Wednesday 30 December 2009

Christmas by numbers

So this was our Christmas....

Adults in house: 3

Children in house: 4 (all under 6)

Inches of snow: 12 (it only melted on Boxing Day)

Individual gloves strewn around the house to find every time we went out: 14

Number of minutes it took to get children ready to go outside on average: 15

Number of minutes spent hunting for one of The Doctor's gloves, which had been hidden by a child: 20

Children taken to Manhattan on freezing cold evening to see giant Rockefeller Christmas Tree: 4

Children who cried from the cold the entire trip: 1

Panics experienced by The Doctor on Christmas Eve when he realised all his colleagues had bought each other presents: 1

Chocolates he rushed out and bought and wrapped in tissue paper: 30

Presents under the tree: Too many to count

New toys broken on Christmas day itself: 1 ( a torch, very annoying because we had bought the Littleboys 1 each so they wouldn't fight over them)

New toys lost mysteriously within a week of Christmas: 1

New toys left behind by my sister on her return to England: 1

New toys relegated to the top of a cupboard because they were so annoying: 2 (Ambulance trucks from The Doctor's work, which play the ER theme tune and say stuff like 'what's your ETA?' and were constantly being crashed into furniture)

Children who, on hearing Christmas lunch was ready, asked 'is it hot dogs?': 1 (Littleboy 1 of course)

Children who ate turkey: 4 (result!)

Children who ate sprouts: 0

Trips to overcrowded shopping mall: 1

Children NVG was tasked with taking to loo in mall: 3 (never again)

Children who wanted to ride on stuffed 'jungle animals' in a small fenced area at mall: 4

Children who crashed straight through the fence on said animals and headed off into the distance, pursued by all: 2 (both mine, naturally. The funniest thing I've seen all year....)

Hot dogs eaten by kids over seven days: 12

Trips to Manhattan without kids: 1 (My sister and I went to the theatre to see Love, Loss and What I Wore, by Nora Ephron, which was fabulous)

Temperature on day trip to the Top of the Rock observatory for a view of the New York skyline: Minus 7. With wind chills of much lower. Brr......

Days the temperature actually rose above zero: 2

Seeing the four cousins' faces on Christmas morning: Priceless.

Tuesday 22 December 2009

Lovely weather for shovelling together

This is the road I drive down every day to take the boys to preschool. Or used to. The neighbours had warned us that it would be closed in the winter, but I hadn't realised quite how closed. On Sunday, it became a ski and sledging run for the local kids and looks set to stay that way.
Over a foot of snow fell on Saturday night (and even more further out on Long Island) during the great East Coast blizzard. Sunday morning was spent shovelling. You get to know a lot about your neighbours after a snowstorm. The mega-organised ones had huge, expensive snowblowing machines and had cleared their drives by 11am (one guy had done that and even built a huge, very professional-looking snowman. He stood there surveying everyone else as they struggled with crappy shovels later in the day). Most people drifted out of the house around 10 looking bewildered and started shovelling with an assortment of implements. Every household is reponsible for clearing their own bit of sidewalk, and some people still haven't bothered - I think that says something....
Our landlady had promised that someone would help us with the driveway, but they had come in the early hours of the morning before the snow stopped. Not knowing if they would return, The Doctor and I donned our ski clothes and went out with shovels. He managed most of the driveway by 2pm, while I helped to clear the snow off the cars and entertain the Littleboys with snowman-building. Naturally, the snow removal people returned just as we had finished....
We managed to dig enough of a channel to actually leave our house, and amazingly, my sister arrived yesterday with no problems or delays, despite snow at either end (she lives in Essex, which has been badly hit by the UK snow) At one point it looked as if the weather really was conspiring against us, so there is relief all round.
Let Christmas begin! And a very merry one to all of you.....

Thursday 17 December 2009

10 reasons you know it's Christmas on Long Island...

1. You make special driving tours around town after dark to look at people's Outdoor Decorations.

Well, I wasn't going to let you get away without another Decoration Watch update, was I? The remarkable thing about the Christmas decorations is that they started off quite low-key. A wreath on a door here, a string of fairy lights there. But, the nearer we get to Christmas, the more they seem to multiply. So, houses that started off with one wreath now have wreaths on every single window; others have added draped more and more trees in lights. One house started off discreetly but added gradually more every week until the piece de resistance - a pair of lifesize nutcracker-style soliders either side of the front door. It's as if people look at their house every few days and think 'No, that's really not enough yet...'. Elsewhere, I've seen inflatable Santas on motorbikes, and - perhaps best of all - an inflatable Santa going up and down an inflatable chimney. (I'd love to take pictures, but I'm terrified someone will see it and recognise their house...). I have to say though, with perhaps the exception of the latter, many of the decorations are really attractive and it certainly does make the place look festive. And decoration fever is catching. I went to a fellow expat's house yesterday and she had two white lit-up reindeer in the backyard; she confessed that while two years ago she never would have dreamed of such a thing, now it seems absolutely appropriate.....

2. You are inundated with syrupy Christmas music. I've found a radio station that plays the cheesiest Christmas songs 24/7. How many times a sane person can listen to Jingle Bell Rock and Sleigh Ride Together in the course of one hour I don't know, but they are trying their hardest to find out. We listen to it in the car, and the Littleboys love it.

3. PETA would be shocked....Not only is the New York Times stuffed to the gills with Macy's and Tiffany's ads, there also seem to be a surprising number of press ads for fur, which appears to be quite acceptable here, with none of the ethical qualms of the UK. My small town alone boasts two fur storage places. People can also chat away quite happily about 'buying yourself a new beaver' on a radio ad without sounding at all self-conscious, either.

4. There is nothing worth watching on TV. The decent TV shows that I can count on one hand (that's House, Grey's Anatomy, Flash Forward) have been off air since Thanksgiving for an interminable Christmas break. But unlike in the UK, where they might be replaced by a really good Christmas special, the schedules are instead filled with evenings with country music stars, repeats, or college basketball. The Doctor and I are therefore ploughing in a most British way through a boxset of Brideshead Revisited, a present last Christmas.

5. You hear little mention of actual 'Christmas'. It's all about The Holidays here, in deference to other religions, Hannukah, etc. People talk about 'Holiday cards', 'Holiday cake' and what they are doing for 'the holidays'. It was virtually impossible to find a set of cards that said 'Merry Christmas'. rather than 'Happy Holidays'.(Although judging by the number of car stickers proclaiming 'Keep Christ in Christmas', not everyone is happy.....)

6. You finally experience a sudden rapid drop in temperature. A couple of weeks ago the boys were still playing on the beach. But for the past few days the temperature has rarely risen above freezing, and everyone tells me this is just the beginning. Yet it seems sunnier than the UK at this time of year, with a brisk invigorating wind reminiscent of ski resorts. And no snow yet, although it's forecast for this weekend. Maybe we'll have a White Christmas after all.....

7. You get your Christmas tree from the local fire station, rather than an overpriced stall run by barrow-boys on the Abbeville Road. A burly firefighter delivers it to your door with a cheery smile.

8. It's not just the outside of houses that get the festive treatment. Pick-up trucks sport Christmas wreaths. Massive great one, with red bows, strung across their cow bars.

9. Everyone asks if you've been to see the massive Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. I would love to, but the idea of facing the crowds on my own with two over-excited Littleboys is slightly terrifying. Something tells me an outing en famille is called for...

10. You are very excited to find a packet of Christmas crackers in a supermarket. Filed under Unusual Foreign Stuff, of course, but nevertheless there. It means your poor sister has one less item to carry out from the UK next week......

Monday 14 December 2009

A slightly random birthday tea

I have never been into throwing huge birthday parties for the Littleboys. Frankly they are a lot of work, and I genuinely don't believe the boys are old enough to really appreciate them - they don't notice the difference between having five friends around to play, and fifteen. I know that as they get older - probably very soon - they will demand big parties, with everyone from their class invited, lots of games, entertainers and goody bags, and when they want them, I will happily comply. But there's plenty of time for that, so up until now my usual strategy has been to invite a few friends (and family, when we were at home) around for a Birthday Tea. I realise that this is increasingly unusual, but my view on it is a bit like my view on introducing kids to video games; don't let them do it until they really, really want to.....

So I did the same for Littleboy2's third birthday last week. I asked round five of our new friends, with 10 children between them, half boys and half girls. I think I must have mentioned the words 'birthday tea' in an email to one of them, as she came round very bemused not knowing what to expect. "I wondered what you meant by that," she said. "I mean, children don't drink tea, do they?" I tried to explain that in England 'teatime' is a time of day, and can also be used to mean a meal; it is not just simply drinking cups of English Breakfast. I still don't think she really understood.....

In the past I've tried to organise pass the parcel and so forth, but this time my mind was more on other things, such as the Cake, so I simply let them loose to play among themselves with every available toy. It was, I have to say, fair old mayhem. Littleboy 1 led a gang of small boys on the rampage around the house; climbing the bunk beds proved a popular activity. The smaller children spread Lego liberally around the living room. The cake was produced, and Happy Birthday sung. Littleboy 2 blew out his candles. The children stuffed their faces with brownies, pizza and the infamous cake - which turned out fine, if a little mysteriously chewy.

At the tail end of the party, I brewed a pot of tea for my remaining friends and The Doctor, who had returned home early and, thank God, was doing a sterling job of clearing up the mess. The Americans took their tea black and looked horrified at the idea of milk; yet another cultural difference I was unaware of.

Reading Mom/Mum's post about goody bags, I realise now that I probably should have provided one, but no-one asked for one or complained that there weren't any.

So I guess it was a slightly random party and maybe I score bad marks as a party hostess. On the other hand everyone has emailed me to say that their children had great fun. As for the Littleboys, they announced that it was the best party ever.

Sometimes, I reckon, you can get away with being a bit random. And if anyone did think it was weird, at least I have the excuse that I come from a different country (they are not to know that parties in the UK are quite similar to here....).

Thursday 10 December 2009

Fear and Baking in Long Island

So I'm about to go all Julie & Julia, and write a confessional post about cooking. I suppose I could call it NappyValleyGirl & Nigella, but the idea of cooking my way through 'Nigella Christmas' is simply laughable. Because this post is actually all about my fear of baking.

I decided this year to make Littleboy 2 a birthday cake. Now this is a big departure for me; I've always bought the boys' birthday cakes before, usually at vast expense from a poncey Italian deli on Clapham High Street. This was partly down to laziness but the truth is, baking terrifies me, and I just don't know enough about it. The last time I baked a cake, for The Doctor's birthday a few years ago, it was a total disaster and the time before, for my mother's funeral, the whole thing collapsed and had to be binned. Before that, my only efforts had been similar disasters in school cookery lessons; I recall once making a swiss roll that was inexplicably twice the size of anyone else's AND burnt.....

The fact is, I can't bake. I can cook a half- decent supper, but when it comes to cakes, puddings, biscuits and breads, I just don't have a clue. Just the thought of it makes me panic. I get all paranoid about the quantities, then about the ingredients. The whole terminology of baking is like a foreign language to me. Does it matter that something calls for 'cake flour' and not normal flour? Is the baking powder that I've bought 'double acting' - what the hell does that mean anyway? Is whipping the same as beating, and should I do it with a whisk or a wooden spoon? Are you still supposed to grease a non-stick pan? No-one, even the most 'simple' of recipe writers, tells you these things; they just assume you know.

But this year I was determined to be different. I am not doing much journalistic work at the moment - thanks, recession - and I have less of an excuse not to become a domestic goddess (ha). And I didn't just want to buy a commercial cake mix - I wanted to do it properly, mixing everything by hand. My mother always baked our birthday cakes, and I remember enjoying helping, so I also thought it would be a fun activity for the Littleboys.

I perused a few cookery books and settled on a very basic Nigella Lawson recipe for children's birthday parties, plus an icing recipe from The Joy of Cooking. I spent ages in the supermarket selecting a cake tin and baking ingredients (and trying to work out what all the American equivalents are - for example, icing sugar is 'confectioners' sugar', and caster sugar didn't appear to exist). And then I began the task with the Littleboys, who were tremendously excited.

My first mistake was not reading the recipe properly. Somewhere between trying to instruct the Littleboys how to beat eggs and making sure they didn't spill everything all over the kitchen, I failed to notice that this was actually a recipe for a Victoria sponge cake ie. in two tins. While I do partly blame Nigella's rambling prose (quote - "I do not know how to ice, but have taken the precaution of marrying someone who does"), I have to admit that I was not really concentrating.

I only had one tin, but by the time I'd measured the quantities out it was too late. 'Oh well," I thought, "I'll just have to put it all in the one tin and cook it for longer." Then I panicked because Nigella called for greaseproof paper and I had bought a non-stick tin. I had a sinking feeling at this point that things would not go well.....

After the maximum time suggested by Nigella, I took a look at the cake. It looked done. And for sure it was - black on the edges and the underside, well done in the middle. Chargrilled cake. And I swear I followed Nigella's oven temperatures.....

I would have binned it, but for the boys, who were desperate to try it, so we iced it anyway. Littleboy 2 had asked for a 'green cake' but I wasn't up to this; instead I made a white icing and then tried to write his name in green icing from a tube. But the tube stuff melted into the hot icing straightaway. So there we have it; blackened sponge cake with green smudge icing. I cut off the burnt bits and served it to the Littleboys (who, bless them, still pronounced it delicious).

This morning I turned myself away sternly from the ready-made birthday cakes in the supermarket, like a reformed alcoholic, and swore to try again. This time, I attempted a sponge cake from The Joy of Cooking to be served at his birthday tea tomorrow. Again, I was flummoxed by the recipe; I couldn't understand why, unlike Nigella's, it didn't seem to contain butter, and didn't need self-raising flour. How can a sponge cake recipe vary quite so much?

This time I was solo in the kitchen, without my Littleboy helpers. I concentrated painstakingly with the quantities and tried not to worry that my beaten egg whites were not 'stiff' as suggested. The result? Cake no 2 isn't burnt, and looks vaguely like a sponge cake, even if the icing looks distinctly like the handiwork of a child or a deranged modern artist. I do feel a small sense of achievement (although we haven't tasted it yet) and have been spurred on to cook brownies with the boys this afternoon.

But I also feel frustrated; why do I find these things quite so difficult, when other people seem to be able to knock up cakes at a moment's notice? Is there anyone else there who suffers from fear of baking?

Monday 7 December 2009

A weekend with the Littleboys

Well, I survived the weekend. Although I have somehow and inexplicably done my back in - probably from carrying/dragging children or cleaning up crap off the floor. The snow never materialised; it just rained steadily all day Saturday. But the skies cleared on Sunday, leaving it chilly and sunny. (Meanwhile The Doctor reports that it's sleeting in New Orleans and his colleagues are illicitly shagging- maybe we're not missing out on that much after all.)

So without further ado, a quick tally of our activities:

1. A trip to the Long Island Children's Museum (via slight detour as NVG takes wrong expressway to get there.). This was hugely successful, just as good as the kids' parts of the Science Museum in London, and the Littleboys didn't want to leave. In fact, they had to be dragged out...

2. Lunch at the food court of Long Island's biggest shopping mall, Roosevelt Field. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but being a wet Saturday in December, it was of course mobbed, which made parking fun and negotiating the crowds with two speeding children even more fun. Luckily Littleboy 1 proved once again that there's nothing wrong with his memory. Despite not having been there since the summer, he deftly managed to find the place in the food court that sold hot dogs, among milling crowds of shoppers queuing for chicken chow mein, steak and falafel. (I had a chicken teriyaki burger - only in America...)

3. A quick walk around the mall. It did look very Christmassy, and was filled with fun things to do and try. Littleboy 1 had a go on a Wii - luckily he didn't realise it was for sale - and I bought them each a cute animal Christmas decoration.

4. A bad-tempered walk on Sunday morning, on which Littleboy 2 refused to move unless his mittens were on properly. Given that he couldn't seem to get his thumb in the thumb hole at all, and neither could I, this meant that half the time he was stationary as Littleboy 1 shot off into the distance on his scooter.

5. A trip to the Library to acquire Bob the Builder DVDs and a book of The Lion King, which immediately disappeared down the side of Littleboy 2's bunkbed, a place from which it is not possible to remove things without a major construction team (if only Bob the Builder were real..)

6. Attendance at the switching on of the Christmas tree in the local park. This was lovely, with a nativity scene involving real donkeys, hot chocolate, and candles to hold (slightly terrifying with pyromaniac four year olds). Then Santa arrived - not in a sleigh but in a firetruck, sirens wailing. Somehow this seemed highly appropriate....

7. A chance for the Littleboys to sit with Santa. Littleboy 2 cried and point blank refused, but his brother dutifully complied. They both received a flashing plastic reindeer nose, which immediately got broken and had to be superglued back together.

8. After a lot of shouting about not going to bed on Sunday night, they were finally asleep. I sat back with a glass of cold white wine to watch MY library DVD. "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.". Somehow, this seemed highly appropriate too.....

Friday 4 December 2009

On my own...

The Doctor has gone away to New Orleans for the weekend. Somewhere I'd love to go, but don't particularly fancy dragging two small boys around while my husband attends a conference, so we've been left behind.

This morning I dropped him off at LaGuardia Airport, a trip only made vaguely exciting by the Dodgems aspect of the Long Island Expressway on the way back, including a few potholed expressway ramps where people were inexplicably parked or performing random U-turns. For some reason the nearer you get to New York City, the more both the road, and the driving, deterioriates (which must mean I am getting used to Long Island driving - scary thought).

I wouldn't really mind very much except for the fact that these medical conferences are always at the weekend. And I never feel you can bother anyone else for their company at the weekend, because weekend is Family Time and you should not intrude. In London, I have a lovely friend whose husband is a jazz musician and is always off playing gigs at the weekend, so I always had someone to huddle with on those weekends when The Doctor was on call, or away. But here there is no-one like that, so I am faced with a weekend of entertaining the Littleboys by myself. This requires endless energy levels and patience, neither of which I seem to have in great supply at the moment.

What is more, this particular December conference occurs every year and it is always on the same date - right around Littleboy 2's birthday. (Apart from three years ago, when the conference had to be hastily cancelled for his unexpectedly early birth). Which is also a shame. And unless he drastically changes career, it will happen every year for the foreseeable future.

Things always seem to go wrong when The Doctor is away. Last time, I spent the whole weekend liaising with the local garage about what was wrong with the Evil Dodge (diagnosis -thousands of dollars worth of Wrong) and then trying to get hold of The Doctor in Barcelona to sanction it being mended. This time, snow is forecast for tomorrow night and I am dreading being snowed in at the top of a vertiginous driveway with no idea how to shovel myself out. I realise this is rather pathetic, but I am a City Girl totally unused to any extremes of weather and although in a way I am looking forward to seeing the first snowfall here, it's bloody typical that it'll probably happen while I'm here alone.

Anyway, him being away always brings home to me that it's unbelievably hard work on your own with small children. It doesn't happen to me very often and I realise I'm lucky. So, this one goes out to all the single mums out there (including my fabulous sister) who deal with stuff on their own ALL the time, and don't whinge about it at all. You rock.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

The postman always rings twice (but not the UPS man)

It's that time of year again. We've had Black Friday and then Cyber Monday, and Amazon is emailing me ten times a day to tell me about its fabulous 'holiday toy deals'. Never mind the opening of the Advent calendar, the first of December means online ordering kicks in and UPS and Fedex vans, the modern day Santas, are out in full force.

This time last year I was writing this and bemoaning the fact that the London postman NEVER delivered packages, even if you were in, but put a note through the door asking you to go to some god-forsaken depot. Here it is a little different. Packages are delivered, and the delivery guys don't bother to ring the doorbell, even if you are in; they just leave the packages sitting outside on the driveway.

Now, I realise that this is probably testament to the low crime rate in the town where I live, and this has to be a Good Thing. But it never ceases to amaze me. This morning we had a huge wooden play table delivered, and it was just left outside by Fedex, despite the fact that I was here - I can't even carry the thing, so there it will stay until The Doctor arrives home later today. Then a UPS man appeared with another heavy package and just shoved it into my arms and ran off as I was walking up the drive with the Littleboys. (The boys, of course, are incredibly curious as to the contents - so far I've got away with pretending it's 'something for Daddy').

Walking past another house on the street, I saw the most enormous object sitting by the front door - it must at the very least have been a tractor in a box. Our neighbours had a laptop delivered once, and that was just dumped outside with a note. If there were any criminals, they'd be having a field day.

The postman (I really should refer to him the carrier, as that's how he instructed me when we first met) on the other hand, is lovely. If I see him coming up the drive, he brings the mail up to the door instead of putting it in the box; we pass the time of day and have a good chat, and he waves at me when I drive past him in the car in another part of town. (I'm still waiting for him to exchange his uniform of shorts for winter trousers; surely he will when it snows?)

If there's any mail not for us, he keeps it back - I can always tell when he's been away as random letters for previous occupants start appearing. And best of all, here you can leave letters in your own mailbox to be posted, rather than making a trip to the mailboxes in town or the post office. All so much better than my experiences with Royal Mail, although the queues (sorry LINES) at the Post Office for purchasing stamps are just as long.

Now if only I could find some Christmas cards that don't have naff Santa-themed envelopes.....

Monday 30 November 2009

Oh sh*t....

So just picture the scene. We are sitting peacefully by a beautiful bay eating sandwiches from a deli (yes, another picnic in November, this is getting ridiculous...) watching the boats and a couple of seagulls float by. The picnic also includes a muffin - one of those incredible American ones which appears to be made out of sweet, sticky plastic. It has, says The Doctor disdainfully, chocolate chips in it as well as blueberries.

En route back to the car, Littleboy 1 decides to climb up the wooden railings by the sea, where the gulls have been sitting. We hastily call him down before he has the chance to topple headfirst into the water. Then we have the usual kerfuffle of getting both Littleboys into their carseats, persuading them to abandon favourite sticks and so forth, and be strapped in.

Suddenly all hell breaks loose. The Doctor is shouting and cursing and calling for baby wipes; Littleboy 1 is giggling hysterically. It transpires that Littleboy 1 has got seagull shit all over himself from climbing the railings - and The Doctor also has it all over him. Not only that, but The Doctor has inadvertently managed to get some in his mouth. He starts frantically swigging mineral water from our bottle and spitting it out.

He is also furious with Littleboy1, who finds the whole thing incredibly funny. Littleboy 1 is going through a real toilet humour phase at the moment and we are trying our hardest to discourage him from saying 'poo' at every opportunity. So the idea of his father getting bird poo in his mouth is about the most hilarious thing he's ever heard. We both remonstrate with Littleboy 1 for laughing at 'poor Daddy' and tell him to be quiet.

At this point the corners of my mouth begin to twitch slightly but I keep it in check, seeing that The Doctor is really not amused. Eventually he sits back down in the car, still grimacing. "So what happened?" I venture to ask. "I thought it was that bloody muffin," he replies.

I can't hold it in any longer and burst into hysterical high pitched giggles. Setting both Littleboys off at the same time.

Luckily at this point The Doctor also saw the funny side. But I have a feeling persuading Littleboy1 that poo is not funny is starting to become a lost cause.....

Friday 27 November 2009

Being thankful

So, my first American Thanksgiving was a thoroughly good one.

The boys gave us a fabulous 8am lie-in (well, there's something to be said for them staying up too late) and after breakfast we went for a walk down to the harbourside, where the sea was as calm as a millpond. It was eerily quiet, as it can be on Christmas Day in London, without the usual stream of SUVs up ond down Main Street.

After watching the final 10 minutes of the Macy's parade on TV (the Littleboys were not enthralled and for some reason objected violently to the singing of White Christmas; meanwhile I was marvelling at how young the 60something Carly Simon looks), we went round to our friends for a delicious lunch. An expat from Germany, my friend had given a Teutonic slant to the meal, so we had turkey with mushroom gravy, sprouts, carrots and cranberry sauce accompanied by excellent German potato dumplings. Then we walked down to the nearby beach, where the Littleboys and their friends threw pebbles into the sea, an activity that kept them satisfied for at least half an hour, while we all basked in mild November sunshine.

After that it was back for more - fruit cheesecakes, coffee and gingerbread men, before, stuffed to the gills, we returned home. We then spoke to various family members on Skype (who coincidentally had all been having a drinks party and were suitably merry). All in all, it felt quite like Christmas.

So, in the spirit of all things American, what am I thankful for this year? Being lucky enough to be living in a beautiful place, whose attractiveness still hasn't lost the ability to impress me at any time of year. Having made some lovely friends here who were kind enough to give us Thanksgiving dinner. The Doctor and the Littleboys, the three men in my life who make it all worthwhile. Passing my New York driving test the other week (Hallelujah - let this be the last driving test I ever have to take). Skype, for allowing us to see and speak to people halfway round the world. And my blogging friends, who always have the ability to make me smile. Luckily, despite the shenanigans at Pond Parleys and the odd anonymous commenter here, the blogosphere is MAINLY peopled by friendly souls without an axe to grind - long may that continue....

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Ten things I never knew about Thanksgiving in New York

1. Every Thanksgiving Day, there is a huge parade in Manhattan, sponsored by Macy's department store (which seems to have a monopoly on sponsoring national holidays). This involves, as far as I have been told, huge inflatable balloons of beloved American characters such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and, er, Spongebob Squarepants. People make special trips into the city just to see the balloons being blown up the day before, and of course on the day itself. Alternatively, you can watch it all in a three hour special on NBC.

2. Thanksgiving Eve is (at least according to my hairdresser) the 'biggest party night of the year'. I have a feeling that this will pass me by....

3. Anyone not partying is furiously travelling around the country trying to get home, just like Christmas Eve in the UK. Apparently this year fewer Americans are flying and more are driving. The roads should therefore be great fun....

4. Also similar to the UK at Christmas, TV and radio takes on a seasonal feverishness, with nothing but traffic reports and items on how to cook your turkey.

5. All the preschools traditionally have a Thanksgiving feast - a lovely idea, I think. Littleboy 1 was asked to bring in 'a bottle of blue cheese dressing'. (When I remarked to an American acquaintance that this seemed a little odd for a bunch of four year olds, she replied. "Yes, it does. I mean, Ranch dressing maybe, but blue cheese..?.")

6. The day after Thanksgiving is known as 'Black Friday' and is when everyone rushes to the shops to start their Christmas shopping. Shops advertise huge deals and the crowds are apparently horrendous. Last year, someone was actually trampled to death at a Wal-Mart on Long Island in the rush.

7. Contrary to many Americans' belief, Black Friday is not actually a public holiday. However, everyone takes it as such. Except The Doctor, who is determinedly going into work so that he can take another day's holiday at Christmas. I only hope there is someone there to let him in...

8. Black Friday is also traditionally when Christmas decorations go up. Thinking that this time we ought to join in, I bought a string of fairy lights for the fir tree on our driveway. (Although The Doctor pointed out that this will require an outdoor extension lead - something that hadn't occurred to me.....I'm just not au fait with this outdoor decoration thing).

9. Stop N Shop (or Stop N Strop) my local hypermarket, actually closes at 3pm on Thanksgiving Day. This is the first time since we've been here that it hasn't been open all day, every will everyone cope?

10. A surprising number of perfectly intelligent Americans do not seem to know that we don't have Thanksgiving in the UK. Why they think we might celebrate the Pilgrim Fathers sitting down with the Indians to have a meal is not quite clear..........

Sunday 22 November 2009

Walking the High Line

Yesterday we ventured into Manhattan to explore The High Line.

A former elevated railway line, it once delivered freight above the streets of New York City. When it fell out of use in the early 80s, wild grasses and flowers started to seed and grow among its tracks. This summer, a section of the High Line in the Meatpacking District reopened as a park. A wooden boardwalk has been built alongside the old tracks, which have been planted up with grasses, flowers and trees in the spirit of the wilderness that grew there for so many years.

Everything is beautifully designed, from the wild gardens to the sleek benches and chairs to the wooden sunloungers that line the walkway. You can wander along and watch the yellow taxis cruise the city streets below, admire the Manhattan skyline and rooftops, see the top of the Empire State building, and glimpse the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge in the middle distance. There's even a guy selling hot cocoa and cookies along the way.

It's a wonderful place to take kids; not only can they run ahead to their heart's content, there's no need to worry about them being mown down by a maniac cab driver if they step off the pavement. They can climb on the wooden benches, pretend to go to sleep on the loungers and there's even a kind of viewing gallery at one point, with stone bench seating, that was crawling with tiny children using it as their own personal playground. The Littleboys were in their element.

During the summer, the High Line was apparently so popular that they had to restrict access because of overcrowding. But on a mild, sunny November Day, there were just the right number of tourists and New Yorkers enjoying the view (and being a hip new attraction, it was a good place to spot Beautiful People).
The whole thing is a great example of how design, creativity and inspirational architecture can add something valuable to a cityscape, and find a new use for existing infrastructure. I hope London's urban planners take note.
Back home, after pizza and a trip to the playground in Washington Square, we watched Woody Allen's Manhattan on DVD (I'd never seen it before). A fitting end to the perfect New York day.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Things I never imagined myself saying 10 years ago...

Do you ever get that sense of the absurd when you're talking to your children?

- No, you're not bringing that tree branch in the car with us.

- Or that stick.

- Don't squeak when I'm driving.

- No, you are not taking your schoolbus to nursery.

- Take that marble out of your ear now....

- Please stop that squeaking.

- I don't think it's polite to quack at your teachers

- Or call them 'hot dog'

- Or 'broccoli...'

- No, I am supposed to be getting ready to go out for the evening, not looking for pictures of llamas on the computer...

- If you don't stop that squeaking now....

- Your teacher said 'No potty words in circle?' What is a potty word?

- No, poopy is not a nice word.

- Or even proper English.

- I don't care if Sam said it.

- Yes, you are supposed to draw a picture of a Thanksgiving feast for homework. What do you think you would have?

- No, not hot dogs....

(with apologies to Millennium Housewife, who writes this sort of thing SO much better....)

Monday 16 November 2009

10 reasons you know it's (almost) winter on Long Island...

1. The New York Times recreational forecast changes from Fall Foliage Watch to Mountain Temperatures, after pronouncing that the fall colour everywhere except North Carolina is 'past peak'. (Poor North Carolina, not allowed to revel in its moment of 'peak' glory...)

2. You spot cars with their ski-racks on. And it's still 18 degrees centigrade outside....

3. Enormous trucks with gigantic hoses, making the noise of small airliners, trawl along your street every other day to collect piles of leaves.

4. Meanwhile all your neighbours are zealously preparing for winter, removing vulnerable plants and employing large gangs of 'landscapers', looking a little like the Ghostbusters with huge contraptions strapped to their backs, to leaf-blow.

5. Everyone ominously keeps telling you to make the most of it, because this will be the last mild weekend. The following weekend, they tell you the same thing.

6. You go to a beautiful seashore preserve for a weekend stroll and wonder where everyone else is. Then you pop into the Bed, Bath and Beyond parking lot on the way back and it is mayhem. Everyone is shopping manically for 'the holidays'.

7. Your child comes home from preschool singing a mysterious new song. The exact words are a little unclear, but sound like 'the pumpkin rolled away, on Thanksgiving Day.' You wonder if this signifies the removal of the ubiquitous Halloween decorations and the putting up of Christmas ones....

8...Then you see an inflatable turkey on someone's front lawn (something you joked about in a previous post) and realise that Thanksgiving decorations come first.

9. People keep asking you what you are doing 'for the holidays'. When you reply that you are British and Thanksgiving is not a big deal for you, they simply do not believe you.

10. You start wondering what on earth you ARE going to do for Thanksgiving, seeing as cooking a turkey for four people seems excessive, and everything else will be closed.....

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame St?

This post is brought to you by the letter S and the number 40.

It's Sesame Street's 40th birthday this week, and the American media is making a big deal of it, whirling me back in time on a nostalgia-fest of 70s haircuts and flares, adults with Afros and guitars, Oscar the Grouch living in a trashcan and grimy brownstones.

I don't know how many people in the UK grew up with Sesame Street (the Doctor claims never to have watched it) but growing up in late 70s Hong Kong, it was THE children's television show. It was on every day at about 4pm, and for a few years, I was glued to it.

It was, I think, one of the first truly educational preschool TV programmes. Sesame Street taught me the ABC song (which, it only occurred to me recently, is set to the same tune as 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' - slow, aren't I?) that even now I sing to the Littleboys. 'The Count' taught me how to count to 20 with a clap of thunder and a mwa-haha. Setting numbers and letters to music is a fantastic technique to help children learn them (and one I used, later on, for learning reams of Latin poetry for my 'A' Levels. Well, the only way to remember it was to set it to tracks like UB40's Red, Red Wine...)

Even now when I hear the original theme tune (they played it on NPR radio this morning; the new one is all funked-up and modern, of course) it transports me back to those days. Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Ernie and Bert - they were such a big part of my childhood, and they are still going strong for many American kids today.

The Littleboys haven't seen much Sesame Street, apart from the odd DVD from the Library; it's on between 7 and 8am here, which is getting-up, having breakfast and running around shrieking time in our house. So I haven't had much opportunity to watch the noughties version. And I'm sort of glad, because according to what I've read and heard, it's a little different. The 'neighbourhood' has been cleaned up - less graffiti, less urban grit - the Muppets are more cutesy, less 'raw' (according to NPR); Oscar the Grouch was 'meaner' in the old days. Cookie Monster can't exclusively eat cookies any more - well, that would encourage obesity wouldn't it? - so he has to munch on fruit and vegetables too. And no doubt there are more songs about recycling than about peace, love, harmony and co-operation. All worthy, educational stuff, I'm sure, but it wouldn't be the show that I remember.

Nevertheless, Sesame Street will always resonate with me. It was as much part of my cultural childhood as Abba songs, Playschool and Miffy books. I wish it well, and I hope Big Bird is still going strong in another 40 years.

In the meantime, click here to see Oscar singing 'I love trash'.

Sunday 8 November 2009

Talk like an American

It's been an astonishingly beautiful day here; warm, summery and clear. We drove into Brooklyn, walked over Brooklyn Bridge, and picnicked on food from market stalls in the park below it (hot dogs for the Littleboys, lobster rolls for us. Everybody's happy.) Yes, picnicked in November. People keep telling me how cold it's going to get here, but at the moment the climate seems eerily benevolent.

Anyway, I'm guest posting over at Pond Parleys today about American words I still can't bring myself to say (movie, vacation, backyard and so forth) and those I've started to accept (like cookies, candy and standing in line...).

For those of you who don't know Pond Parleys, it's an excellent blog set up by Toni Hargis (British, aka Expat Mum, and living in Chicago) and Mike Harling (American, living in the UK), where they debate various subjects from both a US and UK point of view. Bill Bryson, eat your heart out.

Now excuse me, I've errands to run: gotta take out the trash ready for the garbage collection tomorrow, find a better hiding place for the Halloween candy, and then pop down to the store because we're out of liquor.....

Wednesday 4 November 2009

My gap months; a quick trip down memory lane...

I've been reading Not Enough Mud's tales of backpacking in Burma with sexy Frenchmen, together with More to life Than Laundry's tales of life on the high seas crewing on a yacht, and it made me think back: to six years ago exactly.

In early November 2003, I was planning to hand in my notice from work, and spending weekends in Trailfinders with The Doctor plotting out a round-the-world backpacking trip. We were about to take four months off to travel around Southeast Asia, New Zealand and South America (with other pitstops in between) before returning to a very different life: me, as a self-employed freelancer, he to a three year stint as a PhD student.

It was not exactly a tough decision, but it was a big one. I'd never had a 'gap year', and had been itching to travel properly (ie. for longer than a holiday) for years. I was doing well in a job that I loved, but had been in for five years and could see would not be compatible with the family that I was planning. On top of the strains and stresses of working on a weekly news magazine, there were constant evening functions to attend, and although it was fun and glamorous covering London's trendy advertising scene, it was in many ways an unhealthy lifestyle; fuelled by too much booze and coffee, a diet that consisted of alternating skipped meals with blowout ones at swanky restaurants, and doing weird and mad things in the streets of Soho at God knows what hour.

On top of that, both The Doctor and I had had an emotionally stressful few years; we had lost both our mothers, tragically young, within two years of each other; we had both been working incredibly hard, and what with the evening demands of my job and him working long hours as a junior doctor, it felt as if we had hardly seen each other some weeks.

So we took off, Karrimors on our backs, in the cold and dark of a British New Year's Day. We sat by peaceful rivers in Laos; rode rusty bikes around Angkor Wat at daybreak; took up a boat up the Mekong Delta. We tramped in New Zealand's national parks, nearly got eaten alive by mosquitoes in a fleapit guesthouse in Tahiti (having turned up on Valentine's weekend with no accommodation - not a good idea); we marvelled at the strange, majestic statues on Easter Island on a 24 hour whirlwind stopover.

In South America, we trekked in the Colca Canyon and on the Inca Trail, rode horses (badly) in the Chilean hills; ate delicious ceviche and drank pisco sours. We saw flamingos, volcanoes and saltflats on the Bolivian altiplano; were mugged by a taxi driver near La Paz (but thankfully unharmed); suffered altitude sickness on jeep trips up to 5000 ft and thanked god for the thermal sleeping bags we'd purchased in New Zealand.

We finished the trip in Belize, staying with The Doctor's aunt and uncle at their isolated beachhouse; feeling as if we were a million miles from civilisation and doing nothing but eating, sleeping, reading and snorkelling.

Then we came back to the UK. A few months later, I became pregnant with Littleboy 1. Our life was about to change even more, but looking back now I can see that it really changed that day I handed in my notice. When I decided to take some time for myself, to prioritise something other than my career/earnings/ability to party. So I treasure the memories of those gap months, that hiatus (as I now see it) between the person I was before and the person I am now; not necessarily different, but more measured, less ambitious and probably wiser. And without that trip to whet our appetites, who knows if we'd have made that jump to living in the US now?

I don't think I could go back to those days (I think I've had my fill of cheap guesthouses, and backpacking around Bolivia with Littleboys would be downright crazy) but, as I pack my children off to preschool, wipe the Rice Krispies from the floor for the thousandth time this week and put on another load of laundry, I am so, so very glad that I took the time.

Sunday 1 November 2009

Halloween: the post mortem

Well, we survived Halloween. The Littleboys, as predicted, loved it. And, I have to admit, we had rather a lot of fun too....

The day dawned freakishly mild for October, which meant that the crowds of people who packed into our local community/parenting centre for a Halloween festival in the morning all overheated somewhat. But it was a great opportunity to critique other people's costumes. Our conclusion? That hardly anyone dresses as anything spooky any more. There were princesses, firefighters, ladybirds and football players, but no ghosts, and not one little girl dressed as a witch that I could see. Littleboy 2, in a rather cute vampire costume purchased from Woollies last year, was about the only member of the undead, although Littleboy 1, as a pirate, was in fairly good company. (And no wonder: according to this article from the New York Times, some States have pretty well outlawed anything scary..).

After a quick breather at lunchtime, it was on to a neighbour's house for a Halloween party. They had decorated their house and garden spectacularly well, and produced mounds of delicious Halloween-themed snacks- although apple bobbing had been dropped (because of swine flu fears) in favour of games such as wrapping kids up in toilet paper as Mummies. The Doctor and I rather let the side down by having no costumes of our own (at least half of the other adults had made some kind of effort) but at least we had the excuse that we were ignorant Brits.....

But the highlight was the trick or treating - and yes, even The Doctor enjoyed it. (Apart from seeing our sons' pleasure, I think this was partly because, as he remarked, it was a good opportunity for meeting other people in the street, and peeking at their houses close up. We even learned some interesting local facts: such as that Robert de Niro once rented a house nearby, and filmed part of Meet the Parents in the town.)

We ventured nervously into our street at dusk, not knowing what to expect. Houses I'd virtually never noticed before were suddenly lit up with rows of intricately carved jack o' lanterns and pumpkin-shaped fairly lights, their doors invitingly left ajar. Middle aged couples seemed delighted to see the Littleboys in their costumes (and practically swooned with delight when they said 'thank you' in their British accents) and we were given a genuinely warm welcome everywhere. One nice custom I'd not seen before in the UK is for those people who are not at home to leave a basket of candy outside their front door (and some people who were clearly in had done this too). This, we realised, is both a great strategy for those who don't want to answer their door all evening, and means that kids aren't disappointed by houses being empty.

We found fertile hunting grounds in our own street without having to go further afield, and the Littleboys were more than satisfied by their haul. And, not being used to very much chocolate/sweets (one of the few areas in which I have been pretty strict as a mother), they only managed a couple of packets before bedtime, so we didn't have too much crazy behaviour (or no more than the usual, anyway, which involves jumping on furniture, splashing in the bath and a level of boy-noise that might shock other parents).

Meanwhile I'd totally overbought on candy for other trick or treaters, not knowing how many to expect (and in the event not having many to our door, possibly due to our house being up a steep and not very well-lit driveway).

So, hmmm, who's going to eat all that leftover sugary stuff now?

Let's just say The Doctor has just been seen to snaffle a Kit-Kit and I'm developing a worrying toffee habit.....

Wednesday 28 October 2009

Halloween mania, US style

I knew that America was crazy about Halloween. I really did. I mean, I've seen the movies, read the children's stories, and know from my experience writing about marketing that it's a really, really major deal here (and that the mania is extending more and more to the UK each year.)

But I still didn't really get it. I didn't realise how Halloween dominates the whole of the autumn season, with the first pumpkins and decorations appearing in the shops in late August; how the whole town would be talking about costumes from at least mid-September; how everything everywhere would be pumpkin-themed, including a special Pumpkin Spice latte at Starbucks (which, I have to say, sounds foul).

I wouldn't have predicted that we would get letters from preschool asking for the boys to wear their costumes all day on a particular day and bring in treats for the whole class. They were also given a special box asking us to collect for a particular charity 'when you go trick or treating'. (not 'if'). The Doctor, who claims not to be a fan of Halloween, looked at me in horror. "We're not really going to go are we?" " I think we're going to have to," I replied......)

I didn't realise that here, Halloween decorations for the home go beyond the odd carved pumpkin in a window. There are houses in our town with huge, inflatable witches and ghosts in their front gardens; entire spooky graveyards planted in their lawns; life-size skeletons sitting on their front porches; not to mention armies of pumpkins stretching from their front doors to the street. (We have two small pumpkins - one painted a series of 'interesting' colours by Littleboy1 - and are definitely letting the side down). No doubt they'll be replaced by equally impressive Christmas displays after the 31st- or maybe people have Thanksgiving decorations (inflatable turkeys)?

Now don't get me wrong. I do think Halloween is fun. I'm not being a Halloween Scrooge or a Halloween denier. My mother threw my sister and I a fantastic Halloween party as a child and it was probably the best party we ever had. I love apple bobbing, jack o' lanterns and all that stuff. And some of the decorations really are pretty (although not the inflatable witch).

But it seems to me that Halloween here has become practically the biggest festival of the year. There was nothing like this big a fuss about the big American holidays - the Fourth of July, for example. People seem to get excited about it in a manner that would only apply to Christmas in the UK. (Example: I belong to an online 'Moms' group for the town, and I've seen emails from mothers worrying - really STRESSING - about not being able to get a particular costume for their kids. And one of our neighbours was worrying two weeks ago, during a rainstorm, that the weather might not clear up in time for Halloween... )

And I do wonder if the day itself might even be an anti-climax, after so much feverish excitement. You can't even get a pumpkin in the supermarket this week - it's almost like we've moved on before it's happened.

Still, I'm willing to get into the Halloween 'spirit' for the time being, mainly because I know the Littleboys will love it. Maybe we'll even persuade The Doctor to come trick or treating. And who knows, maybe back in Nappy Valley in three years' time we'll be assembling giant inflatable pumpkins on our porch.....

Monday 26 October 2009


Well, the fall foliage certainly was stunning, up in northwest Connecticut. Of course there are autumnal landscapes in the UK, but the colours are definitely deeper up here, with more dark, dark red maples, together with leaves of pumpkin orange and other bright yellows that catch the sunlight, or sometimes even look more gorgeous standing out in contrast to a grey misty morning.

On our short 'leaf-peeping' trip, we stayed in a classic small New England 'country inn' in the beautiful Litchfield Hills, which to most Americans probably seemed like a real slice of the 'olde world', but to us was reminiscent of various elderly relatives' houses in the English countryside, all rickety wooden furniture, faux peeling plaster and iron bedsteads. It did, however, serve delicious breakfasts, with home-baked muffins and breads, and our hosts were friendly and welcoming.

I don't know why, but I always forget how going on holiday with small children is never relaxing. Eating in restaurants with them every night was particularly challenging; in their usual manner, the Littleboys were quite well-behaved until their food was finished, whereupon they wreaked havoc and usually had to be removed from the crime scene. Even on the night when we ate in our hotel, and then daringly stuck them upstairs with a DVD while we finished our meal, they reappeared, having been found wandering the stairs by a fellow guest (the embarrassment...). We never managed to get them to sleep in the adjoining room till after 9pm; whereupon we were quite ready for bed ourselves.

As they get older, the boys also resent being removed from their usual surroundings and routine; not having the right cereal for breakfast, a shower instead of a bath, no marble games. Littleboy 1 began asking on day 1 when we were going home again; his face shone with glee on the penultimate day when I told him we were going after breakfast the next morning. It's not that they didn't have a good time - they went to a safari park and petting zoo, walked in 'magic forests', crossed 'troll bridges', and even climbed a mini-mountain - but I guess they just couldn't see the point of being in a hotel that wasn't home. And although I enjoyed it, I'm not sure they really appreciated our excursion to L.L. Bean either - and neither did the staff there....

So in some ways, it feels good to be home again - and it also underscored that this really does feel like home now. Littleboy 1 in particular was delighted to be returning to Long Island after five whole days: and I notice that what he has been calling 'our new house' for the past five months has now become 'our new home'. And, crossing the Throgs Neck Bridge back to Long Island, the landscape seemed familiar and friendly.

We have all sorts of Halloween delights to look forward to this week. And, looking around the garden and the street today, I decided the fall colours here are pretty damn good as well.

Saturday 17 October 2009

It's a boy thing

When I was a little girl, my mother had a friend with two little boys about the same ages as me and my younger sister.

We would go round to their house to play. (They weren't called playdates then; a term I dislike, but am starting to adopt reluctantly as it's so much easier in America). These afternoons I always remember as rough, chaotic, and dominated by games involving war and fighting. There were toy trucks all over the place and plastic guns and swords. Nothing that I wanted to play with. There was always shouting and shoving and lots of running around. The brothers would fight, and beat each other up.

Growing up, we would hear more tales of these boys and their behaviour. One of them had dialled 999 and called the fire brigade. One of them had thrown a rock and broken a window in someone else's conservatory when they were house-hunting. My sister and I would listen in wide-eyed innocence at these tales (not that we weren't bad, far from it, but our naughtiness was on a much more subtle level). My mum would mutter that while she'd always wished for a boy herself, now she really felt for her poor friend, who was worn out by these two little devils.

And now? Ladies and gentlemen, I have started to realise that I am that mother. I am the one who mothers of girls stare at in sympathy and fascination. The one whose children have a volume switch permanently turned up to max, and are usually tearing around the room in over-excitement roaring like dinosaurs or brandishing toys as weapons.

And it is for that reason that I have come to the conclusion that I should only really pursue new 'playdate' friendships with fellow mothers of boys - and, preferably, boys the same age or older than mine, as the ones who have tiny little things don't realise yet what is in store. ("Just you wait," I thought recently when a Dad took it upon himself to admonish me because my boy was pushing in front of his on the slide - his 18month old looked like a bruiser-in-waiting).

When we have playdates with other little boys, it generally goes much better - the mothers are used to the aggression levels, decibels, throwing and general energy, and the boys usually have a good time playing with someone on their own wavelength. Somehow, they cancel each other out.

Of course, there are exceptions - I have several friends at home in the UK with girls, but they have generally known me for a while and my boys since they were babies, so more goodwill has built up over the years and I am not just perceived as 'that mother with the naughty boys'.
But in general, it's a bit like childbirth itself. It's not till you've experienced boys that you really know what they are like. And an invisible wall separates those who've been there from those who have not.....

*This post is sponsored by a playdate where, among other things, the boys: trod on a baby, constantly pretended to drill holes in the host Dad's head with a toy drill, which wore rather thin after a while, and chucked a basketball dangerously near to the brand-new looking widescreen TV....

Thursday 15 October 2009

TV Titbits Two; Flash Forward and Cougar Town

OK, so I haven't exactly fulfilled my mission of picking the best new US series on TV and reviewing them for future viewers in Britain.

I don't have a real excuse, other than that the Littleboys are still being bad about going to bed on time, so that there is often not time to watch much on TV. And I was going to review Flash Forward, and then I realised that in a rare moment of UK/US sychronisation, it's on Channel Five anyway. But, for the benefit of those not in the UK or US, can I just say that this one is a winner. A sort of mash-up of Lost, 24 and Heroes, it starts with the whole world blacking out for two minutes and having visions of their futures. Or, more specifically, of what they will be doing on a specific date in about six months' time.

It stars the rather gorgeous Joseph Fiennes (who I'm sure I once read an interview with saying he'd never sell out to Hollywood - times must be tough, Joe) and also Jack Davenport, Miles from This Life. (In fact one of the chief female characters is in a dilemma because she's married to Joseph, but in her vision of six months' time was having an affair with Jack. Hmmm - can't feel TOO sorry for her....)

Anyway, it's got it all - handsome hero, exciting premise, weird goings-on, philosophical debate (is what happens to us fated, random or of our own making, and does knowing the future make us make it happen?). I'm hooked.

What I can tell you - thanks to the New York Times -is that the series has been picked up by ABC for a full season, so it won't have to stop before we get to the date in question (which would have been a bit of a shame...).

The other series I was going to review was Cougar Town. This stars Courteney Cox as a fortysomething divorcee who starts shagging younger men. I thought it sounded like quite a laugh. And I've tried to like it, I really have. There have even been some funny lines in it. But, I'm sorry, Courteney Cox really annoys me in it. She's basically Monica from Friends on speed. I know it's supposed to be a comedy, but it's more like a cartoon - a kind of rollicking, thigh slapping cartoon about cartoon mums having affairs with young studs. Bring back The Graduate and Anne Bancroft as Mrs Robinson.

So I stopped watching Cougar Town. What else can I tell you? The new series of House is developing intriguingly, Mad Men series 3 is fabulous, Grey's Anatomy is dangerously close to jumping the shark (when they bring in a whole new lot of characters, you know things must be wobbly). I'm still vaguely pursuing the Julianna Margulies series, The Good Wife, and reserving my judgement. Other than that, I think the DVD section of the library might be doing quite well of me this winter....

Sunday 11 October 2009

Losing our marbles

Another weekend ritual has emerged. Every Sunday morning, The Doctor gets down on his hands and knees with a special handheld light, and examines the darkened spaces under the cupboards or radiator-covers, or the holes below the skirting boards. Then, as carefully as if he were performing a surgical procedure, he extracts them; marbles.

Littleboy 1 has long been obsessed by marbles, and now his brother is also starting to take a keen interest. We left an old-fashioned plastic Helter Skelter marble set behind in England (it was shared with his cousins) and promised him a new set when we reached America, partly as a way of easing the move for him. (Advisory warning: this strategy is not necessarily clever. From the moment we touched down at JFK, practically every hour he would be heard to ask: "Are we in America now? Can I have my marbles?")

Finally, in the depths of Virginia, we happened upon a magical little toyshop selling this. Quadrilla is, naturally, made in Germany and exhibits all the Vorsprung Der Technik you would expect of such a product. Not only do the marbles roll neatly and smoothly down curving wooden tracks, you can build all manner of intricate towers and structures.

The Littleboys are now experts in the field, far better at it than me. (I'm expecting great things of Littleboy 1 architecturally; he'd better become the next Richard Rodgers, and make pots of money to keep me in my old age). The Doctor is also madly in the love with the toy, and has secretly ordered an extension on Amazon as a present for when he returns from a conference in Europe next week. A present for the Littleboys, I mean. I think.

It's obviously a boy thing, because my father also spent many hours playing with the marbles during his visit with us the other week. The boys would start the day with a cry of "Where's Grandad? I want him to build a marble tower..." before Grandad was barely out of his bedroom and into the shower.

So it cannot be denied that the marbles have been a huge success. They keep the boys amused for hours, and have been deemed far more interesting, even, than Go, Diego, Go (and that's saying something in this house).

The only problem is that, particularly on the highly polished wooden floor of our living-room, they also have lives of their own. The Quadrilla set came with 50 marbles; so far we have permanently lost about 10. The others lurk quietly in the furthest corners of the house, somewhere in the dark patiently waiting to be found. We are forever diving onto our stomachs trying desperately to stop them rolling under something else, or being asked to extract them from some dusty far corner of under-the-sofa. In fact, the sound of rolling is enough to have me leaping up from whatever I'm doing screeching: "Oh God. Where's it going now....?"

And, about once a day, someone in the house is heard to cry: "Don't lose your marbles...!"

I'm beginning to understand the origins of that phrase.

Thursday 8 October 2009

Homework, with cultural adjustments

Two weeks into preschool, and Littleboy 1 is still keen on doing his homework. I can't complain. I, however, am struggling slightly.

One problem is his timing. He wants to do the homework either as soon as we walk in the door after school, or while I am trying to make his sandwiches for his lunchbox in the mornings. In other words, just at the point when there are a million and one other things to be done. Meanwhile, Littleboy 2 is understandably frustrated at all the attention his brother gets while doing it. So he sits with us at the dining room table and demands help with his drawings at the same time. Trying to explain to a four year old that he's supposed to colour the little 'a's red and the big 'A's yellow while simultaneously drawing a penguin for an insistent two year old is definitely a multi-tasking step too far for me.

Then there's the cultural issue. As a Brit parent, it's sometimes a little hard to work out what's going on in the homework book. It doesn't help that Littleboy 1 is remarkably uncommunicative about what's happened that day at school. (Example: for the past two days, he has barked like a dog whenever asked a direct question about school, with a look of wide-eyed innocence.)

This week he had been asked to 'draw a picture of 'Christopher Columbus and his three ships'. I presume they must have been discussing this at school, in relation to Columbus Day next week (another one of the frequent 'public' holidays here that are followed by the schools, yet not by The Doctor's work, leaving me with another whole day to find entertaining things to do. Grr.).

Littleboy 1 asked me, not unreasonably, to help him draw this picture. Now, never having been educated in American history I have very little knowledge of Christopher Columbus other than a vague memory that he sailed from Genoa. I don't think I even knew he had three ships.

"What does Christopher Columbus look like, then?' I ask Littleboy 1.
He considers, head cocked. "Fat," he finally decides. "With a big hat."
We proceeded by drawing a stick figure with a very large belly, as I wondered if he really had been shown a picture like that at school, or whether we were insulting America's revered founder by portraying him as obese...

Another piece of homework asked him to name 'three things you should do if your clothes catch on fire' and then 'draw a picture'. Now, as Littleboy 1 had come home wearing a paper fireman's hat, I thought it reasonable to assume that they had been learning about this at nursery. But when I asked him, he looked completely blank.

I racked my brains - three things? Jumping into a bathful of water? Dialling 911? Praying your clothes aren't cheap flammable ones from Primark?

I ask The Doctor when he gets home - surely he, a trained medic, would know.

He doesn't. So, we Google it.

It came up immediately, on websites everywhere- 'Stop, Drop and Roll'. Stop running, because the air will fan the flames. Drop to the floor, so the fire doesn't burn your face. And roll to put the flames out.

Now, neither of us have ever heard of this mantra (although it seems like an eminently sensible thing to learn). But clearly this must be something that all Americans are brought up with, a bit like the Green Cross Code. History has not yet related whether Littleboy 1 had in fact been taught this at school, (when asked, not a spark of recognition crossed his face) or whether we as the parents were just Supposed to Know.

It's hard, being a stranger in a strange land....

Sunday 4 October 2009

Poison ivy

Well, it had to happen sooner or later I suppose; Littleboy 1 has had a nasty brush with poison ivy.

One morning, we noticed that one side of his face had come up in a red, blistery rash with telltale scratches along it. One of his fingers was also badly affected, and there was a scratch on one leg - but then new blisters started popping up everywhere. Eventually he was dragged to the paediatrician (as that's what you do here - there are GPs, but they won't see kids), and prescribed oral steriods to dampen down the immune response. This felt quite draconian, but the paediatrician says we need to get on top of it, as it's a bad reaction. Meanwhile he's been incredibly brave, and in spite of the rash has behaved as his usual irrepressible self, bouncing around and playing with his beloved grandfather, who has been staying with us.

One of the most annoying things about poison ivy, which I hadn't known, is that the reaction is not instant, like good old British stinging nettles. It takes a few days to develop, so you don't automatically know which plant did the deed.

This is deeply frustrating. Ever since we've been here, I've been aware that there might be poison ivy around. But I've never been entirely sure about the plant. Obviously, I've looked at pictures on the internet, and know that it has three leaves, but there is an awful lot of ivy around here, and many similar-looking plants. Even local people haven't been entirely sure when asked to point it out. I've since found whole websites where people have posted photos of their backyards asking "is this it?"

So, I still don't know where exactly the culprit was (although I have my suspicions). But in a way it's amazing that it hasn't happened before, as Littleboy 1 is always throwing himself in bushes and undergrowth, both deliberately and accidentally. I suppose I'd grown cavalier about it - he never seemed to hurt himself, and so I didn't want playing in bushes to become yet another thing I have to constantly scold him about.

Now it's a different story. "Don't touch that plant," I nagged him as we walked in woods at the weekend. "Don't touch anything with leaves," I shouted as both boys shot off down some winding path. "In fact, don't touch ANYTHING green."

Ah, the joys of nature....

Monday 28 September 2009

10 reasons you know it's autumn (sorry, FALL) on Long Island

1. Every store in town- even hairdressers and real estate agents - has pumpkins in its window.

2. Every mother in town already has her child's Halloween costume sorted - even though it's still over a month away...

3. Farm shops you've never noticed before burst into riotous colour with hundreds of - you've guessed it - pumpkins, plus bouncy castles and hayride-tractors.

4. Exclusive beaches which were formerly 'residents only' become open to any lowlife with unruly toddlers (

5. The 'Northeast beach temperatures' section in the New York Times suddenly turns to 'Northeast foliage watch'. Instead of fantasising about weekends at Virginia Beach, you can fantasise about leaf-peeping in New England.

6. There is a severe danger of falling acorns braining you as you step out of the front door.

7. You are also woken up at daybreak by the sound of acorns dropping onto the roof. This, I finally worked out, means the squirrels have woken up.

8. Enormous spiders lurk in the basement, turning forays below to do laundry into something out of an Indiana Jones movie.

9. The aisle in the supermarket that, in August, became 'Halloween' themed, is now half Halloween and half Christmas decorations; yes, tinsel, in September.

10. You suddenly start scouring the museums, films and children's theatre sections of the papers as you realise there might not be that much to do on Long Island in the winter....

Friday 25 September 2009

Getting to grips with preschool

So the Littleboys have completed their first full week at their new preschool, and I'm pleased to report that it's gone pretty well.

There were a few tears; from Littleboy1 on day 1, and Littleboy2 on day 2 (although the teacher was at pains to explain that this was only because another child had been crying, and he came out in sympathy).

On picking them up on the first day, I was a little worried that my firstborn might not be up to the high-achieving academic standards of some of his peers. Children start school (confusingly known as 'kindergarten' for the first year) at five plus here, rather than four plus. However, the 'pre-K' year, as it's called, seems to be pretty academically focused. As I arrived,Littleboy 1 was arguing with a little Japanese boy about whether the teacher had written his name right on his homework folder (yes, homework. I still can't believe my little boy has homework now). Littleboy 1 knows his name, but likes to write in capital letters. So he didn't recognise the small 'l' in his name as being, well, L. The four year old Japanese boy then primly pointed out, 'No, that is a lower-case l'. Oh Lord, I thought; Littleboy 1 has just about grasped that there might be a 'big A' as well as a 'little a'....

However, a week later and Littleboy 1 is gagging to do his homework the minute we get home (long may that continue...) and enthusiastically his tracing letters and numbers. His brother, meanwhile, reports each day that he 'did drawing'. I have yet to find out what else goes on in his classroom....

I, meanwhile, have had fun negotiating the minefield that is parking at the preschool. Each morning at 9am, an army of mummies in SUVs congregate on the narrow hilltop road where the school is, and try to park themselves in the tight space outside. Backing out is nerve-wracking, because the SUVs are all so massive. I've already seen one prang, and that involved one of the teachers. So not only am I embarrassed to be driving the rusting Dodge, I am also terrified of damaging the car and raising our already outrageous 'new driver' insurance premium even further.

Nevertheless, I have been making the most of my child-free time, before the reality - that I might need to earn something towards the extortionate fees - sets in. The first day I celebrated by sipping a latte on the beach and reading a novel in silence. I've also found time to visit the hairdresser, do an exercise class and have a coffee with a fellow British expat (yes, I found one). It's not exactly shopping on Fifth Avenue, but it has felt pretty relaxing compared to chasing the boys around town.

Every day when I pick them up from school, I ask the boys 'did you have a lovely time?' 'Yes, Mummy,' they dutifully reply. But yesterday, Littleboy 1 added: "And what about you Mummy, did you have a lovely time?"

"Er, yes," I replied. "I had my hair cut and went to the supermarket."

"Wow," he said, reverentially.

Yes, how exciting life is for Mummies.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

US tv titbits: The Good Wife

A couple of posts ago, I said I was going to scout out a few new American TV shows from the new crop of season premieres for my UK friends. And I'm keeping to my word. So here is the first of an occasional series: US tv titbits.

The Good Wife has been much hyped by the American media as the comeback vehicle for Julianna Margulies (Carol Hathaway from ER; last seen disappearing off into the sunset with George Clooney, the lucky thing). In it, she plays the wronged wife of a politician played by Chris Noth (Mr Big from Sex and the City). So far, A Good Cast.

Mr Big (sorry, I can't help thinking of him as that) has been thrown into jail, accused of abusing public funds. He's also been involved in a sexual scandal, clips of which are now circulating on YouTube to the mortification of his teenage kids. His wife has stood by him in public, as most wives tend to, but not necessarily in private.I must say the programme rather skated over what the exact accusations involved - instead, we were given snippets of what had happened by way of TV clips in the background and the odd snide remark made to Julianna's character, Alicia. But it seems to involve hookers and call girls.

Meanwhile the show focused on Alicia's return to work as a lawyer after a 15 year break, presumably to support her family. The way the other law firm staff treated her, as a woman who had taken such a long break from the workplace, was both patronising and demeaning (and not just from the men). She has to prove herself all over again, against ambitious junior colleagues.

Defending a woman accused of murder, she constantly had her husband's trangressions rubbed in her face from all concerned, including the judge. Naturally she rose to the occasion, and got her client off the hook by producing new evidence that even the homicide department had overlooked (yeah, right).

Mr Big, when she visits him in prison, thinks meanwhile that if he's found innocent of abusing public funds, everything will be OK. She replies that she couldn't give two hoots about the ethical stuff. Clearly, she is not going to forgive him that easily and will get on with her brilliant career instead of sitting around moping. (But then, he is Mr Big and quite sexy, so she might, eventually.)

I'm a bit in two minds about this show. I quite enjoyed it, but I'm not sure exactly where it's going. JM's character seems to be half Hillary Clinton, half Ally McBeal, which isn't the most convincing combination, and the courtroom drama took up way more time than the story about the scandal. I'd like to see a bit more of Mr Big, too, and find out exactly what has happened between the two of them before they move the story on.

Still, if you like polished American legal dramas, with everyone in designer suits and with glossy manes of hair, this is probably the show for you. I'd give it a six out of ten.

Thursday 17 September 2009

Bed, bath and beyond me

It seems no weekend chez Nappy Valley is complete without a trip to our local branch of Bed, Bath and Beyond.

For the uninitiated, this shop - sorry, store - is an Aladdin's cave of household goods; the bastard child of the John Lewis kitchen and bedding departments, and Woollies in its heyday. In other words, perfect for people who have arrived in the US without things like ironing boards, coathangers and American-sized fitted sheets. It's not particularly posh, with a 'pile it high' approach to retail theatre, but its range is huge, and you can get everything there from a beach umbrella to mothballs.

If it weren't for the Littleboys, who use every visit as an excuse for racing up and down the escalators (signs saying 'no unsupervised children on escalators' are like red rags to bulls with them) ensuring I can't actually look at anything properly, I could spend many a happy hour browsing its upwardly stacked aisles.

The first time I went there, I just 'popped in' for some pillows while The Doctor waited in the car with the boys, who were asleep. On my return, a good half hour later, I remarked, "Well, lots of beyond but not sure what happened to bed and bath...". But it turned out I had been waylaid so long in the kitchen area that I failed to notice the entire second floor, which housed the bedroom and bathroom goods.

However, last weekend's mission to buy bedding was somewhat farcical. My father arrives for a visit next week and we need to kit out the spare bedroom. None of our standard double sheets fit the queen-sized beds here (in the US a double bed is called a 'full' and is definitely thought of as inferior). We also needed another duvet.

What we failed to realise is that is a whole new language to learn when it comes to bedding here. Even the way Americans make the beds is alien to us Brits, hailing from a culture where you either sleep directly under a duvet, or under a sheet and a blanket.

For a start, Americans don't have 'duvets', it seems. They have something called a 'comforter'. This is similar to but seemingly puffier than a European duvet. But, judging by the beds we've seen made up in showrooms, in the US you don't sleep under the comforter. You sleep under a flat sheet, with the comforter on top.

We were therefore confused to find something called a 'duvet cover' in a sheet set. What was this for? The comforter? How, I pondered, can you have a duvet cover if you don't have a duvet....?

Next problem. "What on earth is a 'sham'?" I exclaim in bewilderment, looking at the back of the sheet set packet. "Absolutely no idea," replies The Doctor. On closer inspection they appear to be tiny little pillow cases. Now, I know some people are big fans of what I would call 'throw cushions'; I am not, particularly. But here, these appear to be an essential part of whole bedding arrangement.

We departed, duvet-less and shamelessly sham-less, Brits baffled by bedding.

Still, it wasn't an entirely wasted trip.....while there, we managed to mysteriously acquire a brand new coffee-maker, as part of The Doctor's continuing quest to make his pefect cup of coffee in America. Yes, Bed, Bath and Beyond is doing very well out of us.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

RIP Patrick; elegy for a dirty dancer

He adorned the wall of my school dormitory for two years, resplendent in a skin-tight black leotard. The chiselled cheekbones, the gently waving hair; for a while he was the one we all wanted to marry when we grew up - pre Brad Pitt, post Morten Harket.

I was 14 when Dirty Dancing came out - probably just about the perfect age for it. It wasn't the most earth-shattering film ever - pretty lightweight plot, cheesy lines - but it was one of those films that you ended up watching again and again. What spotty teenage girl didn't identify with Jennifer Grey, short and not obviously pretty, the 'sensible' sister, falling for the hunky working-class dance instructor, Johnny, at the holiday camp with her parents? Surely it was the fulfilment of the ultimate teenage fantasy that, in the end, it was HER that he noticed, her that he fell in love with, her that he turned into a fantastic, sexy dancer.

Thinking about it now, if a 30-something staff member at a resort seduced a female teenage guest, he'd probably get taken to court at the very least. In some ways, the film panders to every teenage girl who's had an unsuitable crush on a teacher or similar - and I'm sure some would say that's not helpful. But to us, the generation of teenage girls who fell for Patrick Swayze, it was romance of the highest level- losing your virginity not to some juvenile boy, but to a gorgeous older man.

(I always wondered about what would have happened after the film ended. Would Baby and Johnny have stayed together - or was it just a holiday romance? Had they really had the 'time of their life' - was it all downhill from there? What does anyone else think?)

So, RIP Patrick. Thanks for making our teenage years more exciting. I've never seen High School Musical, but I'm sure whoever's in it is not a patch on you in a leotard.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

Premiere season

Next week is a big week in America. Forget about this week, with school starting, the 'lawmakers' reconvening in Washington, Obama making a key speech about the healthcare reforms. Next week is huge. Next week is when all the primetime dramas start.

Unlike in Britain, the TV networks don't seem to stagger the start of their TV autumn schedules. Giving you one decent new programme one week, followed by another a couple of weeks later, in a reserved, British kind of drip-feed - as if it would be bad for us to gorge us on 12 new dramas all at once. Here, in true American style, they give it all to you in one shebang.

So next week, I notice, House, Gray's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives and Heroes all have their 'season premieres', plus several big new shows the networks have been been flogging kick off. I particularly love the language they use to big everything up. It's all premieres, finales, blah blah blah. Even a repeat of the season premiere of my current favourite show, Mad Men, which I recorded by mistake thinking it was the second episode, was called an 'encore presentation'. Not a repeat, but an 'encore presentation'.

Next week could be, then, when I finally get to grips with the American TV schedules. I've hardly watched any since being in the US (unless you count the endless episodes of Dora the Explorer and Wonder Pets imprinted into the back of my brain). It's the usual story - multiply the number of channels and you simpy multiply the level of crap. I can't stand the constant interruption of ad breaks (ironic for someone who has been known to make a living out of writing about advertising). And I can count on one hand the number of American TV shows I follow.
But the shows that I do like, I like enough to want to follow properly. And when I have tried to follow repeats of any programme I might like, I've been baffled.

There I was, nearly at the end of last season's Gray's, when the schedulers, for reasons unknown, decided halfway through August to rewind the series to about Episode 2. And then screen all the others in double episodes on seemingly random nights, so now we are back to where we were just before the new series kicks off. It's baffling; so are Dr. McDreamy and Moody Meredith engaged or rowing? Is Izzy dying of brain cancer or fine? Perhaps the fact that the acting doesn't seem to reveal such things suggests that I'd better stop watching....

I also get the feeling that many of these series have now, as they say, 'jumped the shark' - run out of steam, adopted ludicrous storylines and become totally un-watchable. Desperate Housewives was dreaming up increasingly desperate plotlines when I last saw it; Lost (which is finally going to end next year) lost me years ago. And American networks don't seem to know when to stop - unlike the Brits, who pull the plug early on in the fear that viewers will get bored, and then try to flog the dead horse with increasingly rubbish Christmas specials. I used to love ER, but when every single member of the original cast has left, isn't it time to move on?

Nevertheless, when American TV is good, it's really good. So I'll be on the the lookout for the new ER, Mad Men or Friends, and will let my Brit friends all know if I find the meantime, if any fellow expats have tips on quality US fare, let me know.

Thursday 3 September 2009

Dodge-y dealings

Our motoring shenanigans continue.

We now officially own the ageing Dodge - and it may well end up being our only car. Despite The Doctor now having his New York licence, insurance firms still classify him as a 'new driver'. This makes the premium ridiculous - and insuring two cars pretty well financially out of the question. This wasn't quite the plan - we had thought the Dodge, with its squeaky brakes, crap steering lock and attractive dent in its backside, would be his car, simply for getting to and from work, while I'd nip about town and take the boys to nursery in the likes of a Mini. But for now, it's the Dodge for me, and the train and walking for him, which is fine for summer, but might not be so fine in the depths of winter, as most of the 25 minute walk is down a rather bleak four lane highway. Oh well. At least we can take comfort in the fact that we are not doubly harming the environment.

In the US, when you buy a new car, you are required to put on new number plates. (Don't ask me why - you just do.) Then, the previous owner has to take the old plates back to the Department for Motor Vehicles. All part of the glorious hassle that seems to go with car ownership here.

But perhaps it's because personalised number plates seem to be very much in vogue here. One of the particularly choice ones I've seen in the town has the registration 'DADLUVSME'. But that's not a patch on the one I've seen frequently that has the plate 'MUTHAPUCKR'. (And, as if to explain, on the back, a sticker that says 'Proud to be a Hockey Mom'.)

I wouldn't dream of a personalised number plate (I'm far too British and proper) but I guess it might make it easier to remember your car's registration, something I've always found tricky. In London, I used to remember our car's registration as 'Elvis' - the first three letters being 'LVS'.

Anyway, after The Doctor had come home from work and spent a happy half hour hammering away and affixing new plates, we stood back and looked at them. Then we looked at each other. The first three letters are EVL.

A bad omen?

Monday 31 August 2009

Last days of summer

The end of summer seems to have crept up on us unexpectedly, even though I've been thinking about it for weeks.

Suddenly the nights and mornings are cooler again. The fireflies in the garden are no more; their disappearance coincided with the start of a deafening chorus of cicadas and crickets at night. The lawn is scattered with tiny acorns, half chewed by squirrels; the Littleboys collect them with glee. The hydrangeas, just starting to bloom when we moved in, are dry and brown.

Next weekend will be Labor Day, when by all accounts, American summer traditionally comes to an abrupt end; however warm it may be, there are no more lifeguards on the beach, the town pool closes and everyone goes back to school. (I've also been told that it's a tradition that no-one wears white after Labor Day - not that I wear it very often, with two small boys wielding ketchup bottles in the vicinity). The aisle in the supermarket that was selling paddling pools and coolboxes is now full of toy Halloween pumpkins (although I really can't believe that anyone, even in America, buys Halloween stuff in August. Do they?).

It will be weird, because pretty well ever since we've been here, it has been summer. My weekdays in the US have revolved around finding ways to keep the Littleboys cool - ice creams, sprinklers, beaches - and religiously applying suncream to their little arms and legs. We've eaten a diet of barbecues and salads; striven to keep the house cool with a daily ritual of opening windows and turning on fans and airconditioners, plus frantically closing doors to protect us from the mosquitoes (something I am definitely not going to miss). It has, by all accounts, been a relatively cool summer for New York, but to me it has felt incredibly warm after two dismal London summers.

But now, 'Fall' is almost upon us. The Littleboys will be starting preschool, and I will be starting to look for work again. Finally, we will have a kind of routine instead of randomly pottering to the park, library or beach every day. I also feel as if we will be starting to live American life for real, after a strange kind of honeymoon period. The boys will make new friends, people from nursery that I don't know, and probably start speaking with American accents. Already little words are creeping in; Littleboy 1 told me the other day that a discarded apple core was 'garbage'. (I feel sad about this - I like their little British accents and would really quite like to be Mummy, not Mommy, for a bit longer.)

It's exciting, and it's also pretty scary. Time for a whole new chapter.

Monday 24 August 2009

Play up, and play the game!

1989. I stand yawning on the edge of the games field, nose twitching with incipient hay fever, idly watching the bees on the grass. Far off, there's a yelp from the games teacher. Someone has hit the rounders ball hard, and high. It's flying out to the perimeter.....yup, it's coming straight for me in a perfect arc. Helplessly, I stick my hand up in the air to catch it. The ball flies into my hand....and I drop it.

This is my main memory of the rounders that I played for five year's worth of summer terms, two hours a week. The humiliation of dropped catches. The difficulty of bowling into the right area, neither too high or too low for the batter. And the batting. The squeals of laughter if you missed. The terror of having to run like the wind if you actually hit it, or you'd be caught out at first base.

But the main thing was that I could never see the point. Tennis, yes, and swimming - one was a sociable game, with some skill to it and an interesting psychological element, the other a necessity of going into the water. But rounders? It was just running around a field. It was almost as bad as my bete noire of Hockey, except that the weather was usually more clement and, if fielding, you could just stand there daydreaming.

But this weekend I had reason to thank my years of rounders hell. We were invited to a barbecue by an American work colleague of The Doctor's. At which there would be a game of softball.

This was actually quite funny, because none of the The Doctor's fellow post-doctoral researchers are American. They are all Italian, German or Asian, so none of us really knew what softball was. As we trooped out to the field, with a thunderstorm threatening, no-one looked particularly enthusiastic. "Do you really think we have to play?" we had been muttering to each other in the car.

But then our host was asking who wanted to try batting. One guy had a go, but all the others were hanging back. Suddenly it came to me - this was, basically, rounders, but with a bigger bat. "I'll do it," I volunteered, and stepped up to the plate.

Readers, I hit the softball. And ran. And really quite enjoyed it. The Littleboys were cheering. The Doctor - knowing my usual lack of ability for team sports - looked surprised. "This is a whole new side to you," he said.

So thank you, Miss M, for those years of being shouted at across a grassy field. I can actually hit a ball with a bat. Which, as any American child knows, is pretty darn important in the US of A.