Thursday, 18 December 2014

Festive traditions, there and back again

There are things I miss about Christmas in the US.

 For example, the decorations outside almost every house. What's striking about these is that, in New York at least, many of them were pretty high quality. In London, the decorated houses stand out - maybe one in twenty -- and they're usually quite naff, all inflatable Santas and blinking lights. In our neighbourhood on Long Island, you'd be more likely to see giant candy canes, fairy lights round trees, red velvet bows on every window and -- on one house's immaculate lawn -- a real wooden sleigh.

I also feel bizarrely nostalgic for American Christmas songs on the radio. I'd never heard Dan Fogelberg's poignant Same Old Lang Syne (see below) or the insanely catchy Feliz Navidad before I moved to America and at the moment I wouldn't mind hearing Kelly Clarkson's Grown Up Christmas List. Magic FM, are you listening? It's fine to play Phil Collins' "Coming in the Air Tonight" all year, if you want to - but not on the 18th December, OK?

Then there's the Christmas cards. When we first moved to the States, I noticed with mortification that I was the only parent at the Montessori nursery not to have sent a "happy holidays" card featuring a lovingly chosen family photograph. The following year, we fell into step. We've now of course reverted to traditional cards, but as Christmas cards fall more and more out of fashion (I still send them, but more and more people don't) I can see the point of the  American card. It's more of a memento than perhaps receiving a hastily written card featuring a cartoon Santa -- and I have to admit it was rather fun choosing the photos.

But there are things that we missed in America, and are now totally gorging on in London. Like mince pies, mulled wine.....and carol services. We went to three last year, and this year have notched up two so far, as well as having lustily sung carols at two school assemblies. Littleboy 1, who didn't know any Christmas carols in America, is now in the school choir and is currently racing around the house singing Latin words from "Unto Us a Son is Born." (This was charming at first, and is now rapidly starting to grate on my nerves).

His brother meanwhile, read a very heartfelt lesson at the country carol service we go to every year. While they both missed out on Nativity plays (so I'll never see them play Joseph, or a shepherd, sadly), they've both recited lines about the Christmas story in their Christmas assemblies, something that would never happen in secular US schools. And most importantly, they now know the "silly" version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (you know, the one that goes "like a lightbulb").

I also went to a very traditional work-related Christmas lunch last week, in a Soho boozer -- let's just say lunch didn't even start till 3, and by the time I left at 5.30, we'd only just had the main course and quiz. Somehow I don't think these happen in New York in quite the same way......

I hope you are enjoying the festive season on both sides of the pond -- what traditions would YOU import?

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Bears and royals: the UK in a nutshell?

We took some bears to see 'Paddington'
Apologies for the relative lack of blogging recently. I'm coming up for my sixth blogging anniversary soon, and I'm beginning to wonder if that phase in my life is coming to an end.

When my children were young, blogging was almost a form of stress relief; when endless winter afternoons stretched out with the boys napping or watching Cbeebies, or when I'd run in from a walk with the toddler Littleboys and bash out a blog post while I was waiting for the pasta to boil, just because it was such a blessed relief from thinking about chasing small children around the playground.

The older the boys get, the less demanding they are in some ways but the more time they seem to take up. Laundering sports kit. Supervising homework. And the birthday parties! I think I'm starting to lose it. For the first time ever, we arrived at a party on Sunday with no present or card, and what was worse, I hadn't left it behind. As we parked, Littleboy 1 piped up "Shouldn't we have a present?" and that was literally the first time it had occurred to me.......

Anyway -- London life remains busy and ripe with opportunity for experiences, from seeing the display of poppies at the Tower of London last month (brilliant) to taking the 176 bus all the way home to Crystal Palace after seeing a play in the West End (mistake). This weekend, either end of the two birthday parties, we packed in two contrasting cultural experiences: a play (King Charles III) and a film (Paddington).

The play is a "future history" written by Mark Bartlett; that is to say, it takes its cue from Shakespeare, is written in blank verse and has elements of both high comedy and high tragedy. It predicts what might happen when the Queen dies, and Prince Charles becomes King. Very quickly things go pear-shaped when Charles (the brilliant actor Tim Piggott-Smith) refuses to sign a bill concerning press freedom. Meanwhile, Prince Harry (whose scenes provide some hilarious comic relief) is romancing an anti-monarchist gal wearing Doc Martens, there's a groaning ghost around Windsor who sounds suspiciously like Diana, and Kate is busy supporting William's cause like a modern-day Lady Macbeth. Act One ends with Charles dissolving Parliament after a stand-off with the Prime Minister; I won't reveal the rest, but it's incredibly thought-provoking, whether you're a royalist or republican.

Paddington showcases another side of British life with a gentle humour that everyone, old and young, can enjoy. While few elements of the actual books remain (and there's a ridiculous, unnecessary sub-plot involving a taxidermist played by Nicole Kidman), the film captures the essence of Paddington -- an accident prone, but utterly well-meaning bear with excellent manners. Ben Whishaw voiced him perfectly, but it was Hugh Bonneville I was really impressed with. Forget Downton Abbey, what with this and the brilliant Twenty Twelve, he's shaping up to be one of the funniest actors we have. Paddington is also an illegal immigrant from "Darkest Peru", and with immigration a huge topic at the moment in the UK, the film had a lot to say about whether or not the British are welcoming to newcomers.

So there we are: British life in a nutshell, royals and bears included.

What have you been up to?

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The one where I review the Christmas ads

Work was crazy last week. I write about adverts, and the first week of November now seems to be when all the big U.K. advertisers release their Christmas commercials. I sat through, and then wrote about, at least a dozen festive offerings, then felt surprised when I went back into the real world and everyone wasn't making mince pieces or watching the snow fall prettily outside.

I'm sure virtually everyone in the UK has seen the John Lewis ad by now, but I'm going to post it here for the benefit of my non-UK readers. I like it, even though I know it's highly manipulative and designed specifically to appeal to me, the middle-class mother. The Doctor said it looks as if it was directed by Richard Curtis, and I agree (it wasn't. The director, Dougal Wilson, has done many of John Lewis's "hits", including The Snowman). Some people (including the lovely Melissa at Talk About York) said the little boy in it was too good to be true, and of course she's right, but an ad featuring grumpy tired kids who don't want to do their homework probably wouldn't have worked as well. A minority still said it left them cold -- one Facebook friend of mine said she just kept thinking the grubby penguin toy needed a good wash.

Marks and Spencer's, ad, meanwhile, is just as whimsical but not quite as winning, in my opinion. It concerns a couple of fairies who go around spreading their magic dust to better everyone's Christmas. I particularly noted that they manage to get a bunch of kids, who are sitting around watching TV and on iPads, outside playing in the snow.But that wasn't enough to make my eyes smart.

Maybe laughter is better than tears? Mulberry's ad is the one that made me laugh the most. Even though I'm not into fancy handbags, I love the humour and the portrayal of the snooty family.

 Waitrose, meanwhile, has a child who's bad at baking being saved by the lovely people at Waitrose. Now I sympathise with this child. I was/am rubbish at baking too. But if I went down my local Waitrose and asked for help with making biscuits, I can't really believe they wouldn't stare at me like I'm a crazy woman. Anyway - it's nicely done, and if you didn't know, the choir singing Dolly Parton's "Try" is made up of ordinary people who uploaded clips of themselves warbling the song.

Finally Vodafone has a bunch of people singing "Let it Go," in their Christmas ad this year. I wonder if they thought this would be a hit for anyone with small children? But perhaps these parents are fed up with hearing the bloody song, and will groan when they hear it yet again? 

Which is your favourite? Have you seen another one you like?

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

What happened to October?

Stunning autumn colour in Germany
The University library, Leuven

Where did October go?

Oh I know.  There was a work trip to Amsterdam (fun), a family funeral (not so fun), a couple of three-line whip family events.... oh, and half the month was taken up with a bloody two week half term. That was what happened.

I'm really not sure about these two week half terms. (It's a private school: as my friend says, the more you pay for education in this country, the less you get). It feels like we're starting a whole new term now, and it's going to take everyone at least a week to get back into the whole routine.

As I was working for most of half-term, it wasn't exactly relaxing, involving either a) rushing the boys from one activity to the next while trying to fit in work or b) working with them in the house and having to fend off constant cries of "Can I write a story on your computer?" which seems to be their new favourite activity. I'm all for budding authorship, but I don't really want my Mac overtaken with stories called things like "Lord of the Pigs."

However, we did manage a four day trip to Germany, to stay with our lovely German friends from New York days, who we haven't seen since 2012. Apart from seeing them, which was the main thing, there was a a trip to the Chocolate Museum in Cologne, which kept both adults and kids amused, a stunning, autumnal hike to a castle, and an evening at a superb swimming pool, which had slides, various pools and best of all, a massive outdoor hot pool (the Germans do this kind of thing very well). We also ate a lot of sausages, potato salad and cake (the Germans do that well too. But November will be diet month). The boys also got to go to a German school for an hour, with our friend's son; they took part in an English lesson in which they apparently refused to say very much about Halloween.

On the way back, we stopped at Leuven, which is a beautiful University town in Belgium, full of gothic architecture, bookshops, bars and pubs-- a bit like the Belgian version of Oxford.  I hadn't been there since a school trip when I was 17 and everyone rushed off to smoke Camel cigarettes and drink Stella Artois (we were supposed to be looking round the town, but honestly, what did the teachers really think we were doing?). I also remember at the time that "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" was number one in the charts, and we went around singing "You've Lost That Leuven Feeling.". Oh, how witty we thought we were......

Now, it's back to the grindstone again. Littleboy 1 has just been asked to learn the capitals of all the EU countries for a test next Monday. I do not even know the capitals of the EU countries, so I don't have high hopes for him being able to remember, say Ljubjlana. He still thinks the Prime Minister is called David Beckham, so I don't think names are his strong point.

Talking of which, if we do end up leaving the EU, I think I would have preferred Beckham as the Prime Minister.....

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Am I really that disorganised?

I used to pride myself on being pretty organised when it came to the kids.

Not to the point where I'm arranging their clothes in matching colours, or booking playdates a couple of months ahead or signing up for things like schools several years in advance. No, that's just scary.

But I write things in a diary, I've never yet forgotten a meeting/playdate/appointment, and I'm generally not late for things.

Recently, standards have been beginning to slip though. Since September I've doubled my working hours, and balls are getting dropped left, right and centre.

Two boys at the same school was fine in America - they had their own personalised backpacks in different colours, wore different clothes and didn't have to take much, other than their homework and lunch.

Now, they have identical backpacks, identical games bags, similar looking music cases and both have violins. Their scehedule, with each playing two instruments at school, is so complicated that I have a chalkboard in the kitchen on which I've written what each boy needs to bring each day.

And still I get it wrong.

Over the past fortnight I have packed piano music instead of violin music, sent Littleboy 2 to school with his brother's games bag, and failed to pack a snack on numerous occasions. I even set myself a reminder to pack a special themed snack for Littleboy 2 (which I'd bought and put in the fridge, but knew I'd forget) but failed to hear the bleeping go off on my phone as we left the house.

I've also on several occasions put the wrong homework in the wrong bag -- potentially a more serious crime as Littleboy 1 can now get into trouble for not bringing it on the right day. As I result I've emphasized to the kids that they now must check their own backpacks before school in case I've got something wrong.

Iota blogged this week about people who let their kids come out of school and simply dump all their belongings on their long-suffering parents. I know I've been guilty of this before. But I feel duty-bound to try and sort out the family kit in the mornings, not trusting the boys to do it all themself.

I'd feel awful if one of them got into trouble for me not signing their homework book or leaving their football boots behind. But at what age can I let it go -- and let them take the rap?

Monday, 6 October 2014

Tears Before Bake-Off time

My two boys love The Great British Bake-Off. And I'm wondering. Am I alone?

Nine-year-old Littleboy1 in particular seems to be fascinated by this show, which in itself is strange as, of the two, he is the more traditionally "boyish".  (His brother, meanwhile, has been known to say he wants to be a girl, and prefers drawing pictures to football.)

Although I'm not a big fan of baking, we happened to watch it a couple of times in the summer, and now, despite the fact that it's on at bedtime, he wants me to record it so we can watch it together the next day. He then sits down and solemnly watches people baking cakes for an hour. It's quite funny to watch him; he doesn't get any of the Mel and Sue smutty references on the show, but laughs like a drain when they try to sneak some of the food. So I suppose I have to hand it to them for appealing to audiences of all ages....

Last week he burst into tears when Chetna, (his favourite), was voted off the show. I think he finds the whole voting-off procedure quite traumatic -- we don't watch The X Factor or anything like that with the kids, and it's the first time they've experienced that particular aspect of reality TV.

But he's clearly fascinated by the show and it has caught his imagination. Having last week said his ambition in life was to become a Bake Off judge, he's now decided he wants to be a baker when he grows up, and open a patisserie. Never mind that his mother is one of the world's worst bakers and the extent of our (joint) baking repertoire runs to crumble, a blackberry cake a few weeks ago and several batches of chocolate brownies. But his eyes lit up when I suggested making a cake next weekend to take to a Harvest Supper.

I have an inkling that there might be other small boys out there who are addicted to this show (his-10 year-old cousin apparently watches it in cookery class at school). Although I have no idea if he ever discusses his Bake Off passion with any of his mates. Anyhow, we will solemnly be sitting down to watch the final on Wednesday night. I might even bake something in celebration.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Twelve Labours of Homework Time

"We all you YOU can do your child's year 3 maths questions, or write a story about a caveman," said the teacher at the recent parents' talk at school. "We want to know if THEY can."

Sensible words of course, but oh, how hard when you're standing over your child as they struggle with a homework question. The rational me knows that you mustn't help them, it's for their own good, the teacher needs to know that they can cope with the work.

But the mother  in me, and the journalist in me, desperately wants to copy-edit their English homework, come up with creative ideas for their project, and help them do the very best they can. And there's another voice whispering in my ear: the one that says: "I bet all the other mothers are helping too, so if I don't help, my child will end up with the worst project in the class."

I can't stand to see smudgy writing, bad spelling and little errors such as full stops left off the end of sentences, and it takes a Heraculean effort for me to hold back from correcting such mistakes, or at least hinting to the child that they need to read through the work again.

I could, of course, book them into after-school club every night and leave them to do their own homework on their own, without hovering nearby with my 5pm mug of tea. The rationale is you then cast a cursory, relaxed glance over the work to check they've done it before signing the homework book (at our school, the children get reprimanded if the book doesn't get signed by a parent). But does this really happen? Or do such parents still agonise over messy work and wrong answers? (Funny anecdote time: a Mum I know told me recently that one evening she noticed her child had written, for a geography assignment on a "place I've visited", all about Mount Everest. "And he'd written it all in pen, so I couldn't even ask him to rewrite it!").

Then there is the homework that clearly they can't do on their own - the assignments that involve, for instance, looking things up on the internet and printing things out. (I'm sorry, but how many 9 year olds know how to use the family printer? I can barely work out the combination of different gizmos that are required before it actually does something other than give me an "error" message.)

In the past year, I've slaved over looking up homophones, making a fez, putting together collages and more, while gritting my teeth over mis-spelled words, messy writing and silly words inserted in stories. And I know it's only going to get worse, as they're really piling on the homework at school this year. I know at some point in what seems like the distant future, they're going to be doing homework alone in their rooms -- but in the meantime, how do I stop myself from having a nervous breakdown over it?

 How do you cope with homework - and what's your involvement?

Friday, 5 September 2014

What age do kids walk to school on their own?

At what point does the adult in this picture disappear?
The new school year has started, and Littleboys 1 and 2 are now at the same school. This makes dropping off/picking up much easier for me; however, building works at the school now means that parking has become even more chaotic than usual. So as always, it's a challenge.

We can walk/cycle to school from our new house, although it's a brisk mile and a half steeply downhill; fine for going, not so great for the way back. But we are already talking about whether the boys could do it on their own in future, which brings me to the subject of this blog post -- what IS the right age for kids' to walk to school on their own?

Expat Mum touches on it in her latest post, and it's a subject we often discuss at home. The Doctor is always telling me how, at the age of seven, he was travelling across central London on his own to school, by bus and tube. This was the late 70s; apparently he was the only boy in his class doing so, but when his brother, six years older, had done it in the late 60s everyone did it.

But it's not just a generational thing; different countries have different expectations. Our friends in Norway tell us that their 11 year old not only walks a mile home, she lets herself in and does her homework for two hours until her parents come home from work. Apparently this is completely normal over there.

I was talking to some mums recently and the consensus was that 10 was about the right age. But is 10 old enough to also be supervising a younger brother? And does it make it better, or worse, to do it with a friend? (The idea being that if they're with a friend, they're less likely to concentrate on things like crossing the road).

So I'd love to know what everyone else's kids do and whether they're doing it on foot, bike, scooter, public transport or in the car, with you as their taxi service. Because, while I enjoy walking my kids to school, I don't want to be chauffeur forever.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Swallows and Amazons Save the Day on the M6

My own intrepid explorers head up-river in Anglesey
The Valley-to-Palais family has been in Anglesey, North Wales for a much needed post-move break.

We decided to drive up on Friday afternoon before the bank holiday, something we knew was potentially foolish (due to past experience with the traffic) but which couldn't be avoided, as some friends from Long Island were flying in from Heathrow that morning, and it was the only day we could see them. So my day began with driving to Heathrow to meet the red-eye, driving back to West Berkshire and eating a large breakfast with our friends before they left for London. We didn't leave for Anglesey till after 1, and the traffic was predictably awful. It took us six hours, after negotiating jams on the M6, crazy roadworks near Shrewsbury and tiny Shropshire lanes.

So what helped us survive this journey (the same time as it took to get to Vermont from New York, and about half the distance?) I've sung the praises of audio books before: this time we listened to Swallows and Amazons. It's years since I read Arthur Ransome, and I was a bit concerned that it would be too old-fashioned for the Littleboys, not to mention rather tame in comparison to the exploits of Percy Jackson, Harry Potter and the rest. The first chapter contained some rather technical sailing references, which I thought might really put them off. And although they sat in silence for the whole six hours, I still wasn't quite sure what they were making of it.

But it turns out they loved it; despite never having been sailing in their lives, they were utterly gripped by the tale of the plucky Swallow family, the Amazons (aka Blackett Girls) and Captain Flint (aka Uncle Jim) walking the plank. Littleboy 1 now wants to read/hear the rest of the series and what's more, it has fired their imagination. This morning they were playing a game with a compass; apparently the shed was the North Pole.

What struck me is that as an adult, you immediately realise that the children are play-acting and imagining things; of course "Rio" is just a little lakeside village, and Captain Flint is not really a retired pirate (although what WAS he doing with a Jolly Rodger on his houseboat?). But as a child reading it, the lines between real and make-believe definitely weren't quite so clear. Littleboy 1 was very confused when he asked about the "Amazon River" and I said it was in South America. "But are they really in South America?" he asked.

(You forget how children see the world sometimes. Yesterday, watching The Great British Bake-Off, which my two boys rather inexplicably love, he remarked, "Gosh that two hours to make the cake went really quickly, didn't it?" when the results were shown after about 10 minutes.)

Anyway, seeing as books seem to be becoming something of a special subject on this blog, I'm wondering whether to do a monthly "books" post (for which, dear PRs, you are welcome to send me press releases). This month I'm going to give a non-sponsored shout out to, which is owned by Amazon and sells audio books. It's a bit like a club; you can earn credits for buying a certain number of titles per month, and therefore reduce their prices dramatically. For us, audio books seem to be becoming a bit of a necessary expense, so I think it'll be worth it. Happy reading!

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

One year on

Learning new sports: it's been a learning curve for all of us
With all the kerfuffle over moving, I've omitted to mark the one year anniversary of our being back in the UK. I'm sure long time followers of this blog will have a few questions, and I bet they include:

1. Do we miss Long Island?
2. Have the kids still got American accents?
3. Are we glad to be back?

1. Number one: yes, we do. I miss people -- friends I made, the girls whose kids started school the same time as mine did. I felt truly bonded in a community with those people, and I haven't yet felt that in the U.K. Meanwhile, the people whose kids all started reception together here seem to be bound together in their own little club that I feel I can't join. I don't know how long that's going to take; I'm hoping the new school year will bring new opportunities to make friends at the school gate.

I also miss the place itself. At the moment I seem to be experiencing a Long Island summer vicariously through Facebook; the beach trips, the Fourth of July parties, the barbecues, swimming pools and summer camp photos. I miss that we can't just go to the beach for the afternoon. The park is nice, but on a hot day, it isn't quite the same.

Perhaps a part of me will always miss it, a bit like I miss the Hong Kong of my childhood. But in a way, that's nice. I do want to remember it, as it was four years of my life - -four precious years, when the boys were little, that I don't want to forget.

 2. No, they haven't. After three terms of British school, my boys sound as much like little London schoolboys as anyone else. It's amazing how fast it went. All that remains is the odd word or twang. Littleboy 2 referred to the "movie theater" the other day, rather than the cinema, on our way to see How to Train Your Dragon 2. Littleboy 1 wondered if there would be any "new students" in year 5. I think a British kid would have said pupils, or children. They also still use the word "regular" to mean normal (as in, is that a regular sandwich or a toasted sandwich?). But in all other respects, they are little Britons. They play football and cricket and rugby now, not soccer and basketball and baseball. (Although they do still play Dodgeball, at school - that's one really nice thing about their school).

Both have settled into school well, although Littleboy 2 now changes school to his brother's school as he enters year 3. The coming year, with them both in the same school, should be much easier for me, and hopefully nice for them, too.

3. In a way, yes. I feel as if when I left, I had a bit of a downer on England. I never felt homesick, not really, and I never wished myself to be in any of the British places we'd left behind. But maybe this was a coping strategy? Now I'm back, I appreciate how beautiful some of the places we regularly go in this country really are. The Lake District, Anglesey, our family place on the Berkshire Downs.

And I do like London. I like that tonight I can be in the centre of London watching a play (of which more later) within an hour of leaving the kids. I like that I still go for meetings in the heart of Soho where the creative industries still thrive. I like that I (occasionally) get taken to lunch in a Jamie Oliver restaurant or a cool new gastropub. But I also like that we're surrounded by green fields and sports clubs down here in Dulwich/Crystal Palace -- it's not quite the Long Island coast, but it has its own pleasures.

What else? I like the Guardian and Radio 4 -- and being part of the debate. I know that you can get these things in America, but it's just not the same, and you feel as if you're one step removed when you're listening to John Humphries rather than WNYC.

Finally - perhaps the most important thing -- there's family. Since being back, my father has come round to our house once a week to spend time with us, and the boys have delighted in getting to know their grandfather really,  properly well (rather than just during those rather overexcited times when he was visiting us for a week). The boys have seen all their cousins throughout the year, and their other grandfather on a pretty regular basis as well. There's no substitute for that, and with the older generation now entering their seventies, I'm well aware that we must make the most of these years.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Betwixt two houses

Yes, I've changed the title of the blog. And the picture. (Don't worry, it's a work in progress).

At the moment we're between two houses. Well, actually we're in both. We've taken possession of the new one and are slowly moving carloads of stuff up the hill to Crystal Palace. This was supposed to make the final move (later this month) less painless, but it's debatable whether in fact it just prolongs the agony.

I have learned a few things:

1. Driving along the speed bump-dotted roads of Southeast London with a fully laden car is easier said than done.

2. However much stuff you think you have packed up, there is ALWAYS more.

3. Unpacking is a lot more fun than packing.

4. Taking half your kitchen equipment to the new house is only a good idea if you can remember what is where.

5, Children have been kept happy by being allowed to bring another box of Lego every time we make the trip. That, and the fact that there are blackberries in the new garden.

It's all a bit fraught, but one thing I am really pleased about is this: every time I open the door of the new house and walk in, it feels good. It's light, it's airy and it feels a lot more like home than our rented house ever did, even after a year.  That's got to be a good sign, right?

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Country Life

A few months after I first met The Doctor, he decided to take me home for the weekend and introduce me to his parents. (This, according to our mutual friend Fred, was a Big Deal. I guess he was right. The friendship lasted as well as the romance; we, and kids, holidayed with he, and family, in Spain last month).

We took the train, not to their London house, but to their cottage in the country, high up on the Berkshire Downs. It was a beautiful sunny May day, and as we ate a delicious Sunday lunch on the lawn, I remember thinking what a gorgeous place it was, with its views of cornfields, copses and the far off Ridgeway.

Fast forward twenty years, and I'm spending this week alone with the boys in the very same cottage, with The Doctor back working in London. Thanks to my in-laws it's always been a "weekend home" for us -- a real luxury to have. But it's more than that - it's been a constant family home in a time of flux and change. Over the years this ancient cottage has witnessed countless family gatherings, parties, engagements, funerals, memorial services, family rows and family celebrations.

Beautiful in autumn and spring, the village can be bleak in winter, but this summer it has really come into its own. For the last few days the sun has shone ceaselessly, and the sky is azure. There's always a brisk wind up here, but at the moment it's a cooling breeze when it does come, and it's remarkably still the rest of the time. Butterflies flit around the wildflowers in the garden, a distant church bell rings occasionally, and everywhere there is the smell of green things growing.

I work in the mornings, taking breaks to wander round the garden with a cup of tea. The boys play - either outside on the trampoline or climbing trees, or in the playroom which is so far away I can't hear them. In the afternoons, we walk to the local farm shop, or play pat-ball tennis on the terrace, or take a dip in a pool belonging to some very generous neighbours. It's all very laid back.

Today I decided to take them on a different walk, to an abandoned barn about half a mile away. It was rather overgrown with nettles, which prompted quite a lot of grumbling (they're not that much country boys yet) but on the way back we found a crop of early blackberries in the hedgerow, which made it all better. It's simple entertainment, but we appreciate it all the more for it being different from our life in the city. These American/London boys are still learning how to identify flowers and plants - ferns, thistles, elderberries and other things that country dwellers take for granted. (They know stinging nettles though -- and hate them even more than we hated poison ivy in the US).

I've always said I didn't think I could live in the countryside permanently. I'm a town mouse, and I like my creature comforts -- shops, theatres, people. But this week I'm starting to change my mind. I'm sure it's partly the sunny weather, and that I wouldn't be saying the same if I was sitting up here in February, the wind howling through the brick walls.

But just at this minute, with the wood pigeons cooing in the trees and the corn glowing golden in the field beyond my window, I can feel the pull of country life. One day the cottage will be ours (jointly), and I hope that we never take it for granted.

Friday, 25 July 2014

What shall we name the blog?

The move uphill to Crystal Palace is looming ever nearer and I'm still mulling over blog names.

A few of you have suggested names that somehow link it back to the Nappy Valley moniker that is my "brand", my "trademark" and my "USP" (as I'm sure the blogging gurus at BritMums would tell me). Iota suggested "From Nappy Valley to Crystal Palais"? or "From the Valley to the Palais" and Melissa thought that "Crystal Palace - the new Nappy Valley" might also helpfully raise house prices in my area (I like her thinking -- although given the current London house bubble and pesky estate agents inflating prices, I don't reckon much help is needed).

Bearing this in mind, I wondered about "Ally at the Palais (Moving on from Nappy Valley)" as my name could possibly be shortened to Ally. But is this a bit of a mouthful I wonder? And would people get confused with Ally Pally (which is the other side of London)?

Then again I could go down the Crystal route. Crystal Clear? Crystal Balls? (I quite like the latter but I'm concerned I might get rather a lot of strange hits on my blog). 

Or there's the Transmitter (as Iota also suggested). Crystal Clear Tranmission? It sounds a bit like an ad for a TV though.

Other thoughts: Life at the Palace? Palatial Living? House on the Hill? Parklife (we're very close to Crystal Palace Park)?

Tell me what you like, and if you really think I should keep the "Nappy Valley" element....

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Costa Living

Aiguablava Beach - a beautiful rocky cove
The last time I visited the Costa Brava, I was 18, and armed with an Inter-Rail ticket. This was a bit of a problem, as most of the beach resorts there weren't actually served by rail - but my friend and Inter-railing companion, J, wasn't fazed by that.

She wanted to go to the beaches where she'd camped with her family -- so, with our massive backpacks and her huge stereo, we took a succession of local buses from Girona and spent several nights in tiny "pensiones" close to the sea. We sunbathed, drank cheap sangria and ate paella, sat out late at night on the beaches getting chatted up by local boys, dragged our backpacks round the Dali Museum at Figueres and finally washed up in Barcelona, whereupon we almost got mugged and spent the entire day in a police station.

This time was a bit different. The Doctor and I arrived en famille with a car, two children, two suitcases, a large coolbox and various other items (including Littleboy 2's school uniform, having come straight from his end of term service). We arrived at a villa near Begur on the Costa Brava at the not-too-appalling hour of 7pm after a marathon day and a half's drive. Luckily our friends, with whom we were sharing the villa, had arrived first and had everything sorted - drinks, dinner and even inflatables for the pool.

The very popular diving board at Tamariu
Begur is a beguiling town (of which more later) and surrounded by some stunningly pretty little coves. Little being the operative word - don't go here if you want wide, sandy beaches where you can spread yourself out. The beaches are rocky, nestled at the foot of cliffs and accessed by winding roads - so parking is limited and you need to get there early to find a space. I dread to think what it's like in high season, as we were not even there within Spanish school holidays. Our first day, at Tamariu Beach, was a Saturday, and when we arrived at the beach there was barely room to lay down our beach towels. (Luckily having five rather lively kids who wanted to play beach ball helped -- after a few hours, all the neighbouring sunbathers had mysteriously moved away).

But the sun was warm, the water was clear and - best of all - there was a diving board on the rocks, allowing hours of endless fun for the children (and me) diving into the aquamarine sea. There was also surprisingly good snorkelling (or in our case, diving in goggles) -- I never think of the Med as a snorkelling or diving destination but we saw tons of fish when we dipped below the surface.

The beautiful coast around Begur
Aiguablava -- another of Begur's local beaches -- was an even prettier cove, lined by a seafood restaurants and with pedalos and kayaks for rent. The pedalos were the kind that have slides coming off them, so of course the children were desperate to go on one.

Medieval Begur; these towers were lookout posts for pirates
Begur itself is a pretty medieval hill town with a castle on its peak and crumbling towers from which the townsfolk used to watch for pirates. It has apparently become quite a destination for chic Barcelonians, and you could tell that from its range of boutiquey-type hotels, trendy bars and cool-looking restaurants that were more like something you'd expect in Manhattan than the Costa Brava. However, with five kids in tow, including a toddler, this wasn't for our party, and happily we found the kind of places that did a good pizza/ice cream option as well as some tasty tapas.

The nearby village of Pals was also a real find -- another medieval town with ancient walls and beautiful gothic architecture. We headed there on a rainy day and found it packed by fellow tourists flooding the souvenir shops - which, rather than selling cheap tat, were rather high quality, many selling the glazed artisanal pottery which is the local industry.

All in all the area was unexpectedly unlike the Costa Brava I remembered from years before -- and definitely unlike the much brasher Spanish Costas of Southern Spain, with their British fish and chip cafes, high rise blocks and sunburned clientele.

Lastly-- don't I always say this?-- you can drive there from the UK. It's only an hour from the French border and it's totally do-able, even with children. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire helped, and we had stop -offs in Cahors, in southwest France, and Blois in the Loire Valley on the way back. Even on the way down, where we could only stop one night, we managed dinner in the city of Chartres, right by the famous and very beautiful cathedral.

And, although we did spend many hours in the car, there was only a BIT of moaning about the drive. Although the cheers that the boys let out as our Channel Tunnel train pulled into Folkestone were rather revealing....

Friday, 27 June 2014

End of term madness -- and mindfulness...

End of school madness has descended on the Nappy Valley household. Having two children at two different schools (thank god, only for another few days) makes things even more "interesting" than usual. This week has seen my presence at one school or the other on no less than four days out of five: for school plays, sports days, visiting mornings for new schools and information evenings for parents. Next week is only a three day school week, but our diary includes a school carnival, a school trip, a Leavers' Party and a Leavers' Service (after which we will be speeding down the French autoroutes towards Spain and a much-needed holiday).

Despite having (so I thought) read all the school mailings religiously all year, on three occasions I have found myself almost missing crucial events because of letters being mislaid, not sent out etc.  I was also informed midweek that Littleboy 1 needed a fancy dress costume for Monday. After my experience with the fez, I found this infuriating -- in fact I think working parents need to go on strike about this sort of thing. It ALL gets dumped on the mothers -- the Doctor just laughed about it when he heard, and in a relaxed fashion just told me not to bother. But he won't be the one who has to stand there cringing when the little darlings go on their carnival parade and our child is the only one in boring school uniform....

One of the reasons I work from home is so that I CAN go to all these school events, do pickups at different times of day and help the children with homework that, increasingly, seems to require adult involvement such as looking things up on the computer and printing things out. (Yes, I know a nine year old can use Google as well as I can, but select appropriate images and print them? I can't even get our printer to work half the time...).

I can't even begin to imagine how hard it is for the mothers who work in an office five days a week and only see their children after after-school club in the evening. Most of them do seem to make it to the events, but they're always checking their watches and running for the train as soon as it's over, and looking harried and hassled.

I don't recall my parents having this level of involvement when I was at school, although maybe I'm wrong (my Dad is the only one who's around, and he doesn't remember it). In a way it's lovely, because you do get to see what they're doing and to cheer them on at everything and meet the teachers on a very regular basis. And yes, God knows employers ought to be sympathetic about letting working parents go to these sorts of events. But I bet not all of them are. And it depends what you do -- The Doctor, for instance, can't cancel clinics because of a school sports day, and there are only so many swaps you can do with colleagues.

Anyway, coupled with all this running around is the rather sad realisation that another school year has gone by. When you are a child, the end of the school year is fun and exciting. But when you are a mother, it's just a marker of the passing of time -- that your children (and you) are another year older and that these are precious moments that must be captured -- and enjoyed -- in the bittersweet moment. I'll try to carry that end of term mindfulness with me as I rush off to the next school event....

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Blogging friends old and new

Two Knackered Mothers, one bestselling author..with the lovely Helen

What is the collective noun for blogging mothers? A phalanx, a gaggle? Perhaps a maternity....

Anyway, there was a good gathering of them at BritMums Live on Saturday. Most of whom I didn't know. Yes, nearly all my all crowd seemed to have decided that this was the year off, having been religiously for the last five years. Sod's law I suppose.

But.... I did get to meet the fabulous Knackered Mother (aka Helen), whose Wine Club I've been admiring and commenting on ever since it started. We chatted excitedly across the book signing table,where she was signing copies of her excellent book, and then I watched her very impressive performance in the "Building your food brand" session .

And I did enjoy the day. I met some interesting new bloggers and decided that my blogroll is in dire need of a revamp (as is my blog design, which is shamefully old-fashioned, and probably won't see me "monetizing" my blog any time soon). I learned all about travel blogging, and decided I might start a separate travel section on my blog. I wandered around and marvelled at the number of brands that want to get into bed with mummy bloggers. And I listened to some hilarious, sobering and heart-rending stories as a selection of talented bloggers read out their posts.

But the best bit? It had to be the musical performance of The Good Enough Mums Club. These talented women have written a musical about motherhood which is funny, honest and downright dirty. They performed a taster from the musical and I loved it. They're performing around London this summer and I intend to go.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Holiday budget tips - you read it here first

Seriously...this is much more fun than Disney
The lovely Rosie Scribble has blogged about a competition in which you can win some foreign currency for posting your family budgeting travel tips. As I'm heading off to Europe shortly, this would come in very handy, so I'm going to have a go.

Having travelled a fair amount with my kids, particularly in the US, I've learned a few things over the years about how not to spend your money. Here are a few ways I can think of to cut down on expenses during your holiday.

1. My number one budgeting tip -- don't eat out too often with small children if you can avoid it. You will pay extortionate amounts for food they don't like and drinks they don't finish. If you are self-catering, great -- buy delicious food for yourself and eat in, and cook the kids the stuff they like. You'll also be able to afford that good bottle of wine, instead of having to pick the cheapest bottle on the menu.

2. If you are eating out, check out whether or not kids' menus are actually cheaper. We've now worked out that for two kids, the Pizza Express kids' menu adds up to more than if you buy an adult Margarita (pizza, not the drink!) and split it between them. My kids never, ever want the pudding or the "babyccino" (being too full up on pizza) so it's really not worth it. Oh, and take crayons. Or you'll end up buying expensive drinks just to drown out the noise of the bored children complaining, and ice cream to keep them from going crazy.

3. Consider travelling by car to your destination, instead of flying.  If your kids are OK in the car, it will save you money -- flights plus car hire add up to a lot (particularly when care hire firms whack on extra charges for car seats etc). You can also take all your stuff and paraphenalia that goes with having children -- and avoid extra bag charges from mean airlines (BA, I'm looking at you here). Take plenty of audio entertainment for the car -- we enjoyed listening to Harry Potter on the way to France this year.

4. If you are doing long drives, a good plan is to stay overnight at somewhere with a pool for when you arrive. This may not sound like budgeting, but actually not all hotels with pools are expensive (in America, we always went for the Holiday Inn Express chain; it was relatively budget, but all the hotels had small pools). It will also save your sanity, as what you really don't need after a long drive is manic, screaming kids in a hotel room.

5. If you do have to hire a car - see above -- avoid the car seat charges by packing a blow-up car seat. We have a brand called Bubblebum. Yes, the Littleboys giggle about the name and say they're "squishy", but these seats are incredibly useful and fit nicely into your luggage.

6. If you want to save money, avoid theme parks. Honestly. Take your children swimming in a lake, hiking up a mountain, make sandcastles at the beach. They will have just as much fun, probably won't have any meltdowns and you'll be about two hundred pounds better off.

7. If you're going to a city, do your homework first about travel options - is there a family travelcard, does it include museums/sightseeing? In San Francisco, we managed to get a travel ticket that included several attractions. Otherwise, you could spend a fortune on just getting around.

8. Also in cities - don't try and do too many museums in a day. Not only will you pay through the nose (most places, unlike London, charge for museums), your children will want to kill you and you'll end up buying them expensive ice creams/toys to keep them from melting down....

9. If you are determined to do lots of museums, check out in advance whether your chosen destination has free ones. Washington DC is a good option as the Smithsonian Museums are free. Also, if you visit New York, bear in mind that some museums, like the Museum of Natural History, advertise a high price for your visit which (if you read the small print) is actually optional. You can pay $1 to visit that museum, as long as you are prepared for some dirty looks at the ticket booth.

10. Last one -- and this might be obvious, but I still haven't quite learned from it -- avoid that museum gift shop! Your kids will want to buy some piece of utter tat, or a toy that they will love for ten minutes and then forget all about. You'll find it in two years time lying at the bottom of the toy box and wonder why you spent twenty five dollars of your hard earned cash on it. Trust me.

Monday, 16 June 2014

I'm going to BritMums Live - are you?

About six years ago, when I had just started blogging about life with small children in Nappy Valley, I was contacted by someone called Susanna, with a blog called A Modern Mother, who wanted to start a network for Mummy Bloggers. I wasn't sure what this really meant, but I signed up to it, and a few months later she launched British Mummy Bloggers.

A few other bloggers joined up, and I remember that they had a coffee morning in London, but I couldn't go because I had a work meeting. So I didn't get to meet Susanna. Then, just as I headed to live in the USA, British Mummy Bloggers had its first blogging conference. My little part of the blogosphere was abuzzwith this event, as hundreds of people I'd met online got to meet each other in real life, and I was really disappointed not to be able to go.

Over the years, as BMB evolved into Brit Mums Live, and got bigger and bigger and then REALLY huge, I STILL haven't made it due to living abroad and having small children who I couldn't leave. Oh yes, and in the meantime, I had introduced my good friend, Maddy, to Susanna (long story, but she was moving to the same town), and she is now one of the chief organizers of the event. And I still haven't met Susanna.

But this year ...(drum roll).....I'm back in London. So this year I'm finally going (well, for one day anyway. Kiddie commitments still get in the way).

Saturday's schedule sounds exciting. I'm really looking forward to some of the speakers, such as Benjamin Brooks-Dutton, who has written so movingly about his wife's death. If I'm honest I'm a bit terrified by all the sessions about monetizing your blog, creating brilliant video content and so forth, as I've never really done any of this, and I'm not sure I ever will, but there's a session on travel blogging that sounds good. Really, it seems from the programme that there's something for everyone.

So what I want to know is are any of you, dear readers, going? Sadly I know a few of my old muckers are unable to make it (you know who you are). So who should I be looking out for? (Apart from Susanna - who I finally, six years on, will get to meet). Let me know....I don't want to miss anyone.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Life for Rent

Crystal Palace: our new abode
"If my life is for rent, and I don't learn to buy
Well I deserve nothing more than I get
Cos nothing I have is truly mine"

So warbled Dido -- and I'm inclined to agree. Although I've been a homeowner for 15 years (with the exception of the past month) I'm coming to the end of my fifth year of renting houses and I'm happy to report that we've just exchanged contracts on our new house.

Yes, NappyValleyGirl is no more as we're moving to Crystal Palace in August. Any suggestions on what to call the blog gratefully received. I've though of a few -- View from the Palace, Life in the Palace, Palatial Living -- but not sure yet about any of them.But we are sure about the house, and the area -- which has a great park (with model dinosaurs in it), fun restaurants and shops, and -- possibly --  an exciting future with the plans to rebuild the Crystal Palace itself.

There are upsides to renting. When something goes wrong (as it seems to do on a weekly basis in the house we're currently renting) you just call the landlord/agent and they have to pay to sort it out.
Luckily in our case this has normally been quick and efficient - but in our first rental in America, where our landlady was tricky to get old of and insisted on trying to fix everything herself first, it wasn't always so. But on the whole, the only stress you have is waiting in for the workman rather than worrying about how expensive it's going to be to fix.

On the other hand, you can't solve the longer term problems with the house. The reason something goes wrong with our current house on a weekly basis is partly because the plumbing is dreadful. If it was our house we would probably rip it all out and start again - but, we can't. In our 10 years in Clapham, I only once recall having to call a plumber out -- this year has seen at least three visits.

Clearly, renting also means you can't make decorative changes -- my landlady has quite eclectic taste in wallpaper, and we haven't put any pictures up this year because it didn't really seem worth damaging the walls for a 12 month stay. It's also hard to get too excited about maintaining the garden when it's not, well, yours.

Of course, I'll probably be eating my words once we move in and I'm spending half my earnings on house maintenance and half my time pruning what estate agents term a "mature" garden (read overgrown and out of control). But for now, I'm looking forward to making my own disastrous decorative choices, hammering some picture hooks into walls and planting some flowers of my choice (I have a dream of a wisteria-covered facade).

Crystal Palace, here we come.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

How Lord of the Rings saved violin practice

At least all that obsessive watching of "The Two Towers" has been productive
Littleboy 1 recently started playing the violin. Now, he's a musical boy who took to the piano very quickly, and with his Dad also a good violinist, I had rather assumed that this would all go smoothly and I wouldn't have to do much.

But somehow, with the all the piano practice, homework, sport and other stuff we have to fit into our week, violin seems to have fallen somewhat off the radar. We were managing one session a week, with The Doctor at the weekend, but it increasingly ended in tears, either of frustration because he found it hard, or because there was something much more interesting to be done with his brother. (Meanwhile I was wondering if the neighbours could hear the terrible sounds emanating from our house and thought we were strangling a cat.)

Six months in, and his teacher had begun to write subtle, then not-so-subtle hints in his lesson book about the need for more practice. He'd also joined a string ensemble at school and had been given music to learn for a concert -- despite the fact that he had just about mastered playing open strings. It was time for action, so I decided that over half term we would get to grips with the violin.

Now, although I have tried in vain before to emulate the "tiger mother" style when it comes to music practice, I have never really succeeded. But this time I tried all sorts of things. Bribes, mainly, but also -- playing along to a CD that came with his violin book, and me playing the piano with him so it seemed like we were doing duets. But there was still lots of grumbling and not much improvement.

And happened by chance that Littleboy 2 was playing a tune on the piano that he said reminded him of the music from Lord of the Rings (something the two of them watch obsessively on DVD). I sat down at the piano and managed to pick out the tune. (Just goes to show that MY years of music lessons, which included barely scraping through my 'cello Associated Board exams until I gave up at the age of 18, did actually pay off).

Soon we were looking up, and improvising, all sorts of different musical themes from the Lord of the Rings films. There was the Shire music (which has a vaguely Irish/gipsy feel), but their favourite seemed to be the "Riders of Rohan" music. I wasn't sure which this was, so we used the iPad to look it up. (Handy parental tip -- you can find all kinds of sheet music on the internet, and an iPad is a perfect way to look at it.)

Littleboy 1 then spent a whole half hour engrossed in playing this theme on his violin (I've tried to post the video here, but it doesn't seem to like Blogger). Voila - his playing improved, and he was then able to tackle the concert pieces much better. Littleboy 2 even accompanied him on the piano.

So thank you, Peter Jackson, or actually Howard Shore, who Wikipedia tells me wrote most of the music for LOTR. Thank you for saving violin practice. Now, if you could just help me with that maths homework.....

Friday, 23 May 2014

Books for boys. Or girls. Or both?

The Secret Garden
Is it half term already? The last couple of weeks have flown by in a whirl of homework, sports days, swimming galas and vomiting bugs (the latter laying us all low for the past few days).

Blogging time seems in short supply, but I've been mulling a blog post for a while about books I'm reading with the boys. When I go into bookshops these days, I'm often struck by how the kids' books seem to be divided by gender. The "boys" books, all about superheroes and dragons and wars and monsters, as opposed to the "girls" books, with their slightly pinkish covers, all about friendships and school and ballet and horses.

Now I know that getting boys to read can be an issue; I've read countless articles about "books for boys", and how we must encourage them by feeding them with subject matter that interests them, etc. And maybe it has been ever thus; after all, I grew up loving Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes and L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, while my husband remembers devouring TinTin and Lord of the Rings (both of which my boys adore too). Clearly there have always been books that appeal, in general, to one sex more than another, just as with toys, however we much we don't like to admit it.

But my point is that we shouldn't rule out the books that we think our children won't enjoy. The boys have surprised me on several occasions. For example, I have read the Littleboys most of the the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series, and for the most part they were riveted. Maybe they enjoyed different bits to me as a child -- instead of imagining Laura's Christmas hair ribbons and poplin dresses, they're more fascinated by how the family built their shanty -- but the point is, they're great stories.

The boys are also starting to love classics like Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows which have a universal appeal -- don't rule these out for being too old-fashioned. They find A.A. Milne hilarious, and they're currently listening with fascination to the Wind in the Willows, despite the fact that the language is quite heavy going for today's kids.(A note: I tried to read these books to them when they were younger, without success. But it seems nine and seven is the perfect age).

What really surprised me this week was when, all of us recovering from said tummy bug, the boys and I sat down to watch a 1975 TV series of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. This was something that came free a few years ago with a newspaper, and I had found among our DVD collection, long-forgotten since we moved to the US. Having not read it since I was a child, I would have said on balance that this was a "girl's" book, but the boys loved watching this serial so much that, as the credits rolled for the last episode, Littleboy was heard to say incredulously: "That's it? There's no more?"

That the same boy who is currently enjoying Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters could be riveted  by the tale of Mary Lennox and her invalid cousin is a testament to the power of great writing. So, bookstores, don't be afraid to mix it up a bit -- and fellow parents, we should all remember that a good story is a good story, whether it contains monsters and zombies or gardens and foxcubs.

Monday, 12 May 2014

A Magical Birthday at Hogwarts

Hanging around at 4 Privet Drive
Trying out some wand moves
Littleboy 1's birthday treat this year was to visit Hogwarts. And, for those of you who are thinking of going (I know Iota is), here's a little review (non-sponsored, I paid for it myself) to let you know how the Warner Bros. Studio Tour at Leavesden (near Watford) measured up.

First things first - you need to book online and well in advance. I booked six weeks ahead for a Saturday in May, and the only slot we could get was 5PM-8PM. However, this turned out to be fine - it wasn't absolutely mobbed, and when we turned up at 4.30, they seemed quite happy to let us in early.

Although I had heard nothing but good reports, I still wasn't quite sure what to expect. The Doctor and I are not generally big fans of theme parks, and tend to prefer the Great Outdoors to any indoor attraction, or anything (Disney, I'm looking at you here) where things are fake.

But we all love Harry Potter. I read all the books myself before having children, and I've recently read the first three aloud to the boys.  We did a marathon watching of all the films over Christmas so the boys were familiar with all the characters from beginning to end (which probably helps, because if you haven't seen all the films/read all the books, the tour does contain some spoilers).

So, when the curtain went up at the beginning of the tour (I won't say what's revealed, because it's such a surprise), I really was swept up in the magic. The one thing I hadn't expected was that I would enjoy it as much (if not more than) the children. This is partly because I am a huge movie buff - just the idea that we were on a film set was terribly exciting. Seeing the real costumes that actors like Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman and Robbie Coltrane actually wore was fascinating, as was seeing the real live sets (including the outdoor ones, such as 4 Privet Drive) and taking in all the information about how they were created. I began to feel quite regretful that I'd never pursued a career in film -- I think it's probably a bit late now...

What's good about the tour is that it is pitched for all ages. Children may not have the attention span to watch a five minute video about how a set was created, or marvel at the fact that someone sat down and actually painted all those portraits of the Headmasters of Hogwarts in Dumbledore's office. But they can try out doing wizard-y wand moves in front of a mirror, or riding a Quidditch broomstick against a green screen (afterwards you can purchase a DVD that makes you look as if you're flying over Hogwarts). Be warned though - even at 5PM there was a very long queue for the broomstick rides; we gave it a miss as there was so much else we wanted to do).

My highlights? Diagon Alley, the model Hogwarts Castle and the Hogwarts Great Hall. The creature workshop (where you can see how they made characters such as Dobby and Buckbeak come to life) is also really interesting.

Lowlights? The shop, which you can't avoid and in which everything is incredibly expensive. We had to spend ages persuading the boys not to spend their entire year's pocket money on a twenty five quid plastic broomstick (which we knew they'd only play with for five minutes).

If you want the newly nine-year-old's view -- Littleboy 1 says he liked Diagon Alley best of all."I was impressed how much they built of it," he tells me.  That's fair comment.

I'd  only add -- go when your children are nine or older. Really young children may not appreciate it all. The teenagers there seemed possibly the most excited - and that's fair enough,as Harry Potter is probably pitched more at their age than any other. But if you're really keen fans, and don't mind paying the ninety quid family ticket price, it's a bit like Disney; you could always go again.....

Tuesday, 6 May 2014


I'm thinking of turning this blog into a craft blog and entering it for lots of awards. I expect to get lots of followers pinning my brilliant craft designs to Pinterest and tweeting excitedly about them -- because, y'know, I am just so fantastic at this kind of project.

No, not really,

But this may be the first and last time I post a craft project on my blog. Unless it really catches on.

So, here we go: How to make a fez: by the least crafty mother in Britain.

1.Buy red foam
2. Put foam around child's head and measure - cut hat shape to fit head
3. Use red card (not quite matching) to create a top for the hat
4. With help of seven year old, staple the pieces rather wonkily together
5. Get seven year old to decorate hat - the gold stars were his idea
6. Complain about lack of tassel to another mother at school gate. Very kindly she offers to give you one.
6. Sellotape tassel on
7. Turn up at school with said fez (which your seven year old is too embarrassed to wear). Note that the other fezzes range from the ultra-sophisticated (proper felt and all manner of decorations) to the really half-hearted (paper party hat in blue).
8. Realise that in determination not to forget fez, you have forgotten seven year old's piano books and failed to realise that he is supposed to be doing a gym display today.

Stay tuned for more creative projects on the Nappy Valley craft blog!

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Fez fuss and tassel hassle

I'm sure it all seems like a great idea, when you're a primary school teacher. You want to have a lovely event for the children, in which they all dress up, and so you think of something relatively simple which they can all wear and which can be made at home. It will fire their creativity, promote a sense of shared artistic endeavour, get them bonding with their parents as they lovingly work together. So you fire off a quick email to the parents, instructing them to make (I quote) "a simple homemade fez" at the weekend. Just to make sure no-one ignores this, you add the line "the children will feel sad if they do not have a fez." Just for good measure, you add "do not forget the tassel, as we want tassels to swirl when all the children dance."

Teachers, do you just want to stop for one minute and imagine the parent's reaction whent they open this email, at 4pm on a Thursday afternoon? Do you suppose they're going to crack a benevolent smile, picturing the heart-melting sight of their darling child in an adorable homemade fez dancing around, tassel swirling? Or are they instead going to think: where the hell am I going to get the materials for making a fez, complete with tassel, tomorrow and fit it into an other-wise busy weekend?

Now, I am lucky in that Friday is my day off work, so as it happens (having already polled friends on Facebook about how to create a fez) I DID have time to go to an art shop and buy some red art foam and red card. Several people had suggested a plant pot, but I was a little worried about Littleboy 2 dancing with a plant pot (even a plastic one) on his head.

The tassel has proved more problematic.  I don't happen to live near a haberdashery shop, and I don't (as suggested by Facebook friends) have any old curtains or dressing gowns hanging about the house with tassels on them. This is what happens when you are renting your third house in five years (which happens to have modern drapes, not curtains) and have ruthlessly thrown out anything old. I have looked in various charity shops/homewares over the course of the weekend but whenever I asked the shopkeepers if they by any chance had a small tassel, they just looked at me as if I was slightly bonkers. Unless we can obtain one in the next 24 hours, it will have to be small strips of cut out foam tied together (Littleboy 1's idea). Not exactly swirly, but better than nothing.

 Can I just add here that we also spent the whole of Saturday afternoon visiting, and taking photographs of, St Paul's cathedral, for Littleboy 1's school project?  So that's a good half of the weekend taken up by homework-related projects. I'm just glad we didn't have any massively exciting social engagements this weekend, and that I'm not also a doctor who's on call (as my husband was this weekend, therefore neatly excusing him from any fez-related activity).

 I am going to be looking closely at the fezzes when the boys turn up for school on Tuesday morning. I simply defy anyone to have spend the whole weekend making a really good one, but I am sure there will be some, made by alpha parents that could not bear for their child to turn up with a slightly rubbish fez.

Ours is, I admit, slightly rubbish, but hey, it was genuinely home-made by me and my child. I could have tried to buy one, in Brixton market, but that would have been cheating I suppose. So that's "all good" (as Ian Fletcher in the marvellous BBC comedy W1A would say). And, well I guess I have to thank the teacher for supplying me with good material for a blog post....

Friday, 25 April 2014

Questions my children have asked in the past few days...*

1. What is a "spare room"? (no idea why they asked this, we have had a spare room for several years and referred to it as such).

2. What is the "rush hour"?

3. If you have three thousand pounds, are you rich?

4. Why do exams make you do the answers in a few hours? Why can't you have all day?

And the funniest one, rather loudly in church on Easter Sunday (yes I know, a rare circumstance in this family):
"Is the (communion) wine good?"

*Usually, either at bedtime (delaying tactics) or when I'm trying to board a train or park the car.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

French ski-ing revisited

Me and my boys, on top of the world
We've just returned from a ski-ing holiday in the Southern French Alps. 10 days in the resort where I learned to ski, and where The Doctor has skied since he was 10 (with a stopover on the way in Les Gets, where an old school friend has a chalet -- a chance to see how the other half, i.e those who have hedge fund manager husbands, live).

Being back in France after an absence of five years was fabulous; the food, the scenery, the cheese, the cheese (yes, I really need to go on a diet now). Having holidayed in the US and Canada for the past few years, at last the Littleboys got to see that people don't all speak English, and had an opportunity to practise some French, which they started learning at school last September. We had been slightly concerned that while Littleboy 2 was happily coming home and addressing me as "Maman" in a perfect little French accent, his older brother hadn't appeared to pick up a single word, so I was determined that he should learn. In a fit of enthusiasm, they insisted we buy an AA Kids' Phrasebook at the Eurotunnel shop, and proceeded to fight over who got to look at it for the next 48 hours (before they lost interest). Two weeks later, and I think Littleboy 1 knows just a few more words - including "frites", "je deteste", "bonjour" and "au revoir". But it's a start.

The ski-ing itself was very different from our last visit to the Alps five years ago. Then, we were encumbered by a three year old who cried every morning when we took him to ski school, and a baby who spent his mornings in the creche while we frantically skied for three hours and zoomed back to reclaim both of them. In Vermont, things were different again as they were in a very child-friendly ski camp all day, leaving us to potter around in a relaxed fashion (while trying not to freeze to death). No longer. We now have two rather intrepid, and frankly quite scary, young skiers on our hands.

The boys' ability to get down a mountain improved enormously during the fortnight. Two years of good American ski school clearly did the groundwork -- all it took was a couple of morning sessions with a decent instructor, and they were shooting around (although wiping out rather often). This meant they could ski with us all day, and go anywhere we wanted to go (we even managed a black run en famille, something I would usually avoid at all costs but I was determined not to be the only family member not to attempt it. For those that are interested, my own ski-ing was thankfully OK despite the pain condition - I just swallowed painkillers and somehow, concentrating on getting down the slopes took my mind off things, and it was really no more painful than walking down the street).

Our sons also joined us for picnics, meals at mountain restaurants, and various drinks pitstops (where they downed hot chocolate and lemonade, and looked disapprovingly at us if we ordered a vin chaud). These little breaks were not always very restful, as Littleboy 1 would usually put his skis back on and look ready to go after about five minutes of recharging, but it was a bit more like the springtime ski-ing I remember. It was also a welcome break from worrying about house buying/selling - having sold our own house the night before we left, we began the holiday fretting about phone calls from estate agents but ended it by hardly thinking about them at all. The sun beat down the entire week, but the snow stayed good to the end, and not once did anyone worry about being cold.

Other memorable moments included listening to the entire first two Harry Potter books, read by Stephen Fry, as we sped down the French autoroute; Littleboy 2 throwing up on an Alpine pass (renderng our car smelling of vomit for the entire 7 hours of driving we had left that day); teaching both boys to play Scrabble in the flat, and having many chairlift conversations with Littleboy 2 about how one becomes an author (his latest plan) and with Littleboy 1 about characters from The Hobbit.

As the Littleboys become older, I increasingly often have moments of nostalgia where I remember how they were as little ones, and wish I could slow time down. But this holiday wasn't an example of that at all. Some things defintitely improve with age - and a family ski-ing holiday is one of them.

Monday, 31 March 2014

One step closer

We're one step closer to finding a permanent home for the Nappy Valley family (at which point I promise I am going to change the name of this blog to something else, as it certainly isn't based in Nappy Valley any more, and thank goodness, my children have been out of nappies for some years).

I've spent the past four months manically house-hunting. This might sound like fun, and probably would be if I was on my own in the company of Kirstie Allsop with an unlimited budget and an architect on speed-dial. But actually, negotiating the estate agents of south London in a crazy property market is quite another matter.

With the apparent scarcity in property on the market compared to numbers of buyers, viewings were often conducted in groups, so you'd be tramping round a house along with lots of other people, trying to size up how keen they were based on the number of photos taken with their iPhones (one guy scarily photographed everything about five times). There was pressure to make offers, even if you'd only seen the place once, which is ridiculous when you think about it -- the biggest purchase of your life and you devote 20 minutes to making your mind up?

We spent a few Saturdays doing viewings as a family. It's not exactly easy to concentrate with two boys running around people's houses, touching things and testing out sofas as if they were in a furniture showroom. Even when they were being good, agents or owners looked paranoid that they would do something bad -- one woman (who had about nine cats positioned throughout her house, including in the shower) constantly pleaded with them not to tease or chase her cats when in fact all they wanted to do was stroke them.

Nothing was quite right -- if the location was right, the price was always too high or the house was too small. If the house was nice, it generally didn't have a big enough garden for our football-playing boys, had parking issues or wasn't in a convenient area for our various journeys to work and school. There was one big and far-too-expensive house that we liked, and we waited in vain for the owners to lower the price (as it's been on the market for a while), but they never did.

Can I just confirm here that London house prices are going crazy? The other day I noticed a house near us had a board outside it --I'd looked at a similar one in the same street before Christmas which needed a bit of modernisation, and knew (so I thought) roughly how much it would go for. As it wasn't yet on the web, I phoned the agent thinking I'd arrange a viewing. I simply couldn't believe my ears at the asking price -- a cool 800,000 more than the one down the road that was essentially the same. Well, it might have been beautifully modernised and had a loft extension but surely, that is ridiculous?

Finally, though, last week we found a house we like. The right size, the right price, the big long garden, not too far from school or work. We like its unusual architecture (vaguely Gothic) and its promixity to a leafy park. I'm not going to jinx it by saying where exactly but all will be revealed IF the whole thing goes through. We've had our offer accepted, but as we all know that's only the beginning of the story when it comes to house purchasing.

So maybe, just maybe, in six months' time we'll have reunited all our furniture and crockery and put some pictures up, and can start to talk about "home" again. And I will be able to pass an estate agent's window without feeling I have to look at it.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

You want to wake up in the city that never sleeps? This post is for you.

The land of the free: but it isn't easy for new arrivals
From time to time, I get emails from readers of this blog who have found it by Googling something like "moving to New York" or "life on Long Island" and want to ask me for some tips. These emails are always slightly apologetic in nature, but believe me, I am only too happy to be of use to people who are moving abroad and I'm just delighted that my blog is helpful in any way.

I often wish I'd done a bit more research myself before I moved to New York - it would have saved me from a few nasty surprises. I'm eternally grateful to several bloggers who did help me in those early days too. I actually used the moving company recommended to me on this blog, and in turn recommended it to another blogger who was moving back to the UK.

This week I've also been asked to contribute to an Expat Tips page from foreign exchange company HiFx, which might be useful for those of you moving abroad generally. (They also do a currency converter on the website, which is handy for those of us who get paid in dollars).

Here then are my top five practical tips for Brits moving to New York State. (This is assuming you really are at the beginning of your moving research and don't know anything much yet.)

1. Be aware that you can't buy a car in NY without having insurance - and you can't get insurance if you don't have a New York driver's licence. You will need to take your test at the first available opportunity....and this can pose a problem too, as to apply for it (through the Department for Motor Vehicles) you need a...

2. Social security number. This is key to doing virtually anything in the States. Of course, those who are going out there with a job will get one fairly soon after arriving through their job, but if you're not working, you might want to think about applying too, as soon as you can. (This will also depend on what kind of visa you have.)

3. Getting a credit card is also very difficult, as you won't have a credit record in the US (credit rating companies don't share data between countries, which you would think might benefit them -- after all you could have a terrible credit record at home, and no-one would know...).  You have to build up your credit record gradually; it took us over a year to get a card, and even then with a very low limit. In the meantime, you will get very fed up of constantly having to explain to people like Gap that you can't apply for a store card. You can use your UK cards, but they'll have exchange rate commission. Do your research: there are a few that don't, like the Post Office credit card.

4. Kids don't start school until 5+ in New York; a year later than they do in the U.K. There are, however, plenty of preschool/ pre-K options and indeed there is a movement in NY to make "universal pre-K" available to everyone ie. you wouldn't have to pay. Be aware that summer holidays are very, very long (10-12 weeks), so if you are working, you need to sort out some kind of childcare/camp option for the summer.

5. If you want to get a job once out there, you first need a work permit from the Department of Homeland Security. This again depends on your/your spouse's visa type. The Doctor was on an academic (J1) visa, so for me to be able to work, I had to write a letter stating that I was not going to be working to support my husband, but to have money for "leisure activities" (!) Luckily this was accepted, and I was able to get a job, for which I am eternally grateful.

This was a sponsored blog post.