Thursday, 28 August 2014

Swallows and Amazons Save the Day on the M6

My own intrepid explorers head up-river in Anglesey
The Valley-to-Palais family has been in Anglesey, North Wales for a much needed post-move break.

We decided to drive up on Friday afternoon before the bank holiday, something we knew was potentially foolish (due to past experience with the traffic) but which couldn't be avoided, as some friends from Long Island were flying in from Heathrow that morning, and it was the only day we could see them. So my day began with driving to Heathrow to meet the red-eye, driving back to West Berkshire and eating a large breakfast with our friends before they left for London. We didn't leave for Anglesey till after 1, and the traffic was predictably awful. It took us six hours, after negotiating jams on the M6, crazy roadworks near Shrewsbury and tiny Shropshire lanes.

So what helped us survive this journey (the same time as it took to get to Vermont from New York, and about half the distance?) I've sung the praises of audio books before: this time we listened to Swallows and Amazons. It's years since I read Arthur Ransome, and I was a bit concerned that it would be too old-fashioned for the Littleboys, not to mention rather tame in comparison to the exploits of Percy Jackson, Harry Potter and the rest. The first chapter contained some rather technical sailing references, which I thought might really put them off. And although they sat in silence for the whole six hours, I still wasn't quite sure what they were making of it.

But it turns out they loved it; despite never having been sailing in their lives, they were utterly gripped by the tale of the plucky Swallow family, the Amazons (aka Blackett Girls) and Captain Flint (aka Uncle Jim) walking the plank. Littleboy 1 now wants to read/hear the rest of the series and what's more, it has fired their imagination. This morning they were playing a game with a compass; apparently the shed was the North Pole.

What struck me is that as an adult, you immediately realise that the children are play-acting and imagining things; of course "Rio" is just a little lakeside village, and Captain Flint is not really a retired pirate (although what WAS he doing with a Jolly Rodger on his houseboat?). But as a child reading it, the lines between real and make-believe definitely weren't quite so clear. Littleboy 1 was very confused when he asked about the "Amazon River" and I said it was in South America. "But are they really in South America?" he asked.

(You forget how children see the world sometimes. Yesterday, watching The Great British Bake-Off, which my two boys rather inexplicably love, he remarked, "Gosh that two hours to make the cake went really quickly, didn't it?" when the results were shown after about 10 minutes.)

Anyway, seeing as books seem to be becoming something of a special subject on this blog, I'm wondering whether to do a monthly "books" post (for which, dear PRs, you are welcome to send me press releases). This month I'm going to give a non-sponsored shout out to Audible.co.uk, which is owned by Amazon and sells audio books. It's a bit like a club; you can earn credits for buying a certain number of titles per month, and therefore reduce their prices dramatically. For us, audio books seem to be becoming a bit of a necessary expense, so I think it'll be worth it. Happy reading!

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

One year on

Learning new sports: it's been a learning curve for all of us
With all the kerfuffle over moving, I've omitted to mark the one year anniversary of our being back in the UK. I'm sure long time followers of this blog will have a few questions, and I bet they include:

1. Do we miss Long Island?
2. Have the kids still got American accents?
3. Are we glad to be back?

1. Number one: yes, we do. I miss people -- friends I made, the girls whose kids started school the same time as mine did. I felt truly bonded in a community with those people, and I haven't yet felt that in the U.K. Meanwhile, the people whose kids all started reception together here seem to be bound together in their own little club that I feel I can't join. I don't know how long that's going to take; I'm hoping the new school year will bring new opportunities to make friends at the school gate.

I also miss the place itself. At the moment I seem to be experiencing a Long Island summer vicariously through Facebook; the beach trips, the Fourth of July parties, the barbecues, swimming pools and summer camp photos. I miss that we can't just go to the beach for the afternoon. The park is nice, but on a hot day, it isn't quite the same.

Perhaps a part of me will always miss it, a bit like I miss the Hong Kong of my childhood. But in a way, that's nice. I do want to remember it, as it was four years of my life - -four precious years, when the boys were little, that I don't want to forget.

 2. No, they haven't. After three terms of British school, my boys sound as much like little London schoolboys as anyone else. It's amazing how fast it went. All that remains is the odd word or twang. Littleboy 2 referred to the "movie theater" the other day, rather than the cinema, on our way to see How to Train Your Dragon 2. Littleboy 1 wondered if there would be any "new students" in year 5. I think a British kid would have said pupils, or children. They also still use the word "regular" to mean normal (as in, is that a regular sandwich or a toasted sandwich?). But in all other respects, they are little Britons. They play football and cricket and rugby now, not soccer and basketball and baseball. (Although they do still play Dodgeball, at school - that's one really nice thing about their school).

Both have settled into school well, although Littleboy 2 now changes school to his brother's school as he enters year 3. The coming year, with them both in the same school, should be much easier for me, and hopefully nice for them, too.

3. In a way, yes. I feel as if when I left, I had a bit of a downer on England. I never felt homesick, not really, and I never wished myself to be in any of the British places we'd left behind. But maybe this was a coping strategy? Now I'm back, I appreciate how beautiful some of the places we regularly go in this country really are. The Lake District, Anglesey, our family place on the Berkshire Downs.

And I do like London. I like that tonight I can be in the centre of London watching a play (of which more later) within an hour of leaving the kids. I like that I still go for meetings in the heart of Soho where the creative industries still thrive. I like that I (occasionally) get taken to lunch in a Jamie Oliver restaurant or a cool new gastropub. But I also like that we're surrounded by green fields and sports clubs down here in Dulwich/Crystal Palace -- it's not quite the Long Island coast, but it has its own pleasures.

What else? I like the Guardian and Radio 4 -- and being part of the debate. I know that you can get these things in America, but it's just not the same, and you feel as if you're one step removed when you're listening to John Humphries rather than WNYC.

Finally - perhaps the most important thing -- there's family. Since being back, my father has come round to our house once a week to spend time with us, and the boys have delighted in getting to know their grandfather really,  properly well (rather than just during those rather overexcited times when he was visiting us for a week). The boys have seen all their cousins throughout the year, and their other grandfather on a pretty regular basis as well. There's no substitute for that, and with the older generation now entering their seventies, I'm well aware that we must make the most of these years.




Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Betwixt two houses

Yes, I've changed the title of the blog. And the picture. (Don't worry, it's a work in progress).

At the moment we're between two houses. Well, actually we're in both. We've taken possession of the new one and are slowly moving carloads of stuff up the hill to Crystal Palace. This was supposed to make the final move (later this month) less painless, but it's debatable whether in fact it just prolongs the agony.

I have learned a few things:

1. Driving along the speed bump-dotted roads of Southeast London with a fully laden car is easier said than done.

2. However much stuff you think you have packed up, there is ALWAYS more.

3. Unpacking is a lot more fun than packing.

4. Taking half your kitchen equipment to the new house is only a good idea if you can remember what is where.

5, Children have been kept happy by being allowed to bring another box of Lego every time we make the trip. That, and the fact that there are blackberries in the new garden.

It's all a bit fraught, but one thing I am really pleased about is this: every time I open the door of the new house and walk in, it feels good. It's light, it's airy and it feels a lot more like home than our rented house ever did, even after a year.  That's got to be a good sign, right?

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Country Life





A few months after I first met The Doctor, he decided to take me home for the weekend and introduce me to his parents. (This, according to our mutual friend Fred, was a Big Deal. I guess he was right. The friendship lasted as well as the romance; we, and kids, holidayed with he, and family, in Spain last month).


We took the train, not to their London house, but to their cottage in the country, high up on the Berkshire Downs. It was a beautiful sunny May day, and as we ate a delicious Sunday lunch on the lawn, I remember thinking what a gorgeous place it was, with its views of cornfields, copses and the far off Ridgeway.

Fast forward twenty years, and I'm spending this week alone with the boys in the very same cottage, with The Doctor back working in London. Thanks to my in-laws it's always been a "weekend home" for us -- a real luxury to have. But it's more than that - it's been a constant family home in a time of flux and change. Over the years this ancient cottage has witnessed countless family gatherings, parties, engagements, funerals, memorial services, family rows and family celebrations.

Beautiful in autumn and spring, the village can be bleak in winter, but this summer it has really come into its own. For the last few days the sun has shone ceaselessly, and the sky is azure. There's always a brisk wind up here, but at the moment it's a cooling breeze when it does come, and it's remarkably still the rest of the time. Butterflies flit around the wildflowers in the garden, a distant church bell rings occasionally, and everywhere there is the smell of green things growing.

I work in the mornings, taking breaks to wander round the garden with a cup of tea. The boys play - either outside on the trampoline or climbing trees, or in the playroom which is so far away I can't hear them. In the afternoons, we walk to the local farm shop, or play pat-ball tennis on the terrace, or take a dip in a pool belonging to some very generous neighbours. It's all very laid back.

Today I decided to take them on a different walk, to an abandoned barn about half a mile away. It was rather overgrown with nettles, which prompted quite a lot of grumbling (they're not that much country boys yet) but on the way back we found a crop of early blackberries in the hedgerow, which made it all better. It's simple entertainment, but we appreciate it all the more for it being different from our life in the city. These American/London boys are still learning how to identify flowers and plants - ferns, thistles, elderberries and other things that country dwellers take for granted. (They know stinging nettles though -- and hate them even more than we hated poison ivy in the US).

I've always said I didn't think I could live in the countryside permanently. I'm a town mouse, and I like my creature comforts -- shops, theatres, people. But this week I'm starting to change my mind. I'm sure it's partly the sunny weather, and that I wouldn't be saying the same if I was sitting up here in February, the wind howling through the brick walls.

But just at this minute, with the wood pigeons cooing in the trees and the corn glowing golden in the field beyond my window, I can feel the pull of country life. One day the cottage will be ours (jointly), and I hope that we never take it for granted.

Friday, 25 July 2014

What shall we name the blog?

The move uphill to Crystal Palace is looming ever nearer and I'm still mulling over blog names.

A few of you have suggested names that somehow link it back to the Nappy Valley moniker that is my "brand", my "trademark" and my "USP" (as I'm sure the blogging gurus at BritMums would tell me). Iota suggested "From Nappy Valley to Crystal Palais"? or "From the Valley to the Palais" and Melissa thought that "Crystal Palace - the new Nappy Valley" might also helpfully raise house prices in my area (I like her thinking -- although given the current London house bubble and pesky estate agents inflating prices, I don't reckon much help is needed).

Bearing this in mind, I wondered about "Ally at the Palais (Moving on from Nappy Valley)" as my name could possibly be shortened to Ally. But is this a bit of a mouthful I wonder? And would people get confused with Ally Pally (which is the other side of London)?

Then again I could go down the Crystal route. Crystal Clear? Crystal Balls? (I quite like the latter but I'm concerned I might get rather a lot of strange hits on my blog). 

Or there's the Transmitter (as Iota also suggested). Crystal Clear Tranmission? It sounds a bit like an ad for a TV though.

Other thoughts: Life at the Palace? Palatial Living? House on the Hill? Parklife (we're very close to Crystal Palace Park)?

Tell me what you like, and if you really think I should keep the "Nappy Valley" element....

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Costa Living

Aiguablava Beach - a beautiful rocky cove
The last time I visited the Costa Brava, I was 18, and armed with an Inter-Rail ticket. This was a bit of a problem, as most of the beach resorts there weren't actually served by rail - but my friend and Inter-railing companion, J, wasn't fazed by that.

She wanted to go to the beaches where she'd camped with her family -- so, with our massive backpacks and her huge stereo, we took a succession of local buses from Girona and spent several nights in tiny "pensiones" close to the sea. We sunbathed, drank cheap sangria and ate paella, sat out late at night on the beaches getting chatted up by local boys, dragged our backpacks round the Dali Museum at Figueres and finally washed up in Barcelona, whereupon we almost got mugged and spent the entire day in a police station.

This time was a bit different. The Doctor and I arrived en famille with a car, two children, two suitcases, a large coolbox and various other items (including Littleboy 2's school uniform, having come straight from his end of term service). We arrived at a villa near Begur on the Costa Brava at the not-too-appalling hour of 7pm after a marathon day and a half's drive. Luckily our friends, with whom we were sharing the villa, had arrived first and had everything sorted - drinks, dinner and even inflatables for the pool.

The very popular diving board at Tamariu
Begur is a beguiling town (of which more later) and surrounded by some stunningly pretty little coves. Little being the operative word - don't go here if you want wide, sandy beaches where you can spread yourself out. The beaches are rocky, nestled at the foot of cliffs and accessed by winding roads - so parking is limited and you need to get there early to find a space. I dread to think what it's like in high season, as we were not even there within Spanish school holidays. Our first day, at Tamariu Beach, was a Saturday, and when we arrived at the beach there was barely room to lay down our beach towels. (Luckily having five rather lively kids who wanted to play beach ball helped -- after a few hours, all the neighbouring sunbathers had mysteriously moved away).

But the sun was warm, the water was clear and - best of all - there was a diving board on the rocks, allowing hours of endless fun for the children (and me) diving into the aquamarine sea. There was also surprisingly good snorkelling (or in our case, diving in goggles) -- I never think of the Med as a snorkelling or diving destination but we saw tons of fish when we dipped below the surface.


The beautiful coast around Begur
Aiguablava -- another of Begur's local beaches -- was an even prettier cove, lined by a seafood restaurants and with pedalos and kayaks for rent. The pedalos were the kind that have slides coming off them, so of course the children were desperate to go on one.

Medieval Begur; these towers were lookout posts for pirates
Begur itself is a pretty medieval hill town with a castle on its peak and crumbling towers from which the townsfolk used to watch for pirates. It has apparently become quite a destination for chic Barcelonians, and you could tell that from its range of boutiquey-type hotels, trendy bars and cool-looking restaurants that were more like something you'd expect in Manhattan than the Costa Brava. However, with five kids in tow, including a toddler, this wasn't for our party, and happily we found the kind of places that did a good pizza/ice cream option as well as some tasty tapas.

The nearby village of Pals was also a real find -- another medieval town with ancient walls and beautiful gothic architecture. We headed there on a rainy day and found it packed by fellow tourists flooding the souvenir shops - which, rather than selling cheap tat, were rather high quality, many selling the glazed artisanal pottery which is the local industry.

All in all the area was unexpectedly unlike the Costa Brava I remembered from years before -- and definitely unlike the much brasher Spanish Costas of Southern Spain, with their British fish and chip cafes, high rise blocks and sunburned clientele.

Lastly-- don't I always say this?-- you can drive there from the UK. It's only an hour from the French border and it's totally do-able, even with children. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire helped, and we had stop -offs in Cahors, in southwest France, and Blois in the Loire Valley on the way back. Even on the way down, where we could only stop one night, we managed dinner in the city of Chartres, right by the famous and very beautiful cathedral.

And, although we did spend many hours in the car, there was only a BIT of moaning about the drive. Although the cheers that the boys let out as our Channel Tunnel train pulled into Folkestone were rather revealing....





Friday, 27 June 2014

End of term madness -- and mindfulness...

End of school madness has descended on the Nappy Valley household. Having two children at two different schools (thank god, only for another few days) makes things even more "interesting" than usual. This week has seen my presence at one school or the other on no less than four days out of five: for school plays, sports days, visiting mornings for new schools and information evenings for parents. Next week is only a three day school week, but our diary includes a school carnival, a school trip, a Leavers' Party and a Leavers' Service (after which we will be speeding down the French autoroutes towards Spain and a much-needed holiday).

Despite having (so I thought) read all the school mailings religiously all year, on three occasions I have found myself almost missing crucial events because of letters being mislaid, not sent out etc.  I was also informed midweek that Littleboy 1 needed a fancy dress costume for Monday. After my experience with the fez, I found this infuriating -- in fact I think working parents need to go on strike about this sort of thing. It ALL gets dumped on the mothers -- the Doctor just laughed about it when he heard, and in a relaxed fashion just told me not to bother. But he won't be the one who has to stand there cringing when the little darlings go on their carnival parade and our child is the only one in boring school uniform....

One of the reasons I work from home is so that I CAN go to all these school events, do pickups at different times of day and help the children with homework that, increasingly, seems to require adult involvement such as looking things up on the computer and printing things out. (Yes, I know a nine year old can use Google as well as I can, but select appropriate images and print them? I can't even get our printer to work half the time...).

I can't even begin to imagine how hard it is for the mothers who work in an office five days a week and only see their children after after-school club in the evening. Most of them do seem to make it to the events, but they're always checking their watches and running for the train as soon as it's over, and looking harried and hassled.

I don't recall my parents having this level of involvement when I was at school, although maybe I'm wrong (my Dad is the only one who's around, and he doesn't remember it). In a way it's lovely, because you do get to see what they're doing and to cheer them on at everything and meet the teachers on a very regular basis. And yes, God knows employers ought to be sympathetic about letting working parents go to these sorts of events. But I bet not all of them are. And it depends what you do -- The Doctor, for instance, can't cancel clinics because of a school sports day, and there are only so many swaps you can do with colleagues.

Anyway, coupled with all this running around is the rather sad realisation that another school year has gone by. When you are a child, the end of the school year is fun and exciting. But when you are a mother, it's just a marker of the passing of time -- that your children (and you) are another year older and that these are precious moments that must be captured -- and enjoyed -- in the bittersweet moment. I'll try to carry that end of term mindfulness with me as I rush off to the next school event....