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.

Thursday 20 August 2009

Fifth Avenue frolics

Since arriving here I've hardly spent any time in New York, despite being practically next door. Living out on Long Island, it seems hard to believe that the metropolis is just down the road, even though on a clear day you can see the distant skyline.

But it is really the wrong time of year to go into the city, when everyone who lives there is madly heading out to the Hamptons and upstate New York to escape the heat. Plus, however much I might want to swan around shopping on Madison Avenue and sipping Cosmos in bars, I'm hardly able to do so with two small boys in tow.

Nevertheless, the past week has seen a couple of forays into Manhattan. And somehow, anything that happens on that indredible island never fails to be an experience.

Last weekend we arranged to meet up with a friend of The Doctor's family, who we'd never met but who had sent us some friendly emails welcoming us to New York and suggesting a meeting. To keep the Littleboys happy, we opted for meeting at Central Park zoo, followed by tea at her apartment. We arrived in the city on one of the hottest afternoons of the year so far, and piled into a cab. Our cab driver not only appeared not to have heard of Central Park Zoo, but also to speak little English, but eventually we managed to explain. ("You know - zoo? animals? elephants?" The Doctor valiantly tried. Sadly there are no elephants in Central Park Zoo, but he wasn't to know that.)

After a rather fast and furious cab ride we arrived, sweaty and irritable with the Littleboys, who always misbehave terribly in cabs, at the Zoo entrance on Fifth Avenue. The Doctor had asked me for some dollar bills to pay the cabbie, and I handed them over, but in the heat and confusion of getting out of the cab with boys, bags and pushchair, I suddenly - I have no idea or excuse why - thought that he also had my purse. "You've got my purse, haven't you," I said, as we regrouped on the pavement. A look of horror came over his face and we looked, as if in slow motion, at the departing taxi.

Before I could say anything he had taken off at a full sprint along a crowded Fifth Avenue in pursuit of the cab, now roaring away to terrify another passenger. I then did what I should have done in the first place - looked in my bag. The purse was still there - I'd never even handed it to him.

I now started to run down the pavement, shouting "I've got it, I've got it', leaving the bewildered Littleboys standing on their own by the pushchair. I ran back to find them being fussed over by concerned Japanese tourists. A few seconds later, The Doctor reappeared, looking hot. He had also been informed by various passers-by that 'Your wife's got it". Let's just say he was not overly impressed.

However, all's well that ends well; we enjoyed the zoo, which features in one of the boys' favourite films, Madagascar. It looks much like its depiction in the film, with pretty brick arches and a central square. As ever, Hollywood seems to have taken a few liberties and there is no lion, zebra, hippo or giraffe there (let alone speaking with American accents and plotting their escape to Grand Central Station). But the penguins were there, the sealions entertained and the polar bear, though asleep, was impressively polar bear-ish.

Afterwards, we went back to our friend's apartment on the Upper West Side, and up to its roof garden, affording the most spectacular view of The Hudson, Empire State and the distant bridges. For the first time since we arrived, I began to hanker after city living again.

My second trip, in the evening and unencumbered by kids, again reminded me that, at heart, I am a city girl. I caught up with an American friend and former work colleague for drinks and noodles in the East Village. The streets were lively and pulsating with cafes and bars; we ate at a cosy, brick-lined bar serving delicious ramen, and my cab-ride back to Penn Station, in the middle of a sudden, violent thunderstorm (which I later heard uprooted more than 100 trees in Central Park, the worst damage to the Park in 30 years), was dramatic to say the least.

Just an hour later, I was walking back down our wooded Long Island street, into what seemed like a different world. But I vowed that I'm definitely going to make more of our proximity to the city in future. Keeping an eye on where my dollar bills, my children and my husband are at all times, of course....

Monday 17 August 2009

Reading, writing (but no arithmetic, thank God)

My brilliant and funny fellow expat blogger Mothership wrote a very interesting post the other day about visiting Steinbeck country in Monterey, California, and finding it somewhat changed.

In a somewhat similar vein, I recently re-read The Great Gatsby, which I had last read as a teenager, after discovering to my delight that it was based on the very area in which I now reside. Although things have changed somewhat since the Jazz Age, and it isn't all millionaires round here by any means, many of the ridiculously over-the-top mansions remain on the so-called Gold Coast of Long Island. Not a million miles from here are houses modelled on French chateaux, Latin haciendas, Georgian mansions and Elizabethan halls. I have no idea who lives in these palaces, with their imposing gates, manicured lawns and private beaches, but I suspect that they are owned by the modern-day Gatsbys of Wall Street, Wal-Mart or mega law-firms, who are too busy working to ever hold glamorous parties or gaze yearningly across the bay.

Mind you, I had forgotten that Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby had amassed his fortune through decidedly dodgy means, which probably makes his modern-day equivalent Bernie Madoff, but as readers we forgive him because he's romantic and believes, however naively, in hope. I just wonder what Fitzgerald would have made of modern day New York, greedy bankers with their bonuses and Ponzi schemes....

I've been reading pretty voraciously recently - the result of living virtually next door to a library and not being inclined to watch much American TV of an evening - so it's apt that my friend Mum of 4 (herself a talented writer) has passed me on a meme on writing. Here's my attempt to answer it.

Which words do you use too much in your writing?
And, actually, slightly.

Which words do you consider overused in stuff you read?
Unnecessary abbreviations - I even noticed a respectable newspaper using 'apps' for 'appetisers' the other day.

What's your favourite piece of writing by you?
I can't in all honesty say I've a favourite, but I like this one.

What blog post do you wish you'd written?
This one, by A Confused Take That Fan, had me in stitches, and I always remember it.

What is the strangest thing you have ever been asked to write about?
I once had to write a business profile of the marketing director of Ann Summers. The quotes were all about pink fluffy handcuffs and which vibrators were the biggest sellers. I don't think I have ever seen my (male) editor so excited about a piece I'd written....

Name three favourite words...
Murmur, seashell, emerald

And three words you're not so keen on?
Qualitative (can never spell it), consumer, apps

Do you have a writing mentor, role model or inspiration?
Journalistically I've always liked Zoe Williams in The Guardian. Of authors, I love Rumer Godden, Margaret Atwood, Barabara Trapido, Amanda Craig and Jonathan Coe. I wasn't inspired to start blogging by any particular blogger, more by reading a book called Notting Hell by Rachel Johnson and thinking, "I could do that, and maybe I'll do it online."

What is your writing ambition?
To get beyond the first chapter of a novel.

I'm going to tag Potty Mummy, A Confused Take That Fan , Cassandra and Mothership to take up the challenge.

Friday 14 August 2009

Best of both worlds

People over here keep asking me whether I like it in this town, and the answer is "yes". But they never ask me whether I mind not being in London - indeed, most people's only comment about London comes when the weather is bad, when they invariably remark: "This must be like home, right?"

So I was pleased (and flattered) to be asked to be guest blogger of the day for Angels and Urchins magazine back home in London and to write about things I miss about London, as well as all the things I love about my new abode.

Because, wherever you are, the grass is always greener somewhere else, and there are definitely things that are better back home. Anyway, you can read my latest take on it here.

In the meantime I will leave you with a remark of my own little urchin Littleboy 2's today that left me bemused. In a half-hearted attempt at potty training, I asked him this morning whether he would like to do his wees on the toilet today. His reply: "No, Mummy, I want to be a baby jaguar."

Riiiight. Knowing Littleboy 2's predilection for wildlife (he has a habit of picking up ants and beetles and examining them closely) I let it lie, muttering, "That's nice, darling."

It was only later that I realised that the nappy pants he is wearing featured their new favourite cartoon character: Diego, animal rescuer. Every episode Diego rescues an 'animal in trouble', and he is apparently so exciting that he must be watched religiously every night.

Anyway, Diego is pictured on said nappy pants holding guess what? A baby jaguar. Fair enough.

Monday 10 August 2009

Shop N Strop

"I'll go down to the supermarket again," I offered at 8am on Sunday morning, and The Doctor accepted in slight surprise. My going to do a huge weekly shop first thing on Sunday morning seems to have become part of our routine recently, and I think he is wondering why exactly I am so keen.

First of all, there is no question of me going food shopping with the Littleboys during the week any more unless it is an absolute emergency. We have had, shall we say, incidents. The puddle of wee on the floor in Whole Foods. The eating of food on display. The chasing of small boys around the aisles, terrified that they will knock over displays of fruit and vegetables. The culmination was Littleboy 2's catatonic tantrum in the checkout of Stop N Shop (or Shop 'N' Strop as I now think of it). He was in front of me, prostrate on the floor and wailing, blocking the trolley so I was powerless either to get to him, or check out my stuff, and had to watch as supermarket staff tried unsuccessfully to coax him away. All because he didn't get to put something on the conveyor belt.

So one of us now has to go alone, and although The Doctor has offered on occasion, I prefer it to be me.

Why? It's not just the fact that I now know the layout of our vast local hypermarket, and I've got it down to forty five minutes to go round it instead of an hour and a half. That I have now found the elusive aisle that sells Heinz Baked Beans, have discovered a cereal that looks remarkably like Shreddies (Cascadian Farm multi-grain squares, if you're curious), and have identified which of the thousand different types of Tropicana (added vitamins, added calcium, no pulp, some pulp, lots of pulp, slight-suggestion-of -pulp- but- not-too-much) to put in the trolley.

It's not just that it's blissfully airconditioned in there (although that is definitely a plus), that they play soothing music, that it sells pretty much everything under the sun, so I can browse anything from toiletries, makeup, books and DVDs to picnic baskets, snorkels and coathangers.

And it's not just that coming out of this supermarket into the enormous carpark, there is the most beautiful view of the harbour, dotted with yachts, that can lift the spirits on even the most dank of days. You can also smell the sea. A little different from the view on exiting Waitrose on Balham High Street, it has to be be said.

No, the true reason I like doing the Sunday shop is that it is the only daylight hour of the entire week that I am completely alone. With no one to tug at my sleeve, ask for another cup of juice, want me to help with a jigsaw, fix their Lego tower. No-one to whinge that they're hot, tired, need the loo or have fallen over for the millionth time that day.

So my little trip to the supermarket on a Sunday morning is, at the moment, pure child-free heaven.

I think I need some time off.

Tuesday 4 August 2009

Enough to drive you crazy -part II

The Doctor took his New York State roadtest today. After driving around the test area for three minutes, performing a three point turn and parallel parking, he was informed that he had passed. Bar a last-minute panic yesterday, when we realised that he had to turn up accompanied by a New York licensed driver, the whole thing was relatively painless. (He solved this particular problem by hiring a driving instructor to take him to the test. The guy turned up in a crappy old car, which he had forgotten to fill up with gas, and charged $100 for the pleasure.)

Even so, I could tell he was worried about it beforehand, because he kept muttering about it and even talked about getting a lesson. Although an excellent driver, I think he (like me) probably remembers with terror the UK driving test (both of us passed on our third attempt). But, I reassured him, it will be a travesty if you fail, when we are surrounded by some of most piss-poor drivers I've ever seen......

Because the kind of driving that, at home, you might point out and comment on (ahem, politely of course) as being truly appalling, is pretty normal here. And not by the usual culprits of delivery men (or white van men, as we might call them in London) or boy racers. Here the offender is more likely to be a glamorous mommy with large sunglasses and a huge SUV, or a suburban Dad taking his kids to the beach.

For example, it seems de rigueur to talk on your mobile while at the wheel, despite it being illegal. It's usually nice to have a cup of coffee in the other hand while you chat. The Doctor swears he passed a woman the other day who was doing the crossword.

Cutting corners when turning into junctions is also a Long Island speciality - particularly delightful if you are waiting at the lights on the other side of the road and come within inches of the bonnet of another car (usually one which already has a telltale dent in the side).

People drive badly whatever the weather. Tropical downpour? Pah. Just keep going at the speed you're at (which is always more than the incredibly conservative speed limit), ignore lake-like puddles and imminent danger of aqua-planing. Thunderstorm on the expressway? No problem, just act like you are the only car on the road, tailgating other vehicles before cutting across two lanes to an exit.

The major roads terrify me. To get from one end of Long Island to the other, you can take the Long Island Expressway, which is equivalent to a big four lane motorway, but is rammed with enormous trucks driven by truckers who have missed their calling as Formula One competitors. It is also home to some of the most aggressive driving I've seen outside of Palermo. Go in the fast lane, and you'll be honked if you aren't travelling at about three times the speed limit. Stay in the slow lane, and you run the risk that your lane will turn into an exit with no warning whatsoever.

If you can't face the L.I.E, you can take one of several State Parkways. These were built in the 1930s, supposedly for scenic leisure motoring through the countryside at the weekend. Trucks are banned, and they are usually surrounded by dense greenery on both sides. Sounds nice, eh? But no. Because they were built for much slower speeds, the entry and exit ramps are terrifyingly short. There is virtually no run-in, so you might well have to stop, and then join traffic travelling at at least 60mph when a space becomes available. And if you're on the road already, and travelling in the slow lane, a car may well appear seemingly out of nowhere to your right.

Even getting onto a parkway is also a major problem, as they are badly signposted and it's often not clear where the turning is. Only last week, a whole Long Island family was wiped out when a woman turned the wrong way onto a parkway in Upstate New York. A terrible tragedy, and although there are rumours she was feeling unwell, it gives me the sobering thought that it could have happened to anybody. Amazingly, she managed to drive for two miles the wrong way before the crash.

Fortunately the small residential roads I normally drive on are pretty slow, due to the number of 'All Way Stop' signs that stud them. These occur not only when there is a cross roads, but for example when two minor sideroads meet a major one. All cars must come to a stop. Everyone then sits in their car trying to gauge the expression on the other drivers' faces and working out who is going to go first. (The rule is apparently priority to the right, but no-one actually seems to obey that). Eventually one driver makes a tentative attempt to go, and everyone else follows suit. Approximately three minutes later, you are all on your way again.

But perhaps it's not surprising if all you need to get a licence is a three minute roadtest - plus the fiver hour compulsory theory session, which, The Doctor reports, consists mainly of watching ancient videos of guests on Oprah confessing their past drunk driving or speeding habits. The spotty 17-year-olds who made up the rest of the audience yawned their way through it.

Suddenly, I'm all grateful for the rigours of the UK test, the 'mirror, signal, manouevre' mantra and others rammed into my brain by my driving instructor, the fact that I know how to negotiate a roundabout. I just wish that everyone here had been through it too.