Whenever we’ve been away from the UK for any length of time, the last line of William Blake’s Jerusalem comes to me unbidden and starts looping in my head as the plane circles above a patchwork of luscious green landscape below. “In England’s green and pleasant land” chimes over and over in a happy way.
Honestly, when the sun shines, there really is nowhere more lovely than good old Blighty. It’s very green and very pleasant. Being away makes you appreciate it all the more, especially when your trip coincides with a rare spell of gentle strawberries and cream summertime.
Going home-home you always notice the brilliant best and the terrible worst things in your own country and also the changes that are not quite so obvious when you’re living somewhere full time.
We relish the general orderliness, the ability to walk the streets freely and safely in the UK. We celebrate how rare and brilliant the free education system, infrastructure and the NHS (our National Heathcare Service) are. Although these things are often criticized and could be improved, they are all huge privileges and should be greatly cherished. They are the kind of things people in many other parts of the world would sell their grandmother’s for.
I love the cronky dry-stone wall lined Lake District and trundling train rides into London offering tantalising snapshots of peoples’ lives through their windows. I love the National Trust* treasures, the pub culture, summer fetes, regional accents and the British sense of humour. I even love the rain, proper ‘wetting rain’.
It’s refreshing to be able to talk without having to explain idioms and cultural references. It’s effortless being with family and old friends where you’re not having to go through the constant getting-to-know-you-drill of ‘Where are you from? Where have you moved from? Do you have kids? Which school do they go to? Where do you live? What brings you here?” These are the niceties you have to plough through to find some common ground and fledgling new friends throughout an overseas posting.
There are odd little things that we feel we should know, but realise we actually don’t. Like would the kids need train tickets? What age do you start paying? I found myself automatically asking every shop assistant; “Hello, how are you?” Which is custom (a custom neglected at your peril when dealing with any kind of bureaucrat in South Africa) and noting their generally pleasant surprise. Swiftly followed by them looking confused when handing them my card to pay for something, which they then had to awkwardly jam into the machine, (which was facing me).
Pickle was at one point, in his usual fashion, hurtling headlong towards danger – in this case a large cluster of stinging nettles. I realised that he probably didn’t actually know what a stinging nettle was and having reined him in at the usual last possible second worked on this important gap in his knowledge.
I also noticed that for the first week anybody with a regional accent was treated to Sweetpea’s slowed down affected Internationalish Americanised speech, which she uses when she suspects she is dealing with somebody who is deficient in English.
When discussing the differences between the UK and SA over Sunday lunch, the children’s cousins told us what they knew. “You find penguins in South Africa, but not in England”. “When it’s summer here it’s winter there”. Correct and correct. Sweetpea was then asked for her informed contribution to the discussion. “Wellllllll”, she pondered, “there aren’t any Sainsburys in SA….or Asdas, just Woolworths and Spar shops”.
It’s been great seeing our children doing things we did in our own childhoods. Blackberry picking, tree climbing, buying ice cream from an ice cream van, (ooh the thrill), rolling down hills and having plenty of picnics.
We enjoyed all of our thoroughly British outings, but I want mention Wray Castle, an extremely child oriented National Trust* property by Lake Windermere. Very little is precious or roped off, there are microscopes, dressing up rooms, table tennis and a ‘castle’ building room and and and…. It’s a perfect retreat on rainy days of which there are many in The Lakes.
Also, in Yorkshire we were introduced to The Forbidden Corner. Once a private folly, it is now open to the public with endless tricks, surprises, mazes, secret underground passages and water hazards. I’d highly recommend it if you have children….erm…and I’d also highly recommend it if you don’t
We’re now back in Jo’burg and although we were sad to leave England’s Green and Pleasant Land, we’re also happy to be back in cracklingly dry and sunburnished Jo’burg, refreshed and ready to start the new school year with the imminent round of “Where are you from, where did you move from?”, seeding new friendships and hopefully paving the way for plenty more south African adventures.
*The National Trust is utterly brilliant, it is a UK conservational charity working hard to preserve all sorts of wonderful things for the public, and I quote from their website: “We look after historic houses, gardens, mills, coastline, forests, farmland, moorland, islands, castles, natures reserves, villages…and pubs.”