When I signed up to the boys' new kindergarten I was asked whether I would be interested in sending them to 'summer camp'. I automatically said no. After all, we've only just arrived here and seeing as I'm not yet working it seemed a bit mean (not to mention expensive) to ship them off to some 'camp'. I also, I admit, had images of kids in dormitories, being forced to swim in lakes and chop up wood - gleaned from 70s Disney films and stories told by friends who worked in such places on gap years.
What I didn't realise is the pivotal role that summer camp plays in suburban American life, or that it doesn't involve being sent away. Essentially, it is just a form of summer childcare for when the nurseries and schools are closed.
Take the other day. The Littleboys and I are at the local beach when a veritable army of children, of all ages, colours and ethnicities, marches past. They are all in groups, with each group dressed in matching t-shirts sporting the name of their summer camp. Each group is frogmarched, front and back, by adults with 'STAFF' emblazoned across their own matching shirts. About 50 different camps (all with big yellow schoolbuses - yay for Littleboy 2) have converged on the beach for a free concert. They're having a fantastic time, singing, dancing, mucking around - and more importantly, not being looked after by their parents.
Now, I know for a fact these parents are not all working - this town is awash with stay at home Moms. But in America, it seems every kid goes to summer camp. (The Doctor recalls a Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown & Co come out of school, cheering that school's out for the summer. Then Lucy tells them yes, but the bus for Camp is waiting, and their faces immediately fall.)
Every playground we go to, every time we visit the pool, the camps are there. There are religious ones, Takekwondo ones, tennis ones, ones affliliated to nurseries and ones affliliated to schools. The children move in packs and are curious and suspicious of the little kids with funny British accents who are playing on their own nearby. And slowly the realisation is dawning on me that the Littleboys could be the only children in America not in some form of summer camp.
So am I a total fool, I wonder, opting to spend the summer chasing after my children with a sunscreen bottle, sweeping sand off the kitchen floor and dragging tired, whingy toddlers around the supermarket? Spending my days trying in vain to read the New York Times on the beach (not a good idea when it's windy and you have two small kids to supervise), when I could be indulging in some pleasant activity BY MYSELF such as exercising, going for a proper swim, reading a good book, or trying on clothes in the mall? All of which, at this present time, are distant fantasies.
Who knows? Littleboy 1 comes and plonks himself on my lap, damp and sandy, and gives me a big salty kiss. Littleboy 2, meanwhile, is gently singing 'row, row, row the boat' while filling his bucket with sand. I know that by 6pm this evening they'll be driving me crazy, but I am also aware that this time with my children is precious.
And besides, from the envious way Littleboy 1 eyes the campers, once they start going to camp I'll probably never see them again....