Big and little lessons with a British twist

The red-velvet curtain goes up on the stage of the Richmond Theatre. Our shopping trolley bump-bump-bumps over cobblestones. We watch the silent subway commuters who are deeply engrossed in their paperbacks and candy bars. Meadows of bluebells nod in the spring breeze, and brilliant rust and orange leaves sparkle against the dull autumn sky. Alice and the White Rabbit are there, too, hidden at the bottom of the stained-glass windows of Christ Church, Oxford.

On a six-month sabbatical in London, our family collected memories for a lifetime, like colorful postcards stuffed in the back of a desk drawer.

While we were there, bustling from train to tube, our young daughters told us their grandest impression was that things are very small in England. They crossed roads where a double-decker bus nearly touched the buildings on each side and saw cafes where tables are set so tightly together that even Kate Moss couldn't slide into a chair sideways.

In fact, we called the dinner table in our apartment Piccadilly Circus, for it was in the hallway. But while life there was smaller, it was also simpler.

I never had to contemplate washing sheets after 9 a.m., as we had just one set and they needed to dry on a rack in the kitchen all day. Grocery shopping, two bags full, was a daily routine, so the bread and produce were always fresh. The milkman delivered pint-size glass bottles of milk to our door. We had one telephone, and it rarely rang. When it did, it was usually in the middle of the night, after the pubs had closed.

"Is this Church Cars?" the caller would ask politely.

"No, it's not," I'd mumble.

"Oh dear. Terribly sorry to have troubled you." The stranger at the other end never failed to sincerely apologize.

"No problem," I'd say, cursing British Telecom under my breath for giving us the number of a defunct taxicab service.

With no car or team sports, no home-improvement projects, and fewer social engagements, weekends started late and lingered into evening.

"Who wants to play hearts?" our 10-year-old enthusiastically piped every other minute. "No? How about spit?" she pleaded. "OK. Gin?"

We took long walks, visiting the deer that roamed free in the park at the top of the hill, or we'd go down to the Thames, where towpaths led for miles in both directions.

The underground ("tube") took us to the heart of London. We hunted for bargains along Portabello Road. At the Science Museum, we tinkered with replicas of Da Vinci's inventions. We fenced with wooden swords at the Tower of London and stumbled through dark, plastic rat-infested trenches at the Imperial War Museum.

One blustery day in Covent Garden, we gathered to watch clowns and acrobats perform in the square. They wanted to juggle knives over the head of a volunteer from the audience. All of the children waved their hands madly.

"Yeah, let's have a kid!" one clown on a unicycle shouted.

"Better yet - an American!" the other performers chimed.

The girls weren't chosen, but were pleased with the clowns' good taste.

Instead of California's elementary-school curriculum of native Americans and Spanish Missions, the children studied the Victorians and child-labor laws. They learned about medieval torture in gruesome detail. They can now instantly recognize Henry VIII by his red hair and big stomach.

But perhaps more important, we have learned that there is more than one way to do almost anything - flip an electrical switch, eat with a knife and fork, make a cursive capital "A." And more than one way to describe things, too. Cars have "bonnets" (hoods) and "boots" (trunks), and soccer is "football." We have added new catch phrases like "mustn't grumble." And we can pop open an umbrella using only one hand.

It has been said that every good travel adventure is an inner journey as well as an outer one. Ours was. How sweet the irony that by traveling halfway around the world, our family was brought closer together.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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