This weekend all four of us had the opportunity to go to London. This trip was arranged by the British Council, which is kind of like the Fulbright equivalent for the U.K. The purpose was for teachers from the U.S. teaching in the U.K. to get together to discuss our teaching assignments/experiences so far.
We took the train from Grantham directly to London. Grantham is about 20 minutes away and is about the same size as Melton. We purchased our tickets online well in advance, so they were quite inexpensive compared with buying closer to one’s departure date. It is more cost effective to travel from Grantham as the route is direct without having to change trains. The train we took traveled very fast and both kids were excited to see us moving through the countryside at an amazing clip. The train stopped at the King’s Cross station 1.5 hours later.
As usual, as it seems with everything we do over here, there were bumps in the road. For some reason unbeknownst to me I left a file folder at the ticket office in Grantham. In it was some Fulbright paperwork which was not terribly important, but additionally I had some banking information (for reimbursements) for the British Council! I could not believe that I was that careless, and neither could Rebecca. In fact, she commented that leaving something behind was really not in my character. So now we were in London and feeling stressed. Great.
We immediately found ticket windows and bought Oyster cards, which are kind of like travel debit cards for London transportation. Both our kids are FREE when it comes to buses and trains, so we only needed to pay for ourselves. We got two cards with 15 pounds each on them, found our underground train, and headed for Charing Cross. Our first destination was the Strand Palace Hotel, in the heart of the theatre district. Once we came out of the tube station we all stood in wonder….London! Double Decker buses everywhere, British taxis, Trafalgar Square right there. It was sunny and pleasant. The kids were in a bit of awe of the surroundings. I let them know that 26 years ago to the date I was living in London, and this was my first time back since that semester abroad so long ago. We noticed that no longer were we standing out from the crowd with our accents. All around us we heard foreign tongues speaking out loud creating a true sense of international flavour. The rush and excitement was embraced.
We found our hotel, whose tab was picked up by the British Council for the four of us. Very generous on their part. Of course, the initial room we got only had one bed, so we had to wait an hour to get a room of sufficient size. In the meantime I was able to get through to lost and found, and my blue folder was secured and would be ready for me when we returned. At this point my Fulbright colleagues were gathering. Like old friends we exchanged pleasantries, introduced spouses and/or families, and got ready for our Friday event. Because we had no room yet I had to ‘borrow’ a room so that I could change my clothes. I hauled a nice outfit overseas for events such as this and I was determined to put it on.
Our event was at the U.S. Embassy. As a group we walked over to the tube station and caught a train to the building. Family was to arrive an hour later, so I said goodbye and good luck with the room to Rebecca and the kids.
At the Embassy there was a significant protest out front held by Muslims angry with the U.S. over the controversial film that had been leaked out onto YouTube. Because of this we had to go around to the back and enter through, literally, the back door of the Embassy. Once inside we gathered and talked, and then were paired with U.K. Fulbright alumni to chat about our experiences and to gather any advice we could. I met some wonderful teachers who definitely gave my psyche and my confidence a boost. Then we went upstairs to a formal reception, where our families were as well as some U.S. teachers teaching in Scotland, who were invited as well.
It was so nice just to talk with these teachers. I learned that I am not alone with my struggles. I learned that many other teachers are just as frustrated, or confused, or angry, or happy like I am. It was good just to talk. And to do so in an Embassy! Even though the building felt a little dated, you knew that the place had historical value and held a presence of responsibility. Cameras and phones were not allowed into the event, so sorry, no pictures.
Satya and Isabelle, who represent the British Council, were there as well and offered their ears to us in supportive ways. I really liked that my wife and kids were able to experience this with me. Other teachers and their kids mingled with my family, as we discussed the highs and lows of living abroad in our situation. There are not many families over here, and not many men either. I am actually the only man in England from Fulbright, as the others are located in Scotland. Overall I felt important, which is a responsibility. I have a role over representing my country as well as representing two schools. It is truly an honour to be a Fulbright teacher.
We ended the evening by heading back towards the hotel and finding a pub, the Wellington, for a great meal that was reasonably priced. Kids ate without complaining and real ales were on tap, so the evening ended on a high note as we were knackered from the days’ events. We all crashed back at the room. But of course the kids fussed on going to sleep, and were up at 7:30am.
Breakfast was Full English downstairs, all you could eat. I drank about four glasses of grapefruit juice…because I could! The blood pudding was tried but I just did not like the metallic taste in my mouth, but I had to try it. Then I was off to another meeting with just my peers, and Rebecca and the kids were off sightseeing. They saw the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, walked along the Embankment, and hopped a Double Decker bus to sight-see. My meeting was to last about four hours.
My meeting was at the British Council offices and was really another chance to discuss our exchanges as a small group, try to get questions answered, and mostly to be reassured that we are all here for a reason because we are great teachers who do great things. One thing that was discussed a lot was how to deal with the social isolation that many are feeling. Many of the teachers are having a hard time with this, while others are doing just fine. Lucky for me this is not an issue because of my family. I just listened and offered support, but inside I felt so lucky to have my family around because I am never lonely. Heck, sometimes I wish I was alone for a little bit! Other topics were how to deal with the large amount of teacher paperwork we have to deal with (as compared to back home), time tables, getting around, impending British teacher strikes, and other confusing aspects of the experience. Thankfully Satya and Isabelle made sure that we all shared something positive about our experiences at the end of the meeting, because we all left feeling good hearing all the good things happening to us. In reality so many good things are happening to me and I need to put that into perspective. When school tires me out, or there are issues with our home, or problems with the kids and their school, I need to just get past them and remember why I am here and how special it is to be living in England. I love this country and all it has to offer and I pinch myself when I have to wait for cows to pass when I am commuting to work. This weekend in London recharged my teaching batteries and put me in a better perspective so that I can be a more effective teacher.
Goodbyes were said, we promised to all stay in touch, and we made tentative plans to visit each other. I said the East Midlands are open to all! Most of the Fulbrighters are either in London or south of London, or way north up near Scotland. Only two of us are in the middle of the country. I will see my colleagues again one way or another, but it was time to hook back up with my family. We bought mobiles upon our arrival, and they turned out to not be very good, but they do make phone calls, so we easily found ourselves. Heading back towards the hotel we went the ‘wrong’ way and ended up walking past 10 Downing St, the Queen’s Calvary (with horses out front), and ended up at the Parliament building. Not such a wrong way to walk!
Back on the tube we got our gear from our hotel. Our last adventure was a quick trip to the Natural History Museum, of which we saw 50 minutes inside a museum that requires about two days to fully appreciate. We will be back. Then we were off to meet old family friends. Back in Walnut Creek, the Dunlap family lived down the street. They had two children younger than me and I used to babysit them. My folks have always stayed in touch with them, and these days they split their time between California and London, as they own a flat over here. So we hopped a city bus over to Battersea and visited Elaine and Greg Dunalp! We had a few drinks, talked like old friends (they had some friends visiting too), they met my kids and I asked about theirs, and really we just had easy conversation amongst us all. It was nice to again talk to Americans, and to be in an authentic flat in London. Elaine is an Olivier Judge, which is kind of like the judging for the British Oscars for theatre, meaning that she has a duty to see as many plays as she can and review them. Sounds like a tough gig! They were generous to loan us keys to their flat so that we could visit London again and stay for free. We already have plans to go back in late October to do just that. I hope that we can go back to London and see them again as well, and we discussed this plan of action on our way out. Bless them for their support and generosity.
Of course we now had to get back on a bus, on a tube, and on a train to Grantham. By the time we finally reached our train we had seven minutes to spare!!! Too close a call for me.