Monday 20 December 2010

The best of 2010 - books, films and TV

I spent a precious half hour yesterday morning curled up in bed reading the New York Times' end of year cultural round-up. I don't know about you, but I love reading these retrospective features and the way they put the year into context. (I know how hard they are to put together, too - when I worked on a magazine and we had to sum up our 'top 10s' from the year come December, no-one could remember a thing and we had to rack our Christmas party-addled brains to recall what had actually gone on in the industry. There was always something major that got left out and, naturally, people complained about it in January.)

So, anyway, this year I thought I'd put together my own personal roundup. I can't give you any kind of meaningful comment on art, dance or sculpture - I'm just not THAT cultured, I'm afraid - but I can give you films, books and TV. Without any further ado, my top cultural picks from 2010 are:

1). The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. The greatest living writer in my opinion, and still at the top of her game.
2.) The Help by Kathryn Stockett. A gripping read, and a real eye-opener about life in the Deep South in the not too distant past.
3). The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. I love this writer. Black Swan Green is fabulous but this story set in 19th century Japan, though long and complicated, is also rather brilliant.

1) An Education. Entertaining and thought-provoking coming of age story. I loved it.
2) The Social Network. Very clever and laugh-out-loud funny - whatever the veracity of its potrayals.
3. Toy Story 3. Still brilliant - and now the boys know who Woody and Buzz are too.

1) Mad Men. Season 4 was superb - particularly the scenes between Don Draper and Peggy. Still far more nuanced and intelligent than anything else on TV.
2.) The Ugly Betty finale. I always enjoyed this series, and was sad when it was cancelled. But I think they got the ending right (UK viewers, I don't know if this has aired, so I won't spoil it).
3.) Sherlock. I only caught this recently, but thought it was great - make some more, please. So much better than the dreadful Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes film, which I also saw this year.

So what were your favourites? Was 2010 a vintage cultural year for you?

Friday 17 December 2010

Manhattan at Christmas

I went into Manhattan this morning to meet someone about possible freelance work. I had an hour or so to kill before our meeting, so I took the opportunity to wander the chilly streets of the City, taking in the Christmas lights and decorations. Sadly I didn' t have my camera, but here is a verbal snapshot of what I saw....

A giant Smurf above the front door of Macy's. And lots of fluffy Smurf toys piled up inside. (Smurfs must be having a comeback - I remember my sister having a similar fluffy Smurf in about 1985. These were selling for a lot more than I am sure hers cost).

A giant Christmas tree made of poinsettias in the lobby of a bank building. I was rather taken with this.

Very lost-looking tourists outside the Waldorf-Astoria. (There was a great story about the W-A in the NY Times last week. A couple had their room given away because some Saudi princes were in town. They were furious - they were given instead rooms at the Hilton, but were quoted as saying that it "just wasn't the same - people were carrying pizza boxes in the elevator!" )

A delicious array of fragrances at Saks Fifth Avenue,including lots of Jo Malone, with which I liberally sprayed myself. (I went upstairs to look at the clothes, but was quickly put off by the price tags, and shocked by the rails full of fur coats. Decided I am more of J Crew and Zara type of girl.)

A Christmas market just off Fifth Avenue that seemed to sell nothing but furry hats.

Several groups of Salvation Army people singing carols on street corners.

Two people carrying gigantic bunches of balloons - they looked as if they were about to float and take off. They must have been for an office party, I reckon.

Quite a few people with British accents on the streets, several complaining about the cold. (Wear a hat, woman!)

A schoolbus full of kids brought to see the massive tree at Rockefeller Center, delight lighting up their faces.

It was certainly very Christmassy. I was trying to think about how it compares to London, though, and realised that I didn't see any one focal streetwith huge arching Christmas lights, (like Regent Street for instance. Although now I can't help thinking of poor old Regent Street being full of rioters shouting 'off with their heads' at the royals). On the other hand, New Yorkers do not stint when it comes to trees festooned with lights, huge wreaths and baubles adorning storefronts and wonderfully Christmassy smells - roasting chestnuts on street corners, stalls selling hot chocolate.

And of course, when it comes to home Christmas decorations, Americans far out-class the Brits. Not only on the outside (stay tuned for photos - I hope to get some next week) but on the inside too - according to this story, several rich Manhattanites now hire interior decorators to dress their tree. My interior decorators, on the other hand, were the Littleboys, armed with a bunch of paperclips. And the outdoor decorator was The Doctor, armed with a stepladder and two strings of Christmas lights to be strung around a little fir tree (as opposed to the several thousand strings, together with reindeer and sled combos employed by some of our neighbours). We will, however, be spreading some Christmas cheer with a mince pie and mulled wine party this weekend. I'll be interested to see how those very British delicacies go down......

Monday 13 December 2010

A very special story

First things first: this is not a sponsored post. I've been asked by PRs to review many products this Christmas, and I've turned them all down. They are usually things either totally inappropriate for the Littleboys - eg. tights(!) - or things that would be impractical to ship to the US, where the PR in question clearly has not realised that I reside.

I would rather, instead, write about a Christmas gift that I truly admire and have bought on several occasions. And one with which I have something of a personal connection.

Let me tell you a story first. Almost eleven years ago, I started a new job on a magazine. I sat down at my new desk, and smiled at the girl opposite, and it was the beginning of a firm friendship. While at first we bonded over the usual things - office gossip, tipsy work nights out - our friendship outlasted the workplace, and long after she moved to another magazine we would still meet up for lunch, coffee and a heart-to-heart over a glass of wine.

It was during one of these heart-to-hearts, in late 2003, that I announced to her my secret news. I was leaving the company, going travelling and then setting up as a freelancer with a view to starting a family. And then my friend announced her own secret news. She was also leaving; and planned to start her own business.

I was pretty surprised by this, and thought it was an incredibly brave move. But she then explained her absolute gem of a business idea - the creation of personalised books for children, using not only the child's name, age and other details but their photograph throughout the book as the hero or heroine of the story. The idea, she said, had come from books that her grandparents had lovingly created for her as a child, cutting and pasting the photos - now, with digital printing, it could become a reality on a much larger scale.

And so Itsyourstory was born. Six years later (my friend somehow having also found the time to have three children and move the entire family to Somerset) the business is going strong, with a range of 18 books to choose from as well as other products such as calendars, party invitations and letters. There are stories suitable for all ages and all occasions - birthdays, Christmas, even a super-hero story. In every story, the child is the star, and all kinds of information about their life - from their best friends' names to their favourite food and TV show - can be included in the tale. You simply go online to upload your child's photo and all the details, and the books are mailed out to you.

The Littleboys will each be getting an Itsyourstory book this Christmas, and I am confident that they will absolutely love them; you see, I've already seen the combination of delight and amazement before on nieces and nephews' faces as they open the books and realise that they are the main character. So, if you're short of a present either for your children, a relative or friend's child, pop over to the site and take a look (you can also follow them on Twitter). My friend has even set up a 20% discount for readers of this blog, valid until January 31st (although if you want it for Christmas, last orders must be made by this Friday, December 17). All you need to do is type the voucher code NAPPYV20* during the first stage of the order process on the website. I can guarantee you'll love the books. And you'll be supporting a very special friend of mine at the same time.

*excludes P&P.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

The Gallery: White. (And the birthday boy)

Unlike the rest of you back in the UK, we haven't had any snow yet in New York this year. Well, there were a few flurries on Monday, but it didn't settle - much to my relief, as the Doctor was away at a conference and I didn't much fancy digging out the driveway by myself. (I'm pleased to see, though, that there have been 12 inches in Vermont. Roll on ski-ing).

So, when it came to selecting a picture for this week's Gallery, I had to choose some photographs from February, when we had our biggest snowfall of last winter. It was a real powder snowfall, and when the sun came out after the blizzard, everything sparkled. And I thought I'd choose a picture of Littleboy 2, too, in honour of his fourth birthday today. He would have loved snow on his birthday. Ah, well.

Saturday 4 December 2010

It's a little bit funny.....

I made a discovery yesterday.

Americans don't use the word 'bit'. At least, not when they're talking about something other than the thing that goes in the horse's mouth.

I had a friend round, and her son was helping the Littleboys construct a marble run. Littleboy 1 was acting as the foreman, and was rather bossily ordering the other two about. He kept asking them to get him a 'red bit', a 'yellow bit' and so forth. At one point I had to intervene, and (being shamefully less good than my five year old son at actually following the instructions) I then asked him if "that bit goes there?"

"Oh," said my friend. "I've finally worked it out. Bit means piece."

She had thought we were referring to some technical marble-construction terms, and explained that, to her, bit was, well, getting the bit between your teeth. And thinking about it, Americans don't tend to say "It's a bit strange." They would say something was 'a little strange'. (US readers, If I'm wrong here, do let me know...)

It's strange how these little bits (ha!) of information can still surprise you. I remember being astonished last year to discover that Americans don't say they are 'cross' about something. It's mad, or angry. I found this out because someone was saying how cute it was that her son picked up British expressions from Thomas the Tank Engine. So, saying that I am a little bit cross about the fact that Littleboy 1's basketball lesson was cancelled today without our knowledge, would presumably be either quaint or completely meaningless to them. (I am more than a little bit cross about that, by the way. But I'll get over it).

Still, I feel as if I am being constantly educated. Today, for instance, I have been informed sternly by sons that 'dreidel' - a Jewish Hanukkah toy that they have been learning about at school - is not pronounced to rhyme with sidle, but cradle. At least I have the boys to put me right......

Tuesday 30 November 2010

Expat Christmas; then and now

It's the last day of November, and the Christmas cards are bought, but not yet written. The first trip to the post office to buy UK stamps has been made. You still have to be a little more organised about Christmas when you live abroad. But this time of year makes me think about my childhood, as the daughter of expatriate parents in Hong Kong, and how being an expat has changed such a lot in 30 odd years.

In the 1970s and 80s, all Christmas cards and gifts were sent by sea mail from Hong Kong (I suppose air mail would have been outrageously expensive). We would avidly, then, wait for the 'last posting date' for the UK to be advertised on TV - usually this was some time around late October. My mother's Christmas cards, all carrying meticulously composed handwritten messages about our family (she didn't believe in round robins), were therefore ready for posting before Halloween. I clearly remember one year, aged about six, when I was helping her carry them to the post office. We lived in a block of flats, and as we stepped into the lift on the way to the car, I managed to drop half the cards down the lift you can imagine, my mother was not impressed.

Christmas cards were sacrosanct in those days; they were the only way we ever heard from some friends, and we relished their arrival, because we could read all about how people back in the UK were doing. Now, in these days of keeping in touch via Facebook, email and the like, they've become less necessary - but I'd be sad to see them go the way of the aerogramme letter (how many expats still send those?). I still write them, and it's lovely to receive them, especially from friends and relatives at home. (This year I've even ordered some personalised ones with photos of the boys on them - after having realised last year that I was the only parent around here who hadn't produced such a thing).

With no online shopping, it wasn't possible to do as I did last year and arrange all the gifts to be sent straight from Amazon to UK addresses - or organise online gift vouchers. (This year we've decided to package the nieces and nephews' presents up and send them, as it seems a little more personal - I just hope they arrive intact). Nevertheless, we always received proper wrapped presents from our UK aunts, uncles and relatives, and my mother would send them special gifts from Hong Kong - little silk purses, embroidered cushion covers, Chinese slippers and the like. So much thought went into it- no doubt partly because it had to be thought about so early on.

Christmas Day itself was perhaps the only day of the year when we telephoned the relatives in England. Today, we can make Skype calls whenever we feel like it, but back then, international calling was both expensive and complicated (involving going through the international operator before you could make the call). But hearing those voices of grandparents on the phone, so far away, was something very special. (I always found the distance between ourselves and our loved ones quite confusing when it came to Father Christmas, though. How could he bring the presents from the UK to Hong Kong in one night - unless he travelled on the Cathay Pacific nonstop flight?)

In the evening, we would sit down and watch the Queen's Speech from London - live, via satellite, which made it somehow seem quite exciting. In this outpost of the British Empire, such traditions were still going strong. We also attended carol concerts, nativity plays and Christmas parties galore - although real Christmas trees weren't available, so we had to make do with a fake one. My mother always cooked a turkey with all the trimmings, and we had homemade Christmas pudding - I have no idea where she bought the ingredients. It's a bit different here in America - if anything, they embrace Christmas more than we do - but you still notice the differences (for example, no-one's heard of mince pies).

Technology means the world has certainly grown smaller - as an expat now, I feel pretty connected to what's going on in the UK. I even know, from Facebook and Twitter, if it happens to have snowed in the last hour. But sometimes I think that it means we take the distance for granted. We're still not there - and, as Michelloui's post today reminded me - if there was a crisis at home, we'd still have exactly the same issues to deal with. Being an expat then was certainly harder; but we really appreciated the contact that we did have with those back in the UK. And my memories of those Hong Kong Christmasses, and the effort my mum put into them, will remain with me forever.

Friday 26 November 2010

Cold turkey with the mommies

It's cold turkey day - or Black Friday, as it's known here. Everyone is stuffed to the gills with Thanksgiving Dinner and the airwaves are filled with ads informing us that various stores are opening at midnight for 'doorbuster' deals. Last night we watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving on TV with the boys; the second half, in which Charlie Brown and Snoopy join the pilgrims on the voyage of the Mayflower and at the first Thanksgiving feast, was incongruously interspersed with ads for half-price 32 inch plasma TV screens that would surely have made the pilgrim fathers blush.

Instead of going hunting for doorbuster deals, the boys and I hotfooted it down to the town library for the 'holiday show' - a concert by a country and western style kids' band. I knew from experience to get there a little early in order to secure a decent seat, so we managed to get in and sit down at the front of the little auditorium.

And then the altercations started. My God. You can see why people get trampled to death at Wal-Mart in the sales on Black Friday. (That tragically really did happen, here on Long Island, a couple of years ago). Behind us, a couple of women who must have been mother and daughter, judging by their identical brassy hairdos and penchant for gold-flecked black sweaters, had pitched up, without any children, to reserve some seats. But the pair (let's call them Mommy and Granny A) had arrived at the second row at exactly the same time as another woman (let's call her Mommy B) who had a voice as sweet as apple pie but the steely determination of Bree from Desperate Housewives.

"Sorry, but we're going to need these two whole rows for our family," says Granny A.

"But I just got here too," replies Mommy B sweetly.

"Well, we are here, and we need the two rows. You'll have to go somewhere else," says Mommy A.

Mommy B was having none of it. "Well, I got here at the same time as you, and I am sitting here. C'mon, kids," she says, plonking herself down with her three kids. Cue much muttering from Mommy and Granny A. "Can you believe her ATTITUDE?" was one of the whisperings I heard.

A few minutes later, the auditorium was filling up. Mommy A's family still hadn't pitched up. They had saved a lot of seats. Then Mommy C arrives. There is another altercation - this time I don't hear the whole thing but it ends up with Mommy C saying loudly, "well, I took the trouble and got here early, so I am going to sit here!"

Mommy and Granny A are outraged. Then finally their brood does show up...and one of the kids immediately starts screeching, causing everyone else to turn around and stare balefully. They do, however, seem to enjoy the show, forgetting their feuds in order to take hundreds of photos of their kids on their iPhones. I kind of admire their chutzpah- they don't care what anyone thinks of them, as long as the kids look cute in the photos.

I guess tensions could well be running high on the day after Thanksgiving (after all, if this article is anything to be believed, one in 10 women actually dread the Thanksgiving dinner because of all the family rows that ensue). Everyone's probably feeling knackered and over-fed. Cold turkey. (I wonder if that's where the expression came from?).

Whatever, if this is what happens at a children's concert, all I can say is I wouldn't want to cross any of these women in a stand-off over the last discount plasma TV....

Wednesday 24 November 2010

The Gallery; Black and White

OK, so I'm cheating. I didn't actually take this picture. (Well, how could I? I'm in it). But it's one of my favourite black and white photographs - me with Littleboy 2, aged four months. It hangs on my bedroom wall, alongside a very similar one of myself with Littleboy 1 in a very similar pose at a similar age. Both were taken by a professional photography studio in London. The boys love these photographs; they are always pointing up at them and asking, in a kind of wonderment, was that me, Mummy? As for me, I only have to glance at those photographs to remember how tiny and helpless the boys once were - even when they are running around the house barking like dogs or chucking plastic dinosaurs at each other. And that's what Motherhood is all about, isn't it. They will always be our babies, no matter what.
Now, go to Tara's Gallery to see more creations in black and white.....

Wednesday 17 November 2010

The Gallery; Before and After

It's a while since I took part in Tara's fabulous Gallery, so I'm going to put that right this week. The subject is Before and After, and what better way to illustrate this than the onset of winter? The first pictures were taken just a couple of weeks ago; even yesterday, the trees were still golden outside our house with leaves fluttering down prettily in the breeze. But what a difference a night of rain and gales makes. Today our driveway is ankle deep in leafy debris, and the house (shady in summer) is newly infused with bright winter light. Now I truly get why it is called the Fall.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

The 'holidays' are here

It took me a while to work out that when Americans talk about 'the holidays' they don't just mean Christmas and Hannukah, lumped together in a politically correct way.

No, 'the holidays' very much means Thanksgiving too, so with that coming up next week, it seems that we are now very much in 'holiday' season. (For instance, the Book Club I belong to is devoting one session in early December to some 'lighter' reads - 'holiday' reading. I was wondering why this was happening pre-Christmas, when it occurred to me that people actually have more time off at Thanksgiving than Christmas itself - and probably spend more time preparing the Thanksgiving turkey than the Christmas day lunch).

Bill Bryson says in Notes from a Big Country that Thanksgiving is his favourite US holiday, because there's no present-buying, just lots of food and drink, and I partly agree - but at the same time, the relative lack of build-up means it seems to creep up rather unexpectedly on me. As an expat, there you are, suddenly, in a perfectly ordinary November week, with several 'holiday' days on your hands and not very much to do. Apart from Thanksgiving day itself, when we are cooking a turkey for the European friends who entertained us last year, we have no plans, and yet the boys have three days off school for Thanksgiving recess (and a conveniently scheduled 'early closing' the previous day, apparently to practise emergency drills).

I have mentioned before how the Friday between Thanksgiving (always a Thursday) and the weekend is known as Black Friday, and how, although it is not officially a public holiday, most Americans take a day off (ostensibly to do their Christmas shopping, but quite probably because they are too full of turkey to move). However, The Doctor will be stoically at work on the Friday, leaving me to entertain the two boys on a chilly November day when many people are out of town or in 'holiday' mode. Luckily our local library puts on a special 'holiday show' for kids, so I have already made damn sure we have tickets.

The proximity of Thanksgiving to Christmas also means that the whole 'holiday' consumption theme has already kicked off, big-time. If Christmas shopping traditionally gets going on Black Friday, the media here agrees that this year it seems to have started two weeks earlier. Every day the school sends home countless forms to fill in and order gifts through the PTA. I spent this morning at the bus stop discussing gifts for teachers (a BIG deal here) with my neighbour, something that I would normally think about at the last minute once I have sorted out present-buying for all the family.

Meanwhile TV ads are all about entertaining for the 'holidays' - and other holiday-related themes. (One of my favourites is two guys in suits solemnly telling us about an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous that will guarantee you will be 'sober by the holidays'. Seeing as Thanksgiving is next week, this seems a tad optimistic).

So, desite feeling as if autumn is barely over (the Fall colours are still gorgeous and people still have their Halloween decorations out), it looks as though I'm going to have to jolly myself into 'holiday' mood very soon. As for being 'thankful' - the over-riding theme of Thanksgiving - well, I'm thankful that there are still five and half weeks before Christmas.....

Tuesday 9 November 2010

A blogging journey

On Friday evening I waved goodbye to the Doctor and the Littleboys at La Guardia airport and boarded a plane by myself.

Three hours later, I touched down in another American city and hurried out of the airport in the dark and cold. I then took a taxi to a hotel, where I was booked into a room with two people I'd never met before.

I entered the bar next to the hotel with a little trepidation, wondering if I would be able to identify the people I needed to meet - and whether they would turn out to be as I hoped.

And then I breathed a sigh of relief. Because sitting there, quite clearly recognisable despite the fact I had no idea what most of them looked like, were Expat Mum, Iota, Calif Lorna and Nicola. A little group of British expat women whose blogs I have read, commented on and come to love over the last couple of years. We had travelled to this hotel in Chicago from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Midwest and from the city itself. And despite the fact that we had never met in the flesh, I sat down immediately and began to talk.

I don't think we stopped talking all weekend, in fact. Not that evening, or the next morning as Expat Mum kindly gave us a detailed guided tour of city from the comfort of her car, or the next afternoon at the Art Institute of Chicago, when Geekymummy joined us from San Francisco, or Saturday night when we went out for cocktails and delicious Vietnamese food. We were still yattering away when we met for brunch on Sunday morning and then strolled in perfect autumn sunshine looking at Chicago's magnificent display of urban sculpture. Even when the lovely Nicola kindly dropped us at the airport to fly back to our respective corners of the USA, the conversation was still going strong - in fact, Geekymummy and I even managed to chat our way through the tedium of the 30 minute security queue at O'Hare Airport (quite a feat, really).

And we didn't just talk about blogging. Far from it. We talked about families, about America, about our lives and our plans and our thoughts. Just as we do online, in fact. And the amazing thing was that these women were just as funny, warm and intelligent as they are online, each with their own distinctive character and voice that makes their blogs such fun to read.

I never went into blogging to meet people - in fact I think it was probably the last thing on my mind when I started writing this blog in January 2008. I already had friends, and I suppose I was really aiming the blog at them, but I didn't even expect strangers to comment, let alone become loyal readers and amazing sources of information and advice.

But this was a fantastic weekend. So thank you, Chicago ladies, for your company and your conversation. And if anyone wants to join us next year, I'll definitely be up for another US blogger gathering.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

Autumnal thoughts

1. Halloween's finally over. (I can't believe my last four posts have been about Halloween. Just goes to show how it dominates the whole of October here). The pumpkin bags are full of candy, and placed on top of a cupboard in the kitchen, to be produced solemnly once a day for a treat. Littleboy 1 has already worked out that if he pushes a chair over there and reaches up, he can almost topple the pumpkin off. It's only a matter of time.....

2. The autumn colours have been particularly spectacular this year on Long Island. I thought I was just misremembering last year, but then a few local people have confirmed it; this year the island's North Shore seems to have been tinged with the kind of deep ochres, scarlets and golds that are more common further up in New England. I am constantly wishing I had my camera with me as I drive down streets laden with golden leaves, which are now crunchily lining the sides of the streets in their thousands.

3. It's Election Day today. Those of you following the US midterm elections in the UK might know that the Democrats are being seriously threatened and that this will be a real test of Obama's popularity. There are also local elections taking place, eg. for the New York State Senate. If I was in the UK, I know that all my friends would be talking avidly about such an election. Here? None of the local friends I know has even mentioned it, let alone revealed what they think about the candidates. It's bizarre. Do Americans not like to discuss politics in social situations? Or is it just voter apathy...

4. Election Day seems to mean the boys get yet another day off school. In fact, I have worked out that Littleboy 1 gets seven whole days off in November - that's for Election, two parent-teacher conference days, Veterans Day and three days off at Thanksgiving. If it was a private school, I would be tempted to ask for a refund.

5. It's finally become chilly outside. That's the thing about this country - a balmy 21 celsius last week, and this week it's near to zero. I am still in denial, I think - I sent Littleboy 1 off to school in a cardigan and fleece yesterday, when he really should have been in a winter coat and gloves (not that he really seemed to notice). Time to get the ski clothes down from the attic.

6. Talking of which, we have decided to take both boys ski-ing at Christmas in Vermont. Which everyone tells me is freezing, freezing, freezing cold. So I am going to be on the LL Bean website ordering child-sized balaclavas very soon. I hope they serve good mulled wine in Vermont.

Friday 29 October 2010

Halloween parade; survival of the fittest

So this morning the infamous Halloween parade took place.

Littleboy 1 went off to school in his black bat costume, very overexcited (having climbed into bed before 7am asking 'do I wear my costume today?). I dropped Littleboy 2 at preschool as early as I possibly could (8.50am) aware that the parade would start at 9am and parking near the school would probably be difficult. But I had NO idea...

I realised from the amount of traffic along the route that every single bloody parent in town was driving to the school (due to the zoning in the area, hardly anyone lives near enough to walk). At the school, naturally the carpark was already full, and it was mayhem on the surrounding streets. Enormous cars were everywhere, their occupants zealously scanning the normally quiet residential area for parking spaces - never easy when you have to avoid parking near fire hydrants, on the wrong side of the street for street cleaning and other idiosyncratic restrictions which New York seems to love.

Eventually I managed to park about half a mile away and, at two minutes to nine, set off at a sprint along the road. I was not the only parent doing this by any means - luckily my weekly kickboxing class stood me in good stead as I am reasonably fit, and managed to overtake about half a dozen overweight Dads on the way. Meanwhile mothers were running in heels, business suits and with buggies - as we arrived at the school, one fellow runner said to me between gasps for breath; "I gotta be at my other daughter's school in XX (another town a few miles away) at 9.30. So I'm just gonna take one picture and GO."

Anyway, I made it just in time and switched on the video camera to catch Littleboy 1's class exiting the school and parading around the playground. Readers of the previous post will be glad to hear that most people did 'respect the integrity of the cordon' - except for one younger sibling, who was so excited that he ran out to see his brother and had to be herded back pronto.

For some reason my firstborn looked rather downcast during the parade itself, only managing a half smile when he saw me. I asked him if anything was wrong and he replied that he was 'really sweaty' - odd, considering it was a pretty chilly morning. I can only think that he had raced around so much in his costume before it even started that he was completely done in - no doubt all will be revealed later.

The Doctor, busy at work, scores nulle points for not being at the parade - every single Dad appeared to be there. It hadn't even occured to us that the Doctor should come (don't we ever learn?) but I reckon next year he might have to be granted a special dispensation for essential Halloween activities.

Still, it's not over yet. Tomorrow there's another parade, at our local parenting centre, followed by trick or treating on the day itself. It's just nonstop fun here in pumpkin land, and I'm going to be exhausted by Monday.....

Monday 25 October 2010

Another Halloween newsflash. And now for your parade instructions....

So, you want to know how seriously Halloween is taken here? If the decorations weren't enough, here's proof.

The other day I received a letter from Littleboy 1's school. Not only is the possibly the longest missive I've ever had from the Head Teacher, it is also the most comprehensive in terms of its detail and instructions. No, it wasn't about the coming parent-teacher meetings, or the curriculum, or the screening of kindergarteners for educational difficulties. It was about the annual Halloween parade.

I had some vague idea that they might be allowed to go to school in costume on the Friday before Halloween; let's just say that is an understatement. The school Halloween parade, it informs me, will be kicking off at 9am sharp, with students exiting the side doors. It then goes on to outline the prescribed parade route and inform parents of the best areas for viewing and photography. Parents are also asked to 'respect the integrity' of the cordon which will separate us from our little darlings in their costumes, before they re-enter the school again in time for lessons.

It sounds more like a military passing out parade than a chance for the children to show off their costumes - or, as the Doctor remarked when I showed him the letter, something out of Maoist China. What, we wondered, would happen if any child failed to show up in costume? Would they have to stay behind in the classroom? Or be forced to parade around ignominously in their ordinary clothing.....

Littleboy 2's preschool, in contrast, asks the children NOT to come to school in costume, for 'safety' reasons, but suggests bringing in a Halloween treat, one that is preferably 'not candy'. I suddenly remember that last year, they came home bearing little gift bags containing Halloween themed pencils, erasers and items such as plastic spiders, which various children's mothers had lovingly put together for every child in the class. No doubt even if I hotfooted it down to Target now, all this stuff would already be sold out, so I'm just going to pretend I have no idea that this is what's expected....

Meanwhile, in other Halloween news, the people down the road from us have once again erected their enormous inflatable witch, this year accompanied by a giant blow-up pumpkin. I had wondered if they weren't going to do it this year after all, and felt quite disappointed - had they had enough of Halloween? But no, this weekend it all magically appeared overnight. (I'd love to take a picture, but am terrified that they might read the blog and identify me.)

Final newflash - the other day I had to rush out and buy a replacement pumpkin for a distraught Littleboy 2, after we arrived home one day to find a squirrel sitting boldly on our porch, scooping out the middle and eating it. It was so ridiculous that I had to stifle my giggles while commiserating with the boys and simultaneously sweeping up chewed bits of pumpkin. The war on squirrels has now officially been declared...

Monday 18 October 2010

Homes and gardens - Halloween special

So I promised you Halloween decoration pictures, and now I shall deliver. But first an apology; it's a little hard to get good close up pictures of Halloween decorations on houses without looking like some kind of paparazzo, furtively pulling up in a car, winding down the window and getting a snap in before hurriedly pulling off. Not being the owner of a long lens camera, my efforts are taken from rather a distance (and disappointingly I had to leave out the one of the house with a huge spider above the door, because it just didn't show up...). I'll be back though - I definitely want to get some of the Christmas displays this year....

First picture - this was one of the more attractive Halloween displays I saw on my travels today. Note the array of pumpkins, gourds and squash, the beautifully thought-out fake spider webs, and the high quality gravestone (by the tree). It's no surprise that this house is in a particularly posh area, and I would not be surprised if some kind of exterior designer might have been involved....

House number two had made the most of their shrub-lined stairway with another good display of fake spider-webbery. In fact, most of the houses on this (again rather grand) street had some degree of spider-web action going on, so I wondered if it was becoming something of a competitive sport. If you look closely, you might spot a ghost in the hedge too.

And finally for today. Littleboy 2's 'pumpkin snowman'. He was so pleased when he spotted this one on a drive around town that I had to go back and find it again. I think it's fairly self-explanatory....

Thursday 14 October 2010

Trip or treat? Halloween health and safety.....

Halloween preparations are in full swing here. As of last weekend, everyone's decorations are up; perfectly normal suburban houses have now been transformed into haunted mansions, complete with fake gravestones on the front lawns, ghosts dangling from porches and fake spider webs all over the shrubbery. Our drives around the neighbourhood are punctuated by 'spot the pumpkin' games and in addition we've seen large inflatable black cats and even what Littleboy 2 called a 'pumpkin snowman' on local front lawns. (You'll have to use your imagination here....I do intend to take some pictures this year, but am just working out a way to do it discreetly.)

If more proof were required that Halloween decorations are an integral part of life in the US, this morning The Doctor forwarded me part of the local weather forecast that he had seen online, warning about possibly winds this weekend. It reads 'Residents should take precautions at this time to protect property...such as Halloween decorations....that are susceptible to strong gusty winds'. In other words, expect smashing pumpkins and flying inflatable witches this weekend....

And, as if this weren't enough, I have just received a press release, warning me about the dangers of Halloween and offering injury prevention tips, from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, no less. Apparently, Halloween is 'among the top three holidays producing the most ER visits'. Injuries from Halloween are most likely to be finger/hand related ones (from all that pumpkin carving); and of course, jack o'lanterns are potential fire hazards.

Then there are those pesky Halloween costumes. The press release tells me that 'costumes should be flame retardant and fit properly' and that 'costumes that are too long could cause children to trip or fall'. (No shit, Sherlock).

Children should also apparently be wearing 'sturdy, comfortable, slip resistant shoes' when they go trick or treating.' (Presumably because this involves walking around, something that children almost never do in suburbia...).

Other trick or treating advice includes taking a flashlight, being aware of neighbourhood dogs, and that 'it's a good idea to carry a cellphone when trick or treating, in case of emergencies'.

Who knew that Halloween could be so dangerous? I'm spooked already......

Monday 11 October 2010

Happy Columbus Day! A guide to American bank holidays

It's Columbus Day today, one of those nebulous quasi-holidays they have over here where the schools and banks are closed, there is no rubbish collection or post but other things seem to carry on as normal - eg. my husband is still expected to go to work, the boys' swimming lessons continue, etc., etc. On our trip to the playground this morning, I spotted legions of women whose other halves were clearly at work, desperately trying to entertain their kids for yet another day after the weekend.

The USA has quite a few Monday bank holidays. Some of them, like Memorial Day and Labor Day (marking the beginning and end of summer), are widely observed, but many of them seem semi-official - for instance Martin Luther King Day, in mid-January, and Presidents' Day in mid-February. Not every employer lets their staff take them off, and even if you do have the day off, not everything is open. For example, we were at the Bronx Zoo this weekend, and I noticed that it is only ever closed on Christmas Day, Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King day. OK, I can see that possibly this makes sense; it's the coldest time of year and all the animals will probably be huddled indoors somewhere drinking hot chocolate. But then again, what ARE you supposed to do on a bank holiday Monday in January? You can ski, but (having been researching ski resorts recently) I've also noticed that this is THE most expensive weekend of the year at some resorts. Or you can indulge in some shopping - every time there is a holiday, you are bombarded with advertising by stores like Macy's, which I can guarantee will today be having a Columbus Day mattress sale or similar.

Then there is the Friday between Thanksgiving (always a Thursday) and the weekend. It's not a public holiday, but everyone takes it off as holiday - everyone American, that is - and it is supposed to be one of the biggest shopping days of the year. Not being American, last year The Doctor determinedly went into work. I took the Littleboys to a 'holiday show' at the library, which was full of Dads.

Because of New York's large Jewish population, the schools here also observe various Jewish holidays, so they are closed, for instance, for Rosh Hashanah, in September (although not for Hanukah). However, again these are not public holidays. Most other business carries on as normal. These type of holidays are always acccompanied by a baffling announcement on the radio station that we listen to, telling us that in Manhattan, 'alternate side parking is suspended, but you still have to feed the meters'. It took us months to work out what this meant (basically it means that there is no street cleaning, therefore you don't have to worry about your car being towed if it is parked on the wrong side of the street, but parking is not free. Got that?).

In fact, you have to follow the school calendar quite carefully to work out exactly when school IS taking place. And hope they haven't misprinted the dates - last year I only worked out at the last minute that the boys only had a week's Easter break, as opposed to the three weeks indicated by the calendar I had been sent (and by that time we'd already booked a 10 day holiday...).

Still, it's not as eccentric as in Hong Kong, where I recall my primary school being closed for such holidays as the Queen's Birthday, our Headmistress's birthday and even when there was a major golf tournament (the headmistress being a keen golfer...!). Meanwhile a friend who lives in Dubai tells me that the start of the school year there was dependent on when the moon appeared in the sky after Ramadan; she didn't even know it was officially happening until a couple of days before......

Anyway, aside from all that, hope you are all having a great Columbus day! Now, we're off to swimming lessons.....

Monday 4 October 2010

You know you're the mother of boys when....

I was reading Potty Mummy's latest post and it reminded again me how much pleasure I get out of reading blogs by mothers who also have little boys. Not that I don't enjoy the others - I do, of course, (and I know that girls can be just as lively, frustrating and downright naughty). And, much as I love my boys deeply, there are some things that just particularly strike a chord with me; some things that mothers of sons can particularly appreciate.

Anyway, that's what inspired these random jottings on a Monday morning, and whether you have one boy or three, perhaps you'll recognise your own home life in some of them.

You know you're the mother of boys when...

1. You are constantly having your breasts grabbed and fondled - not just at home or lying in bed, but often in public at highly inappropriate moments, such as talking to teachers, the postman or a librarian.

2. The idea of any craft activity taking place in the home (painting in particular) fills you with horror, not maternal delight...

3. On any given day, you are quite likely to find
a) dinosaurs on your dining table at supper time
b) toy cars in your children's beds
c)dirty planks of wood in the back of your car

4. You don't have to worry (much) about tantrums over what clothes to wear in the morning. They don't care. More of a problem is getting them to sit still for two seconds in order to get dressed...

5. The idea of someone pooing in their pants is hilarious, not disgusting, to your children.

6. Every walk has to involve the collection, and ideally transportation home, of many kinds of stick....

7. The idea of staying inside the house all day because of the weather is just completely out of the question.

8. You realised long ago that kiddie activities that involved sitting still, such as Storytime at the Library, are not for you....

9. You only visit the supermarket with your children when you have absolutely no other option.

10. You get through a packet of plasters a week, and are regularly found mopping up blood or debating with your husband whether stitches are necessary. And you have more than once had to resort to antibiotics when cuts have become infected by dirty little fingers....

11. You cannot understand it when people say their children don't need a bath every day. Your own children's dirty bathwater is black every time....

12. You regularly watch your children wrestle each other like baby lion cubs, and have become immune to the accompanying screeching and yelling. Only when there is actual injury will you intervene....

13. At some point, you know you will have to become an expert, not just on subjects such as outerspace, makes of truck, dinosaurs and robots, of which you have scant knowledge, but probably also on stuff like Power Rangers, which you have no desire ever to know about.

14. Your son cannot remember the name of a single girl at school, or even appear to recognise them when they come up and say hello to him in the playground. (Note; they are not that much better with boys...).

15. Little girls come round to play at the house and complain that your children are too noisy. You agree with them.....

16. If they are hurt or upset, your little boys will always run to you for a cuddle. Because little boys worship their mothers - and note that that makes it all worthwhile........

Any other reasons to add?

Thursday 30 September 2010

Made in Manhattan; what's your favourite New York movie moment?

Since I've been living near New York, I've taken an extra special delight in watching, and often re-watching, films and TV shows that feature the city and its environs. It's amazing how many times it crops up; and not just with the obvious Manhattan candidates, like King Kong, Sex and the City, West Side Story, countless Woody Allen films, Working Girl, Ghostbusters, Taxi Driver, The Devil Wears Prada....well, obviously, the list is endless.

With our new-found knowledge of the city, we can now recognise the less obvious and less glamorous parts of the city on screen. Our blogger heroine in Julie & Julia lived in Long Island City, Queens, suspiciously close to what looks like the Long Island Railroad. Sitting at home watching Tony Soprano driving his car in the introduction to The Sopranos, we can gleefully point out and recognise the New Jersey turnpike and Lincoln Tunnel. Watching Madagascar, we suddenly get all the New York references (eg. "this is the Jersey side of this island") more than ever before, as well as pointing out Central Park Zoo and Grand Central Station to the boys. And we could also scoff at the recent series of 24 which feaured Jack Bauer in New York, knowing that there is no way he could have taken two minutes of screen time to get between two points which we know could easily take up to an hour....

Wall Street; Money Never Sleeps, which I saw last night, was no exception. As you might expect, it features the City in all its glory; amazing panoramas of the New York skyline over the Hudson and the East River; a sumptuous fundraiser ball at the Met; a scarily fast New York cab ride with a maniac driver (and yes, they really do drive like that); glossy loft-style apartments. But this time there was an added bonus: Long Island!

Jake, the young investment banker played by Shia La Boeuf, comes from, in the words of his friend, 'some Long Island town no-one's ever heard of, let alone can spell' . (There are quite a few of those; Ronkonoma, anyone, or Hauppage?) His mother, brilliantly played by Susan Sarandon, is a realtor out on the Island and when they go out to visit her, she shows them around a house, telling them Long Island is always popular, due to the 'good schools, and plenty of doctors' (well, thank goodness for that!). But perhaps the best bit was the scene featuring Jake and his fiancee driving down the Long Island Expressway, with cars bumper to bumper and apparently dangerously close behind them. That, my friends, is no Hollywood fantasy....

The film is a great follow-up to the original Wall Street, and features Michael Douglas at his reptilian best as Gordon Gecko. It's sumptuously filmed by Oliver Stone, and even if the storyline is a little bit unbelievable, I'd highly recommend it. In the meantime, if you have a favourite New York movie, let me know in the comments box....

Sunday 26 September 2010

I'm becoming indoctrinated.....

You know you've been in the States for over a year when:

1) You are not surprised when people start asking you in mid September what your kids are going to wear for Halloween. (What's more, you even have it sorted, having craftily picked up a couple of $5 costumes from a secondhand sale).

2) When local mothers start on their favourite conversation of which doctor or dentist in town is the best, you can happily join in (rather than wondering why the hell they don't just go to their nearest one?)

3). You finally know what the following food items are (even if you had to look them up on Wikipedia)

a) S'mores
b) Sliders
c) An 'open-faced meatball hero'
d) Fixin's

The last two were on Littleboy 2's school lunch menu. UK readers, any guesses without rushing to Wiki?

4. You don't have to spend embarrassing moments in shops trying to work out what's going on with your small change (clue: five cents is bigger than ten cents).

5. You don't refuse a lift home from someone, even if you just live around the corner and are quite happy to walk. They will just think you are weird.

6. You have already started thinking about what you'll be doing at Thanksgiving....

Monday 20 September 2010

An Education

So far, so good. Littleboy 1 loves school.

He's still the first up the schoolbus steps in the morning; still reports that school was 'great' when he climbs back down the steps at 3pm. I have had just one call from the school nurse's office so far (he fell off the monkeybars, luckily uninjured), which, considering the number of daily incidents in our household requiring first aid, is doing quite well. I am still waiting for the day when all is not quite so great, but thus far, the excitement has yet to wear off.

It helps that his teacher seems delightful. On the first day, after a lot of persuasion I got him to describe the day at school and was slightly surprised when he came to "And then, my teacher got out her violin and played it". It was only a few days later that I met a woman I know in the supermarket and mentioned the name of his teacher. "Oh, she's lovely," she said. "She plays the guitar and sings to them."

He's already come home with some new phrases. "It's your choice," he likes to tell me constantly. "Are you going to let me play the computer now, or later?" (Notice how the choice works entirely in his favour...). An awful lot of things are 'awesome' - a word he used a little bit before (such as the infamous time he told us that Rite-Aid was an 'awesome' shop), but he's definitely using it more now. And he's learned a new song, which he loves - the one about the peanut sitting on a railway track, and being turned into peanut butter (pronounced 'budda' in a very American accent).

I haven't yet discovered whether he knows how to Pledge Allegiance to the US flag (something that I can see is on the New York State Kindergarten curriculum). We asked him about this last night, and he mentioned that they had 'done a song about the red, white and blue' - however, he couldn't remember it and wondered if we could sing it. Unsurprisingly, we couldn't.

Littleboy 2, meanwhile, has started back at preschool, which is just as well, considering he spent the days when his brother was at school and he at home in a completely foul temper. Every morning as his brother left with me for the bus, he would eat his breakfast stony-faced looking more and more furious - one day running out into the street in his pyjamas, luckily chased by The Doctor, to follow us. It's hard for him, seeing his brother go off in the all-exciting bus, and I dread to think what will happen next year when the little girl next door (whom they both adore) starts Kindergarten too.

Still, his return to preschool seems to have prompted some searching questions of an educational nature. "Mummy, what's inside the sun?" he asked the other day, curled up in bed early in the morning. "Err......" I said, before mumbling something off the top of my head about lava. I realised I have absolutely no idea, physics not having been my top subject at school and the question having never occurred to airy-fairy Arts-graduate me. (The Doctor later told me it is hydrogen and helium). I've also had questions about why cars can go uphill, to which I honestly have no sensible answer.

I can see this is the start of a long Education for me......

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Social mores; your multiple choice quiz

Every time we go to a social occasion here, we seem to get it slightly wrong. I really should have learned by now that less is definitely not more now - the golden rule being, when in America, think big - but somehow I always err on the side of not wanting to go over the top, which is probably a very British attitude. See how you would do.....

1. You are invited to a Labor Day BBQ. The hosts say in an email that they are providing food. Do you bring:

a) A few beers to add to the coolbox
b) A large basket of preferably homemade pastries and cakes
c) A massive plate of homemade sushi

2) You are going on a 2 hour evening boat cruise with a group of friends; the cost includes food but you are asked to bring some booze. Do you bring:

a) A bottle of wine to add to what you assume will be the general stash
b) A small coolbox filled with beers and wine
c) An enormous coolbox filled with different drinks, which has to be dragged on board.

3) You are invited to a breakfast for all new kindergarten parents, on the morning that school starts. Do you wear:

a) Shorts and a t-shirt, accessorised by your grumpy smaller child hanging onto your arm and spilling your coffee
b) A pretty sundress and heels
c) Designer togs, accessorised by your husband who has taken the morning off specially.

All a)s Get with the program. You are obviously from out of town. You have no idea of what to do on these occasions - in fact, you could be British....
All b)s - You are doing pretty well, but still could do better....
All c)s - Congratulations! You know exactly how to behave on every social occasion and always make a special effort to impress.

Note to self; must try harder.....

Sunday 12 September 2010

A trip to the US Open; SW19 vs Flushing

Buying tickets for the US Open felt like something we had to do while here, given that we live just a 20 minute direct train ride from Flushing Meadows. I was also intrigued to see how an American tennis championship compared to a British one. I've been to Wimbledon a few times, mainly through work, and also Queens (which was always fun, as it's much smaller and you feel as if you are really close to the action).

So last week we set off to watch Nadal in the mens' quarter finals - the Littleboys were happily esconsed with our neighbours, where they were having their first ever sleepover. (The tennis here tends to go on until about midnight, and my neighbour had told us 'if you come back before 11, you've wasted your ticket'. )

The weather was distinctly windy, and probably the coolest day we've had here since the end of May; I therefore took a fleece. However, as we ascended to the top of Arthur Ashe stadium - we were right up in the gods, or whatever the equivalent sports-stadium term might be - I realised that a simple fleece would be no protection against the howling gale that was blowing up there. A few people had come with hats and blankets - however, most people were blatantly underdressed, and the stalls selling US Open sweatshirts must have made a fortune that night.

The atmopshere at the US Open - at least in the cheap seats - could not be more different from Wimbledon - where, if I remember rightly, no-one is allowed to come and go during the games itself (you can only leave or arrive at the change of ends). Instead, everyone is milling around, coming in with huge plates of fast food, hot dogs and beers during almost every game. After the first set, about half the people around us seemed to disappear, never to return. Either they thought the match was boring (and, to be fair, it wasn't a classic) or they were simply too cold - the outside area, with food and drink stalls, was packed. We had the impression that for many people it was a night out rather than a chance to watch tennis; the women behind us chatted about eBay for most of the first set. At Wimbledon, this was sometimes my experience when going on a corporate freebie - indeed, many people sat in the hopsitality tents boozing and never even went to watch the tennis - but when going as a normal fan, in the 90s, I remember everyone was concentrated on watching the match.

In between the games, loud music played and it felt more like an ad break than anything else - in fact, it reminded me of the MTV Europe Awards, which I once went to in Barcelona. There were promotional stunts - a couple of people were 'upgraded' to courtside seats courtesy of Continental Airlines -and ads did indeed play on the big screen at the top of the stadium. The whole thing was much bigger, brasher and certainly less formal than Wimbledon.

So which one wins? While I enjoyed our evening (especially once I had warmed up with a cup of coffee), I reckon Wimbledon offers more atmosphere, perhaps down to its formality and traditions, which, while stuffy in some ways, do engender a sense of occasion. (For instance, while I know that forcing the players to wear white might be old-fashioned, in a way I would rather that than Nadal's day-glo trainers, which were frankly distracting.) The US Open felt more like a huge, open-air gig, with the players as entertainment far below us if you could be bothered to watch. I'd love to go again, but maybe we'll spend more on our seats next time and try to get closer to the action. Unless, that is, anyone feels like giving me a VIP ticket......

Tuesday 7 September 2010

The Gallery: Back to school

The little patter of footsteps climbing down from a bunkbed interrupts my dreams at 6.30am this morning. It's only just light outside, the sun rising in a clear, cloudless September sky. The little warm body climbs into bed, and slips next to me. Then I hear the small, tired voice, asking: "Mummy?"

"Yes?" I reply sleepily.

"Did I miss the bus?"

It's a big day for Littleboy 1. Not only his first day as a kindergarten student at 'big school', but his first day riding the schoolbus. Luckily, when we leave the house at 8am, we are in plenty of time, walking the 20 or so yards to the designated bus stop. We walk with the little boy next door, a good friend of Littleboy 1's, who by a stroke of luck is in the same class (it's a big school, so there was only a one in five chance of that happening), and also has a big sister, who will help them both find their classroom. They're both excited. His friend tells him at the bus stop, 'No crying for Mommy on the bus', and they both dissolve into laughter.

After a couple of minutes, the big yellow bus pulls up, lights flashing. Littleboy 1 is at the steps before I've even had a chance to wish him luck and say goodbye. I just about manage to give him a kiss before he's away, first up the steps and busy choosing his seat.

As the bus draws away, I see him wave. My baby, off into the big wide world.
This post is for this week's Gallery at Sticky Fingers. Topic: Back to school.

Friday 3 September 2010

Back again

Well, the weather improved for the second half of our trip. In Anglesey, we had blue skies, cold nights and gloriously empty beachscapes like this, as the Littleboys reconnected with their four cousins and the extended family turned our hosts' thankfully large house into a sort of anarchic child zoo. The first overexcited yelp and patter of footsteps began the day around 8am, and it continued in the same vein until they all collapsed with exhaustion at some point during supper.

It was a vintage Anglesey experience; lobster and freshly caught shrimps for supper, paddling in rock pools, and possibly the coldest swim I've experienced since leaping into a river in Norway. The six children were in their element; riding on the back of a pickup truck, rock climbing, exploring gulleys and rowing in a dinghy. Even Littleboy 2 - the youngest at three - gamely joined in with all activities. The journey back - often a depressing crawl down the M6 - was an experience in itself, as we all met up and stopped in Snowdonia for a mountain-top picnic.

After all that, coming home could have been something of an anti-climax. But I have to say it felt good. After a tiring flight (not a vintage Virgin Atlantic experience; no inflight entertainment for the first 2 hours and no child meals left) and queuing at JFK, it was an immense relief to be returning, not to what felt like a foreign country originally, but to a familiar driveway, a house that somehow smelled homely, and a town I now think of as home. Littleboy 1, who had been desperately excited to go back to England, confessed today that he is really happy to be 'back in America'. And hopefully it's not just down to his joy at the new, expensive bath toys that I bought at the Heathrow Hamleys in an uncharacteristic moment of madness (a battery-controlled squid? What was I thinking....).

Thursday 26 August 2010

Home thoughts, not quite from abroad

Oh to be in England, now that August's here. Well, naturally that would be in driving rain and temperatures just about in double figures (celsius), which is what we have been sitting in for the past two days.

But aside from the typically British weather, it has been a very successful trip so far. The past week has been spent catching up with family, old friends (and their children, who seem to have multiplied in the last 15 months) and new friends too (we met up with PantswithNames, HomeOfficeMum and their boys for a pub lunch, and great fun was had by all). We braved drizzle for lunch outside with my old friend FourDownMumtoGo and her brood, although the sun luckily shone when we had a party for 20 people at the weekend.

So before we head off to Bristol and then Wales for the second leg of our UK tour, just a few observations on the UK after a year in the States....

1. Everything seems tiny. The cars and car parking spaces, the narrow country lanes, even the supermarket aisles. Littleboy1 has named our rental car, a perfectly normal four door car, 'the teeny car'. And we don't even drive a particularly large car in the US.....

2. I have missed the UK media. OK, I can pretend I am fine with the New York Times and NPR radio, but there is nothing quite like sitting down with the Saturday Times or a copy of Grazia, or waking up to John Humphreys savaging some politician. And I love how the whole nation can get behind a totally silly story (eg. the woman who put the cat in the wheelie bin, a saga which is currently gripping the UK).

3. There is nothing quite as grim as a British canteen style restaurant in the rain, full of gloomy looking pensioners gritting their teeth as they pour tea and get served by spotty teenagers. Where's the nearest Ruby Tuesday when you need one?

4. A cup of tea by the fire in damp socks is something that can only be savoured in Britain. In August......

5. Customer service? What's that? Never heard of it, judging by the people who work at Avis in Heathrow. After a night on the plane with no sleep, none of us was in the mood for filling out the same paperwork twice only to be told the car we had ordered wasn't available. I thought The Doctor was going to explode when he was asked for his ID yet a third time in order to leave the carpark (naturally, it was in a bag in the boot. Which we didn't know how to open yet...)

6. People, places and things don't change very much in 15 months. But being back in a place where I was when the boys were a year younger is a little weird, like being in some kind of strange child timewarp where toys and videos somehow seem a bit young for them. Still, the presenters on CBeebies still look the same (which makes me feel a little sad for them - surely they should have done a Jeremy Irons and moved on to the RSC by now?) and the boys were delighted to see In the Night Garden again.

That's all for now. Places to go, people to see. A quick visit to John Lewis is in order. Catch up again when I'm back in New York.....

Tuesday 17 August 2010

The Gallery; a memory

I'm posting this week's Gallery at Sticky Fingers entry today as tomorrow we fly to the UK for a couple of weeks. The Littleboys are very excited; and I will be too, once the plane journey is out of the way (I'm just hoping that the boys don't spend quite as much time in the loo on this journey as they did last time; for someone who is slightly phobic about plane loos, this is really not my idea of fun....).

Speaking of plane loos, yesterday we had a visit from a very good friend of mine from London, who revealed that one of the bargains she struck with her husband before having kids was that HE would take the children to the loo on planes. Amazingly, they have stuck to it (and that includes a trip to Australia and back). She chose wisely.

My friend was actually one of my original NCT group in Nappy Valley, and this week's picture is A Memory from that time. After we had all given birth, a handful of us met on Clapham Common by the bandstand with our prams and tiny babies. We had a coffee at the cafe and shared breastfeeding horror stories. I remember someone's husband remarking how much the babies looked alike; tiny sleeping faces wrapped up in white blankets and wearing tiny white hats.

Over the years our babies grew bigger and it became apparent that actually, they didn't look at all alike. All of us went on to have second (and some third) children; some people moved away or drifted apart from the rest. But a core group of us stuck together and my friend and I continued to meet up at Clapham Common, Wandsworth Common and other Nappy Valley hotspots on a regular basis until we left for the States last year.

A year later, she too has moved out of London and, partly thanks to yours truly, become friends with Susanna from A Modern Mother (see, my matchmaking skills are second to none). A nice link between blogging life and real life.

Yesterday, all four of our children played together on the beach. It's hard to believe it has been five years since that photograph was taken, but then again, so much has happened. And it reminds me that no matter what new friends I might make here, it's still so important not to lose touch with my old friends - even if those Nappy Valley days are long gone. Because shared history is important, and we mustn't let it slip away.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Fantasy Island

Last weekend we took a trip to Fire Island.

A long strip of sand, separated from Long Island by a bay, which runs for miles along the southern shore of the Island, most of it is only accessible by ferry. Some communities live there year round, but otherwise it is a summer playground for New Yorkers, many of whom club together to rent a house share for the summer.

There are no cars, and people either ride bikes (although these are also banned on busy summer weekends) or drag their belongings around on little wagons. (Americans always have lots of Belongings. Packing light is not really an option for them, judging by the huge coolboxes and bags going over on the ferry).

The white sandy beaches are pristine, with no food or drink allowed, and very 'au naturel' for America - not even a restroom, which is unheard of. For this reason they attract a younger, probably more adventurous crowd than the kind of beaches we usually go to - and this made a welcome change.

Aside from the beach, there are a few restaurants and shops, and the rest of the narrow island is made up of shady little paths lined with beach cottages. Although some look luxurious, some are more basic wooden cottages - just a porch, a few seashells round the door, and a few rooms at the back. Although only a couple of hours' journey from where we live, it seemd like another world; a laid-back, holiday island where time seemed to move slowly.

We had such a perfect day - bodysurfing in the crystal clear water, eating lobster rolls for lunch at a restaurant overlooking the bay - and I was so taken by the place that I had fantasies of renting a cottage here for a week next year. It turned out they were just that - fantasies. A week in a cottage here costs more than a whole month's rent for our house. And some of the more luxurious cottages...well let's just say we're looking at a cool $16K for house for the month of August. Oh well. Back to the Holiday Inn Express, I suppose...

Sunday 8 August 2010

Summer update

The summer has raced by this year - it's hard to believe we're nearly midway through August and about to head back to the UK for an end-of-summer holiday. Compared to last year, when the weeks seemed to drag, only punctuated by the once-a-week music class for the boys which I looked forward to more than they did, this summer has been a whirlwind of activity, what with summer camp, playdates, swimming lessons and weekend day-trips.

The Littleboys' swimming has improved enormously thanks to the scorching heat that has sent us scuttling to the pool most afternoons. Littleboy 1 is now swimming, if not like a fish, then like a pretty confident tadpole. He swims underwater with goggles, can jump off the pool diving board and swim to the edge, and spent yesterday bodysurfing the waves off Fire Island. Littleboy 2, a little more cautious by nature, loves swimming in my arms but is too scared as yet to let go. He spends beach days meticulously collecting sand and shells and making 'pancakes' - his name for mud pies and sandcastles.

Meanwhile my own swimming has also improved thanks to those evenings ploughing up and down the pool lanes - a man swimming with his young son even complimented me on my crawl the other day. (I wondered if he was actually flirting, because my swimming is not that great, although after watching him swim realised that he was just a really bad swimmer and probably did admire my very mediocre strokes....) The Doctor has similarly improved his own pool stamina and also perfected his barbecuing skills - he makes a mean grilled corn and ribs, to rival that of any American cook.

I've really come around to the idea of summer camp this year - last year, you may remember I was mystified by the whole thing, still believing it involved log cabins and weeks away from home. (This, I have subsequently learned, is called Sleepaway Camp, and usually takes place somewhere upstate or in New England). The boys head off in their swimwear every day and are treated to a morning of creative craft-making combined with outdoor activity and water play that tires them out until, ooh, at least 3pm, at which point I must do something else with them. The holidays are so long here, and the weather is good enough to be outdoors, that summer camp turns out to be a simply brilliant idea, and one that I would love to replicate in the UK.

What else have I learnt about August on Long Island?

That when people say they are 'headed out East' for vacation, they mean the Hamptons, not a trip to Asia.

And if they say they are headed for the Shore, this means the Jersey Shore (you never refer to it as New Jersey). These appear to be the two most favoured holiday destinations - and there is no question that anyone will ever go abroad (well, why would they need to?).

If you go on a playdate to someone else's house, take mosquito repellent. Everyone's gardens are a hotbed of insect life (including our own) and I only need to be outside for two seconds to be eaten alive. Weirdly, this doesn't seem to affect the people actually hosting the playdates.

Like last August, there is absolutely nothing on the TV - except for something called the Real Housewives of DC, which started last week and is true car-crash reality TV*. So it's a good thing we have a subscription to the New York Times and a box set of The Sopranos handy.

Sand gets everywhere. I keep finding it around the house; in beds, on the floor, in the Littleboys' hair. The car is a mess of sand and suncream-y finger marks on the windows. This is one downside of living by the sea.

In a real New York summer, you really don't need anything but shorts, t-shirts and swimwear. So it's going to be quite a change, heading to England and Wales next week, and having to pack jeans and jumpers along with our summer clothes.....I wonder what the Littleboys will make of it?

*Mothership has quite rightly reminded me that Mad Men has started. Definitely the best thing on TV in the US; I only wish it ran all year.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

The Gallery; Playtime

Here are the Littleboys on their trampoline, shortly after it arrived in our lives in May. (Note to the health and safety police; we do now have a safety net for it. )
It's been a huge hit, and I could spend many paragraphs describing why, but I think the picture says it all, really......
This post is for The Gallery; this week's topic, playtime.

Monday 2 August 2010

Weekend wildlife

We were out for a walk on Sunday morning (the first day in about a month that the temperature has been mild enough to actually go for a walk, rather than heading straight for cold water or cold airconditioning somewhere) when Littleboy 2 started screaming and clutching his mouth. It was a little hard to hear what had happened, because he was sobbing so much, but once we had worked out that no, his brother hadn't hit him and no, he hadn't fallen over, we realised that he had been stung on the lip by something. Eventually I coaxed the following out of him; it was 'brown' and 'it buzzed'.

The Doctor went to have a look at where they had been playing and identified the culprits - a pair of reddy-brown hornet type things. By this time Littleboy 2's lip had begun to swell up dramatically, giving a whole new meaning to the expression 'bee-stung lips'. He has rather full lips anyway, so one side being double the size of the other really did make him look as if a Botox experiment had gone badly wrong.....

This is where having a medical husband comes in handy. If I had been on my own, I might well have rushed him off to the doctor's surgery, but my own Doctor prescribed ice lollies. And reader, they worked. Both boys got Dora the Explorer popsicles, after which they had been clamouring for days since the neighbours started giving them out (I, being a Mean Mummy, had refused to buy them, partly because they turn the boys' tongues such garish shades of green and purple that you wonder what the hell is in them). The lip started to subside. Everyone was happy.

Until that is, Littleboy 1 got bitten by a vampire ant outside our front door. I say vampire, because this ant (large, black, horrible) attached itself to his neck and dug its teeth in. It wouldn't be brushed off and had to be almost surgically removed by a piece of kitchen towel. He actually had a puncture wound in his neck. He was sobbing. I was screaming. The Doctor was killing the ant in the sink. All very dramatic. More popsicles were required, just to cheer him up.

How on earth they have managed to avoid being bitten by anything other than a mosquito in 14 months here, and then in one morning have two incidents, is beyond me. But we now have a fridge full of Dora popsicles, and the boys will want one every night until the box is empty. C'est la vie.......

Wednesday 28 July 2010

The Gallery. The power of Nature...

Driving back from our weekend away, it started to rain. The traffic north of New York City and across the Bronx was appalling - but then, it often is, so we didn't think anything of it and took an alternative route.

As we crossed onto Long Island and got nearer and nearer to home, we noticed quite a few tree branches on the roadside. There had obviously been a strong wind - but again, there often is with thunderstorms at this time of year.

Then, as we drove up the road that leads to our town, we started to come upon a scene of complete devastation. Trees were uprooted; lampposts knocked over; roads were closed off; power lines were down. There were police cars everywhere, and people wandering around looking astounded. Whatever had happened, we had only just missed it.

This picture shows one of the huge trees at the back of our house, a massive branch completely snapped off. One of our neighbours had a huge tree break in half; all over our road, there were branches and logs.

Neighbours reported that the sky had turned completely black and had been followed by an intense storm that lasted a matter of minutes.

Yesterday, I read that the storm had crossed the Bronx, where it was officially classed as a tornado, before tearing across Long Island. The traffic jams in the Bronx were due to its chaotic aftermath - and, if we'd been a bit quicker leaving lunch, we would quite likely have been caught driving in the eye of the storm. A sobering thought. Never underestimate the power of Nature.
This post is for The Gallery; topic, Nature. (Sponsored by Green & Black's; yum.)

Monday 26 July 2010

My children are cheap dates

We decided to get away for the weekend and see something of upstate New York.

Up in the Catskills, the air was (slightly) cooler, there were cold lakes to swim in and a ski resort where we took a chairlift up the hill and looked at this magical view. We walked around Woodstock (full of art galleries and new-age stores), ate lunch in a 'pub' (which isn't quite the same experience as in the English countryside - full of men driving up in battered pick ups and hitting the spirits at lunchtime), saw gorgeous little log cabin retreats and dusty looking motels from the 50s.

And the highlight for the Littleboys? Our room at the Holiday Inn Express - a sort of motel version of Holiday Inn - and the swimming pool there.

After our last two roadtrips, we always make a beeline for Holiday Inn Express chain (and this is not a sponsored post, by the way). It may not be glamorous but at least you know what you are getting. The hotels are for the most part brand new, with big, clean rooms that suit a family of four perfectly, widescreen TVs and often a pool. Breakfast (not the highlight) comes on disposable plates and cups and is laden with sugar and calories; however, it's free.

It is not exactly the Ritz, nor even the Marriott.....but, our children love it.

So, when we ask Littleboy 1 what he enjoyed most about the was 'the hotel'.

No reason ever to go five star, then.......

Monday 19 July 2010

Suburbia, US-style

We were driving to New Jersey the other night for a barbecue (a truly horrendous drive from Long Island, but that's another tale) and The Doctor asked me to put some music on. Scrolling through the MP3 player, I noticed the Pet Shop Boys' greatest hits and was inspired to put on Suburbia.

"Well," I told The Doctor, "It seems appropriate, as that's where we are going."

Now, don't get me wrong, the part of New Jersey we were going to is very nice - leafy, wooded, with decent-sized houses and pristine hydrangea bushes in neat front yards. But it does epitomise suburbia - and in fact the recent story about Russian spies living in American suburbia involved a couple who were esconced in that very area.

I read an interesting New York Times article about the spies, making the point that it wasn't actually very odd that they were living in suburban settings, because that is where the majority of Americans live. If they were trying to live low profile lives and merge into the community anonymously, they chose the right place to do it.

And one thing that has really been driven home to me during my year in the US is that Americans are Really Good at suburbia. I never imagined myself living in the suburbs, but so far, living in a suburban American street has been far more enjoyable for the Littleboys than our London street. No-one has fences, so the boys play day and night with the neighbours' kids. Teenagers practise baseball in the street after school, or go sledging in the winter. All the kids on the street take the same schoolbus in the morning, so they all know each other well and are constantly popping in and out of other people's houses. There's a sense of community that I never experienced in London.

Driving around London suburbs, I usually felt depressed by the endless sprawl and tightly packed houses, and didn't envy the commuters their dismal journey on crowded trains. Whereas here, I tend to admire the clapboard houses and well-kept gardens, imagining their occupants having huge weekend barbecues and heading off to to the beach with a carload of stuff.

Perhaps it's because Americans tend to celebrate suburbia - think of nearly every American family film and TV series, from The Wonder Years to Back to the Future, and it's set in an idyllic suburb with white picket fences and neat front lawns. Whereas the Brits satirise it- think The Good Life or Abigail's Party. (OK there was American Beauty - but wasn't that directed by a Brit?)

Whatever, the Pet Shop Boys' 'suburban hell' in which teenagers stand 'by a bus stop with a felt pen', does seem to be a peculiarly British portrait. Here, they'd be more likely to be being ferried to hockey practice by Mom, or playing basketball outside in the ubiquitous hoop. Or perhaps finding out that their neighbour's Dad is a Russian spy......

Wednesday 14 July 2010

What happened to bedtime?

We seem to have lost the ability to put the Littleboys to bed in this house.

Once upon a time - back in London - I had two little boys who went to bed like clockwork. They didn't need us to lie with them, soothe them to sleep or even to have a light on. It was simply a matter of plonking them into their cots, kissing them goodnight and they were fine. I could put them to bed at 7.25pm and get downstairs in time for the drumbeat of Eastenders. When we had friends round, they used to marvel that the children went down so easily.

Those were the days. Since we moved to the US, the boys sleep in the same room, in bunk beds. If there is any chance that they are not tired, there will be climbing up and down the bunks into each other's beds for hours after their official bedtime. (Often, they end up asleep in the same bunk, curled up together - it's happened twice this week). Since the summer arrived, bedtime has been even harder to enforce- it's light, it's warm and our neighbours' kids are often up till 10pm playing outside. As no gardens here are fenced, we live very much cheek by jowl with our neighbours, and there's no way those boys are going to sleep when they can hear their friends outside the window. On occasion, I've had to chase Littleboy 1 back inside as he's attempted to go and jump on the trampoline after dark in his pyjamas.....

We've tried everything. We put their suppertime back until later so that they could eat with us, and then go straight to bed, rather than messing around and disturbing our meal when they should be in bed. But putting them to bed at 9pm just means they aren't asleep until 10pm.

I've tried tiring them out with swimming and hours of outside play. It just seems to make them more manic. I never let them nap during the day - this is fatal, and means they won't be asleep until 11pm. And I've tried threatening them with all sorts of things if they don't go to sleep - but usually, they just laugh in my face.

You might ask why does it matter? Well, there are two reasons. The first is that I really would like an hour - just an hour - of boy-free time in the evening, in which to relax with my glass of wine and read the paper or watch TV. But often, by the time they've gone to bed, I'm exhausted from chasing them around, and ready for bed myself.

Secondly, they are like grumpy teenagers when I have to get them up and ready for summer camp in the morning. Littleboy 2 in particular is silent and morose at the breakfast table, and highly unco-operative about getting changed.

The only comfort is that they aren't getting up early at weekends. Except, of course, for last Saturday, when The Doctor, on an energy-saving mission, decided to switch their air-conditioner off at 4am. They were up - clammily warm and raring to go- on the dot of 7am........