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The same language and values, a shared fascination with royal births and Downton Abbey … the US and UK have much in common – so much so that when we visited the land of my birth last month, my young children struggled to tell which country they were in. “Is this England?” my three-year-old son asked soon after we left our home. “No,” I replied gently. “This is the Los Angeles airport departure lounge.”
Yet even after two weeks in England, they were still oblivious – and with good reason. English motorways are just as congested as LA freeways, so our car journeys were just as tortuous, while the temperature when we visited was hotter than California. And yet, whenever I come back to Blighty, I can’t help noticing little differences. Like having to beg a waiter in a restaurant for a glass of water (in the US you get one, whether you want it or not). Or what it means for something to be family friendly.
Take the Cheshire hotel we stayed in for a night. Its website showed off its swimming pool and proudly proclaimed itself a “family hotel”. It was blisteringly hot when we arrived and the children were close to meltdown. Having told them about the pool to prevent Armageddon breaking out on the back seat, they were desperate for a dip. “I see you have some little ones with you,” the receptionist said icily, when my wife and I trudged in, sweating and laden with suitcases. Then, with an eye on my six-year-old, who was ignoring my request not to kick his football around the lobby, she added sweetly: “Just to warn you, there are limitations on when they can use the pool.”
The restricted hours, she explained, were between 8am and 9am and 2pm and 3pm. I assured her we wouldn’t swim at those times but she shook her head. “Those are the only hours children are permitted to swim.” The rules only applied at weekends: during the week, children couldn’t use the pool at all.
After gently breaking the news to the kids (“You heard the lady – no swimming today!”) I hauled my bags and mewling offspring to our room. Silently fuming, it occurred to me that we got off lightly compared with a colleague, who came back to the UK in the late 1990s after several years in the US. One day he took his family for a walk in the country; it was cold so they headed to a pub where the landlord told them they had to stay outside because children were not allowed in the bar. As they shivered under an awning, a man and his large dog arrived – and were promptly allowed in.
Things may have changed for the better in the UK but children do still tend to get a warmer welcome in America. On the rare occasions that I take my family out to eat in LA, crayons and colouring books are provided for the kids to keep them occupied – at least for a few minutes.
This is not to say the UK is a land of child-hating ogres. Our three had a grand time, even if I did have to keep reminding them that the weeks of blazing sunshine and a thrilling British Wimbledon victory were an aberration unlikely to be repeated for a thousand years. Our holiday also highlighted some areas of American deficiency. Leave the big cities and you can forget about finding a service station restaurant that doesn’t serve food caked in grease and high-fructose corn syrup. Contrast this with the UK, where the rubber eggs and taste-free sausages of the Little Chef roadside breakfast that I devoured in my youth have long gone. British service stations have been taken over by miniature Marks & Spencers or Waitroses, all bursting at the seams with takeaway tofu salads.
Ideally, we could merge the best of both countries. Imagine a place where restaurant patrons don’t tut and mutter under their breath if you turn up with young children, and where a motorway stop doesn’t spark a three-child sugar rush. It’s not too much to ask. And please – if your hotel has a swimming pool, just let the kids swim in it.