Monday 30 July 2012

Raising Olympians?

Obsessive Olympics-watching was the order of the day in our house this weekend, from last Friday's fabulous ceremony (despite the best efforts of NBC to ruin it) to watching the first Team GB medals in the cycling road race and swimming.

The Littleboys, despite sporting American accents and knowing the pledge of allegiance to the US flag off by heart, have turned out to be staunchly pro-British.; for example, they object highly to a Citibank ad that keeps being during the coverage, with the strapline 'Go Team USA'. Meanwhile Littleboy 2 keeps earnestly asking me if "England" is the same is "Team GB", because that's who he wants to support (I'm not surprised he's confused - what does Team GB mean exactly? I mean, aren't we Great Britain and Northern Ireland?).

This is the first Olympics the boys have been old enough to really take in, and I'm loving it all the more for their enthusiasm, as well as the fact it's in London. They stayed up for a good half of the opening ceremony, loving Mr Bean in particular and the children bouncing on hospital beds. Littleboy 1 has started an Olympic log book of sports he has watched, noting down teams and scores in felt pen. When we went to the town pool on Sunday, both insisted on swimming several lengths of front crawl, and asked me to teach them how to do a somersault turn.

I think it's great that they're so inspired by the Olympics, and have been wondering how exactly I could ensure their future dazzling success as Olympic athletes. It seems to me you must have to settle on a sport pretty early on in life; Littleboy 1 is already seven, so we need to get a move on. He's fairly sporty, but I'm not sure cycling up and down the block is going to produce the next Bradley Wiggins, and although he's a good soccer player I'm realistic enough not to think he's going to be a world-class footballer. I think I need to pick something more obscure - perhaps both boys could team up and become sychronized divers? Or perhaps beach volleyball - there's a court near us, and surely that would be an advantage over most the future players of 'Team GB'?

In truth, I would love to raise an Olympian, but deep down I have a feeling that, if you weren't one already, you would turn into a kind of obsessive freak-parent whose life became dominated by your child's success or failure, training regimes and the like. Just looking at some of the wild-eyed, chuntering parents of US gymnasts in the crowd yesterday made me shudder (particularly when we heard that one of the girls was competing with a broken toe). I wonder if it's possible to raise an Olympian without going overboard - or if that's just not realistic these days?

Thursday 26 July 2012

Let the games begin....

I may not be in London, but I just have to say, I'm so excited about the Olympics.

I'm looking forward to the opening ceremony, and the possibility of spotting my friend Nota Bene, who will be performing in the Danny Boyle extravaganza. Whether or not he'll be recognisable in costume, I can't wait to see the result of all the weeks rehearsing in secret that he's been hinting about on his blog. And I'm enjoying friends' Facebook posts and pictures of the Olympic torch passing their streets (I'm really very happy for you all that it's stopped raining).

I'm excited about getting the Littleboys enthused about all the different sports - the athletics, the gymnastics, the diving - that you don't normally sit down and watch on TV except when it's an Olympic year. Thanks to gifts from their aunt and uncle, the boys are going about wearing London 2012 t-shirts with great pride, and it would be lovely if they remembered the excitement around the London games, even though we're not in the country.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and I are looking forward to hearing NBC's Olympic commentary, which I'm sure will be full of bemused remarks about quaint English customs.  I do like to see how the Americans cover British events.  I had to laugh this morning when NPR radio interviewed the British ambassador and asked him what was with all the - "how do you call it? whingeing?" - around the games. His dry reply was that "whingeing is a very important word in the British vocabulary".

In the lead-up, TV channels here are showing non-stop repeats of films like Chariots of Fire, which we watched the other night. Having not seen it in 30 years or so, we had a good laugh at the 80s synthesized soundtrack, which must have seemed so modern at the time, but now seems just bizarre, given that the film is set in the 1920s.

And we've been absolutely loving the BBC series Twenty Twelve, which has been shown here on BBC America. It's perfect - just realistic enough to be almost believable (particularly the brilliant performance of Jessica Hynes as PR woman Siobhan Sharp, whose type I have encountered many times), just absurd enough to be laugh-out-loud funny. Definitely deserves a gold medal.

Now excuse me, I have a date with the TV and my sofa for the next couple of weeks...

Monday 23 July 2012


Three years ago, when I arrived here, not knowing a single person in this town, I dragged the Littleboys to the local playground. It was The Doctor's first day at work and my first on my own with the boys in a strange country.

The playground was virtually empty - the schools hadn't quite broken up, and the early June weather was grey and murky. There was one other person there, a blonde woman pushing a small blond boy on a swing. As I pushed my boys on the swing alongside, I overheard her talking to her child in what sounded like a foreign language. Determined to start somewhere in making friends, I took a deep breath and started a conversation, asking her if she lived nearby.

Turns out she did, but was from Germany, and had been here two years. Her little boy was a few months older than Littleboy 2. Immediately she started to tell me all about the town, explaining about preschools and the library and the online mums' group. She took me next door to the community centre for parents, and introduced me to the director. Already I felt as if I knew a hundred times more about the town.

I was immensely grateful, and we swapped numbers.Two days later, she called and invited me on a group playdate, and then on a Mum's night out. Through these connections, I tapped into the local community of fellow parents, and eventually made many other friends. But she remained my first friend, and over the three years has become the closest of everyone I've meet in America.

Our families, both lacking a local support network of parents and relatives, have been there for each other. When we had to move out of our tree-damaged house at short notice, her husband spent a whole day helping us to move our furniture, sweltering in the heat as we stuffed belongings into boxes. When she started working, and her small son seemed to be sick every day, I helped out and looked after him so that she could go to her new job.

In a few days time she is going back to Germany. I always knew this was on the cards - in fact, from the moment we met, she was telling me they were planning to go back (and I was always secretly quite pleased that it didn't seem to happen). After a while it became kind of a standing joke - they wanted to go back, but circumstances were preventing it, and we would probably go home before they did.

But now they really are going. And while there are promises to Skype, and we will definitely see them again, back in Europe, I know deep down it won't ever really be the same. We won't be phoning each other up on a whim to go to the local park or the pool for a playdate. We won't be taking a weekend trip to Fire Island, or meeting at the school concert, or in the supermarket by chance. When we meet, in at least a year's time, probably two, our children, who know each other so well, will probably eye each other suspiciously, and be shy for the first few hours. They'll reconnect eventually, but will have to say goodbye again all too quickly.

I know this is the nature of expat life. Growing up in Hong Kong, I had many friends who moved on after a couple of years, and while we promised to write letters, eventually these friends faded into distant, pleasant memories (although bizarrely, now, in the age of social media, I have met up with a few via Facebook). I'm realistic about that. I'm good at leaving (or at least, can be stoic about it).

But it doesn't make it any easier. This week, I feel as if my ground has shifted a little. The summer sun is still shining, and life is pretty good, but something's changed. And it reminds that, in a year's time, we'll be packing up and moving on too. Every sunset must be savoured before the world turns, once again.

Monday 16 July 2012

Hot runnings

 In training for the Tour de France?

Summer seems to be racing by. The boys are now halfway through their six week summer camp, and come back tired, filthy, ravenous and reeking of chlorine at 5pm each day. Their hair is bleached blond and straw-like from the pool and their pale arms and legs are slowly becoming olive brown, despite the masses of sunscreen I apply each morning. But they are happy, and healthy, and (I hope) having a summer that they'll remember for years to come.

Their day is actually now longer than the school day, so I suddenly have a couple of hours more child-free time in my day, as I finish work at 3. I had hoped this would mean I could do a little more running. The trouble is (and yes I know, I know I'm at risk of offending everyone in England, so, sorry) that it's been roastingly hot for about the past month, with no real let-up. We've got to the stage now where even the early mornings are about 77 F (25 Centigrade), and it's humid too. However, with another 10K race coming up, and having (perhaps foolishly) signed up for a half marathon in the autumn, I can't give up entirely.

So, I set off with my water bottle, returning later with a face like a beetroot and unbecoming red blotches that don't even disappear after an ice-cold shower. Honestly, how can those professional marathon runners look so sleek and un-sweaty? Some of them even wear jewellery - if I did that, it would probably disintegrate due to the salt content of my skin. Even after five minutes, I look as if I've done an hour of 'hot yoga'.

This morning I decided to try something different from my usual circuit and go running instead at the beach. I thought the breeze here might cool things down, and it did, slightly - but I hadn't reckoned on the fact that there is absolutely no shade. Even at 9am, the sun was beating down on me and I ended up just as scarlet and sweaty as ever. The only other people there were pensioners gearing up for a day in deckchairs in the shade, and they looked at me as if I were a madwoman as I pounded up and down the promenade.

Perhaps the best thing when it's this hot is just to watch sport on TV from the airconditioned comfort of my sofa, rather than partake in it. And what a summer it is for sport. Having moved on from Euro 2012 and Wimbledon, we're currently glued to the Tour de France of an evening. Roll on the Olympics - and if the British weather continues in the same fashion, at least those athletes won't have to worry about the heat......

Monday 9 July 2012

New York in style

As I mentioned a few posts ago, the last time The Doctor and I spent a night in Manhattan was in 1995. En route to stay with his relatives in Virginia and on a student budget, we stayed at the YMCA, sleeping in bunk beds and breakfasting on blueberry pancakes downstairs. Our evening meal out was at a greasy diner off Times Square (which was still quite run down in those days); all I really remember about the meal is spotting a cockroach cross the floor.

Fast forward almost 20 years (gulp) and I still have a relationship with the YMCA (or the Y, as you call it round here. And you definitely don't start singing the Village People song when you mention it - that joke is far too old). But now my children go to summer camp there, and when I was booking a night in the city for my husband's fortieth birthday, I thought I'd go slightly more stylish.

Ever since seeing an episode of Sex and the City in which Samantha (I seem to recall) tries to get access to an exclusive rooftop pool, I've had a yearning to take a dip in one of these. So I picked our hotel on that basis - the James, in Soho, whose rooftop splash pool becomes a trendy bar by night. Both experiences were equally memorable; sipping cocktails overlooking the roofs of Manhattan as the sun set over the Hudson, and taking a surprisingly cool plunge the next morning on a steaming day when temperatures topped 95 F.

I loved the hotel and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone planning a trip to NYC as a couple. (It says it's child friendly, but I'd have liked to see what our fellow guests would made of us had we pitched up at the chilled-out pool with the Littleboys). As usual with boutique hotels, the room was small, but beautifully decorated. The dark wood bathroom, complete with organic toiletries, and the square, light filled bedroom with its huge windows opening onto the Cityscape (see below - with Wimbledon on the TV) appealed to me far more than a massive Marriott bedroom (although eating our room service breakfast on the teeny table the next morning was quite 'cozy'.) There were other good touches such as free wine or coffee in the lobby, and bike rentals.

For our evening meal, we went to the Union Square Cafe, a real New York foodie destination recommended by several friends. From the superb bread and olives, to my soft shell crab and the panna cotta we shared for dessert, all was utterly delicious.

Walking back downtown to our hotel, we sauntered carefree past tree-lined residential streets, hip boutiques and cool bars. As walks through the city for us normally involve trying to coax Littleboy 2 to walk, and preventing Littleboy 1 from ordering a hotdog from every street cart, this was one of the highlights of the evening, right up there with the rooftop margarita.

We had less than 24 hours in the city, before rushing back to Long Island to pick up the boys from their sleepover, but for once, we had done New York in style. And, while he may be turning 40, (and it's not long for me either), for a moment it was as if we were both wide-eyed twenty year olds again.

Monday 2 July 2012

American maladies

Summer always comes with its dramas here, whether it's trees falling on the house or one of the Littleboys having an attack of poison ivy. So far, this summer has been no less deadly; The Doctor has been diagnosed with Lyme Disease.

For those not familiar with Lyme, it is carried by deer ticks and initially causes a rash, a flu-like illness and fatigue. For those left untreated, it can lead to serious health problems, but luckily in his case it has been caught early and the treatment, which hopefully cures it, is a three week course of antibiotics. It is common in the northeastern US and apparently, what with the mild winter, there are more ticks than usual this year.

We think he was bitten by the tick on Memorial Day weekend, when we went 'out East', as they say around here - not, in fact, Japan or outer Mongolia but the Eastern End of Long Island. We did some hiking in a state park where there were deer, and that is almost certainly where the tick was. This was followed by a rash we initially thought was an allergic reaction to mosquito bites, and he has felt tired and lethargic ever since.

Having started the antibiotics, he's starting to feel better, but it's a reminder of how deadly summer can be in America. Suddenly I can see our planned summer holiday -  a week's camping in rural New Hampshire in August - turning into a paranoid week of reapplying insect repellent and forcing the kids to wear long trousers.  But, when I'm not slathering my children in suncream and mosquito spray, making sure they don't walk in anything green when we're somewhere rural, and checking the weather report for tornado warnings - summer's quite fun. And at least we can say that, healthwise, we've had the full-on North American summer experience.