One of the things that I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around since we’ve been in the UK is the separation of church and state…or the lack thereof. I never realized how ingrained this founding American principle is in me…and how it’s not even a thing in the UK, which is one of the reasons our ancestors left in the first place.
The largest and most significant place that I have felt this has been in the British school system. Granted, our son is still in nursery school and will not actually be in that system before we move on to our next post. But I’ve attended several meetings concerning early childhood education, and it blows my mind.
First let’s get the vocabulary straight. Technically a “public” school in the UK is what we would consider a “private” school where the family pays a large sum annually for the child’s education. And a large portion of American private schools are religious. What we could normally call a “public” school, the Brits call a “state” school. But your state school is by no means free of religious bias. As a matter of fact, the opposite is quite true.
A great many of Britain’s state schools are considered “faith” schools…predominantly Roman Catholic or Church of England but also Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, etc. According to an October 2013 article in The Independent, a full third of publically-funded state schools are religious.
Diplomats often come up against the challenge of residency. But for some of the faith schools, you have to have documented PROOF that you have been attending a particular church every week for however long for your child to be allowed to attend, which can also lead to discrimination in said publically-funded school.
A colleague summed it up very well in a personal email on the topic:
As you know, the cost of a year of private school at age four in London can run well over $15,000 (and over $30,000 for an American- or international-curriculum school). This is because pre-K, which is called “reception,” is the first year of a child’s full-time primary education in the United Kingdom. “Pre-school” as we know it is not routinely available in London.
British state-funded pre-K (reception) places are only available to those who are resident by January 14th of the preceding school year, making this option less viable for transient diplomatic families. Even if you occupy your permanent residence in time to apply for a reception place for your child, there is no guarantee that a London state school spot will be made available anywhere in the vicinity of either your home or your workplace. There is a critical shortage of state-funded reception slots in London, as regularly reported in the news media. London state schools in the borough of Westminster, […] where the Embassy is located, are routinely over-subscribed.
Additionally, according to the Westminster Council website the vast majority (26 out of 34) Westminster state-funded primary schools are religious schools – either Church of England (19) or Catholic (7). These are also known as voluntary-aided schools. Most priests and Anglican ministers require a family to show proof of religious practice for two years prior to application for a reception spot at a voluntary-aided school. Admission to these state-funded schools is controlled by the school’s own board of governors, often composed of members of the congregation and religious leaders. Children who are not from regularly practicing religiously observant families as certified in writing by a priest or a minister therefore stand very little chance of gaining admission to the majority of state-funded primary schools in Westminster.
And the British taxpayers are none too happy about it either.
One of the things that I never thought I would be doing in my wildest dreams in London is recording a song inside Abbey Road Studios. I like The Beatles but wouldn’t really consider myself a fan. We do kind of live in the area, so I figured it would be at least neat to take a tour at some point.
Surprisingly they’re not actually open to the public except once a year. In late April and early May they host a series of talks called “The Sound of Abbey Road Studios”, and for £90 ($150 USD) you can spend an hour inside the famous Studio 2 where great bands like The Beatles and Pink Floyd recorded, take pictures, and chat with authors and sound engineers.
So how did I get in, you ask? Pure coincidence…being at the right place at the right time. I like to sing, and I really haven’t done much as far as community involvement goes since we started a family. I was in choir in high school, a church choir as an adult, and played the keyboard in an all-girl band and sang in an a capella choir in Antarctica.
Once we were settled in London, I started looking for choirs. There were a few local church choirs, but I didn’t really want to commit to three days/nights a week for some of them. And that’s when I found Rock Choir.
Rock Choir started in the UK and is apparently the world’s largest contemporary choir with almost 200 chapters throughout the region. It’s incredibly popular because you don’t have to audition, read music or have any prior singing experience. You just have to want to sing. It’s also a great way for me to get out and kind of have a girl’s night since the majority of the choir is female.
I started at the end of January, just in time to discover that our chapter was going to be recording two songs at Abbey Road Studios for the humble price of £28.50 ($48 USD) per person. So I paid my fee, practiced my part as an upper soprano, and arrived promptly at 9:30am last Sunday morning in front of the studio.
There were about 150 of us, and we all arrived in our Rock Choir t-shirts and posed for some fun group photos before we got started. We were then escorted inside and down the stairs to Studio 2 where we dropped off our coats and bags and admired some of the historic equipment…like the mixing board that was used for Dark Side of the Moon and the piano that was played in “Let It Be.”
We then went across the hall to Studio 1, which was about twice the size and set up with chairs and risers. We had tall boom microphones and a grand piano for another Rock Choir director who accompanied us.
Simon Rhodes was our sound engineer from the studio. Simon has recorded over 100 film scores including Skyfall, Avatar and Harry Potter 1 & 2. In 2008 he was invited to Beijing, to record the music for the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games. And he was really great to work with. He was very friendly and professional, and the recordings sounded beautiful when he was done.
We spent about three hours at the studio all together with two dedicated hours of recording time. Our songs were “Someone Like You” by Adele and “Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars. It was a wonderful experience and an all around fun way to spend your morning. How amazing it must be to be a professional singer and be able to record your own songs on a regular basis.
Monday was President’s Day and an American holiday, therefore it was also DATE DAY! And a perfect time for it since it fell three days after Valentine’s Day.
My V-day was awesome. I woke up and was given my first (teacher-assisted) homemade card and a single rose by a gorgeous little blond boy and then two dozen more and two boxes of chocolates by his awesome daddy.
At the embassy there was a champagne reception in the lobby in the afternoon. I wrote the time down wrong on the calendar and showed up half an hour late but did manage to get one glass of champagne before they completely ran out.
My hubby and I also got our very first photo with an A-list celebrity!! The cast of 24 is filming their new season in London, and half a dozen members of the cast were visiting the embassy and being kind enough to pose for a ton of pictures with embassy staff. I try to protect people’s privacy somewhat and haven’t seen any coverage of it on the internet. So I’ll just say that I loved him in Miss Congeniality and in his current role on Modern Family.
With that kind of a start to the weekend, you can imagine my disappointment when my hubby was laid low by the stomach flu…repeatedly…starting at 3am on Date Day. So I cancelled our reservation for the five-course tasting lunch at One Twenty-One Two at the Royal Horse Guards Hotel (courtesy of Living Social London).
But I was still feeling okay, so I took our munchkin to nursery school and proceeded on to the CLO tour of the Houses of Parliament that I’d signed us up for. And the tour was great. I was disappointed that we weren’t allowed to take photos past the visitor’s entrance in Westminster Hall, but I’m sure I can find plenty of them to steal off of the internet.
And I learned a few things…like the basic function of the two separate houses…Lords vs. Commons…and got to see some neat historic artifacts…like the guard’s log book entry when they discovered the 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden beneath the building by Guy Fawkes in 1605.
Westminster Hall is 900 years old, and they found really old tennis balls in the rafters. The rest of the building had burned down in a fire, was only 150 years old and constructed in Victorian Neo-Gothic. Part of the building had been bombed in WWII and was only 70 years old. One staircase had hand-painted wallpaper that cost £450 per strip…and the taxpayers were livid.
Sadly, my nice relaxing day out was also cut short. I had a lovely tuna sandwich and a berry smoothie at Prêt à Manger after the tour…and it all came back up a few hours later. The stomach flu had found me too.
We’re thinking of heading to Amsterdam one of these weekends, and I was looking up typical Dutch souvenirs. I’m not really into Delftware or clogs or any of the normally illegal things that they’re known for and can jeopardize a security clearance. I like architecture, canals and tulips. I also like cheese, and Dutch cheese is apparently a popular souvenir.
As you may or may not know, the UK has VERY strick import rules for virtually everything including meat, dairy products and potatoes. But today I came across a great site that I thought I’d share. It’s the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) site’s search function for imported goods.
That’s right, you just put in the country you’re coming from, the item’s category and the specific product, and voila! It tells you all the rules and restrictions relating to that product. Happily, Dutch cheese is not on the list.
This last weekend we had our first official “local” playdates, woo hoo! (I qualify that because our very first playdate in London was with another family that we used to work with in Belize that were posted to Bulgaria and in London for R&R. ) I’m also very thankful that our son is in nursery school full time, or he might have been really lonely by now. So it was great to have, not just one, but two playdates on Saturday and Sunday both at our apartment.
The first one was with a couple of lovely American ladies from the Econ section at the embassy and their three kids. And the second was with a New Zealand/South African couple whose two children attend the same nursery school as our son. There was lots of food and toys and bickering and crying and laughing and running. And we now know that our son’s bed makes a very good pirate ship.
The weekend before last we had a small family outing to the Ambika P3 art gallery at the University of Westminster. Knowing full well that child-centered entertainment is a must for any successful outing, we first stopped at McDonald’s, and then went to a cute little playground tucked into the Paddington Street Garden a couple blocks south of the university. After our son had conquered, or at least touched, every piece of equipment at least once, we then proceeded to the gallery and stood awkwardly in front of the gate for 10 minutes waiting for them to open, which it finally did (late).
The exhibit was called “Out of Ice: The Secret Language of Ice” by Scottish artist Elizabeth Ogilvie “…fusing art, architecture and science in an experiential installation comprising ice, water, video projections and film.” It was neat to see it, but there wasn’t quite as much to it as I thought there might be. On the lower level there were two contained bodies of water…one catching drips off of hanging chunks of ice, and one simply sitting placidly in front of a screen that rotated images of ice. The upper level had a few more images of ice with four video projections of ships and sled dogs, etc., running simultaneously in the middle. It was beautiful, but I felt like they could’ve done a lot more with the space.
But it was our son’s first art gallery. I asked him what he thought of it. He didn’t take too long to answer and said simply, “It looks cold.” Yes, yes, it does.
January 20th was a federal holiday, so we did what has become a pattern for us over the last couple years…drop our son off at his normal daycare and have a date day! On this day we decided to go to Greenwich. We hadn’t been out there yet, and the Royal Observatory was having an Astronomy Photographer of the Year exhibit. So it was a perfect excuse!
We made our first mistake by sticking with our normal baby drop-off schedule, a little after 8am, and getting on the tube…in the middle of morning rush hour. It was awful. We waited for two trains to pass before we even attempted to squeeze on. And of course we were all wrapped up for winter, so it was hot and crowded and really stuffy. At one point, my hubby made the second mistake of the day…he locked his knees while standing and got a full on dose of orthostatic hypotension.
I had never heard of it before this, so it didn’t occur to me to say anything. And I guess he wasn’t really thinking about it either. At first he started to say he wasn’t feeling well, and he began to turn very pale all the way to his hands. I thought he was motion sick and prayed that he was not about to throw up on me. But it got worse from there, and a moment later he scared the sh*t out of me and completely passed out.
I’ve not posted many pictures of him, but my husband is 6’2” and weighs about 200 pounds. Happily, the train was so crowded that the people he fell on were able to support him for the most part, and he didn’t hit his head. And they were all really sweet about it! One woman began to fan his face with a paper and another jumped up from where she was sitting and offered him her seat. But we thanked them all profusely and opted to get off immediately instead.
After a bit of a rest and some fresh air topside, we opted to skip the rest of the tube journey and continue by bus, then stopped into Subway (ironically) for a sandwich after we arrived in town a little before 10:00. Convinced that everyone was feeling better, we ventured over to the Cutty Sark Museum, took a turn about the ship and admired the large and bizarre collection of mastheads that included Boudicca and a dog cleverly-named Sirius.
Next we walked across the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College and the University of Greenwich, which used to be the Royal Hospital for Seamen, and stopped to listen to some of the singing voices floating out of the windows at the music college. We also peeked inside the amazingly decorative chapel that was designed by James Stuart in 1781 after the original that was designed by Christopher Wren was gutted in a fire.
From there we headed north across the mostly dead National Maritime Museum Gardens and took advantage of the free entrance into the Queen’s House art museum built in 1619. It was originally the home of Charles I’s queen, Henrietta Maria, and is now a popular wedding venue. It was full of nautical-themed works with lots of images of Lord Horatio Nelson. I particularly enjoyed a collection of paintings of New Zealand by William Hodges, an artist on one of Captain Cook’s voyages.
We then staged our assault on the Royal Observatory, which sits on top of a ridiculously tall hill. The grounds are divided into two areas at the top…the Astronomy Centre, which is free, and the section that encompasses the prime meridian and the old royal astronomers’ quarters, which is £7 for adults. So we paid our fare and got a few pics straddling two hemispheres, then went inside to see the exhibit…which was utterly underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, the photographs were amazingly beautiful. But the images were barely 8×10 inches, slapped on a wall and lit from behind. I felt they could’ve been displayed to much better advantage.
By this time it was approaching 2:00pm, so we rolled back down the hill and into a great little pub on the corner called the Greenwich Tavern where we dined on mushroom tarts, onion rings and fish and chips washed down by a couple pints of Guinness. Appropriately fortified, we then began the long journey back to Central London. And yes, we actually braved the tube.
On a side note: I did a bit of research afterward because I was curious about how many people actually faint on the tube. I came across a document from 2009 that showed people had reported 311 incidents of fainting…and 68% of them were between 7:30am and 10:30am. So apparently it’s a fairly common occurrence!
Our last day in Russia was fairly low key. We’d managed to wear ourselves out walking every day. Our son hadn’t napped since we’d arrived and had stopped sleeping through the night. We were all coming down with colds. Our original plan had been to go ice skating in Gorky Park before catching our 9pm flight back to London, but the park suddenly seemed like a long way away and skating physically ambitious. And it was cold and windy and raining here and there.
So instead we opted to do some last-minute souvenir shopping on Arbat Street, or “The Arbat”, which was only a couple blocks from the hotel. According to Wikipedia, it “is a pedestrian street about one kilometer long in the historical centre of Moscow. The Arbat has existed since at least the 15th century, thus laying claim to being one of the oldest surviving streets of the Russian capital. It forms the heart of the Arbat District of Moscow. Originally the street formed part of an important trade route and was home to a large number of craftsmen.
“In the 18th century, the Arbat came to be regarded by the Russian nobility as the most prestigious living area in Moscow. The street was almost completely destroyed by the great fire during Napoleon’s occupation of Moscow in 1812 and had to be rebuilt. In the 19th and early 20th centuries it became known as a place where petty nobility, artists, and academics lived. In the Soviet period, it was the home of many high-ranking government officials.
“Today the street and its surroundings are undergoing gentrification, and it is considered a desirable place to live. Because of the many historic buildings, and the numerous artists who have lived and worked in the street, the Arbat is also an important tourist attraction.”
So we wandered down the street and through the shops and picked up a toy Russian ambulance and police car for the kiddo, a Yuri Gagarin fridge magnet, a St. Basil’s snow globe, a St. Basil’s rotating music box, a set of painted lacquer coasters, and my hubby picked up a leather cap with a toasty wool lining. Our son got his picture taken with one of the two Mickey Mouse characters randomly roaming the street in front of Johnny Rockets. And we stopped in for a snack at Wendy’s.
After that we packed up the hotel room and checked out. Since we had to check out several hours early or pay and additional fee, we were suddenly happy that we’d picked up the toy cars for our son since we had to sit in the lobby until 6:00 to wait for the taxi.
When he finally arrived, we drove the last leg of our journey out to the airport. I’d never been to Domodedovo before, obviously, and was a little concerned when I asked our driver to drop us near the Transaero terminal, and he apparently had no idea what I was saying.
Turned out all the airlines were huddled into one building and after being directed to four different desks, we finally found the queue for our flight that was being operated by Easy Jet…even though that was not mentioned anywhere in our flight confirmation. Eventually we made it onto the flight and after watching them de-ice the wings, we were back in the air, our Russian adventure behind us.