British is a Foreign Language

It’s not just single words that separate British English from American English. Diaper, stroller, barrette, cookie: none of the basic nursery words are the same in Britain and America, but it’s easy enough to learn to say nappy and push-chair and hair-slide. What is harder is the unspoken language.

Outside of pubs, I think British people are reluctant to chat with strangers. When they do attempt to chat while sober, their conversation is stiff: “What brings you here? What does your husband do? Hmmm. And what do you do? Hmmm.” I answer their questions, but I’m already bored, uninterested in asking any questions of them. Back in California, the questions would be more open-ended, with more follow-up reaction. More about ideas and the present-moment than about official job-titles. The British, I think, don’t know how to make small-talk bigger.

Sophie is also bewildered by the social behavior of British children, not because they speak stiltedly but because they play rough. She stands at the top of the slide, waiting for her turn, and they push her aside, barreling down ahead of her. She stands aghast, watching kids play-wrestle in a way that clearly hurts. She just opens her mouth in surprise every time someone grabs her ball right out of her hands. She is entirely unsure how to reason with such rudeness, other than waiting for the other child’s parent to intervene – but British parents don’t intervene. I’m starting to wonder how much is admirable independence for children and how much is just lazy parenting. I realize that I’m making giant generalizations here about a diverse country, and I am sure that there are plenty of exceptions, but Ben, too, returns from every trip to the playground declaring, “Wow, those British kids play rough.”

Sophie stands next to the single-person merry-go-round (in British English, it’s called a round-about), patiently waiting for her turn, and the wait is so long that I have to announce that everyone will now get a ten-second turn. I start counting down to mark off each turn: “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, blast-off! Now it’s the turn of the girl with the cats on her shirt. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, blast-off! Now it’s Sophie’s turn. 10, 9, 8…” This is typical behavior for a California playground, but over here it’s a novelty. Having such close parental supervision is so exciting that the little Brits crowd around, lining up for their chance to get a count-down. It’s a temporary suspension of the chaos of most of their playground play. They welcome it. I think I spend at least a half-hour of every day simply counting backwards from 10. I think the other kids’ parents think I’m insane.

So Sophie’s new friends here are Turkish, South African, and American. Not British. This is parochial of us, I know, but it’s easiest to be friends with Americans (or Turks – that’s the one exception to relieve my guilt at my narrow-mindedness). They’re the ones who talk about ideas and they’re the ones who encourage their children to take turns and play gently.

The Brits seem to think it’s really cute that Sophie says please and thank-you, hello and good-bye. They look at me in surprise when I let Sophie walk freely outside (not on one of those kid-leashes), trusting her to stop and hold my hand before stepping onto any street. In America (at least in my liberal upper-middle-class corner of California) that’s ordinary behavior for a two-year-old. Here it’s extraordinary. The Brits keep saying, “Bless her! Bless her little heart.” I don’t know how to answer “Bless her,” but, more than that, I don’t know how to help Sophie play with children who don’t understand “please” or “bye-bye” or not to run into the street. So we ignore the British bullies and instead, play alone.

We’ve started going to the park where expats congregate. “Choo-Choo Park,” Sophie calls it, because it has a large wooden train she can climb on. Jesus Green is its official name. There, Sophie can play happily with Henry, who is a sweet three-year-old from Milwaukee. Henry has a little brother who takes morning naps, but Sophie doesn’t understand that Henry won’t be at Choo-Choo Park until 11 am. This morning, we arrived at the park at 8 am (I couldn’t delay Sophie any longer, not even to visit the horsies with hats), and Sophie ran in, exclaiming, “Where Henry? Henry hiding?”

Henry returns to Milwaukee next week, and I’m not sure how Sophie will take that blow. Fortunately, we have also met Katie, an almost-two-year-old from New Jersey. There’s also Siwan (the Turkish South African).

Despite those new friends, Sophie looks in the mirror and tells me that she can see Mila (her best friend from back home). She tells me that I’m Tori (Mila’s mom). She wedges herself into a seat she has created next to her bed and announces that she’s on an airplane, going home. She also calls this apartment her house, of course, and she’ll miss it when we leave – but right now, she misses kids who know how to share. And I miss the kind of parents who teach their kids to share.


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