Friday, December 29, 2006

No place like home

As much as I enjoyed Paris, a part of me couldn't wait for the trip to be over.

My desire to leave Paris had nothing to do with the cold weather (though it was a tad chilly for my taste), the language barrier (though our phrase book turned out to be woefully inadequate) or the fact that if I ate one more "kid friendly" cafe's version of a ham and cheese omelet, I was pretty sure I was going to choke on it. I wanted to leave Paris because I wanted to go home. More specifically, I wanted to see if returning to London would feel like coming home.

Throughout the few months that we've been living here in London, we've received quite a bit of (mostly solicited) advice and words of wisdom from other expats, including my brother and sister-in-law, who are fresh off their own 6-month expat stint in Berlin. And once thing that we kept hearing again and again was that once you've been away and experienced an even newer, even more overwhelming culture, you come to realize that the new, overwhelming place that you've moved to really doesn't feel so new and overwhelming anymore. "When you get back from traveling," people kept telling me, "you realize how much you actually know about your new area and how comfortable you are there. Go away, and then you can come home."

I think perhaps I took these words a little too much to heart. In the abstract, I can see that they probably are at least somewhat true. Remembering to use British terms and expressions feels effortless after struggling to interpret French, and I certainly know my way around London far better than Paris. But I stepped off the Tube last week waiting for a thunderbolt, a wave of comfort and familiarity that would envelop me in a mutually adoring embrace. And it didn't happen. I walked home on familiar streets, but I was frankly pretty indifferent about seeing them. I entered a flat that looked familiar, but the things inside it still didn't especially feel like mine. It was a relief, certainly, to be back here and done with our traveling for the time being. But I didn't particularly feel as if I'd come home.

As I was waiting for a thunderbolt that never came, it was busy knocking my kids clear off their feet. Evan crowed with delight when he spotted our post code on the street signs. Julia's voice rose an octave as she noted our house in the distance. Both kids entered the flat, reunited joyfully with their belongings, and then fell instantly asleep in their own beds, clearly home in every sense of the word. I have to admit, I was jealous.

This has been a tough week for me. The holiday and ensuing time "at home" with my family have been lovely, but I've been struggling mightily with conflicting feelings about being here. I've lived happily in London for the past 3 months, but I'm now realizing how much of my lifestyle is set up based on the knowledge that this is all temporary. I'm not buying local health and beauty products, but instead am still using a stash of American favorites stored in a huge Tupperware bin under my bed. I'm not learning new places to shop for clothing or toys here but instead am doing all of my buying online or asking friends and family to send things from home. I've got no plans to find a dentist here since we can time our checkups to US visits and while I've found a doctor we can go to for prescription refills and sick calls, I wouldn't really feel comfortable consulting her about anything out of the ordinary or remotely serious. I've made a life for us here, yes, but I've made little effort to really live here.

This kind of precarious balance, with a foot in each country, has worked fine for our first 3 months here. But I don't see how I can continue this way for another 18 months. Evan's about to outgrow his shoes and I'm simply going to have to find a shoe store to fit him with new ones, no matter how much the price tag on them makes me woozy. Julia's going to run out of kids' conditioner and I'm simply going to have to find a UK brand to replace it (surely such a thing exists here... they do have children and they do have hair). Most importantly, I am going to have to make a mental shift, to stop turning to the US for everything from new clothing to a friendly voice to children's fever reducers. My fantasy of returning from Paris and instantly feeling at home was just that; a fantasy. In reality, if I want this place to be home, I need to take steps to make that happen.

The prospect of learning to live in London, as opposed to just residing here, is in some ways even scarier than coming here was. I'm quite frankly not certain that I'm ready to do it, and despite lots of time this week spent thinking about what's involved in such a transition, I'm not sure if or when or how I'll actually be able to act on making it happen. But we've got lots of travel in our future; Scotland next week and Portugal next month and the States soon after that. And one of these days, after one of those trips, I really want to feel like I've come home.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Chanukah in Paris

When we first started talking about all of the traveling we would be able to do if we moved to London, I laughingly said that we would just end up seeing a playground in every country. Sure enough, Paris's playgrounds did not disappoint. But I'm afraid that I underestimated my children when I predicted we'd never get past the playgrounds. It turns out that when you're a kid, all of Paris is your playground.

We fit quite a bit into our 5-day Paris adventure, and the kids seemed to enjoy every minute of it. From Julia's joy as she circled around again and again on as many of the city's carousels as we could locate... Evan's delight as he spotted his first street juggler (one of the few who was willing to brave the cold weather for our entertainment)... was clear that my kids were as captivated by Paris as the millions of visitors before them who've fallen in love with the city. As a first time visitor myself, I must admit that I felt the appeal, too, even though my fantasy of hours spent in a little Parisian cafe lingering over a full bodied glass of wine or a rich, pungent coffee and watching the world go by will have to wait for a future trip sans enfants.

Over and over again, I heard Julia and Evan praise Paris. Evan shouted with unbridled enthusiasm every time he spotted the Eiffel Tower and Julia's eyes shone nearly as bright as the hundreds of lights that lit up the street when we stepped out of the Metro station onto the Champs-Elysees after dark. So what, I wondered, would they say was their favorite part of our trip? Would it be a famous landmark they've only seen before in books; the Eiffel Tower, perhaps, or the Arc de Triomphe or Notre Dame? A mode of transportation, maybe; the cool "double decker trains" of the RER that helped us to cover ground quickly or the glass-topped bateaux that gave us a leisurely view of the sights as we floated down the Seine? Would it be a favorite neighborhood; the funky Latin Quarter or the posh Champs-Elysees or the more quaint Marais or the postcard-like Trocadero? Would they choose the traditional playground we found in the Jardin du Luxembourg? The more formal Jardin des Tuileries? The quaint and quiet Place des Vosges?

As I predicted, the kids had trouble choosing a favorite Parisian memory. The final contenders, however, turned out to be none of the items on my list. In the end, Julia and Evan simply couldn't decide whether their favorite thing about Paris was the chocolate ice cream, the chocolate crepes, the chocolate croissants or the hot chocolate.

Quite right. Leave the traditional Parisian memories to the traditional Parisian tourists. As for our family? We'll always have Paris, and we'll always choose chocolate.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The entries that might have been (or: where I've been all week)

It is amazing how a week can slip away this time of year without presenting even a second to do something as simple as posting a blog entry.

If I'd had the time, I would have posted long, enthusiastic accounts of our visit with my parents. I would have waxed elloquent about the way my kids fell into step with their grandparents as if they'd never been apart and I would have described our outings and adventures in full detail. I would have talked about why the slide installation at the Tate Modern is a can't miss and why trying to "swing by and check out the Eye" on the only clear, sunny Saturday in months is an exercise in futility. I'd probably even have written about how you don't know how "New York" you are until you've seen Avenue Q with a theater full of Londoners. But I was too busy having fun to write any of those things.

If I'd had the time, I would have written about the way I feel when holiday cards arrive in the post each day, about how comforting it is to see the familiar faces of people we love hanging on our wall and about how many times I've nearly burst into tears upon seeing how much our friends' children have grown and changed without us there to witness it. I would have added a note of relief that, although Evan does not even recognize our New Jersey house in pictures any more ("but THIS is our home," he cried the other day when I tried to explain why the yellow house he couldn't remember was so important), he has happily identified every child whose holiday photo has arrived to date. Alas, not a moment to write that entry either, but thanks for the cards and letters anyway, folks.

If I'd had the time, I would have dutifully recorded all of the Chanukah stories and posted pictures from the first few nights of the holiday. I would have written about the giant room stickers my parents bought the kids which finally transformed their bedrooms, as Julia aptly described it, "from grownup rooms to real kid rooms," and I would have told some funny stories about the hours the kids and I have spent trying to re-do each others' handiwork in pursuit of our vastly differing ideas of decorating perfection. I'd have written about the kids' faces when Paul and I rode into the room on their brand new scooters and about their first amusing efforts at mastering their new rides. I'd probably even have squeeed in an entry wondering aloud about why my kids can express unbridled and vociferous delight at a gift from their aunt and uncle one minute and be yet rendered utterly mute two minutes later when presented the opportunity to thank the gift givers via webcam. Unfortunately, those entries will exist only in my imagination.

If I'd had the time, I would have posted a photo montage of Paul's first (and please, dear God, second-to-last) experience with an artifical Christmas tree. I would have written about how it took some adjusting to having a Chirstmas tree in my home when Paul and I first started living together, but I've grown to love the smell of fresh fir in my home and the festive sight of the lights and ornaments. I'd have observed that it would have made no sense to buy a tree this year just so it could die when we were out of town and expressed a little surprise about the fact that Paul seemed so aghast at the idea of having no tree at all. Then I'd probably have commented that buying Ikea must be the gateway drug to making el-cheap-o decorating decisions across the board because Paul came home lugging a big artificial monstrosity this weekend. And finally, I would have posted all those funny pictures I took of him assembling that silly plastic tree. It might have been a great entry, but at the rate I'm going now, it'll probably be St. Patrick's Day before I even download them from the camera.

Yes, I'm too busy to blog. But life has been full of family and friends and holiday festivities. Tomorrow, we leave for Paris for 5 days of adventure that I've not yet had a chance to research or even consider (probably not the wisest course in a country whose language I do not even passibly speak). We'll be back for Christmas and New Year's, then off again to Edinburgh for a few days (no plans there as yet either, but at least they speak English even if I can't understand a word they say). Lord knows when I'll actually have the time to blog all of this fun and excitement. But when I do, oh, the stories I'll be able to tell...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

SWAC (sealed with a click)

One "enough of this nonsense already, this one will do just fine" holiday photo...

17 meaningless but nonetheless paralyzing background, font, color and language choices for the card itself...

6 steps in an online proofreading process which I guarantee didn't stop me from missing some glaring error...

21 recipients contacted for updated addresses (none of which I was forward thinking enough to record in a safe place so that I'll have them handy next year)...

78 cards addressed, stamped and -- in many cases -- inscribed with a personal message...

One enormous sigh of relief as the whole damn project concludes for yet another year.

And yet... no paper cuts. No cramped hand. No ink smudged. No scribbled out errors on envelopes. No truly personal touch. Because I never actually touched a single card at all.

It turns out that when your holiday card receipients are almost all an ocean away, it's cheaper to just let a US company do every bit of the work for you. My American friends will receive our holiday cards this year before I ever even see one myself. And if Shutterfly messes up and sends a "friend card" with a crude inside joke to my grandmother and a card inscribed with tender family wishes to my kids' old babysitter, I guess I'll never be the wiser.

Do me a favor. If your card arrives looking a bit odd or you've a sneaking suspicion it was meant for someone else on my holiday list, don't tell me, OK? Just know that it was sent with love and warm holiday wishes meant exclusively for you and your family... even if it is addressed to the McGillicuttys. (Nice folks, those McGillicuttys. I'm sure they'll be a little puzzled to receive my Kwanzaa greetings this year...)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The country mice become city mice

My suburban-raised children have many useful skills. They can locate our car in a parking lot filled with hundreds of thousands of startingly similar vehicles. They can spot a parking space that is close to the supermarket entrance from hundreds of yards away. They watch traffic signals and signs and instruct me on the meaning of such symbols ("Mom, the light is green. GO!!!!") But in the city? They are somewhat useless in the city, I am afraid.

City children are raised with an entirely different set of skills than suburban children. They learn at an early age to walk long distances without complaining, to stay close to a parent or caregiver in heavily congested areas, to steer clear of busy people walking by on the street, to enter and exit public transportation in a timely manner and never to step off the curb without waiting for an adult to accompany them. At least, I presume city children learn these skills at an early age. These are certainly the skills that I wish my suburban-children-turned-city-children already possessed. But after 3 months here, it is entirely evident to me that trying to teach my old dogs these new tricks is a "too much, too little, too late" exercise in frustration.

My kids bump into people on the street with alarming frequency. They fail to grasp the fact that the Tube is going to leave the station a minute after it arrives regardless of whether they've yet boarded the train. They are less than enamored with the idea of their feet as a form of transportation. They see nothing wrong with running up ahead on congested streets where it's hard for me to keep an eye them. And if one of them doesn't eventually get hit by a car after stepping off the curb without looking first, it's going to be an all out miracle. We've adjusted pretty well to our move overall. But 3 months into the game, turning my suburban kids into city kids is still turning out to be one heck of a challenge.

True, we have made strides. Julia's pretty much got the London Underground system figured out by now (that's one of us) and she's been walking upwards of a mile without complaining lately. Evan's been walking more, too, and he's doing a good job of stopping on the sidewalk at the end of a block before charging headfirst into traffic. But it has been an enormous amount of work to get them to this point and truthfully, taking them anywhere -- even just to and from school -- is still pretty exhausting.

This morning, on the way home from dropping Julia off at school, Evan stepped off of the sidewalk in the middle of a street. I opened my mouth to launch into the "this is a parking spot, not a play space" speech when he cut me off at the pass. "Look, Mom," he exclaimed happily. "I've parked my shoe!"

Sigh. At least he remembered part of the speech he's now heard a gazillion times, even if the salient point is still lost on him. City Life Lesson # 4,526 ("Why We Do Not Park Our Shoes In Spots Designed For Cars") will commence tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

An observation from an afternoon spent cleaning my home

Either London is a much, much dustier place than New Jersey or I didn't give my American cleaning lady nearly enough credit.

(Why yes, my parents are coming to visit this week. How ever did you guess?)

Friday, December 01, 2006

A rookie mistake

So... if one had a certain type of hair product that one simply couldn't live without.

And... if one forgot to bring extra tubes of said product on an extended journey overseas to, I don't know, London, maybe?

And... if one didn't want to bother family or friends with purchasing and shipping such a frivolous item and therefore took it upon herself to locate and purchase said item from an online vendor who offered international shipping?

Then... one should not be too self congratulatory too soon. Because about a week after the arrival of said hair product, one could apparently expect to receive an invoice from FedEx for an absolutely astronomical sum of money. One would then discover that all boxes shipped from the States that are not clearly marked as "gift" are subject to unbelievably high duty and tax fees. And one would suddenly be in possession of the. most. expensive. hair. product. ever.

And... one's hair would still be frizzy despite the use of the. most. expensive. hair. product. ever. Because London weather = frizzy hair pretty much no matter what.

This has been a public service message brought to you by "one."