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.