Eighteen months ago—just in time for the July bombings—my husband and I and our then-2-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Violet, moved from Manhattan to London. We "relocated," as one says in global corporate speak—as if, setting up house the first time around, we had "located"—from Gramercy Park to Notting Hill and suddenly faced the prospect of finding a nursery-school spot across the pond. I wasn't, to be honest, particularly worried. We had just survived the notoriously grueling private-school application process in New York, which gave me a veteran's mentality: When friends would ask what I was going to do about the "whole school problem" over there, I would say confidently that it was impossible that the London application process could be any tougher than New York's. (I also had a theory—this was before we bought our £39 shower caddy—that the "whole cost of living thing" was probably exaggerated.)
As far as nursery school goes, however, it turns out I was right. There may be more children in London, but there are also many more schools; the ratio is simply not as cutthroat, no matter what Londoners would have you believe. (Talking to Londoners about preschools is a bit like talking to them about parking your car on the street. You explain what it's like in New York, and they say, "Oh, I know, it's getting very bad here, as well. The other day I had to drive around again.") The more troubling thing about the application process in London is that there is no application process.
Before we moved, I'd taken comfort in the notion that my child, being tolerably bright, would be fine no matter where we lived. Like all self-respecting New Yorkers, I woke up in the morning whistling, "If I can make it here …" and I'd even looked forward to testing our mettle against the Brits', our mettle in this case being our child. It came as a blow, therefore, to find that none of the schools on the shortlist I had drawn up had any interest in laying eyes on said child.
The way it works in London, explained Emily, the friend of a friend and a fellow expat, but a much more seasoned one, is that when your child is born, you phone up a few nursery schools—as well, incidentally, as primary schools and secondary/boarding schools—and you register him or her for a proposed year of entry two or five or 10 years hence. You "put them down" for the Acorn, for Pembridge Hall, for Notting Hill Prep. In London, the oft-repeated chestnut is not a Jack Grubman-esque, 92nd Street Y bribe story, but rather the running joke of the father who, when his son is born, calls Wetherby (one of the oversubscribed Notting Hill boys' schools) before the child's grandparents. There is no sanctioned application period; certainly nothing so transparent as an informational evening for prospective parents. For those of us who were too disorganized, clueless, or foreign to register our offspring at birth, there is instead a drawn-out period of flirtation and supplication which can go on for years.
When I reflect on my first few months in New York, a couple of memories epitomize for me the painful innocence of my Manhattan infancy. Most of them involve safety. My fear, for instance, that I was going to be mugged returning to my apartment—on 67th and 1st. My lingering dread of the "bad cabbie" scenario, in which a taxi driver would suddenly turn around and shoot me and take all of my money—at that time, usually about $5 to $7. When I look back on our first six months in London, I now understand, the memories of innocence will all have to do with my heretofore-unchallenged belief in a benevolent and pervasive meritocracy.
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