Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Going back "home": on revisiting the expat experience

Back in New York State for the fall
As the part of the US trip mentioned in previous posts, we spent some time staying with friends in our former Long Island hometown.

We wanted to go back and reconnect with people before they forgot us, we forgot them and the boys forgot that they were ever little kids with American accents, at an American school and with American friends.

The experience was lovely, but it was also strange.

As we drove into town, everything seemed both familiar and unfamiliar - the streets I had driven down endless times, the shops, the road names. The first morning, The Doctor and I lay awake with jet lag, neither of us able to remember the name of a road we used to drive down daily -- eventually I had to go and look it up. Within about 24 hours though, it all came flooding back, and I was able to remember everything and everyone.

With a packed schedule of seeing friends, there wasn't really time to slow down and process how I felt about the whole experience. It did make me feel quite impressed with myself that I'd managed to make that many close friends in such a short time -- maybe it was the time of life (small children starting school) or maybe it was the fact that I knew I had only limited time there so had to make the most of it?

(One funny thing; I was waiting for a friend in a coffee shop when I saw a woman I had been quite friendly with at the start of our four years there. I went up to her excitedly telling her how I had come back to visit -- but she didn't even realise I had left!)

The boys' behaviour was pretty interesting. 

Littleboy 1 had verbal diarrhoea from the moment our friend picked us up at JFK - telling her about his school, new friends, his brother's new friends, life, the universe and everything. I'm not sure whether this was over-excitement at having FINALLY arrived in New York (we'd had a 24 hour delay due to a faulty plane- thanks Virgin Atlantic) or a need to fill her in on our new lives. Anyway, having exhausted his supply of new information, he never mentioned any of it again the whole time we were staying with them; instead he just slotted back into his old games with his friends, and even started sounding vaguely American again.

He was also incredibly excited to revisit his old haunts, including his favourite burger restaurant, Smashburger, which we had to visit twice. (I'm afraid all the upmarket burger joints we've been to in London -- Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Byron et al -- don't cut the mustard with him, compared to this mid-range chain, a sort of hybrid between fast-food and a sit down restaurant that does rather fabulous sweet potato fries.) As we went around town, he was constantly exclaiming how he remembered this, and that, and how much he loved it.

Littleboy 2, the quieter of the two and my little philosopher, said virtually nothing to his friends at first. He kept his thoughts very much to himself until I asked him outright, having taken them to play in the park where we always went when they were small, how he felt about being back there. He replied "a bit sad and a bit lonely." I knew exactly what he meant -- it was as if we were revisiting the past, but we couldn't really recreate it -- the friends we used to play with at the park were no longer there, and all the local children were in school, so there was no-one else around. I'm not sure he knows the word "nostalgic" but I think that was probably the feeling he was also trying to articulate.

Going back to their old school was weird; we went to watch their Halloween parade, with all the kids and teachers there in costume. It felt odd, I'm sure, for them to be on the outside looking at something they once took part in.  We called out to a couple of teachers, and one immediately recognised the boys (and me), which was nice. But it definitely felt like we weren't part of it any more.

A lot of people asked us whether we wished we'd stayed. But the trip confirmed to me that, no, I didn't. I absolutely loved living there, and we were lucky to have had a beautiful town to live in and some lovely  friends. I loved seeing the fall colors, and the decorations, and spending Halloween there with everyone getting into the party spirit and the whole town trick or treating. But I didn't feel an urgent need to move back -- I feel much more settled in London than I ever did there, perhaps because I know that this is our home and it's not just temporary. I'm also glad that the boys are being educated in the British school system, which I think on balance I prefer.

So I'll be happy to re-visit every few years. And we might have to do that, just so Littleboy 1 can eat "the best burger in the world."

Friday, 20 November 2015

Grand Canyon En Famille

Early morning at the South Rim
I've always wanted to go to the Grand Canyon. However, as our trip approached, I was more than a little apprehensive. Someone had warned us that, once you arrive and look at the view, there "wasn't that much to do" there -- particularly with kids. I had also been told that the South Rim, where we were going, was far too touristy and it was much better to go to the less visited North Rim. Would it all be a huge disappointment?

But I am happy to report that it was all I expected, and more.

The South Rim is indeed the more touristy part of the Canyon -- the North Rim is much higher, and at this time of year can be closed due to snow. But maybe because we were slightly off-season,  I didn't find Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim too overwhelmingly ruined by other people. It reminded me rather of a ski resort, and was particularly quiet in the early morning and at night, when the day trippers had gone.

We stayed at Thunderbird Lodge - basically a motel, but perfectly OK -- right on the Canyon edge. For food you can eat at Bright Angel Lodge which is right next door and slightly more posh, but with a rustic edge; if you want to go very posh you can stay at El Tovar, which has a very fancy-looking restaurant. We ate our evening meals at the Arizona Room, a steakhouse with particularly delicious food -- it would have had a view over the Canyon, but it was too dark in October to see it even for an early supper; darkness fell at around 6pm.

Descending into the Canyon
The view is just incredible.  I could spend simply hours looking at it. The colours in the canyon keep changing throughout the day, and depending on the light and the weather. You can see why it's called "grand" -- I've been to canyons before, but the vastness and majesty of this one is incomparable. It makes you feel very small and very aware of the power of nature, as if you were standing on the moon or something.

So what do you do there? We went hiking into the canyon. We took the boys down the Bright Angel Trail to the three mile resthouse, then back up again. Down is pretty easy, up is obviously steep and much harder, but the path was well-made, the track easy to follow,

There are hundreds of signs warning you to take lots of water, food, etc and not to overdo it -- I think this must apply particularly in the summer, when temperatures can reach over 140 degrees, but in October it was a very pleasant temperature for walking, cool and crisp in the morning rising to t-shirt weather in the afternoon. We took a picnic, plus plenty of chocolate and snacks for the way up.

Sunset and moonrise
Our six mile walk was over by mid-afternoon, so there was time to do something else. We drove the 20 miles to the Desert View Watchtower, where you get a completely different view of the Canyon, this time including the Colorado River (which isn't visible at Grand Canyon Village). On the way back, we were lucky enough to see the full moon rising just at the time the sun set, which afforded the most glorious palette of colours. As we leapt out of the car to take photos, we weren't alone -- there were, as The Doctor put it, people almost "orgasmic" at the sight.

The next morning we were leaving, but got up early  and walked for a few miles along the Rim Trail before breakfast. This walk would be much more suitable for people with small children, or who aren't into proper hiking; it's paved, mostly flat and you can take a bus back to the village from various points along the way, so you don't have to worry about turning around. And you still get the incredible views.

So - would I recommend taking children to the Grand Canyon? Yes, definitely. What I would say is -- if  you want to walk, go at half term in October, and avoid the heat and the crowds. American schools aren't on holiday in October, either.

In fact we liked it so much, we are planning to go back when our boys are older. The plan next time is to hike all the way from rim to rim, a two day hike, and stay at the romantically-named Phantom Ranch lodge in the base of the canyon. For this, you have to book at least a year in advance. But I don't mind  that-- it's even more of an excuse to fantasise over future holidays.

Monday, 16 November 2015

How do you talk to your children about Paris?

My older son was lying in bed with us on Saturday morning when we turned on the radio. We knew nothing about the events in Paris, having been driving down the M4 the night before and not watching any evening news. So when we heard the headlines we were naturally jolted awake, and he, who doesn't always listen to the news, was hearing it all avidly too.

He's 10 now, and he's been asking questions recently about Isis, as some of his friends are apparently talking about it at school following the Egyptian air disaster. Some of what he comes home with has been a little misinformed (eg Isis bombed the Twin Towers) but he understands the gist of it. And yet, he doesn't.

How do you explain to a primary school kid what motivates terrorists? And even more, how do you reassure them that they, and their loved ones, are not going to be affected? To tell them that "it couldn't happen here" feels disingenuous. We all know that it has happened in London, and surely will again.

I have told him now about the 2005 attacks, which happened just after he was born. He also knows about 9/11, having been recently to the Peace Garden in New York. But he still can't get his head round why people actually did these things. He's a gentle child, who dislikes seeing or hearing about any kind of violence (he doesn't even want to see the new James Bond film), so he does find it very upsetting. 

A friend posted this article on Facebook, in which a psychologist explains that you need to reassure the child that they are safe. But I sometimes feel as if the more we talk about these things, the more it makes them feel unsafe. I'm trying to walk the line here between not hiding things from him, not making him feel that I'm world-weary on the subject and at the same time reassuring him.

I find it even harder to talk to his younger brother, 8, about it all. The questions come thicker than the answers with him, and it's harder with him to know what he's thinking afterwards. And I do want to make sure he's not secretly worrying.

How does anyone else cope? 

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Vegas, baby -- with kids?

Not New York
"Las Vegas is like Disneyland for Grown-ups."

I must have heard these words a thousand times from people in America before we went to visit Las Vegas as part of our holiday this half term. But what if you are the kind of grown-up who hates Disneyland, doesn't like gambling, prefers real scenery and the outdoors, and has two real kids in tow?

I hadn't planned on ever visiting Las Vegas, in fact, but it was the obvious jumping off point when visiting the Grand Canyon (of which more later). We flew from New York, where we'd been visiting our old town on Long Island and our friends, and decided to take in the sights of Las Vegas rather than just hiring a car and getting the hell out of town.

Once we'd planned this, I decided to embrace it, booking tickets to a couple of shows on the recommendation of a friend (Elton John's Million Dollar Piano and Cirque du Soleil's Beatles extravaganza "Love"). I also booked one of the few non-gaming hotels (the Mandarin Oriental) with a pool for relaxing during the day before we saw the shows in the evening. Other than that, I wasn't quite sure what we would be doing during the day with the boys. But there was plenty to explore.

The most amazing thing about seeing Las Vegas with kids is the themed hotel/casinos: in one morning, you can visit Venice, Paris and Luxor, not to mention New York, New York. As Littleboy 1 said in awe as we drove from the airport along the lit-up "Strip" where all the hotels and casinos are laid out in their neon glory, "This place is totally messed-up."

 The Venetian is perhaps the nuttiest: with actual canals flowing through the shops in the hotel's basement, complete singing gondoliers, and an indoor replica of St Mark's Square with a fake sky that makes it feel like you are permanently at dusk (quite weird at 9am in the morning).

The Venetian

Of course, I'd rather be in the real Venice, but the fact they have done it at all is just rather surreal and amazing. Luxor has a gigantic pyramid as a lobby, and a huge sphinx outside; New York, New York has replicas of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, and Paris has a half-size Eiffel Tower. It is, (as Littleboy 2 put it), the "Capital of fakeness".

Another hotel / casino, The Mirage, boasts a volcano that "erupts" every evening on the hour, with fake lava and flames. This hotel is also home to the Secret Garden, a zoo that houses white tigers and dolphins (probably the highlight for Littleboy 2, a tiger fanatic). Next door, the Bellagio has an incredible, dazzling display of fountains, if you hadn't yet been entertained enough.

There is plenty to do, any kind of food you could possibly imagine eating and the shows themselves were spectacular -- my only caveat to taking kids being the jet lag (Las Vegas is eight hours behind the UK, three behind New York and the boys were simply too tired in the evening to really enjoy them properly). The weather in October is warm and fine, but not too hot, and our hotel pool was a delightful place to laze during the midday hours (mornings and evenings were chilly).

Would I go back to Las Vegas? Well, it was great fun. If you're in that part of the world, your kids will be amazed by the spectacle of it all, and they'll probably enjoy it.  But let's just say that as we drove out of the city towards the Hoover Dam and Arizona, I knew the perfect music to play from my iPod. I'll leave you with that.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Old fashioned blogging

Back in the stone age of blogging (pre 2010 that is), there was a thing called "tagging" and also little badges that bloggers gave to one another to stick on their pages. I've still got a few on mine -- look down the bottom of the page and you'll find awards, some from bloggers now faded into the mists of the internet (Nunhead Mum of One, what happened to you?)

You see, this was in the days before official blogging awards, and blogging league tables and blogging conferences and PR freebies and Twitter ratings. It was just a low-key way to show your friendliness and love to a few people whose words you'd read online.

Anyway, I mention all this because Expat Mum -- one of the first bloggers who ever commented on my own blog -- has "tagged" me in this post about Old Fashioned Blogging, because I've been blogging since 2008 and therefore count as a golden oldie in this new-fangled world of weblogs.

Just like the old days, I have to display the badge (which looks a bit like something out of Harry Potter), link to the nominating blogger (done)  and name seven other bloggers on whom I bestow the award. I also have to list seven things about myself that not many people know. I've DEFINITELY done this one before but I can't find the post -- so here goes another effort. I'm going to make them all writerly/blogging related this time.

1. I've inspired at least three good friends to go into blogging (at least, I think it was me - correct me if I'm wrong!). Step forward Circles in the Sand, Don't Panic and Four Down Mum to Go.

2. When I was 15, I won a short story competition in Just 17 magazine. I won a huge boxload of Penguin Books -- and had my name read out in assembly at school, which was rather embarrassing.

3. I read English at University and of all the books I had to read, the only one I didn't finish was James Joyce's Ulysses. I just couldn't stand it.

4. As a student I did work experience at Cosmopolitan magazine. I was overseen by then features editor Kath Viner - who recently became the first ever female editor of The Guardian.

5. I absolutely love reading novels and can polish off a book in a couple of evenings if I'm enjoying it. I've currently devouring "After You" by JoJo Moyes and plan to read Margaret Atwood's "The Heart Goes Last" next, after recently seeing her live at the Write on Kew festival.

6. For work, I have ended up specialising in writing about ads. This is actually more interesting than it sounds. And you meet some very bright, creative people in the industry.

7. I would love to be a novelist, but have not been able to galvanise myself to write anything beyond a first chapter. I have huge admiration for my friend Circles, who has just finished her first novel. And maybe she will now inspire me to go for it.

Now to the nominations. I'm sure everyone else has already tagged these people, but here  are a few.

1 Melissa at Talk About York (who used to be Home Office Mum).
2. Motherhood the Final Frontier (who gave me such good advice when I moved to the US)
3. My mate NB at Don't Panic 
4. Tanya at Bump2 Basics  (I first started reading her blog when she was pregnant. Now her oldest is at school).
5. Michelloui at The American Resident. Who needs to start blogging again!
6. Ditto AConfusedTakeThatFan, whose blog I can't find but who commented here last week.
7. Finally PantsWithNames aka Brit in Bosnia. Emily, if you're still out there, I also miss you terribly.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Helicopter Mother, or just a drone?

I did a naughty thing yesterday.

I was sorting laundry and suddenly realised that Littleboy 2 had merrily gone off to school clutching his swimming towel and goggles, for swim lesson, but minus the actual trunks.

At first I told myself that it would be fine, he'd borrow a pair from Lost Property (his brother has done that before) and I shouldn't interrupt my day. But I kept imagining his little face falling when he opened his bag and found the trunks weren't in there. My heart contracted, and I knew what I had to do.

So I jumped in the car, hair still wet from the shower, and zoomed down to the school to hand over the trunks, reaching the door just as his lesson was about to start.

Now this was naughty why? Well firstly, the school sent out an edict last year that parents were not to keep coming to school to hand over forgotten PE kit. It's a big school and it must happen fairly often, so I can understand it's a pain if they have to keep sending a teacher /helper to deliver missing items of clothing. (Perhaps in the future we should have drones to do it, like Amazon? Now that's an idea.)

But that's not the real reason it was bad. It was bad because, as I discuss with The Doctor all the time, I am not supposed to be the policeman of the bags. The boys are supposed to be checking their own stuff now in the morning and if something doesn't make it to school, on their own head be it. This patently doesn't happen: frankly, just getting Littleboy 2 out of bed and dressed in time for the school run is an achievement, let alone getting him to check his bag.

There have been plenty of articles in the media recently about helicopter parenting and how we are raising a generation of children who don't know how to do anything for themselves. By constantly being there for our children, making sure they're OK and helping them do their best, we're actually doing them a disservice, goes the argument. We should take a step back, let them look after themselves, like our parents' generation who just let us get on with it.

I generally agree with all of this. At my kids' age I was going to and from school by myself (on the Peak Tram in Hong Kong! I didn't know how lucky I was) and a year later travelling to boarding school on a plane. I don't ever remember much parental input in homework. I don't particularly WANT to be that mother insanely running to school with a pair of swimming trunks, and I want my children to grow up self-reliant.

But I think part of the problem now is the pressure that mothers, in particular, feel from all angles of the media to be perfect. If our kids fail at something, we get the blame. And if we aren't super-vigilant, we are terrible people -- this can range from the parents that are investigated by Social Services for letting their kids become obese, to the "free range" parents in the US who get arrested for letting their kids walk home from the park alone,  to the vilification of the McCann parents for leaving their children unattended in a holiday resort.

"Parenting," a word that didn't really exist in the 70s, is something every commentator has a view on. So of course we feel we have to be on the case 24/7, and making sure our kids don't forget their homework, lunch or swimming things, is a part of all that.

Incidentally, men don't seem to share our guilt, possibly because negligent fathering isn't a "thing" in the press.

What do you think? How do you square the whole helicopter debate?  And should I have chilled out over the trunks?

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Last of the summer suncream

The suncreams, all three of them, sit folornly by the door, unused since our holiday. Last week's tennis camp was necessarily indoors, so there was no use for the big tube of kids' factor 50, small tube to take with them, or indeed my special my non-greasy face cream.

Now the new term has started, and (bar a September heatwave) it won't be until next summer that we have to think about creams, hats and water bottles. Instead, we spent the last few days ensuring school shoes fit, arranging uniform on chairs and having last minute panics over mislaid pencil cases.

Reconvening at school, the children have seemingly all grown a couple of inches; some just look like they've been stretched out like elastic, others are more bulky. Most are sun-browned (clearly none of us put on quite enough of that cream, or perhaps, like me, we've decided to mind our Vitamin D), and most of the parents at the school gate sport a post-holiday glow that makes them look more relaxed than usual. We swap anecdotes of last minute shoe-shopping, holidays mishaps and new concerns about our children. We're regretful that summer is over, but also relish the school-gate conversation after a two month break.

At home, I pack away the swimming costumes, the shorts and the sarongs, and start thinking about plays to book, articles to write, social engagements to arrange. The house seems empty - even though I've often been on my own over the summer, while the boys are out at activities, today it seems to echo more than usual.

For everyone starting the new school year today -- may it be a good one.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Kid-friendly Lucca

Beautiful Lucca
Since I got back from holiday on Sunday it seems to have been raining non-stop.

After two weeks of getting up every morning to swim 30 lengths in an outdoor pool before breakfast, only pausing to sniff the lavender-scented air and look at the indescribably beautiful view of the Tuscan hills, this has come as something of a shock.

I love Italy. It's probably my favourite country -- I went there on my honeymoon, and have been back to Tuscany no less than four times since, as well as visiting other parts of Italy such as Sicily and Venice.

This time we had an extended family holiday in a beautiful villa, sandwiched between city stopovers in Pisa and Lucca at the beginning and end.

I thought I'd blog about Lucca because I was actually surprised about how child-friendly it is. Having dragged the boys around Pisa, admiring the beautiful architecture but being slightly dismayed at all the coach party groups with selfie sticks and lack of un-touristy restaurants, I was wondering how they would take to Lucca.

But they loved it. The highlight for us was renting bikes and cycling all the way around the historic city walls, which form a pedestrian and cyclist-only public park. It's a 4km ride which took us roughly 45 minutes, with a couple of rest stops. It's also shady and cool, particularly if you do it at 9am in the morning as we did, trying to avoid the heat of the day. The scenery is incomparable: you can look up at the Monte Pisano mountains, or down into the city of Lucca, at the Duomo San Martino in all its marble splendour, or busy street markets and charming piazzas, while cycling along at your leisure. The only hazard is avoiding other cyclists and pedestrians (something Littleboy 2, a rather wobbly cyclist, narrowly achieved).

Cycling round the walls
Wandering around Lucca is charming -- many of its narrow, winding medieval streets are pedestrianised (although watch out for the odd scooter). The shops are upscale and mainly independent, with very few chains. By night, it's incredibly atmospheric and you will suddenly stumble upon little hidden squares crammed with people, eating, talking or just enjoying the balmy night air. The Littleboys were in their element, marching around singing Abba songs on our final night, to the amusement of passers-by.

Then there are the towers to climb. The Littleboys had actually refused to go up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, announcing that it was too scary. (We didn't try and force them; frankly, the prices are scary too, at 18 euros each including for kids).

Torre Guinigi
But in Lucca, you can climb (cheaply) up two towers that aren't leaning: the Torre Guinigi, which is famous for having trees planted on top, and the Torre delle Ore, or clock tower. The latter was more precarious, with a wooden staircase that looked like it might not pass a British health and safety inspection, but had the bonus of being beautifully empty. Both afford an incredible view of the terracotta-coloured rooftops of Lucca, and the climb gives you a much-needed chance to burn off all that pasta. 

The Lucca botanical garden (Orto Botanico) is a sweet place and offers an opportunity to relax and sit in the shade. The lilypond there has rather a gruesome legend attached; it's said to have been the scene of a horrific drowning. As the story, goes a beautiful Luccan noblewoman made a bargain with the devil to stay looking young, and when she reneged on the deal was finally chased by Satan around the city and into the water. You're supposed to be able to hear her screams on Halloween. In reality, she died of the plague and was buried in a church nearby.  (We had our own excitement, when Littleboy 2 decided to touch a plant clearly labelled as "toxic" with a skull and crossbones; cue lots of frantic hand washing.)

Botanical Gardens, Lucca
Lucca is also stuffed full of places to eat: from cheap pizzerias to homely osterias, lively trattorias and upmarket ristorantes. The first night we had delicious pizza at Trattoria da Nonna Clara in a lively piazza. It was one of the cheapest meals of all our holiday, but all pronounced it excellent. For lunch the next day, we stumbled upon All'Olivo, a stylish-looking restaurant on a tiny piazza. Although it had a slightly bizarre canopy with jets that sprayed out water (it was supposed, we think, to cool you down but had the effect of being in a rather humid sauna), the food was again brilliant. The boys tucked into prosciutto and melon, bruschetta and salami; The Dotor and I had succulent grilled calamari salads.

For our final night we ate at Osteria Baralla, a traditional Tuscan restaurant near the oval Piazza Anifteatro. The meal was typically heavy Tuscan fare -- my beef stew was delicious, but far too filling, and the boys tucked into meaty ravioli after stuffing themselves with unsalted bread and olive oil. I would probably recommend this place more in winter. Like most Italian cities, Lucca is also full of amazing gelaterias. We bought fabulous chocolate ice-cream and lemon sorbet outside the city walls, on our walk back to our Airbnb apartment. (It was our first time booking through Airbnb, and everything went very smoothly -- our host, Petra, was very welcoming and helpful).

Villa Reale's Green Theatre
The next morning, before our flight back from Pisa, we explored the gardens of the Villa Reale outside Lucca. The Villa was once owned by Napoleon's sister Elisa Bonaparte and the grounds are incredibly ornate. The garden was virtually empty, which made it particularly atmospheric, and the house itself, closed up, had a very dilapidated air (we asked about the current owners, and were told it is a "family from Switzerland" but they never come). It seems something of a random tourist attraction -- the custodian turned up late to open up, and there was nowhere really to park -- but the gardens are fascinating and well worth a wander; there's an over-the-top interpretation of Pan's Grotto, a "green theatre" entirely made of box hedges, a lemon garden and plentiful classical statues and fountains.

All in all, I would thoroughly recommend Lucca as a short city break with kids. From the U.K., you could get there cheaply and easily by flying to nearby Pisa with EasyJet, and then taking a train or renting a car. And if you're going on a holiday elsewhere in Italy, why not break your journey there?

Monday, 13 July 2015

Vintage Wimbledon with the Littleboys

I don't know if this year truly was a vintage Wimbledon, but it felt like it to me.

Even though Andy Murray, who we were loyally backing, didn't make the final, the Federer/Djokovic showdown was brilliant, and I particularly loved the sight of Stefan Edberg, my pinup of the year circa 1988, sitting in the box as Federer's coach with his old rival Boris Becker coaching Djokovic. (Edberg has also aged better, which is rather satisfying).

The women's game was perhaps less interesting, although I think we may have a new star in Garbine Muguruza. Serena Williams is incredible, but I feel as if she's been too dominant in recent years.

I watched more of the tournament than I have for a while, mainly because the boys are now also tennis fans and, thanks to their lessons, understand what's going on. We had many hilarious conversations during the matches and the highlights program, which even Littleboy 2 steadfastly sat up to 9pm to watch two nights running. (Who else was appalled by the new look BBC Wimbledon 2Day? I was so glad when they changed the format back to normal, but the new, dreadfully naff name seems to remain. Macenroe is brilliant, though).

The boys were particularly interested in the seedings, and also in the fact that the women play the best of three sets and then men five. So we had many unanswerable questions such as: "If Serena Williams played Djokovic, who would win?" "If Serena AND Venus played him, would they beat him?" as well as random ones such as"Would Andy Murray ever play mixed doubles with his Mum?"

Littleboy 2 finally got quite existential, posing the question: "If Andy Murray played Andy Murray, who would win?" Answers on a postcard please.

But my favourite comment of his was when I was explaining that the players carry spare racquets in their bags in case one breaks. "The other day Murray got out another racket halfway through a game because his string broke," I said.

Littleboy 2 expressed consternation. "But - he wouldn't have time to label it!"

Clearly all those naggings about lost property have gone in.

Monday, 29 June 2015

End of the school year by numbers

Another year over, and what have you done? That's a Christmas song of course, but I always think of it at this time of year, because for parents of school age kids, the "year" begins in September and ends in July.

It seems to have flown by. So I thought I'd just list a few things, data-wise, to remind myself that actually, quite a lot has happened since September 2014.

1. Casualties of Lost Property: 4 (two different kinds of sock, 1 track suit bottoms, 1 pair of pyjamas taken in for a swimming test).

Not bad really and sometimes you just have to "let it go" as the song goes. I remember once really losing it over a lost towel at summer camp, and having to remind myself that there are bigger things in life.  Mind you, I find banging on about how the lost items will come out of pocket money is quite helpful these days. It would have been 5, but a lost shoe was miraculously recovered today.

2. Music exams taken, 3. 

All passed, two with merits. All that practising, nagging and banging on about scales wasn't totally wasted then. And Littleboy 1 seems to have taught himself to play "Dumb Ways to Die" on the violin. Result! 

3. Detentions, 0.

We are doing well here and I hope it continues this way. One of my sons even got invited to a "Good boys' tea," which in my day would have sounded like a recipe for being teased, but these days appears to be a badge of honour, even among boys.

4. Sports Days/swimming galas I missed: 1 (out of 8)

One of the advantages of working from home means I can be flexible about these things.  Mind you, judging from the numbers of Dads there, most of whom I am sure don't work from home, sports days are a 3 line whip these days.

5. Prizes won: 1

Proud parent disclaimer *Littleboy 2 has had a fantastic year at school, and came away with a prize for academic achievement. I couldn't be happier for him.* But actually just as important to me is the fact that he's made some really lovely friends in this first year at the school.

6. Things forgotten in the mornings: Not too many!

Much better on this score than last year, thanks to my trusty chalk board in the kitchen that reminds us what we have to take every day. I only once had to race back in the car to deliver something this year. Although Littleboy 1 went to school with a sopping wet PE kit last week that I had failed to put in the dryer overnight.

7. Inter-school Sports matches kids played in: 1

Not a great score this year -- Littleboy 2 has no interest in competitive team sports, and Littleboy 1, while athletic and fit, doesn't seem to make it into any school teams either (although he's doing very well at tennis lessons, done out of school, and has been selected for a local squad). Still, it means that weekends have been free of ferrying boys to sports matches, which more than makes up for anyone's disappointment.

8. Number of times I have been to the school for events since half term: too many to count.

See no 4. Again possible because I work at home. What on earth you do if you work in an office I have no clue.

9. Number of times we walked to school: 5

This is pretty disgraceful. We did mean to do it more. The walk is about half an hour. The problem is partly all the stuff they have to carry - musical instruments, cricket bats, heavy PE bags, homework, projects. Maybe next year we'll try to rationalise it somehow. 

10. Funny conversations with boys on the way home: countless

This is my favorite quote from Littleboy 2. We were driving home when we saw a boy who looked to me about 15 walking down the road. "Oh that's Mr. X." he said. "He's one of the teachers." When quizzed more closely it turned out he was one of the Gap year boys they have helping at the school. Then he added: "Yeah, we used to have another Gap teacher but he went skiing and never came back. I think he retired."


Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Expat friendships, two years on

Littleboy 2 shortly before we left New York
It's almost two years since we left the U.S.

It doesn't seem like that kind of time at all, of course - it seems like yesterday that I was packing up our house and and saying goodbye to my American friend, bidding farewell to the boys' school and doing everything we enjoyed in Long Island for the "last" time.

I was thinking the other day about expat friendships and whether or not they last a lifetime. My parents met many of their lifelong friends as expats in Hong Kong, some of whom I still keep in touch with today. But things are different now - social media has replaced the long letter and Christmas cards, long a method of keeping in touch, now seem to have fallen out of fashion with more and more people.

So what are my thoughts now that I can put my expat friendships in perspective?

Firstly, that it's interesting who you stay in touch with. Facebook of course makes it very easy to stay in touch with a lot of people but in a fairly superficial way. I have a bit of email contact with those people to whom I was closer but in the main, I do rely on social media.

One experience has been having a dear friend in America go through a terrible time, with her eight year old daughter diagnosed with leukaemia last autumn. Thankfully she is now in remission but it has been the most horribly tough year for her and for her whole family. This friend was lovely to me when I was having my own health issues, and I really felt it that I couldn't be there for her in person. I have been emailing her and sending cards, but it does make you realise that whatever the power of social media, being physically there is a whole different matter.

Then there are the people who are not on social media. In the case of my very good German friend, we've made a real effort to email, Skype and have even managed to see each other twice in the past year. I have a feeling this friendship will now be for life.

But others haven't been so easy.  There was one neighbour whom I got to know very well in the U.S. - we were always chatting at the school bus stop or in each other's houses. She's not on Facebook and I would love to know what's happening with her and her family.  But since being back, whenever I've tried to email her (apart from the very first time, when she replied warmly) I've been met with a wall of silence. I'm fairly certain nothing awful has happened to her, having asked other people, so I'm wondering if she just can't deal with long distance friendships, or (paranoia setting in) whether she never really liked me that much.

Others neighbours have made a real effort to look us up on trips to London - in fact we're due to see one family next week. And, later this year, we'll be heading back to Long Island as part of a U.S. holiday, so we'll get to see everybody again. I'm still debating whether to knock on Mrs. Email Silence's door, but I'm hoping others will be pleased to see us.

More interesting will be seeing whether the boys still gel with their old best friends, now that they've lost their American accents and think and act more like little English boys. I'm guessing yes, because kids seem to re-bond easily, and as long as they're all on the latest version of Minecraft they'll have something in common. But who knows?

Friday, 5 June 2015

Floral delights

I can't believe it's June already and the end of the school year is once again looming. The boys have three and a half more weeks, and then we are into the holidays -- that long cycle of me frantically trying to work while entertaining the boys and ferrying them around to different camps.

I've been neglecting the blog a little of late, so thought I'd write a quick update on what I've been up to.

I went to the Chelsea Flower Show for the first time ever. This was a fabulous experience -- a riot of colour, scent and sensation. What struck me most wasn't the show gardens, which is what everyone writes about and shows on TV. Those are indeed very impressive, but what I hadn't expected was the amazing floral displays from the growers inside the gigantic marquee. Huge walls of hyacinths, hydrangeas, roses, foxgloves -- you name it, it's there.

Selfie in floral garb

Hydrangea heaven

Purple paradise

Rose bower


The visit inspired me in a fit of impulsiveness to become a Royal Horticultural Society member, and start frantically buying seeds to plant in my back garden. Whether this newfound passion for gardening lasts remains to be seen, but it did reinforce my love of flowers, and a realisation that I need to teach my children the names of plants, flowers and shrubs on every walk we go on - because how else do you learn?

Then we went to the Lake District for half term. This was again a floral treat, as the rhodedendron, azalea and blubells were all in bloom up there. It's the first time I've ever visited in May, and it's a great time of year to be there -- everything shining with that bright, light green of early leaf, and newborn lambs everywhere.

Lakeland colours

Rhodedendrons in full bloom

A gorgeous view of Derwentwater

Now we're back and heading into the madness that is end of term, with swimming galas, school balls, concerts and parental drinks gatherings dominating the calendar for the next few weeks .

Wish me luck and see you on the other side.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Do Brondes have more fun?

It's all the rage to have streaks of mouse and blonde
I've been amused to read, recently, all sorts of articles about how it's fashionable to be Bronde.

Apparently, it's all the range to have your hair not quite blonde and not quite brunette - Cara Delevingne, Jennifer Lopez and - er - Nicola Sturgeon have all "embraced the trend."

I'm so happy about this because I've been unintentionally bronde since I was about 14. Having been honey blonde as a child, my hair suddenly darkened in my teens to what, in the old days, was called "mouse" (it happens to a lot of us -- just like duckling down darkens from yellow to brown).

After some disasters with Sun-In, lemon juice and (most heinously) a home dye kit, my mother marched me to the hair salon for highlights in my mid teens and I have never looked back. However, as my hazel eyes and olive-ish complexion don't suit white-blonde, ash-blonde or "Scandi-blonde", I've always gone for a sort of honey look, mid way between blonde and brown. Depending on how often I get to the hairdresser, or how rich I'm feeling, it's sometimes darker and sometimes fairer. In the summer it tends to go a bit streaky and sun-bleached, in the winter it's duller.

But now, apparently, I can cease to worry about this middling shade, and my protruding roots, because celebrities are actually colouring their hair bronde. Apparently, it's great because it hides the grey. (As I've recently found a few of these, that's another "yay" for me). You also don't have to touch up the roots so often, so it's also austerity-chic.

In these sobering post-election days of five more years of cuts, what more could I possibly want? All I need to hear now is that ratty jeans and sneakers are right on trend - wait, hang on a minute? They are?

Thursday, 7 May 2015

On birthdays and voting

This year's General Election has an especial poignancy for me: it's almost ten years to the day since I was in St Thomas's Hospital, cradling a newborn Littleboy 1, staring out over the river at the Palace of Westminster and wondering if Tony Blair was still in power.

So at the weekend we celebrated his 10th birthday (Littleboy 1's, not Blair's) while feverishly anticipating a new election, and I can't help but reflect on the passing of time.

I didn't vote in that election: Littleboy 1 was nine days overdue, so I hadn't registered a postal vote, thinking naively that I'd be well in an out of hospital by the time the election came around. The fact that I had an emergency c-section and ended up staying in for three days meant I was still there on the Thursday, despite giving birth on the Tuesday after the bank holiday.

What I most remember about that experience is that for the first time in my life, once Littleboy 1 was born I couldn't get worked up about the election at all. I was overwhelmed by dealing with a tiny baby, recovering from a frightening birth and not being able to get out of bed for the first day. My world shrank to that hospital ward, and even when we got home, the newspapers lay around unread. (There's a great photo somewhere of The Doctor lying on the sofa asleep, baby asleep on his chest, surrounded by packs of nappies and one copy of the Times with a photo of Blair in a victory pose on the cover).

Five years ago, we were in the US, and although we marked the election by inviting an English friend round to dinner and I even baked an Election Cake, it was hard to feel too excited when we weren't in the country. The Littleboys, aged five and four, were too young to care. I remember stopping my car in the middle of the street outside the boys' nursery (to the annoyance of lots of angry Moms in minivans) to tell my one other English friend at the time that Gordon Brown had just resigned; she, having lived for 10 years in America, could not have looked less bothered.

Another five years on, I'm far more engaged with the election -- and so are my kids. Littleboy 2 is like a Radio 4 Today programme sponge; he solemnly told me this morning that "326 seats is the magic number"; and yesterday he informed me that one prime minister was going to shoot another one in the eyes. I told him he must have misunderstood; later I realised that a UKIP candidate had actually said this.  His older brother, meanwhile, has finally got over his misapprehension that the Prime Minister is called David Beckham.

This morning I voted, though which box I put my X in I'm not going to reveal here, so any trolls had better go elsewhere. Tonight I will be watching the exit polls and eating fajitas with my lovely friend P, and thanking God that we live in a democracy, where -- however confusing the political choice can seem -- what we vote can still make a difference.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

My Back Garden (The Photo Gallery)

It's a while since I've showcased my (very amateur) photography skills by linking to Tara's Photo Gallery, but her prompt this week - My Back Garden -- has nudged me into taking my new phone outside and giving it a go. All the below were shot with iPhone 6 (as the ad campaign goes) - and I think it did an OK job.

We're at an interesting stage with the garden; having moved in late last summer, we don't really know what's in there, and Spring has served up some pretty surprises. We've had crocuses, daffodils, snowdrops and a whole host of bulbs appear in unexpected places; recently I've spotted some bluebells, and there's a sprig of wisteria growing over our fence from next door that's about to bud. (We also have some over our front door; my dream has long been to have a purple shimmering curtain on the front of my house, and maybe one day this will be a reality).

I love the stories gardens tells about the previous owners of houses; there are an incredible number of overgrown roses, and according to a neighbour, the owner before last was obsessed with roses. However, like almost everything in the garden, they've been left to grow rampantly out of control in the intervening years. There's also an insane amount of holly (and ivy) -- I like holly, but we've had to be rather ruthless in cutting back.

The Doctor is more green-fingered than I am, but I love gardens, and can quite imagine myself getting more into it as the years go by; I've even found myself listening to Gardeners' Question Time on the radio recently and not immediately switching over to something less middle aged. I'm also going to the Chelsea Flower Show next month for the first time ever; and I couldn't be more excited if I'd scored a ticket to the Baftas.

Here's a quick tour then:

I love forget- me-nots. I know they're a weed - but they're just so pretty.

The wisteria is about to bud.

No idea what this is - but I like the colour

A couple of bluebells snuck in somehow

We have an insane amount of holly in our garden

Sunday, 26 April 2015

How to upgrade your iPhone (if you're clueless)

1. Eke out the usefulness of your iPhone 4, bought almost five years ago in the US, until emails take about ten minutes to load, apps randomly crash on you and the battery mysteriously dies several times, requiring emergency resuscitation on several occasions.

2. When you can hold out no longer, make trip to the Apple Store, having carefully backed up your phone and taken all the photos off).

3. Get to Apple Store, having parked 20 minutes walk away. Don't bother with any browsing. You're not here to have fun (unlike the kids who are straight on the iPads). Home in straight on the one you want ( a "normal" iPhone 6) and commander an Apple geek to help you buy it.

4. Go to get out your old phone, to find it's still in the car. You were using Google Maps on the way and left it sitting in the front seat.

5. Worry that you won't be able to swap all your information onto the new phone. Husband, and Apple geek, assure you this is not a problem.

6. Get to the swapping stage, where another Apple geek informs you that actually, you do need the phone, as they need to send you a text.

7. Husband is dispatched back to the car, while you make small talk with Apple geek and try to sound knowledgable about iPhones. Nod as if you understand everything he is saying.

8. Husband is back, looking sweaty, with phone, and the swap is successful. However, Husband advises you not to buy iPhone case from Apple Store as it is "a rip off". Compared to price of iPhone, cost of case seems trifling but you concur.

9. Tramp around shopping mall looking for a nice iPhone 6 case. Fail to find one; cases are either all for other sizes of iPhone, or they feature One Direction.

10. Go to dodgy looking, "off the back of a lorry" mobile shop in the nearby high street. Choose cheap, serviceable case, but are persuaded to spent ten pounds on a clear plastic cover for the screen. Total cost is almost as much as Apple case. Plastic cover turns out to be impossible to use without smearing.

11. Finally use new phone. Feel actually astounded at what apps are like five years on - and what's more, now, Google Maps doesn't show the traffic jam on the wrong side of the road. You are like a new woman. Who knew?

Monday, 13 April 2015

A tourist's eye view of London

They're changing guard at Buckingham Palace
Last week, we were tourists in our own city.

Our German friends from Long Island days came to stay, and as, they had barely visited London before, I decided to take them on a really Grand Tour. They'd sent me a list of things they wanted to see which included: the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard, Big Ben, Hamleys, the London Eye, Carnaby Street and (bizarrely I thought) Queen's Park.

Well, we managed to see all of these in three busy days (except Queen's Park, which it turns out my friend had read about on a blog. We decided our local Crystal Palace Park was just as good if not better). Amazingly, the best weather of the year descended as if from nowhere and we had three days of brilliant, warm sunshine that made it feel like summer.

On the first day, we started at Buckingham Palace. I'd never seen the Changing of the Guard, and to be honest, the huge numbers of tourists with selfie sticks made this rather difficult to see, but see it we did and even the children, who had been grumbling at the wait for the action to begin, were enthralled with the parade. The best bit? The band played the Star Wars theme. Perfect for three small boys.

Walking down to Westminster
After this we picnicked on hot dogs in St James's Park (luckily for us we had three little New Yorkers in tow) and wandered down to Westminster Abbey, where we walked round the cloisters for free (go in the back way and you can do this) and peered through an archway at the school where The Doctor was educated.

Then, we caught a Thames Clipper from Embankment Pier to Tower Bridge - again, something I've never done, and well worth the albeit short trip. You do get a different perspective on London from the river. At the Tower, we wandered around the outside, avoiding the queues for the Crown Jewels but taking in the forbidding stone walls and the Traitor's Gate while imagining the memories that grim building must hold.

Sunset at the Oxo Tower Brasserie
Day 2 started with a trip to see the stone dinosaurs in our beloved local park, then a bus ride all the way into the West End - more familiar territory for me. We got off in Regent Street and did a quick tour of Hamley's, the boys all acquiring new Hexbugs which kept them happy for hours afterwards. Then it was on to Carnaby Street for a coffee, before a stroll through Soho and Chinatown to Covent Garden where we watched a street performer sitting on the sun-warmed cobblestones of the piazza. From there we walked to the Oxo Tower Brasserie where we'd booked a table for dinner. It being so warm, we were seated outside on the balcony and caught the most incredible London sunset.

View from the Emirates cable car
Day 3 started with rain but then cleared up and was fine once again for our ride on the Emirates Airline cable car, from Royal Victoria Docks to Greenwich Peninsula. This again was a first for me and is really worthwhile, affording great views over London and the river. From there it was on to Greenwich Park and the National Maritime Museum. The boys played in the kids' section while we learned about Nelson and Trafalgar, then it was up the hill to the Royal Observatory, for more fabulous views from a different angle, and a peek at the Greenwich Meridian line.

All in all I think our friends loved London; what I noticed was they constantly remarked on how green it is, how full of parks and trees, and on the contrast between the old and new -- for example the Tower of London juxtaposed to the Shard and the other modern skyscrapers of the City. Interestingly, they also felt that in comparison to New York, which can feel a little crumbling at times, our infrastructure and skyline seemed a lot more modern and up to date. Sometimes you have to step outside your own shoes to make such observations.

Seeing it through their eyes brought home to me that we do truly live in one of the world's great cities. Other places may sound exotic, but to a foreigner, London is an incredible place, rich in history, beauty, culture, colour and interest. Now, if only we could order that sunshine for 52 weeks a year.....

Friday, 27 March 2015

Books for Children: In praise of Judith Kerr

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit
I've always loved Judith Kerr, the writer of the Mog books and The Tiger Who Came to Tea. As a child I loved those books, for the artworks as much as the brilliantly intriguing stories. (Mog goes out in the garden and thinks "dark thoughts" because she's forgotten that she has been fed. What a complex idea for a children's book, and so memorable).

Recently I heard Kerr being interviewed on Radio 4 about her memoir, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, and I decided to read the book to the boys. It's an autobiographical story about how she, her brother and her Jewish parents fled Germany just before the Nazis came to power, travelling first to Switzerland, then Paris and finally London, where the family ended up.

I remembered enjoying the book as a child, and I also thought it would be a good way to introduce the thorny topic of Hitler and the Holocaust into conversation (a tricky subject with boys, who I find are simultaneously fascinated by this kind of thing and also liable to be traumatized). It is; because although there is a hidden menace behind much of what is happening in the book, it's also an everyday story of a family.

On some nights the boys were laughing out loud at passages in the book (such as when Grandma and her annoying dachsund, Pumpel, come to stay); on other nights they were scared (such as when the family are escaping from Germany on the train and having their passports checked) and on other nights we were all angry or sad (such as when the family meets some other Germans who shun them because they are Jewish).

It's stimulated some amazing bedtime conversations, from what to do if you buy something and it doesn't work (there's an episode in the book where Papa is sold a dud sewing machine), to why Hitler was such an evil man.

The boys, from having initially been reluctant to read this book (they're obsessed with Percy Jackson at the moment and wanted another installment), ended up loving it and asking me if there was more about Anna and her family. I said no, but I've just been on Amazon and found to my delight that there are two more autobiographical books by Kerr, Bombs on Aunt Dainty and A Small Person Far Away. They sound more grown up, so I'm going to read them first myself before I try them on the boys, but I think she's a hugely under-rated writer so I'm looking forward to reading them myself.

One of the quotes stuck out from the final chapter last night - it's from when Anna is reflecting on whether having moved countries so many times means she has had a "difficult childhood.'

 Sometimes it had been difficult -- but it had also been interesting and often funny. And as long as she and Mama and Papa and Max were together, she could never have a difficult childhood.

I think all of us current and former expats can reflect on that one.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Do US audiences really not "get" Brits?

Downton Abbey: Americans love it
I was reading Mail Online today ( a dirty habit I know - I do hate most of it, but I occasionally can't resist the temptation to find out who's dating who in the celeb world) and came across an article about the fact that actor James Corden (The History Boys, Gavin and Stacey etc) is about to start presenting the Late, Late Show in the US and Hollywood bigwigs are worried that Americans "won't get him."

In typical Mail style it seems trying to set him up for a fall and I was particularly amused/irritated by this paragraph.

 During the rehearsals Cordon's use of language has been criticised as U.S. audiences are far more sensitive to swearing compared with those in Britain. Also Americans do not understand words such as 'knackered' which describes somebody who is excessively tired. 
Also, British references to drunkeness will prove difficult to U.S. audiences, who do not understand terms such as 'half-cut' or 'bladdered'.

Yes, we all know that the UK and Brits are divided by a common language - goodness knows, I surprised some of my American friends a few times during my stint in New York. (A particular example comes to mind -- when I asked a woman at a party whether her children had had the "lurgy" yet. She looked horrified.)

But honestly, this patronises both American audiences and Corden, who I am sure is a clever bloke and knows exactly what he's doing. And what about all the American shows that U.K. audiences watch? Yes, we might not understand all the references on The Daily Show or even an "easy" sitcom like Friends, but isn't that what's nice about watching something from another country? You learn something. You go and look something up. 

Americans have embraced always British actors with open arms -- see Eddie Redmayne et al at this year's Oscars. They love Downton Abbey -- and I'm sure they don't understand all the references there. They love our shows and steal the ideas (The Office, House of Cards ). As for TV hosts - well, the Daily Show's John Oliver is a Brit, and although Piers Morgan got sacked from CNN the end, in the beginning he was quite popular, I seem to recall.

If Corden fails, I don't think it will be because he's British. It won't even be because he's bad. It'll be because US TV is so ruthless that if something doesn't get massive ratings in the first few weeks, they pull it. 

I hope he's a roaring success.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Super women, and mini men

I've never been one of those women who's not sure if she's a feminist. To paraphrase Caitlin Moran  in her brilliant "How to be a Woman", what woman in her right mind wouldn't be in favour of equality for women?

I always felt quite passionately about women's rights. I remember reading a book as a child (sadly  I can't recall its name) about a girl who wanted to be a suffragette, and being outraged to discover that women hadn't been able to vote until quite recently. I also clearly remember reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged about 11, hearing all about Germaine Greer and Simone de Beauvoir (if you remember, Adrian's mother was going through a militantly feminist phase), and being intrigued by the idea of feminism. Later on, I would write a University dissertation on the novels of Margaret Atwood, looking particularly at feminist symbolism, and my first published article, while still a student, was about the graduates and the "glass ceiling."

In relationships, I always advocated equality: at my wedding, I was absolutely insistent that I should make a speech, not because I love public speaking (I don't) but because I had this gut feeling that weddings were terribly patriarchal and it would be a travesty not to.

I haven't experienced much overt sexism in my career -- unlike, say, the City, the media is full of women -- but, like all working mothers, I've faced issues since having kids; the cost of childcare, the hours, the "is it worth working at all?" moments, the guilt. I've seen mediocre men rise to senior positions just by virtue of being there all the time.

So I jumped at the invitation to attend an industry conference, last week, aimed at inspiring senior women in the advertising industry to fulfil their potential. I was there to report on the day and also to speak (on a panel about dealing with the media) but what I loved about it was the chance to hear some really inspirational women speaking about their careers and lives. The speakers included Jo Swinson, the junior minister for Women (she was also at BritMums and is one of the few politicians I genuinely admire), Emma Freud and the Paralympian Karen Darke, as well as senior women from the ad industry who shared their stories.

One of the sessions was on working after kids, and I noticed that many of the younger women who were thinking about starting a family seemed anxious -- that they wouldn't be able to manage, that they didn't see many working mothers who were managing well, that there weren't any good role models. And I do think we have a long way to go in this country. We need more shared responsibilities between men and women, more shared maternity/paternity leave, more flexible working arrangements from employers. Working women still do the majority of looking after the children -- and that can be true even if you have a helpful, supportive partner. We are far, far, far from real equality.

As a mother of boys, I don't have daughters to worry about but I think I can help to shape the next generation. My boys are going to learn to cook, clear up, do the laundry, and all of that (at some point) but even more important, they are going to have it drummed into them that women are absolutely equal to men.

We've read a lot of 19th century books recently (like The Secret Garden, and the Little House on the Prairie series) and I've explained to the boys that while the little girls in these stories had to behave in a certain way, this is not how we think of girls and women now. 1950s books like The Secret Seven, and the Famous Five are just as bad -- the girls have to be good and nice, while the boys get all the adventures. I've told them very clearly that this is wrong and unfair, and only how things used to be.

But I think we still have to be careful. Even in books like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, the girls are still the sidekicks to the main event. I don't want them getting ideas ingrained about women somehow being inferior or the weaker sex. I want strong female role models for my boys -- and if I can't find that book about the suffragette girl, then gosh I might just write one.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Social secretary

Since moving back to the UK almost (gulp) 18 months ago now, my social calendar has taken something of a dive.

I've seen old friends, of course -- although many of the friends who have kids (nearly everyone) have moved out of London in the past few years. And what with working five days a week and then dealing with sons who have increasing amounts of homework, "playdate" type stuff has had to be restricted to half terms and holidays.

I tried quite hard with the school gate mums the first year back, but it seemed to be quite difficult to penetrate the layers of existing friendships between women who had got to know each other when their children were young, and who didn't particularly want a new mate to chat to on the school run. And I definitely missed the close community that I experienced in the US, where -- knowing no-one -- I'd made a huge effort to get to make friends. Although I'm not a huge party animal (I'm quite happy to sit at home watching Gogglebox on a Friday night),  I am someone that needs people, and a chance to put on a nice outfit and go out occasionally.

Which is why this year I plunged in at the deep end when it came to school stuff, signing up as class rep (something I said I would never, ever do). I've never been the social secretary type - I'm quite happy to volunteer for things and help out, but usually on the sidelines and not running the committee. Organizing events tends to fill me with horror - not because I'm disorganized, but I can't just chill out about things not coming together, which I presume is a prerequisite for being a cool-headed events person.

But I have to say, it's been a surprisingly good move. I've palled up with a very nice fellow mum who's doing it with me (and is also new to the school, and back in London after a spell living abroad). I've got to know all the parents in the class, via various occasions, and even felt confident enough to suggest starting a book club - something I've missed every since we left America. There was an enthusiastic take-up, and our first meeting is next week.  There's also a quiz night coming up and a summer party, both of which I'm sorting out tables for.

I'm sure The Doctor thinks there are an unnecessary number of school engagements in the calendar. But what I think he (and most husbands) doesn't realise is that, if you're at home all day -- even working from home -- you do need some social interaction other than talking to your children about their day and nagging them to do their homework. I look forward to my two or three work meetings a week, but, unless it's someone I've known for years, I'm always on guard and in "totally professional" mode. (Although occasionally, if I find a work contact is pregnant and/or has children, I have a tendency to gabble about various aspects of motherhood. Embarrassing).

So I think my role as social secretary will hopefully pay off -- it's either that or join the local Amdram club......

Monday, 9 February 2015

Bearded at the BAFTAs

Ralph Fiennes: surely better without it?
Is there no end to the trend for facial hair at the moment?

In my line of work, there are plenty of "hipsters" -- so I get to see a lot of big, bushy beards. Advertising creatives are among those where the trend first started, and many's the time I've been told to look out for someone in a cafe or restaurant with the information: "Carlo/Nick/Andy has a really massive beard." Which isn't really that helpful when you're in Shoreditch House.

However, the hipster trend has now become mainstream -- The Doctor tells me that many of the junior doctors at work now have beards, something that would have been incredibly unusual when he was at the equivalent age. (I don't think many city types are bearded, but I bet there's the odd goatee, and stubble on the weekend, even among this crew).

But watching the BAFTAs last night it occurred to me -- all the good-looking actors and celebrities are now bearded too.

David Beckham's had one for a while now, but I also spotted beards on Ralph Fiennes, Steve Carrell, Ethan Hawke and Best Newcomer actor Jack O'Connell, and various other good-looking actors who I didn't even recognize because their chins were covered in hair.

Now, I'm not beard-ist. Some men suit beards, it's true. (I can't really imagine Mike Leigh without one, for instance).

But in my opinion, all of the above would look better without them. So come on, enough is enough. Shave it off! Leave beards to artists, Santa Claus and English teachers (like when I was growing up). It's high time chins made a comeback. I'd even give them a BAFTA fellowship.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Resident Aliens

Waiting in line -- a New York tradition
A girl from work, who's based in New York, is over in London for a time and has been complaining about the woes of being an alien. She's not American, and has lived all over the world so I was therefore surprised to hear her take on landing in London.

She writes in an email: " I'd forgotten how bureaucratic everything is in Europe... so lots of queues and lots of appointments to get the basics sorted...it took almost an entire week (and a fair amount of sweet-talking) just to open a bank account and get a new phone number!"

I had to laugh, because this was exactly our experience in America, and we spent the whole time complaining about how bureaucratic Americans were. 

It was impossible to do anything until one had a social security number -- which didn't arrive immediately, despite us registering with the social security office on our very first day in New York. So everything we needed to get set up -- renting a house, registering with utility companies, getting a bank account sorted -- was virtually impossible, despite the fact that we had visas and documentation saying that The Doctor was employed by a hospital there.

Buying a car was similarly nightmarish. We'd agreed to buy one off someone we knew who was leaving the US -- however, we weren't allowed to drive it without car insurance, and we couldn't get any car insurance until one of us had a New York driver's licence. We ended up renting the car off the friend for three months while we went through the process of registering for, and then taking, the NY driving test.

One of the most frustrating things was not being able to get an American credit card for over a year, because we had no credit history in the US. This was necessary, not because we buy things on credit, but because ordering things online in the US is virtually impossible without one. My British credit cards just didn't work, because they didn't have a zip code - and I had to get a friend to help with simple things like paying for children's swimming lessons online.

Given that credit checking companies are global, you'd think they could share some data (and it might even benefit them - after all, people with bad credit histories can start from scratch in a new country under the current system.

Coming back was similarly frustrating -- with four years away, we had lost all our car insurance history, and were forced to start again paying premiums for new drivers, despite having driven for twenty years.

As the world becomes more global, there must be a simpler way of making the transition process easier. Surely the time is ripe for someone to invent one, and tear through some of this unnecessary bureaucracy? 

Sunday, 25 January 2015

This (Mama's) Life

This Life: What happened to the women?
January. When everyone gives up eating, drinking and spending money, and the only thing that can possibly brighten up your day is a brilliant new television series to obsess over.

At least, that would explain the incredible excitement in the UK last week over the
BBC's dramatisation of Wolf Hall. Not to disparage the beautifully acted drama, based on Hilary Mantel's excellent novels -- it's set to be a classic. But I'm not going to review it here - plenty of others have done that. This is about something else.

I spotted, amongst the cast, the actress Natasha Little, who played Rachel in This Life back in the 90s, when that show was the one we were all talking about. For those who didn't watch it, the show was about a bunch of 20 something trainee lawyers sharing a flat in London. A sort of anarchic, UK version of Friends, but with more drama than comedy, and which explored issues such as drugs, promiscuity, gay sex and infidelity.

In Wolf Hall, Little was playing a relatively small part, Cromwell's wife, who (spoiler alert) succumbs to early death in episode 1. She'd been a big name in her day, memorably taking the lead role in Vanity Fair a few years after This Life. That got me thinking about the other female stars of This Life. Where were Amiti Dhiri (Milly) and Daniela Nardini (Anna) now? Some of the male actors have gone on to have highly successful careers: in particular Andrew "Egg" Lincoln, who now plays the lead role in The Walking Dead. (I never could quite get my head round that). Jack Davenport, who played Miles, starred in films like Pirates of the Caribbean and the comedy Coupling  and has acted in numerous US television series.

I googled Dhiri and Nardini and found they'd had perfectly respectable careers, playing roles in series like The Bill and Judge John Deed. But unlike their male counterparts, they hadn't become major stars. And yet they -- along with Natasha Little - were just as good, if not better actors than the men. So what happened? Why, of course they've all had had time off to have children.

So it seems the acting world is just like any other profession. As I was discussing with a friend and ex-colleague the other day, all the brilliant women I've worked with are doing just OK, whereas almost all the men have risen, almost effortlessly, to top jobs just by virtue of being there all the time. (There is light at the end of the tunnel in journalism, though -- the Economist has just appointed its first female editor, Zanny Minton Beddoes, and there are rumours the Guardian will do likewise).

Maybe this is what we need to be shouting about, rather than the fact that so many top British actors are privately educated. I hope all the luminous young female actors in Wolf Hall are just starting out on their brilliant careers, and that they've gone stratospheric by the time they're 40. Not reduced to a role so small they don't even make it to the official Wikipedia cast list.