic & much less available in the shops, you did have these significant perks, which I must admit, made the frustrations a lot easier to cope with. So I need to adjust now to a different & much more thrifty lifestyle.

The good news is I can do supply teaching, which is well paid; the bad news is it's soul destroying, & the very worst aspect of teaching there is. I have just met anAmerican woman who has moved here & put her children in the local state school (in middle class Oxfordshire. Ha!) & frankly it's horrific. The kids swear at the teachers & nothing is done about it, the walls inside the school are covered in grafitti, their daughter says there is complete lack of respect for the tecahers, the children talk all through the lessons, they have had no homework in 3 weeks, the Head of year has told the parents that they don't need to keep coming in (this was on day 2) when they have had NO information at all, the kids haven't had timetables even. her son went to the wrong lessons for an entire week. How could that happen? I couldn't believe it. Ok so not all schools in Oxfordshire are like that (though the primary schools have the worst Key stage 1 results in the country & are in the bottom 10% forLink Key Stage 2) I have taught in 6 of Oxfordshire's secondary schools & whilst 3 were pretty tough, none were that bad & certainly had better discipline & support structures in place.

So I am not looking forward to the prospect which couldn't be further from my 'perfect job' in GDQ International School in Tirana. I fear this reverse culture shock is going to take me a while to process....

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Back to School

Today really marks the beginning of a New Beginning for us. It also marks a few firsts. Not only did my two children start new schools, in the UK; my son's 3rd school in 6 years, my daughter's 5th school, but it is also the first time my daughter has been to school in England. And it is my son's first day at secondary school. Up to now, being back has felt the same as every summer back in the UK, pretty much. But now, September has come, the leaves are already falling, the air is cold & we are still here. And I am resolutely refusing to let my mind wander to what temperature it still is in Tirana.

Needless to say, both children were very excited, uniforms, (a new concept), tried on repeatedly, pencil cases packed & repacked & ties learnt to be tied. And with true ex-pat style, they sailed into their first days with ease & confidence. I was very proud of them.

Needless, also, to say, I sailed slightly less confidently into the day. In a way the whole re-entry adjustment has somewhat eclipsed the momentousness for every parent, of their first child starting 'Big school' (Incidentally I rather liked the fact that at my son's school, one of the buildings is actually called 'Big School'. It even has an elegant little plaque on the wall saying so. I have yet to discover the history of this primary school-ish name for a building, but I like it.

I found myself once again sitting at the kitchen table (different tables, different countries, same scenario), wondering, not for the first time, what my new beginning would be. What was I going to do?

It is time, once more to re-invent myself, or time to invent/create a life for me here. My husband has a new job, my children have new skills, I have..... the shopping to do....

I also have the cleaning to do, the ironing & the ferrying of children to & fro. It's one of the peculiarities of living in developing countries, (in particular), that whilst there may be poorer infrastructure, power cuts, worse communications, less choice of available goods, what you do have is cheap labour & people needing work. So, slightly uneasily, I have enjoyed the privilege of having someone do my cleaning & ironing & even school runs for the last several years. So that is something to get used to again. And looking back wistfully, I wonder at my squeamishness at this benefit...

But on this first morning, I went shopping. I must confess I haven't suffered the horror at the 'obscenity of choice' in supermarkets in Britain. I have to admit i have rather revelled in it. Of course I do find the packaging ridiculous & wasteful; the sanitised polystyrene & cellophane wrapped meat slightly unreal & plasticky (having been used to seeing my meat butchered on the street) & the regular, perfect, shiny fruit & veg even more so; but I never baulked at the variety of choice available. I love cooking & get very excited at the plethora of options & foods on offer. I get excited at the thought that I could cook pretty much any recipe I fancied (I am sure this will wear off.....) And I love browsing the aisles. Sad, but true.

Of course I do get the ex-pat 'choice anxiety' about choosing between the myriad versions of the SAME item. I just stick rigidly to either what I have used before, or which is the cheapest.

The second thing i did was go to the library, partly for the novelty factor of having access to a library full of English language books, & partly because I wanted to do something for me. I am going easy on leaping to help out at church, school, interest groups etc until I see how our new 'routine' pans out; but I have always wanted to be in a book club, since forever, as they say. I joined a rather boozy teachers' one in Colombo, which was a mainly an excuse for consuming cocktails. I used to feel a real girly swat because I had 'done my HW' & wanted to talk about the book. No one else seemed to. Still I learnt some very nice new cocktails. It was also hampered by a lack of available English language books in Colombo. Then i joined one in Tirana which was set up as a rival one to an 'invitation only' group, but that fizzled out as people moved away & titles were even harder to come by in Tirana. Then a friend was talking about one she was in, here in Oxford, so having learned from experience overseas of the need to be proactive& get stuck in & involved, I took the bull by the horns I asked if I could join.

Reader, I could. My first book is 'People like That'. I may not have a new uniform or pencil case, but I am very excited about mynew Book Club.

So there we are, small beginnings; but there's a verse in the Bible which says "Who despises the day of small things?"

Not me. That's a lesson I have learnt abroad. Little by little. Bite sized achievements & goals. And not to be too hard on myself. It takes time. That I know for sure.