Thursday, September 28, 2006

Home sweet home

I'm writing this post courtesy of pilfered wireless access (belkin54g, I love you more than you'll ever know), which turns out to be an unexpected benefit of city life. Yes, I'm probably committing a minor felony or something here, but I'm not going to feel too guilty about getting free wireless access so easily right now. Almost nothing else has come easy this week, and so I'll take my perks where I can get them, thank you very much.

I never, ever, ever again want to live through a week like this one (or the few before it or, I suspect, the next few to come). Trying to fully furnish and equip a household in a minimal amount of time with no car, no knowledge of the area or its stores and no local credit is... well, it's daunting. I've felt for much of the week as if I'm in the midst of one of those weird dreams in which I'm running as fast as I can and yet don't seem to be getting anywhere. There is just. so. much. to. do. I have actually run out of paper on which to write "to do" lists at this point, which is quite the Catch-22 since I'll never remember to buy more paper unless I write it down somewhere.

Despite all of the glitches along the way, we have made some good progress. We dropped Julia at school as planned on Monday morning, received our keys about an hour later and were delighted to welcome the Ikea delivery team into our flat just moments after. "Aren't we brilliant?" we congratulated ourselves. Um. Yes. So brilliant that we inadvertently purchased the wrong size mattress for our bed during our Ikea showroom showdown last weekend. This snafu will take at least a week to work itself out, leaving us without any place to sleep. But wait! We had the foresight to purchase a lovely sleeper sofa during that initial Ikea run! We have a bed after all! Brilliant.

And really, that has been the story of our week; a rollercoaster of highs and lows both amusing and frustrating all at the same time. It takes an enormous amount of stuff to run a household, I'm gradually realizing. Every time I think of all of the things we already own and currently need, locked up tight in an inaccessible storage container somewhere in the state of New Jersey, I feel a little sick to my stomach. But I'm forcing myself to move on, and slowly, we are making things work here.

No, this week has not been especially fun. But the bottom line? I am sitting on a sofa in my new living room right now sipping a freshly brewed cup of coffee courtesy of my new Tassimo and writing this blog post. My daughter is happily installed a few blocks away at a school she seems to love. My son is happily resting in his new big boy bed, which is also a hit. Pretty soon, I'll get Evan up, help him into his stroller, and make the short walk to pick Julia up, stopping on the way to pick up a few household items which we urgently need. Julia will tell us about her day on the way home and then we'll all have a snack when we get back here. This routine, established over the past 4 days, already feels familiar to all of us. We live here now. In London. Almost exactly the way we pictured. And somehow, that makes it worth all the effort and aggravation, doesn't it?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

When you come to visit us, please admire our furniture straightaway

London, we were assured repeatedly as we made our final decisions back in the States about whether to ship or store our belongings, has a longstanding tradition of furnished rental properties. "A furnished house or flat," our relocation guidebook enthusiastically advised us, "will include beds, sofas, armchairs, dining table and chairs, coffee table, lamps and kitchen equipment, china and cutlery. At best, there will be everything (except food and guests!) to give a dinner party on the first night!" I would have settled for the basics to make my kids a grilled cheese and tuck them in bed. A dinner party sounded even better.

Email conversations with other expats seemed to confirm these upbeat assertions. "We brought only a single chest of drawers from home," one told me. "Furnished is definitely the way to go," others agreed. From a practical standpoint, renting a furnished property certainly made sense. Making decisions about which furniture to bring without having yet found a property was nearly impossible (How many rooms would we have to fill? What sizes would they be?) and acquiring interim items while our stuff was in transit sounded daunting and expensive. It was worth giving up some of the familiar comforts of home, it seemed, for the convenience factor. And so we decided; we would go the furnished route, we informed our relocation adviser. She said that sounded like a fine plan to her. We packed our houseful of furniture and housewares into storage and headed for London, shipping only clothing, toys and a few personal items for use over the next two years.

With that lead in, I don't suppose it's really necessary to spell out what happened next. Surprisingly bleak rental market for this time of year, blah, blah, very little furnished inventory, blah, blah, blah, have to be flexible given the current rental climate, blah, blah, blah, blah. Two frustrating days and 26 properties later, we put in our offer on the only decent property we had seen in our entire search. It was a well laid out, spacious flat occupying the entire first floor (that's one flight up here in the UK) of a beautiful restored Victorian. It was on a quiet, leafy street that felt like an oasis from the hustle and bustle of city life. It was only a few blocks away from a school that had space for our children and an equally short walk to 3 tube stations, 2 great downtowns, a huge park and a synagogue. It was available immediately. And it was (say it with me folks) unfurnished.

The rent on our new home was low enough that we knew we would be able to furnish it, though that wasn't obviously our ideal scenario. We tried to send for the things we'd put in storage ("so sorry, too late"), we tried halfheartedly to convince the landlord he wanted to furnish the place (a flat "no") and we looked into renting everything that we would need from a third party. In the end, it became clear to us that of the options available to us, the best route might be Ikea.

Ikea. The stuff of my post-college dreams. We had finally just started to dispose of the last of our Ikea bookshelves back home as we transitioned at long last into the Ethan Allen era of our lives. Not so fast, as it turns out. We knew that we could find a decent selection of furniture at Ikea which would hold up well enough to take us through the next 2 years. It frankly didn't look all that different than the stuff in the furniture rental catalogues. We would be able to get exactly what we needed, no more, no less. No one else would have used it before us. And at the end of our tenancy here in the U.K., we could either sell everything or donate the lot to a worthy cause. Ikea seemed the thrifty and responsible decision, a far better return on this little unexpected investment than dropping endless pounds into renting furniture. Why not?

Why not indeed. We have just spent the better part of our second weekend in London sightseeing not at Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London but at the great big universal Swedish monolith that is Ikea. We have made 2 visits to a not-quite-centrally-located London branch (involving a grand total of 8 tube rides, 3 bus rides and a cab ride) and spent about 10 total hours of our lives comparing laminate finishes and searching for part 2 of each item's 3-part packing list in the warehouse. We have encouraged and coerced our children to continue on this sojourn with every bribe and promise we could think of. We have wheeled giant trolleys piled high with flat packed boxes through tightly packed spaces, relying only on our crass American accents and our wide loads to guide us through the fray. And we've had quite a few conversations with our American credit card company confirming that yes, we really are the fools responsible for charging thousands of dollars worth of Ikea furniture here in Great Britain.

We now have the bare bones essentials we will need to inhabit our new home for the first week or two, all of which will arrive via Ikea delivery at some point tomorrow (hopefully after we actually receive the keys at 9:45 a.m., but we're choosing not to dwell on that minor detail at the moment). We will spend the whole damn week screwing Part A into Tab B. And then we will go back to Ikea next weekend and do this all over again to get the rest of what we need. In the meantime, we have also been crazy online shopping fiends, stocking up on necessary items like can openers, brooms, wine glasses and pillows with any online merchant willing to offer fast local delivery. I have no idea where we'll put any of that stuff when it arrives, but arrive it will (yes, Citibank... it's still us). We are not only thrifty and responsible, it turns out. We are also stubborn, crazy fools. But we are stubborn crazy fools with a beautiful flat in Hampstead and a whole bunch of particle board furniture. How many people can say that?

I will be offline for a few days as we wait for our broadband connection to get hooked up in our new home. It's probably just as well, since I'll be in furniture assembly hell, anyway. I suspect that by the time I'm back online, both of my children will know how to use an electric screwdriver and how to swear like a sailor, Paul and I will no longer be speaking to each other and we will own a great deal of incorrectly assembled furniture. But we will finally have a place to call home. This international move thing, it's glamorous as hell, let me tell you.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Mr. Murphy is alive and well and living in London

It's been a long, frustrating 2 weeks here without my own personal barrista. God knows, I've tried my best. I've tinkered. I've tweaked. I've started from scratch again and again. Admittedly, I've made far too many defeated trips to Starbucks. But I also persevered. And today, I finally did it. I mastered the crappy little coffee pot here and I made myself a decent cup of coffee.

I knew the minute I smelled the fresh brewed aroma that I had finally hit the jackpot. One look at the liquid pouring into the pot confirmed my success. "This is it," I crowed happily, anticipating the perfect combination of caffeine and flavor. I poured myself a cup, victorious...

... and then discovered that the milk had soured overnight.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Sticker shock, part deux (or: Bring on the $45 pizza lunches, which now seem remarkably inexpensive)

The kids and I had a very productive morning today. We took the tube to Hampstead, where we visited Julia's school (also Evan's school come January) to fill out paperwork, and then we visited The Flat That Is Nearly Ours But About Which I Am Afraid To Say Too Much For Fear Of Jinxing Things to take some quick measurements. Both kids were very well behaved (though I fear Evan already has a bit of a reputation for exuberance at the kids' school) and the trip went without serious incidence. Julia's all set to start school on Monday, and we even came home with a couple of loaner hand-me-down uniforms to get us through the first few days of school.

It was obvious from the look of horror on the school secretary's face when I suggested that Julia could simply wear a white cardigan over the loaner dress until we've managed to purchase the navy blue one which is part of the school uniform that wearing anything other than regulation school clothing just. will. not. do. It all seemed a bit extreme to me, but "when in Rome" and all that, so I cheerfully promised to call and order uniforms right away. True to my word, I got on the phone with the uniform store after we got back to our temporary home to place a "bare essentials" order that would get us through the first few weeks. And that's where my day went a little haywire, folks. Because that "bare essentials" order? It cost me 242.33 pounds. Not horrified enough yet? Then please allow me to do the math for you Americans who are perhaps struggling a bit with the exchange rate. I JUST SPENT $455.97 ON LESS THAN A WEEK'S WORTH OF CLOTHING. FOR A 4 YEAR OLD. A VERY MESSY, STAIN PRONE 4 YEAR OLD. A 4 YEAR OLD WHO HAS BEEN KNOWN TO HAVE ALARMINGLY EXTREME GROWTH SPURTS WITH LITTLE OR NO NOTICE. And I am nowhere near done.

Still to come? The navy duffle coat all school children are expected to wear in inclement weather (59.99, or $112.88) The matching gloves (2.75, or $5.17) and hat (6.99, or $13.15), also required. The school sweater (13.99, or $26.32) with its pretty school badge. The grey wool blazer with braiding and school badge, a hideous piece of apparel that I cannot imagine putting on any child of mine under any circumstances but for which I still must fork over a whopping 77.99 (that's $146.75, people) to purchase. And oh, yeah, maybe a second pair of pants.

I certainly hope that all of this unattractive, yet mandatory clothing comes with a complimentary barf bag (ideally one embroidered with the school badge, though I'd settle for a generic version). Because I feel more than a little sick right now...

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A tree grows in London (and other happy observations)

I've done a lot of grumbling here, haven't I? It aint all doom and gloom despite my posts to the contrary, so for today, here is a list of things I do like about London so far:

1) Portion sizes. From restaurant dishes to grocery store packaging, everything here comes in a smaller, more manageable size than what we're used to in the States. As someone who feels compelled to finish what I've started, I appreciate this downsizing immensely!

2) VAT. I imagine I'm the first person ever to appreciate being taxed. But the fact that tax is already included in the price, so an item costs what it says it costs? My addled brain so appreciates the decreased demand for my sorely lacking math skills!

3) Green spaces. All of the guidebooks say what a green city London is, and they're right. There are an inordinate number of parks around here, all of which appear to be well kept and well placed. This suburban girl so appreciates the sight of trees!

4) A to Z Guides. Little spiral bound books containing street indexes and maps of every inch of the city, detailed enough to help you find the most obscure of locations but small enough to fit in a purse? Larger versions to keep in your car? Simply brilliant. How do more cities not have these?

5) "Express" versions of supermarket chains. More than a convenience store, but less than a full grocery experience. Just enough stock (including fresh meat and produce) to get you over the hump, with none of the long lines or overwhelming choices of a larger store. Perfect for "carry home whatever you purchase" customers like me!

6) Online resources. I can enter a street address into a site like this one and get any kind of information I might need, from local parking rules to the location of the nearest pharmacy or public toilet. How cool is that?!

7) Double decker busses. I mean, come on. How could you not love double decker buses?

8) British wordplay. Our relocation agent had a bunch of colorful phrases and expressions we'd never heard before. Some, like "I hope he's as fast to jump in my grave," took me a bit off guard. But others, including my personal favorite tickety-boo are destined to become part of my daily vernacular as soon as I can figure out a way to slide them in there without sounding absolutely ridiculous.

I'm quite certain that I'll be adding to this list as I get to know my new surroundings better. But for now, the fact that I already have eight things which genuinely excite me about London? Pretty darn tickety-boo, if you ask me. (No? Damn. I'll keep trying.)

Monday, September 18, 2006

It's a nice place to visit, but...

We are in the penthouse of this building, which houses a number of temporary housing units so prohibitively expensive that it would make your head spin. Apparently, our 3 bedroom duplex is the creme de la creme of high end corporate accomodations. I wouldn't know. I'm not even sure what exactly this place costs, nor would I be surprised to hear that no one else who is staying here knows either. This is the kind of place that big corporations foot the bill for, not individuals.

It sounded so good when this part of our relocation package was explained to me; a free family-sized apartment in the heart of London with weekly maid service. Why would I ever want to leave, I wondered. Now I know.

I want to leave because if one of my children doesn't get hurt on the steep spiral staircase that leads from our bedrooms up to the living room and kitchen, then certainly I will. I want to leave because there is no bathroom on the main living floor and Evan has suddenly decided that he wants to be a big boy who only uses the potty in London (see spiral staircase). I want to leave because the springs in our bed are arranged in such a way that it is physically impossible for me to arrange my body without at least 3 of them poking directly into my spine. I want to leave because the washing machine has already destroyed half of our meager wardrobe and its supposed "drying" function basically just makes my wet clothes hot. I want to leave because "the heart of London" turns out to be a business district with few shopping options, no parks or playgrounds to speak of and virtually nothing within walking distance that might entertain my children. But mainly, I want to leave because I'm itching for our new life to start, and that can't happen in a temporary place in an area we don't plan to call home.

My kids, who adapt easily (at least in word if not in deed), are now freely calling this place home, even correcting me if I use the word to describe our house in the States. They've easily accustomed themselves to our new surroundings and simply accepted them as fact, our new reality. But to me, this is not home. Home, if all goes according to plan, is a 3 bedroom flat in beautifully restored Victorian on a quiet, tree lined street just a few blocks from the kids' school. Home is the place I'm already mentally filling with our belongings, and home is the area where we'll finally set down some roots here in the UK. This? This is a lovely (albeit slightly hazzardous) place, but it's temporary housing. And I'm ready for permanent.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Seen AND heard, thank you very much

We found a terrific playground in Regent's Park yesterday and my kids had a bloody good time exploring the equipment and chasing the pigeons. (Hmm. That Britishism didn't quite work for me, did it? Oh well. Never mind.)

It was nice to see the kids relaxed and enjoying themselves, but something seemed odd and it took me a little while to put my finger on exactly what was different. Finally, I realized the problem. The playground was filled with children and they all seemed to be enjoying themselves, but only two children in the entire park were making any noise. As the British children played happily and relatively silently, my kids ran around shrieking at the top of their lungs.

"Evan, come see THIS," Julia would scream exuberantly every time she encountered a new piece of playground equipment. "Pigeons, WAIT," Evan would yell as he chased the bird around the park. They were just two kids having a good time, and at a playground in the States, no one would have even noticed them amidst all of the other childish noise. All things considered, my children have always been pretty quiet when compared to their peers. But here, they seemed to attract a good deal of attention and they most definitely stood out as loud Americans.

I've always believed strongly in letting kids be kids and I've always encouraged mine to let off steam in appropriate venues like parks. Apparently, I am somewhat alone in that philosophy around here. I think that I can eventually manage the differences in educational approach, lifestyle and language usage (minus the whole "bloody" thing). But the idea of me raising children who should be seen and not heard? Not bloody likely.

Saturday, September 16, 2006


I remember the first morning that I was alone with Julia after she was born. My mother had spent the first week of Julia's life with us, helping out with baby duty and -- far more importantly -- babying me a bit. I was terrified when she left... afraid not only of being alone and fully responsible for that small life, but even more so of my new reality. My new life as a parent, which had seemed an exciting adventure with my mom constantly by my side to consult, loomed huge and frightening alone; a great big unknown that it was too late to back out of if I found that I didn't like it.

Once again, my mom's helped to pave the way into a life transition for me this past week. She accompanied us to London and helped us set up household in our temporary accommodations, quietly taking over so efficiently that it was Wednesday before I realized that I didn't even know how to run my own dishwasher. She watched Evan while we schlepped around to half a dozen schools with Julia and she watched both kids while we schlepped around to half a million homes with a relocation agent. (More on the home thing shortly; we have a verbal agreement to lease a place, but I don't want to jinx anything by writing about it before it's all finalized in writing.) And at the end of every long day, she was here waiting to hear my stories and share in the triumphs and frustrations of my days.

My mom left this morning. "You're on your own now," she told me as she hugged me goodbye, and the fear and uncertainty I felt in that moment was strikingly reminiscent of the way I'd felt when she left me alone with my first baby. With my mom gone, we are now truly on our own in London. There is no one here to keep an eye on our kids while we do the errands required to get ourselves established. There is no one here to show an interest in our lives or ask about our days. We have each other, and that's no small thing, but there is no one else here who loves and cares about us right now.

I found all of those things and more after Julia was born. In a matter of months, I had built up both my confidence and my community. I had friends to chat with, places to go and things to do, and I have to trust that I will find all of those things here, too. But I don't have them yet, and I know they won't come overnight. I've got a long road ahead of me. And I miss my Mommy.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Sticker shock

The waitress at the Hampstead Pizza Express knows me already.

Paul and I took Julia to the Hampstead location of the British pizza chain for lunch on Monday while in the midst of school interviews and I returned there today after showing my mother and children around the area. When I entered the restaurant, the waitress immediately recognized me, smiled and welcomed me back. It felt like a tiny first step at community, a move toward establishing myself in a new place. Someone actually knew me here in London! We sat at "our" table, and for a few moments I almost let my guard down and was able to imagine us returning there to lunch with friends in the coming months.

Then I actually did a little math and realized that the delightful pizza lunch we had happily shared in our new community had just cost me slightly under $45 U.S.

I trust the Hampstead Pizza Express waitress will forget us soon enough.


With four days in London now under our belt (though not literally under our belt, as Paul seems to have left all of his belts behind in New Jersey), we're making progress. Our school tours are now over and we've got several very viable options for Julia and Evan, all of which we're genuinely excited about. Our home tours begin tomorrow and we hope that in the next several days, we'll find a place that will enable us to live within easy reach of one of those schools. With those decision behind us, hopefully we'll be able to begin to set up a household and establish ourselves here.

This all sounds very efficient and upbeat, but our days have not been without their share of challenges. We've already had to locate a local chemist for the British equivalent of Pedialyte after Evan spent a whole morning vomiting (my poor mother, who was home watching him at the time, is now intimately familiar with our tiny, ineffective washing machine). We've been cursed out by locals frustrated by our lack of knowledge about our surroundings and the customs here. We've been sweaty and irritable after we schlepped around to far too many schools in far too much clothing during an unseasonable heat wave. We've escorted cranky, whiny children out of Marks & Spencer after other patrons have looked disapprovingly at them. We've become intimately familiar with the A to Z maps and are still quite lost. But we're getting there. We're on our way to making a home for ourselves in London.

So far, we're passing the test. But just barely.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Summing up Day Two in a single sentence

A quote from Paul, after nine hours spent schlepping all over creation looking at schools for Julia: "OK, fine, so this isn't an adventure after all. It's a test."

Sunday, September 10, 2006


I woke up twice last night with absolutely no idea where I was. The space didn’t quite have the feel of a hotel room, but I clearly wasn’t in my bedroom at home, either. Of course, my bedroom hadn’t felt quite right for the past several nights, either, I slowly remembered. First there had been huge cardboard boxes everywhere and then the cavernous echo of a nearly empty house. And now, I finally realized, I was in our new temporary housing, a London flat over 3700 miles away from our New Jersey home.

When we first talked about the possibility of moving abroad for a few years, it sounded exciting and adventurous and wonderful. At 2 ½ and 4 ½, our children are young enough to make the move without complaint but slowly getting old enough to enjoy and maybe even appreciate the European experience. I’ve committed to a few more years at home with them anyway, so I didn’t have to further interrupt my career to follow my husband. The job opportunity, which had essentially fallen into his lap, interested him both professionally and personally. Picking up and moving seemed an easy decision. Lying in an unfamiliar bed last night, I was far less certain. My comfortable life in the U.S. felt far too perfect to have left behind, and my new life in the U.K. felt far too unsettled and unfamiliar to be at all appealing. It took me a long time to fall back asleep as the enormity of what we’d just done finally began to hit me.

By the light of day today, things looks far less grim (though admittedly still quite daunting). We’ve found a grocery store and stocked up on a few family favorites, I’ve figured out how to start a load of laundry and our wireless connection is up and running. The kids actually seem calmer than they’ve been in weeks now that the packing process and trip are behind us, and quite frankly, the adults are, too. One day down, only about 729 to go. I suspect it will be a good long time before I truly feel comfortable here, but I can now see that the familiar rhythm and routine of daily life will be comforting in the meantime.

The Internet will no doubt be my lifeline over the next several years as I Google money and measurement conversions, map out directions, research our new surroundings and keep in touch with family and friends back home. I‘d be remiss if I didn‘t use it to write things down as well. Part travelogue, part Mommy blog, this site will be my written record of our London experience. I hope that it will help the people we love to stay connected to us while we are away. And I hope that some day, when I’ve returned to my familiar home and my familiar life, I’ll be able to re-read what I’ve written here and know with certainty that this experience was every bit as exciting and adventurous and wonderful as we’d dreamed it would be.