Expat Chronicles: When Your Back Yard is the World Entire

Our back yard here in London is roughly the size of a bonus room in one of those McMansions you find back in the States. There’s a small circle of grass in the middle that takes me about two minutes to mow – if I decide to take a break halfway through. It takes longer to unwind the lawnmower’s electric cord and shove it in the socket than it does to cut the actual grass.

So: the back yard. It’s small.

And yet having a back yard in London – or back garden, as they call it here – is a major, major luxury. Big cities with dense populations just don’t have enough space to accommodate homes with back yards. Try finding one in New York, or Tokyo – or downtown Charlotte, for that matter. We were lucky to find one here. We just happened to get a viewing of a condo with a back yard when we moved here a couple of years ago. If we were a week later it might have been rented out, and we’d have been lucky to find a place with a cracker-sized patio. It’s all timing, folks.

So: the back yard. It’s small.

Our daughters have now lived in three different houses in their young lives, and with each move the back yard has gotten progressively smaller. If the next place has a smaller back yard than this one, our daughters should get their own Reality TV show.

So yes, it is small back yard.

But right now, in this particular moment in time – in this historic freeze-frame of coronavirus and social distancing and the World in Lockdown – our little back yard seems as big and vast as the whole outdoors. It is a wonderland of space and distance, stretching from here to the four corners of the universe, giving them access to the world at large when the world at large is largely shut down.

Our daughters are home schooling and their parents are home working and the outside world is mostly a rumor right now. I get out once a day for a bike ride, in line with the UK rules governing daily exercise. I wear my mask and keep my distance from the few people wandering about. Other than that, our home is our world. The girls have not been outside their home boundaries in nearly two weeks. We are adhering to the stay-at-home rules. We probably would even if the rules weren’t in place, because Covid-19 is scary and nobody really knows how things will play out. I’m not sure when our daughters will see the outside world again. Weeks? Months? A year from now? All bets are off.

In this kind of situation, the luxury of a back yard, however small, cannot be overstated. We live in a neighborhood with many apartment buildings but few private back yards. To London’s credit, most of the apartment buildings in our neighborhood have shared outdoor spaces, so you don’t have to walk to the nearest park the way you would in Manhattan or some other massive burg. But you don’t see a lot of kids playing in these outdoor spaces. You don’t see them even when the world is normal, and you sure as hell don’t see them now, with everyone living in fear of the nearest cough or sneeze.

Like most kids, our kids are home schooling now. They do lessons in math, literacy, science and history, and they get two recesses a day. They go to our little back yard for recess. You cannot imagine how much of a blessing that is right now.

About a year or so ago I installed an 8-foot basketball hoop in the little back yard because I am determined that our daughters develop some kind of athletic acumen! They have to make five shots a day. Soon, it will be 10 shots, but they don’t know that yet. I have them practice tennis by tossing the ball to them and having them gently forehand it back to me. They kick the soccer ball around. They do the hula hoop.

Soon, there will be practice hitting a soft, squishy baseball. If they hit it over one of the fences, fine, it’s just a parking lot (“car park” in the UK) and I’ll just walk around and fetch it. If they hit it over the two other fences, we are at the mercy of our neighbors – one of whom (I think) spends most of his time in Iran. He’s a nice elderly Brit I’m pretty sure is somehow aligned with the UK Secret Intelligence Service or some similar James Bondish outfit. I’m just guessing here.

Well, the sports stuff lasts just long enough for our daughters to fulfill their athletic obligations (five shots!) and then they move on to other stuff. Mostly, they go about picking up rocks and arranging them in various cool and groovy patterns. Or, they dig around the dirt with little hand shovels trying to find the interesting matter that lies below, like insects or roots or more rocks.

The other day they found a small worm and decided to make a home for it. They arranged rocks in a very impressive fortress and filled the middle with dirt, leaves, weeds and other organic material. They gave the worm a name – Wormy –and placed him/her inside the fortress so she/he would be comfortable. They check on him/her periodically. I’m not sure the worm is moving anymore. But they really care for the worm as if he/she were their beloved pet.

Other times the girls just stand or sit around breathing the fresh air and feeling the sun and laughing or chatting. They’re outdoors in a small yard and the sky is above and the ground is below and it’s a pretty swell place to be.

When I was a kid we had a big back yard and a medium-sized front yard and a couple of huge dinosaur-era boulders you could climb on and while away the time. Everyone we knew had big yards. We just assumed the whole world had them, because everyone in our world did. But not everyone does. Too many young kids don’t have yards to play in, and that’s why we have public parks, and anyone who bitches about the tax money that goes toward public parks can just go bleep themselves.

So: the back yard. It’s small. But it’s the whole outdoors to our kids right now in this Age of Coronavirus.

And never have parents felt so grateful that it’s there.

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