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 shaft.....as 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.