Wednesday 30 December 2009

Christmas by numbers

So this was our Christmas....

Adults in house: 3

Children in house: 4 (all under 6)

Inches of snow: 12 (it only melted on Boxing Day)

Individual gloves strewn around the house to find every time we went out: 14

Number of minutes it took to get children ready to go outside on average: 15

Number of minutes spent hunting for one of The Doctor's gloves, which had been hidden by a child: 20

Children taken to Manhattan on freezing cold evening to see giant Rockefeller Christmas Tree: 4

Children who cried from the cold the entire trip: 1

Panics experienced by The Doctor on Christmas Eve when he realised all his colleagues had bought each other presents: 1

Chocolates he rushed out and bought and wrapped in tissue paper: 30

Presents under the tree: Too many to count

New toys broken on Christmas day itself: 1 ( a torch, very annoying because we had bought the Littleboys 1 each so they wouldn't fight over them)

New toys lost mysteriously within a week of Christmas: 1

New toys left behind by my sister on her return to England: 1

New toys relegated to the top of a cupboard because they were so annoying: 2 (Ambulance trucks from The Doctor's work, which play the ER theme tune and say stuff like 'what's your ETA?' and were constantly being crashed into furniture)

Children who, on hearing Christmas lunch was ready, asked 'is it hot dogs?': 1 (Littleboy 1 of course)

Children who ate turkey: 4 (result!)

Children who ate sprouts: 0

Trips to overcrowded shopping mall: 1

Children NVG was tasked with taking to loo in mall: 3 (never again)

Children who wanted to ride on stuffed 'jungle animals' in a small fenced area at mall: 4

Children who crashed straight through the fence on said animals and headed off into the distance, pursued by all: 2 (both mine, naturally. The funniest thing I've seen all year....)

Hot dogs eaten by kids over seven days: 12

Trips to Manhattan without kids: 1 (My sister and I went to the theatre to see Love, Loss and What I Wore, by Nora Ephron, which was fabulous)

Temperature on day trip to the Top of the Rock observatory for a view of the New York skyline: Minus 7. With wind chills of much lower. Brr......

Days the temperature actually rose above zero: 2

Seeing the four cousins' faces on Christmas morning: Priceless.

Tuesday 22 December 2009

Lovely weather for shovelling together

This is the road I drive down every day to take the boys to preschool. Or used to. The neighbours had warned us that it would be closed in the winter, but I hadn't realised quite how closed. On Sunday, it became a ski and sledging run for the local kids and looks set to stay that way.
Over a foot of snow fell on Saturday night (and even more further out on Long Island) during the great East Coast blizzard. Sunday morning was spent shovelling. You get to know a lot about your neighbours after a snowstorm. The mega-organised ones had huge, expensive snowblowing machines and had cleared their drives by 11am (one guy had done that and even built a huge, very professional-looking snowman. He stood there surveying everyone else as they struggled with crappy shovels later in the day). Most people drifted out of the house around 10 looking bewildered and started shovelling with an assortment of implements. Every household is reponsible for clearing their own bit of sidewalk, and some people still haven't bothered - I think that says something....
Our landlady had promised that someone would help us with the driveway, but they had come in the early hours of the morning before the snow stopped. Not knowing if they would return, The Doctor and I donned our ski clothes and went out with shovels. He managed most of the driveway by 2pm, while I helped to clear the snow off the cars and entertain the Littleboys with snowman-building. Naturally, the snow removal people returned just as we had finished....
We managed to dig enough of a channel to actually leave our house, and amazingly, my sister arrived yesterday with no problems or delays, despite snow at either end (she lives in Essex, which has been badly hit by the UK snow) At one point it looked as if the weather really was conspiring against us, so there is relief all round.
Let Christmas begin! And a very merry one to all of you.....

Thursday 17 December 2009

10 reasons you know it's Christmas on Long Island...

1. You make special driving tours around town after dark to look at people's Outdoor Decorations.

Well, I wasn't going to let you get away without another Decoration Watch update, was I? The remarkable thing about the Christmas decorations is that they started off quite low-key. A wreath on a door here, a string of fairy lights there. But, the nearer we get to Christmas, the more they seem to multiply. So, houses that started off with one wreath now have wreaths on every single window; others have added draped more and more trees in lights. One house started off discreetly but added gradually more every week until the piece de resistance - a pair of lifesize nutcracker-style soliders either side of the front door. It's as if people look at their house every few days and think 'No, that's really not enough yet...'. Elsewhere, I've seen inflatable Santas on motorbikes, and - perhaps best of all - an inflatable Santa going up and down an inflatable chimney. (I'd love to take pictures, but I'm terrified someone will see it and recognise their house...). I have to say though, with perhaps the exception of the latter, many of the decorations are really attractive and it certainly does make the place look festive. And decoration fever is catching. I went to a fellow expat's house yesterday and she had two white lit-up reindeer in the backyard; she confessed that while two years ago she never would have dreamed of such a thing, now it seems absolutely appropriate.....

2. You are inundated with syrupy Christmas music. I've found a radio station that plays the cheesiest Christmas songs 24/7. How many times a sane person can listen to Jingle Bell Rock and Sleigh Ride Together in the course of one hour I don't know, but they are trying their hardest to find out. We listen to it in the car, and the Littleboys love it.

3. PETA would be shocked....Not only is the New York Times stuffed to the gills with Macy's and Tiffany's ads, there also seem to be a surprising number of press ads for fur, which appears to be quite acceptable here, with none of the ethical qualms of the UK. My small town alone boasts two fur storage places. People can also chat away quite happily about 'buying yourself a new beaver' on a radio ad without sounding at all self-conscious, either.

4. There is nothing worth watching on TV. The decent TV shows that I can count on one hand (that's House, Grey's Anatomy, Flash Forward) have been off air since Thanksgiving for an interminable Christmas break. But unlike in the UK, where they might be replaced by a really good Christmas special, the schedules are instead filled with evenings with country music stars, repeats, or college basketball. The Doctor and I are therefore ploughing in a most British way through a boxset of Brideshead Revisited, a present last Christmas.

5. You hear little mention of actual 'Christmas'. It's all about The Holidays here, in deference to other religions, Hannukah, etc. People talk about 'Holiday cards', 'Holiday cake' and what they are doing for 'the holidays'. It was virtually impossible to find a set of cards that said 'Merry Christmas'. rather than 'Happy Holidays'.(Although judging by the number of car stickers proclaiming 'Keep Christ in Christmas', not everyone is happy.....)

6. You finally experience a sudden rapid drop in temperature. A couple of weeks ago the boys were still playing on the beach. But for the past few days the temperature has rarely risen above freezing, and everyone tells me this is just the beginning. Yet it seems sunnier than the UK at this time of year, with a brisk invigorating wind reminiscent of ski resorts. And no snow yet, although it's forecast for this weekend. Maybe we'll have a White Christmas after all.....

7. You get your Christmas tree from the local fire station, rather than an overpriced stall run by barrow-boys on the Abbeville Road. A burly firefighter delivers it to your door with a cheery smile.

8. It's not just the outside of houses that get the festive treatment. Pick-up trucks sport Christmas wreaths. Massive great one, with red bows, strung across their cow bars.

9. Everyone asks if you've been to see the massive Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. I would love to, but the idea of facing the crowds on my own with two over-excited Littleboys is slightly terrifying. Something tells me an outing en famille is called for...

10. You are very excited to find a packet of Christmas crackers in a supermarket. Filed under Unusual Foreign Stuff, of course, but nevertheless there. It means your poor sister has one less item to carry out from the UK next week......

Monday 14 December 2009

A slightly random birthday tea

I have never been into throwing huge birthday parties for the Littleboys. Frankly they are a lot of work, and I genuinely don't believe the boys are old enough to really appreciate them - they don't notice the difference between having five friends around to play, and fifteen. I know that as they get older - probably very soon - they will demand big parties, with everyone from their class invited, lots of games, entertainers and goody bags, and when they want them, I will happily comply. But there's plenty of time for that, so up until now my usual strategy has been to invite a few friends (and family, when we were at home) around for a Birthday Tea. I realise that this is increasingly unusual, but my view on it is a bit like my view on introducing kids to video games; don't let them do it until they really, really want to.....

So I did the same for Littleboy2's third birthday last week. I asked round five of our new friends, with 10 children between them, half boys and half girls. I think I must have mentioned the words 'birthday tea' in an email to one of them, as she came round very bemused not knowing what to expect. "I wondered what you meant by that," she said. "I mean, children don't drink tea, do they?" I tried to explain that in England 'teatime' is a time of day, and can also be used to mean a meal; it is not just simply drinking cups of English Breakfast. I still don't think she really understood.....

In the past I've tried to organise pass the parcel and so forth, but this time my mind was more on other things, such as the Cake, so I simply let them loose to play among themselves with every available toy. It was, I have to say, fair old mayhem. Littleboy 1 led a gang of small boys on the rampage around the house; climbing the bunk beds proved a popular activity. The smaller children spread Lego liberally around the living room. The cake was produced, and Happy Birthday sung. Littleboy 2 blew out his candles. The children stuffed their faces with brownies, pizza and the infamous cake - which turned out fine, if a little mysteriously chewy.

At the tail end of the party, I brewed a pot of tea for my remaining friends and The Doctor, who had returned home early and, thank God, was doing a sterling job of clearing up the mess. The Americans took their tea black and looked horrified at the idea of milk; yet another cultural difference I was unaware of.

Reading Mom/Mum's post about goody bags, I realise now that I probably should have provided one, but no-one asked for one or complained that there weren't any.

So I guess it was a slightly random party and maybe I score bad marks as a party hostess. On the other hand everyone has emailed me to say that their children had great fun. As for the Littleboys, they announced that it was the best party ever.

Sometimes, I reckon, you can get away with being a bit random. And if anyone did think it was weird, at least I have the excuse that I come from a different country (they are not to know that parties in the UK are quite similar to here....).

Thursday 10 December 2009

Fear and Baking in Long Island

So I'm about to go all Julie & Julia, and write a confessional post about cooking. I suppose I could call it NappyValleyGirl & Nigella, but the idea of cooking my way through 'Nigella Christmas' is simply laughable. Because this post is actually all about my fear of baking.

I decided this year to make Littleboy 2 a birthday cake. Now this is a big departure for me; I've always bought the boys' birthday cakes before, usually at vast expense from a poncey Italian deli on Clapham High Street. This was partly down to laziness but the truth is, baking terrifies me, and I just don't know enough about it. The last time I baked a cake, for The Doctor's birthday a few years ago, it was a total disaster and the time before, for my mother's funeral, the whole thing collapsed and had to be binned. Before that, my only efforts had been similar disasters in school cookery lessons; I recall once making a swiss roll that was inexplicably twice the size of anyone else's AND burnt.....

The fact is, I can't bake. I can cook a half- decent supper, but when it comes to cakes, puddings, biscuits and breads, I just don't have a clue. Just the thought of it makes me panic. I get all paranoid about the quantities, then about the ingredients. The whole terminology of baking is like a foreign language to me. Does it matter that something calls for 'cake flour' and not normal flour? Is the baking powder that I've bought 'double acting' - what the hell does that mean anyway? Is whipping the same as beating, and should I do it with a whisk or a wooden spoon? Are you still supposed to grease a non-stick pan? No-one, even the most 'simple' of recipe writers, tells you these things; they just assume you know.

But this year I was determined to be different. I am not doing much journalistic work at the moment - thanks, recession - and I have less of an excuse not to become a domestic goddess (ha). And I didn't just want to buy a commercial cake mix - I wanted to do it properly, mixing everything by hand. My mother always baked our birthday cakes, and I remember enjoying helping, so I also thought it would be a fun activity for the Littleboys.

I perused a few cookery books and settled on a very basic Nigella Lawson recipe for children's birthday parties, plus an icing recipe from The Joy of Cooking. I spent ages in the supermarket selecting a cake tin and baking ingredients (and trying to work out what all the American equivalents are - for example, icing sugar is 'confectioners' sugar', and caster sugar didn't appear to exist). And then I began the task with the Littleboys, who were tremendously excited.

My first mistake was not reading the recipe properly. Somewhere between trying to instruct the Littleboys how to beat eggs and making sure they didn't spill everything all over the kitchen, I failed to notice that this was actually a recipe for a Victoria sponge cake ie. in two tins. While I do partly blame Nigella's rambling prose (quote - "I do not know how to ice, but have taken the precaution of marrying someone who does"), I have to admit that I was not really concentrating.

I only had one tin, but by the time I'd measured the quantities out it was too late. 'Oh well," I thought, "I'll just have to put it all in the one tin and cook it for longer." Then I panicked because Nigella called for greaseproof paper and I had bought a non-stick tin. I had a sinking feeling at this point that things would not go well.....

After the maximum time suggested by Nigella, I took a look at the cake. It looked done. And for sure it was - black on the edges and the underside, well done in the middle. Chargrilled cake. And I swear I followed Nigella's oven temperatures.....

I would have binned it, but for the boys, who were desperate to try it, so we iced it anyway. Littleboy 2 had asked for a 'green cake' but I wasn't up to this; instead I made a white icing and then tried to write his name in green icing from a tube. But the tube stuff melted into the hot icing straightaway. So there we have it; blackened sponge cake with green smudge icing. I cut off the burnt bits and served it to the Littleboys (who, bless them, still pronounced it delicious).

This morning I turned myself away sternly from the ready-made birthday cakes in the supermarket, like a reformed alcoholic, and swore to try again. This time, I attempted a sponge cake from The Joy of Cooking to be served at his birthday tea tomorrow. Again, I was flummoxed by the recipe; I couldn't understand why, unlike Nigella's, it didn't seem to contain butter, and didn't need self-raising flour. How can a sponge cake recipe vary quite so much?

This time I was solo in the kitchen, without my Littleboy helpers. I concentrated painstakingly with the quantities and tried not to worry that my beaten egg whites were not 'stiff' as suggested. The result? Cake no 2 isn't burnt, and looks vaguely like a sponge cake, even if the icing looks distinctly like the handiwork of a child or a deranged modern artist. I do feel a small sense of achievement (although we haven't tasted it yet) and have been spurred on to cook brownies with the boys this afternoon.

But I also feel frustrated; why do I find these things quite so difficult, when other people seem to be able to knock up cakes at a moment's notice? Is there anyone else there who suffers from fear of baking?

Monday 7 December 2009

A weekend with the Littleboys

Well, I survived the weekend. Although I have somehow and inexplicably done my back in - probably from carrying/dragging children or cleaning up crap off the floor. The snow never materialised; it just rained steadily all day Saturday. But the skies cleared on Sunday, leaving it chilly and sunny. (Meanwhile The Doctor reports that it's sleeting in New Orleans and his colleagues are illicitly shagging- maybe we're not missing out on that much after all.)

So without further ado, a quick tally of our activities:

1. A trip to the Long Island Children's Museum (via slight detour as NVG takes wrong expressway to get there.). This was hugely successful, just as good as the kids' parts of the Science Museum in London, and the Littleboys didn't want to leave. In fact, they had to be dragged out...

2. Lunch at the food court of Long Island's biggest shopping mall, Roosevelt Field. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but being a wet Saturday in December, it was of course mobbed, which made parking fun and negotiating the crowds with two speeding children even more fun. Luckily Littleboy 1 proved once again that there's nothing wrong with his memory. Despite not having been there since the summer, he deftly managed to find the place in the food court that sold hot dogs, among milling crowds of shoppers queuing for chicken chow mein, steak and falafel. (I had a chicken teriyaki burger - only in America...)

3. A quick walk around the mall. It did look very Christmassy, and was filled with fun things to do and try. Littleboy 1 had a go on a Wii - luckily he didn't realise it was for sale - and I bought them each a cute animal Christmas decoration.

4. A bad-tempered walk on Sunday morning, on which Littleboy 2 refused to move unless his mittens were on properly. Given that he couldn't seem to get his thumb in the thumb hole at all, and neither could I, this meant that half the time he was stationary as Littleboy 1 shot off into the distance on his scooter.

5. A trip to the Library to acquire Bob the Builder DVDs and a book of The Lion King, which immediately disappeared down the side of Littleboy 2's bunkbed, a place from which it is not possible to remove things without a major construction team (if only Bob the Builder were real..)

6. Attendance at the switching on of the Christmas tree in the local park. This was lovely, with a nativity scene involving real donkeys, hot chocolate, and candles to hold (slightly terrifying with pyromaniac four year olds). Then Santa arrived - not in a sleigh but in a firetruck, sirens wailing. Somehow this seemed highly appropriate....

7. A chance for the Littleboys to sit with Santa. Littleboy 2 cried and point blank refused, but his brother dutifully complied. They both received a flashing plastic reindeer nose, which immediately got broken and had to be superglued back together.

8. After a lot of shouting about not going to bed on Sunday night, they were finally asleep. I sat back with a glass of cold white wine to watch MY library DVD. "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.". Somehow, this seemed highly appropriate too.....

Friday 4 December 2009

On my own...

The Doctor has gone away to New Orleans for the weekend. Somewhere I'd love to go, but don't particularly fancy dragging two small boys around while my husband attends a conference, so we've been left behind.

This morning I dropped him off at LaGuardia Airport, a trip only made vaguely exciting by the Dodgems aspect of the Long Island Expressway on the way back, including a few potholed expressway ramps where people were inexplicably parked or performing random U-turns. For some reason the nearer you get to New York City, the more both the road, and the driving, deterioriates (which must mean I am getting used to Long Island driving - scary thought).

I wouldn't really mind very much except for the fact that these medical conferences are always at the weekend. And I never feel you can bother anyone else for their company at the weekend, because weekend is Family Time and you should not intrude. In London, I have a lovely friend whose husband is a jazz musician and is always off playing gigs at the weekend, so I always had someone to huddle with on those weekends when The Doctor was on call, or away. But here there is no-one like that, so I am faced with a weekend of entertaining the Littleboys by myself. This requires endless energy levels and patience, neither of which I seem to have in great supply at the moment.

What is more, this particular December conference occurs every year and it is always on the same date - right around Littleboy 2's birthday. (Apart from three years ago, when the conference had to be hastily cancelled for his unexpectedly early birth). Which is also a shame. And unless he drastically changes career, it will happen every year for the foreseeable future.

Things always seem to go wrong when The Doctor is away. Last time, I spent the whole weekend liaising with the local garage about what was wrong with the Evil Dodge (diagnosis -thousands of dollars worth of Wrong) and then trying to get hold of The Doctor in Barcelona to sanction it being mended. This time, snow is forecast for tomorrow night and I am dreading being snowed in at the top of a vertiginous driveway with no idea how to shovel myself out. I realise this is rather pathetic, but I am a City Girl totally unused to any extremes of weather and although in a way I am looking forward to seeing the first snowfall here, it's bloody typical that it'll probably happen while I'm here alone.

Anyway, him being away always brings home to me that it's unbelievably hard work on your own with small children. It doesn't happen to me very often and I realise I'm lucky. So, this one goes out to all the single mums out there (including my fabulous sister) who deal with stuff on their own ALL the time, and don't whinge about it at all. You rock.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

The postman always rings twice (but not the UPS man)

It's that time of year again. We've had Black Friday and then Cyber Monday, and Amazon is emailing me ten times a day to tell me about its fabulous 'holiday toy deals'. Never mind the opening of the Advent calendar, the first of December means online ordering kicks in and UPS and Fedex vans, the modern day Santas, are out in full force.

This time last year I was writing this and bemoaning the fact that the London postman NEVER delivered packages, even if you were in, but put a note through the door asking you to go to some god-forsaken depot. Here it is a little different. Packages are delivered, and the delivery guys don't bother to ring the doorbell, even if you are in; they just leave the packages sitting outside on the driveway.

Now, I realise that this is probably testament to the low crime rate in the town where I live, and this has to be a Good Thing. But it never ceases to amaze me. This morning we had a huge wooden play table delivered, and it was just left outside by Fedex, despite the fact that I was here - I can't even carry the thing, so there it will stay until The Doctor arrives home later today. Then a UPS man appeared with another heavy package and just shoved it into my arms and ran off as I was walking up the drive with the Littleboys. (The boys, of course, are incredibly curious as to the contents - so far I've got away with pretending it's 'something for Daddy').

Walking past another house on the street, I saw the most enormous object sitting by the front door - it must at the very least have been a tractor in a box. Our neighbours had a laptop delivered once, and that was just dumped outside with a note. If there were any criminals, they'd be having a field day.

The postman (I really should refer to him the carrier, as that's how he instructed me when we first met) on the other hand, is lovely. If I see him coming up the drive, he brings the mail up to the door instead of putting it in the box; we pass the time of day and have a good chat, and he waves at me when I drive past him in the car in another part of town. (I'm still waiting for him to exchange his uniform of shorts for winter trousers; surely he will when it snows?)

If there's any mail not for us, he keeps it back - I can always tell when he's been away as random letters for previous occupants start appearing. And best of all, here you can leave letters in your own mailbox to be posted, rather than making a trip to the mailboxes in town or the post office. All so much better than my experiences with Royal Mail, although the queues (sorry LINES) at the Post Office for purchasing stamps are just as long.

Now if only I could find some Christmas cards that don't have naff Santa-themed envelopes.....