In the Bleak Midwinter
All Souls Langham Place was packed with parents and bristling with anticipation. Settling in to watch my daughter, Anne, perform with her friends in their winter concert, I scanned the program while Henry, her two-year-old brother, squirmed at my side. The Christmas concerts of my south Florida childhood were more “Frosty the Snowman” than “In the Bleak Midwinter,” the hymn Year Twos had been practicing. My, her music teacher is ambitious! Lucky for us, he is also patient. The girls are just six, after all.
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter, long ago.
My mind wandered as I listened, to a time before the children were born, to the day my husband, Tom, and I left New York in a driving snowstorm. We had done all of the hard things, or so we thought. Our books and furniture were packed and on their way to a container ship; we had said goodbye to our friends and explained our decision to our families. We’d loved living in New York through our twenties, but we couldn’t imagine the next stage of our lives unfolding there. We wondered if London would be a better fit for the family we hoped to have. And, thanks to Tom’s dual citizenship, we were finally going. At least, we were trying to. Our 9pm flight would stay grounded at JFK until early the next morning.
I imagined a smooth transition. Both of us were to go on working for the same employers. At the time, I was an editor at Gotham, a division of Penguin Books, and many of my authors were British. I was always looking for the next big British book to publish in the US (knowing that a core faithful of Anglophiles like me would love it). We would move over the weekend and go straight to our new offices on Monday. We’d planned everything to the last detail and were feeling optimistic: What could go wrong?
We woke up in London on our first morning—February 15th—to sun and snowdrops. We had left the east coast’s bleak midwinter far behind. The temperate climate is one of southern England’s best qualities; something is always green and blooming.
Everything felt new and strange. Signs in the street and on the underground took on a double meaning. Though we knew that “Way Out” meant “exit” and “Mind the Gap” meant the gap between the Tube train and the platform, it was hard not to focus on how far we were from home, in a place that would go on feeling foreign to us for a long time. It was exhilarating one moment, and exhausting the next. We could take nothing for granted—not even breakfast.
In our local supermarket, we searched. Where were the eggs? Next to the flour and sugar. Not refrigerated! They don’t need to be, because the protective membranes haven’t been washed away in the cleaning process as they are in the US. You may have to deal with the occasional smudge and feather, but it’s worth it for their freshness and bright yellow yolks.
Instead of two kinds of sausage (links and patties), we were confronted by 25 different options. Which would we like? All of them, as it turned out. The sausage discovery process would gain us 10 pounds apiece over the next six months.
We would learn to shop every day, since our refrigerator was the size of a footlocker, with a freezer like a shoebox. We’d have to resign ourselves to eating all the ice cream in one sitting. Later we would do as the British do and buy smaller tubs of ice cream. Bigger isn’t always better: who knew?
We had looked forward to the life-expanding possibilities of our move across the Atlantic, but in those first few months in London, our world contracted as we dealt with all the little details of homemaking. We had to choose a neighborhood to live in, and there’s no getting around it: London is huge. Our friends were scattered like breadcrumbs and we realized we would not get to live near all of them. We chose not to choose, renting as central a place as we could afford while we got to know the city.
We settled in a fourth-floor walk-up in Marylebone. It was a neighborhood on the upswing, and we were excited about being so close to the tourist magnets of the West End, being still practically tourists ourselves. The movers were none too pleased when our shipping container arrived--with 60 boxes of books. They looked as if they’d just as soon start a bonfire on Wimpole Street as carry them all the way up to the flat, and who could blame them?
Next, we had the fun of replacing every one of our household appliances—from the blender to the iron to the electric toothbrush. The US has a completely different electrical standards, voltage, frequency and plug type to the UK. We discovered the wonder of John Lewis, England’s all-purpose, dependable department store (Never Knowingly Undersold!). We also discovered the generosity of their returns policy when I bought the wrong size sheets for our bed (not realizing that an American Queen is closer to an English King than it is to a Double). I didn’t figure it out until I’d not only washed the sheets, but recycled all their packaging. These are the times that try a customer service professional’s soul, but our new best friends at John Lewis were unperturbed.
Once we had made our domestic arrangements, our thoughts turned to social life. We weren’t going to sit around eating sausages, finishing one another’s sentences along with the ice cream, and watching John Stewart on Sky cable every night, tempting though it might be.
One of our first invitations was to a birthday party at the home of an American expat friend. He and his wife had been living here for three years and knew a lot of people. We met a lot of friendly faces that night, but the party might as well have been back in our old neighborhood in New York, because everyone there was American. We realized then that it would be possible to miss out on making any British friends at all.
We would later come to understand that while other expats are easy and fun to befriend, they tend to skedaddle after about two years when the contract is up, the transfer notice is handed down, or the novelty wears off. Expat friends will break your heart. Anyway, we had come to make a fresh start, and we needed a strategy. We dubbed it The American Charm Offensive, and it consisted of inviting every nice person we met at work over to our new place. Sometimes it went well and sometimes it didn’t. Like Anne’s music teacher, we might have been ambitious, but we were also patient. Within about 6 months, we had some reciprocal invitations and slowly, very slowly, over the next few years we made British friends.
The house we lived in had three flats on the upper floors and we became close with our downstairs neighbors, Trish and Dan. They were kind enough to introduce us to their family and friends, who broadened our circle considerably. We were brought closer by the vicissitudes of living in a 200+ year old house that had been renovated in a way that could best be termed Casual. At various times, hastily rigged sewage pipes burst in the living room, the house fire alarm brought everyone to the ground floor in pajamas in the middle of the night, and the lights went out without warning or explanation. One morning, Trish and Dan suffered a close call when their bedroom ceiling fell down onto their bed while they were making coffee in the next room--a pile of wet newspaper and horsehair that could have flattened them both.
Office life was a whole new experience. I was most impressed by the non-hierarchical tea getting at Penguin UK. Anyone headed for the office kitchen—regardless of seniority—would offer to bring a cup of tea for whoever else was around. In the New York office, coffee runs were the locus of great snobbery and always delegated to the intern or assistant, a role each of us had taken for a couple of years and then gratefully relinquished. But beyond that refreshing difference, London office politics were a dog whistle. No one could explain it to me—I would have many awkward moments. Like showing up for the company picnic—which was rained out, of course—with a try-hard array of home baked treats wrapped in pretty paper and tied up with bows. Everyone else brought wine. I skipped the pub of an evening to go to the gym—not realizing that so many important discussions, decisions and relationships were actually happening there and not in the meetings I dutifully attended (where I’d inevitably say the wrong thing without realizing it).
As an editor, words had always been my power and glory, but suddenly it seemed I never had the right ones. The British idiom and slang I was learning felt awkward to use. I decided to double down on my American accent and words, but sometimes they got me into trouble. (Who knew that saying you “quite liked” someone’s new project was considered an insult?!)
I would become so curious about these differences in language and culture that I would end up writing a book about them. As Philip Roth once said, “Nothing bad can happen to a writer. Everything is material.” But what I remember about my early days in London is feeling so foreign all the time. Sometimes I wondered if we had made a huge mistake. I liked England to visit, but would it ever feel like home? In This English Life, I look forward to sharing some of the funny stories, surprising insights and cultural baggage we have accumulated over here.
We have made many mistakes, but happily London was not one of them. Ten years later, crowded in among friends and our singing children and a thriving community of like-minded souls, midwinter feels anything but bleak. Tom told me he spotted the first snowdrop coming up in the garden just the other day.