Friday 28 January 2011

Pile it high....

Long Islanders are used to snow and cold weather. The streets are generally ploughed soon after a snowstorm, and after a day when school might be cancelled or delayed in order for everyone to get their shovels (or fancy snow-blowers) and dig out, life usually returns to normality very quickly.

But not this year. Firstly, there has been a lot more snow than usual this January - around 36 inches in New York, as opposed to an average of 7, I believe. The other problem is that the snow is falling so frequently - around every four days since the Boxing Day blizzard that kicked it all off - that there hasn't been enough time for it to melt in between. So snow is piling up, and up, and up....

The Doctor remarked to me yesterday as we were clearing our driveway yet again that 'we're now living in a sort of hole'. And it's true. The snow is banked up around several feet high around our cars, and up the sides of the drive (see above). Our normally wide street has been reduced to a narrow lane, which the schoolbus can barely negotiate; the pavement is a narrow track amid walls of snow and ice. People are having trouble backing out of their drives, because the banked up snow from their opposite neighbours is jutting out into the street.

Walking up the town's Main Street is hardly better. Outside shops and businesses, people have ploughed, but what do they do with the snow? They pile it up. You can just about make it up the pavement, but actually crossing the street is another business. Last night I walked into town (not daring to get the car out, in case the sides of our driveway avalanched into it) and within minutes had completely soaked my feet, despite snowboots, from the huge puddles of slush that had to be negotiated at each street corner.

We like winter sports, and in general we've enjoyed the snowy winters here - it's very beautiful, and the boys love sledding and playing in the snow- but my enthusiasm for the white stuff has started to wear just a little bit thin. School and work are being disrupted at least once a week. I'm working full time at the moment (from home); however, I seem to have to spend part of my working day running outside with a shovel to make sure I can actually pick up Littleboy 2 from preschool. The other day, I got stuck halfway up the drive on the way back from dropping him, because over an inch of snow had fallen between 9am and 10am. I am seriously starting to see the benefits of a 4x4.

Every day brings a new phone call consisting of a recorded message from the town's police department - the one I just listened to started off, "As we are all aware, this has been a very harsh winter...". It's either that or the school district, phoning at 5.30am to inform us that there's no school that day (thanks, you just made a long day with the boys even longer...).

A look at next week's forecast is hardly cheering. More snow is forecast on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. No end in sight. There is only one consolation to the winter onslaught - a fantastic ski season. We're going again this weekend, this time to the Catskills - and (providing we make it up the mountain) the slopes should be perfect......

Monday 24 January 2011

Stylish blogging....about crackling. And pyjamas.

It's always good to be given an award, and in this case I'm honoured to have been awarded by 'Cross the Pond - one of those people whose life seems to have done a direct swap with mine, a New Yorker living in London.

The award is for Stylish Blogging - I think (hope?) Stylish in this case must mean in the writing, seeing as I'm not exactly Liberty London Girl, who gets to write about fashion and five star hotels (although I do have serious blog envy there), and my wardrobe this month seem to consist of the same pair of thick cords and very thick jumpers, or alternatively ski-wear, donned for digging out the driveway.

Anyway the award as usual comes with rules, so I must thank the person who nominated me and then reveal seven things about myself. I'm sure I've already bored readers with the 'seven things' meme before so I'm going to make it more specific and reveal seven (new) things I never knew about living in the US.

1. The tipping culture. Yes, I knew Americans tipped generously, but I did not realise quite to what extent. The normal tip is 15-20% here, and at Christmas you tip the postman, the garbage men, the schoolbus driver and your newspaper delivery person. You tip the camp teachers at the end of summer camp, and the instructors at the ski school. It's also fairly normal to give school teachers money as a Christmas present - or at least, a voucher or gift card so they can see exactly what you've spent on them. I'm only just coming up to speed on all this, so I hope I haven't offended anyone by being a stingy Brit....

2. A couple of people commented on my last post that they hadn't realised Americans talk about the weather as well as we Brits. Well, they do. At least in New York. The radio station we listen to is always on about it, and let's face it, they have that whole Weather Channel so you can obsess about the weather 24/7 if you want to. The conversation at the bus stop in the morning nearly always revolves around how cold/hot it is, or whether snow is forecast....

3. ...BUT on days when it is minus 13 (like today) you don't totally hate the winter weather. The sky is so blue and the sun so bright you can almost look out of the window and pretend it's summer - if it weren't for the three feet of snow in the back garden.....

4. It is not possible to buy a joint of pork in the US and get crackling. Simply not going to happen. We've tried. We miss crackling.

5. Americans don't like doing things by halves......viz Piers Morgan's new chat show. He's on five nights a week. Interviewing one single person for a whole hour. That's a lot of very long interviews. More than Wogan - he managed three nights a week back in the eighties (and there were always several guests per show) And while George Clooney, Oprah and Ricky Gervais might have been worth watching for an hour, I can't help thinking that pretty soon Piers will have to be resorting to the runners up on American Idol or the guy who plays the occasional cop on Grey's Anatomy...

6. Speaking of TV, it is quite normal in the US for your favourite TV series to stop for a hiatus of three or four weeks, then show one new episode, then show repeats for a few weeks, then maybe, if they are feeling like it, show a few more new's no wonder so few shows make it beyond their first season, as it's simply impossible to follow the storyline. Thank God for DVRs.

7. No school term is complete without a pyjama party. I don't know if this is just round here, but Americans simply love them - and so do the children. Why going to school in your pyjamas is quite so thrilling I am not sure, but Littleboy 1 was so excited that he actually went to bed early the night before in anticipation.

Now, I'm supposed to nominate 15 other bloggers for this award, but I've been shamefully lax on discovering new blogs recently, so what I'm going to suggest, rather lazily, is that if you want to take part, just go for it! Now there's an American sentiment. (And if you're new to me and I don't know your blog yet, leave me a comment and I promise I'll be over to take a look.)

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Overheard on the train.....

I was travelling on the Long Island Rail Road earlier today, and overheard the following, between two women who, from the sounds of their conversation worked in the media. One of them was about to go on a business trip to England.

Woman 1: You know, the weather there in February will probably be the same as it is in August.

Woman 2: What do you mean?

Woman 1: Well, cold. I mean, I was there 20 years ago in August and I needed a sweater!

Woman 2 (confidently): Oh no, it's not at all like that now. It's hot in August.

Woman 1: Wow. You mean, like it's changed?

Woman 2: Yes, it's definitely changed - the summers are hot now. It's the weather at this time of year that will be vile - really, like, blustery.

Woman 1: That's really interesting.

It was so tempting to join in and point out that no, Britain has not undergone a climatic change of epic proportions hitherto unreported in the rest of the world. And the whole point about the British weather is that it's unpredictable.

What is more, on an unusually nasty New York winter day (freezing rain mixing with snow and slush and making for what the weather forecasters call a 'mucky commute') I thought it was a bit rich to call our February drizzle vile........

It seems I'm a bit more loyal to Blighty than I thought.

Friday 14 January 2011

Snow day

We knew it was coming, the snow day, but it was still magical to wake up to about a foot of snow on Wednesday morning. School had been cancelled the day before, so there were no early morning frettings about what to do, and we even managed a bit of a lie-in.

The Littleboys were outside by 8.30am for their first session playing in the white stuff (despite my mutterings of "it's far too cold, and you've got ALL DAY to play in the snow"). Meanwhile The Doctor and I were shovelling the driveway and scraping off the cars. It seemed a shame to break up that perfect, icing-sugar sea of virgin snow, but we know from experience that if you don't get shovelling while it's soft and powdery, it turns into utterly impenetrable slabs of ice.

By about 10, the boys were tired, and came in for a breather while I treated myself to a bowl of steaming porridge with maple syrup - a suitable breakfast after an hour of shovelling, I decided.

But they were outside again by 11 when the kids next door came round to ask them to play, all of them sledging down the hill in next door's garden with whoops of joy. By lunchtime every item of their clothing was sopping - gloves smelling of wet dog lined the window sills drying off, dripping ski pants and coats were hanging from the overhead lights. The hallway was awash with melted snow, and abandoned ski socks were strewn around the room.

After lunch, with the driveway now clear, the Doctor went to work. But there was no rest for me; the boys demanded another sledging session, and with the neighbours not around, we had to do it in our front garden, which has a nice gradient - the only problem being that at the end you either shoot down a bank straight into the road, or crash into a tree. Therefore this required me standing there to 'catch' them as they hurtled down the hill. I tried several times to persuade at least Littleboy 2 to come in - he was getting whiny - but they insisted on staying outside, even after I retired to the house.

It wasn't until darkness was falling, casting a soft blue light onto the snowfall, that they stomped back in, exhausted, red-cheeked and dripping wet (again) and demanded pieces of toast. ("I need something to warm me up!" insisted Littleboy 1, who refuses to try any kind of hot drink). They then wanted to 'do crafts'. At this point, surrounded by wet ski gear and laundry, I resorted to making a plea that would no doubt appall any child rearing expert:

"Can't you just sit down for 5 minutes and watch TV?"

Before the storm, a fellow mother had said to me: "Don't you just love snow days? Nothing to do but stay in your pajamas all day....".
If anyone knows how this is achieved, could they please tell me?

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Basketball mom

It's finally happened. I am becoming the sort of American 'mom' who ferries her sons around to endless sports classes.

For someone who was pretty hopeless at sport at school, and who spent her childhood learning the 'cello and doing drama, it's a fairly surprising outcome. But, in addition to the boys' weekly swimming lessons and ice skating lessons, Littleboy 1 now attends indoor basketball training on a Saturday morning. It's what you do here, and why not? After all, he has a lot of energy, and on a winter weekend when it's really too cold for much else in the icy New York winter, at least he's getting some exercise....

The first week I took him along by myself, as The Doctor was busy buying the Christmas tree. As we headed for the school gym where the class takes place, I became aware of several things at once;

a) I was not a Dad
b) I was not carrying Littleboy 1's own basketball (he doesn't have one, and had never played before), and bouncing it in an enthusiastic manner.
c) Littleboy 1 did not have a basketball sweatshirt emblazoned with the name of some player for the New York Knicks. (Although at least I know who these are now. It's so confusing, what with the New Jersey Nets, the Mets (baseball) and the Jets (American football). )

We therefore stood out already. As Littleboy 1 disappeared into the melee of over-excited small boys and coach-Dads wielding whistles, I wondered if lots of the other kids had played much before. As it was a group of five-year-olds, I thought maybe a few might have tried it....

But soon, the gym was awash with tiny boys who had obviously been trained to play basketball since they were in the womb. Dribbling with ease, shooting into a full-size adult hoop, passing - all egged on by their fathers, who, if not coaching, stood on the sidelines bouncing their own basketballs and cheering enthusiastically. When it came to the game itself, Littleboy 1, although strong and physically able, hadn't a clue what was going on. (He still hasn't - after three weeks now, he still passes to members of the opposite team. He claims to love it, though).

I can safely say that I was the only parent who sat down in a corner of the gym with a copy of the New York Times, and proceeded, in between glancing encouragingly at my son, to read the Travel section. The few other mothers there stood throughout, either sipping from enormous Styrofoam coffee cups or tapping on their iPhones (such is the Long Island mother at play in their natural habitat).

The third week, I told The Doctor that this time he really should go along and watch his offspring attempting to dribble a ball. I described the scene to him, and he looked askance. "It's all right for you," he grumbled. "You can probably get away with reading the paper. But I'm a father, and I'll be expected to be bouncing basketballs and cheering."

In the end we all went, but Littleboy 2 was soon bored, and I took him off to the shops, leaving The Doctor to it. (Not before he had commented that the whole thing - the slightly stinky gym, the cheering, the random chaos of small boys and basketballs - reminded him horribly of school. Like me, he did not excel at school sport - and still isn't all that interested in sport, except for ski-ing and tennis).

But when I got back, I found he hadn't touched the newspaper and seemed to have observed the game quite closely. And even he had to admit that there was something about the way that these American dads pumped their kids up that was really quite impressive. At the end of the game, all the kids joined hands and yelled out the team slogan - whereas we rather thought that, in England, everyone might have just slunk off home.

We'll make a basketball Dad of him yet. Just as soon as we put up that hoop in the backyard. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to take my sons to the skating rink (where five year olds in full ice-hockey gear shoot across the ice excitedly, boasting of how they're going to play for the Islanders one day). One day I might even pop into Starbucks and buy myself a grande latte on the way.......

Friday 7 January 2011

American ski school - a revelation

I really didn't know what to expect from ski school in the US. Two years ago when we went ski-ing in France, it took Littleboy 1 a good four days to actually join in with the class, rather than sitting in what we dubbed the 'crying hut' all morning.

As I described here, perhaps it wasn't surprising, given that the ski school met each morning at the bottom of a mini cable car. You waved goodbye to your child as he entered a crowded sort pigpen, clutching his little skis, surrounded by howling French children, and was taken off quickly by a ski instructor. It was emotionally draining, both for him and us, not to mention disorganised and chaotic - on the first day he came back with the wrong skis, and we never found the original ones (luckily the hire shop was very understanding....)

This time I was reassured by the fact that the two boys would be together - I thought this would be comforting for Littleboy 2 who had not skied before and is prone to tantrums when things aren't going his way. But I guess I was still a little apprehensive - would they be too cold? Would they lose their hats/gloves/goggles? (Littleboy 1 lost two pairs of mittens last term at school, so his track record is not good, and his brother has a tendency to take things off and throw them indiscriminately on the floor). Would they resent not ski-ing with us?

But American ski school was a revelation - or at least, the school at Smugglers' Notch, the resort where we holidayed. (It has in fact won many awards for its ski school - which is known as the Snow Sport University, a slightly pretentious name, but perhaps justified.)

We dropped the Littleboys each morning in a large, heated hall. On the first day it looked like chaos but in fact, it was highly organised, with each child being allocated a group led by two instructors. The children took off all their outer garments and immediately started playing with Lego or colouring. Meanwhile, their accessories and ski jackets were placed inside their helmets (labelled) in a crate, ready for when they started skiing. They managed not to lose a single item all week - not even a tiny ski glove went missing. (In fact, the only person who lost something was The Doctor, who sadly dropped a very nice hat I bought him last Christmas).

They were then taken to the ski slopes, where lessons began. Whereas in the French ski school, Littleboy 1 seemed to spend the best part of two weeks marching around in a circle on skis, in one week here both boys not only learnt to ski, but by the end of the week were ascending the mountain in a chairlift and skiing down a green run in formation behind their instructor. They even competed in a little 'race' one day, in which (hilariously) an instructor with a mike announced them as if they were Lindsey Vonn about to compete for Olympic gold.

They had frequent hot chocolate breaks, a hot lunch, and at 2.30pm finished ski-ing for the day. They then were entertained indoors (one day a magic show, sometimes a film) until the parents collected them at 4pm.

By the second day they were so excited to go to ski school that they barely even paid attention as we waved them goodbye in the mornings. They loved their instructor, were always enthusiastic about what they had been doing, and generally seemed to be having a fantastic time.

As well as going to sneak a look at them on a few occasions, we could also track their progress online due to a GPS device that was strapped to their leg all day and recorded every turn they made. At the end of the week they received a detailed report of what they could do, as well as a lovely 'diploma' from the Snow Sport University (yes, Americans just love to graduate!).

Now I don't want to knock the Ecole de Ski Francais too much - I'm sure we'll be going back to them, and they do a decent job - after all, The Doctor learned with them as a child and he is a brilliant skier. But we both agreed that there is much that they could learn from this system - efficient, very child-centred and also reassuring for the parents, so that everyone can enjoy their week.

As for the boys, Littleboy 1 was consistently praised by his instructor for being the strongest in his group - although his tendency to head straight downhill rather than turning, when he gets the chance, has not diminished. He has also already (horrors) asked if he can learn to snowboard (the answer was no, not until you can ski properly.)

But I was particularly impressed by Littleboy 2 - only just four - who progressed very well and did not complain about the cold once (unlike his parents, wussily huddled in the bar with our Irish Coffees). During the week he also appeared to have acquired a girlfriend - we arrived one afternoon to find him arm in arm with a little blonde chick who seemed to be all over him. It won't be long till he's chatting up chalet girls, I'm sure.........

Wednesday 5 January 2011

You know you're in Vermont when...

Happy New Year everyone!

Apologies for the break in transmission - I've been away in the wilds of New England. Well, not quite the wilds, actually in a very nice civilised ski resort - of which possibly more later, but first of all here is my little homage to Vermont. A state where I would be very, very temped to go and live.

You know you're in Vermont when.........

1. You pull in at a Welcome Center off the interstate (these usually appear just after the border of a new state) and in addition to the usual selection of maps and tourist information you are handed a free cup of Green Mountain Coffee.

2. You seen road signs that say 'Moose Crossing' and 'Bear Crossing'. While you do not actually see these animals, you have great fun getting the children to look out for them - and let's face it, you need all the distractions you can get after an epic seven hour car journey...

3. The roads are lined with log cabins, maple syrup farms and beautiful brick manor houses. Not a Home Depot or Starbucks in sight.

4. You notice the Christmas decorations are far more low-key than in New York. Just a tasteful wreath or two. No inflatable Santas. Interesting.

5. The scenery is staggeringly beautiful, particularly after a snowfall when the trees are caked in powder and the icicles are bigger than any you've ever seen.

6. Lift attendants in the ski resort say 'have a great day' and 'enjoy it up there' as they steady the chairlift for you to get on. (Similar people in France usually just grunt dismissively and let the chair thwack the back of your legs).

7. Your children learn to ski doing a 'pizza wedge' rather than a snowplow.

8. You might not be able to get a vin chaud (mulled wine) at a mountain restaurant, as in France. But then you discover the Black Bear Tavern in the Base Lodge. Which has much more interesting warming drinks. My favourite was hot chocolate with Amaretto and Grand Marnier, with whipped cream on top. Mmm.

9. You wear more layers than you have ever worn skiing - balaclava under a Peruvian alpaca hat, woolly jumpers over fleeces, hand warmers in your gloves and toe warmers in your boots. You also opt for a helmet as someone has told you it's warmer as well as safer. But it's still bloody cold.

10. As a result of 8) and 9) you spend even more time in the Black Bear Tavern. Which possibly improves your ski-ing......who can say?