Monday, 23 December 2013

Pre-Christmas Dramas

We were so nearly there. At the beginning of the week, the end of term had loomed like a horrible deadline, before which I needed to fit in doing the rest of the Christmas shopping, attending various end of term events without forgetting anything, writing the Christmas cards and writing a final feature for work.

But now we were an hour away from the end of Littleboy 1's term. I was finishing off my last few bits of work before a break for the holidays, while Littleboy 2, having broken up a day earlier, was happily esconsed on the sofa with an iPad, having slept in till 9am. All was quiet in the deep dark wood.

And then I got the call from school. The nurse's office. "We seem to have a very unusual problem here, Mrs NVG. Littleboy 1 appears to have a 5p coin stuck to the roof of his mouth, and we can't get it out. We think he may need to go to a dentist, or even A&E."

Littleboy 2 and I rushed up there to find a distraught Littleboy 1 with, indeed, a coin somehow suctioned to the inside of his mouth. Whether or not the crying was to do with embarrassment, pain or the fact that he knew I'd told him a million times not to put money in his mouth, I'm not quite sure.

Having not registered the boys yet with a dentist in London (I was waiting until 6 months after their last American appointment), I was faced with a dire wait at the busiest A&E department in London, and had visions of a dreadful Christmas ahead with Littleboy unable to eat or drink anything, having had the coin surgically removed somehow.

Luckily the school nurse thought of a local dentist who helps the school out with fitting rugby mouthguards. A phone call later and we were down there; the dentist removed the offending coin in seconds.

"Have you ever seen this before?" I asked her. "Er, no", she replied. "I can't say I have."

This is the second time I've been told by a medical professional that something unique has happened to a child of mine. The first was when Littleboy 2, as a baby, managed to get a hair so tightly wrapped around his little toe that it had to be removed by a plastic surgeon.

However, it may run the family; my father-in-law tells me he swallowed a penny (old penny, so quite big) at much the same age. He had to have it removed under chloroform, a most unpleasant experience. So, I think we got off lightly.

Anyway - Littleboy 1 is fine again, and we are excitedly counting down to Christmas. But I don't think we'll be putting any coins in the Christmas pudding....

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Great Transatlantic Christmas-off

Not my neighbour's partridge; but it's a good old English tradition
"Look, it's a partridge! In a pear tree".

This was about the third time I've pointed out to Littleboy 1 this most inventive outdoor Christmas decoration from a house near us. A stuffed bird sits atop a tiny tree, which is hanging with golden pears, outside their house. (While America still wins on the classy decoration front, England is definitely improving - I've seen lots of fairy lights on trees and bushes this year, and not so many flashing garish reindeer).

When he finally managed to see the thing, he asked quite simply: "What's that got to do with Christmas?"

The boys have certainly missed out on some English Christmas traditions during our time in the US, but they're making up for lost time now. Although sadly too old to actually be a shepherd/wise man in the Nativity, they've sung in choirs at school as younger children perform it. We're one carol service down, two to go (Littleboy 1's was at a large London cathedral, a really special experience, while the other two will be a tiny country churches). Although I realise I'm a hypocrite for wanting them to experience carol services, given that I'm the most Dawkins-eque critic of religion, I do feel they missed something in the US, with its strict banishment of anything religious from school. After all, you can't be critical of something you've never been exposed to, can you? (And after all, I like singing carols).

Littleboy 2's been to one pantomime with school, and I've booked tickets for all of us to go to the Theatre Royal, Stratford, to see Dick Whittington. I'm not sure panto even exists in New York where the Christmas theatre experience is either The Nutcracker, or The Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall.

This week we're off to The Snowman in Covent Garden (at least they know what this is, having watched it repeatedly on video since they were babies and played the theme tune in their piano recitals in America). In a fit of Christmas enthusiasm I bought the DVD of the rehashed Snowman (The Snowman and Snowdog) in the supermarket, having not seen it on television last year. Disappointingly it was a far inferior version; Littleboy 1 immediately announced that music wasn't as good, and the adults among us were dismayed that the original house in the film was now depicted in the midst of urban sprawl. We don't want realism from our cartoons!

Work-wise, I've been incredibly busy, mainly because my American colleagues are fascinated by the glut of over-the-top Christmas ads coming out of the UK. Why, they asked me, are British Christmas ads such a big deal? I tried to explain that in the UK, Christmas IS the really one really big occasion of the year when we go totally overboard. Americans have so many; Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentine's, even Mother's Day have special advertising created just for the occasion, and then of course there's the Super Bowl.

The UK has also has Special Christmas Telly for advertisers to get their teeth into, with guaranteed large audience numbers. We show special episodes of all our favourites on the 25th, whereas in the States it's all repeats of A Charlie Brown Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street. Hell, America has to wait until March to get the Downton Abbey Christmas Special. While I've gone off Downton rather, I'm looking forward to Call The Midwife and the return of Benedict Cumberbatch (sorry, Sherlock).

Yes, for all that I miss about America, in the great Transatlantic Christmas-Off, the UK definitely has the edge.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

On Guilty Secrets

David Emanuel: Jungle camper and all round nice man

I'm not a big watcher of reality TV. I'm not into the X-Factor, or Strictly, or Celebrity Big Brother, or American Idol, Britain's Got Talent - anything like that. It's not that I haven't watched them - usually I watched one series in the past, then got bored. I couldn't see the attraction of the Great British Bakeoff, beyond being mildly amusing. I do watch The Apprentice, but not so religiously that I can't miss a single episode.

But then there's my November guilty secret. My name is Nappyvalleygirl and I'm addicted to I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.

 I love I'm a Celebrity, and this year has been no exception. It might help that it's on at a particularly grey and gloomy time of year, I suppose; I seem to remember that when I watched the very first series, I had a stinking cold and the idea of being glued to the TV for three weeks was extremely appealing.

But what I really love is the way that all the "celebrities" (and I deliberately put that in quotation marks, because usually I've never heard of half of them), once they've been in the jungle for about a week and deprived of decent food, hot water and their dignity, lose their "celebrity" veneer and almost forget they're being filmed. Never mind the "bushtucker trials", it's fascinating to watch their real characters emerge as they subsist on a diet of rice and beans, wash in a stream and have to empty out the "dunny".

Who would have thought that previously not-very-famous boyband member Kian Egan would win this year, closely followed by rather camp wedding dress designer David Emanuel? I certainly wouldn't have had my money on those two at the beginning of the series, against TOWIE reality show star Joey Essex (not that I'd heard of him either, but apparently he's hugely popular) or gorgeous model Amy Willerton. But three weeks in the jungle revealed that Emanuel and Egan were the most down-to-earth, lovely, helpful people in camp. And so the public voted for them.

I'm A Celeb has also got me through some difficult times. In 2006, when I was pregnant with Littleboy 2 and banged up in St Thomas's Hospital, not even allowed to leave the ward, it was a lifesaver. I watched it every night on my bedside screen - it was literally an escape from the fact that I was trapped in hospital away from my husband and 17 month old baby for a whole month, sharing a room with three other women and worrying about my baby being born prematurely. Maybe it wasn't even a coincidence that Littleboy 2 was finally delivered just a few days after the final episode. Last year, when the onset of my mystery illness was making me deeply anxious and I felt as if my world was falling apart, it was the one thing I looked forward to all day.

These experiences mean that however mindless the series might be, I will always have a fondness for Ant and Dec (although I do hope they get sent to the jungle themselves one day). One thing I've never done is voted (except once, in the infancy of reality TV, for Will Young on Pop Idol). I try to restrict myself just to watching. At least I can keep one aspect of my dignity intact.

But I reckon everyone has their reality TV guilty secret. The Doctor's uncle, an eminent left wing academic, loves watching Strictly, while other serious-seeming friends of mine seemed obsessed with the Bakeoff. In America, otherwise sensible working Moms got all giggly over The Bachelorette and the Real Housewives series.

So go on, then, what's yours? Or are you so admirable you eschew them all?

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Missing Thanksgiving

No November turkey for us this year!
I didn't get Thanksgiving at all when we first moved to the US. It seemed a kind of inconvenient holiday, jammed in at the end of November when I hadn't started feeling at all festive and everyone was full swing in the middle of work and (at that time) preschool.

I remember all too well the first year we were in New York. It seemed as if everyone I knew was going off to celebrate with their families and was incredibly excited, and for us, nothing was happening. We were saved at the last minute by our lovely German expat friends, who invited us round for a turkey and all the trimmings (plus some Germanic additions such as dumplings). It was actually rather wonderful.

From then on, celebrating Thanksgiving with our friends became a tradition for us.  We had them back the following year, and then went to their house again. We became more familiar with the rituals of the day; watching the Macy's Manhattan Thanksgiving parade on TV in the morning, going for a walk after lunch in the usually glorious autumn weather. In 2011, I ran the annual town "Turkey Trot" before lunch, and appreciated the slap-up meal afterwards all the more.

So this year it seems a bit strange not to be celebrating the last Thursday in November. Not only seeing my friends' photos of their own celebrations on Facebook, I also feel left out as my work colleagues (all in the US) are on holiday and our offices are closed. While they are all being thankful, we're here in drizzly London on an ordinary Thursday, with everyone at school and work.

You see, I came around to Thanksgiving after all. It's an excuse for a big meal, a party and a festive feeling at a cold time of year when there's not much going on. (Many Americans I know say they even prefer it to Christmas, as there's no pressure to buy presents.)

Never mind. One thing I will appreciate this year is Christmas in England - my first since 2008. Mince pies, proper English carol services, mulled wine, Christmas pudding - it's all to come, and I intend to make the most of it. It's not been the easiest of years, but for that, I'll be thankful.

In the meantime, happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Clever clogs

Littleboy 2 is getting far too clever for his own good.

I don't just mean academically, although it's true he's currently on a roll at school. He keeps coming home from school with certificates for good work, stickers from the head teacher and so forth (though is mysteriously reticent on what these were actually awarded for).

And whereas his brother is definitely the mathematician in the family, I think he may have inherited my own preference for the written word. He's recently begun a diary, and is keen to write everything down. Meanwhile a future literary critic may be emerging: he rather startled us at the weekend by pointing out, while watching Lord of The Rings, that Sauron's eye is the symbol of evil whereas the tree of Gondor is the symbol of good. Deep thoughts for a six year old.

Yesterday's spelling homework was words with apostrophes: you'll, they're, we're, I'm etc. There was a little confusion at first, so I got him to write some sentences using the various words. When we got to You're, I helpfully jumped into explain the difference between Your and You're, and suggested he write a sentence containing both. He looked at me slyly and trotted out the following:

"You're silly, Mummy, for leaving your brand new umbrella on the bus."

I had hoped the children had forgotten the little episode, which occurred a few weeks ago in Brixton. It was raining heavily, and my umbrella had broken. About to board a bus home with the boys, I was concerned that we would be soaked on the short walk between bus stop and home at the other end, so I made the children come with me to a crowded, chaotic Poundland to buy a cheap umbrella. Of course I promptly left it on the bus - so my one pound brolly was used for all of 30 seconds. Naturally, I made the boys promise not to tell Daddy that Mummy had been so stupid.

Anyway - I couldn't argue with the sentence. It's both factually and grammatically correct. But I'm going to have to watch out with this one.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Homework, grammar and toys in pyjamas

My friend Circles in the Sand has written a lovely post about doing grammar with her boys, which inspired me to ruminate on our own homework and grammar experiences.

I've come to notice recently that I really enjoy helping the kids with their English homework.  This isn't really a surprise; I loved doing English at school myself, and always felt that an English lesson wasn't really "work", it was enjoyable. The best English lessons were those when you just got to read your book - hell, that wasn't work at all! This was closely followed by reading plays out loud, or - even better - getting to watch the video version of your set text. (Actually, I think everyone loved that. Particularly Far From The Madding Crowd with Terence Stamp and Alan Bates).

Maths was another matter. Littleboy 1 told me this morning: "Today is a great day because I have double maths." I had to laugh; my worst days at school were double maths days - clearly he takes after his father, who took Maths A Level.

Yesterday I spent ages helping him come up with creative adverbs to put in a story about aliens. It's difficult though - how much help do you give them? I don't want to put words in his mouth but on the other hand, I had to give him some clues, including hinting that "nicely" was not the most creative adverb in the world (and adding that teachers don't tend to like the word "nice" in general).

Anyway, as regards grammar: Littleboy 2 had a note come home from school which said:

"Friday is Children In Need day. Children are asked to bring into school their favourite doll, teddy or cuddly toy dressed in pyjamas or fancy dress for the day."

I'm not sure whether the sentence is actually ungrammatical, or just poorly worded, but it definitely wasn't clear.  We had a huge debate on whether it was the children or the toys that were supposed to come in fancy dress. I reasoned that it couldn't be the children, because they have sports on a Friday and it wouldn't be suitable to come in wearing PJs on a sports day. On the other hand, what cuddly toy has pyjamas?

Turns out it is the toy though. Seeing as Littleboy 2's is a tiger, he (the tiger) won't be going in pyjamas.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Weekend ad break

 Lego's latest ad (above) is a sure winner for the Christmas season - it's all about father and son bonding, and features the cutest wide eyed little boy building Lego towers with his devoted Dad. It's a clever bit of marketing but I think Lego may have missed a trick. Why isn't it a Mother in the ad?

Yes, Dads sometimes get to do the fun parts of Lego building - helping put together the new Lego set they got for Christmas, for example.

But Mums, in my experience, are the ones who really know about Lego. We get to hear endless information all about the characters in Lego Chima. We have to figure out how to get two bits of Lego apart which appear to be have welded together by superglue. We have to search under the sofa for "my really important Lego guy" who's crucially gone missing five minutes before bath time. And we have to pore over instructions when it's all gone horribly wrong.

We also get to experience the joys of picking Lego up off the floor, the nagging in the supermarket when Lego minifigures are spotted at the checkout (thank you, Sainsbury's) and the sinking feeling when yet another Lego set is dimantled and goes into the big, endless pile of bricks.....

Yes, Lego, do an ad about Mothers. Because, as any Mum of little boys knows, understanding Lego is essential to raising sons.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

A London Halloween: surprisingly spooky

I don't know how many times I've warned the Littleboys over the past few years that Halloween in England wouldn't quite be the same as in America. I tried to let them down gently so that they wouldn't be hugely disappointed by the contrast between Long Island and London. "Halloween isn't such a big thing in England," I'd tell them. "You might not find that everyone's out trick or treating, and people don't really decorate their houses like they do in America."

But now they probably think I'm a complete nutter.

In fairness, at my previous London home, I would quite often buy a stash of Halloween sweets and end up keeping them for a whole year after nobody came round trick or treating on October 31. But it seems things have changed. Last Thursday, we headed out not only to find the streets full of trick or treating families, but many houses lit up with pumpkins. Not only that, but people were making a real effort to dress up in spooky costumes just to answer their door.

At one house, which was dark except for a lit jack o' lantern, the door appeared to open spookily by itself, before the mother (I presume) then appeared wearing a bloodstained white doctor's jacket. Her two sons then appeared at the window looking like vampires, holding candles and staring blankly out of the window without even a trace of a giggle. This was better than anything that ever happened to us in the States, where (dare I say it) the spooky element of Halloween is sometimes altogether forgotten as teams of fairies, superheroes and firefighters roam the streets.

True, the house decorations we had been missing appeared at the last minute, on 31st October, rather than being up all month, but some of them were excellent, and the pumpkin carvings in the neighbourhood were extremely impressive (compared to our amateurish efforts, above). The boys were most excited by a pumpkin carved as Mario from Mario Brothers, and there were bats, owls, and all manner of other designs.

The only contrast the boys themselves could see is that the quantity of their sweet booty was slightly less impressive than in the US. Many people had run out quite early on, including us, and some people were handing out fruit instead, as it was the only thing they had left in the house.

 Next, year, I'll be dressing up to answer the door - and I'm certainly buying more sweets.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Halloween Ad Break

It's half term, so I'm going to entertain you this week with another commercial break. This one's from Canada, but it certainly embodies a certain kind of parent you meet in the US too. (I haven't met any in the UK so far). You know the one. She starts discussing Halloween costumes in August, even though her two year old isn't actually aware what Halloween is or knows what they want to wear. Throughout October, she posts endless pictures of her family's Jack o' Lantern carving creations on Facebook. She would ideally drink Starbucks' pumpkin spiced latte all year round if she could. She wins the contest for Most Over The Top Garden Decorations. She drags her small children trick or treating for hours, well after everyone else has gone in and they are wailing. Nevertheless, she's the one whose Halloween party you would LOVE your kids to be invited to....

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Why expats love social networks

When my parents moved to Hong Kong in the 1970s, they were essentially cut off from the rest of the world. Phone calls to the UK were only made in emergencies, or on Christmas Day after the Queen's Speech. Air mail letters took several days to reach home, and were mainly exchanged between family - friends only tended to communicate at Christmas card time.

But moving to America in 2009 was a totally different story. Yes, I missed my friends, but I knew almost as much about what they were up to as when I lived in London. Thanks to email and particularly to Facebook, I didn't forget what their children looked like or how they were growing up, or what the significant events were in their lives. Not only that, we were able to comment on the same world events, even gossip about stuff via message threads. For keeping in touch with family, there was Skype - so my children didn't have to forget what Grandad looks like or who their lovely great Aunt is.

I was asked to contribute to a blog post on this subject by relocation company Robinsons. What struck me is that it seems most expats agree - whatever you think of Mark Zuckerberg, (and I'm looking forward to reading Dave Eggers' book The Circle which takes a satirical look at social networks), Facebook and Skype are invaluable inventions if you're living apart from friends and family.

Now that we're back from the US, at least I can keep in touch with my American friends in the same way. I have to say that I already feel I'm losing touch with the ones who aren't on Facebook (although I'm encouraging the Facebook refuseniks to at least download Skype. After all, that doesn't have any privacy implications, which I presume is why they are reluctant to join). 

If you live abroad, what's your favourite way of communicating?

Thursday, 17 October 2013

On pumpkins, joined-up writing and video cameras

It's almost Halloween and there's not a pumpkin to be seen in the bay windows of Southeast London. No skeletons on porches, spiderwebs on trellises or fake gravestones in front gardens. I've seen a few tired looking gourds being marketed as "Halloween pumpkins" in Tesco, but there's no pumpkin patch where we can go and select the choicest specimen to carve for the 31st.

The only people who have asked me about costumes are 1) Iota and 2) my German friend - and both of them were being ironic.

Despite this, I have (rashly) promised the Littleboys trick or treating at Halloween, and have even possibly persuaded a fellow Mum at school to join in. While clearly it won't be an American Halloween, with a costume parade in the school playground, I think going from full on Halloween to nothing would be a bit of a shock to the system for the boys (not to mention myself).

One thing that happened in America was that on every celebratory occasion (Halloween, Valentine's Day and so forth) there would be certain parents that would wrap up a little bag of treats, including pencils and rubbers, for every child in the class. Consequently we now have hundreds. I noticed Littleboy 1 filling up his school bag with rubbers (that's Brit-speak for erasers, for the shocked Americans among you) the other day. When I enquired why, he said: "Well, everyone is always asking me to borrow a rubber, because I have quite a few, and they don't have any. And it's really annoying, so I'm just bringing lots to school and handing them out."

Rubbers, the vestiges of an American education.

We are almost at half term and one thing that has become apparent is that he doesn't know how to do joined up writing - unlike the rest of his class, who have presumably spent years perfecting it. (Littleboy 2, in year 2, seems to have thrown himself into learning this skill very earnestly and practises it every night, writing sentences such as "Mummy is cool" in beautiful script).

When the teacher mentioned his messy handwriting at a meeting, I had to point out that he'd never done it before. And I started to wonder - do we really still need to be teaching children beautiful joined-up writing? After all, by GCSEs surely they're going to be writing everything on a computer. Is it actually a redundant skill in this digital world - or something to be done as a hobby, like painting or sewing? Thoughts, please.

One last cultural difference I've noticed. I went to an assembly at one of the schools yesterday, where the children performed a play. At a similar event in the US, I would have turned up on time to find hoards of parents already there, having bagged the best seats, and would have hardly been able to turn my head for enormous video cameras. In London, as I filmed the performance discreetly on a digital camera, I noticed virtually no-one else was doing so. It couldn't have been more different.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Short observations on the school run

1. There are some parents who will always park on the double yellow lines outside the school (despite repeated warnings in the school newsletter not to do so). I am thinking of conducting a statistical study on this. My gut instinct tells me the results: it is likely that if you drive a Volvo or Audi 4X4, you are 110% more likely to do this than if you drive any other make of car.

2. Why does every middle class parent in London now seem to drive around permanently with a huge roof box on top of their (huge) car? I can't explain it. I mean, they're not going on holiday every week are they? Or perhaps they are....anyway, if we end up getting one, you might have to shoot me.

3. Dads on bikes (with kids on bikes behind) are the politest parents. When I'm walking Littleboy 1 to school, they always thank me for letting them by (they tend to be cycling on the pavement, but I'll forgive them that) and their kids even say good morning to my kids.

4. So far, virtually the only parents to say hello to me on a regular basis (at one of the schools) are non-British. What does that say, I wonder? Is it just that I've gravitated towards those people, having just spent time living away? Or are they actually friendlier.....

5. I've said it before, and will say it again. Britain needs schoolbuses! Shall I start a campaign?

Monday, 7 October 2013

Little things about London

People keep asking if we're happy to be back and to be honest, it's a difficult question.

So far, the Doctor is frustrated with work, I'm still struggling with my health issues (awaiting a specialist appointment next month) and although the boys like their new schools, they are definitely missing the space we had in America. There, they could run around a huge garden, or play outside with the neighbours' kids. Here, we are renting a house with a small decked garden. They want to kick footballs around and I'm terrified they're going to break one of the fancy garden lights, or even worse, someone else's window.

We definitely miss the New York weather. The mornings have been dark and gloomy, although it hasn't been that cold yet - a contrast to the beautiful light we had most mornings on Long Island, in every season. The climate in New York is definitely drier and sunnier (although of course could also be very dramatic, and fiendishly cold).

But there are little things about London that I notice, and love, that makes it feel like home. I love independent shops like our local greengrocer, a family run place where the proprietor and his daughters sound like they're straight out of Eastenders. I definitely feel these were lacking in the States - or perhaps it was just that those sort of places tended to be Hispanic bodegas, where I didn't feel part of the culture at all.

I love the English love of gardens - however small they may be in London. On Long Island, almost everyone had gardeners, or landscapers as they were known, but they did very little, so lawns tended to be big and beds low maintenance. That certainly isn't the case here. Walking down the narrow South London residential streets to the boys' schools, you'll suddenly pass a wonderfully scented lavender bush, lovingly tended roses, or a blooming fuschia in someone's tiny front garden, while back gardens glimpsed over fences are laden with fruit at the moment - apples, crab apples, pears and the last of the blackberries.

And, much as I enjoyed my spell in the suburbs, I like being part of a city again. The fact that I can be at my desk in the morning, at an art gallery in New Bond Street forty minutes later (for work, not leisure) and back in my house for lunch. And the diversity: within ten minutes I can be in the crowded markets of Brixton, reggae music blasting, or among the genteel shops of Dulwich.

I like that I understand what's on the school calendar - Harvest Festival, Fireworks, Christmas Pantomime  - and don't have to constantly ask people what things mean. (I just saw an email from our mums' group in America that was headed "hanging bag mums" - now can anyone work out what that means?)

Long Island, you were wonderful. But London, much as I hate to admit it sometimes with your grey skies and grime, you are home.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

A new routine

We are gradually settling in.

Littleboy 1 is having to get to grips with not only wearing a school uniform at school, but having to get changed at school or either PE or games- something he never had to do in the US. This means that he a) loses items of clothing on a regular basis (at least he has the name tapes) and b) often appears at the end of the school day with something on back to front or inside-out. On Friday he told me "Today is my favourite school day." I expected that it was because it was almost the weekend but no - it was the only day he didn't have to change clothes.

Littleboy 2 is getting to grips with swimming lessons through the school, which involve wearing a swimming hat for the first time in his life. After the first one, the teachers asked me: "Can he swim?". "Yes," I replied, surprised, "He's a really good swimmer." The swimming coach had reported back that he wasn't obeying any instructions and he wondered if he spoke English. When I enquired, Littleboy 2 informed me that he "couldn't hear". I've worked out that it must be the swimming hat......

The Doctor has finally started work, having cleared all manner of CRB checks, identity checks and occupational health questionnaires. Of course, when he took in all his official certificates to say he's a qualified doctor, no-one really gave them a second glance.....

For me, it's just been incredibly busy. As well as working, childcare and catching up with my UK friends, I've been working out how the heating in the house works, and trying to contact a piano repair man who only answers the phone on a Monday and won't allow you to leave an answerphone message. Fun, fun, fun.

I still haven't met many fellow parents at the school, but there's a coffee morning later this week at which I hope to make some connections. At the moment I feel like the only Mum outside Littleboy 2's school gates who isn't chatting gaily to a friend, and because of the dash between the two schools, I usually arrive at Littleboy 1's school a hot mess, dragging little brother behind me.

I also hadn't realised how much difference it makes with the school day being slightly longer than in America. By the time we get home from pickup, it's ten past four, and almost time to start homework and piano practice. They also get homework on weekends (a bit much, I think) so in some ways it feels as if you never get a break.

I'm already looking forward to half term....

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Saturday ad break

As some of you may know, my day job involves writing about advertising. I have to watch hundreds of ads every week, good and bad, and sum them up in a few succint paragraphs. I don't often share ads on this blog, but sometimes I come across one that I think would make my readers laugh.

Having just moved back to England and discovering the "joys" of the school run, this one definitely did.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Down memory lane on the seafront

Beach huts on the seafront near my old school
On Saturday, I checked in at a little hotel on the seafront in a Suffolk seaside town. Across the road, the grey sea lapped in unfriendly waves, while huge container ships made their way slowly across the horizon. It was a view I hadn't experienced for 22 years. But oh, so familiar.

This was my first return to the seaside town where I boarded for seven years, from the ages of eleven. I walked out of there at 18 and never looked back. The school closed three years later, so there were not return visits, no school reunions. But now someone had organized one via Facebook, and here we were.

Ah, the power of social media. With us all turning 40 this year, everyone had become incredibly nostalgic, posting old school photos and remembering teachers. To my surprise, people who I never would have considered friends at school had "friended" me on Facebook. Even people who had been bullies and, not to put too fine a point on it, bitches. Now they were all turning up, at this former grotty seafront pub now, amazingly, transformed into a boutique hotel.

I wasn't sure about going. None of the few friends I had stayed in touch with and seen over the years could make it, and there were only a few people going that I had been at all close to. But when I met one of them at Liverpool Street Station and travelled up with her on the train, I knew I had made the right decision.

When you live with people, day in day out, for seven years, you share quite a bond. Memories that have been tucked away into a far corner of your mind for years. A shared sense of place and experience that binds you together, despite the intervening years.

And that was the overriding feeling of the evening, which I enjoyed far more than I expected. In fact, it was fascinating. The main thing that surprised me was how many other people confessed that they had hated boarding. Even people who appeared, at the time, to be thoroughly enjoying it. It was interesting that to a woman, we all said we would not ever send our own children to boarding school.

Also interesting were the friendships that had endured, and those that hadn't. The people who confessed that when they looked back on their friendship with certain people, they saw that it wasn't healthy. The girl who had been haunted over the years by the fact that she said something awful to one girl, who then left the school as a result. The two girls who had stood by someone else who had a terrible car crash the year after we left school, and spent a year in hospital.

I was also amazed by how other people remembered me. Someone said they thought I was sporty - I never was, and spent the whole time imagining that everyone thought of me as useless at hockey. Someone else (hilariously) remembered me as a "mathematician" - turns out they had me confused with my best friend. At school I thought of myself as rather square and boring, but people didn't remember me like that. They remembered that I was good at drama and writing, and wrote funny plays for the end of term show. The people I assumed despised me at school probably didn't, after all.

In a way, our group were a microcosm of the ups and downs of life. There had been marriages, children, divorces, accidents and illnesses - even one death. At forty, I was able to see the amazing women behind the silliest of girls. Age might bring lines, but it also brings a deeper level of understanding to all of us.

So I'm glad I went. In some ways it exorcised some demons. In some ways it reminded me of a part of my life I've suppressed for years.

And looking at the unexpected blue of the sea the next morning, under a cloudless Suffolk sky, a tiny part of me admitted that perhaps it wasn't all that bad.

Friday, 13 September 2013

First week over....

Well, we survived the first week of new schools, new house and new everything.

Considering I was on my own for four days of it, with The Doctor away at a conference, I think it went pretty well. I managed to get to the parents' evening, thanks to my father who babysat. I managed to get them to school and back every day, without being late for anything or forgetting any games kit. We did all the homework. Littleboy 1 only lost one item of school uniform - and his teacher managed to find it again today.

On the downside, the weather has been completely foul and I'm hating the London traffic. Since we left the number of parents in "Chelsea tractors" seems to have proliferated and the driving become more aggressive. Of course these same cars were everywhere on Long Island, but at least there the roads are wide and the parking spaces large. On South London's narrow, speed-bumped roads, trying to dodge big shiny 4x4's filled with harried looking mothers is just not fun.

But at least the boys seem to have settled with remarkable ease. Littleboy 2 is quite the novelty in his new school as the only new pupil in Year 2. Everyone at the parents' evening had heard all about him, and he was even voted onto the "school council" by his classmates. (This involves going to see the headmistress once a week and solemnly reporting requests from his class. Apparently most of them are about whether the school can have a trampoline or a swimming pool).

Littleboy 1 pronounced his first day "awesome" and has been incredibly enthusiastic ever since. He's been put in the top group for football and is reassured to find that his classmates like Angry Birds and Star Wars just like the boys in America.

If only adults were as adaptable as children.....

Monday, 9 September 2013

Back to school: UK vs US

My New York friends go back to school this week (at least, their children do), so I've been reflecting a little bit on the differences I've noticed so far between the rituals that accompany back-to-school in the UK and in the US.

Spend the week before frantically buying uniform and attaching name tags (or sew-in name tapes, in my unlucky case, see previous post).

Spend the week before shopping for nice new kids' clothes at Target and, if you're super-organized, writing a name on the label with a Sharpie.

First day in the plaground: everyone's discussing their summer holidays and where they went.

First day in the playground: everyone's discussing which summer camp their kids did

You're not sure what day your child has PE and when to send in the PE bag

It doesn't matter what day they have gym, because they don't have to get changed for it.

Everyone's already looking forward to half term/wondering how they're going to arrange childcare for half term

Everyone's already thinking about Halloween costumes. There's no half term (although there are an awful lot of random days off in November).

The school run means the traffic everywhere is a nightmare

The traffic isn't any different from usual, although there are more school buses around

Everyone's posting pictures of the first day on Facebook
Everyone's posting pictures of the first day on Facebook

At least some things are the same the world over.....

Thursday, 5 September 2013

My first school run

It's been a momentous week.

We've moved into our new house in London, and both the boys have started at their new schools, Littleboy 2 yesterday and Littleboy 1 today. I've spent all week unpacking boxes, labelling uniform and pencil cases and shoes, and making tedious phone calls. The Doctor, meanwhile, has been wading through reams of cable trying to make all our various media work properly, setting up direct debits and making tedious phone calls.

At least one of my biggest dreads - the sewing on of hundreds of name tapes with only five days between acquiring and wearing said uniform - went smoothly in the end. Thanks to the Doctor's aunt and a friend of hers, all name tapes were sewn on in one long session, sitting outside in a Greenwich garden one warm evening accompanied by bottles of prosecco.

I still have to sew on the "large initial" name tapes, which haven't arrived yet and which must apparently be attached in exactly the right place on sports kit or else who knows what will happen (see uniform booklet, the whereabouts of which are unknown).

All was organised for the first school run. The Doctor would take Littleboy 2 to school and I would pick him up at 12.30 (it was a half day start). I would take the local train one stop, and make a leisurely trip to a nice-looking bakery before picking him up and travelling back by bus.

All was fine until I reached the station - although I did notice there was a huge queue of traffic on the road and that the police had closed off one section, although you could still walk to the station. Turns out a lorry had hit a railway bridge, giving a knock on effect on both trains and traffic. I quickly worked out I was very unlikely to be there at 12.30 if I took the train. While this might be OK in a few weeks there was no WAY I was going to be there late to pick up Littleboy 2 on his first day at a new school in a new country.

I started sprinting up the road to the nearest bus stop. No mean feat considering that a) I haven't run in a year due to my chronic pain problems, b) I was wearing flip flops and c) and it's unusually hot in London this week - more like New York temperatures in fact. The buses were there, but stuck in a huge jam - the first driver told me "you'd be better off walking, luv". I rang The Doctor and told him to jump in the car and head for the school in case I didn't make it.

So I carried on running, at least half a mile, in my flip flops. Eventually the traffic eased (I saw the lorry which had hit the bridge) and I managed to jump on a bus for a few stops. I ran the last hot, sweaty 100 metres, and got there just as Littleboy 2 emerged into the school playground with his class. (The other mothers were all serenely chatting about their holidays in the Algarve and no doubt wondering who this wild-eyed, red faced newcomer was).

"Mummy, why are your hands so sweaty?" Littleboy 2 asked me as I took him firmly by the hand. By this point The Doctor and Littleboy 1 had also arrived and parked around the corner. We flopped into the car, hot and exhausted, then had to go off and look for lunch which I had failed to buy.

I'm really going to miss that yellow schoolbus. Still, if nothing else, my first school run taught me that I am still capable of running. I might be donning my trainers next time though.

Monday, 19 August 2013


I made an expedition to London the other day and revisited some of my old stomping grounds: as well as the Clapham North area where we still own a house, I walked around bits of Soho, particularly the Carnaby Street area where I once worked, just to see how times had changed, before lunching at Liberty's in an upstairs cafe that certainly did not used to exist.

Here are some observations.

1. Pubs that serve Thai food appear to be a fad that has died a death. At one point there were at least four in Clapham alone. But now, our neighbourhood pub advertises "Bloody Marys and Roasts" outside - presumably trad-British food is now the thing, and it also made me wonder whether the popularity of brunch (a real New York institution ) has followed us over the Atlantic.

2. Restaurants, cafes and gyms come and go, but the old pubs remain. In Kingly Street, round the corner from my old work, the plush, once brand-new Cannons gym I belonged to has been knocked down. Almost all the restaurants are different. But the dark, traditional pubs - the Red Lion, Blue Posts and Clachan - are still going strong. The Shakespeare's Head in Carnaby St, where I remember hanging out as a teenager drinking snakebite and black, looks unchanged. And the newsagent opposite Liberty's  where I always used to look at the trade mag headlines still sells Campaign.

3. Austerity Britain does not appear to have made any impact whatsoever on the Carnaby Street area. If anything, it all looks a lot posher than ten years ago, with newly constructed courtyards, even more boutiquey shops than before (where had Boots gone?) and a plethora of fancy places to have coffee. In fact, nowhere I have visited so far looks remotely recession-struck. But what's it like outside of the south of England? Guess we'll find out on the trip to Anglesey...

4. First Great Western trains are now ridiculously expensive. I paid an eye-popping 55 quid for a day return from Didcot to Paddington - a 45 minute journey that I know very well. It's the same length of time as our journey from Long Island to Manhattan, but about five times the price. For this, you get a carriage with safety announcements and a TV screen in the back of your seat, a bit like going on a plane, so that you can browse the news headlines. I can't believe anyone actually wants all this - surely most people would rather pay less for rail fares and read their own book or look at the news headlines on their own smartphone? Seems to me that the privatised rail companies have gone seriously wrong somewhere along the (leaf-strewn) line.

But there's nothing like going away for a few years to make you see your home country in a new light. I came away with the impression that London is a lively, exciting city, with just as much going for it as New York. (There's nowhere in NYC quite like Liberty's, for example - an eccentric Tudor mansion stuffed with scarves and hats and stationery. Americans just don't do that kind of thing.)  I'm looking forward to rediscovering the capital again.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Back to Blighty

The glorious West Berkshire downs
I'm back.

With a new name and new picture, but I listened to my audience and have kept the "Nappy Valley", despite the fact that we're not going to be living there any more. We're currently in rural West Berkshire, but due to move to the wilds of southeast London in September. There, we will have to negotiate the perils of school uniform fittings, moving American furniture into a narrow London town house and having no idea how the British school system works (Year 4? What's that? My son should be in third grade).

So far, being back has seemed a little unreal. None of us are at school or work yet, and days have been spent either catching up with friends and family or sorting through our mountains of stuff we kept here in storage. We've been enjoying the glorious British countryside, appreciating the lack of humidity and mosquitoes, admiring the golden fields and hedgerows, not minding the fact that most days have required socks and an 'extra layer'.

The Littleboys have been engaging with British wildlife by adopting a striped caterpillar and keeping him in a jar. And they've been engaging with all our friends' children by running madly with them around gardens and learning all about British snacks and drinks (they'd never seen a Hula Hoop or Fruit Shoot before, let alone drunk Ribena). They've tried new sports, such as cricket, which they treated as if was baseball, throwing the bat to the ground after hitting the ball. They seem excited so far, although clearly the start of term is in their minds; their stuffed animals and Lego are often lined up in classrooms as one toy joins the "new school".

Bee the caterpillar: the latest addition to the family
Certain things seem very strange; driving a manual car again, with the gearstick on the left, has taken a while to get used to; the smallness of parking spaces at the supermarket; having to pay four quid an hour to park in London on a meter. But it's been comforting to hear people who sound like me in the playground, to speak to people on the phone and have them immediately understand what I say, and to be offered a nice cup of tea (or a glass of wine) the minute you arrive in someone's home. Although I'm a bit worried by the fact that since being back I've particularly appreciated Radio 4, Waitrose and reading the Observer food section; I fear I have definitely joined the ranks of the middle aged somewhere over the past four years.

But I don't think the move will really sink in until September, particularly as we're heading off to Anglesey next week for an extended bank holiday with all the cousins. In the meantime, I'll be ekeing out the last of the British summer to the soundtrack of Woman's Hour and drinking endless cups of tea.

Monday, 5 August 2013

36 hours on the California Zephyr

Winding our way through the Rockies

When we told people were taking a two day train trip from Denver to San Francisco with our six and eight year old, there were two alternative reactions. The first was “Oh, how amazing!" The second was “Wow, but won’t it drive you crazy?’.

The answer is: yes it was amazing, and no it didn’t drive us crazy. Well, perhaps if the iPad had yet to be invented, 36 hours in the company of two fairly bored boys would have been a living hell, but hey, at times like this I thank God for Steve Jobs. True, our boys spent a good 80% of their time glued to Minecraft and Angry Birds, rather than looking out of the window at the spectacular scenery. But reader, we let them.   After all, when you are eight you don't necessarily realise that travelling on a train through the Rocky Mountains is one of the most exciting journeys you'll probably ever make by rail in your life. Come to think of it, I've seen them more excited taking the train from Greenwich to London Bridge on Network South East....

The only exception was one hour after lunch when we decided to be responsible parents and make them do some summer homework/journal writing, at which point an elderly man came up to them (we were in the observation car) and told them (only half-jokingly) that they had a mean Mommy for making them do homework on holiday. 

Littleboy 2 is unimpressed by Amtrak's menu selection
Taking a long haul train is very different from taking a long haul flight. For a start, you can move around, explore different areas of the train, stretch your legs. Train time is different from real time; it’s defined by eating and sleeping, but one seems to roll into the other; lunchtime somehow morphs into late-afternoon drink time, and then into dinner time. Once it’s dark, there’s nothing really to do but go to bed. We had an Amtrak “family room”, in which there are two big bunks and two smaller bunks at right angles to them, so were all four in the same space. By the end of the journey, this had become extremely stuffy, so than goodness for the moves to the dining car and the observation car for long periods of time during the journey.

Scenery or iPad? iPad wins.

I had come armed with several books ready to read on the Kindle, but in the end I only managed a few chapters. The scenery was incredible. We began the trip with breakfast at 9 in the morning. As you eat your first meal, the train rises straight out of Denver into the Front Range of the Rockies, then through gorges and canyons and tunnels into the heart of the mountains. For a long time it follows the Colorado River (which eventually becomes the Grand Canyon); you pass white water rafters and kayakers who wave at the train. We had read that one stretch of track was notorious for people moony-ing the train, and sure enough, at about this point, the Doctor looked out of the window just in time to see a guy pulling his pants back up, having clambered up a rocky bank from the river just to do so. 

In the late afternoon the train moves towards Utah, passing through incredible red rock landscapes near the Arches National Park. Eventually this Wild West landscape gives way to arid, desert-like hills. We still followed the river, however, and as it got dark we watched deer wander down to drink at it. (The boys were actually interested at this point). 

Red rocks line the Colorado river in Utah

Most of Nevada is bypassed by night – fortunately, because most of it is brown desert, from what I saw. We saw the end of this landscape in the early morning light, before stopping at Reno around breakfast-time.  After that, the train starts to ascend again into the Sierra Nevada, passing pristine lakes, steep-sloped pine forests and the notorious Donner Pass, where a pioneer party came to grief in the days of the Gold Rush (it’s a grisly story involving cannibalism). 

Donner Lake in the Sierra Nevada
By lunchtime we were in California. The train passed through Sacramento and various small towns before making the final approach toward San Francisco Bay. We caught a brief glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge, although it was mainly obscured by San Francisco's infamous summer fog, a cool grey cloud that makes the temperature in the city a good 10 degrees colder than that of just a few miles inland. 

So would I recommend a two day train journey to other families with children? The answer is, yes. But take electronic stimulation, book a sleeping cabin if you can afford it, and you might want to take healthy snacks (the Amtrak food, although good, consists mainly of hot dog and burger options for kids).

Finally, don't worry too much if the children aren't as fascinated as you with the spectacular changing scenery of the American continent. One day, hopefully, they'll remember that they crossed America by rail, and perhaps they will even be inspired by your own love of travel.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

In the Wild West

My little cowboys
Hello from Denver, where I'm writing this from a gloomy motel room next to the station, where we have to be at 7AM tomorrow morning to catch the California Zephyr to San Francisco.

In the 10 days since we left Long Island, I've seen a totally different side of America; the Wild Wild West. We've spent time in the spectacular landscapes of the Rockies, hiking up to waterfalls and soaking in natural hot springs, taking cable cars to the tops of mountains and even riding down an alpine slide (a slide on which you sit on a tray and career down a mountain in a chute). We've seen the canyon country of northwestern Colorado and Utah, touched real dinosaur fossils, luxuriated in expensive Aspen and driven over high mountain passes to see ghost towns and ice grottoes.

Overlooking Steamboat Springs
Steamboat Springs, where we spent our first week in a ski apartment, is a charming little ski town, squarely geared towards the outdoors; rafting, tubing, and biking are among the popular activities and the Main Street is strewn with people carrying inflatable rubber rings and wearing wet clothing. It's so named for its hot springs and you can experience them in two entirely different ways. The "Old Town Hot Springs" has basically been made into a series of swimming pools, hot tubs and a mini water park with two long flume slides and a rock climbing wall.

The children loved this, but I was more taken with Strawberry Park Hot Springs. Outside of the town nestled in a hidden valley down a steep dirt road, this is a more natural environment, where you swim in muddy pools where the spring meets a stream, mingling hot and cold water to give you areas of wildly varying temperature. There were chipmunks everywhere, and the setting, amongst trees and the mountain, was stunning. After sunset, no children are admitted and clothing is optional - and although the signs say no alcohol, I've lived in the US long enough now to be certain that this will be squarely ignored. Although the kids declared the water too murky, I loved these pools and could have spent all day there.

Strawberry Park Hot Springs

We did some hiking, although Littleboy 2 seemed to suffer a little from the altitude and had several moments of simply refusing to carry on. The Doctor therefore went off and hiked by himself a couple of times, including an early morning walk up the mountain on which he saw a black bear.

After Steamboat, we moved on to Dinosaur National Monument, on the Colorado/Utah borders. The landscape is straight out of a western, and so were some of the towns we passed through. In particular we loved the small but fascinating Museum of Northwestern Colorado at Craig, where the boys loved seeing real cowboy clothes and a gun collection belonging to an elderly guy who worked there (and regaled us with tales of how he carried a gun when he visited New York).

The Doctor has really got into the Wild West spirit

The Colorado side of the park is stunning - and amazingly empty. We soon realised the reason for this - we were completely in the middle of nowhere. The nearest town where you could stay the night or even get a meal is 40 miles away in Vernal, Utah. Dinosaur, on the Colorado side, was a real one-horse town where rusty Dinosaur statues stood next to closed-down motels and shacks, a relic of perhaps an era when tourism was busier there. On the Utah side, you can see dinosaur fossils embedded in rock at the Quarry where many of the dinosaur bones found in museums around the world were originally found. For the Littleboys, this was a real highlight.

Echo Park Canyon in Dinosaur National Monument Park

We finished our Colorado stretch with two nights in Aspen. I'd expected it to be jetset and posh, and it is, but in a charming, boutique type way. The little tree-lined streets, with fantastic restaurants and bars, low rise wooden architecture, and of course the amazing mountain setting make it a uniquely special place. String quartets played in the streets, while beautiful couples in designer dresses made their way to the Opera House. Our hotel, The Limelight, was one of the nicest I've ever stayed at. From the home made granola at breakfast, to the comfy beds and the pizza restaurant where you could roast marshmallows round a firepit, it was perfect for a family and not too jaw-droppingly expensive either.

Roasting marshmallows in Aspen

Colorado has really surpassed my expectations. It was hard leaving New York, but the trip so far has really taken my mind off the move. Tomorrow we go further west, to San Francisco. Although the question of whether the boys will survive a 36 hour train trip without going completely manic still lingers, we're all looking forward to crossing the American continent by rail. See you in California....

Monday, 1 July 2013

Moving on....

Littleboy 2 gets ready for the move

With less than two weeks to go on Long Island, I feel as if we're in a kind of limbo. We've had the goodbye party, sent out the thank you cards, but haven't yet physically left.

School ended over a week ago and last night we hosted a party for 60 people at our house - the cast of characters included our former landlady (the one whose house was crushed by a tree), Littleboy 1's amazing piano teacher, neighbours and friends we've made over the last four years. But we're not done yet - we've a Fourth of July party to attend this week, and have meals with various friends who have suddenly realized we're leaving.

Of course everyone we meet asks us have we packed yet? I remember this when we left England, too. Packing for an international move is not exactly like packing a suitcase. We have a moving company coming to deal with the furniture etc., but most of the donkey-work is sorting and deciding, rather than packing. Sorting out which clothes to take with us in our cases, to last us till September when our stuff (hopefully) arrives. Deciding out which toys to bin, and which the boys actually still play with. Which of their many artworks to ship home, and which are just superfluous to requirements. Which important documents we really, really don't want to lose in a shipment, and whether or not it will actually be more dangerous to carry them around the US in our bags for two weeks.

Then there's the planning. Planning when to take the borrowed table back to our friend's house - when will be the last meal we need it for?  When do we say au revoir to the TV, sell the car? How much food do we still need in the fridge? (Turns out we have tonnes, left over from the party, so at least that is solved). What to do with the lights and electrical items we can't use in the UK.

But whatever we decide, the move is going to happen. In 12 days we leave for a trip to Colorado and Northern California, punctuated by a cross-country train trip. At the other end, England awaits. The prospect seems slightly unreal.

The other question I am constantly asked is how the boys feel about the move. I don't know exactly - children seem to take each day as it comes. They were excited about the leaving party because they were going to see all their friends (and they had a fantastic time). But whether or not it actually registered that it was because we're leaving leaving, I'm not sure.

One thing is for sure, though. I'm going to have to re-name this blog, as I'll neither be living in Nappy Valley or New York. Any suggestions welcome!

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Goslings, graduation and growing up

When I was a student, my parents were living in a farmhouse in Suffolk which had a large pond. Every time I went home for the holidays, my mother would regale me with tales of the ducklings on the pond; how many babies there were; how many had survived; how big they were getting; how they had grown up, and so forth. I simply could not understand this obsession with the ducks. Yes, the ducklings were cute, but did I really need to hear about them in every single letter? When I came home, I wanted to talk about friends and parties and exam results - not the ducks.

Twenty years on and I think I understand. The baby goslings that waddled up my driveway last month have now lost their fluff and are middle sized geese, following their parents around on the pond the other day. It amazes me how fast they have grown, when human children take so long to develop and change. I found myself pointing out the goslings to the boys the other day when walking past the pond, and thought of my mother and her excitement about the ducks.

I think it is only when we have our own babies that we become so in tune with the cycle of life and nature. I always find this time of year quite emotional, because it's the end of another school year, and particularly this year as we are moving on. Tomorrow is the last day of school. There have been "graduations" all week of one kind and another; kindergarten, elementary school, middle school. Children are moving up and moving on.

Today, as the kids got on the bus, I think everyone at our stop felt a little melancholy. It's not only we who are leaving; another neighbour is moving to Florida and another's son is moving on to Middle School, so won't be on the bus in September. For those that remain, there will probably be a whole new crowd. My friend confessed that she felt quite misty-eyed as she put her 10 year old on the bus for the last time; it seemed like yesterday he was in kindergarten, she said.

For us, it's the end of an era. No more yellow school bus. In September, the Littleboys will be putting on school uniform for the first time and heading off to their new schools in London. No longer small and fluffy, but still my babies.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Diorama drama

Well, we did the diorama.

In the end it was surprisingly painless, because Littleboy 1, having moaned about it making it, suddenly decided 10 minutes into the project that he absolutely loved it and launched into it with his boundless enthusiasm. At the same time his brother, feeling left out, decided that he was going to make his own diorama - not for a school project, just because he wanted to. So they both spent a morning cutting out coloured paper and writing captions on stickers.

Thanks to those who commented on the former post for confirming that UK schools, indeed, also ask for dioramas. However, I wonder if this may be an American import (like "show and tell", "playdate" and various other kiddie terms that have crept across the pond).

"A diorama is a rite of passage for every American schoolkid," confirmed my friend K, a former teacher, who came round the other day and admired the shoeboxes and their contents. At some point, she said, every child is asked to make one, and as they get older they are required to be more and more complicated and impressive. (I'm glad Littleboy 2 got his moment, then, before we leave - he took it school and showed it to his teacher, who reportedly said "Wow!")

I must admit, I thought Littleboy 1's sea turtle diorama was pretty good.....until I was in his classroom this morning and caught sight of some other children's efforts. One had modelled animals out of plasticine, one had included real sand (why didn't I think of that?) and someone else had typed in the captions on a computer and printed them out, including the Latin name of his sea creature....oh, wait, maybe that was his Mum.

Clearly, in New York dioramas are a competitive sport.

Sea turtle, by Littleboy 1. (The pink blobs are jellyfish)

Tigers by Littleboy 2. Done just for fun.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Where I live: Indoors chez Nappyvalleygirl

A friend of mine is selling her house. For one reason and another it's been a little slow to sell, so the agent has now suggested that their house be "staged" to look better. The other day, a professional "stager" turned up with some furniture, strategically placed it in my friend's home, and put various "decorative" objects around the place (including a bowl of fake apples in the middle of a table, which made us all laugh).

They also took down my friend's own pictures and replaced them with generic, arty, black and white shots of waterfalls, flowers and the like. All very "tasteful", but somehow it annoyed me. I would much prefer that the art in a house should reflect something of the people who actually live there. My own house is not interior-designed. The pictures don't all match, and we have ornaments and photos in odd places - but it's us, and that's how I like it.

Anyway, all of that is a preamble to the latest entry in Michelloui's Where I Live series over at The American Resident. The subject this week is "Indoors".

Our house contains pictures and objects from all stages of our life, including my early years in Hong Kong. This cat is one of a pair that my parents owned; they sit on either side of our fireplace. They're a little chipped now, after several moves around the world, but they remind me of my childhood and they'll always come with me.

This picture is also one of a pair of Chinese embroidered artworks my parents bought in Hong Kong. The two pictures are supposed to represent sunrise and sunset, although there has always been debate over which one is which (maybe a Chinese reader can tell me what the characters say in this one?). I loved them as a child, and still do.

This black and white print of Siena was bought on our honeymoon in Italy; we had it framed with the purple border to match the then-purple walls of our dining room in London.

This painting hails from Cambodia; we bought it on our round the world backpacking trip in 2004, and had it sent back to the UK by courier. We think the elephant is carrying the builders and stones required to construct Angkor Wat, which you can see in the background.

This one was a wedding present, painted by The Doctor's cousin, who is an artist. The birds are pecking at a Mulberry tree; she has one in her garden in London.

 And so to Long Island. The Doctor bought this map for me as a Christmas present the first year we were here. Everyone always remarks on it when they come to the house (the one that made me laugh was the friend of Littleboy 1's who asked: "Is that England?")

 And here's our most recent acquisition, a wooden carving of a Cardinal that I bought last weekend at a local craft festival. These birds are always in our garden, so it will be a nice memento of our time here.

But where, you might ask, are the Littleboys represented here? Well, of course our house is filled with photos of them; but it would also not be complete without their own art. Here's just a selection of the many masterpieces that come home from school; I don't keep everything, but some of these will definitely be packed up into boxes for the trip back to London.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Bloomin' June...

At least the roses in the garden are blooming

The end of the school year is looming, and June is blooming....chaotic.

There's a delicious blog post gone viral at the moment over here, by American blogger Jen Hatmaker, called Worst End of School Year Mom Ever. It's hilarious and I'm sure applies to UK mothers just as well as to US, although I know it isn't quite End of School Year time yet in the UK. But just you wait.

Jen's rant has struck a chord with so many people, because as the last couple of weeks approach, we're being bombarded with requests for teacher gifts, final projects, special end-of-year celebrations, invitations to art shows and the like. The number of pieces of paper that come home in the school folder is simply astounding (Jen calls it a "tsunami of doom" - a fantastic description). I'm lucky that I work at home and have time to go through their bags when they come home, but for working mothers who arrive home at 7pm it must truly be a nightmare.

In the last week I've been asked (at short notice) for the following:

Littleboy 1 to make a "diorama"* involving sea creatures, with captions in full sentences describing their habitat, predators etc.

Littleboy 2 to write a story or poem for a scrapbook which will be presented to his teacher

A photo from every year of Littleboy 2's life to make a timeline (easier said than done when all your photos are digital)

Littleboy 1 to write/draw something about his teacher's forthcoming wedding, and me to go to a party in his classroom that the class moms are throwing as a "bridal shower", bringing plastic cups

That's not to mention remembering to get cards and gifts for both teachers, two piano teachers and the schoolbus driver....

At the same time the powers that be at my workplace have suddenly realised that I'm stopping in a month. Despite me asking them repeatedly for weeks what my role might be in London, it's taken them until now to think about it. The solution? Get me to do lots of extra work in the next few weeks so they might determine what that might be.

Oh, and it goes without saying that we're trying to prepare for the Big Move on top of all this.


How has June been for you so far?

*Are UK children asked to make dioramas? Or is this an American thing. Personally, I had never heard the word before moving here, but it might just be me. For those not in the know, it's a little scene, preferably contained in a shoebox, containing objects and things you've made, with captions.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Six weeks....

Six weeks to go before we leave Long Island.

Not long, is it? Three more weeks of school (which I am sure will fly by) and then three weeks when the boys are at summer camp, for The Doctor and I to start packing up the house.

I keep thinking of things I will miss; my friends, neighbours, the ease of the schoolbus, the little American rituals at school, the local restaurants and shops.

But it's also time to start mentally checking out of here. Looking forward, not back. Looking on estate agent websites at places to live; thinking about the boys' new schools; reconnecting with old friends.

And there are aspects of UK life I have missed. Things that I persuaded myself I could do without, at least on a temporary basis, but actually, am looking forward to having in my life again.

Waking up to Radio 4. I do like NPR (the American equivalent), really I do, but it just isn't the same. They're just too nice. I miss John Humprhies mauling people in the morning.

Watching the BBC. (Well, we can watch BBC programmes here, finally; we're currently enjoying The Apprentice. But you have to work out what's on when, rather than just browsing the TV listings or hearing about a good new show from a friend).

Summertime without mosquitoes.  Yes, they are starting again. I got my first bite last week and soon there will be so many we won't be able to sit outside without a forcefield of noxious spray.

A good British roast meal. We do make them here. But the right joint of meat, in particular lamb, is hard to come by.

Country pubs. Not a bar, not a restaurant, and you don't have to tip the barman just for getting a glass of wine.  And there's nowhere here where you can sit outside with a cider and a packet of crisps.

Safe weather. England's weather might be boring, but you don't have to worry every time they forecast "damaging winds" (which is about once a week). Hurricane season has alreadystarted again. We're just hoping the first one doesn't come along before mid-July. We've had enough of that, thank you very much.

London, London, London. I may have been a little tired of it before we left, but it's a great city and I'm looking forward to rediscovering all it has to offer.

What else should I be looking forward to?