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Project England

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We moved here for a change. We’re glad we did—and  now we appreciate Canada more than ever.

We’ve been in England for five years, both by choice and circumstance. Life is different here. Our current address includes the term Cottage. We moved here, partly, to give our children the experience of another country, not because we found Canada unacceptable in any way. However, we felt that living abroad would educate the kids and, hopefully, give them a better appreciation for Canada.

It’s done that, although English schools required a bit of adjustment for these Canadians. Arriving with three kids compelled us to quickly learn about school, GCSEs and A levels. All three were fortunate to go to the same school, which was built in 1660 and looks a bit like Hogwarts. What impressed me, though, was the church next door that was having repair work done to its roof. In front of the church a sign stated that the last time this church was refurbished was 1243. Clearly, we were not in Canada anymore.

This church made me ponder all that happened through the years around that site: 1665 was the last outbreak of the Bubonic plague, killing a quarter of London’s population; 1666 marked the Great Fire of London. The resilience and adaptability of the people who lived through these times is astounding.

We live in a small village with its own old church, on a much older religious site, its yard the final resting place of former Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, a master of resilience himself. His darling Clementine rests there with him. Our home is a little more than one hundred metres from his grave: many other family members are buried here.

I walk past his grave when I walk our dogs, always remembering to say hello. History seems so familiar with the public figure. It says a lot about the private man that he chose the yard of his family’s church and, specifically, did not want to be interred at Westminster Abbey, as was the wish of the government in 1965. I take his gravesite to be a reminder that our time is temporary and we would all do well to make the most of it.

Our village is in West Oxfordshire, on the edge of the Cotswolds and a lovely place to live. Until recently, I commuted to work in the City of London, the square mile that is the original Roman Londinium. What most tourists think of as London is actually the metropolis comprising the 32 surrounding boroughs.

Much of British history involves suffering. The ability to tolerate hardship and adapt to circumstances is one of the remarkable traits of the Brits. My friend Tony said, “When the English get upset, they complain about it for two weeks and then they get on with things.” While they take a situation seriously, they don’t take themselves too seriously, leading to the endearing British tendency to self-deprecate. Adversity reveals peoples’ character and their sense of humour.

London has always been a place of wealth. The obvious and immediate are the supercars, many of which are brought here seasonally from the Middle East. Certain cargo carriers specialise in flying flash vehicles to London for the show-off season. Then there is the storefront shop for private aircraft (personal favourite would be a custom 787) as well as the shops for naval architects offering to design any size yacht just for you. The options for the mega-wealthy appear endless.

If you’re not careful, life in London can provide a feeling of haemorrhaging money. I don’t think this is different from New York, Berlin or Singapore, but it would be easy to wonder where the money went at the end of the day. The rules of the financial game are different here and what this Canadian had to learn, very quickly, was to stop comparing British to Canadian systems. There’s a common recognition that you spend pounds like dollars, which means it is possible to go through money very fast if you’re not careful.

It helps to capture the incentives or discounts applying to the 50+ crowd (the age hurdles can vary). Train travel during rush hour is horrendously expensive, yet non-peak travel can be reasonable. Food from supermarkets is reasonably priced: lettuce from Egypt, oranges from Spain, chocolate from Switzerland, as well as all the British grown goods.

You can also get a reasonably priced fresh sandwich almost anywhere, with combinations of ingredients I’ve not seen in Canada. Any shop will have more variety on offer than you can imagine. Combine that with a cold lager or a glass of wine (which you can also acquire and consume anywhere) for a few quid and you’re set to carry on with your day.

Although I love London, I prefer the scenic British countryside, with its abundant walking trails. The Brits love walking and choices made years ago ensure public access across private lands from John O’Groats to Land’s End.

The blend of city and country has allowed me to hear perspectives from all over the world. People speak of their family and friends and certain views seem to be universal: cynicism about politicians; sport; celebrations over food;
and the two subjects that start most conversations in Britain—the weather and dogs.

If you have a dog (and it seems unusual for someone in Britain not to have a dog) and you want to go to a pub, you bring your dog. Typically, the hound would lie at your feet while you have a pint or few and then would assist you finding your route home. It does not matter how many dogs join their people in the pubs, the dogs are socialised to get along and there is rarely an issue. The thing about dogs is that they provide an emotional outlet for the British, a group not normally known for their emotional awareness. Emotion is shown through insult and obfuscation.

It is said that the English are like Canadians in their reputation for apologies; however, when a Brit apologises, they never mean it. Also, if a Brit says that something is “quite nice,” what they mean is that it is less than mediocre. Although we think we are similar, we are two nations divided by a common language.

At the wheel, once you master driving on the left, the narrow roads, often built atop Roman paths, provide a lesson in compromise. Sixty-five million people on an island one-fifteenth the size of Canada compels compromise. There is often simply not enough room on country lanes for two cars; one must pull into a passing spot, almost like a bus stop, to let other cars pass. As you pass, you wave, a conditioned drivers’ politeness. Cars are smaller: two litres is a sizeable motor, fuel is expensive and taxes are high on larger engines.

Little media attention is paid to Canada although affection toward Canadians is ever-present. What I have learned is the principal distinction moving here is that Britain is dominated by class structure and a Canadian can insert themselves anywhere because the Canadian accent transcends class. This is a wonderful and under-rated benefit of being a Canadian in Britain.

Brits tell me about their trip to Banff or a relative who moved to Canada 20 years ago. Then, “Why’d you come here then?” People in the UK cannot fathom why a Canadian would choose to move to the UK. Canada, to most Britons, is utopia.
I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had in Britain. I’ve met wonderful people who have done incredible things with their lives, people I would not have encountered if I’d stayed in Canada.

The result of this British experience is to have gained even greater appreciation for both Canada and Britain. I’ve lived in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Halifax, (in and around) Oxford and I work in London. I’ve learned that a place to live can be perfect for a particular time in life. Like most people, I’ve had to adapt and to be resilient during setbacks, but what I’ve learned is that there are good people everywhere and it is a small world if you’re open to it.

More Inspiration: Check out this inspirational article on why you don’t need to retire!

Author: David Swanson has spent his investment career in FinTech, asset management, securities analysis, and sales in the UK, Canada, and the USA. He and his wife live near Oxford, England.

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