Friday 24 January 2014

Property virgins

Apologies if it looks as if neglecting this blog a little so far in 2014. One of the reasons is that I'm knee deep in estate agents: we're both trying to sell our old house and look for a new one.

When it comes to selling houses, The Doctor and I are property virgins. Our old house was our first home, and we've lived in rentals the last five years. And we're really not sure what to expect. It doesn't help that the London housing market is in a bit of a frenzy at the moment, and prices seem to be rising by ridiculous amounts every week. It should be a seller's market, but instead I feel a bit like shark bait, with wily agents angling for our business.

The smooth-talking, dead-eyed, sharp-suited estate agent we decided to go with has of course told us that there will be loads of interest, that the house will sell within weeks if not days, that it doesn't matter that our tenants (four twentysomething male housemates) are living there and that it currently looks like the set of Men Behaving Badly.

Having perhaps rashly handed over the keys, I then felt embarrassed that people were going to see my former home as a rundown bedsit. (Or possibly even worse, a project).  I insisted on overseeing the house photography, and rushed round there with some cushions and a bunch of flowers in a vase in a lame effort to make it look presentable. Even though we're not living there, there's something very personal about seeing your own home on the market. Particularly when you're looking yourself. I know it's stupid, but a dirty bathroom or even a funny smell can put me off a whole house.

On my viewings so far, I've encountered several different species of agent. There's the wide boy, who keeps phoning up and telling you that he's taking on another agent's house; the Sloaney girl, who keeps trying to flog me houses in the wrong area despite being told that we need the right transport links; the spotty youth who knows nothing about the house, company or what else is on the market. None of them are at all convincing.

Perhaps most telling was the other night, when The Doctor and I caught the tail end of  Kirstie and Phil on Location, Location, Location. We've always found these property programmes hilarious before. But this time we were both watching avidly. And when he said to me at the end: "Perhaps we should sign up with these two?" the scary thing was, I knew he was only half joking...because I had been thinking exactly the same thing.

Friday 17 January 2014

Hollande, L'Affaire Francais And My Breton Summer

The story of French president Francois Hollande and his affair seems to be dominating the newspapers, and while in one sense I agree that his private life shouldn't have any bearing on whether he can run the country, you do have to wonder about the man. For goodness' sake, how does a head of state have time to be sneaking off for trysts on a scooter, let alone spending the night in a love nest?

In another sense it seems so typically French though. Suddenly I've been reminded of the summer I spent in Brittany, aged 17, on a French exchange. In some ways it was a wonderful three weeks. In my memory, it is always sunny ( I don't remember a single day of rain), the air always fragrant with the smell of heat on crackling pine trees, the sea always blue. But there was a dark shadow hanging over the family...

The family that I was staying with had a small holiday home on the Brittany coast near Roscoff, on one side of a little peninsula. There was one girl of my age (Sylvie), her brother Louis, a very friendly Maman and Papa who only came at weekends (their actual home was in Brest, about an hour away). They were nice enough, although I got the impression Sylvie, who was supposed to be my "friend", would have much rather had an American girl to stay - she was obsessed with McDonald's and Hollywood. But the real draw was The Cousins. A grand Paris family, they owned a manor-type house on the other side of the Peninsula. They had three children; Philippe, at university, Anne-Sophie, who was just about to join Medecins Sans Frontiers, and Jean-Romain, a blond, blue-eyed boy of my age who I fancied like mad; the mother, called Josette, was the sister of our family's Maman, and was just like her but more expensively dressed.

Every day after breakfast, we'd go to the cousins' house and we teenagers would set off on some very Famous Five type activities. Not for them sneaking to the pub or watching TV; they loved rock-climbing and we'd spent hours exploring little coves in our swimsuits, finding hidden caves and helping each other up what seemed like treacherous rock faces. They owned a boat, and we'd go out sailing on it, catching mackerel and eating it that night. We explored a ruined fort on an island in the bay; bought ice creams in the local village; biked down quiet lanes lined with blackberries and (occasionally, when there was nothing else going on) sunbathed on the pebbly beach. There were always lashings of crepes with Nutella or honey at teatime. One night we all slept out in the garden on loungers, looking at the stars (until Sylvie got scared and we all ended up going in at 3am). 

It was all very innocent - no-one drank, although a few of the older ones smoked, and one night when Philippe had a couple of ciders and got a bit merry, they all started discussing his "alcohol problem". So much for the French love of wine; we all drank tisanes in the evening (giving me a taste for herbal tea ever since).

The Cousins seemed like the perfect French family; all long-limbed and nut brown from the sun, always doing something jolly together "en famille" like playing board games or going on long cycle rides. The father of this family, Jean Paul, was not there, but was spoken of in reverential terms as "Papa" as we awaited his arrival from Paris.

Then something happened; there was a lot of whispering, in French that I couldn't understand; Maman Josette was locked in her room with the curtains closed. The Cousins didn't want to come out and play that day. Sylvie's mother was constantly on the phone to her sister. Then one afternoon, I overheard her telling Sylvie what had happened. "Il couche avec sa secretaire," she said. I worked that one out pretty quickly.

Papa was, of course, sleeping with his secretary. I, at an impressionable age,  found this terribly French and terribly exciting (particularly as I wasn't supposed to have overheard it, let alone understood it). I waited in wild anticipation for the mythical adulterous Jean-Paul's arrival, wondering what he'd be like. 

When he finally turned up, Papa was middle aged, balding, with a pot belly and a Gallic nose. Not exactly George Clooney. But -- like Hollande I expect -- he had a sort of arrogant charisma, and presumably thought that having affairs was de rigueur for a powerful man in his position. I remember him smoking cigars and acting like a true patriarch, ordering everyone around. Within a few days "Maman" looked slightly less devastated, and the Famous Five style activities resumed. I am sure things carried on much as they had been. But for me, the perfect family didn't seem quite so lovely any more.

I still think of that summer sometimes. I wonder if the manor house is still there, and if the family still owns it. I wonder what happened to Jean-Romain, the golden-haired French boy that I lusted after from afar (he never paid any attention to me; no doubt I seemed like a gauche, galumphing English girl next to the petite French chicks who swarmed around him at the beach). Is he married, is he balding like his father? And does he couche avec sa secretaire?

Friday 10 January 2014

My London List

Since being back in England one thing I've really appreciated is seeing London with fresh eyes - and older kids. Before we left, I was encumbered with a baby in a pram and a three year old, so going out and visiting the sights was hard work.

I remembering heroically trying to take the double buggy on buses to places such as the Natural History Museum, then spending all day chasing after two over-excited and then over-tired small boys. Frankly, taking them to soft play or a walk on Clapham Common was both easier and more constructive.

But now, the boys are older and more appreciative of trips, so I've resolved to take them to see something of London in 2014 - as well as reacquainting myself with the city.

On my list is:

The Zoo (and surrounding area). Littleboy 2 in particular has a thing for tigers so I've promised him a trip to the relatively new Tiger House. While we're there, perhaps we'll walk up Primrose Hill, go look at the canal at Camden Lock or have a wander through Camden Market (I know for a fact I haven't been there since August 1997, the day Princess Diana died).

The City of London. Littleboy 2 has been studying the Great Fire Of London, and wants to see the Monument. I'd also like them to try out the Whispering Gallery St Paul's and visit the City church of St Andrew-by-the- Wardrobe where we got married.

Art Galleries - starting with Tate Modern. Last time we went there, in 2008, this happened. But now, I have one keen artist, and both of them say they want to be movie makers when they grow up (I just hope they'll be the new Coen Brothers). Surely this time they'll appreciate those video installations? We can combine it with a walk along the South Bank and a trip to Borough Market.

Hampton Court. Both of them love mazes, and Littleboy 2 is slightly obsessed with Henry VIII (he keeps drawing pictures of him). So, perfect.

The Science Museum, Natural History Museum and British Museum. Lots of potential fun to be had here. I just hope to be able to choose a time of year when they're not packed either with tourists or other children on school holidays...

Kenwood. I used to have picnics with my parents there, and remember the joy or running down the grassy hills, exploring in the woods, and climbing on the Henry Moore sculptures.

Kew. We used to go there a lot before going to America; I wonder if the boys will remember it?

What else should be on my list? Any recommendations?

Friday 3 January 2014

The LEGO Christmas

The Lion Chi Temple - constructed in 48 hours

This Christmas will go down in the family history books as the LEGO Christmas.

For months now, Littleboy 1 has been carrying round a LEGO catalogue and memorising the names of various sets that he had in his sights. He was very clear about what he wanted for Christmas - the Legends of Chima Lion CHI Temple - and had been telling us for months that, should he receive it from Santa, he intended to build it all in one day.

And he very nearly did - it was finished by Boxing Day evening, despite being about 1000 pieces. In fact, we barely saw the boys over Christmas, so intent were they on completing their new architectural projects. It was brilliant - one morning we lay in bed until 10AM because they decided to get up and do their LEGO rather than bounding into our bed at 7AM demanding breakfast.

Their room is now like a miniature Legoland, full of various creatures, scenes from The Hobbit and lineups of characters looking like a tiny yellow army.

Sometimes it's rather freaky; watching The Return of The Jedi, which as far as we knew they hadn't seen before, they seemed to know all about the various characters and what was going to happen next. "I've seen it on LEGO Star Wars," would be their explanation. Or "It's in my LEGO sticker book."

I do sometimes wonder whether LEGO is slowly taking over the world by stealth? Will we one day see a LEGO President in the White House, and little LEGO representatives of each country at the UN? Perhaps it is a conspiracy by the Danish government, and all that selfie-taking is just to throw us off the scent?

I don' t know, but I'm gradually giving in to the madness after years of wondering what's going to happen to all his deconstructed LEGO we buy (is it recyclable?) and complaining about how expensive it is.  After all, building LEGO is healthier for them than endless computer games or TV, and they MUST be developing their fine motor skills or whatever we're supposed to be doing with our children at this age.

So when I took them to Toys R Us yesterday (cue endless questions about the spelling of said shop's name; Littleboy 2 thought it was called Toys Are Rust) to spend their Christmas money from various relatives, I knew exactly where I was heading.

I steered them straight over to the LEGO and said: "There you go. Why don't you just buy more?"