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England Redux

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Talk about satisfying: spending a full week in England with my family, revisiting my college and reconnecting with old friends.

I lived in England for five years, but that was more than twenty years ago and I’ve only visited once since then. I didn’t realize how disconnected to an important part of my past I’d been. We decided to visit now because my husband had a business trip and it coincided closely with our children’s spring break. The stars aligned, so to speak, and I’m not one to ignore signs like that. However, this trip didn’t turn out to be about just touring and socializing. I returned with the eye of a journalist and saw a significantly changed country.

When I first moved to England it was in 1987. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was in power and the country had emerged from a recession. Thatcher was nicknamed the “Iron Lady” for her conservative policies and there was a lot of discontent among students, who of course were my ‘colleagues’ back then. The punk movement was still alive and kicking and “Thatcher’s England” was a phrase they used a lot back then. I remember getting the sense the country was simmering with resentment, caught between a proud past and disappointing present.

Present-day England is facing tough times again. The day after we arrived, hundreds of thousands of union members and teachers, even children, marched in London to protest deep cuts to the budget. The UK is in deeper debt (proportionally) than the U.S. We couldn’t even get into downtown to sight-see. Instead, we rode the famous “London Eye”, the giant Ferris Wheel built for Y2K, and watched the protesters approach the Houses of Parliament. The event was mostly peaceful, though anarchists did their damage later in the day – tagging monuments and breaking windows at high-end establishments like the Ritz.

After London, we visited Oxford University, my alma mater. Much appeared the same in the city. I was surprised to see many of my favorite shops still open. But behind the gates of the colleges, there’s a real fight for funding. Student fees are spiking faster than they ever have. More than one person who works in development and fundraising told me they are trying to “catch up” with American colleges in the race to raise money. It’s hard to picture the “dreaming spires” of Oxford not being anything but ivory towers protected from economic realities…

After leaving Oxford, we visited Warwick Castle to show the kids a good time, mainly. I had visited there before and was shocked to see how it had been what I’ve dubbed “Disney-fied”. Boasting a “Princess Tower” and offering kids the chance to dress up and take part in a mock battle (at least that’s what it looked like to me), this was not what I’d call a traditional English experience. The changes really shouldn’t surprise me, though. Tourism is one of England’s major (and only) industries and each site is competing to attract crowds like German and French school kids as well as retirees!

I’ve often said the English Monarchy really is the backbone of their tourist industry and you better believe everyone’s cashing in on the upcoming royal wedding! Souvenirs are everywhere you look. From the tasteful to the gross (I read they had royal wedding ‘sick bags’ but maybe they’re meant to be symbolic.) I even heard you’ll be able to download the ceremony itself on iTunes. Of course I wish the young couple all the best. The life they will lead won’t be easy – but you couldn’t pay me to be there on that day. Except of course if you paid me to cover it. As a tourist, though, I’d rather watch it on tv and instead hope to enjoy the peace and quiet surrounding the mystical site of Stonehenge, which I’d expect on the Royal Wedding Day would be close to empty.

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