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.....