Wednesday 29 June 2011

Playdate purgatory

I have a confession to make: I have come to dread hosting 'playdates'.

Oh, it was fine when the boys were little, and little friends would come round accompanied by their mums, who (hopefully) were my friends too, and we could gossip and drink tea while we supervised our offspring's play. And to some extent it's still fine with Littleboy 2, whose friends still find it exciting to play with Lego, scale the bunkbed ladder and spend hours bouncing on the trampoline.

No, the problem is with Littleboy 1's friends. Sweet boys, generally, but many of them seem to have the attention span of gnats. Primarily, they are usually dismayed when they find out that we have neither a Wii or a 'DS' in the household. I am starting to feel almost cruel for not having this equipment, but then I have to remind myself that my son is only six and actually, he's quite happy without it.

We do, however, have an iPad, and sometimes I relent and let Littleboy 1 play Angry Birds with his friends (although he's only supposed to have one prescribed play on it after supper). But I don't want them to spend the whole playdate on it, so I restrict the time before kicking them outside or suggesting they play something else. But this is easier said than done. We had one child recently who wanted my son to open every single board game we own, only to announce after two minutes of each that he was 'bored of this now'.

The kids here always want to 'see the basement' too. This is because many of them have large, converted basements which are like extra playrooms. I have to explain to them that yes, we do have a basement but it is grotty, spider-ridden and home to only the washing machine, tumble dryer, ancient TVs belonging to our landlady and some random storage boxes. But sometimes they are so determined that we have to venture down there, at which point they look horrified.

The trampoline usually keeps them amused for a while, but then it's back to mooching indoors. Littleboy 1 doesn't help by constantly asking them if they want a snack. I'm happy to give them food, but what do you do if a little guest keeps asking for more and more glasses of milk and more and more pretzels? I'm sure his mother won't be pleased, but on the other hand I don't want to become known as that mean British mother who keeps the food under wraps.

I've always had a rule that there is no TV on playdates - why go round to someone else's house to watch television? - but the other day after two hours of 'I'm bored' I gave in and let them watch cartoons. I felt terrible, but there really did seem to be no pleasing this particular friend.

I don't know. I think I'm fairly hopeless at this playdate business. If anyone has any tips on how to make it more bearable without being the kind of mother who does wonderful creative crafts and painting when other kids come round (I am just not that woman), please advise.

Saturday 25 June 2011

Friday night and Saturday morning

Friday night:

The East Village.
A bar with a secret door and dark oriental decor.
Delicious Asian fusion cooking. Delicate small portions.
Loos like mini opium dens - so well hidden by the decor that they are almost impossible to find.
Walking through packed streets, people queuing at club entrances.
'White Slab'. (Sounds like a mortuary, but in fact, kind of a cross between an oyster bar and club.)
Loud, very loud, Abba being played.
People shouting in your ear.
Having to shout to be heard.

Saturday morning (and afternoon)

An annoyingly slow cab journey to the Long Island Railroad - running in heels for the 12.20 train.
Walking home through empty, dark streets.
Bed at 2am.
A long slow morning watching Wimbledon in bed (luckily the boys were having a sleepover with our neighbours).
A croaky voice and ringing ears.
Cars 2 at a large all-American cinema, with popcorn all over the floor.
Driving around various large malls to purchase items such as a 'baseball mitt' .
Dinner at a branch of Ruby Tuesday. Large portions.

Sometimes I can't believe the contrast between the life in Manhattan that is going on, 20 miles away, and our little suburban corner of Long Island. I'm sure if the twenty-something Manhattanites from the bar last night had envisaged our Saturday, they would have been horrified. But this weekend, I'm happy to have experienced a bit of both.

Sunday 19 June 2011

The graduates

We've all graduated this week. Littleboy 2 from preschool, Littleboy 1 from kindergarten to First Grade. And The Doctor and I finally graduated to iPhones. What is more, we all managed to do this on the same day, which could be counted as something of an achievement.

First, a little explanation for British readers - everything is a graduation here. It's not only something that takes place after three years of college - every school year ends with a ceremonious celebration of some kind, a diploma on a certificate and even, in some cases, gowns and mortar boards. (Picnicking in Central Park yesterday, we saw lots of people wandering around in Harry Potter-style gowns and hats, celebrating graduations of some kind).

Last year I found all this slightly weird - this year, as with so many things, I rather loved it. Littleboy 1's ceremony was first, at 9am. The entire kindergarten year (100 odd children) piled onto the stage in the school auditorium and sang a medley of songs including It's a small word after all and What a wonderful world. First of all, they all trooped down the aisle accompanied by whoops and whistles from the parents (some of the children looked bemused, if not downright terrified, at this point). The performance then began with the pledge of allegiance to the US flag. ("Mummy", Littleboy 1 told me fiercely the night before, "You must stand for the pledge and put your hand on your heart.").

Midway through the performance, the most surprising thing of all occurred. The school principal got up and announced that instead of saying a few words, he was going to sing. Two older kids pitched up with instruments to accompany him. And he launched into song, Frank Sinatra style, with lyrics he'd written especially for the occasion. As he stood there and belted it out, with a brilliant voice, he went up several degrees in my estimation (and I suspect this was the case for most of the parents). The performance ended with the kids singing God Bless America - at which point I caught Littleboy 1 on the video camera singing with gusto about the mountains and the prairies. (Better teach him the lyrics to 'Jerusalem' pretty soon, I guess.)

After a brief appearance in his classroom (hundreds of grandparents and extended family enthusiastically taking pictures of the kids, everyone eating cupcakes and cookies), I legged it to the car and drove to Littleboy 2's preschool for the graduation show and picnic, making it there just in time to join The Doctor for the 10am kick off. Littleboy 2, in contrast to last year when he sat down and refused to sing, performed Octopus's Garden and other marine-related numbers with aplomb, dressed in the cutest octopus costume. As we waved goodbye to preschool for the last time (he starts big school in September), I felt pretty emotional, but he seemed to take it all in his stride (or perhaps didn't realise the significance of being hugged by his teachers for the last time).

Our third stop of the day was the local Apple Store. Yes, we had finally decided to upgrade our phones (mine was so old that the guy didn't even know what cable to use to transfer the data on it - from memory, it must date from about 2004). And we had taken the plunge and decided to join the Long Island masses with iPhones. We had always resisted temptation before; they are pretty expensive here, because you are tied into a 2 year contract. But here we are are, now happily playing with our brand new sleek white slabs of metal. For the first time ever, I have email on the go. I'll be able to read all my lovely blog comments, and comment on my favourite blogs, in the playground, at the beach, and while waiting for the boys to finish swimming/soccer/get off the bus. I guess I have graduated to the cult of Apple.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

We're all going on a summer holiday. Or maybe not?

Over at Pond Parleys they are having a debate about the joy of staycationing, and it's prompted me to think about the differences I've noticed between the UK and America when it comes to the good old summer holiday.

As the end of term approaches, I know that in England there would be just one conversation at the school gates (not to mention in hairdressing salons everywhere). "Going away this summer?" But here, it is just not really a topic of conversation (other than the people who ask me if we're going back to England). You're more likely to be asked what summer camp the kids are signed up for, or whether you're planning on joining the town swimming pool.

The first summer we were here, I noticed that people didn't really seem to be going away, and I put it down to the recession. Towards the end of August, people mentioned either going down to the (Jersey) Shore, or 'out east' - which only means one thing, because you can't get much further East in the US than Long Island: ie the Hamptons. But this was only for a long weekend, or at most a week. Many Americans only get a couple of weeks holiday a year, so hardly anyone takes a two week trip anywhere.

Since then I've realised that this is a common phenomenon and probably not recession-related at all. People just don't seem to take off on summer holidays. Perhaps it's not surprising - after all, why go away on a beach holiday when you have beautiful beaches right on your doorstep on Long Island? Trips to 'beach' type destinations, like Florida, the Caribbean or Mexico, tend to be taken in the winter here. But even visiting different parts of the States seems to be fairly unusual, unless people have family there.

Taking a day trip to a theme park does seem to be popular - we have places such as Sesame Place and Hershey Park within driving distance, and people do fly down to Disneyworld, although usually not in the summer. As for travelling abroad, most people I know have been to Europe once or twice - but usually during their student years, or perhaps on their honeymoon. The idea of abroad with a family seems out of the question for most people- and I am sure it isn't that they couldn't afford it, as we live in a fairly affluent area. (I'm sure families with equivalent incomes back in London would be summer holidaying in Tuscany or the South of France.)

This summer we've decided we'll head to Canada, via Niagara Falls, with a few days in Montreal than heading back via Vermont (because we loved it so much in the winter). Although we're not even getting on a plane, this is fairly adventurous compared to what most of my friends are planning (not least because we're driving all the way. With the Littleboys. Are we quite mad?) I've spoken to many people here who have never visited either Canada or Niagara Falls (which is in New York State, on the American side, although a long drive from here). I suppose the equivalent in the UK would be never having visited France, or Scotland.

So I wonder; is it just that we Brits feel a hunger to get away because of our dismal weather? Or are we more natural travellers than the Americans, who seem quite content to stay close to home. Personally what I love about travel is the chance to experience completely different countries and cultures (whatever the weather, although obviously sun helps), not to mention different food. So the idea of only ever staying in your immediate area seems stifling, however good the weather and scenery. I'd love to know what others think, and what it's like in other areas of the States.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

June, with a vengeance

In the past couple of weeks, summer has hit home. Long Island has transformed; going from a distinctly chilly spring to temperatures of over 30 degrees in a fortnight. The sprinklers are on in the playgrounds and the shops are packed with people frantically buying watermelons and suncream.

The school year suddenly seems to reached a pitch of crazed proportions too. Everything seems to be packed into the last fortnight before they break up: field trips, sports day, art shows. This calls for some creativity on my part now I am working from 9am-3pm every day at the moment. Yesterday I started working at breakfast time in order to get stuff done and be down at Littleboy 2's preschool by 9.45 to accompany them on a field trip. Having marched a bunch of preschoolers round the duckpond, I raced back to my desk an hour later to continue the work day.

Today was sports day, or Field Day as it's called here, at Littleboy 1's school, so I dashed down there at lunchtime to watch them playing relay races in the searing heat. Next week I will have to do a mad dash from Littleboy 1's end of term play and 'graduation' from kindergarten to Littleboy 2's end of term play and 'graduation' from preschool, which are scheduled within an hour of each other (luckily I opted not to work that day). I am lucky enough to work from home so, usually, I can wangle it somehow; how full time office working parents manage to go to any of this stuff I have no idea (and suspect that there is a lot of guilt involved).

The Littleboys are looking forward to the end of term now; it may be much earlier than in the UK, but there's no airconditioning in most of the classrooms at school, and they are coming home hot and tired. With the light, hot evenings, they want to stay up late and rebel at me trying in vain to maintain their 8pm bedtime.

A the same time there's something so promising about early June. Everything is still green; there are still the vestiges of blossom around, but the roses are in full bloom, the hydrangeas are just coming out and in a week or two, there will be fireflies in the garden. Everyone is still enjoying the heat, rather than complaining about it, the evenings are getting longer, and the year still seems young, rather than dying again as it does in the dog days of summer. Even switching on the airconditioners still seems like a novelty.

Thursday 2 June 2011


So in answer to various comments on the last post, here are the answers:

The GOP = The Grand Old Party. Nickname for the Republicans.
The DMV = The Department for Motor Vehicles. Otherwise known as the seventh circle of hell.
NPR = National Public Radio. The nearest thing America has to Radio 4.

Sliders: mini hamburgers and buns. Slightly gross name, actually a great idea.
Matzoh: an unleavened Jewish cracker traditionally eaten at Passover.
Challah bread: another Jewish food, the most delicious brioche-type bread.
S'mores - melted marshmallow and chocolate sandwiched in between two Graham crackers (a popular American cracker, pronounced 'Gram'). You're supposed to eat them round the campfire.
Goldfish - a snack brand beloved of American kids. (When the boys were first offered Goldfish, I did a bit of a double take).

By the way did anyone spot the non-deliberate American spellings in the last post? I spelled neighbour as neighbor, and honoured as honored. The reason is that I'm writing for an American publication these days, and I'm having to auto correct my spelling all the time. So it's starting to come naturally.

My father has now returned to England, after a hot, sunny and very American week. We spent a night listening to the roar of the Atlantic out in Montauk at the Eastern tip of Long Island (pictured, above) then caught a ferry over to Mystic, Connecticut, where we didn't eat Mystic Pizza, much to the disappointment of my friend Middle England Mum, but instead gorged on lobster by the harbo(u)r. We then returned for an all-day party held by our neighbours, at which I received the first of many mosquito bites of the summer, followed by the traditional Memorial Day parade. Littleboy 1 announced that he liked the cheerleaders, with their short skirts and twirly batons, best. (I think my Dad may have agreed....)

Tonight I am off to watch Derek Jacobi in King Lear - injecting a little bit of British culture back into the proceedings. As The Doctor remarked, it seems a little incongruous to be driving in Brooklyn to watch a cast of British actors perform Shakespeare. But that's the beauty of New York.