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?