Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Water, water everywhere and not a drop on me

It was raining when we sat down to breakfast this morning, but the sun had come out by the time I had to walk Julia to school.

That sun disappeared a short time later and the rain beat a steady tune on my windows all morning. Fortunately, the storm clouds had passed by the time I left for Evan's school run and the day was once again sunny and bright.

I was busy and not watching the windows again until it was time to head back for pickup. The sun was shining when I stepped outside, but the ground was freshly wet. Evan informed me as soon as I retrieved him that his class was unable to go out for recess because it had been raining too hard, but we walked home beneath sunny skies.

Do you think I should buy a lottery ticket?

Monday, February 26, 2007

There will be no photo to accompany this post -- the mental picture is bad enough

Those of you who spoke to me in the weeks before our move to London may remember a certain purchase that I made after a conversation with another expat about the different styles she saw on women around here. I hated everything about how those jeans looked on me in the fitting room ("if you wore a style the last time it was popular, you have no business wearing it again when it comes back into fashion," I stubbornly insisted), but I bought them anyway, both as an insurance policy against paying London prices for the same ugly pair of jeans and a reminder to myself that I might need to be a bit more flexible and adaptive to fit in over here.

Those jeans sat in a bag in my closet, unopened, for nearly six months. During that time, I stubbornly wore my old clothing style, despite the fact that I often looked more like the nannies than the other mothers I encountered in my daily routine. I was not a skinny jeans person; I was bootcut, I kept telling myself. Fashion and fitting in be damned. I would be true to myself.

I've worn those bootcut jeans of mine so many times that they are about to spring holes in the knees. Even the nannies are beginning to look put together compared to me. As much as I don't care about sporting the latest fashion, I had to admit that my look had crossed the line from dated to downright scruffy. And thus it was that this weekend, while looking for something to wear that would not be truly embarrassing, I pulled that Gap bag out of the depths of my closet.

Somehow, after 6 months of seeing skinny jeans everywhere, they didn't look nearly as horrifying in the mirror. In fact, I couldn't quite see what it was that had bothered me so much about them back in August. And thus it was that I went off to take Evan to a birthday party clad in skinny jeans. And aw, hell, if I'm confessing this, I might as well admit the whole story. I wore them with pointy heeled boots. And I felt (God, can you see me blushing here?) pretty good about how the ensemble looked.

Please, please tell me that you're all wearing the same thing back in the States these days? Please tell me I'm not going European over here and that the local Starbucks in my home town is filled with skinny jean wearing Moms in heels...

Thursday, February 22, 2007

An unlikely ambassador

There appears to be an unwritten rule here that after school playdates run through tea time (essentially the children's dinner hour). Like so many local customs, this one runs sort of counter to my ideas about how long children really need to play or how much down time ought to be built into their days, but as there's no true harm to occasional 6 p.m. playdate pickups other than my own scheduling inconvenience, I see no reason not to let Julia accept such invitations when she receives them.

Earlier this week, I went to retrieve her at a friend's house after tea and was met at the door by an apologetic mum. "I roasted a chicken and served broccoli and mashed potatoes," she told me as she ushered me into the kitchen where the girls were polishing off large bowls of chocolate ice cream," but Julia told me that she doesn't eat any of those things???"

"No, I'm afraid Julia's an extraordinarily picky eater," I replied with a smile, "and the fact that many of the foods here in the UK are a little unfamiliar to her has diminished her repertoire even further. I'm so sorry that she didn't eat what you had prepared. It smells delicious."

"We asked her what she likes to eat," Julia's friend's mum responded, "and she told us that she likes macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, pizza, pasta and grilled cheese." (It figures that the kid didn't mention any of the fruits and vegetables that she enjoys. I'm sure the British equivalent of DYFS will be knocking on my door any day now to take away my malnourished children.) I nodded, not quite able to look the mother whose children eat roasted chicken, boccoli and potatoes in the eye when faced with direct evidence of my own kid's lousy eating habits. "Those are the mainstays of her diet at the moment," I agreed, a bit apologetically.

Julia's friend and the friend's older sister were wide eyed. "We looove macaroni and cheese," one of them advised me with the air of an adventurous eater. "Hot dogs," the other one whispered under her breath incredulously. "It all sounds so American," the mum smiled at me. "So exotic..."

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Mea Culpa

My goodness, I had no idea that anyone might be offended by the fact that I didn't adore every minute of our trip to Portugal. I will allow that with more research, we might have better anticipated -- and done a better job of steering clear of -- the more commercial areas of the country. (Our traveling companions, whose "vacation spreadsheet and timetable" travel approach is in direct contrast to our "lets wander and see what we find" travel approach, are no doubt smiling smugly right now.) In my defense, I did do a fair amount of reading about the Algarve prior to our trip and I was aware of the fact that it is more built up and resort-focused than other parts of the country. I guess I just had a romantic notion that European commercial kudzu would be more charming than its American equivalent. "Fraid not, folks. I stand duly corrected; schlock is schlock the whole world through.

I'm not going to apologize for the fact that we were less than enamored with some of the parts of Portugal we encountered on our trip. But I will certainly acknowledge that Portugal as a whole is not represented by the small sampling of the country that we saw last week. And since I've already had several visitors who arrived here by doing a Google blog search for "Algarve" (I kid you not), I figure the least I can do is offer up a few photographs of the more picturesque moments of our journey to dispel the notion that the place is completely devoid of charm.

Of course, were my kids impressed by any of the above? Hardly. Their favorite photos from our trip look like this:

Bottom line, I said it before and I'll say it again. Our Portuguese trip might not have been exactly what we expected, but we had a great time there nonetheless. Such is the pleasure of traveling with true friends.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A well-travelled 3 year old

Evan can now claim the dubious distinction of having fallen fully clothed into the Atlantic Ocean on the coasts of not one but two continents.

Clearly, we should not journey to the Eastern coast of South America or the Western coast of Africa without an extra change of size 3T clothing in hand.

Monday, February 19, 2007

MIA = Meandering In (the) Algarve

Oops. Did I forget to mention that we were going away?

Contrary to what the top entry on this blog for the past gazillion days might have led you to believe, we have not actually been snowed in here for the past week and a half. Instead, last week was Half Term (British-speak for school vacation week) and we have been gallivanting about Portugal with friends from the States who flew in to join us on one of our little European adventures.

Doesn't that sound fabulous? Uh huh. Most things do in print. But in truth, it is a good thing that said friends are good sports, because as our European adventures go, I must confess that this one was slightly less than stellar. We all had visions of postcard Portugal... little cobblestone streets meandering through charming villages, stunning scenery and sardines grilling on every corner. What we found? Well, it looked a heck of a lot like Florida, truth be told.

I can see why the Algarve is such a popular short haul holiday destination for the British. Just two and a half hours away, the southern coast of Portugal offers miles of oceanfront property and plenty of holiday attractions; beautiful beaches, grand resorts, lots of golf, a theme park or two, a water park or twelve and all the mini golf a child can play. All of this adds up to fabulous vacationing for all of the same reasons that Florida is so popular. But quaint European charm? Eh.

A certain amount of charm can be found, to be sure. We did eventually locate a bit of picturesque Portugal, and I'll try to post photos later in the week when I get around to downloading them. But it took some work, and the lack of adequate road signs or coherent directions to assist us in our hunt did not bring out the finest in any of us (picture Paul's head about to explode with frustration and me picking inopportune times to laugh at the futility of the situation and the kids whining and fighting over a pinwheel in the back seat and you've pretty much got our Portuguese adventure in a nutshell). Portugal may not have lived up to our mental picture of old world Europe, but we certainly lived up to the Portuguese people's mental image of ugly Americans at times, I fear.

Clearly, this was not the best travel destination I've picked to date, and yet, I think this was my favorite trip we've taken here so far. Why? Quite simply, there is just nothing like the pleasure of spending time with true friends. After five months of working to tentatively forge new friendships, of always making an effort but not too much of an effort, of constantly trying to appear friendly but never truly letting down your guard, a person can almost forget how comfortable and easy it is to be with people who know your true selves and yet like you anyway. Our time in Portugal was spent laughing and drinking and eating and relaxing in the company of people whose presence we wholeheartedly enjoy and have greatly missed. The kids fell in with each other like they'd never been apart and spent the week happily attached at the hip to 3-year-old Kerry, Paul and Steve spent the week chatting up the locals in any and every watering hole they could find and Steph and I just kept opening more of that fine Portuguese wine and snapping a few more photos. Good times, all of them, even if some of that time was spent wandering around a bizarre, overcrowded gypsy market that looked like a cross between a Floridian flea market and a New York City street full of vendors hawking the stuff that fell off the back of a truck rather than the stalls full of local artisans showing off their handiworks that we'd envisioned.

We'll never go to Portugal again, I suspect, but we'd happily travel with these friends just about anywhere else they'd be willing to accompany us. We had a great time vacationing with them. And in my mind, that makes this trip a rousing success. So what if we took an exotic trip to Portugal and my kids' favorite part was the mini golf? A good time was had by all.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Snow day

Like many 5 year olds, Julia is fully entranced by the concept of magic and by the idea of granted wishes. She and her friends bestow magic powers on rocks to give them super strength on the playground, and here at home, she keeps a wish book in which she writes her fondest hopes and dreams. The wish book is her own secret possession and I'm not privy to its contents (the few entries she's shared with me say things like "I wish I could have ice cream every single day"), but I would be surprised if at least one of her wishes didn't have something to do with snow.

Julia's been looking forward to the first snow of the year for months. She absolutely loves the sledding and snowball fights that come with white winter weather and waits anxiously each year for its arrival. We've spent the past few months smiling and nodding and wondering aloud when it might happen right along with her. We just didn't have the heart to tell her that it almost never snows in London.

A few weeks ago, all of our deception and subterfuge kind of paid off. We found ourselves unexpectedly able to celebrate Julia's first snow of the season after all when we woke up to a light dusting of snow on the trees and the streets, the first that London had seen in recent memory. Julia was ecstatic, convinced that it was the beginning of a season full of snow and fun, despite the fact that there was barely enough of the white stuff to pinch between two fingers. We finally felt like we had to level with her, and so we explained that it was unlikely that enough snow would ever fall here for us to build a snowman or even form a snowball. She was naturally disappointed, but we felt a little better for having told her the truth. At least we wouldn't have to field any more questions about whether we'd remembered to bring the sleds to London or why we hadn't purchased new snow boots this year.

And then we all woke up today to this:

School was canceled because no one in London knows how to drive in such a thick and driving blizzard and so once we finished laughing at those silly snowphobes, we got down to business and had ourselves a good, old fashioned snow day.

The kids frolicked in the snow...

...built a lovely snowman (meet Mr. Snowlobitz)...

...had a giant snowball fight...

...and even attempted to create snow angels (these do not turn out so well on city sidewalks, I'm sorry to report).

As snow days go, we had the whole kit and kaboodle today, right down to the hot chocolate and board games and mittens drying on the radiators. I'm sure tomorrow I will be cursing the remains of the snow as I struggle to push a stroller around town, but for today, it was nothing but fun.

In New Jersey, this would probably have been at best a trying day. I would have had to shovel the driveway and deal with other cold weather hassles, and I no doubt would have bitched mightily about the school administrator who chose to shut down school for such a light snowfall. But here in London, where it "never snows"? Well, Julia wasn't the only one whose belief in magic was reaffirmed today. Maybe I'll even get myself a wish book. You know, just in case.

Monday, February 05, 2007


Dear Evan,

Today, you are three. You've proudly announced your advancing age to anyone who will listen over the past week or two, more often than not in a high pitched shriek of excitement that can most likely be heard across the pond. I'd generally prefer to see you speak in slightly more measured tones, but I'll admit that I've been smiling indulgently and letting you scream your excitement about your birthday as loud as you like. Last February, I was scheduling speech evaluations left and right and worrying about your delayed language, and now here you are a year later, using your extensive vocabulary and conversational skills to alert the world about the importance of February 5. Listening you talk now is my reminder never to underestimate you, that if I let you grow and learn at your own pace, you'll surpass my expectations every time.

I owe you an apology, Evan. Your speech is just one of many examples of times that I've underestimated you in the past three years. I think of you as my baby; my sweet, charming, loving little boy. I shower you with affection and attention, but rarely does it occur to me to challenge you in the way I often did with your sister. It always takes you nudging me to show me that you're growing up and that you're ready to be treated like a kid rather than a baby. Out of nowhere in the past few months, you've been putting together 35 piece jigsaw puzzles and drawing recognizable people and playing board games with complex rules and I can't believe I didn't think to introduce any of this stuff to you earlier. You recently learned to write virtually the entire alphabet in the better part of a week when it had never occurred to me to even suggest that you try. One day a month or two ago, you asked to use the laptop and I discovered you were entirely capable of using a touchpad or a mouse, though I'd never before showed you how. I wonder how many times you're going to have to hit me over the head with this stuff before I fully take the hint.

Here I've still been thinking of you as my baby, but you're just so much more than that now, aren't you? Thank you for continuing to show me the way to let you grow, and for being patient with me when I'm a little slower to learn than you. And thank you for continuing to snuggle with me and play the role of my baby sometimes, even as you've grown into a remarkably capable and charming kid. You seem to know what I need from you every bit as much as you know what you need yourself, and I think it's obvious to both of us that I'm not quite ready to let go of the "Mommy as protector" role just yet. I'm grateful that you see that and are willing to indulge my boo boo kissing side by falling down once in a while even as you continue to run up ahead.

Who are you at three? I wish I could paint a picture of your incredibly empathy, your capacity to love and your genuine enthusiasm for life. I wish I could describe the strength of your hugs or the wattage of your smile. I wish I could capture the squeaky timbre of your voice and the joy it both represents and spreads. I wish I could bottle your determination (though perhaps without some of the intense stubbornness that accompanies it). I can't do it, I'm afraid. I can't capture you any more than I can contain you. That's probably a good thing, because if I had the opportunity to keep you just like you are today, I'd be hard pressed to let you grow, and that wouldn't be fair -- to you or to the world that awaits you.

All that remains of those speech delays that worried me so much just one year ago is a slight articulation issue, a handful of words that come out in "toddler speak" rather than clear English. One of those words is your brand new age, which you proudly pronounce as "pree." I know that at some point in the coming year, you'll figure out how to make the "th" sound and I will wake up and find myself with a three year old. But for now, you are my pree year old, and let me tell you, I'm going to treasure every last moment that you are pree. There's not much of that tiny creature I brought into the world three years ago today left in you, and I know you'll indulge me a tad if I try to hold on to the last babyish bits just a little while longer.

Happy birthday, Evalah. I love you, my baby big boy baby.


Friday, February 02, 2007

Driving me crazy / Driving? Me? Crazy. / Driving: Me Crazy! (it's all in the punctuation)

I have not driven a car in nearly 5 months.

This hiatus in my vehicular experience was neither planned nor expected. As it happens, we actually selected this area of London specifically because it was not too urban or congested for us to have a car here. A car was one of my requirements when we talked about what we could and could not live without during our time overseas. I have lived without a car before, and I hated the experience. The process of relying on public transportation and a bit of ingenuity to get from Point A to Point B, while a good way to get to know a city initially, is not my cup of tea long term. It is a big fat hassle, especially with young children in tow, and strikes me as entirely impractical and unnecessary at this stage of our lives. I am simply not patient or flexible enough for a car-less existence.

So why then do we not own a car here? Good question. Initially, buying a car was one of the many, many items on our to do list which could feasibly wait for a little while. Acquiring and furnishing a home, establishing the children in schools and locating daily necessities all took precedence over a convenience item like a car. "We'll get to the car as soon as things slow down a bit," we kept saying. I should have known better. When do things ever actually slow down in life? 5 months. No car. And, to use a far too obvious pun here, it's driving me crazy.

In some ways, not having a car has forced us to come up with more innovative solutions to our daily needs. Can't drive to the grocery store? No problem... order all of our food online and have it delivered. Can't drive to that new restaurant we've been wanting to try? Well, if we take a cab, we can even order an extra glass of wine. Can't drive to the airport? In truth, we can get there in half the time using public transportation. Items cost a bit more on the local high street than in discounted stores further away? That's OK, because think what we're saving in gas. I've even easily lost 10 pounds with all of the extra walking I've been doing here, which is something that would never have happened had just hopping into the car to run my errands or visit a friend been a viable option. The more time that has passed, the more convinced Paul has become that a vehicle is just an unnecessary expense and bother here. "Clearly," he keeps saying as the days and weeks pass and we get by without driving anywhere, "we just don't need a car here at all."

Clearly. Except... I want a car. I really need to have a car. I cannot explain it or legitimately justify it. But not having a car makes me feel isolated and trapped here. I am roped in by the boundaries of how far my feet can carry me, a slave to the routes and timetables of buses and trains. Little things like after school playdates and birthday parties become logistical nightmares for me as I try to figure out how to deliver and retrieve my children to and from locations outside of our little world of 20 blocks or so. The mall feels like a mecca just out of reach. If I can't buy things online, I tend more often than not to just do without. The prospect of exploring areas outside of London proper is a downright production. I can survive here without a car, yes. But the more time that passes, the more I become convinced that I will never feel at home here without one.

This week, I finally decided to stop trying to convince Paul of the importance of a set of wheels to my mental and emotional well being and instead took matters into my own hands. I joined a car club which will enable me to pick up a community car a few blocks from our house whenever I wish. I can take it on errands, to pick a child up somewhere, or even to the countryside for the weekend if I wish, all at a moment's notice with minimal hassle. If I don't have anywhere to drive on a given day, or week, or even month, I'll leave it parked in the bay for others to use.

A perfect solution? Not by a long shot. Schlepping and installing car seats every time I want to use the car to transport kids will be a major hassle, and even though the company assures me that a car will always be available when I need one, I have a sneaking suspicion that this is not likely to be the case. But this is a start. If I'm using the car a lot, perhaps we'll finally decide to purchase one here. Perhaps I'll find that just knowing I have the freedom of a car at my disposal will alleviate my desire to actually drive anywhere and I'll decide that a car's not necessary after all. I'm willing to suspend judgment until I've given this solution a whirl.

After 5 months without so much as turning a key in the ignition, I'd be nervous about driving any car anywhere. But the prospect of sliding behind the steering wheel on the right side of the car and motoring off down the left side of the road is downright terrifying. This area is particularly horrific for drivers because many of the roads are a single car's width, yet allow for 2-way traffic. Drivers simply back up or find a place to pull over as needed. People drive fast, people drive aggressively and there are a damn lot of them on the road. And though I know it is culturally insensitive of me to say this, I feel the need to point out that driving on the left side? Well, it just aint right. I am completely intimidated, and I suspect I'll spend a good number of the hours when both kids are in school over the next few weeks trying to learn my way around the road without any precious cargo in the back seat. How do you like that? A short term plan for filling those hours of my day and a gateway to freedom, both real and imagined. Picture me, white knuckled, zooming off down the road. I'm on my way.