Monday, 24 December 2012

The Nutcracker; a New York rite of passage

The Nutcracker is a huge Christmas tradition in New York; everybody seems to go, and it is as much as a rite of passage to take your kids for the first time as it is to take them to Disneyworld for a long weekend (de rigeur when they reach the age of about five).  We decided that for what will probably be our last Christmas here, we should splurge and see the most famous production of all, the George Balanchine-choreographed version, performed by New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center.

So we headed into Manhattan last night, The Doctor and Littleboy 1 bright and bouncy, myself (dosed up with painkillers) and Littleboy 2 (who had come down with a cold and temperature in the morning) slightly less bright and bouncy. Ten minutes into the opening act, Littleboy 2 fell asleep and remained so until the interval - a bit of a shame when you've spent hundreds of dollars on the trip, but at least he saw Act 2.

I've never seen The Nutcracker before, although of course the Tchaikovsky score is incredibly well-known- the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Waltz of the Flowers etc. By chance we had found the story the night before in a book of Christmas stories and read it to the boys, so we were all familiar with the story.

What I hadn't appreciated was the enchanting aspect of the first Act - that it features lots of tiny children, dancing quite beautifully. Littleboy 1 was fascinated by seeing the children on stage performing, and was thrilled by the huge Christmas tree (the set, and production values, were incredibly impressive). I was just amazed that a girl who appeared to be about six could dance on pointes (although I shudder to think of what she's doing to her feet for later life), and impressed by the boy dancing Fritz, the brother, who also appeared to be very young. The idea of the Nutrcracker coming alive and transforming into a handsome prince is going to be one that appeals to all children, and Littleboy 1 was no exception.

The second Act is all about costumes, and scenery and balletic set-pieces - the boys were less fascinated by that, although the adults could indulge in enjoying all of the above. From the deep purple tutus of the flowers to the striped candy canes, I don't think I've ever seen such magnificent costumes on a stage - New York sure does know how to do things well.

I believe The Nutcracker is becoming more popular in the UK these days - maybe as a result of all the Americans in London? - and I don't know if those productions are any good. But for anyone visiting NYC at Christmas with children, I would say the Lincoln Center show is well worth the rather extortionate price.

As for us, by the time we took the train back and rolled up at home at 8.30PM, with two boys almost asleep, and one definitely running a fever, we were all exhausted. But I was pleased to see that Littleboy 1(who is incredibly excited about Christmas) wanted The Nutcracker again for his bedtime story. Some of the magic had definitely rubbed off.

Merry Christmas to everyone.

Monday, 17 December 2012

It couldn't happen here.

So here I am, breaking the radio silence. It's been a while. Some of you have probably guessed that things haven't been good with me. The sciatica triggered a serious episode of anxiety and depression, which I am now trying to tackle, and while I am not out of the woods yet, I've been ordered by The Doctor to write a blog post before everyone thinks I've dropped off the face of the earth. (I don't want to go into all the details, so if you want to know how I am, you can email me separately).

I wanted to write about the appalling events in Connecticut, in a town that sounds similar to ours - affluent, picturesque, the kind of place where "those kind of things don't happen." I actually remember a local mother here talking about mass shootings once, and she even said she thought it would never happen in this town. "Why not?" I asked. "All you need is one weird loner with access to a gun, and it could happen anywhere."

What happened is just beyond belief, and while I don't want to dwell on the details, I want to record the effects on our own community. Everyone is shocked, scared and feeling just a little apprehensive as we send off our children to school in the morning. Emails are flying around - guidelines from the school district on how to talk to our children about this tragedy, questions from local mothers asking which schools have video surveillance, reassurances from the schools about security. When I picked up the boys from school on Friday, there was a police car in the car park. Everyone seems unsettled, and naturally, devastated for the community in Newtown, Connecticut.

But the reality is, nothing has changed. It is no more dangerous sending our children to school this week than last. Statistically speaking, our children are more likely to get run over by a car than attacked at school. While everyone is now calling for gun laws to be changed, what's the betting that in the end America does nothing about this? After all, it has happened so many times before, and in the end the gun lobby wins out. (Even now, we are hearing people calling for teachers to be armed. I mean, WTF?).

The fact remains that it is too easy to get hold of a gun in the US. I'd like to think that in other countries (including the UK), a young loner with serious mental health problems but no criminal connections would have found it much harder to get hold of a weapon. Yes, there will always be people who will find a way to commit these acts. But surely there are ways to stop it happening so frequently.

There are many things I love about America. I love our boys' school, and the fact that everyone in this town goes to the same high school, a good school, not private. But at this moment, I am relieved that they won't be continuing their education there. There is just no way of saying "it couldn't happen here".

Wednesday, 14 November 2012


Life on Long Island is slowly returning to normal. The queues for petrol have all but gone, thanks to gasoline rationing (you can only go on an even-numbered day of the month if your number plate ends in an even number, and so forth). Most people in town have their power back (but only just - one friend got it back on Sunday night); the local library is looking less like a refugee camp. The daily phone messages from the town emergency management officer  are drying up; some people say they will actually miss him and his calming messages, as they felt he was the one voice of reason in a crazy world. Oh, and the head of LIPA (Long Island Power Authority) has resigned. No-one is too sorry about that one.

The landscape still looks a little like "Godzilla had gone through it", as one friend put it. Trees snapped in half, gardens ruined. But this is nothing compared to the South Shore of Long Island and the Rockaways (just 15 miles or so from here), where whole communities have been ruined; houses flooded and the streets are lined with debris, while two weeks of unflushed toilets mean a stench pervades the air. Some people I know have driven down there to help, taking supplies for those who have lost everything; their reports back are startling, horrific.

But restoration is happening. And that is what I need as well. Someone to restore me to health. I'm still in pain with my sciatica. Six weeks of worrying and not sleeping are taking their toll, and sometimes I don't know what are real symptoms and what are imagined. I've been checked out physically with blood tests; nothing is apparently wrong. But I still don't feel right. My body, equilibrium and mind are out of whack; my whole body feels stiff and ungainly and it feels as if there's a great weight pressing down on me from above. I keep wondering what happened to the fit, healthy, happy person I was three months ago. Thank goodness for my boys (all three of them). They keep me going. Littleboy 2 wrote me a note the other night: "I love mummy mor than anyone can thik" (sic). You can't crack up completely when you have a little boy like that around.

So, it goes on. And we wait for restoration.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

A funny old Election

A few months ago, I was quite looking forward to being here for the American Election. I never dreamed it would be like it has been.

First of all, life has not returned to normal here. Some people in our town are still without power - 10 days after Hurricane Sandy. The weather has turned cold now and today there is a snowstorm with high winds - causing even more blackouts. The lights have flickered a few times today already and I'm hoping desperately we don't lose power again. School went back on Monday, but the kids have no homework due to people not having power at home, and a lot of after school activities have been cancelled. Then there is the petrol shortage. Many petrol stations are not open - whether due to lack of power or lack of gasoline is not entirely clear. In addition to this, people have panicked and rushed out to fill up. There are queues five hours long all over Long Island and everywhere you go, you see people standing around in the cold with jerry cans. Luckily we haven't had to fill up yet, but if it isn't over by the weekend we may be waiting in line with everyone else. Meanwhile, on the South Shore of Long Island, not 20 miles away, people are homeless, with all their possessions destroyed, rubble that hasn't been cleared and certainly no power or water. My heart goes out to them this cold, snowy night.

So watching the Election coverage seemed slightly surreal with all this going on - not to mention my current illness/pain, which is making everything seem nightmarish anyway. Somehow the problems we, as a family and as a community, are going through made the Election seem rather trivial.

Nevertheless I am relieved that Barack Obama came through. To me, his heart is in the right place and he cares about making this country a better place to live, whereas Romney was all about money and ensuring that rich America gets richer.

On another note, I am still astonished by the lack of political discussion in social circles here. Normally, the people I know here don't discuss their politics at all. During the last few weeks, I have heard some conversations - one at a party where someone was being attacked for supporting Romney, and the hostess quickly stopped the conversation; one at a dinner party where again, what would have been in the UK a spirited political discussion turned slightly awkward. The only proper discussions we've had about the Election have been with non Americans. (People do seem more willing to share their thoughts on social media though - people have "liked" candidates, and there have been some comments on Facebook today (one person  saying that what with the Hurricane and now Obama's re-election, it's like the end of the world has come).)

So, we continue to recover from the storm. Maybe sometime, things will go back to normal.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Hurricane Sandy

Thanks to all those who have been worried about us in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. We finally have had power restored after four days in the cold and dark, with little mobile phone coverage (as the mobile companies were also affected).

I want to try to convey what happened, day by day, to let people know, as well as to record it for my own memory. First of all, some of you may have noticed I hadn't blogged for a while. I was having my own little disaster, even before the natural disaster struck. My knee pain turned into leg pain which was then diagnosed as sciatica. In severe pain, I went for an MRI on my back which revealed a bulging disc. No idea how this occurred, but it has knocked me for six. First of all I convinced myself I had an untreatable disease (this was before the MRI). Then I was still in pain, with not much to be done about it other than physio sessions. Even sitting at my desk to work was an ordeal, and I felt so depressed that blogging was out of the question.

And then the Hurricane came.

Sunday 28th October

We live about 100 yards from the water, although not the open ocean - more of a bay. But the coastal surge along Long Island Sound was predicted to be up to 14 feet, and our house is about 15 feet above sea level. It wasn't clear whether we were supposed to evacuate - we had one message saying anyone 15 feet or below should get out, another which named specific streets, of which we were not one. Friends offered us to stay at their house further inland - however, they live in a street with lots of big trees, and we didn't feel it would be much safer (in the event, they were OK but others on their street had cars and houses crushed).  In any case we felt that if the lower level of our house did flood, we wanted to be there to move things upstairs. However, this was a tough decision. Were we endangering our children by staying put? Should we have actually got on a plane while we still could, back to England or somewhere like Chicago? School was officially cancelled until further notice.

Monday 29th October

We stayed - having stocked up on candles, torches, food and drink.  Even in the morning, the wind was getting up and by high tide, at 12PM, the tide had completely covered the end of our road. It's a dead end street, so there was no way out, at least by car (we could have escaped on foot the other end). We moved our car further up the road. Everyone was going down and looking at the sea, even as the wind got up - people were actually in a dinghy along the main road. The pond behind us was also a worry - it had overflowed its banks and was creeping up towards the house behind ours. By 3PM the wind was wild. Several large tree branches fell in our garden, luckily not damaging our house. We were glued to the Weather Channel, nervously watching the predictions for high tide, which was predicted to be worse at midnight. Mobiles were still working, so from Facebook I saw that someone in town had already had their house destroyed by a tree. At 6.30 PM the power went out and we were in the dark - we had just cooked, so ate by candlelight, listening to a battery powered radio. The wind was so wild, we put the boys to bed downstairs on the sofa bed, rather than upstairs in their room where a tree could fall on the house. At the same time, The Doctor and I started to move belongings upstairs, in case of flooding. From what we could see outside in the dark, the water was already rushing up above normal tide. Then we sat, drank wine and tea, and waited for midnight and the high tide.

Tuesday 30th October

At midnight,we ventured out onto our balcony overlooking the sea. The wind had dropped a little. We could see the moonlit water lapping in the carpark of the village hall, next to our house. But, it was still 30 yards away. It hadn't come up. The Doctor went to the end of the road to check. It hadn't come up the street. We went to bed.
I was awoken at 5am by the sound of branches snapping. I looked outside, but all seemed OK. I'm still not sure what tree it was, but by morning it was clear that many nearby trees had fallen. The wind had dropped significantly, so The Doctor walked up into town to check out some friends and neighbours' houses - including our old house. This time it had not been struck by a tree but an enormous one lay across its garden. Our old neighbours had several huge trees down; some streets were like a war zone. We walked to the nearest supermarket just to see what was going on - it was struggling to open.
One of the most difficult things was the lack of communication. Mobile reception was virtually nil. We couldn't email our friends and family in England to say were OK. Couldn't log onto Facebook to see what was going on with friends in other parts of town. For this reason we ventured out in the car to the hospital where The Doctor works - we knew they would have backup power and the Internet.
Driving out of town revealed the full scale of the disaster - many, many trees on power lines. One of the three routes out of town completely blocked by a fallen tree. No shops or businesses open. What was really worrying was the lack of anything going on - no crews cutting the trees or repairing power lines, no police directing traffic on the broken roads (which were scarily without traffic lights). It was a kind of lawless wasteland out there.
 That night on the radio, we heard on the radio that 90% of Long Island was without power. Other horror stories poured in - a massive fire in Southern Queens that destroyed 100 houses. Fire Island virtually washed away. Towns on the South Shore that had no drinking water. Lower Manhattan under water. This was no small crisis but a full scale national disaster.

Wednesday 31st October - Halloween.
Luckily one of our neighbours has a gas powered boiler (ours is oil, but requires  electricity to power up). So we were able to take a hot shower there, and that is where we spent much of the next two days, congregating and chatting with various neighbours, and the kids playing together. It was weird - all the Dads were around, unable to get to work via train (as all trains to Manhattan were suspended). They kept venturing out in search of supplies, restless and caveman-like.
Communication was still poor, but some information was getting in - ironically the elderly couple in the street who still have an analog landline were best off of anyone. We heard that school would not be back until power was restored - and that it could be seven days or more until that was the case. Halloween was officially off - there was an email from the town telling people not to trick or treat in the dark, but we got together with friends and neighbours to trick or treat at 3PM along the street. So, the children got to wear their costumes and collect candy, even if the expedition was slightly surreal, with parents freaking out about fallen trees and downed power lines.
Meanwhile, the shops were still half shut - the local Stop and Shop was open for dried goods, but these were half running out. There was no fresh food or milk. Luckily we had plenty, in our cooler in the garden, but we started to buy wartime food, like evaporated milk, just in case. Restaurants were generally closed, except for a few pizza places.
It was getting colder, with no heating in people's houses. We had never lit a fire in our fireplace before, as last winter was mild and our house is usually warm, but we decided to do it. We didn't have logs, but The Doctor, in full hunter/gatherer mode, managed to chop up some of the fallen tree branches in the garden and we lit a small fire with those and charcoal. Even so, when we put the boys to bed, they complained of being cold, so I let them curl up together in one bunk for warmth.

Thursday 1st November.
It was cold, very cold, when we woke up. We dressed the boys in full winter gear and I headed up to our neighbours' house as The Doctor headed to work - mainly so he could email people and charge up iPhones, iPads and laptops. Mobile coverage was still thin. Wild rumours were starting to fly - the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) was saying we might not get power back for up to two weeks, some people said maybe even until Thanksgiving. School would start on Monday - or no, maybe not till the power came back. The shops were out of food. You could get firewood somewhere, but it was really expensive. You could get food down the road in Bayside, Queens - but getting in and out of town was a nightmare. AT&T had "switched off the internet" (this last one made The Doctor guffaw). People were muttering about looting. It was beginning to feel like something out of a zombie apocalypse film - I would not have been surprised if several zombies had pitched up at this point and started attacking us.
The  Doctor did well on his mission. He returned with fresh food from Queens, firewood and fully charged iPads - all the essentials of modern life. We took hot showers at our neighbour's house, and hunkered down with our firewood and candles for the night.
Then - action. Some trucks arrived in our street and started sawing away at the tree that had fallen on the power line. Everyone went out to have a look. The crew were not LIPA but people from Buffalo in upstate New York, come down to help out. They were working round the clock to restore power. Suddenly our faith in America came flooding back - they were not going to abandon us to the cold and dark.
An hour later, the lights popped back on! We were able to watch TV, and finally see the horrifying images of what was going on around us. The house started to warm up, and we could finally run the dishwasher and washing machine. The candles were blown out, hopefully for the last time for a while.

Friday 2nd November - today.
Even with full power back on at home, it's still not back to normal, not by any means. Only our part of town seems to have power - perhaps because we are near the supermarket. There is a huge queue for the petrol station down the road - many are still closed. The Doctor has gone to work, but the boys and I are staying put - to conserve petrol, as well as anything else.
Many people still can't get to work, although there is now a partial train service to Manhattan. My boss lives in Brooklyn, but can't get a subway in to the Manhattan office.  The images of the subway stations that we've seen suggest that parts of Manhattan may be out of action for weeks.
I still do not see how they can possibly hold the Presidential Election next Tuesday. People will not be able to get to the polls, and even if they can, that will probably be the last thing on their mind. People in Staten Island, right next to New York, are saying they are starving. Elderly people in high rise blocks are trapped in their homes with no elevators.
Whether or not the election happens, America has got to get a grip on climate change. This won't be the last "superstorm", for sure. If Obama gets re-elected, he's got to take the leadership on this. That might be the only good thing to come out of this storm.

Monday, 1 October 2012

A stupid debate.

Another little debate over US English/UK English usages this week.

 I've noticed a few times the boys' little friends telling them off (rather sanctimoniously, I thought) for using the word 'stupid'. "That's a bad word, you mustn't say it," they say.

Now maybe it's just me, but I do use the word "stupid" and think it's fine. "That was a stupid thing to do," I'll fume at one of the boys, if they do something well, stupid, and hurt themselves. I'll say "Stupid woman" in the car, if someone cuts me up (if I don't say something worse). It's a useful word.

I was at a party the other night with some American girlfriends, and this came up. I said I couldn't understand what was wrong with the word stupid. One friend said she would never say it in front of her kids, although she happily admitted saying other swear words in front of them. "It's like saying retarded," she said. But surely, I persisted, "retarded" is much worse, as it actually implies mental disability (and so is doubly un-PC, as it's insulting disabled people too.) I certainly don't use that word, or any of the related words that were popular among kids in the 80s (you know the ones I mean....)..

I asked my friend what word she would use instead of "stupid" when telling off her kids. "I would tell them that is not OK," she replied. Somehow, I don't feel this would have the same force.

Anyway, I looked up stupid and it comes from the Latin verb "stupere", to be numb or to astonish, so it's not an equivalent word to "idiotic" or "dumb" which actually originated from medical conditions. I can't see why it's a bad word. In fact, I'll argue that it's a perfectly good word - perhaps insulting, but it has a definite meaning - much more so than "not OK" which could mean all sorts of things.

Anyone else like to weigh in? Is stupid a word you use, or has it now become politically incorrect? Or am I just being stupid about this?

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

More whingeing, I'm afraid

I've not been in the best mood recently so you'll forgive me if this time, it's my turn to whinge. The main reason for my mood is that I've injured my knees, and have not only had to pull out of my planned half marathon, but am presently not able to exercise at all.

This may sound like a minor (and admittedly First World) problem, but I was enjoying running so much, and not being able to do it (hopefully temporarily) has put my whole life off-kilter.  In the space of a few weeks I feel as if I have gone from feeling like a physically fit and active person to an old biddy who hobbles round the house with ice packs attached to her legs and has to go for physical therapy sessions. (And these, thanks to lovely American health insurance and their "deductibles", are costing a small fortune).

Somehow this turn of events has managed to put me in a strop about everything else. The usual irritations that I normally brush off - the annoying kid over the road, the constant demands from the school to send in items that I don't just have lying around, the idea that Mitt Romney still might win the US elections in spite of being completely awful- are getting to me too.

And when I found this piece of work in Littleboy 2's school bag?

Now, his teacher this year is lovely and normally I would laugh at this sort of thing (and I am, sort of), and if it were any other word I would readily accept an American spelling. But, really! Can't a little English boy be allowed NOT to have a Mommy? Even if he did get "Good Job".......

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Whinge-ington DC

 I wonder if Obama's kids moan about sightseeing?

Perhaps we didn't prepare the Littleboys for our trip to Washington DC in the best way. We had spent the previous two days in Virginia with a luxurious pool, tennis court, full size soccer pitch and enormous mansion at our disposal. (No, we have not suddenly become billionaires. But it turns out one of the Doctor's American cousins, who let us borrow his house for the weekend, started his own hedge fund. 'Nuff said).

The boys had revelled in swimming, football, luxuriating in the hot tub, playing with the farm cat and generally having a whale of a time. By Sunday night, they were exhausted. So when, on a rather grey Monday morning, we decamped from Hotel Hedge Fund to the confines of a Holiday Inn in Washington, they were not best impressed.

I had never been to Washington DC before, so was rather excited to see it all - the huge dome of the Capitol, the National Mall, the Washington Monument were all within spitting distance and, even though you've seen the White House a million times on TV, seeing it for real was something special. The boys, however, were having none of it.

"Where are we going? Why is it so far? I'm hungry! I'm tired. I want to go home."

And this was all in the first 10 minutes, on the way to get lunch. Bear in mind these are the boys who happily did a five mile hike in New Hampshire, so it's not as if they are not capable of walking.

So we ended up on one of those open-top bus tours that we'd always laughed at in London as being ridiculously touristy. It was full of the old, overweight and, of course, a few others with small kids. But it seemed like the only way to get around the various landmarks without too much walking or whinging.

Naturally our offpsring were not excited by us pointing out the places where US laws are decided and debated. But they were slightly more enthusiastic about seeing the White House, and the theatre where Lincoln was shot (having learned about it all at school). And, despite saying they didn't want to walk, they would have sudden bursts of energy such as running up towards the Washington Monument and climbing on every wall in sight. But by the evening they were spent. Littleboy 2 steadfastly refused to eat his favourite food, pizza, at the lovely restaurant we'd headed out to, asking why we couldn't just eat in the hotel cafe.

The next morning, they did enjoy the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Well, what little boy wouldn't want to see real NASA rockets, fighter jets and space suits from the Moon landings? But, honestly, they seemed equally happy to get home to their toys that evening. And when Littleboy 2 was asked by his teacher to describe his trip to America's capital city, what did he write? According to him, anyway. "I wrote that I went to one hotel. Then I went to someone's house for two nights and played with a cat. Then I went to another hotel. Then I came home."

Not sure we'll be heading on any more city breaks until they're quite a bit older....

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

A week in the White Mountains

As we entered New Hampshire for the first time, I noticed something. Although only just over the border of the Connecticut River, it seemed very different from Vermont. Much more low key, more "country" somehow, although equally rural. Vermont is chocolate box rural New England, with tonnes of farm stands, country stores selling delicious cured ham and maple syrup, idyllic looking log-cabin homes. In northern New Hampshire you seemed more likely to find a ramshackle general store selling tins of food (and the odd pitcher of maple syrup), with a sign telling you where to register your deer.

 In New York, you register your car. In New Hampshire, you register your deer.

There were signs of run-downness - boarded up holiday cabin parks, which had once obviously been pristine, lined the highway. Clearly, although popular for ski-ing, northern New Hampshire isn't so much of a summer holiday destination as Vermont, which everyone loves. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't have anything to offer.

There was so much to do: for a start, the White Mountains contain literally hundreds of beautiful hiking trails, many leading to gorgeous waterfalls and lakes. We bought an excellent book: Best Hikes with Children in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine which told us where we could realistically hike with the boys, detailing the terrain, things to look out for and even games to play on the way. The Littleboys surpassed themselves, doing a demanding five mile hike one day (note to self/The Doctor: even though you yourself can run five miles in under an hour, climbing up slippery boulders and fording streams for five miles with small kids actually takes about four hours) and not even complaining.

 We hiked to the beautiful Arethusa Falls with the boys.

If you like mountaintop views, the White Mountains are also excellent. There are many ski resorts where you can take chairlifts, cable cars and gondolas up to the top, even in summer, and admire the views. You can also take the Mount Washington Cog Railway to the top of the Northeast's highest mountain, which famously boasts the highest windspeed ever recorded (and man, was it windy up there). Combining trains and mountains is a sure-fire hit for small boys.

 The Mount Washington Cog Railway.

What else? You can visit gorges, swim in lakes, canoe or kayak, or (and this is the part the boys loved most) visit a waterpark for the day. While I wouldn't say there are hundreds of great restaurants, we managed to identify a couple, and visited them both twice - they were incredibly child-friendly as well as offering delicious food. Fabyans Station, near the Cog Railway, even has a model railway which goes round the walls of this former station building, while Rosa Flamingo's in Bethlehem had excellent food for both adults and children - and most importantly, crayons.

We stayed in a cabin on a KOA campsite - a good option for those who don't have a tent (or in my case, don't enjoy sleeping in one much). You get a bathroom and a proper bed, but there's no kitchen so you still cook outside. Inside, it's fairly cosy (two small boys rampaging can get a bit much on a rainy morning) but in the end we didn't spend much time there; even at the campsite, we were usually outside or at the pool. All meals were outdoors (the boys loved having breakfast al fresco) and surprisingly fearless chipmunks often appeared to eat up our crumbs. We spent one particularly memorable evening playing a family game of Junior Monopoly outside in the darkness, lit only by a camping lamp. And luckily, the mosquitoes, the bane of our life in Long Island, were virtually non-existent.

Lake swimming near Cannon Mountain.

The holiday nearly ended before it had started on day one, when Littleboy 2 managed to fall backwards and put his hand on the metal casing of the campfire pit (despite numerous warnings to stay away from the fire). This necessitated a trip to the local ER, and a lot of panic, but to be honest I thought it was going to be much worse than it turned out to be - the burn didn't hurt him after the first night, and it healed so quickly that he was swimming again by Day 4. When quizzed, he says that losing his toy turtle in a waterfall a few days later was "much worser" than the burn incident. However, I will be even more vigilant now about children and fires - even if you think they know not to go near it, give them a torch and a Scooby Doo game to play and all common sense goes out the window.

All in all, it was a successful trip and I'd recommend New Hampshire to any family looking for outdoorsy fun in a beautiful region of the US. You could get there easily from London (fly to Boston and it's a few hours away). And if you fancy having a look at maple-sweet Vermont too, it's just a quick trip over the border.

Monday, 20 August 2012

10 places I still want to go in America.

When we moved to America, we decided we wouldn't be heading back to the UK every time we had a holiday. The reason (apart from the ridiculous cost of flights) was that there's so much to explore right here in the US and we wanted to see as much of it as possible before we left.

Of course, there's no way that's going to happen. The USA is such a massive country that even driving to somewhere that seems relatively close on the map, like Cape Cod, is a pretty big endeavour. But I do think we've made a fairly good effort so far. As well as living in New York State, we've visited Vermont, Virginia, California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Georgia and Florida, spent nights in Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware and North Carolina and have driven through a whole load of other states on the way to and from those places. Of the U.S. cities, I've also been to Chicago (both for work and for an expat blogger meetup), Boston, San Francisco and San Diego. Next week we'll be visiting the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and we plan to visit Washington DC in September.

But there a whole lot of other places on my list. I'm a great reader of travel articles, and (as you've probably worked out by now) have huge wanderlust. So I wanted to list them now, and then maybe revisit the list later and see how I've done.

1. Sonoma/Napa Valley, California.

Well, the girl from Nappy Valley really ought to visit Napa Valley, shouldn't she? And what with vineyards, fabulous restaurants and gorgeous scenery, it sounds like my kind of place.

2. The Grand Canyon, Arizona.

An obvious choice maybe, but everyone I know who has been there says it is amazing. This is on my list for next year, before we leave America, and I truly hope we'll get there.

3. Colorado.

The Rockies! The forests! I'd like to go in both summer and winter, please, for the ski-ing. I'd also like to see Denver (as a long ago Dynasty fan, I was amused to hear from my German friend that in Germany the show was known  as "Denver-clan" ).

4. Charleston, South Carolina.

I've heard it's like Savannah, Georgia, where we spent a memorable couple of nights, only perhaps even nicer. I'm a sucker for Southern charm, and I've heard mixed reports about New Orleans, so I'm picking Charleston for my return to the deep south.

5. Portland, Oregon.

It's supposedly the capital of all things hip. The coolest ad agencies are there, it's environmentally friendly, it even has its own ironic sitcom, Portlandia. It sounds more like Amsterdam than America, and although I'm not sure if I'd want to live there, I would be intrigued to see it.

6. Yellowstone Park, Wyoming.
Just as long as a bear doesn't get me. And I'm not talking about Yogi.

7. Maine.
We know some Swedish people here who went to Maine for their summer holiday and promptly left, saying it was "too much like Sweden". Well, that doesn't put me off. It's a long drive from just about anywhere, but I'd love to eat a real Maine lobster roll with lobster that just came out of the ocean.

8. De Smet, South Dakota.
As a huge fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I would just love to see the "little town on the prairie" where she lived. It sounds rather remote, but I would definitely like to make the pilgrimage one day and maybe it could be combined with a trip to....

9. Mt Rushmore, South Dakota.
Well it's so iconic, isn't it? I bet it's terribly touristy but it would be nice to say you've been. And I'm sure you'd get a real American history lesson at the same time.

10. Seattle.
The home of Starbucks, Microsoft, Frasier, Grey's Anatomy and (er) Fifty Shades of Grey. I feel as if I know Seattle already. I'd like to do a city trip one day and maybe use it as a jumping off point for a trip to Canada's west coast. Because that's another whole country I could write a top ten list for......

Where else in America should I add to my list?

Monday, 13 August 2012

Littleboy Olympic quotes

So, the Olympics are over. And I'm sure life in London will slowly return to normal. As it will for us. No more waking up and immediately switching on the TV to see Britain win a gold medal (rowing was particularly well-timed for East Coast US viewing) or falling asleep to Gaby Logan's evening show. No more cooking to the sound of a boxing match on Radio 5 Live or excitedly checking Twitter at a kids' party to find out how many more medals we've won. We actually have to listen to the American radio again now, and are already getting bored of the Election build-up, with over three months to go. Meanwhile US TV is preparing for an onslaught of new September shows - they actually put a pilot show of some sitcom about vets slap-bang into the middle of the closing ceremony on NBC.

But before I sign off on the Olympics, I'll leave you with some of my favourite Olympic-related quotes from the Littleboys.

Animal Kingdom

LB2: Is Usain Bolt faster than a cheetah?

Partisan support

LB2: Are we going to beat China? I hope we get more golds than China. Why do China always win everything?

LB1: What if we won all the golds, USA won all the silver and China won all the bronzes? Do you think that would ever happen?

LB1: Is Tom Daley the best diver in the Universe?

Laws of physics

LB2: Do they get medals in diving for staying underwater the longest?

Existential ponderings
LB1: Will Bolt ever die?
Me: Yes, of course, we are all going to die one day.
LB1: But God doesn't, does he?
LB2: If China dies, will another country be better than them?

Happy post-Olympics, everyone - hope the hangover isn't too bad!

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Team GB vs Team USA: gold for enthusiasm.

I have never watched so much of the Olympics as I have this year. The combination of its being in London and the British team's astonishing performance have just made it incredibly exciting, and we've been glued to it every single night, as well as a lot of the weekend. Having found a way to bypasss NBC's abysmal coverage, we've been enjoying the BBC commentary, especially Gaby Logan's rather naff, but entertaining, Olympic highlights show and relishing in every rendition of Spandau Ballet's Gold.

One thing I've noticed is that my American pals are NOT so excited about the Olympics. Despite the fact that Team USA has tonnes of medals, and US athletes have broken various world records, especially in swimming, several of my friends have not watched it at all and most are not really aware of what is going on. One guy I spoke to was amazed that the US was second in the medal table - he just hadn't taken it in. Others are aware of some results - like the victory of the female US gymnasts, who are constantly being interviewed on US TV now - but don't really know about anything else. There's usually more excitement over the latest series of American Idol than I've seen over the Olympics. I partly blame this on NBC (again) as everything good is tape delayed and its four hour highlights programme goes on far too late - most of the best events are screened between 11 and 12 at night. And of course, I'm sure Americans would be more excited were it on US soil.

But also I think it's because America is so used to being top dog. Winning all the medals just isn't a big deal for them - the only real accolades have been for people like Michael Phelps (although in the early days of the Games when he wasn't winning, this all went a bit quiet). Whereas we, in Britain, are just elated; it's as if we can't believe that we're doing so well, after years of feeling as if we're crap at sport. We're always the underdog, the team that hasn't won the World Cup since 1966, the country whose players never actually win at Wimbledon. But that is all changing with the Olympics. Finally, we can believe that the UK can be successful at something. (And not just sport - we seem to have organized a world class event, with fantastic venues, great atmosphere and not a hint of the chaos that some people predicted).

One of the boys' recurring questions while watching the Games is whether Team GB is going to get more medals than China/The USA. (An alternative spin on this, from Littleboy 1 just before he went to bed last night: what would happen if we won all the golds, USA won all the silvers and China won all the bronzes?). They just can't understand when The Doctor and I try to explain that the US and China are far bigger countries and there's no way we're going to beat them.

But as I look at Team GB's count on the medal table creeping upwards, I wonder if I'm not being positive enough? This article from the Guardian suggests that the UK is definitely punching above its weight. Maybe I need to stop telling the boys that the UK can't do it. I've never felt hugely patriotic, but maybe it's time they learned the words to our national anthem as well as "God Bless America" (which they march around singing all the time). Perhaps, if they growing up thinking we're a great sporting nation, it might dispel some of the cynicism and negativity that the British are famous for.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Raising Olympians?

Obsessive Olympics-watching was the order of the day in our house this weekend, from last Friday's fabulous ceremony (despite the best efforts of NBC to ruin it) to watching the first Team GB medals in the cycling road race and swimming.

The Littleboys, despite sporting American accents and knowing the pledge of allegiance to the US flag off by heart, have turned out to be staunchly pro-British.; for example, they object highly to a Citibank ad that keeps being during the coverage, with the strapline 'Go Team USA'. Meanwhile Littleboy 2 keeps earnestly asking me if "England" is the same is "Team GB", because that's who he wants to support (I'm not surprised he's confused - what does Team GB mean exactly? I mean, aren't we Great Britain and Northern Ireland?).

This is the first Olympics the boys have been old enough to really take in, and I'm loving it all the more for their enthusiasm, as well as the fact it's in London. They stayed up for a good half of the opening ceremony, loving Mr Bean in particular and the children bouncing on hospital beds. Littleboy 1 has started an Olympic log book of sports he has watched, noting down teams and scores in felt pen. When we went to the town pool on Sunday, both insisted on swimming several lengths of front crawl, and asked me to teach them how to do a somersault turn.

I think it's great that they're so inspired by the Olympics, and have been wondering how exactly I could ensure their future dazzling success as Olympic athletes. It seems to me you must have to settle on a sport pretty early on in life; Littleboy 1 is already seven, so we need to get a move on. He's fairly sporty, but I'm not sure cycling up and down the block is going to produce the next Bradley Wiggins, and although he's a good soccer player I'm realistic enough not to think he's going to be a world-class footballer. I think I need to pick something more obscure - perhaps both boys could team up and become sychronized divers? Or perhaps beach volleyball - there's a court near us, and surely that would be an advantage over most the future players of 'Team GB'?

In truth, I would love to raise an Olympian, but deep down I have a feeling that, if you weren't one already, you would turn into a kind of obsessive freak-parent whose life became dominated by your child's success or failure, training regimes and the like. Just looking at some of the wild-eyed, chuntering parents of US gymnasts in the crowd yesterday made me shudder (particularly when we heard that one of the girls was competing with a broken toe). I wonder if it's possible to raise an Olympian without going overboard - or if that's just not realistic these days?

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Let the games begin....

I may not be in London, but I just have to say, I'm so excited about the Olympics.

I'm looking forward to the opening ceremony, and the possibility of spotting my friend Nota Bene, who will be performing in the Danny Boyle extravaganza. Whether or not he'll be recognisable in costume, I can't wait to see the result of all the weeks rehearsing in secret that he's been hinting about on his blog. And I'm enjoying friends' Facebook posts and pictures of the Olympic torch passing their streets (I'm really very happy for you all that it's stopped raining).

I'm excited about getting the Littleboys enthused about all the different sports - the athletics, the gymnastics, the diving - that you don't normally sit down and watch on TV except when it's an Olympic year. Thanks to gifts from their aunt and uncle, the boys are going about wearing London 2012 t-shirts with great pride, and it would be lovely if they remembered the excitement around the London games, even though we're not in the country.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and I are looking forward to hearing NBC's Olympic commentary, which I'm sure will be full of bemused remarks about quaint English customs.  I do like to see how the Americans cover British events.  I had to laugh this morning when NPR radio interviewed the British ambassador and asked him what was with all the - "how do you call it? whingeing?" - around the games. His dry reply was that "whingeing is a very important word in the British vocabulary".

In the lead-up, TV channels here are showing non-stop repeats of films like Chariots of Fire, which we watched the other night. Having not seen it in 30 years or so, we had a good laugh at the 80s synthesized soundtrack, which must have seemed so modern at the time, but now seems just bizarre, given that the film is set in the 1920s.

And we've been absolutely loving the BBC series Twenty Twelve, which has been shown here on BBC America. It's perfect - just realistic enough to be almost believable (particularly the brilliant performance of Jessica Hynes as PR woman Siobhan Sharp, whose type I have encountered many times), just absurd enough to be laugh-out-loud funny. Definitely deserves a gold medal.

Now excuse me, I have a date with the TV and my sofa for the next couple of weeks...

Monday, 23 July 2012


Three years ago, when I arrived here, not knowing a single person in this town, I dragged the Littleboys to the local playground. It was The Doctor's first day at work and my first on my own with the boys in a strange country.

The playground was virtually empty - the schools hadn't quite broken up, and the early June weather was grey and murky. There was one other person there, a blonde woman pushing a small blond boy on a swing. As I pushed my boys on the swing alongside, I overheard her talking to her child in what sounded like a foreign language. Determined to start somewhere in making friends, I took a deep breath and started a conversation, asking her if she lived nearby.

Turns out she did, but was from Germany, and had been here two years. Her little boy was a few months older than Littleboy 2. Immediately she started to tell me all about the town, explaining about preschools and the library and the online mums' group. She took me next door to the community centre for parents, and introduced me to the director. Already I felt as if I knew a hundred times more about the town.

I was immensely grateful, and we swapped numbers.Two days later, she called and invited me on a group playdate, and then on a Mum's night out. Through these connections, I tapped into the local community of fellow parents, and eventually made many other friends. But she remained my first friend, and over the three years has become the closest of everyone I've meet in America.

Our families, both lacking a local support network of parents and relatives, have been there for each other. When we had to move out of our tree-damaged house at short notice, her husband spent a whole day helping us to move our furniture, sweltering in the heat as we stuffed belongings into boxes. When she started working, and her small son seemed to be sick every day, I helped out and looked after him so that she could go to her new job.

In a few days time she is going back to Germany. I always knew this was on the cards - in fact, from the moment we met, she was telling me they were planning to go back (and I was always secretly quite pleased that it didn't seem to happen). After a while it became kind of a standing joke - they wanted to go back, but circumstances were preventing it, and we would probably go home before they did.

But now they really are going. And while there are promises to Skype, and we will definitely see them again, back in Europe, I know deep down it won't ever really be the same. We won't be phoning each other up on a whim to go to the local park or the pool for a playdate. We won't be taking a weekend trip to Fire Island, or meeting at the school concert, or in the supermarket by chance. When we meet, in at least a year's time, probably two, our children, who know each other so well, will probably eye each other suspiciously, and be shy for the first few hours. They'll reconnect eventually, but will have to say goodbye again all too quickly.

I know this is the nature of expat life. Growing up in Hong Kong, I had many friends who moved on after a couple of years, and while we promised to write letters, eventually these friends faded into distant, pleasant memories (although bizarrely, now, in the age of social media, I have met up with a few via Facebook). I'm realistic about that. I'm good at leaving (or at least, can be stoic about it).

But it doesn't make it any easier. This week, I feel as if my ground has shifted a little. The summer sun is still shining, and life is pretty good, but something's changed. And it reminds that, in a year's time, we'll be packing up and moving on too. Every sunset must be savoured before the world turns, once again.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Hot runnings

 In training for the Tour de France?

Summer seems to be racing by. The boys are now halfway through their six week summer camp, and come back tired, filthy, ravenous and reeking of chlorine at 5pm each day. Their hair is bleached blond and straw-like from the pool and their pale arms and legs are slowly becoming olive brown, despite the masses of sunscreen I apply each morning. But they are happy, and healthy, and (I hope) having a summer that they'll remember for years to come.

Their day is actually now longer than the school day, so I suddenly have a couple of hours more child-free time in my day, as I finish work at 3. I had hoped this would mean I could do a little more running. The trouble is (and yes I know, I know I'm at risk of offending everyone in England, so, sorry) that it's been roastingly hot for about the past month, with no real let-up. We've got to the stage now where even the early mornings are about 77 F (25 Centigrade), and it's humid too. However, with another 10K race coming up, and having (perhaps foolishly) signed up for a half marathon in the autumn, I can't give up entirely.

So, I set off with my water bottle, returning later with a face like a beetroot and unbecoming red blotches that don't even disappear after an ice-cold shower. Honestly, how can those professional marathon runners look so sleek and un-sweaty? Some of them even wear jewellery - if I did that, it would probably disintegrate due to the salt content of my skin. Even after five minutes, I look as if I've done an hour of 'hot yoga'.

This morning I decided to try something different from my usual circuit and go running instead at the beach. I thought the breeze here might cool things down, and it did, slightly - but I hadn't reckoned on the fact that there is absolutely no shade. Even at 9am, the sun was beating down on me and I ended up just as scarlet and sweaty as ever. The only other people there were pensioners gearing up for a day in deckchairs in the shade, and they looked at me as if I were a madwoman as I pounded up and down the promenade.

Perhaps the best thing when it's this hot is just to watch sport on TV from the airconditioned comfort of my sofa, rather than partake in it. And what a summer it is for sport. Having moved on from Euro 2012 and Wimbledon, we're currently glued to the Tour de France of an evening. Roll on the Olympics - and if the British weather continues in the same fashion, at least those athletes won't have to worry about the heat......

Monday, 9 July 2012

New York in style

As I mentioned a few posts ago, the last time The Doctor and I spent a night in Manhattan was in 1995. En route to stay with his relatives in Virginia and on a student budget, we stayed at the YMCA, sleeping in bunk beds and breakfasting on blueberry pancakes downstairs. Our evening meal out was at a greasy diner off Times Square (which was still quite run down in those days); all I really remember about the meal is spotting a cockroach cross the floor.

Fast forward almost 20 years (gulp) and I still have a relationship with the YMCA (or the Y, as you call it round here. And you definitely don't start singing the Village People song when you mention it - that joke is far too old). But now my children go to summer camp there, and when I was booking a night in the city for my husband's fortieth birthday, I thought I'd go slightly more stylish.

Ever since seeing an episode of Sex and the City in which Samantha (I seem to recall) tries to get access to an exclusive rooftop pool, I've had a yearning to take a dip in one of these. So I picked our hotel on that basis - the James, in Soho, whose rooftop splash pool becomes a trendy bar by night. Both experiences were equally memorable; sipping cocktails overlooking the roofs of Manhattan as the sun set over the Hudson, and taking a surprisingly cool plunge the next morning on a steaming day when temperatures topped 95 F.

I loved the hotel and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone planning a trip to NYC as a couple. (It says it's child friendly, but I'd have liked to see what our fellow guests would made of us had we pitched up at the chilled-out pool with the Littleboys). As usual with boutique hotels, the room was small, but beautifully decorated. The dark wood bathroom, complete with organic toiletries, and the square, light filled bedroom with its huge windows opening onto the Cityscape (see below - with Wimbledon on the TV) appealed to me far more than a massive Marriott bedroom (although eating our room service breakfast on the teeny table the next morning was quite 'cozy'.) There were other good touches such as free wine or coffee in the lobby, and bike rentals.

For our evening meal, we went to the Union Square Cafe, a real New York foodie destination recommended by several friends. From the superb bread and olives, to my soft shell crab and the panna cotta we shared for dessert, all was utterly delicious.

Walking back downtown to our hotel, we sauntered carefree past tree-lined residential streets, hip boutiques and cool bars. As walks through the city for us normally involve trying to coax Littleboy 2 to walk, and preventing Littleboy 1 from ordering a hotdog from every street cart, this was one of the highlights of the evening, right up there with the rooftop margarita.

We had less than 24 hours in the city, before rushing back to Long Island to pick up the boys from their sleepover, but for once, we had done New York in style. And, while he may be turning 40, (and it's not long for me either), for a moment it was as if we were both wide-eyed twenty year olds again.

Monday, 2 July 2012

American maladies

Summer always comes with its dramas here, whether it's trees falling on the house or one of the Littleboys having an attack of poison ivy. So far, this summer has been no less deadly; The Doctor has been diagnosed with Lyme Disease.

For those not familiar with Lyme, it is carried by deer ticks and initially causes a rash, a flu-like illness and fatigue. For those left untreated, it can lead to serious health problems, but luckily in his case it has been caught early and the treatment, which hopefully cures it, is a three week course of antibiotics. It is common in the northeastern US and apparently, what with the mild winter, there are more ticks than usual this year.

We think he was bitten by the tick on Memorial Day weekend, when we went 'out East', as they say around here - not, in fact, Japan or outer Mongolia but the Eastern End of Long Island. We did some hiking in a state park where there were deer, and that is almost certainly where the tick was. This was followed by a rash we initially thought was an allergic reaction to mosquito bites, and he has felt tired and lethargic ever since.

Having started the antibiotics, he's starting to feel better, but it's a reminder of how deadly summer can be in America. Suddenly I can see our planned summer holiday -  a week's camping in rural New Hampshire in August - turning into a paranoid week of reapplying insect repellent and forcing the kids to wear long trousers.  But, when I'm not slathering my children in suncream and mosquito spray, making sure they don't walk in anything green when we're somewhere rural, and checking the weather report for tornado warnings - summer's quite fun. And at least we can say that, healthwise, we've had the full-on North American summer experience.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

A tribute to Nora Ephron

When I heard of the death of writer Nora Ephron at the age of 71 this week, I felt really quite sad. Perhaps partly because she died of the exact same disease my mother in law died of 12 years ago (acute myeloid leukaemia); perhaps because it seemed as if it had struck so suddenly (as I know this devastating disease can do). But mainly because I admired her work, and feel as if it's been a part of my life since my teenage years.

I first saw When Harry Met Sally at the cinema when it came out in the 80s, and it's still among my top five films. Whenever it's on TV (which is a fair amount) I'll watch it, and even though I've seen it at least 10 times, the dialogue still feels fresh and funny. It's still the ultimate romantic comedy, even though Billy Crystal isn't your typical leading man by any means and Meg Ryan, though pretty, has the most atrocious 80s hairstyles throughout. That's a testament to Ephron's writing, which is natural, entertaining and never patronising. It's so superior to any romantic comedy to come out of Hollywood in the last 10 years - those forgettable movies, starring Jennifer Aniston or Kate Hudson or suchlike, pale in comparison. My favourite scene isn't the orgasm scene though, notorious as it has become. I'd rather post something like this clip below, where Harry and Sally try out a first-generation karaoke machine.

While I wasn't quite so enamoured of her 90s comedies, such as You've Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle, I also loved Heartburn, starring Meryl Streep, based on Ephron's book about her breakup with journalist Carl Bernstein. It led me to read the novel, which is searingly sharp, funny and sad at the same time, and I began to feel like I really knew this woman. She didn't mince words; she was honest about her life; in fact, a bit like a really great female blogger. No wonder she later got into blogging and even made a film about a blogger (the excellent Julie and Julia).

Two years ago I took my sister to see the off-Broadway production of Love, Loss and What I Wore, written by Ephron and her sister Delia. A series of monologues about women and their relationship with their wardrobe, it was fabulous and confirmed my heartfelt admiration of her writing, sense of humour and ability to encapsulate what it is to be female.

Reading her obituaries this week (and there are many; this was a woman revered by the New York intelligentsia in particular), I was struck by how she managed both to be a nice person with tons of loyal friends, about whom no-one had a bad word to say, and a feisty woman who succeeded in the a male-dominated worlds of first journalism and then film. She set the agenda for women in media; when she first worked at Newsweek, she had to take a job as a mailroom girl, because they didn't allow women to write for the magazine. Now, Newsweek has merged with Tina Brown's Daily Beast and Brown is editor-in-chief of both titles.

So, RIP, Nora. A great writer, and a great female role model.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Littleboy language

School came to an end last week - a rather sudden and abbreviated end, thanks to a freak two day heatwave, that meant they were sent home early on the penultimate day. (Only the final day, they attend only for an hour, then come home, due to some strange New York State rule that only serves to infuriate all working parents). For the last few days, the boys came home laden with all manner of artworks, notebooks and creations from throughout the school year. Pieces of pottery; a papier-mache elephant; lots of drawings of Angry Birds (the teacher must think I do nothing but let them play iPad games).

But most interesting of all to me were their daily composition journals. These were not only very revealing in terms of what they chose to write about (who knew that having hot dogs would be more memorable than whale watching?) but also showed just how much their writing, spelling and general ability to express themselves has improved over the year. Littleboy 1's writing in particular has become much neater, although much of his spelling still flummoxes me (and makes me laugh - 'Virginia' rendered as 'Bug-inya' was a particular favourite).

Littleboy 2's spelling is still very phonetic and often puzzling, not helped by the fact that sometimes letters are back to front. But, bizarrely, the boys seem to have an intuitive grasp of each other's spelling. Take Littleboy 2's picture/essay, above. Any idea? I could work out that it included the words 'brother' 'on' and 'the', but was otherwise none the wiser. As I was looking at the book with him, Littleboy 1 marched over and took a look. Bear in mind it had just come home from school, so he had never seen it before. He translated effortlessly: 'In Smugglers' Notch, I saw my brother on the chairlift'. (Once you've got that, the picture also makes sense. Smugglers' Notch is the ski resort we went to at Christmas).

Clearly they share a language I don't understand......

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Gallery: Family Reunion

Our family might seem as British as they come, but it is a little-known fact that my husband has American roots. His grandmother was from a Virginian family, but grew up in Japan and eventually married an Englishman. She, however, had many brothers and sisters who remained in Virginia and so he has a whole cohort of second and third cousins down there.

It also turns out that the Virginia family was related to James Madison, the fourth president of the USA. And this weekend, a group of Madison Family descendants got together at Madison's Virginia estate, Montpelier, for a reunion.

A few weeks ago we received an invitation via email, and decided to go. It's a long journey just for the weekend, but it sounded too fascinating to miss. Besides, the Doctor and I love Virginia. We first went there on holiday when we were still students, and met his family; we took the boys there when we first arrived in the States. His relatives mostly live in a relatively small area, between the college town of Charlottesville and the Blue Ridge Mountains; the scenery is stunning, and the welcome is always friendly.

So on Saturday morning, (after a manic drive that involved roaring through rural Virginia due to closed roads and traffic jams), we arrived at Montpelier just in time for the 'family photograph' on the steps of the grand Southern mansion. There were people there from far and wide; Virginia, further South, the Northeast and even New Orleans. Elderly ladies with charming Southern accents; kids running around. Apart from the relatives we'd met before, we didn't know any of them, yet it was strange to think that they were all somehow related to The Doctor and also to the Littleboys. There was also a distinct family resemblance between some of the men; one distant cousin came up to The Doctor and said she knew it must be him, because 'you look like everyone else'.

The weekend continued with lunch, tours of the house (which is now open to the public, and styled in the way Madison might have lived in it) and gardens, and a lecture on Madison by a man who had written a book on him (which I had to miss because there was no way the boys would sit through it); The Doctor went, and learned more about his illustrious ancestor, who was integral to the writing of the US Constitution. The evening consisted of cocktails on the lawn before a delicious Southern-style dinner (while the boys got babysitting, pizza and a movie - perfect). We spent the night with some of The Doctor's cousins, before returning to Montpelier the next day for a final lunch.

It was odd, but interesting, to be at a family reunion at which most people were strangers. The boys had a great time, but I don't think they quite understood why we were there (although I bought them a children's book about Madison from the gift store to try and put it in context). I wonder what Madison would have thought of all these people gathering at his home, nearly two centuries on?

This post is for The Gallery at Sticky Fingers; topic, family.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Manhattan madness.

I love living out on Long Island, but sometimes I wish that we made more of being close to Manhattan and went into the City more often. But over the past few days I've had a really good dose of New York moments, enough to keep me sated for weeks.

Saturday morning saw me leave home at 6am with a group of friends for a women only 10K race in Central Park. I enjoyed this more than I ever could have imagined. From the scrum of the start line, where 6,000 women waited to begin the race listening to someone sing The Star Spangled Banner; to the fabulousness of running round the entirety of the Park, cheered on by supporters with placards, as well as random dog-walkers; running past such New York landmarks as the Museum of Natural History and the Met; to the final stretch towards Tavern on the Green, where the race ended with bagels, Gatorade and ice lollies. It was truly inspiring, and the whole experience filled me with such extra energy that I managed to record my fastest average pace ever (although Paula Radcliffe need not worry for the moment).

Afterwards, seven sweaty women headed off for brunch at a nearby hotel (having changed into sundresses and squirted ourselves with lots of deodorant and mist spray in the loos); gorging on Eggs Benedict after an hour's run made it all doubly worthwhile.

Later that day (having finally showered at home) I was headed back into the City, this time with the Doctor and his brother and my sister-in-law. We were off to the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center to watch the American Ballet Theater's production of Onegin. As we ascended the subway escalator straight into Lincoln Center it was like entering another world; one of culture, wealth and privilege in contrast to the grimy subterranean world of the subway. The Met building was gorgeously opulent - all red velvet carpets and people drinking champagne in glamorous gowns; in the interval you could stand on a balcony overlooking the Lincoln Center courtyard with its beautiful fountain, or, for the real ballet fanatics, buy used ballet shoes from the Met shop. (I wasn't tempted, but did treat myself to a glass of cava just to feel part of the whole scene). The ballet itself was excellent; I'm not an expert on ballet by any means but the set, costumes and dancing were all incredible and, thanks to watching Ralph Fiennes in the film version some years ago, I actually knew the story of Onegin, which helps.

As if this wasn't enough to feast on, I was back in the city last night for a work-related reception at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Here was a chance to view the great and good of the creative industry in their most glamorous finery, knocking back cocktails and appetisers in the amazing setting of MoMA's bright white atrium.

Ah well. Back to the world of piano practice and grocery shopping for the next few days. But meanwhile I'm plotting something for The Doctor's 40th which will involve Manhattan again - and this time just for the two of us. The last time we stayed in the City as a couple was in 1995 at the YMCA; we ate at a greasy diner off Times Square. Hopefully this time will be just slightly more glamorous.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Hurtling towards summer.

After Memorial Day, which signifies the official start of summer in the USA, the last few weeks of term seem to hurtle downhill towards the long summer break. When I read blogs by people in England, who are only just having half term now, it reminds me how the shape of the school year here is just so different.

 In the last few weeks of term come all manner of things that need to be attended by parents; Field Day (aka sports day), the school Art Show, summer parties, kindergarten ‘graduation’. Outside of school, there are dance recitals and music recitals (Americans love a good kiddie recital); having thought we'd done all ours in May, Littleboy 1 has now been asked to perform in another one, so it's back to the manic practising.

The teachers have given up on homework, even though we still have two weeks left of school; the kids come home reporting of having watched the High School Play performed in their auditorium all day, or having extra 'free choice'. Meanwhile, parents are busy buying teacher presents and making playdates with people they’ve meant to ask round all year but haven’t quite managed to.

At the same time we’re getting ready for camp, with orientations to attend, online conversations about nametape labels, trips to buy insulated lunchboxes and the like. This year, the Littleboys start camp the Monday after finishing school on the Friday. (The Doctor says this reminds him of a Peanuts strip where they run out of school yelling ‘school’s out!” only for Lucy to say “Oh, there’s the bus for camp!”). 

While it’s a bit of a shame they don’t get a break, I don’t feel too sorry for the boys. Having looked around their camp the other day, I decided I would be quite happy to spend my summer swimming twice a day, riding ponies and doing obstacle courses in the woods. Instead of which, I’ll be continuing with work until August, when I hope to take a well-earned break (aka looking after the boys and being splashed by manic children at the town pool every day). These long American summers may not be designed for parents, but they're heaven for kids.