Wednesday 21 December 2011

Happy Chris-Hannukah

As we count down to Christmas in the NappyValley household this year, Hannukah is a big topic of conversation. I think it's partly because it falls so close to Christmas this year (it started this week) that the boys are very aware of it, and are starting to ask lots of questions about the Jewish and Christian traditions.

Indeed they seem to know more about the lighting of eight candles and spinning the dreidel than they know about the nativity at the moment, and have kept me well informed about the numbers of Jewish and Christian children in their classes.

Meanwhile, the mixed faiths of people living on Long Island makes for some interesting conversations. "I'm Jewish, but we always celebrated Christmas, so I'm a little screwed up about the whole thing," one friend confessed to me. Then there's the Jewish man who lives in our neighbourhood but has the most over-the-top Christmas decorations I've ever seen, and another friend who's Catholic but sends her kids to a Jewish preschool, so ended up lighting a menorah (she sang 'Happy Birthday' while doing it, for want of knowing the appropriate song).

Perhaps this is best illustrated by a conversation Littleboy 1 and I had at bathtime last night.

"Mummy, some people in my class are Jewish AND Christian," he said very earnestly.

"Well," I said, "Maybe one of their parents is Jewish and the other one is Christian."

"Yes," he said. "I think that's it. You know, I think it means the Mum must be Jewish and the Dad must be Christian."

"You're absolutely right," I replied, impressed that he knew that the Jewish religion is passed down through the mother.

"Yes," he continued. "Because Christian is a boy's name. And Jewish? That sounds like a lady."

Merry Christmas, everyone. And Happy Hannukah.

Monday 12 December 2011

Atlantic to Pacific

I'm on a West Coast high.

The Doctor was presenting work at a conference in San Diego, so we took the Littleboys out of school for a few days last week and whisked them away to California. It was Littleboy 2's fifth birthday at the same time, so we thought it would be fun to give them a bit of a break from the grind of school and treat him to a birthday at the San Diego Zoo. We visited a friend from University days we hadn't seen for 10 years, who lives there, and I caught up with the lovely Calif Lorna, who very kindly handed us tickets to Legoland California and joined us there with her two boys. The Littleboys had a blast and enjoyed everything, from seeing tigers and pandas to building and racing Lego cars, to the simple pleasures of being allowed to go in the hot tub at the hotel.

It's a long way from New York to California and although some things are the same, it feels in many ways like a completely different country. The landscape couldn't be more different: palm trees, cacti, scrubby hills and canyons, distant mountains. Certainly more like the Wild West than the East Coast, with its forests, autumn colours and windblown sand dunes. But it was the Pacific coastline I really fell in love with. Having driven from San Francisco to San Diego ten years ago, it was the real draw this time.

We stayed in La Jolla, north of San Diego, and woke up each morning to the sounds of seals barking. (They were actually pretty noisy - to the extent that Littleboy 2 complained that they were 'keeping him awake' - something we saw no sign of). Seals basked, flipped and dived in the little cove just outside our hotel, and up the road a huge colony lazed on the sand of another small beach, seal pups frolicking with their mothers while pelicans swooped around the rocks. When the breeze got up the huge Pacific rollers came in and the surfers came out in force.

I could definitely live in southern California. The Mediterranean/desert climate is definitely appealing - it never gets either really hot or really cold, and my friend tells me there are no mosquitoes, which is a real plus as far as I'm concerned. (Although there are rattlesnakes. And mountain lions. And earthquakes. So, not perfect).

But I think I might miss the seasons. Back on Long Island today, it was cold and frosty and crystal clear - a beautiful New York winter's morning. Plus, as far as going home in concerned, California is several thousand miles in the wrong direction.

Still, I'm dropping strong hints to The Doctor to suck up to the professors in San Diego. Not just yet. England beckons first, despite its scary Eurosceptic government, austerity cuts and all the rest of it. It'll be good to go home in 18 months, in spite of the craziness. But California - I'm hoping one day we'll be back.

Friday 2 December 2011

The Twelve Days of Christmas (US version)

Fellow bloggers Hot Cross Mum, Potty Mummy and Expat Mum have been posting brilliant versions of The Twelve Days of Christmas, and have inspired me to have a go. While I'm not sure I can match their hilarious efforts, I've been mulling a post anyway about how Christmas seems to start so early here - with people putting up their decorations straight after Thanksgiving - that it almost seems like it's over by mid December. I've also been sent into a mild panic recently by Facebook posts from friends about how they've finished their Christmas shopping, put up trees and made the gingerbread house - not to mention the constant bombardment of emails from Amazon ordering me to sort out my gifts now, now, NOW. So here it is - the US, social-media age version of the Christmas classic.

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me: a Facebook post about putting up a tree.

On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me: two Amazon SALE!emails and a Facebook post about putting up a tree.

On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me: three Christmas ads, two Amazon SALE!emails and a Facebook post about putting up a tree.

On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me: four ‘Happy Holidays’ cards, three Christmas ads, two Amazon SALE! emails and a Facebook post about putting up a tree.

On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me: five UPS boxes;....four ‘Happy Holidays’ cards, three Christmas ads, two Amazon SALE! emails and a Facebook post about putting up a tree.

On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me: six trips to Target, five UPS boxes;....four ‘Happy Holidays’ cards, three Christmas ads, two Amazon SALE! emails and a Facebook post about putting up a tree.

On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me: seven blow up Santas, six trips to Target, five UPS boxes;....four ‘Happy Holidays’ cards, three Christmas ads, two Amazon SALE! emails and a Facebook post about putting up a tree.

On the eighth day of Christmas my true love gave to me: eight Gingerbread Lattes, seven blow up Santas, six trips to Target, five UPS boxes;....four ‘Happy Holidays’ cards, three Christmas ads, two Amazon SALE! emails and a Facebook post about putting up a tree.

On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me: nine mid-season finales*, eight Gingerbread Lattes, seven blow up Santas, six trips to Target, five UPS boxes;....four ‘Happy Holidays’ cards, three Christmas ads, two Amazon SALE! emails and a Facebook post about putting up a tree.

On the tenth day of Christmas my true love gave to me: ten screenings of Peanuts; nine mid-season finales, eight Gingerbread Lattes, seven blow up Santas, six trips to Target, five UPS boxes;....four ‘Happy Holidays’ cards, three Christmas ads, two Amazon SALE! emails and a Facebook post about putting up a tree.

On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me: eleven strings of fairy lights, ten screenings of Peanuts; nine mid-season finales, eight Gingerbread Lattes, seven blow up Santas, six trips to Target, five UPS boxes;....four ‘Happy Holidays’ cards, three Christmas ads, two Amazon SALE! emails and a Facebook post about putting up a tree.

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me: twelve sold-out Christmas Aisles, eleven strings of fairy lights, ten screenings of Peanuts; nine mid-season finales, eight Gingerbread Lattes, seven blow up Santas, six trips to Target, five UPS boxes;....four ‘Happy Holidays’ cards, three Christmas ads, two Amazon SALE! emails and a Facebook post about putting up a tree. (Drum Roll....) AND IT WAS ONLY THE FIRST OF DECEMBER!

*mid season finale = for some reason, instead of having Christmas specials as in the UK, US shows go on ‘hiatus’ after Thanksgiving, to make way for multiple screenings of ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ and ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’. The decent TV returns sometime in the middle of February. Hence the ‘mid season finale’ – preferably with cliffhanger that neither you, nor seemingly the scriptwriters, will remember in two months' time.

Monday 28 November 2011

Turkey Trotting

I completed the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot, and have now been bitten by the running bug. I enjoyed the five mile run so much that I was inspired to do another identical one three days later, and I'd like to work my way up to 10k sometime.

For someone who was never a runner, the news that you can break through that pain barrier and feel fantastic after a five mile run is a real revelation. (Although I can't imagine ever doing a marathon. I just don't fancy that kind of pain). As a child, I routinely came last in sports day races (prompting annoying comments from people that they just couldn't understand it, as I had long skinny legs that looked perfect for running. Yes, clearly I was JUST SLOW).

Not only was the race great fun, it was also fabulous for people watching. Having failed to meet up with the people I was planning to run with among the 2000 odd runners, I found myself on my own - something I didn't mind at all once the race got going. I didn't have to speak (probably a good thing) and I didn't have to keep pace with anyone. I just went at my own pace, took in the crowds of runners, and listened to snippets of conversation from around me.

There was the competitive Dad, who told his seven or eight year old son: "Just remember to keep a steady pace at the beginning. Save yourself. Then when we get to Sandy Lane (a gentle stretch of downhill road), we're going to BURN it."

There was the teenage girl who told her friends half way through: "I'm going to take a break now. I'm having iPhone issues." (Clearly much more important than completing the race).

There was the teenage boy standing one the sidelines who held up a placard and shouted 'Occupy Turkey Trot!" as we came through. (It made me laugh, anyway).

I loved how families, old and young, turned out to watch the race, calling out 'Happy Thanksgiving' as well we came through. (I think Christmas day runs should become a tradition in the UK - it's such a great idea). There was a real community spirit and American tradition on display - a nice antidote to the relentless slew of ads about Black Friday and 'Doorbuster Deals' on US TV that gives the impression that Thankgiving is all about spend, spend, spend.

But the best thing about the run? Seeing The Doctor and The Littleboys cheering me on, and finding them coming to meet me as I wended my way back from the finish line towards home. Oh, and the fact that I could eat an enormous Thanksgiving dinner, washed down with plenty of sparkling wine, afterwards - and not feel guilty.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Giving thanks...

Thanksgiving is almost up on us, and life has been fairly hectic. Even the Doctor (who only reads my blog every few weeks) commented the other day that I haven't been posting as much as I used to.

There are several reasons for this. The main one is that I am just too busy. I work every day, writing for a magazine website, between nine and three at home, and then the boys come home from school at 3.15. I fit in shopping, laundry and everything else when I have a quiet moment at work, and then have fifteen minutes in which to mentally switch between work mode and 'Mummy' mode. Then between three and six, it's homework, reading, piano practice, and activities; swimming lessons, music lessons, playdates. Time to cook dinner, then we're into the whole bed and bath routine. By the evening I am too shattered, plus less keen on spending hours at a laptop I've already slaved over all day.

I've also been gearing up for a five mile run which takes place in our town every Thanksgiving morning, so my energies have been going somewhat more into exercise than usual. (The 'Turkey Trot' , as it's known, is a Thanksgiving tradition in many American towns, although it sounds like something you might come down with on holiday in Bodrum). And I had a lovely weekend catching up with my dear friend Four Down Mum To Go, who was in town for her birthday present and busy emptying the Manhattan stores of their wares.

But another reason is that things are relatively quiet and calm. I loved this recent post by Iota, in which she explains her less frequent postings on her blog by the fact that she is both busy and happy. It's similar here.

I'm into the start of my third year here as a Brit in America, so I'm no longer so bewildered by American customs, language or idiosyncrasies (although some still fox me occasionally) that they seem worth commenting on. I don't have to do anything like take a driving test, apply for a credit card or find out about the American school system. After all the excitement of the tree drama and house move, I feel as if things are on an even keel - and that suits me just fine, thanks very much. I'm not asking for drama.

There will undoubtedly be more blog fodder coming up soon. The "Holidays" are fast approaching, we've got trips to California and Vermont lined up, and the Littleboys are hilariously taking part in a piano recital. (Update: Littleboy 1 has now, amazingly, discovered that he LOVES the piano and is practising non-stop without even being asked to. Littleboy 2 is determinedly refusing to practice his recital pieces.)

But, in the spirit of Thanksgiving (when all American schoolchildren are asked to draw multiple pictures of things they are thankful for, as well as the ubiquitous handprint turkey art), this week I am thankful that all is relatively peaceful.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Wednesday 16 November 2011

The Gallery: 11.11.11

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Sunset, Long Island, on 11-11-11. To see more beautiful posts, see The Gallery at Sticky Fingers.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

If it's Fall, it must be cleanup time

It must be November because huge lorries, with industrial size hoses, are currently plying the streets, advertising 'Fall Cleanup' services. Everywhere you look on suburban front lawns, large crews of Hispanic guys in hoodies are blowing leaves and putting them into black plastic sacks.

You see, practically no-one around here 'does' their own garden. It just doesn't seem to be the done thing. Instead, the majority employ one of these so-called 'landscaping' crews to cut their grass, trim their hedges and, in autumn, clean up the hundreds of leaves that fall. These gangs will arrive in a truck before around eight of them descend on your garden, then leave ten minutes later.

In our previous house, our landlady took care of the gardening, so it wasn't really an issue - although she was never satisfied with the efforts of the firms she employed, and I would constantly be having to report to her that they'd only stayed five minutes. But in our new house, we are responsible for the gardening (along with the burglar alarm, wildly over-the-top sprinkler system and other devices that, ideally, we would be happy to live without). The current gardening team will soon finish for the 'season', and we must then decide whether to keep them on, choose someone else - or go it alone.

Now, I am sure that, were we to own an equivalent sized garden in the UK, we would mow the lawn and clean up the leaves ourselves. It's not a massive garden, and the leaves would be quite manageable with a decent rake. Besides, the Brits love to do their own gardens; gardening is such as integral part of British middle class life. Gardeners are mainly for people with acres of land (or maybe eye candy for modern day Lady Chatterley types). Certainly no-one I know in England employs a 'landscaping' firm to mow a small plot of grass and clear up leaves.

But on the other hand, there are obstacles to doing it ourselves. No-one around here seems to burn leaves on bonfires (I'm not sure if it's illegal, or just unpopular) so that will mean lots of bagging of leaves, of which there are a fair few. We'd also have to get hold of a lawnmower somehow. No point buying one for under two years, and it wouldn't work in the UK because of the voltage. We might be able to borrow one from a neighbour, but if that's not an option, I am really not sure how we would manage the grass.

So do we just throw more money at the problem? The gardeners charge $40 a week, which I am told is reasonable but seems fairly pricey to me (considering the barely 10 minutes they spend here). It costs much more for the 'Fall Cleanup'. Also, they don't appear to do any 'gardening' per se other than grass cutting and leaf blowing - one day I asked them cut back some long grasses which were blocking our back gate, and they looked at me as if I had asked them to fly to the moon and back.

Once again we have a choice to make. Accept that attitudes towards gardening are different here and just spend (waste?) the money. Or make a concerted effort to do the garden ourselves by beg, borrowing and stealing lawnmowers and leaf blowers, baffling all others in the street and earning ourselves even more of a reputation as eccentric English? It's a dilemma....

Sunday 6 November 2011

Silent Sunday

Long Island Sound, November. (And if you look closely, you might just spot my sons fighting each other with sticks).

Thursday 3 November 2011

Angry Birds, Octopuses and the Snowstorm that wasn't

Well, Halloween is over for another year (although not the decorations. Most people's decorations are still up, and will be until Thanksgiving, when they'll be replaced by Christmas ones. One friend commented to me the other day, noting that her neighbours had taken theirs down straight after Halloween, 'that pumpkin's going to sit there 'till it rots, or a squirrel eats it').

Amazingly, we escaped the freak October snowstorm that ravaged much of the Northeast last weekend - a good thing too, as The Doctor was away in Texas, and I would have been badly prepared. Our part of Long Island saw only a day of torrential, sleety rain, while areas only 20 miles away saw several inches of snow and high winds that knocked out power lines. Thank God for that, because I am not sure I can cope with any more extreme weather events so soon after Irene. So Trick or Treating went ahead as planned (in some areas, it was actually cancelled because of the danger of downed power lines and pitch darkness. That would have gone down very badly; for some Americans, it is practically bigger than Christmas).

Littleboy 1 went as an Angry Bird this year - a homemade effort, as I was loath to spend $50 on the 'official' costume, but it's amazing what black feathers, black eye makeup and some wings cut out of foam can achieve. Meanwhile Littleboy 2 insisted on wearing his Octopus costume from preschool graduation; this was both easy and also ensured that I received frequent, undeserved praise for what was actually the preschool teachers' handiwork. Yes, the Nappy Valley household takes Halloween a lot more seriously now. This time I even managed to inveigle The Doctor into coming to the school parade (readers from last year will be pleased to hear that everyone respected the integrity of the cordon.)

Now we are into November, and I was slightly horrified to see that the boys have no less than six days off during the month. Only two of them are consecutive - Thanksgiving and the following day - the rest are for Election Day, two parent-teacher conference days (why can't they just schedule the meetings in the evenings?) and Veterans Day on the 11th (which is one of those public holidays when most people still work). I can't keep taking days off work, so I have been hurriedly booking them into sports camps for the day, and arranging impromptu playdates.

What with turkey day looming, then Littleboy 2's birthday (this year to be spent in California) and then Christmas, life seems pretty full-on at the moment.....

Thursday 27 October 2011

Craving British fiction - an expat phenomenon?

Tamara Drewe: A British classic

When I first moved to New York, I was keen to read anything set in my new milieu. I devoured modern novels set in Brooklyn (I loved Amy Sohn's Prospect Park West), Manhattan (Zoe Heller's The Believers), and re-read New York chick lit like The Devil Wears Prada, suddenly delighted that I recognized the locations and local references. I was also desperate to watch movies set in the city, checking multiple Woody Allen DVDs out of the library. I have made a point of reading many American novels over the past two years. Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, an epic saga of the American family through the 60s to present day, was probably one of the best but I also adored The Help, and loved another book club pick, Girl in Translation, about a Chinese-American immigrant to New York in the 70s.

This was not a new phenomenon; as a child, I loved American fiction. Among my favourite books were Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women and What Katy Did. American writers from that era seemed to specialize in headstrong female heroines that were particularly appealing.

But recently I have begun to crave English fiction. It's a bit like craving comfort food - at the moment I want to read English novels, set in London, or even better in the English countryside. William Nicholson's two novels The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life and I Could Love You were recent examples. His style is so very understated and British, in a 'Brief Encounter' type way. I've also got a sudden appetite for Alexander McCall Smith's Scottish novels - his characters are somehow so typically British and unlike anyone you would meet here. When I go to the library, I dive upon any book by a British author, and for my summer holiday reading I chose books set in England by British authors I love: Esther Freud's Lucky Break, Amanda Craig's Hearts and Minds and Barbara Trapido's Sex and Stravinsky (downloading them to Kindle as you can't buy them here).

As for films, I recently watched Stephen Frears' Tamara Drewe, a fabulous modern-day riff on Far From The Madding Crowd based on the hilarious graphic novels of Posy Simmonds. Compare it to Bridesmaids, which I also watched recently - this was a laugh out loud American comedy, and I enjoyed it- but Tamara was so much more to my current taste. After a girls' movie night, when I persuaded my American friends to see the recent adaptation of Jane Eyre- amazingly, none of them had ever read it - I did begin to wonder if I was turning into the sort of English person who only really likes costume drama and novels about middle class people living in the Costwolds.

But I wonder if this longing to immerse yourself in the world of home is typical for an expat? Do you always want to read about home when you're away? Perhaps I'm mentally preparing myself for the move back (which is now definitely going to happen in summer 2013, by the way). Or perhaps it's just a form of escape - after all, one of the joys of reading is to escape into a novel, and why not escape to somewhere you're not?

Thursday 20 October 2011

Falling for Fall

Fall really is my favourite time of year on Long Island.

Summers are fun here in some ways - you have reliably warm weather, sandy beaches, barbecues, a community pool and of course the wonders of summer camp. But on the downside, there are mosquitoes, poison ivy, excessive heat and humidity; oh, and of course, the odd hurricane.

Winters have their pleasures; reliable snow means sledging and skiing, and it tends to be sunnier than in the UK. But they are long and relentless, and the snow gets ridiculous after a while. Spring is sweet but short; you can go from freezing cold to hot and humid in a matter of weeks.

But fall is long; cool, crisp or even pleasantly mild weather can last until early December before winter really sets in in. The turning leaves and foliage are stunning, and the Fall customs - pumpkins outside the door, apple picking and hayrides, and even the over-the-top Halloween celebrations - are really growing on me.

Looking back at last year's blog posts (including this Halloween homes 'n' gardens display) , I seemed to have become obsessed (possessed?) about Halloween so this year I wanted to highlight some other autumnal traditions over here.

First of all are 'Mums'. (No, not the 'Moms' - the Moms are just the same as in Fall as in other times, with the addition perhaps of Ugg boots and a polystyrene cup of hot, rather than iced, Starbucks latte). I'm talking about the 'Mums, as in chrysanthemums; Americans always having to abbreviate any long words, you see. I'm not sure/can't remember if we share this enthusiasm for 'Mums in England, but it really is a phenomenon here - I wonder if the whole of America is just as obsessed? The moment September approaches, huge displays of 'mums' are on show outside supermarkets, garden centers and private houses, and on roadsides you will see painted signs excitedly proclaiming 'Mums! Now! $4.99' (or similar) everywhere. When I was first here, I wasn't sure what this was all about, but this year I have joined in (well, for $4.99, who wouldn't?) and am sporting a potted 'Mum' on my doorstep as well as the obligatory pumpkins (see above). At the New York Botanical Gardens last weekend, we saw an incredible hothouse display of Japanese chrysanthemums, as well as some fantastic carved pumpkins.

Pumpkins are, of course, a massive part of the autumnal decoration tradition. They are not just about Halloween by any means. Quite often you will see displays of giant pumpkins, gourds and squashes outside people's houses, together with a corn dolly or two. (If you want to combine pumpkins and 'mums', there are are 'mums' in jack-o-lantern style pots you can buy). Every town has a 'Pumpkin Patch' or two where you go to select your pumpkin or twelve. You can get a Pumpkin spiced latte at Starbucks (which I haven't actually dared try - it just doesn't sound right to me).

Decorating one's table in an autumnal/harvest style is de rigeur - I am now the proud owner of pumpkin candleholders and an 'autumn harvest' tablecloth. Chances are your children will produce some attractive pumpkin-style craft from school, too (pictured below is Littleboy 1's offering from last year, which I rather love).

Fall is also about apples galore. Whereas in the UK we might go apple picking in the back garden, here, there is a whole industry devoted to going to an apple orchard, usually with a 'hayride' thrown in and some apple cider. The latter is not your Strongbow or Scrumpy - that is known as 'hard cider' in the US - but instead a pulpy apple juice, sold in huge vats and on offer at farmers' markets, fairs and the like. It can be served hot or cold. In the shops and farmers' markets, there are fresh apples from upstate New York. It took me a while to get to know the different varieties, as they don't have, for example, Cox's or Bramley's out here, and don't seem to differentiate so much between cooking and eating apples, but if you pick the right kind, they are just right at the moment.

So, while others are bemoaning the end of summer (New Yorkers love to complain about the weather just as much as the Brits, by the way), I'm a fully paid up fan of Fall. I'm currently unearthing my sweaters, loving the lack of biting insects, and looking forward to the turning of the leaves (following, as always, the Foliage report in the New York Times). And after that? Well, there's always ski-ing....

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Clearly I have Republican squirrels

Around this time of year in America, little blue or red signs start appearing on roadsides, on trees and all over people's lawns, urging us to cast our votes for local politicians. Election Day is looming (something I am not particularly thrilled about, because it means the kids are off school, but naturally it is NOT a public holiday, so I am supposed to be working).

While there's no obviously Presidential election this year (I can't wait to see what next year is like), we are being exhorted to vote for County legislators, police commissioners, town controllers and all kinds of legal positions including Supreme Court judges. The 'lawn sign' is an equivalent of you poster in the window saying 'Vote Labour' or 'Vote Conservative', but they are much more ubiquitous, as are car stickers.

I find it all slightly meaningless, because I can't vote due to not being a citizen, but this year I actually know somebody who is standing in a local election - the mother of one of the boys' friends. She's very nice, and a Democrat, so when I bumped into her recently I explained that while I wasn't allowed to vote for her, I wished her all the best. So she asked me if I wanted to put up a lawn sign, and I agreed. When in Rome and all that. (My German friend, on seeing me carrying the thing, teased me: "Finally, you have Arrived!")

Well, the sign was up on my lawn for a total of 48 hours. Coming back from the shops on Saturday, I noticed that it seemed to have been ripped in half, and was hanging forlornly off its poles. There was no sign of anyone nearby, except for some kids playing with a hockey stick and a rather guilty-looking squirrel that was running away, with what looked like a piece of cardboard hanging from its jaws.

So now I don't know what to think. Was this the work of furious new neighbours, outraged that I had dared to put a political sign on the lawn just weeks after moving in, however discreetly placed in the corner (I notice there are no others in our street)? Had the kids had been using it as a hockey goal? Or (sinister music starts to play) do I have Republican squirrels?

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Music practice - where do you start?

The Littleboys have started piano lessons.

I have to say, week 1 did not go well, at least from Littleboy 1's point of view. It was probably my fault; we were in the middle of the Move, so I picked him up from school, rushed him down to the New House (which we were in the process of moving into) then off to the lesson. So he was both tired and overexcited - a devilish combination with him - and spent most of the first lesson banging on the piano and not listening to the teacher whatsoever. I was mortified, even though the nice East European teacher insisted she was 'used to it'.

The next week, I bribed him with a cookie from the bakery afterwards if he behaved - and he was much better. It's gradually improved; in fact last week he made huge progress, and is now able to bash out a little tune and even draw a treble clef. (Little digression: did you know that in America, they don't talk about crotchets, quavers, minims and the rest? It's all half notes, quarter notes etc. I had assumed this musical terminology was universal, but apparently it's just British).

Littleboy 2 was the keener of the two to play, and his first lesson went well - he listened, did what he was asked and by the end of the half hour was able to identify Middle C. Since then, he's also made some progress - but has also decided that practicing is really not for him. He tends to announce "I'm tired," and put his thumb in his mouth when they idea is mooted (despite having been running around two seconds earlier).

Herein lies the problem - when to find time for piano practice, and how to get them in the right mood? Now I am no Tiger Mother, and distinctly have memories myself of trying to get out of piano practice (and particularly 'cello practice - I played until the age of 16, not particularly well). In fact I even recall taping myself playing for 10 minutes, then sitting reading a comic while the tape played for another 10 minutes, craftily adding up to my 20 minutes allotted practice time. But even I appreciate that they are not going to get very far with playing an instrument if they don't practice - and The Doctor, who is a good musician, says we just have to make time somehow.

It's hard. Littleboy 1 has homework and reading every day now, and if we do another activity after school, it's supper time and homework time before you know it. When we have a free afternoon, it's either a playdate or I just tend to let them play for a bit before homework/suppertime starts- you can't force two lively small boys to come straight in from the schoolbus and start practising the piano. I also know that if you force children to do something they're not in the mood for, they are really going to hate it - and who wants that? We want them to enjoy music, not resent it. When we do have enough time, (for example, yesterday when they had no school due to Columbus Day), the practice went much better - but fitting it in around the normal week is more difficult.

So, I'd appreciate any tips on piano/instrument practice for smaller kids. What time of day works best? Do you have to bribe them (and if so with what?). Do you make them do it every day, or less often - maybe just at the weekend? And how do you strike the balance between being disciplined and making it fun?

Thursday 6 October 2011

A whale of a time

St Vincent, The Caribbean, 1997.
The Doctor and I go on our first whale-watching trip. This consists of a rickety small boat sailed by a random but genial guy we meet near the beach. He serves us lots of rum punch. We see dolphins. The boat slows down so we can watch them and starts to rock from side to side. I am seasick. Practically on top of the dolphins. We see no whales.

Kaikoura, New Zealand, 2004.
This is meant to be one of the best places in the world to see whales, and we've booked the trip up in advance. But that night, the weather turns bad and strong winds almost decimate our campsite. The whale watching trip is cancelled. We go on a tour of a local vineyard instead. With a flight the next day, we continue our journey to Christchurch. We see no whales.

Fast forward to...Cape Cod, last weekend.

Some friends had regaled us with tales of their wonderful whale watching trip two years ago. They persuaded us to go with them again, for the weekend. It was tempting; I knew the boys would love to see whales (as would I). But The Doctor and I warned them: "We are jinxed. If you're with us, we won't see any whales."

Even so, the boat trip guaranteed a sighting, with the promise of a free trip next time if you failed to see a whale. As we headed out into the blue Atlantic ocean off Provincetown, we still weren't convinced. It seemed to be taking a very long time to get out to where the whales were apparently hanging out today. (I could tell The Doctor was wondering why on earth we had driven six and a half hours to the Cape, then set off on a three hour boat trip with three small children who were already getting bored; plus Littleboy 1 was starting to look rather green around the gills).

But, suddenly, there we were. Finally, we got to see a whale in the wild. And not just one. At least 20 humpback whales, dipping and diving close enough to our boat that we could see shiny black hides, their gaping mouths, not to mention those majestic tails.

The Littleboys were ecstatic; grabbing my camera to take pictures, constantly crying out as they spotted the spouting in the sea that appeared just before the whale did. We had half an hour of whale-spotting, then headed back to land, the boys falling asleep with happy exhaustion. So it really was worth it - even the $25 parking fine when we returned to Provincetown (we hadn't realised the trip would take so long) failed to dampen our spirits.

For bedtime we had one of the Littleboys' favourite stories, The Snail and The Whale by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. I love this book as much as they do - it's beautifully written and illustrated and it resonates with me, as it's really about wanderlust. It's about the tiny sea snail who has an 'itchy foot' and is not content with sticking to a rock with the rest of the snails. She wants to travel the world, and hitches a lift on the tail of the humpback whale. After many adventures they return; the other snails say "How time's flown! And haven't you grown!"

And the whale and the snail

Told their wonderful tale

Of shimmering ice and coral caves

And shooting stars and enormous waves

And how the snail so small and frail

With her looping, curling silvery trail

Saved the life of the humpback whale.

Then the humpback whale

Held out his tail

And on crawled snail after snail after snail

And they sang to the sea as they all set sail

On the tail of the grey blue humpback whale.

Friday 30 September 2011

The Kids are All Right...

I'm amazed how resilient children are. You'd think that having been made homeless a week before the start of the school year, moving house away from your much-beloved next door neighbour-friends and being told that half your toys have been destroyed would be pretty traumatic. A few weeks ago, I was having horrible premonitions of being called to the school guidance counselor's office to be solemnly told that my children were withdrawn, depressed and refusing to speak.

But the boys have been amazing. They've moved on far more quickly than I have, rediscovered toys they haven't played with in years (plus several boxes of Playmobil they got for Christmas which we had all forgotten about) and have busily set about arranging their new house to their best advantage. And they talk in a matter of fact way about 'our broken house' and how we are not going back there. People keep asking me how they are coping - I tell them that there has been remarkably little effect on the kids.

There has been the odd 'moment'. For example when we were at a friend's house and the boys were playing with a bouncy castle that they had inflated in their living room (yes, their house really is that big). They were playing a game where they would inflate, then let the air out - at which point, they would shout : "There's a tree on our house!" I'm sure child pyschologists would have a field day with that one. LB1 has also asked me if would have to pay our old landlady for the old house 'because we wrecked it' (clearly after all those times I told him not to damage the house, because we'd have to pay for things).

And this morning, as we're packing for a weekend away (school being cancelled for the Jewish holidays) they solemnly ask me who is going to look after our new house while we're away. "What if our house gets destroyed while we're away? What about all our stuff? Should we take our backpacks and toys?"

I reassured them in a motherly way: "Of course that's not going to happen. That was a hurricane, and we were very unlucky. We're going to come back and all our things will be exactly where we left them."

What I didn't tell them was that I had been worrying, secretly, about the very same thing.....

Tuesday 27 September 2011

The Great Canadian Roadtrip

People who haven't heard about the whole tree-on-the-house saga (and that's only about three people in our small town, where news travels fast), have been asking me if we had a good vacation. I've got a bit tired of explaining that yes, it was lovely until our house was destroyed by a giant oak, so I just smile now and say 'yes'.

And it really was lovely, so it seems a shame not to talk about it a bit here, just because the second week was ever so slightly ruined. Rather than write the whole holiday off as a time of stress and worry, I'd like to remember the good parts, and there were plenty of them.

First of all, Niagara Falls was spectacular. Not the town itself, I hasten to add - that is a hodpodge of overpriced hotels, overpriced restaurants (the most expensive meal we had in Canada was in an mediocre steakhouse there), random tourist attractions not related to the waterfall and rather seedy casinos. Everyone had warned us it was tacky, and it was. Although the part of town lower down, near the Falls, is quite pretty, with a very English looking esplanade all planted up with flowers, and a funicular railway. So overall the impression is of a weird mixture of Bournemouth, Disney and Las Vegas.

But the waterfalls themselves- both the famous Canadian Horseshoe Falls and the smaller, but nonetheless dramatic, American Falls themselves are something else. What I hadn't appreciated from photos and films was that there is a huge, swirling cloud of mist that lingers over the Falls, so great is the volume of water constantly raining down from them. It looks like the devil's cauldron, and the air around it is constantly damp with spray, like being in an enormous steam room.

Niagara Parks have done their utmost to make sure you get to see the Falls from every angle possible. There's the Maid of the Mist boat ride (where you get extremely wet). The Journey Behind the Falls, where you go down in a lift and see the Falls from tunnels carved into the rocks behind (you get a bit wet). The completely fake one (Niagara's Fury, I think it's called) where you stand in a sealed room and watch a "4D" video of the Falls, and they throw water on you (you get fairly wet). The latter was a bit silly, but the first two were fantastic, as was the walk along the White Water rapids (Littleboy 1 loved this so much that he announced he wanted to live in Canada).

If you want to escape from Niagara's tackiness, you can drive to Niagara-on-the-Lake, a pretty little town a few kilometres downstream and with a slightly classier clientele than the Falls itself. There, we managed to find a decent meal that didn't cost the earth, and drive down to Lake Ontario for a sunset view of distant Toronto.

After Niagara, we drove to the other end of Lake Ontario and stayed in a little cabin on a campsite. This was a brilliant plan. All the benefits of the campsite - activities for the kids, al fresco meals - but, importantly for me, No Tent (I am not really a fan of nights under canvas). The boys, who seemed to have very set ideas about camping, delighted in having a campfire every night and toasting marshmallows. Every night, they showed an outdoor film on a big screen just across the field from our cabin. They would walk off into the darkness and watch Toy Story 3 or something, while we drank our wine under starry skies. It was great (well, except for the times they ran back saying they were scared, which was pretty much every night).

Here, we experienced more fabulous Canadian scenery. It's all about water, really. The St Lawrence River and its Thousand Islands (where you'd probably pay several thousand million to buy a private home). The Rideau Canal, wooded and pretty and looking a little like the Thames. Lake Ontario itself, as wide as a sea and particularly attractive from the Sandbanks Park, where you can walk along an endless white beach and swim off the dunes in clean, fresh lake water.

After that, we moved on to Ottawa and Montreal, and although that part of the holiday was, well, marred by the Tree Incident, I did appreciate what rather lovely cities these were. Montreal in particular; how wonderful to be able to sit down for a croque monsieur lunch in North America, order in French and feel as if you were in Paris. The children loved the 'Biodome', an ecological park where you experience four ecosystems under one huge dome and see otters, penguins and other cute animals. They even enjoyed climbing up the 410 steps to the top of Mont Royal, the mountain after which the city is named - we made counting the steps into a game.

So would we go back to Canada? Definitely. Littleboy 1 in particular is a big fan, and not just because of the rapids in the Niagara river. Canada appealed to his love of activity, of Big Nature and the outdoors . He's announced that when he's grown up, he's going back there with his own kids, for At Least Two Years.

We might have to join him.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Chapter Two

Having to move house so quickly and unexpectedly has made me feel as if we are beginning a second chapter of life in the US. If we return to England in two summers' time as planned, our time here will have been divided neatly into half by the two houses (with slightly longer in the old house).

Despite the traumatic events of the past weeks, I don't think the moving itself was as bad as when we initially moved here from London. At least I know where everything is now and how it works - from Ikea to the post office - and I had friends who could take the Littleboys off our hands during the moving day. Never mind that we were basically just throwing our belongings into bin bags, and relying on a couple of friends to help us ferry stuff down to the new house (plus some random tree removal guys who we offered cash-in-hand to help carry our furniture out and put it in their pickup trucks. Only in America).

We're now pretty much unpacked and can start enjoying the new house. We have more space, a far posher kitchen (it has a wine refrigerator. Let me just say that again. A Wine Refrigerator!) and best of all, a beautiful view from our bedroom window (see above). In the morning, the sun shines on the boats in the harbour creating a beautiful rosy light, and in the evening, there are spectacular sunsets. If you look closely at night you can see the spire of the Empire State building with its red blinking light. And, although I miss the wooded vistas of our old place, quite honestly I am done with trees now and all they entail.

Chapter Two also involves being a mother of two boys in elementary school. Every morning, off they go on the bus, with their L.L. Bean satchels and new Angry Birds lunchboxes (I gave in to the nagging for these in a fit of sympathy for them after the house disaster). I settle down to my work, and they come back at 3.30, in a flurry of homework, letters and flyers, half eaten containers of lunch and random drawings, all of which I have to unpack before hurrying them off to some after-school activity or playdate. Remembering which boy needs lunch money/school trip permission slip/library book to be returned is a fine art, which I am already discovering requires military-style organisational skills.

There's a weird sense of deja vu this year, as Littleboy 2 is now in the same kindergarten class with the same teacher that his brother had last year. Despite being the youngest in the entire school ((he was allowed special dispensation to start, although his birthdate fell short of the starting cut off date by a week) he seems to be holding his own, and is very pleased to have found himself in the same class as his best friend from preschool.

Meanwhile Littleboy 1 is adapting to the rigours of 'first grade', with a sheet of homework every night and a no-nonsense teacher who write their names on the board and leaves them there overnight if they misbehave. (Yes, we found out about that one pretty early on). He retains his manic enthusiasm for almost everything, and has recently decided he wants to be a scientist.

It's all quite different from when we first arrived and I had two little English boys in preschool, one still very much a toddler. They still eat their Weetabix for breakfast, and talk about 'trousers', but they are more and more like little Americans now. The Littleboys are very much aware that they are 'going back to England' in a couple of years, but in reality they have no idea what that will be like. Thus beginneth Chapter Two.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

When disaster strikes

I guess you might have been wondering where I've been.

The answer is that since my last blog post, our lives have been turned upside down, then put back together again.

Just over two weeks ago, during Hurricane Irene, an enormous tree fell on our house. We were miraculously away, far away in Canada, so no-one was at home. My neighbour emailed me immediately, so we knew what was happening, but such chaos was reigning in our town that there was no way we could return straight away. At first we thought the damage might be minor. But then more emails came: the police, fire department, everyone and his wife had been at our house. The roof was smashed in and the whole house was damaged. My landlady was hysterical. The fire department roped off the whole house and would not let anyone in. They said it would be condemned. It was like, said our neighbours, Hollywood in our street.

Far away in Montreal, we were seriously freaking out. The worst case scenario was that we would lose all our belongings to either wreckage or rain damage. Although the tree had crashed into the spare room, the room in which we luckily had hardly any stuff, we had no idea what water damage or rubble was below. No-one was allowed in so no-one could tell us.

As the week went on, we stayed away. Well what was the point in coming back when there was nowhere to come back to? Half the town still didn't have power. While the boys were still enjoying our holiday in Vermont, The Doctor and I were frantically on the phone the whole time, unable to sleep or eat, trying to contact insurance companies and the like. Meanwhile a structural engineer, our landlady and various brave souls went in and grabbed our photos, pictures and precious things - despite being told that the whole house was unstable.

Meanwhile my network of friends in Long Island came through. Someone set up a gift card fund. People offered to lend us furniture. People emailed me the names of realtors and someone told me about a house newly available to rent on their street. It was near our old house, on the same school bus route, and I knew several people who lived in the street. I looked online, contacted the realtor and made an appointment to see it the minute we got back.

I am now sitting in that house. We saw it just over a week ago, and immediately made an offer and signed a lease.

On our return, we spent a week living with our wonderful neighbours, looking helplessly at our old house next door. The tree had to removed before we could go in; there were delays with this due to the power company being too busy to remove cables, and then three days of rain. The town Fire Marshal became my new best friend, stopping in for cups of coffee every day. While this was all going on, the boys started school. Littleboy 2 had his first day of big school, going off on the bus. It went by in a blur.

On Friday last week they removed the tree. That in itself was dramatic - huge chunks of majestic oak being lifted from the roof with a crane. Then, finally, they said we could go in.

We spent Friday night and Saturday removing our things from the house. Amazingly, we lost much less than we feared. The boys' playroom was completely obliterated, but it turned out that half their toys were scattered throughout the rest of the house anyway (good thing they are so bad at clearing up). There was water damage to books, a linen cupboard, a few items of clothing and a few other items - all of which are replaceable. Evertyhing else was unscathed - including an electric piano that had been found sitting on a damp floor, and my laptop, which so far seems to work fine.

We moved into the new house and here I sit. It's actually a much nicer house - bigger, almost too smartly decorated for us, and with a beautiful view of the harbour. But I am mourning the old house - we had such a good two years there, and it is filled with memories. Going round it, it was hard to believe we wouldn't be living there again. I think when you move, you usually have time to mentally prepare yourself; we didn't. It almost feels like someone has died.

But I realise we were incredibly lucky. Lucky to be away when it happened - although I don't think we would have been killed, as the tree fell on a room where no-one slept, it would have been incredibly traumatic. Lucky that more of our things weren't damaged; a fire would have been far worse. Lucky to have good, kind friends and neighbours, who helped us out, helped us move house, cooked us dinner and supplied much-needed wine.

And now, life can start again.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

The Gallery: Black and White memories

This picture is of my grandmother. It's the only picture of her I have from when she was young, and I love it. She was born in 1912, and I think she's probably in her 20s here, so that makes it a 1920s portrait. From the hair and the fur stole, that looks about right.

She was the youngest of seven children. Can I just say that again? Seven children. That was quite a normal family size then. And it would have been eight, because she had a twin brother, who died when he was a baby. She outlived all of her siblings, dying in 2004 at the age of 92. But the last 20 or so years of her life were tough - she had a major stroke in her late sixties, and was totally paralysed down her left side. Before the stroke, she was a talented amateur painter, who I remember driving around in her Mini with a bevy of Pekingese dogs. Afterwards, she was fragile and walked with a stick. She was unable to paint, or even to hold a cup of tea properly, but she remained cheerful and positive, making friends with a whole new set of people at 'Stroke Club' and even travelling out to see us in Hong Kong.

As well as losing her daughter, my mother, when she was an old lady - a huge blow from which I think she never recovered - my grandmother was also widowed in her 60s, when my grandfather died of a heart attack. I was two at the time and I don't remember him. Until a few years ago, I knew little about him, other than that he had been serious, fairly religious and a conscientious objector in the War. But then a few years ago, my sister and I were given a stack of old letters - my grandparents' love letters from before they were married. They revealed a very passionate relationship - he absolutely worshipped her and they simply could not wait to be together. Here he is below. Rather handsome, I think?

I remembered then something that my grandmother told me when I got engaged. She looked at my ring, with its sparkling single diamond, and said that she remembered how her own engagement ring used to sparkle under the lights of the London Underground. She would look at it constantly, she said, admiring its gleam, and thinking how lucky she was to be engaged. I knew exactly how she felt. It was one of those moments of real connection when you almost see across the decades, and realise that the little old lady who you think of as 'Grandma' was once just like you.

This post is for The Gallery at Sticky Fingers, where you will find many other beautiful black and white photographs today.

Monday 15 August 2011

How to successfully exhaust a 6 year old

How to successfully exhaust a 6 year old boy:

1. Sign him up for an 'all age' soccer camp, which runs all day, 9-4.

2. Have the soccer camp unhelpfully change its location from down the road to a 45 minute drive away, meaning he leaves the house at 8 and returns at 5. But stick with it.

3. Drop him, bewildered by his long car journey, at football field in the middle of nowhere.

4. Leave to play nonstop football in the baking sun all day, relying on him to reapply suncream himself (he actually did well, but missed the back of his neck one day).

5. Get there to pick him up and realise that he is much the smallest child there, and is playing on a team that includes hulking 10 year old boys and impressively talented 14 year old girls. Also realise that this is no nicely-nicely summer camp where 'everyone's a winner' - it's more like boot camp.

6. Rehydrate and remove sweaty socks and football boots; place exhausted child in car.

7. Just to make sure he's really tired, take him swimming afterwards to cool off.

8. Repeat on a loop for 3 days running.

Result: The surprisingly resilient child will hold his own, impressing coaches and older kids alike. However, he will be so exhausted by the whole thing that he will behave in an uncharacteristically quiet fashion all weekend: sitting decorously by the pool relaxing after a half hour swimming, playing nicely with his toys instead of careering about the house madly, and responding obediently to requests to tidy up.

In other news, here's how to put off a 4 year old from his forthcoming trip to Niagara Falls:

1. Tell him about the scene in Superman 2 where Superman rescues a child who has fallen over the waterfall.

2. In fit of enthusiasm, get the film from the video library and show it to the boys.

Result: 4 year old will announce that he no longer wants to go to Niagara Falls. He only wants to look at it from TV, and will not go anywhere near the top of the waterfall. What he will make of a hotel room overlooking the Falls, I am not sure. Still, at least he got the message that Superman will not be coming to rescue him.....