I have lived in the UK for so long now - nearly half my life - that I hardly consider myself an expat anymore. I understand the etiquette of queuing. I can make a decent cup of tea and I can discuss the both the weather and driving conditions on the M25 with genuine enthusiasm when smalltalk is required. Sometimes, when I talk about the British I say "we".
When I had my first child three years ago, however, I was once again reminded I was living in a foreign country. The English childhood has certain rules and codes that are a mystery to me.
I don't know, for example, how school uniforms work. How many of these do you have to buy? Do they get washed daily? How do you know when to change from winter to summer uniform? Does someone tell you these things before your child starts school? With my eldest now age three, these questions are not imminent, but looming closer.
Here are some of the things I have learned:
1) Middle class Brits don't like dummies and consider them to be lower class. Its only one step away from piercing your baby's ears. There aren't these prejudices where I am from, and I found dummies to be a great help with my colicky and fractious eldest daughter. Without a dummy I honestly don't think I would have got any sleep in the first six months. But English children are expected to suck their thumb instead, which is considered to have that winsome, Winnie-the-Pooh quality about it. Even though its easier to throw away the dummy than the thumb when you want to wean them off...
2) English children go to bed very early. 7pm is about standard and even 6.30pm is not unheard of. Because I rarely get back from work before 8pm, this kind of schedule has never really worked for us, and my children go to bed at a shockingly louche 8.30 or even 9pm. But then they do sleep until 8am sometimes - a big bonus when that happens on a weekend - while my English mummy friends wonder why their offspring are always up at the crack of dawn.
3) Manners are very important for English parents. Children must say "please" and "thank you" and "may I get down from the table" and parents are mortified if they don't. I think well-mannered children are lovely, but I don't remember these things being impressed upon me quite so much when I was a child. The fact that there is no actual word for "please" in my native language also makes it hard for me to remember to reinforce the message for my kids as much as I should. Watching the politeness training given to young children here does explain a lot about the English - for example, why they are unable to ask for so much the location of the soup aisle in the supermarket without the exchange involving 18 variations of "excuse me" "so sorry to trouble" "thank you so very much" "I really hate to ask but" and "could you be so awfully kind as to". It takes hours!
4) English children eat tea in the afternoon, a meal which I still find hard to grasp. Sometimes it seems to be just a light snack. Other times -like at the children's nursery - it is a full meal that leaves them too stuffed for any dinner at home. I'm never quite sure what to prepare when I need to provide tea for friends' children, but tend to use sandwiches as a useful fallback position.
5) Birthday cakes are boring Victoria sponge but are elaborately iced. If you have children you will need to learn to sculpt things like bears, pirates and trains out of marzipan and coloured icing sugar. When I was growing up our birthday cakes used to be sponge cake topped with cream and strawberries. Or a chocolate cake decorated with - well, chocolate. Invariably they were round. I now realise these are clearly not going to be fun enough. I have bought a book on cake making - one picture shows a cake topped with a chimps tea-party complete with marzipan monkeys and miniature cups and saucers. There is a icing sugar tablecloth with a miniature tartan pattern painted in food colouring with a fine brush. I'm not bad at baking but this picture makes my head hurt. The really crazy thing about the cakes is that they are cut into really minuscule pieces at the party and everyone eats them just out of politeness because the icing is really just too sweet. Or they get wrapped up in napkin to take home and are discovered weeks later, squashed at the bottom of a jacket pocket.
6) English children don't feel the cold. Shorts are quite acceptable in winter for little boys. Girls at senior school wear teeny tiny skirts that barely show under their blazers all year round, and don't wear coats. With the first sign of sunshine, however, English children are slathered with suncream, put in long sleeved tops and strapped into wide-brimmed hats. They are almost better covered in summer than winter.
I am sure there is much more to discover - after all, we are only in year 3 at present. I will keep you updated.
Working Mum, originally from Finland, is an embattled mother that juggles a job, two kids and life in suburbia.
Photo credit: mister snappy