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?