When you're living in a strange place, it's all too easy to focus on what's missing and what's wrong. That's particularly true at this time of year, when the holidays are close and family feels far and the weather turns icy and it's pitch black at 4 p.m. like the place is run by goddam vampires.
Expats, everywhere, are famously good complainers. (I loved this list from Beijing writer Mitch Moxley about expats' top complaints in China. I haven't lived there, but I recognize the spirit.) Instead of indulging in whining or nostalgia, however, I'm trying a new mental exercise: conscious appreciation of all that is good about the United Kingdom.
Many substantially positive things make the UK a great place to raise a family: generous vacation leave and benefits, beautiful outdoor spaces, a culture that makes it easier to achieve the "work-life balance" whose pursuit torments working American parents.
One of the design flaws in our psychological wiring, however, is how easily we overlook fundamental good and focus on the immediate, no matter how trivial. We're disposed to favor the gratification of instant, uncomplicated pleasures.
So here it is: My first un-comprehensive list of great yet insignificant things about living in the UK.
Availability of cake: The UK's cake supply is such that a special meal has been created to absorb the surplus. "Teatime" is not a catchall euphemism for any time when tea is served. It is a specific meal occurring on or around 4 p.m. featuring tea, impractically small sandwiches and an assortment of tiny cakes. Does it make sense to eat a carb- and sugar-filled meal late in the day, just after you've come out of your post-lunch coma? No. Productivity isn't Europe's strong suit. Whatever. Cake is delicious.
Office Christmas lunches: My last US office celebrated Christmas with an annual potluck lunch to which the company contributed a foil tray of greasy turkey slices, like the kind they have in soup kitchens. Employees were invited to fill up a plate and then eat it, festively, at their desks. My current employer's Christmas lunch was at a pub. "Best we not start until 1:30 p.m.," someone said quite seriously during the planning. "These things do get quite boozy." Yes.
Holidays when stuff happens to the Queen and her family: We arrived in the UK at the dawn of a golden era in royal-related public holidays. Weddings. Jubilees. And all of them include a day off work for everyone. I am not the only person to notice this. Search "Do we get a day off" and Google UK eagerly suggests "when the Queen dies? If Prince Philip died? If Prince Phillip died?" (What was I Googling? Never you mind.)
Rain: This may seem an odd choice. It is my top summertime complaint. (I have enough to group them by season.) But England is made for these dark, wet winter afternoons. The streetlights' glow on a rain-slicked street makes the indoors feel instantly warmer and cozier. It's best if you have nothing to do and no need to leave the house. And if you can get your butler to bring your tea into the library.
Season 3 of Downton Abbey has already aired here. Sometimes I feel small and insignificant. Then I remember that with a single tweet I could launch a hail of fiery plot spoilers onto North America, and I feel again like a big, important person. I'm not saying it's right, the way Kim Jong-Il behaved. I'm just saying I understand.