Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Oh to be in London, now that April's (almost) here.

In just a few days, the Napppvalley brigade will be in London.

It'll be the first time in 18 months I've been in the UK, but the first time in three years I've been back to London. I'm very excited, obviously to see my family and my friends, but also to see my home city. I wonder if it will have changed much. We left just after Boris Johnson was elected mayor (something I vehemently opposed at the time, being a bit of a Ken Livingstone supporter) - has he made any difference? Will I feel uplifted at the sight of old familiar landmarks, streets where I once pushed my double stroller as a new mother with two little tiny boys? Will I feel a nostalgia on passing restaurants and pubs I once frequented as a twentysomething, places I once went to for business meetings? Will I feel as if this is where I really belong?

It will be particularly interesting to see how much the Littleboys remember. Littleboy 1 had just turned four when we left, and claims to have no memory of our house, nor anything else. Maybe going back to take a look at it will jog his memory? Surely he will remember the bandstand on Clapham Common where he spent hours scooting, the cafe where he always drank apple juice and ate wafer biscuits? Littleboy 2, meanwhile, was just two and half, and by rights shouldn't remember anything, but I will not be surprised if he does - he sometimes comes out with a razor-sharp memory for things that happened a long time ago.

It's funny to think that when we left, I was worrying about whether I'd be able to find British foodstuffs like Shreddies and Weetabix here. This time, I'm wondering if I'll be able to find the boys suitable-tasting hotdogs, challah bread and pretzel Goldfish in the UK supermarket. What will their impressions be of England? I hope it's positive, because they're going to have to adapt to it all again next year. As, of course, will I.

I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Victoria Beckham and I

I was amused to read today that Victoria Beckham had been preparing sausage rolls and pork pies for her sons' 'International Food Day' in LA.

This is something I know only too well about. We've been to several of these events, where you are invited to bring in a food 'from your own country or culture'. And I've never managed anything at all impressive.

The first year, for a preschool end of year picnic, I turned up with a packet of Jaffa Cakes, thinking that would suffice well enough. Er, no. Japanese mothers arrived with plates of exquisite handmade sushi and sashimi; Indian mothers had made beautiful fragrant samosas and tandoori chicken with basmati rice. One American dad had even brought along a whole barbecue, and was cooking up hot dogs. (I'm glad to say that the only other British mother at the school, a friend of mine, had brought Marmite sandwiches - made that morning in haste, as she'd forgotten about it and happened to have Marmite in the house. Nobody ate them).

The second time, I brought in scones. These actually went down quite well (although I'm ashamed to say they weren't home-made. As I have mentioned previously, although I can cook fine, baking is not one of my skills in life). But again, I was shown up by the grander culinary efforts of those from other countries. The third time, I gave up trying to think of anything British and brought French cheeses and grapes.

So good on Posh Spice for making an effort. OK, I'm sure she didn't actually cook the sausage roles and pork pies from scratch, but at least she tried. It made me wonder how much else VB has in common with me as an British expat mum in the States. After all, she's about my age, has been here about the same length of time, and has one son exactly the same age as one of mine (Cruz, we were pregnant at the same time).

Does she struggle with her sons' homework, having to look up things about American presidents frantically on Wikipedia and wonder what Stop, Drop and Roll means? Does her face fall at the idea of Super Bowl parties (that's another kind of footballers' wife, love)? Is she still incredulous at the idea that each and every child in the class receives a Valentine from your child? Does she baffle other mothers by talking about fire engines and the lurgy? Does she still, after all this time, not really know what T-Ball is?

Or has she embraced all things American? Does she now go around saying 'awesome' and 'I'm good' instead of 'I'm fine'? (Note, I do the latter now, but not the former). Does she think summer camp is the best invention ever, and go around waving flags on Memorial Day (guilty on both charges, by the way)?

I'd love to compare notes.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The Gallery; Colo(u)r

A rush of unseasonably warm spring weather has brought blossom, bulbs and spring blooms out in force in New York. Cherry blossom and magnolias are springing from bare winter branches, and even our hydrangeas are starting to bud.

I was unaware until a few weeks ago of this little ring of bulbs on our front lawn. Almost overnight, a clutch of crocuses appeared, almost like some kind of fairy circle, and then this week, hyacinths and daffodils joined them. A neighbour told me that the previous owners but one had a little flower garden there, with a statue in the middle; I love how it's reappeared, to give us a glimpse into the garden's past. You can tell that the seasons are confused - the grass is still sparse and brown, thinking it's winter, although green shoots are starting to appear.

Meanwhile the daffodils by the garden path are about to peak, I think - good thing they bloomed before our trip back to England, because I have a feeling that by late April, spring will be over at this rate.

And, for a final splash of colo(u)r (I'm so used to writing it the American way now for work that I have to correct myself), I spotted a bright red Cardinal just as I went out to take the photos of the flowers. He's right in the centre of this picture, sitting on a branch.

For more colo(u)rful creations, visit The Gallery at Sticky Fingers.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Fifty Shades of 'Mommy Porn'.

It's been spreading like wildfire all over Long Island. Everyone's posting witty comments about it on Facebook, and if they're not reading it, they've definitely heard of it. At my book club meeting last night, more people than have ever darkened the door of Book Club before turned up to discuss it: The Book. Fifty Shades of Grey.

This book is a viral phenomenon. According to the New York Times, it's shot to the top of the bestseller list, aided by downloads on Kindles. Because this is a book you don't necessarily want to be caught reading in public too obviously. It is erotica; or, as the NY Times puts it (whisper): 'Mommy Porn'. Upper East Side women are devouring it, mothers are discussing it at school gates, teachers are debating it in school corridors (or so said one of my friends, a teacher herself).

I hadn't heard of the book when it was suggested back at book club a month ago. All I knew was that it was 'raunchy' and involved some bondage. But I had no expectations when I downloaded my copy (more because I was trying out my new Kindle rather than because of the 'Mommy Porn' element).

I know different now. Chat shows all over America are getting all het up about why intelligent, educated women are obsessing a book that involves S&M style sex. Our little corner of the world has gone crazy over Fifty Shades - and I bet you anything it will start taking off in the UK soon. (Interestingly, the author, E.L. James, is British, although she sets her novels in Seattle. Some American friends told me that they had to 'look up' some of the British expressions she uses in the book, although I can't say I noticed.)

So - the burning question - is it any good? Reader, I could not put it down (and that's a trilogy of books, not just one). That's not to say it's the best-written book ever - it's not. The writing is pretty pedestrian (some of it reads like the worst kind of Mills and Boon romance), it's a bit repetitive and there are some preposterous plot elements. But the core story had me fascinated. It's the story of a naive English Lit. student, Anastasia, who goes to interview a 27 year old self-made billionaire called Christian Grey. (Think Mark Zuckerberg, if he was gorgeous). They are attracted to each other, but it's not that simple: he's into seriously kinky sex and wants her to become his 'submissive'; in other words, he refuses to have a normal relationship. She hasn't ever had a boyfriend before, so isn't quite sure what to think.

There's an awful lot of very explicit sex in the book, but there's a plot too - the story really turns on who will submit to whom. Will she become his sex slave, or will he compromise and have a more regular ("vanilla") relationship with her? Along the way, he turns out to be emotionally damaged (aren't all the best romantic heroes? But this one is particularly dark), and she turns out to be stronger than you originally thought.There's a predatory older woman (dubbed "Mrs. Robinson"), a deranged ex-mistress and a psycho boss to contend with too.

I guess every generation has to have its 'book' to whisper about. I remember my Mum and her friends being fascinated by Jilly Cooper's Riders, back in the 80s; it was considered seriously raunchy. Women like reading about sex - this isn't new (although some of the commentaries about this book on US TV would have you think so). However, I think the reason this one is so popular is not so much the 'soft porn' element, but that it's pure escapism. It's romance; it's fantasy; it's about a wealthy, seriously sexy hero who it's fine to fancy on the pages of a book (although in real life, you'd probably run a mile from his control freakery and stalker-ish tendencies). And it's also very modern - the lovers banter via emails and Blackberries, he gives her a Macbook laptop and makes iPod playlists for her to tell her how he feels. (Heathcliff and Mr Rochester never had that at their disposal, now did they?).

While a few people at my book club hated it, the rest were raving about it in a way I haven't seen people behave about a book since I was at school in the 80s, and we were all reading Flowers in the Attic. Meanwhile, reportedly the book has been snapped up by a major US publisher (Vintage Books) and may well become a film. Fifty Shades may be a craze, but it's not one that's going to go away.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Old School Tie

"Do you think I should wear my old school tie?" asked The Doctor, proferring a rather ancient looking black and pink affair that has sat, unworn, in his wardrobe ever since I've known him.

"Well, " I replied. "If you're ever going to wear it, I guess tonight should be the night."

We were going to an alumni dinner in a New York dining club, organised by his school (one of London's best known). The headmaster flies out once a year for this occasion, and New York-based ex pupils attend. Somehow we'd received an invitation, and although it's not normally the kind of occasion we'd jump at the chance of going to, we were intrigued - what would it be like? Who would be there? What would the club be like?

The answer is, it was all very British. The club, lined with wood panelling, manned by dignified Indian waiters and serving colonially strong cocktails (the Martini I ordered kept me going all night), was very like something you might find in London. The guests (mainly older than us and almost all 'considerably richer') could have stepped straight out of a Hampstead or Islington dinner party. It became clear that one of the main purposes of the occasion was to get people to dig into their pockets and donate to the school; something we're not really in a position to do. It did feel a bit like we were stepping into a different world.

That's not to say it wasn't enjoyable. One thing that definitely unites the Brits in America, whatever generation, is Democratic politics. Everyone I spoke to was fervently hoping Obama gets back in, and marvelling at how people could actually vote for the likes of Rick Santorum. (It's funny to think that some of these people are probably ardent Tories back home - it makes you realise just how much further to the right America is.) We swapped stories about children, about schooling, the differences between education in the UK and US. It was basically an expat get-together, with fillet steak and an after-dinner speaker. We also heard a little about the school, which, though ruinously expensive, admittedly sounds fantastic (although whether either of our children will ever go there is another matter).

Then we got back on the train and headed back to suburban Long Island, back to the world of backyard BBQs, soccer practice and birthday parties, where our children get on the yellow school bus each day and we don't (yet) have to worry about entrance exams, league tables and sports halls. Somehow the occasion made me feel both very British, and yet not. Excited about our visit to London in just a few weeks now, I nevertheless wonder how we're going to slot back into English society. How much has our outlook on the world changed since living in America? Or are we going to fit right back in to middle class British life without looking back.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Leap Day treat: The Book of Mormon

When The Doctor tried to book tickets for the Book of Mormon on Broadway as my Christmas present, he found the show was pretty well sold out for the forseeable future. But then, amazingly, one day popped up as having spare seats- February 29th. Our guess is that the original calendar for the show hadn't taken into account the Leap Year, so this date suddenly became available. The tickets were still outrageously expensive, but then, this is the hottest show on Broadway - and I got to see it yesterday as a Leap Day treat.

I've wanted to see the show ever since I read an amazingly good review in the New York Times last year. In fact, I wanted to see it anyway - I love anything by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and particularly loved their take on musicals in the film South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut. They can be absolutely shocking, but I have huge admiration for their black, irreverent humour and the way they are not afraid to skewer any sacred cows.

The production did not disappoint. The story of two naive Mormon missionaries who are sent to Uganda, it is a glorious pisstake not only of Mormonism (and let's face it, we urgently need this when Mitt Romney, a Mormon, could become the next President of the USA) but of all religion, and, like quite a lot of Parker and Stone's other stuff, also neatly satirizes how America sees the world. But it's also a fabulous show - it's got great song and dance numbers, hilariously funny characters, and even a (sort of) moral. And, if you're a fan or otherwise of musical theatre, you'll appreciate in particular how the songs reference a number of well-known musicals, including The Lion King and Les Miserables.

This is very edgy, foul-mouthed comedy and whether or not you'd get away with putting this show on anywhere outside New York (or perhaps California) I don't know. I'm sure swathes of Middle America would hate it, but the Manhattan audience absolutely loved it - and the fact that tickets are so hard to come by says it all. I hear it's coming to London soon, so UK readers, watch out for a West End production. Don't go and see it if you're a) a Mormon, b) easily shocked or c) would not like a song whose main lyrics translate as 'F*** God. Do go and see if you a) like black, black humor b) love South Park, and c) have ever been to Orlando.