"Mummy, may I have a biscuit?"
Allison Gray laughs as her 4-year-old daughter, Sara, an adorable redhead with freckles sprinkled across her nose, asks for a snack in a refined British accent. "It's amazing how easily she picked up on the culture, and even the speech," Allison says, handing Sara a shortbread biscuit, otherwise known as a cookie. Sara's other favorite desserts are jelly (translation: Jell-O) and an ice lolly (Popsicle). For dinner, she's partial to beans on toast, a traditional English dish.
Sara was just 22 months old and her sister, Rachel, 10 months when Gray and her husband, Scott Beyer, moved from Darien, CT, to the London suburb of Wimbledon in May 1999. "Both Scott and I grew up in Texas," Allison explains. "I came to New York to pursue musical theater, and he took a job in the city with Factset Research, a small software firm." When Scott was asked to become managing director of the company's London office, the young family couldn't resist making what Allison calls "an exciting change -- but also a scary one because we were really settled in the Northeast."
Gray, a full-time mom, wasn't giving up a job, but she was leaving behind something even more important: her family and friends. Luckily, the grandparents were willing to visit. Notes Allison, "The trip home is too long for us to make often with such little ones."
After moving into a three-story, five-bedroom house, Allison quickly made friends among her neighbors and at Sara's nursery school. "The international community here is very friendly," she says. "You talk to people in the park and the village coffee shop." She also joined the American Women of Surrey, a newcomers' club that helps families learn more about their adopted country. The 40 members in the Wimbledon area meet for coffee and a social outing once a month and share tips on everything from nanny agencies and family doctors to the best brands of "nappies" (aka diapers).
Even with the group's guidance, Allison experienced culture shock. "There were definitely some surprises," she recalls. When a birthday party invitation read "Fancy Dress," Allison assumed it meant formal party attire. "I put Sara in a beautiful white dress and patent leather shoes, and she chose a sparkly necklace to wear with them." They arrived at the party to discover that all the other children were in costume. "That's what 'fancy dress' means here," she says, "so we had to improvise. I told everyone Sara was in costume as Cinderella."
As at a typical party, "tea" -- a term often used to refer to an early dinner for children -- was served, consisting of sausages, chips (french fries), baked beans, and lots of sweets. "But both Sara and I were shocked when, after the guests sang 'Happy Birthday,' the cake was cut and then taken away. The kids were given Jell-O instead of the cake, which was wrapped up in napkins and given to the children to take home. It's like the British version of a goody bag."
Allison also finds some differences between American and British parenting styles. "The English are much more formal. At the park, you don't see many moms getting dirty -- I'm the only one in the sandbox. And people probably think it's strange when they see me singing silly songs with my girls while walking down the street."
The British education system is very structured, and school starts at an earlier age than in the U.S. "If a child turns 4 by August 31, she's expected to go to reception class, the equivalent of our first grade," Allison explains, adding that she chose to keep Sara in preschool for another year. "She can already read beautifully, but I question if kids don't burn out."
Weekends center on family fun. "We love exploring all the beautiful gardens and playgrounds," says Allison. Favorite outings include visits to the duck pond at St. James's Park, the London Zoo, the Science and Natural History museums, and the Polka Theater for Children.
"But the girls' favorite activity right now is riding ponies," Allison says. "Most villages and towns have commons, large nature preserves with trails for horses, jogging, and cycling." Little Sara rides Biscuit, a palomino pony, once a week. "She's brilliant!" Sara pipes up. And she doesn't mean that Biscuit is smarter than your average horse: In British kidspeak, "brilliant" is the equivalent of "awesome" or "cool."
Both girls seem to think that life in London is also brilliant. Rachel doesn't even mind that it rains almost every day. "I splash now," the 2 1/2-year-old announces, handing her mom a pair of galoshes. "Kids pick up on what their parents feel," says Allison. "If Mommy and Daddy are happy and comfortable with their community, then the children will be too. Even though our family wasn't born here, to us this is home now."