Friday, 30 September 2011

The Kids are All Right...

I'm amazed how resilient children are. You'd think that having been made homeless a week before the start of the school year, moving house away from your much-beloved next door neighbour-friends and being told that half your toys have been destroyed would be pretty traumatic. A few weeks ago, I was having horrible premonitions of being called to the school guidance counselor's office to be solemnly told that my children were withdrawn, depressed and refusing to speak.

But the boys have been amazing. They've moved on far more quickly than I have, rediscovered toys they haven't played with in years (plus several boxes of Playmobil they got for Christmas which we had all forgotten about) and have busily set about arranging their new house to their best advantage. And they talk in a matter of fact way about 'our broken house' and how we are not going back there. People keep asking me how they are coping - I tell them that there has been remarkably little effect on the kids.

There has been the odd 'moment'. For example when we were at a friend's house and the boys were playing with a bouncy castle that they had inflated in their living room (yes, their house really is that big). They were playing a game where they would inflate, then let the air out - at which point, they would shout : "There's a tree on our house!" I'm sure child pyschologists would have a field day with that one. LB1 has also asked me if would have to pay our old landlady for the old house 'because we wrecked it' (clearly after all those times I told him not to damage the house, because we'd have to pay for things).

And this morning, as we're packing for a weekend away (school being cancelled for the Jewish holidays) they solemnly ask me who is going to look after our new house while we're away. "What if our house gets destroyed while we're away? What about all our stuff? Should we take our backpacks and toys?"

I reassured them in a motherly way: "Of course that's not going to happen. That was a hurricane, and we were very unlucky. We're going to come back and all our things will be exactly where we left them."

What I didn't tell them was that I had been worrying, secretly, about the very same thing.....

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Great Canadian Roadtrip

People who haven't heard about the whole tree-on-the-house saga (and that's only about three people in our small town, where news travels fast), have been asking me if we had a good vacation. I've got a bit tired of explaining that yes, it was lovely until our house was destroyed by a giant oak, so I just smile now and say 'yes'.

And it really was lovely, so it seems a shame not to talk about it a bit here, just because the second week was ever so slightly ruined. Rather than write the whole holiday off as a time of stress and worry, I'd like to remember the good parts, and there were plenty of them.

First of all, Niagara Falls was spectacular. Not the town itself, I hasten to add - that is a hodpodge of overpriced hotels, overpriced restaurants (the most expensive meal we had in Canada was in an mediocre steakhouse there), random tourist attractions not related to the waterfall and rather seedy casinos. Everyone had warned us it was tacky, and it was. Although the part of town lower down, near the Falls, is quite pretty, with a very English looking esplanade all planted up with flowers, and a funicular railway. So overall the impression is of a weird mixture of Bournemouth, Disney and Las Vegas.

But the waterfalls themselves- both the famous Canadian Horseshoe Falls and the smaller, but nonetheless dramatic, American Falls themselves are something else. What I hadn't appreciated from photos and films was that there is a huge, swirling cloud of mist that lingers over the Falls, so great is the volume of water constantly raining down from them. It looks like the devil's cauldron, and the air around it is constantly damp with spray, like being in an enormous steam room.

Niagara Parks have done their utmost to make sure you get to see the Falls from every angle possible. There's the Maid of the Mist boat ride (where you get extremely wet). The Journey Behind the Falls, where you go down in a lift and see the Falls from tunnels carved into the rocks behind (you get a bit wet). The completely fake one (Niagara's Fury, I think it's called) where you stand in a sealed room and watch a "4D" video of the Falls, and they throw water on you (you get fairly wet). The latter was a bit silly, but the first two were fantastic, as was the walk along the White Water rapids (Littleboy 1 loved this so much that he announced he wanted to live in Canada).

If you want to escape from Niagara's tackiness, you can drive to Niagara-on-the-Lake, a pretty little town a few kilometres downstream and with a slightly classier clientele than the Falls itself. There, we managed to find a decent meal that didn't cost the earth, and drive down to Lake Ontario for a sunset view of distant Toronto.

After Niagara, we drove to the other end of Lake Ontario and stayed in a little cabin on a campsite. This was a brilliant plan. All the benefits of the campsite - activities for the kids, al fresco meals - but, importantly for me, No Tent (I am not really a fan of nights under canvas). The boys, who seemed to have very set ideas about camping, delighted in having a campfire every night and toasting marshmallows. Every night, they showed an outdoor film on a big screen just across the field from our cabin. They would walk off into the darkness and watch Toy Story 3 or something, while we drank our wine under starry skies. It was great (well, except for the times they ran back saying they were scared, which was pretty much every night).

Here, we experienced more fabulous Canadian scenery. It's all about water, really. The St Lawrence River and its Thousand Islands (where you'd probably pay several thousand million to buy a private home). The Rideau Canal, wooded and pretty and looking a little like the Thames. Lake Ontario itself, as wide as a sea and particularly attractive from the Sandbanks Park, where you can walk along an endless white beach and swim off the dunes in clean, fresh lake water.

After that, we moved on to Ottawa and Montreal, and although that part of the holiday was, well, marred by the Tree Incident, I did appreciate what rather lovely cities these were. Montreal in particular; how wonderful to be able to sit down for a croque monsieur lunch in North America, order in French and feel as if you were in Paris. The children loved the 'Biodome', an ecological park where you experience four ecosystems under one huge dome and see otters, penguins and other cute animals. They even enjoyed climbing up the 410 steps to the top of Mont Royal, the mountain after which the city is named - we made counting the steps into a game.

So would we go back to Canada? Definitely. Littleboy 1 in particular is a big fan, and not just because of the rapids in the Niagara river. Canada appealed to his love of activity, of Big Nature and the outdoors . He's announced that when he's grown up, he's going back there with his own kids, for At Least Two Years.

We might have to join him.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Chapter Two

Having to move house so quickly and unexpectedly has made me feel as if we are beginning a second chapter of life in the US. If we return to England in two summers' time as planned, our time here will have been divided neatly into half by the two houses (with slightly longer in the old house).

Despite the traumatic events of the past weeks, I don't think the moving itself was as bad as when we initially moved here from London. At least I know where everything is now and how it works - from Ikea to the post office - and I had friends who could take the Littleboys off our hands during the moving day. Never mind that we were basically just throwing our belongings into bin bags, and relying on a couple of friends to help us ferry stuff down to the new house (plus some random tree removal guys who we offered cash-in-hand to help carry our furniture out and put it in their pickup trucks. Only in America).

We're now pretty much unpacked and can start enjoying the new house. We have more space, a far posher kitchen (it has a wine refrigerator. Let me just say that again. A Wine Refrigerator!) and best of all, a beautiful view from our bedroom window (see above). In the morning, the sun shines on the boats in the harbour creating a beautiful rosy light, and in the evening, there are spectacular sunsets. If you look closely at night you can see the spire of the Empire State building with its red blinking light. And, although I miss the wooded vistas of our old place, quite honestly I am done with trees now and all they entail.

Chapter Two also involves being a mother of two boys in elementary school. Every morning, off they go on the bus, with their L.L. Bean satchels and new Angry Birds lunchboxes (I gave in to the nagging for these in a fit of sympathy for them after the house disaster). I settle down to my work, and they come back at 3.30, in a flurry of homework, letters and flyers, half eaten containers of lunch and random drawings, all of which I have to unpack before hurrying them off to some after-school activity or playdate. Remembering which boy needs lunch money/school trip permission slip/library book to be returned is a fine art, which I am already discovering requires military-style organisational skills.

There's a weird sense of deja vu this year, as Littleboy 2 is now in the same kindergarten class with the same teacher that his brother had last year. Despite being the youngest in the entire school ((he was allowed special dispensation to start, although his birthdate fell short of the starting cut off date by a week) he seems to be holding his own, and is very pleased to have found himself in the same class as his best friend from preschool.

Meanwhile Littleboy 1 is adapting to the rigours of 'first grade', with a sheet of homework every night and a no-nonsense teacher who write their names on the board and leaves them there overnight if they misbehave. (Yes, we found out about that one pretty early on). He retains his manic enthusiasm for almost everything, and has recently decided he wants to be a scientist.

It's all quite different from when we first arrived and I had two little English boys in preschool, one still very much a toddler. They still eat their Weetabix for breakfast, and talk about 'trousers', but they are more and more like little Americans now. The Littleboys are very much aware that they are 'going back to England' in a couple of years, but in reality they have no idea what that will be like. Thus beginneth Chapter Two.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

When disaster strikes

I guess you might have been wondering where I've been.

The answer is that since my last blog post, our lives have been turned upside down, then put back together again.

Just over two weeks ago, during Hurricane Irene, an enormous tree fell on our house. We were miraculously away, far away in Canada, so no-one was at home. My neighbour emailed me immediately, so we knew what was happening, but such chaos was reigning in our town that there was no way we could return straight away. At first we thought the damage might be minor. But then more emails came: the police, fire department, everyone and his wife had been at our house. The roof was smashed in and the whole house was damaged. My landlady was hysterical. The fire department roped off the whole house and would not let anyone in. They said it would be condemned. It was like, said our neighbours, Hollywood in our street.

Far away in Montreal, we were seriously freaking out. The worst case scenario was that we would lose all our belongings to either wreckage or rain damage. Although the tree had crashed into the spare room, the room in which we luckily had hardly any stuff, we had no idea what water damage or rubble was below. No-one was allowed in so no-one could tell us.

As the week went on, we stayed away. Well what was the point in coming back when there was nowhere to come back to? Half the town still didn't have power. While the boys were still enjoying our holiday in Vermont, The Doctor and I were frantically on the phone the whole time, unable to sleep or eat, trying to contact insurance companies and the like. Meanwhile a structural engineer, our landlady and various brave souls went in and grabbed our photos, pictures and precious things - despite being told that the whole house was unstable.

Meanwhile my network of friends in Long Island came through. Someone set up a gift card fund. People offered to lend us furniture. People emailed me the names of realtors and someone told me about a house newly available to rent on their street. It was near our old house, on the same school bus route, and I knew several people who lived in the street. I looked online, contacted the realtor and made an appointment to see it the minute we got back.

I am now sitting in that house. We saw it just over a week ago, and immediately made an offer and signed a lease.

On our return, we spent a week living with our wonderful neighbours, looking helplessly at our old house next door. The tree had to removed before we could go in; there were delays with this due to the power company being too busy to remove cables, and then three days of rain. The town Fire Marshal became my new best friend, stopping in for cups of coffee every day. While this was all going on, the boys started school. Littleboy 2 had his first day of big school, going off on the bus. It went by in a blur.

On Friday last week they removed the tree. That in itself was dramatic - huge chunks of majestic oak being lifted from the roof with a crane. Then, finally, they said we could go in.

We spent Friday night and Saturday removing our things from the house. Amazingly, we lost much less than we feared. The boys' playroom was completely obliterated, but it turned out that half their toys were scattered throughout the rest of the house anyway (good thing they are so bad at clearing up). There was water damage to books, a linen cupboard, a few items of clothing and a few other items - all of which are replaceable. Evertyhing else was unscathed - including an electric piano that had been found sitting on a damp floor, and my laptop, which so far seems to work fine.

We moved into the new house and here I sit. It's actually a much nicer house - bigger, almost too smartly decorated for us, and with a beautiful view of the harbour. But I am mourning the old house - we had such a good two years there, and it is filled with memories. Going round it, it was hard to believe we wouldn't be living there again. I think when you move, you usually have time to mentally prepare yourself; we didn't. It almost feels like someone has died.

But I realise we were incredibly lucky. Lucky to be away when it happened - although I don't think we would have been killed, as the tree fell on a room where no-one slept, it would have been incredibly traumatic. Lucky that more of our things weren't damaged; a fire would have been far worse. Lucky to have good, kind friends and neighbours, who helped us out, helped us move house, cooked us dinner and supplied much-needed wine.

And now, life can start again.