Tuesday 29 October 2013

Halloween Ad Break

It's half term, so I'm going to entertain you this week with another commercial break. This one's from Canada, but it certainly embodies a certain kind of parent you meet in the US too. (I haven't met any in the UK so far). You know the one. She starts discussing Halloween costumes in August, even though her two year old isn't actually aware what Halloween is or knows what they want to wear. Throughout October, she posts endless pictures of her family's Jack o' Lantern carving creations on Facebook. She would ideally drink Starbucks' pumpkin spiced latte all year round if she could. She wins the contest for Most Over The Top Garden Decorations. She drags her small children trick or treating for hours, well after everyone else has gone in and they are wailing. Nevertheless, she's the one whose Halloween party you would LOVE your kids to be invited to....

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Why expats love social networks

When my parents moved to Hong Kong in the 1970s, they were essentially cut off from the rest of the world. Phone calls to the UK were only made in emergencies, or on Christmas Day after the Queen's Speech. Air mail letters took several days to reach home, and were mainly exchanged between family - friends only tended to communicate at Christmas card time.

But moving to America in 2009 was a totally different story. Yes, I missed my friends, but I knew almost as much about what they were up to as when I lived in London. Thanks to email and particularly to Facebook, I didn't forget what their children looked like or how they were growing up, or what the significant events were in their lives. Not only that, we were able to comment on the same world events, even gossip about stuff via message threads. For keeping in touch with family, there was Skype - so my children didn't have to forget what Grandad looks like or who their lovely great Aunt is.

I was asked to contribute to a blog post on this subject by relocation company Robinsons. What struck me is that it seems most expats agree - whatever you think of Mark Zuckerberg, (and I'm looking forward to reading Dave Eggers' book The Circle which takes a satirical look at social networks), Facebook and Skype are invaluable inventions if you're living apart from friends and family.

Now that we're back from the US, at least I can keep in touch with my American friends in the same way. I have to say that I already feel I'm losing touch with the ones who aren't on Facebook (although I'm encouraging the Facebook refuseniks to at least download Skype. After all, that doesn't have any privacy implications, which I presume is why they are reluctant to join). 

If you live abroad, what's your favourite way of communicating?

Thursday 17 October 2013

On pumpkins, joined-up writing and video cameras

It's almost Halloween and there's not a pumpkin to be seen in the bay windows of Southeast London. No skeletons on porches, spiderwebs on trellises or fake gravestones in front gardens. I've seen a few tired looking gourds being marketed as "Halloween pumpkins" in Tesco, but there's no pumpkin patch where we can go and select the choicest specimen to carve for the 31st.

The only people who have asked me about costumes are 1) Iota and 2) my German friend - and both of them were being ironic.

Despite this, I have (rashly) promised the Littleboys trick or treating at Halloween, and have even possibly persuaded a fellow Mum at school to join in. While clearly it won't be an American Halloween, with a costume parade in the school playground, I think going from full on Halloween to nothing would be a bit of a shock to the system for the boys (not to mention myself).

One thing that happened in America was that on every celebratory occasion (Halloween, Valentine's Day and so forth) there would be certain parents that would wrap up a little bag of treats, including pencils and rubbers, for every child in the class. Consequently we now have hundreds. I noticed Littleboy 1 filling up his school bag with rubbers (that's Brit-speak for erasers, for the shocked Americans among you) the other day. When I enquired why, he said: "Well, everyone is always asking me to borrow a rubber, because I have quite a few, and they don't have any. And it's really annoying, so I'm just bringing lots to school and handing them out."

Rubbers, the vestiges of an American education.

We are almost at half term and one thing that has become apparent is that he doesn't know how to do joined up writing - unlike the rest of his class, who have presumably spent years perfecting it. (Littleboy 2, in year 2, seems to have thrown himself into learning this skill very earnestly and practises it every night, writing sentences such as "Mummy is cool" in beautiful script).

When the teacher mentioned his messy handwriting at a meeting, I had to point out that he'd never done it before. And I started to wonder - do we really still need to be teaching children beautiful joined-up writing? After all, by GCSEs surely they're going to be writing everything on a computer. Is it actually a redundant skill in this digital world - or something to be done as a hobby, like painting or sewing? Thoughts, please.

One last cultural difference I've noticed. I went to an assembly at one of the schools yesterday, where the children performed a play. At a similar event in the US, I would have turned up on time to find hoards of parents already there, having bagged the best seats, and would have hardly been able to turn my head for enormous video cameras. In London, as I filmed the performance discreetly on a digital camera, I noticed virtually no-one else was doing so. It couldn't have been more different.

Thursday 10 October 2013

Short observations on the school run

1. There are some parents who will always park on the double yellow lines outside the school (despite repeated warnings in the school newsletter not to do so). I am thinking of conducting a statistical study on this. My gut instinct tells me the results: it is likely that if you drive a Volvo or Audi 4X4, you are 110% more likely to do this than if you drive any other make of car.

2. Why does every middle class parent in London now seem to drive around permanently with a huge roof box on top of their (huge) car? I can't explain it. I mean, they're not going on holiday every week are they? Or perhaps they are....anyway, if we end up getting one, you might have to shoot me.

3. Dads on bikes (with kids on bikes behind) are the politest parents. When I'm walking Littleboy 1 to school, they always thank me for letting them by (they tend to be cycling on the pavement, but I'll forgive them that) and their kids even say good morning to my kids.

4. So far, virtually the only parents to say hello to me on a regular basis (at one of the schools) are non-British. What does that say, I wonder? Is it just that I've gravitated towards those people, having just spent time living away? Or are they actually friendlier.....

5. I've said it before, and will say it again. Britain needs schoolbuses! Shall I start a campaign?

Monday 7 October 2013

Little things about London

People keep asking if we're happy to be back and to be honest, it's a difficult question.

So far, the Doctor is frustrated with work, I'm still struggling with my health issues (awaiting a specialist appointment next month) and although the boys like their new schools, they are definitely missing the space we had in America. There, they could run around a huge garden, or play outside with the neighbours' kids. Here, we are renting a house with a small decked garden. They want to kick footballs around and I'm terrified they're going to break one of the fancy garden lights, or even worse, someone else's window.

We definitely miss the New York weather. The mornings have been dark and gloomy, although it hasn't been that cold yet - a contrast to the beautiful light we had most mornings on Long Island, in every season. The climate in New York is definitely drier and sunnier (although of course could also be very dramatic, and fiendishly cold).

But there are little things about London that I notice, and love, that makes it feel like home. I love independent shops like our local greengrocer, a family run place where the proprietor and his daughters sound like they're straight out of Eastenders. I definitely feel these were lacking in the States - or perhaps it was just that those sort of places tended to be Hispanic bodegas, where I didn't feel part of the culture at all.

I love the English love of gardens - however small they may be in London. On Long Island, almost everyone had gardeners, or landscapers as they were known, but they did very little, so lawns tended to be big and beds low maintenance. That certainly isn't the case here. Walking down the narrow South London residential streets to the boys' schools, you'll suddenly pass a wonderfully scented lavender bush, lovingly tended roses, or a blooming fuschia in someone's tiny front garden, while back gardens glimpsed over fences are laden with fruit at the moment - apples, crab apples, pears and the last of the blackberries.

And, much as I enjoyed my spell in the suburbs, I like being part of a city again. The fact that I can be at my desk in the morning, at an art gallery in New Bond Street forty minutes later (for work, not leisure) and back in my house for lunch. And the diversity: within ten minutes I can be in the crowded markets of Brixton, reggae music blasting, or among the genteel shops of Dulwich.

I like that I understand what's on the school calendar - Harvest Festival, Fireworks, Christmas Pantomime  - and don't have to constantly ask people what things mean. (I just saw an email from our mums' group in America that was headed "hanging bag mums" - now can anyone work out what that means?)

Long Island, you were wonderful. But London, much as I hate to admit it sometimes with your grey skies and grime, you are home.