Tales of a British housewife in Howard County

Blogger Claire McGill, of River Hill, shares her experiences as a British expatriate.
(photo by Jen Rynda)

Howard County really is nothing at all like my home back in the U.K., all things considered.

My family and I are what's known as "expats," and we're fairly British in our politics, behaviors and spelling, but that doesn't mean we are not keen to lap up new cultural influences.


Having only lived here since August 2012 we've taken on a whole new way of living, and HoCo is, for us, flawlessly family orientated -- a most appealing factor. What has also struck us during our day-to-day lives is how clean and open the area is, with an ideal mix of town and country. It's a good mix, a healthy mix, in a refreshingly diverse community. I like that a lot. This is something that my son, Harry, age 5, would not necessarily experience in our hometown back in the U.K.

In order to make the most of our time out here we have created a family "bucket" list to tick off to ensure that we take full advantage of all that the county has to offer.


HoCo Bucket List

Howard County Fair  (Much fun to be had.)

Ghost Tour of Ellicott City  (I love this little city.)

Columbia Festival of the Arts (I salute the culture!)

Howard County Farm to Table Restaurant Week (I do like a bit of lamb.)

Friendship Hot Air Balloon ride (If I'm brave enough.)

Merriweather Post Pavilion  (This is my idea of a perfect evening.)

Clark's Elioak Farm (My son adores this place and its tractor rides.)

Getting dressed up for HonFest (Quirky fun.)

Washington National Pillow Fight Day (Yes, please!)

Orioles baseball games and maybe the Washington Nationals (­But I prefer the orange shirts of the Orioles!)

Lakefront lunchtime concerts at Lake Kittamaqundi (Already this is one of my favourite places in Columbia.)

Rodeo (In fact, anything with cowboys.)

Gosh, there really is so much to do. Maybe we'll see you at one or more of these (we'll be the Brits with the hamper, flask of tea and cucumber sandwiches!).

I'm also totally excited about the Fourth of July celebrations, which is quite amusing, all things/history considered! But let's put the 200-year-old politics aside because there are parties to be had and I hear they are quite remarkable!

Whilst we've been trying all sorts of American traditions in order to experience a real American lifestyle, I have to admit that I do still crave a good old British cup of tea, and I've been doing my research to try and find out where that might exist. And, by Jove, I think I've found it! Bean Hollow in Ellicott City not only serves fine coffee, they also know how to serve a proper 'cuppa'! It comes with a teapot and milk -- Dame Maggie and the cast of "Downton Abbey" would be in full admiration!

What's really struck me is how interesting and interested the American community is here in Howard County. And that's a delight all its own. There aren't many places that sweep you up and make you feel part of a community in such a short space of time. And it also strikes me how proud people are to live in Howard County. And I'm proud, too. Thanks for having me!

Here are a few of my most amusing learning experiences and observations about living in Howard County to date. For more of my anecdotes about the confusing, bemusing and amusing about being British in Howard County, you can visit my blog ukdesperatehousewifeusa.wordpress.com.

Aug. 14, 2012: Doing loads of stuff

My plan is to do loads of stuff. And I start with advice from here: http://visitmaryland.org/Pages/MarylandHome.aspx

Wowsers, so much to do and see! I see the Civil War will be re-enacted many times over for us if we require it. Good job.

Aug. 22, 2012: Walk-in wardrobe

I love this wardrobe. It makes me happy just to open it and walk in and look at the colour combinations and walk out again.


U.S. mailboxes are a new experience for us. In the U.K. the postman drops the letters through your door and they land on your doormat. So we were delighted to see we had a mailbox at the end of our street with a key to open it. Much excitement!

It appeared to me that the key is not working on first attempt to retrieve my mail. So I try many keys. I wonder if a neighbor might intervene. Throughout the day I try and try again.

To my husband I say, "The key for the mailbox is not working."

"You just go round to the front of the mailbox," he says, "and we're box number six."

"Oh," I say, "I've obviously been trying the back of it."

"That's the mailman's side," says he.

I have since found out it is a federal offence to attempt to access the mailman's side. Whoops!

Sept. 7, 2012: Yellow School Bus

On my journey I passed either:
a) the birthplace of the Yellow School Bus
b) the resting place of the Yellow School Bus
c) or the mating ground of the Yellow School Bus

Millions of the buggers! Yes, they really do have the iconic Yellow School Bus. And I know where they live.

Corn dogs

So, I decided to try corn dogs, that fatal American tradition. U.K. friends, I plead ignorance to what a corn dog was before I tried it, but I knew I wanted to partake.

This is what a corn dog is: A corn dog is a hot dog sausage coated in a thick layer of cornmeal batter and deep-fried in oil, although some are baked.

Sadly, it was delicious and addictive and now sits around my middle like a lardy ring. I recommend just one, not the one and a half I chose to indulge in. A piece of America on a stick. All hail the corn dog.

Sept. 13, 2012: School drop-off/pickup line

Another U.S. phenomenon: the school pickup line. School gates? No. Walking to school? No chance. Meet other parents? Hell, don't even think about it!

Everyone drives to school here and the school pickup line is a well-ordered military operation with strict rules that must be adhered to in order to ensure that it all goes smoothly (which it does unless there is a U.K. mother in the line).

So here's how it works.

Drop-off — You drive into the school grounds. There is a man in a yellow vest with batons who waves you through in the right direction. You drive very, very slowly. You join your relevant queue. There are teachers and older children standing by. You do not get out of the car (I have been told that you can do drop-off in your pj's and pickup in whatever you like, since no one sees you). You pause the car, and the teacher or older child on duty opens the door. Out gets your child with his or her rucksack. You wave bye-bye, and the child walks into the classroom. "Have a great day," says the teacher or older child, and they shut the car door. And off you drive (slowly), joining the exit queue.

Pickup -- It's the same deal, except this time everyone gets there 45 minutes before pickup time actually commences so that they can join the queue. You slowly make your way up the queue. Your child appears. The teacher opens the door. Your child gets in. They shut the door and off you go.

You do not engage in conversation with anyone. If you are me, however, you get out of the car whilst waiting in the pickup queue and attempt to sunbathe. Everyone else stays in their air-conditioned cars.
And that is that.


It works, but it seems a shame that there is no meeting, talking, engagement. I may just have to break the rules.


Sept. 19, 2012: Pulled pork

Is it wrong to eat this every day? I suspect so, but we love it.

Oct. 3, 2012: Waivers and birthdays

This is nuts -- I have just had to sign a waiver for Harry to attend a friend's birthday party!! Seriously, this is how it works: no liability to the parents or venue should Harry have a tumble and injure his toe/face/arm, etc. They are all hot on the legal stuff here.

Birthday parties are hot to trot here, too. Apparently, over the summer there was a lot of competition in the 11-14 girls' birthday age range, with one girl having ponies trotting round her garden at her party and another had a ZOO delivered!!!!! Really? Who cleared up? That's what I want to know.

So, no triangle sandwiches, no cheese and pineapple on sticks in the USA – oh no, I expect sushi or a platter of sliders for the kids' lunch with these events, a celebrity appearance and a party bag containing Chanel.

Oct. 15, 2012: The world of coupons

Coupons here are big. There are coupons for everything. I know this, because I got totally chastised by a server at the checkout when I did my "big shop" for not having coupons.

"You got no coupons for none of this, darlin'?"

Um, no. Where would I acquire coupons?

"In Sunday's paper, darlin'. You can get coupons for all sorts. You wanna get another sack of potatoes?

They're buy one, get one free."

No, thanks, they'll just go off.

"You can give them to a friend."

OK, I'll get one and give them to a homeless kiosk. (I have images of poor homeless people in Maryland bemoaning yet another potato soup/mashed potato/fried potato dinner during October).

So what is the deal with all the coupons? Well, it makes you buy stuff you may not usually get, but in fairness, it gives you a whole load off your shopping bill. I stood behind a lady in a queue with coupons, and whilst I sighed inwardly (in a nonconfrontational British manner) as they scanned coupon after coupon, they deducted a pretty respectable amount from her final shopping bill.

Respect to the coupon.

Nov. 1, 2012: Halloween

Halloween is officially bloody brilliant in the USA.

People do cool stuff to their houses; everyone is out trick-or-treating — it is not tiresome or awkward like in the U.K. It is fun central, with a focus on community, being neighbourly and kids. Oh, and candy. I heard one radio station today ask if listeners had "candy hangovers."

The effort, imagination and total excitement about it all is impressive.

I'm converted.

Nov. 5, 2012: Schools are shut -- a lot

Yep, the bloody schools are closed (again) for the election.

I swear Harry has only had one full week at school. There have been family fun days, hurricanes, teacher training, teacher reports, blah, blah, blah. Just give the boy an education!

Egg white

Have I mentioned that you can buy egg white in a carton? It's the most amazing thing, and prevents that ever-present worry that some of the yolk will fall into your egg-white omelet. Hurrah, no such worry for me anymore.

Nov. 13, 2012: An observation

People are clearing up fallen leaves from their yards and gardens. Apparently there are some rules about this -- that we have to do it. I hope they are still there when my mother comes -- she loves a bit of gardening.

Dec. 10, 2012: Christmas lights in the USA

So there are lights, lights everywhere. Christmassy ones. And blow-up Santas, and blow-up snowmen, and I even saw a blow-up pineapple, though what that has to do with Christmas I cannot fathom.

Anyhow, putting up your lights in the U.S. has completely different connotations from Christmas lights on houses in the U.K.

Face it, citizens of the U.K., we sneer and tut at people who decorate their houses with what we would consider too many sparkly and colourful lights. We jeer at them, and because there is a class system that exists in the U.K., we generally suspect that those with overt Christmas paraphernalia must be of the "lower class" and therefore have no taste whatsoever.

Shame on us!

In the USA, it really is completely different. Anyone and everyone puts up their Christmas lights, and they do it with great pride. There is ultimate respect for this, and they are there to be enjoyed by the public, neighbours and nosy Brits like me. The array of Christmas lights here in Maryland holds no clue to class, since none exists. Putting up your lights is, pure and simple, a joyful thing to do to celebrate Christmas.

And some of them are pretty amazing, and look pretty pretty and, thus, I am slowly beginning to understand what it is that people love about Christmas decorations.

Feb. 4, 2013: My First Super Bowl

I was lucky enough to get two invitations to Super Bowl parties when the Ravens played in New Orleans, which proved to be an eye-opening experience for this little Brit.

I was determined to get in the mood and rushed out to buy something purple, only to be disappointed that the only Ravens T-shirt left is a men's XXXXL. Not to worry, I can still be part of the party, thought I!
Over the next few hours I learned an awful lot of stuff about the Super Bowl.

Fumbles and interceptions – this most excellent phrase is all about the mistakes and challenges made during the game and warrant a great deal of pre- and post-match analysis. A lovely phrase that I am surprised was not used in "Fifty Shades of Grey" more overtly.

Food – I really don't think I have ever eaten so much in one day. With burgers, chicken wings, pulled pork, buffalo chicken, cupcakes, pizza and monkey bread also on the menu, I was totally spoilt for cholesterol-raising choice! Monkey bread is now one of my new favourite things!

Male cheerleaders in Ravens – I learned that the Ravens is the only team to have male cheerleaders. How progressive! Bless their Lycra hot pants!

Half-time entertainment -- This is all about the show, the spectacle, the drama, so they rolled out Beyonce and suddenly the men at the party I was attending decided they needed to sit down and check out the screen for a little bit, because they'd been doing a lot of standing and shouting.

Anyway, all in all, the Super Bowl was a new, amazing, weird, commercial and cultural experience for me. Food, football and friends, that pretty much sums it up. Awesomeness, America -- well done.

Feb. 9, 2013: Bunco!


Well, yet another virgin experience taken in much excitement last night -- my first Bunco game. According to the Washington Post, Bunco is sometimes referred to as the housewife's drinking game. Ooh, la la!

Upon posting my excitement at playing said game on Facebook, a British friend replied that the ladies had played this on a recent episode of "Real Housewives of Orange County," that most excellent documentary-journal about women with big fake boobs, massive hair and a load of time and money.

Triple that excitement! I'm in for Bunco!

I rock up to a lovely house of Desperate Housewife proportions and am greeted with food and drink and yoghurt-covered pretzels. Brillopads!

The game is very sociable, you get to move about and chat and everyone has a glass or two of wine and it's a right old giggle. I can see me bringing this back to the U.K. for endless girly nights in.

Observations about the game and the lovely ladies I met:
•  Everyone was very glamorous and had fabulous teeth (I still have an obsession with Americans' teeth).
•  All the homes of American families that I have been in are big, just like on TV, and totally spotless.
•  People were drinking! This does not seem to happen often at American "dos," and it was super to be in grown-up glamorous company with some gals who liked to have a few glasses.
•  I perfected my Bunco scream -- this happens when you get a Bunco or a "baby" -- I got both, and my Bunco scream was most excellently executed toward the end of the evening!
•  I didn't win anything, but I think I might just be a Bunco addict in the making. And I'm definitely on for lunch/pedicure/massages with some of my new American housewife chums!

Feb. 14, 2013: Valentine's

Harry has 16 people in his class at school, including him.

He has to, therefore, take in 15 Valentine's cards made out to his friends in his class and signed by him. In return, he will receive 15 Valentine's cards from them.

I am dumbfounded by this.

Whatever happened to a) the mystery of receiving a card from an anonymous admirer and b) getting your heart broken because you didn't receive a card? (I am pretty sure that 5 years old is not too young to get your heart broken ­-- best to get used to it now.)

March 21, 2013: St. Patrick's Day

What I love about America is the capacity to party about ANYTHING. Of course, there is the age-old joke about everyone in the States having a claim to Irish heritage. After all, we've all seen "Far and Away," and that was obviously as entirely accurate as Tom's and Nicole's accents were.

Anyway, who cares about heritage when there are potato cakes to be eaten and Guinness to be drunk. We have a proper Irish friend over here -- like really Irish, from Ireland, wears green and crossed the sea and everything, so we partied with them. And got into the spirit -- marvellousness!

April 17, 2013: Kids and cars

Let me explain this one — in the U.K., if you saw a 16-year-old driving a car, you'd be yelling "STOP, THIEF!" (I can speak from actual experience since my car was stolen by a 12-year-old.)

The fact is that I have to stop myself yelling this every time I drive in to my son's school because the kids [who can] are driving massive trucks and sports cars. I confess that I swerve every morning, as I am totally mesmerized by these little people driving big people's cars.

It's only a year's difference from the U.K. to get the driving license, but I think you would rarely see a 17-year-old in the U.K. a) driving to school, b) driving a Mustang or an SUV, or c) driving legitimately!

The Buick

So my husband has had to get a new car, since his clapped out banger Ford Taurus that had been a hand-me-down had dribbled its last bit of engine oil on our driveway. (I refused to get in the beast whilst it was on its last legs.)

Therefore, we are now the proud owners of a Buick. His excitement at getting an American car was a joy to see! "A cool car," he declared, smoothing the bonnet/hood of his newly named "Funcle Buck."

However, his joy was slowly dissipated by the fact that, upon a Google search of "Buick," we find that it is referred to as the American seniors' car -- a reliable, comfortable car for the older generation in the USA. How I laughed! It is very comfy though.