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?

Friday, 24 May 2013

It's my way or the Steinway

Last weekend we headed into Manhattan for Littleboy 1 to perform in a piano recital. His teacher was holding a private concert for her pupils, and had chosen to hold it in a piano showroom and workshop near Central Park.

Littleboy1 got to perform his pieces (which included The Snowman and I'd Do Anything from Oliver), on a nine foot Steinway in a recording room with the most magical acoustics, after which we had a small reception in the showroom. It transpired that the grand pianos in the showroom, a collection of beautiful Steinways and a few other less well-known brands, are lent out to concert pianists for performances at nearby Carnegie Hall.

As we sipped our wine and chatted to his piano teacher and her (British) boyfriend, we witnessed the most surreal sight of both Littleboys rushing around the showroom, playing all their different pieces manically on the various expensive pianos. At one point they were both banging out "We're Walking In The Air" on two different Steinways (Littleboy 2 has been learning it too).

Bizarrely, no-one seemed to mind; anyone who appeared to work for the showroom either ignored them or beamed in their general direction. We all agreed that this was unlikely to have happened in a similar venue in England.

Whether or not either of our sons becomes a professional concert pianist, I'll definitely take the time to remind them when they're older: you once played on a grand piano that had been played in Carnegie Hall. And not just one, but several.

Monday, 20 May 2013

The Gatsby Connection

Looking from "East Egg" to "West Egg"
When The Great Gatsby opened at our local cinema last week, The Doctor and I rushed to see it. Not because we are huge fans of Leonardo di Caprio or even Baz Luhrmann (although the fact that Luhrmann himself was in that very cinema the week before was exciting). But because our town has a direct connection to the Fitzgerald novel. The fictional East Egg of the story (where Gatsby's long lost love Daisy resides) was based on this very peninsula. Or at least, Fitzgerald himself lived in Kings' Point (West Egg in the story), and it is widely assumed that the two opposing coastlines in the story are Kings' Point and Sands Point.

Although the movie was filmed in Australia, Luhrmann had visited and studied the geography of the area before making it. If you see the film, you may think that Gatbsy's mansion, in the style of a French chateau, is way too over the top. But drive up to Sands Point, a few miles from here, and you'll see ridiculous houses in that exact style. There is one house where the original owner imported stone walls from a French Abbey to act as his gates; another resembles a Scottish castle, another a Spanish Hacienda.

In the 1920s, the North Shore of Long Island was known as the "Gold Coast". It was where New York's wealthy built their mansions, commuting into the city by boat or by road (via the "Valley of Ashes" in the Gatsby story: otherwise known as Queens). The area was the Hamptons of its day (back then the Hamptons, 100 miles from New York, was an undiscovered backwater and too far away for a weekend escape).

Now, the houses here are owned by modern-day Gatsbys - as well as bankers and lawyers, there are sports and TV personalities and company founders who live down their sweeping driveways. But the wild parties don't take place there nowadays; it's a quiet area, still dripping with money, but the only people you're likely to see as you drive around are landscapers, joggers and dogwalkers. The old distinctions, too, between the "new money" of West Egg and the "old money" of East have largely disappeared, although there's still a sense here in the East that the people "over there" are somehow a little ostentatious.

Living here, it's fun to think that the area has such a romantic history, particularly if you like F Scott Fitzgerald. And if you're interested in the film, don't let reviews put you off - yes, it's gaudy and over-the-top, but it's faithful to the story and beautiful to watch, and Leonardo di Caprio has the charisma required of Jay Gatsby. I'll think of him, staring at Daisy's green light at the end of her dock, whenever I gaze out at the bay in darkness, with the lights of the city glimmering in the distant sky.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Where I Live: Green

When I first visited America properly, it was on a trip to Virginia in 1995. And one of the things that struck me was how green everything was. Lawns seemed a darker, more vibrant green than in England and the trees more lush. The warm, humid climate and violent rainstorms that go with summer on the East Coast mean vegetation is rampant, and the type of grass that grows seems thicker and stronger than the delicate, pale green blades of UK lawns.

It's the same here - at least, in early summer. By August, everything is turning brown and dusty in the heat. But at the moment, everything is growing madly. The trees only came into leaf about two weeks ago, but they're now at their very lushest. Everywhere you go, you hear the hum of lawnmowers and smell fresh cut grass and there is new life wherever you look, from the goslings that came waddling up our drive one day to the little turtle we spotted in our local pond (top two right pics) The top picture with the huge oak is our front lawn, and the three on the bottom of the collage were taken at the new Native American plant garden at the New York Botanical Garden.

The prompt this week for Michelle's "Where I Live" blog at The American Resident is "Green". Michelle created a fabulous mosaic using Pic Monkey, so after fooling around and failing with HTML, I've tried the site out for the first time and created my own "masterpiece" in a slightly different style.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Spring at the NYBG: a pictorial post

As I've mentioned here before, we love the New York Botanical Garden. We became members two years ago and visit every few months; there's always something new in bloom, and there are excellent activities for the Littleboys in the children's garden and elsewhere, from nature trails to seed planting to painting watercolours. (This is not a sponsored post: I really do recommend it).

Spring was late in New York this year, but once it comes, it comes with a vengeance In the last month, we've been twice; first to see the magnolia and cherry blossom in April, and last weekend to see the azaleas in full bloom, as well as the new, and lovely, Native American Plant garden. If you need a bit of colour to brighten up your day (and I know I do), here is just a taster of what we saw. And see if you can spot the Littleboys hiding, Where's Wally-like, in one of these pictures...

Friday, 10 May 2013

A tale of two houses

Not that many people here know I have a blog. I've just never got round to telling them, and it seems a bit odd to let it slip now. But someone said to me today that I should write a book one day about some of my experiences here - in particular a funny story that happened last week. Tempted though I was to tell her about the blog, I didn't. But I will write the story down here....

In our neighbourhood, virtually everyone leaves their doors unlocked. Being a paranoid Londoner, I still tend to lock up, but various neighbours claim they haven't locked their back doors in years, even when away for several days. Burglary rates are very low - partly because there is a much more expensive neighbourhood nearby which would be more a obvious target for thieves - and neighbours tend to look out for each other.

Last week, my father was visiting with his partner, who is Russian and has a son our age who lives in Brooklyn. The son came out to visit us for the day, having never been here before. It was a sunny day, so we were sitting outside in the garden when he arrived, and he didn't go into the house. He played badminton with the children and had a cup of tea, then after about half an hour went to his car and answered a phone call on his mobile.

So engrossed was he in the phone call, he wandered into our neighbours' garden. They are an elderly couple, and usually in, but on this occasion they weren't. He finished the call, and noticed no-one was outside, so he went inside. Into their house. Thinking it was ours...

He couldn't find any of us, so wandered about, eventually sitting down and watching TV (it was left on, he said, tuned to CNN). As he sat there, he said it gradually occurred to him that there was an odd smell, and also that the photos on the walls were not of anyone he recognized. He looked out of the window, and couldn't see the badminton net. Then it finally dawned on him: he was in the wrong house.

We all had a good laugh when he came back and recounted this story. And I had to tell him he was incredibly lucky no-one had walked in. Yes, they are an elderly couple. But they also happen to be the parents of our local police offer.....

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Contrasts: The Island and the City

The sun shines on the calm, still Bay outside my bedroom window, the water sapphire blue and dotted with little white sails. It's spring, and the blossom is all out - cherry trees shimmer with vibrant pink, wisteria hangs pale purple on brick walls, azaleas light up green gardens with a splash of colour. There are ducks, geese, swans and herons with yards of our street; we saw a turtle in the duckpond the other day. It's beautiful, tranquil, a picture-perfect suburban town.

By day, schoolbuses and minivans full of Moms and kids roam the streets; by night, it's quieter, with only the odd car, skulking raccoons and, occasionally, the peace shattered by a siren and a fire truck. Restaurants close early; the one decent bar in town is only busy on weekend nights in the summer. On Saturday mornings, children play sports on the field by the bay, their parents sitting on the bleachers with cups of coffee cheering them on, wearing sensible jeans and sneakers. These are the sights and sounds of where I live.

Just 14 miles away as the crow flies, Manhattan rises from the ground like a series of spikes on the horizon. The buildings glint in the sunlight; the streets are dark beneath the skyscrapers. It's dirty, dusty, bustling with people. In Times Square, you can't hear birdsong, or see any wildlife (other than the people dressed in Elmo and Cookie Monster costumes). Yet it hums with energy, brims with life. You see glamorous women in heels and the latest fashions; transvestites crossing the street; hundreds of tourists with cameras. Everyone walks fast, and everyone's busy.

Going into the city, you are struck by the contrast with the quiet town you live in and wonder if perhaps your life has become just a tiny bit boring. But coming back on the Long Island Railroad, you appreciate the peace.

The island, and the city. This what I like about where I live. And I believe it is very unique.

This post was prompted by Michelloui at The American Resident, who has started a weekly "Where I live" series, for expats, and others who want to join in.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Religion Long Island style

Understanding people's religious beliefs on Long Island is no mean feat. It's taken me four years to work out which of the people I know is religious, who is only nominally Catholic, Jewish or anything else, and who goes to what church, if any. Despite being told before I came to America that all Americans were religious, round here it isn't exactly true. We live in a very diverse area, and people don't talk openly about religion - for example, I've never been asked which church I attend - and sometimes what purports to be a religious occasion is purely just social.

It's not just me - it  is incredibly confusing.  I know, for instance, Jewish people who send their kids to Catholic preschools and Catholics who send their kids to Jewish preschools, just because they happen to like the school. Lots of people belong to the local Jewish Community Center (JCC), but they aren't necessarily Jewish - they go because it has a good swimming pool. And there are some couples who are two different religions, but cherry pick the best bits of each for their kids - so celebrate both Christmas and Hannukah, for example.

One thing I only became aware of this year was the social importance of the First Communion. Littleboy 1 is turning eight, so this year his Catholic friends are all having their First Communion parties. Last weekend, we were invited to one for his best friend; the invitation mentioned a church service followed by a party at their house.

Not being at all religious, let alone Catholic, I had to ask the advice of friends as to what to wear, and whether to take any kind of a present. "Go smart," I was told. As for a gift: "Ooh, it must be something religious - a cross or prayer book," said some people, while others said: "Cash or a cheque - this is Long Island, remember". I asked whether a gift voucher to our local toy/book store was acceptable and was told "not really". So, instead, I went to the shop in question to look for a card and saw various presents laid out particularly for First Communions and Confirmations. I chose an illustrated child's prayerbook.

The day before the occasion, I mentioned to the mother of the friend (who is a friend of mine) that we would see her in the church. "Oh, you don't need to come to the church!" she said, surprised. "Just come to the house afterwards!"

Nevertheless, I felt Littleboy 1 should support his friend (and having never been to a Catholic First Communion, I admit I was curious).  So, he and I went, he in the only smart outfit he possesses and me in a skirt and boots. And it was interesting, from a fashion point of view as well as from a religious one (although the service did not seem very different from an Anglican one in many ways).  The little boys wore suits, the little girls white satin dresses and veils, like brides. Meanwhile, guests dressed as if for an English wedding, in suits, heels and glamorous summer dresses. Afterwards, there were tonnes of photos in the churchyard, which made the occasion seem even more like a wedding.

Having taken Littleboy 1 home to change out of his finery, we all went to the house for the after-party. These friends are renowned for their great parties and this was no different: it went on all day, with lots of food and plenty to drink. In the evening, they lit a fire outside and we sat there in the cool spring evening chatting into the night, while the kids ran rampant around the garden playing ball games.

Just before we left, Littleboy 1's friend decided to unwrap his presents. "Oh, how lovely, you bought a religious one!" his mum exclaimed, as he looked through the prayerbook. Yes, alone among the Skylanders, Mario toys and the rest.

Somehow, I never seem to get it quite right; the religious element of the day was clearly not really the point. Still, it was a great excuse for a party.....