Monday 27 July 2009

Scallops a la Sudocrem

Since arriving in the US, we've eaten out a fair bit - but always with the Littleboys. And dining en famille, while fun in some ways, is not a relaxing experience. It usually starts off well, with restaurant staff smiling indulgently at the boys in an 'aren't they cute?' manner, and as long as their food appears quickly, everyone is relatively happy. (Note to restaurants: never, ever think that it is a good idea to bring the adult food before the kids' meals. Unless you fancy a force 10 tantrum on your hands).

By the end, however, we are usually scrambling to pay the bill as the boys charge up and down the restaurant screaming, leaving a trail of half eaten food, spilt drinks and destruction in their wake. Our culinary experiences have therefore been limited to pizzerias and so-called 'family-style' establishments where everything comes with fries, a salad bar and a choice of seven thousand dressings.

So when I discovered a local centre that offers a creche on Friday nights so that parents can go out, I jumped at the chance. It was The Doctor's birthday so what better way to celebrate than dinner a deux? I signed up the Littleboys for childcare, which was on offer from six until nine (which would seem a strange time frame in the UK, but you have to remember that Americans eat early).

That afternoon was hot and humid, and the boys and I had been out to the local park. When we arrived back, we were all sweaty and Littleboy 1 decided to indulge in his favourite activity of watering everything in sight with the power hose. I always try to direct him towards the rose beds but inevitably we end up with all of us getting a good soaking. By the time we had finished, I realised it was 5pm. They, and I, needed to be ready to go by 6pm, I thought, if The Doctor and I were going to have any chance of a decent evening out. The following then ensued:

5.10pm. Start cooking the Littleboys' supper, which I had planned on being quick and easy with minimal mess - fishfingers, baked potato and slices of cucumber.

5.20 pm, Somehow, between rushing around trying to assemble bags for them and remembering I am supposed to provide 'snacks' to take to the babysitting room , I manage to burn the fishfingers, setting off smoke alarm at the same time.

5.25pm Disable smoke alarm. Oh well, I think, they'll just have to have potato and butter. The boys are unimpressed by the solo potato, and insist on ketchup, which always results on sticky fingers wiped on clothing (already damp from the hosing) and the most horrendous mess. There is nothing for it but to strip them down and give them a bath.

5.30 To save time, shower myself, whip a brown sundress and some heels on and slap on some makeup in record time (nothing like getting ready for a date when you have kids, hey?).

5.35pm Bathe Littleboy 1 at a speed that I think even surprises him. Littleboy 2, meanwhile, is still pottering by the loo. I leave him there while going to get Littleboy 1 dressed and ready to go.

5.40pm Re-enter bathroom to find Littleboy 2 smearing himself from head to foot in Sudocrem*, which he has somehow found and opened. He looks at me wide-eyed and says "I got cream, Mummy."

5.45pm Put him in bath and scrub him within an inch of his life.

5.50pm Still scrubbing. Sudocrem incredibly difficult to get off. All over him, any bath toys which he has touched and three flannels which now need industrial washing. Why has he chosen this particular activity, I wonder - something which has never occurred to him before - on our first evening out on our own for about three months?

5.55pm. Finally he looks acceptable and less like the abominable snowman. Whip him out, dress him and finish assembling snack (Marmite sandwiches in the absence of any other food in the house. Well, might as well live up to eccentric Brit stereotype). Make pathetic attempt to clean supper mess from kitchen.

6pm: Amazingly, we are ready to go. The Doctor arrives home, and although hot and sweaty is frogmarched out of the house without time for a shower. We all set off.

Of course, I hadn't taken into account the fact that American restaurants are incredibly efficient. There always seem to be about three waiters per table, food appears speedily, and when you're done they whip out the bill immediately. So, we sat down for our meal - delicious fresh Long Island scallops and soft-shell crab, accompanied by much-needed martinis - at 6.30pm and it was over by 7.45.

This left us with over an hour before we needed to collect the Littleboys. We wandered down through the town to find an orchestra about to give a free concert in the little harbourside park. We perched on a park bench and listened, while watching dusk fall and the lights twinkle on over the boats in the harbour, until it was time to find the Littleboys again. They, meanwhile, had had a wonderful time making pictures of rainbow fish and charging about. So, a successful evening all round, despite its unpromising start.

And it wasn't till the next day that I noticed, on my brown dress, a nice, big white splodge of cream which I must have worn all evening. Classy.

(* For non-UK readers, Sudocrem is a thick, heavy, nappy rash cream....)

Tuesday 21 July 2009

Not waving but drowning?

The ocean beach we visited on Sunday had the most fantastic surf. Big, wide rollers, breaking just meters from the shore, ideal for body surfing. Or so I used to think when I was about 15. Back then, on my favourite Hong Kong beach, I liked nothing better than standing just far enough out to catch a wave, paddle in on the crest, and come crashing down onto the sand in the shallows. There was something exhilarating about it, and I could do it for hours. When I went to bed at night, I could feel the motion and swell of the waves in my sleep.

I used to scoff at my mum and the other women, who never swam in the sea when it was rough and certainly didn't body surf. It was always the Dads and the teens who went in, while the Mums sat sedately on their beach towels reading magazines and chatting.

And now? I stand there in the shallows, just out of reach of the crashing of the waves. I know that the best place to swim would be further out, where you can swim through the waves or body surf, but something is preventing me. I have lost my nerve. What was once enticing and thrilling now seems frightening. Fear of drowning, fear of being dragged out to sea by a current, whatever it is makes me apprehensive about going in. It takes me a good 15 minutes to summon up the courage, and then I go in for about five. But I am constantly on my guard for big waves breaking over my head, and I am fairly relieved to get out, although it still feels good afterwards with the salt on my skin drying in the ocean breeze.

So what has changed? Is it motherhood that makes us fearful- a knowledge of responsibility for someone other than just ourself? Is it more awareness of the bad things that could happen; more stories of drowning, related over the years; more ridiculous shark films? Or is it a more mundane fear of coming out of the sea looking dishevelled and pummelled by the waves, bathing suit hanging half off, unbefitting of a mother of two? Maybe I'm more happy just paddling on the edge with the Littleboys, or swimming in the calmer sea of Long Island Sound.

I'm not sure, but what I do see on the beach is Dads, kids and teenagers swimming in the surf. And hardly any women aged over about 20. Somewhere, somehow, we lose our nerve.

Monday 20 July 2009

Tagged, but not tweeting

I have been tagged by the marvellous Mum of 4, whom I've known since she was a carefree Mum of None and we gossiped over mugs of latte when we were supposed to be working, for a meme involving describing seven of my personality traits.

I was also very pleased to discover, via a link from her site, that I've been listed by Who's the Mummy as no 22 in her list of the Top 100 British Parenting Bloggers. (I also discover from this that I need to be Tweeting in order to 'up' my blogging currency - something I have toyed with but discarded for the moment as being merely another way to waste time and make me feel guilty for neglecting my children. So, no Twitter, and I can't even think about putting the blog on Facebook at the moment. Because I already spend enough time there.)

So here goes:

Restless: why do you think The Doctor ended up working in America? Or taking four months off to go backpacking in our early 30s? I like being on the move. However disruptive it sometimes is to my life....

Outwardly Calm - this was, at least, how I was always described at work, when I was supposedly always serenely rising above it all on the most frenetic press days. However, this trait does not seem to extend to dealing with my children, who can turn me into a flailing wreck within seconds, or other stressful situations such as losing luggage at airports (cue hysteria). Which leads us to...

.....Inwardly anxious. If I can worry about something, I will. Don't you worry.

Technophobic- OK, not when it comes to blogging or online media, but anything to do with the hardware side: plugs, wires, programming computers, DVD players or cables. Luckily I am married to someone whose idea of heaven is spending a morning setting up a wireless router.

Punctual - Although standards have slipped somewhat since having the Littleboys, I generally don't like lateness. And people who break appointments at the last minute, with no good excuse. That gets my goat more than anything.

Irreverent - I have quite a black sense of humour, and am not easily offended by crudeness. And I have a tendency to get the giggles at any even small flicker of pomposity.

Curious - I guess that's why I became a journalist. And why I love gossip, too. That's my excuse, anyway.

And now I need to tag seven others:

Nicola at Some Mothers do Ave Em, Nota Bene, Moaning Mum, Bush Mummy, Hadriana's Treasures, A Confused Take That Fan and Brit in Bosnia.

Friday 17 July 2009

Carry on not camping

When I signed up to the boys' new kindergarten I was asked whether I would be interested in sending them to 'summer camp'. I automatically said no. After all, we've only just arrived here and seeing as I'm not yet working it seemed a bit mean (not to mention expensive) to ship them off to some 'camp'. I also, I admit, had images of kids in dormitories, being forced to swim in lakes and chop up wood - gleaned from 70s Disney films and stories told by friends who worked in such places on gap years.

What I didn't realise is the pivotal role that summer camp plays in suburban American life, or that it doesn't involve being sent away. Essentially, it is just a form of summer childcare for when the nurseries and schools are closed.

Take the other day. The Littleboys and I are at the local beach when a veritable army of children, of all ages, colours and ethnicities, marches past. They are all in groups, with each group dressed in matching t-shirts sporting the name of their summer camp. Each group is frogmarched, front and back, by adults with 'STAFF' emblazoned across their own matching shirts. About 50 different camps (all with big yellow schoolbuses - yay for Littleboy 2) have converged on the beach for a free concert. They're having a fantastic time, singing, dancing, mucking around - and more importantly, not being looked after by their parents.

Now, I know for a fact these parents are not all working - this town is awash with stay at home Moms. But in America, it seems every kid goes to summer camp. (The Doctor recalls a Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown & Co come out of school, cheering that school's out for the summer. Then Lucy tells them yes, but the bus for Camp is waiting, and their faces immediately fall.)

Every playground we go to, every time we visit the pool, the camps are there. There are religious ones, Takekwondo ones, tennis ones, ones affliliated to nurseries and ones affliliated to schools. The children move in packs and are curious and suspicious of the little kids with funny British accents who are playing on their own nearby. And slowly the realisation is dawning on me that the Littleboys could be the only children in America not in some form of summer camp.

So am I a total fool, I wonder, opting to spend the summer chasing after my children with a sunscreen bottle, sweeping sand off the kitchen floor and dragging tired, whingy toddlers around the supermarket? Spending my days trying in vain to read the New York Times on the beach (not a good idea when it's windy and you have two small kids to supervise), when I could be indulging in some pleasant activity BY MYSELF such as exercising, going for a proper swim, reading a good book, or trying on clothes in the mall? All of which, at this present time, are distant fantasies.

Who knows? Littleboy 1 comes and plonks himself on my lap, damp and sandy, and gives me a big salty kiss. Littleboy 2, meanwhile, is gently singing 'row, row, row the boat' while filling his bucket with sand. I know that by 6pm this evening they'll be driving me crazy, but I am also aware that this time with my children is precious.

And besides, from the envious way Littleboy 1 eyes the campers, once they start going to camp I'll probably never see them again....

Monday 13 July 2009

A night out with the Moms

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself nervously waiting in the foyer of a sushi bar, to a soundtrack of blaring live rock music, trying to work out who was likely to be a 'mom'. I had been invited by my first new friend here, a lovely fellow European expat, to join the local 'moms' group' for their monthly night out. However, my friend had not yet appeared, and here I was eyeing up twenty and thirtysomething women sipping cocktails on a Friday night, wondering if they were part of the group.

There was no way I was about to saunter up to someone and ask whether they were part of the 'moms' night out'. If they were not - say they were a twenty five year old waiting for their boyfriend, or someone who desperately wanted kids but couldn't have them - they might well be offended. And even if they were, they might think: do I really look like I must be the mother of several children? Is my stomach THAT wobbly? It's difficult, I realised, to spot fellow mummies without the accessories of their children, buggies and kiddy paraphenalia; and even more difficult to approach them.

My nerves were also down to the anticipation that I might have nothing in common with these 'mommies' except the fact we all had kids - would we chat about anything other than potty training, preschools and the like? All of which is reasonably interesting in its place but not really something I could imagine bonding over. In other words, would I find any kindred spirits? I'd noticed that on the group email many people referred to themselves as 'suzy's mom' or suchlike - as if not possessing their own identity other than being somebody's mother. This rang slight alarm bells for me. Also, it occurred to me that a night out with NCT friends or similar at home was always a 'Girls' Night Out'; never a 'Mums Night Out'. It all sounded - well, so matronly.

Eventually I spotted my friend and we sat down at a large table of decidedly non-matronly looking females. It was difficult to chat at first; not only was the live band in the restaurant incredibly loud, everyone was excitedly saying hello to people they knew. So I just I smiled politely at people and answered their questions about our recent arrival.

Then the girl next to me - who was sipping her second Cosmo - suddenly got all excited and giggly. Why? She had just spotted a 'hot' guy coming out of the loos. I had to crane my neck to see, and at the same time try not to be so obvious. She explained that she found this guy attractive because he looked like Sylar from Heroes (who I seem to remember is the baddie, but also not bad looking). Anyway then we got onto chatting about various TV shows, and House, and how we both fancied Hugh Laurie. (Of course, I had to boast here that I had fancied him since 1989, before he was even heard of in America.).

I began to relax (and, at the end of the evening, we arranged to meet for a playdate with the kids). Because however fascinating children are (and one's own are generally more interesting than other people's), what I'm craving at the moment is some good old-fashioned girl talk. And, while it may not be the state of world politics, fancying Hugh Laurie is a pretty good opener for that.

Friday 10 July 2009

Little Britons

My good friend Nota Bene asks in an email how the Littleboys are settling into their new environment - and I realise, I haven't really said much about them in the blog since our arrival here.

It's partly because it's difficult to pinpoint what impact the move has really had on them, although there is no doubt that it must have been unsettling. At first, I think they thought we were just on holiday, doing the sorts of things we do on holiday; staying with other people, going to beaches and swimming pools, nights in hotels. Perhaps their parents seemed a little stressed and preoccupied (the result of trying to co-ordinate a new life here with the remaining admin of our London house, via email), but they didn't seem to notice. In fact, they seemed completely overexcited, refusing to go to bed before about 10pm (the legacy of which still lingers now) and behaving pretty appallingly at any given opportunity.

Then we moved into our new house. A month later, Littleboy 1 still refers to 'our new house' and 'our new garden', and, when out, constantly asks whether we are coming back here, so I think he must need some reassurance that we are not moving again. Littleboy 2, meanwhile, has been heard to ask 'we going back to our room now?', meaning, I think, hotel room. And we do get the occasional question about London, and wistful mention of their nursery.

However, there is plenty for them to like about their new environment - whereas at home our regular morning outing might have been to Clapham Common or Dulwich Park with their scooters, here a morning's jaunt is usually the town beach or swimming pool. In fact most of their activities seem to involve water; any hot afternoon sees a trip to the playground around the corner, which has excellent, although shockingly un-eco friendly, water-fountains built specifically for kids to splash in (there are even buckets which fill and tip over their heads - great fun for them, not so good if you happen to be standing nearby, not in a swimsuit...). Going out for an early evening meal with Mummy and Daddy is also new for them - it seems far more common here to take kids to eat out in the evening, so we are taking advantage of this and sampling some of the local pizza parlours.

America has added a few new words to their vocabulary. "Schoolbus!" yells Littleboy 2 in delight every time a big yellow bus passes us on the street, which, during term time, was every two minutes. Littleboy 1 was very excited to hear that he, too, will be travelling on the schoolbus in a year's time. (American schoolbuses are fabulous. The design is a classic, and makes me think of Peanuts. And they are so ultra-important here that, if you overtake a stopped one in your driving test, you fail). Littleboy 1, meanwhile has discovered waves and surf, ice in drinks (a great ruse for diluting juice, I find) and hot dogs, his new favourite food.

My Little Britons have also caused quite a stir in our locale, riding their micro-scooters around the town. Micro-scooters seem to have made it to Brooklyn, but not to Long Island, so they are quite a novelty here. They attract many stares and comments - mostly of the 'Ooh, aren't they just the cutest thing?' variety, although some people have looked pretty horrified at the sight of two toddlers on wheels going full pelt down Main Street.

Since coming here, I have also been asked about five times a day whether they are twins. This is most odd, as not once was I asked this question in the UK. They are actually 19 months apart, and while both blond, one is clearly bigger than the other and they don't look particularly alike. Perhaps it's the fact that they are very much a 'double act', doing everything together - I'm sure they have grown a lot closer since the move, as they have been thrown together so much. Still, I get the impression that Littleboy 1 in particular is desperate for friends. Although we have been on a couple of 'playdates', so far, he doesn't have anyone he can call a friend. When the other night we met some neighbours who, usefully, also have a four -year-old boy, he practically threw himself on the child and demanded to play with him straight away.

To this end, and so that I can make some attempt to pretend to have a career, I have registered them both for a pre-Kindergarten, four mornings a week starting in September. When we looked around, they ran straight in and began enthusiastically joining in with the class as if they'd been there for years, so I knew it was the right move.

So it's two months of summer with me, before they get their first real taste of American children (and no doubt will begin to adopt the accent too). And, although they drive me to distraction sometimes, I'm enjoying their company - after all, I have yet to make any real friends yet here either. After all, there are worse ways to spend the summer than paddling in the sea, building sandcastles and eating ice cream by the duckpond, which is what my life pretty well consists of these days. Still, later on today we are off to a playdate with lots of other 'moms', so maybe we'll all make some friends....

Tuesday 7 July 2009

Fourth of July celebration

While the rest of America was out celebrating Independence Day last weekend, we had our own little celebration in the Nappy Valley household; our shipment finally arrived from the UK.

I never thought I would be so pleased to see such prosaic items as sheets, towels, pots and pans, let alone my coffee table, carpet and writing desk. Knowing that such things were coming, we have been living without a few of the kitchen essentials. Not exactly being a paean of domesticity, I can safely say that I never imagined being pleased to see my cheese grater or my tin opener. But after four weeks of trying to ram holes in cans of tuna with The Doctor's penknife and nearly stabbing myself, I was overjoyed. He, meanwhile, spent a happy morning watching Wimbledon while happily unpacking his boxes of computer equipment, wires and boxes of software.

The Littleboys were suitably delighted to see their toys and books. I am optimistically hoping that the arrival of several tonnes of Lego will mean that they spend slightly less of their time at home glued to Noggin (strapline " it's like preschool on TV". Er, yes, if preschool consisted of semi-educational cartoons with insanely annoying and repetitive songs)*.

Our family photographs and a few paintings from home now adorn the house, giving it the feel of an uncanny fusion of our old and new homes. And our coats and scarves are hanging in the closets ready for the icy Long Island winter, although at the moment it seems hard to believe we will ever need them here.

We celebrated this momentous occasion with a trip to the beach at a State Park, which was packed with daytrippers from NYC. Everyone produces the most incredible amount of equipment; massive iceboxes, beach umbrellas and chair, drag-along carts full of beach gear, whole Weber barbecues. Back home, you might have taken along a bucket, spade and a beach towel and possibly a couple of sandwiches wrapped in foil. Mind you, we have already conceded to the American way and purchased the beach umbrella and icebox, managing to fill the rather capacious boot of our car quite easily.

Back home, we ate barbecued ribs and hot dogs on the porch, and watched the Manhattan fireworks on TV, to a soundtrack of patriotic American songs.

I think perhaps we are becoming indoctrinated.....

*Actually I am being slightly too mean about Noggin (which is part of the Nickelodeon stable). It's a lot better than I was expecting from American kids' TV, it's ad-free and bears some resemblance to CBeebies. I even find myself singing along to some of the surprisingly catchy songs sung by a cartoon Moose who sounds a bit like Jack Johnson. I think perhaps I need to get back to work....

Friday 3 July 2009

Carnival time (with raccoon digression)

Quick wildlife update - I saw a raccoon in the garden last night! Now, I realise that this is probably the equivalent of seeing a fox in London (an almost daily occurrence in our Nappy Valley street) but I found it pretty damn exciting. A raccoon, to me, is a real wild animal. No matter that it had tried to nibble my rubbish bag, left outside the back door for about ten seconds en route to the wheelie bin. It had flashing black eyes, a pert little face and was fluffy-toy cute.

The Doctor was out (at a compulsory learner drivers' course - of which more later) and I had no-one to tell, except Littleboy 1, who was still up but didn't understand what a racccon was, until I showed him a picture of one online. I think he probably thought Mummy had gone nuts, babbling about wild animals and showing him pictures on the laptop. My only other option was to sit down and write an 'OhMyGod' style email to my sister - who probably also now thinks I have gone stark raving mad.

Anyway, I digress. Being a bona fide expat now, I have joined the hallowed ranks of the Expat Mums Blog, and am taking part in their blogging carnival today. Take a look here, and you'll find a whole host of fascinating posts, from parents spread far across the world, from Budapest to Laos. Enjoy.