Monday 25 May 2009

Househunting, Littleboys style

I thought I would really enjoy looking for a house to live in. I've always enjoyed nosing round houses, eyeing up other people's stuff, trying to imagine what it would be like to live there and picturing it with my own belongings in situ.

But househunting with the Littleboys was another experience. Somewhere, in between stopping them playing with other children's toys, jumping on other people's sofas, barking at other people's dogs, and escaping out of gardens onto the street, it was just about possible to take a quick look at the property. And when they weren't fighting with each other, tripping over,whinging because they're tired and hot or demanding food and drink, you might just be able to work out how many bedrooms and bathrooms there were.

Add into the equation seeing 10 houses in one day, with the pressure to sort it out as soon as possible as you have nowhere else to live, and you have one very full-on househunting experience.

We turn up late for the estate agent, sorry, realtor, because we're at the bank sorting out a US bank account. Then Littleboy 1 needs a pee, which involves a ten minute trip to the basement of the bank; then Littleboy 2 dirties his nappy, and we're out of wipes, but there's no time to buy any, so we turn up with a smelly two year old at the first house to find a very stressed realtor telling us we were "running behind schedule". We stomp round the first house as quickly as possible, don't like it, and move onto the next without saying a word.

The next few hours are a whirlwind of houses, interspersed with tantrums as we unstrap and re-strap the boys into their carseats between each viewing. Most are on quiet suburban streets, looking typically American (I even saw an Elm Street, and was quite glad that this would not be the address - we don't need any more Nightmares). I am struck by the prettiness of their lawns, shady trees and shrubs. All the houses are quite different, but as usual when viewing properties, most have a fatal flaw. One place would be nearly perfect but for the fact its garden backs onto a four lane highway. "It's fenced off," points out the realtor. Er fine, but what about the noise and fumes? Another place is right by the ocean, with a beautiful view of Long Island Sound, and has lovely spacious rooms, but no backyard for the Littleboys. The places where the agent tells us "this is SUCH a wonderful neighbourhood" are generally small and too expensive.

But houses 9 and 10 are more promising. House 9 is a colonial style wooden house on a pretty wooded street, just one block of the Main Street of the small harbourside town we most want to live in, and a five minute walk from the Long Island Railroad which could take The Doctor to work and whisk us into Manhattan in 45 minutes. It has a good-sized garden, an old-style verandah which reminds us of Virginia (where we spent a very happy holiday some 15 years ago) and some nice rooms, although it's a little eccentrically decorated and a bit smaller than we would ideally like.

House 10 is big and spacious, also with a decent garden, but it's on a kind of housing estate, well away from any playgrounds or shops, and would involve driving everywhere. It's also not available until July, which is a big problem.

At the day's end, we are shattered, confused and can't remember anything about anywhere. But we return the next day to see 9 and 10 again (keeping Littleboys firmly outside). We plump for 9. When we return, the landlady is there, and we discover that some of the furniture is hers (most places are unfurnished) including some built-in bunk beds perfect for the Littleboys. It's also, we discover, very near a playground and a preschool. This clinches the deal.

So now we are in a period of limbo, as we can't move in for a few weeks. Our plans as I write are up in the air, as we can't stay where we are until then, so we're thinking of taking off on holiday for a time before The Doctor starts work. Watch this space....

Saturday 23 May 2009

Postcard from Park Slope

Park Slope, Brooklyn. Wednesday morning. We are jet-lagged and spaced-out after a flight that seemed to last forever (thank God I got over my phobia of plane loos long ago, as I seemed to spend half of the time in one with Littleboy 1) and the immigration queue from hell (Littleboys shouting and dancing round in circles, headbutting other passengers in the arse as we wait at JFK). New York is just starting a heatwave, so we stumble out into the 85 degree heat.

Then I almost do a double take, as the first thing I notice is the buggies. I have never seen so many Bugaboos and Phil and Teds doubles. Then there are the organic food shops, the thirtysomething parents walking around carrying babies strapped to their chests in all manner of trendy slings, the shops selling ethical baby gear. In short, it is as if we have been a US version of Nappy Valley.

But if Brooklyn reminds me of home in some ways, in some ways it's completely different. Kids playing under a water fountain in the local playground, dripping wet in their vests and shouting in English or Spanish. Whole families sitting out on the street on the steps of their Brownstones in the early evening heat, chatting and simply watching the world go by. Books, DVDs and paintings left outside people's houses for others to enjoy, rather than taking them to a dump or a charity shop as you would in the UK. There's a laid-back, hippyish vibe to the place, which reminds me of San Francisco's Haight Ashbury.

Then there is Prospect Park itself; a huge, verdant space with massive trees, dotted with super-safe playgrounds, a zoo, a carousel and a lake. Maniac cylists pedal furiously around its perimeter, joggers are super-muscly. Last night we picnicked there till 9pm, surrounded by other large family groups sipping sodas and beers and playing baseball.

But although I am totally smitten with Park Slope, The Doctor and I both agree that we didn't come to America to live in a super-sized version of Nappy Valley. And there are other downsides; for one thing, the traffic is a total nightmare and parking is crazy (no residents' parking but no spaces either, and you just have to know that you can't park anywhere near a fire hydrant).

There is also no way that The Doctor could commute out to his job on Long Island,, unless he fancies spending two hours each way cowering from ten tonne trucks in a jam on the 'Expressway' (ha!). So, we have stuck to our original plan and have spent the last two days househunting out there, where things are very different. Definitely more Desperate Housewives than Woody Allen. Of which more in the next post....

Saturday 16 May 2009

Goodbye Nappy Valley?

Everyone has been helpfully reminding me that I will need to find a new name for the blog once I am living in the US.

Well, that much is obvious. The blog was named after the area in which (oh, OK, near which) I live in London. It simply wouldn't make sense in Long Island, NY. Heck, they don't even have nappies in America, they have diapers.

In fact, the name I originally thought of changing to was Diaper Island, but, as someone pointed out to me recently, it does sound a bit like you're swimming in a pile of shit, or living on some kind of sewage heap.

I have thought of other, New York based options - Englishwoman in New York, Nappies and the City, etc. But we won't actually be living in the City, so this might give the wrong impression. It doesn't help that some of the really good expat names are already taken (thank you, Not wrong just different, Mom/Mum and Expat Mum).

Now I have decided to rename the blog once I get out there. After all, until we settle in, I will have no idea exactly where we will be living (we are finding a house once we get there) and what my life will really be like.

I will, of course, be open to suggestions from the blogosphere and we could even have a vote.

But for now, although I've already said Goodbye to Nappy Valley (the place), I'm going to keep the Nappy Valley blog going just for the moment, just in a kind of foreign correspondent manner. (Actually, Foreign Correspondence is quite a good name. Maybe I'll bear it in mind). Hopefully, the next time you hear from me I will be blogging from Brooklyn.

Au revoir......

Wednesday 13 May 2009

Moving Day

Last night I slept the sleep of the just, for about the first time in two weeks. No awakenings at 5am, running through a 'to do' list in my mind. No children climbing into the bed in the early hours - they, also exhausted, slept until nearly 8am.

The reason? We have finally completed the mammoth task of moving out of the house.

As I've mentioned before, we've been there ten years, and the amount of stuff we've collected has been phenomenal. It probably would have been easier to ship it all to America, but that would have been expensive and half the things useless there anyway. So we went for a complex three way option - take some stuff, leave some stuff for tenants, take the rest away to be stored. In theory this was a great idea - in practice, it was akin to organising a military campaign....

To add to this, two other fairly crucial pieces of the Moving Jigsaw also happened to fall into place on Moving Day; finding a tenant and receiving our visas.

Last Friday our house had yet to be let; on Saturday we had two offers. We had the luxury, therefore, of choice; the group of Sloaney, giggly girls, versus the group of young, earnest blokes from Up North. We went for the girls, purely because they could move in earlier and provide their own beds. I would have rather had a family, but sadly no families saw fit to view our house (the lure of Clapham's bars and restaurants being rather more attractive to so-called 'professional sharers'). So yesterday, as well as packing up, I was frantically emailing paperwork to the agent.....

Meanwhile the non-appearance of the visas had begun to stress us out massively. They hadn't arrived, as promised, within five working days, and were still M.I.A on the morning of Moving Day. This would have meant changing the delivery address for the courier (which, if anything like the rest of our dealings with the embassy, would have been like negotiating Middle East peace), plus, The Doctor needed his passport back to fly to Austria this weekend for a conference. However, just as we were really panicking, the courier turned up at 10am on Moving Day, causing me to whoop with relief (to the great surprise of the removal men).

Littleboy 2 did his best to make Moving Day even more delightful, adding such activities as stuffing two rolls of paper down the loo and blocking it, and throwing Christmas decorations down the stairs and smashing them. Littleboy 1 meanwhile was fascinated by the whole thing, wanting to help the removal men and actually helping the decorator to repaint the dining room.

What else? Oh, one of my oldest friends had her much longed-for baby last week, so in the midst of all the pre-moving chaos of Monday, I simply had to find time to race down to Docklands and pay her a visit. After all, if I don't, her daughter might be three by the time I get to see her. I am sure The Doctor secretly thinks this is Female Logic, but he magnaminously offered to drive me part of the way.....

Finally we realised that despite driving a huge vanload of stuff away from our house last week, there was no way the remaining belongings would fit in the car for the final journey to the family cottage where we are spending the next seven days. This necessitated the Littleboys and I taking the train, which, luckily, was from Paddington, enabling me to distract them by looking for bears etc. at the station. Meanwhile, The Doctor filled the car to the brim. It STILL didn't all fit, but luckily my father in law can bring the rest before we leave.

By the end of yesterday, I felt as if I'd aged about a million years. But today is a different story; we are all well-rested, calmer, feeling really quite excited about finally reaching New York next week. And after all, it all came together in the end. And there are celebratory gin and tonics to be had, plus the remains of the cava from our leaving do to be 'finished'....

That is, until remembering Littleboy 2's behaviour on our two taxi journeys yesterday, I start thinking about the plane journey....

Thursday 7 May 2009

She's leaving home

It's funny; I never, ever thought I would be sad to leave England.

From the age of 11, when I left Hong Kong for boarding school, I determinedly vowed to myself that would live abroad again as soon as I could. I hated the greyness, only briefly punctuated by spells of good weather, that puts such a dull sheen on the British landscape; the coldness that seeps into your bones in winter; the miserable Atlantic wind that can spoil even a pleasant summer day. I also remember that when we came 'home' to the UK for visits in the 70s, everyone seemed much paler, pastier and just generally downtrodden than people we knew in Hong Kong. I guess as a privileged expat I had never known that Europeans could be poor, but here everyone looked so miserable as well. I also remember being shocked at the graffiti that seemed to be everywhere in the 70s and early 80s - 'National Front' and '3 million unemployed', the legacies I guess of punk and Thatcherism.

Of course, everything is a bit different, more prosperous and brightly coloured in the post-new Labour noughties (despite the recession). Nevertheless, even as late as 2004, when The Doctor and I took four months off work for a round the world backpacking trip, I recall that I could not wait to be getting out of this country for the winter months. And I didn't miss England at all during that time.

But as I pack up my house, I realise that there are plenty of things that I will miss. I guess having children changes things. I have never had to deal with my children in a country other than here; here in Nappy Valley I know the systems, the routine, the places to go. Over in the US, I don't know if I can buy their favourite food, don't know yet where they'll be able to ride their mini-scooters, don't even know how you access a family doctor yet (and don't say I'm married to one - for the purposes of this trip, he's an academic....). So I'll miss the easy familiarity. I'll miss the parks and commons that we've got to know so well, the ultra child-friendly cafes and shops of Nappy Valley.

Obviously I will miss my friends. I know three years will pass quickly and they will still be here when I get back, but in the meantime children will have changed and grown, hair will have greyed and lines will have appeared on familiar faces. I'll keep in touch online as much as I can, but I will miss simply able to ring up and meet them that day for tea.

I'll miss my house, too. We've been here for exactly ten years and I don't know if we'll come back here on our return from the States. While I'm quite used to leaving places - my parents moved around a lot in Hong Kong and I've said goodbye to several family homes - this is the longest that I have ever lived anywhere. It's certainly seen us through ups and downs; our first years of married life, the deaths of both our mothers, fallings out with old friends, making new ones, and most importantly the arrival of two children who have transformed it. We lovingly redecorated it when we first moved in, with 'interesting' colours such as an aubergine dining room and a deep blue study; now it's being repainted in boring, 'neutral', colours for the tenants. I already feel as if it isn't really mine any more. It's the end of an era.

So yes, there are things about the UK that I will certainly miss. And while a few years ago, I still would have said that it definitely was not 'home', now it occurs to me to reluctantly admit that it really is, wherever I might head off to for a few years. (Except maybe when I'm 80, when I might retire to the South of France....)

But I still won't miss the climate. Oh no, I will never give in on that.

Saturday 2 May 2009

Visas, vivas, weddings and Wallace & Gromit

One of the most irritating things about moving is that people keep asking me how the packing is going. This began in about February, and would be accompanied by looks of incredulity whenever I replied in the negative.

Now, finally, we are getting to the stage where you might reasonably think that we should be spending our entire time packing up the house. But it has been a bit of a crazy week, since The Doctor finished work last Friday......

Let me explain:

Saturday: leave house at 7.45 am, leaving Littleboys in care of babysitter. Race up to Lake District (a 6 hour drive) in brother in law's Mini to attend wedding of The Doctor's second cousin. Despite arriving in violent rainstorm, emerge from church in brilliant sunshine at 5pm, followed by idyllic boat ride across Lake to reception. Weather, amazingly, holds out as we drink champagne on headland overlooking lake. Eat, drink, dance and chat into the early hours before bride and groom depart, by boat, to fireworks.

Sunday: Set off at 11am in the Mini (once a hung-over brother in law has been roused) to London. Arrive 5pm and relieve babysitter of Littleboys. Feel exhausted before week has even started....

Monday: Shop at supermarket and shoe shop for Littleboys (surprisingly painless) . Spend entire afternoon filling out visa applications (surprisingly painful).

Tuesday: Go to my on-off workplace for last time. Boss very kindly takes me out for delicious lunch and buys champagne. Meanwhile The Doctor has his final PhD viva exam all afternoon - the culmination of more than four years' work. He passes without corrections. We celebrate with steak and more wine.

Wednesday: Feeling slightly jaded, hotfoot it to US Embassy with our five million forms. Do not take any electronic devices, mobile phones or car keys. Do not take Littleboys (thank God). Do not pass go until we have queued at three separate counters, given two sets of fingerprints and spent two and a half hours in waiting room. However, feel relieved that 'consular interview' is actually quite friendly. (Had been expecting Jack Bauer style interrogation out of '24').

Thursday: With boys at nursery, pack car and furiously drive down M4 with carload of furniture to be stored at family cottage. Unpack car. Go to lunch at posh seafood restaurant we have never dared enter due to Littleboys. Have delicious lobster salad, fish and wine. Drive back to London, collect boys. The Doctor goes out with workmates for farewell meal. Meanwhile I have farewell supper and gossip with friend who I will really, really miss, then stay up far too late watching recording of Mad Men.

Friday: Take Littleboys to Wallace and Gromit exhibition at Science Museum to celebrate Littleboy 1's imminent birthday. Have great time rushing around, singing Karaoke and eating cake. The Littleboys have a great time, too. Come back and have more friends over for birthday tea. Spend several hours cleaning up after gang of marauding small boys.

So, as you can see, it's been a rather fun week, featuring top notch food and drink, a lively social calendar and, well, quite a bit of driving. Oh, and I've usefully started compiling a playlist of 'New York' themed songs for our leaving party. All very important stuff. Just not much packing.......