Friday, April 27, 2007

The moral of the story: you can catch more flies with stinking, putrid toilets than with honey

Eagle eyed readers (are there any of you left out there?) may recall that we encountered some plumbing issues with our flat soon after we moved in. (October. The issue began in October. It is now April. April? Comes 6 months after October. Really. I counted on my fingers just to be sure.) Finally now, after half a year of ineffectual British management, these issues have come to a head. (Head... get it? How many bad toilet puns do you suppose I can fit into a single cranky post? Better not to try... I don't posses much in the way of humor at this point.)

The root of the problem itself is almost inconsequential, but essentially, when this flat was re-done prior to our tenancy, the complete morons plumbers who re-did our bathrooms didn't install the waste pipe that snakes behind our walls at the proper heights or slopes. It's unclear why this was done, but it would appear that they just found it more convenient to completely ignore all of the code and industry guidelines for such jobs, plug some toilets randomly into a pipe and call it a day. I'm no plumbing expert (nor were these guys, clearly), but I can now tell you conclusively that this was a damn foolish way to cut corners. Because the end result of a decision which probably got them all out of here early on a holiday weekend or something was that when one toilet in this flat was flushed, remains of what had been flushed would re-appear in another toilet. Yeah. "Ick" is right.

For the past 6 months, I have politely kept my cool, using measured tones, respectful requests and many murmurs of understanding to communicate with the managing agents of this flat. This kind of behavior has admittedly been an utter departure from my usual bottom line, no-screwing-around-here approach, but it's honestly seemed like the only way to communicate with my British contacts and since they were holding all the cards here, I thought it advisable to try things their way. I've never actually heard anyone British raise their voice about anything, and they get things accomplished, right? So I could do the same, right? In true "when in Rome" style, I was determined not to lose it on anyone involved in this mess. Surely we could resolve this without me pulling a New Yorker and screaming like a banshee as I would have done back home.


In a classically British "unfailingly polite but utterly useless" fashion, our managing agents have tsked sympathetically every time I've placed a polite phone call and sent dozens of plumbers out to assess the problem. All have reported back that this place was a disaster and there was really no option but to break through all that lovely brand new tile in my lovely brand new (and utterly useless) bathrooms, rip everything out and start again from scratch. Each time, the managing agents would nod and hmmm a lot and then dispatch someone else to try a cheaper approach. I would wait 3 days after their quick fixes and then politely call again to report that no, that approach hadn't worked either and yes, I was still finding floaters in the toilets and please, could we get this resolved and move on to more pleasant things? Apparently, we could not.

This week, the shit finally hit... well, it would have been nice if it had only hit the fan. Those poor mislaid pipes apparently finally hit critical load and the whole thing just fell apart. By Tuesday, I had two toilets which were completely out of commission (both of which smelled like a fairgrounds Porta Potty at the end of a hot summer day) and a third which was hobbling along but leaking copiously through the ceiling of the flat below us. And finally, a plumber managed to take action.

"You're a very nice lady," he told me after I led him through my now well-rehearsed tour of stinking toilets, "but I sense that you're about to lose your patience soon and I have the strong feeling that it's not going to be pretty when that happens." (I can't imagine what gave me away. Really, I was the picture of restraint. Perhaps that, coupled with an American accent, was the real clue?) Off he went to make some phone calls and voila, things began to happen. I found out later that his boss, who holds a major plumbing contract with our managing agent, told them that they would drop the entire contract and refuse to ever do any work for the company again unless they agreed to fix our plumbing the way it needed to be fixed. Now. Finally, a non-nonsense ultimatum (clearly the guy's a New Yorker at heart if not by blood). Nick the Plumber is my new best friend.

Three days later, we've been through homeless days while a team of plumbers blasted through tile and pipe and we've been through unpleasant nights with a single working toilet in a flat that smelled like, well, like crap. I've disinfected and deodorized everything in here until I'm blue in the face and I still can't escape the feeling that there are microbes of poo clinging to every surface of this place. But we've now got pipes laid the way pipes are supposed to be laid and toilets that I've been assured will flush the way toilets ought to flush. A week from now, we should even have re-tiled, normal looking bathrooms again.

It has been a long week. I'm weary from trying to keep my kids happy and relatively on-schedule without the comfort of a home base to fall back on and I'm tired of cleaning up upon returning to the house after such long, exhausting days. It still smells in here and I'm beyond grouchy about that fact. I'm done, just done with the whole situation. But you know what? The repair work is basically done, too. With no yelling on my part. And it only took what, a half a year?

Yeah. I should just yell next time, shouldn't I?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

It's a good thing the compliment came before this conversation

(exuberantly) "Mommy, Mommy, do you know what? Miss Norris says I'm so clever!"

"Really? That was nice of her! It must have felt good to hear her say that about you."

(tentatively) "Yeah."

"Um, Evan? Do you actually know what 'clever' means?"

(slowly) "Uh... no...."

Friday, April 20, 2007

It's hard to believe that I am the same mother who was horrified about the prospect of full-day school just a few short months ago

Two and a half weeks of hectic schedules, house guest-appropriate behavior and 24/7 togetherness has tested my relationship with Julia a bit. (Translation: we're both ready to kill each other.) Yesterday morning, as she dillied and dallied and completely ignored my repeated (and admittedly strained) requests for her to get dressed so that we could walk out the door, I could feel my last ounce of patience just completely evaporate.

"Julia," I finally hissed between clenched teeth, "am I going to spend another whole day yelling at you?"

She turned and smiled at me. "No," she replied brightly, "you're not."

"I'm not?" I replied hopefully. Had my headstrong and independent child finally seen the wisdom of my guidance? Was she ready to accept that experience, reasoning skills and overall knowledge lend legitimacy to my rules, perhaps even cheerfully follow my requests the first (or second... I'm not picky) time I uttered them? It seemed a long shot, but I was willing to hope...

"No, you're not. I go back to school today. You won't see me for hours."


Thursday, April 19, 2007

London Girl

More than one friend has teased me over the past few months that moving to London has finally made me a Jersey Girl. I must confess, there's something to that good natured ribbing. After years of being reluctant to admit that I have any connection to a state with such a bad rap (to the point that I begged Paul to let me print "Morristown, Somewhere In The Tri-State Area" on our wedding invitations), absence seems to have made my heart grow fonder where New Jersey is concerned. Since we've been gone, I've finally found myself willing to embrace (or at least high-five from a respectable distance) my adopted state, and it was thus that I returned enthusiastically for a visit a few weeks ago.

I was not disappointed. The comforts of home and the familiarity of old friends embraced me with a warmth that I sorely needed after half a year of finding my way in an unfamiliar country. Our visit was hectic and rushed at times as we scrambled to fit in as many visits with friends and family as time would allow, but the pace was worth maintaining for the pleasure of each reunion. I tried to keep reminding myself that I would not be enjoying any of this nearly as much had we never left the States in the first place. But I couldn't help it. I just enjoyed every minute that was spent reconnecting with our old life. Watching the kids fall in with their old friends as if no time had passed made me smile and sharing some laughs with my own family and friends made me smile even more. Our American community welcomed us wholeheartedly, and I was more than grateful for that much needed show of friendship and support.

As the trip wore on, however, the difference between my kids' perspectives on our dual lives became more and more apparent. Julia was in her element, surrounded by treasured friends who were delighted to see her and repeatedly asked her how much longer until she'd be home for good. But Evan, who remembered only a handful of the people we saw in the States, showed little interest in reconnecting with all but a few of them. By mid-way through the second week, Julia had pretty much completely shed her British accent, vowing not to pick it up again even when we returned to the UK "because I'm really American, you know, even if we're living in London for a while." Meanwhile, Evan's queries about when we would be able to return "home to London" became more and more emphatic. Neither kid was complaining -- not about being in New Jersey or living in London -- but it was clear where each of their preferences laid.

Where, I wondered, would I fall on the spectrum? It was easy to slide back into my old life; to drive on autopilot, to pick up the threads of new local gossip, to curl up on a familiar couch with an old friend and forget any time had passed at all. But as days passed, I also found myself thinking increasingly of the life waiting here for me in London; of baby gifts that needed to be dropped off with friends before their new arrivals outgrew them, of coffee dates I wanted to set up and birthday parties I needed to RSVP to, of a Hampstead Women's Club mailing I needed to coordinate, of a book group selection I needed to pick up if I was going to have time to read it before the discussion. I was enjoying being back in America every bit as much as Julia was. But Evan wasn't the only one who was thinking about life across the pond.

I came back to London this week completely reinvigorated by the company of family and friends. Our New Jersey visit was the touchstone I had hoped it would be, and seeing that I still belonged in that world gave me strength to return to this one. As our black cab carried us through familiar streets which had bloomed into a glorious springtime in our absence, I found myself smiling as I sought out the familiar sights and breathed in the familiar smells of London. It didn't look so strange or foreign to me any more, I realized. It just felt like a place I knew, a place I loved. Before I knew it, the car had pulled up in front of our building. And then damned if I didn't walk into our flat and feel like I'd come home.

The feeling, which I'd waited and hoped for and missed for so long, hit me like a ton of bricks, harder maybe for its unexpectedness than the feeling of being home that I'd anticipated and then found in the States. It was great -- truly great -- to go Home. But ironically, coming home may have been the best part of all.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

When true friends reunite, it is as if no time has passed at all

Kids are taller, hairstyles are different and teeth are missing in a couple of mouths, all of which continues to catch me off guard.

There is a new traffic light downtown which I’m sure is very helpful in controlling the flow of traffic, but seems right now only to render me completely confused as to which lane I’m supposed to be in at any given moment.

I’ve slowed to a near stop more times than I can count to gawk at houses that have changed colors or grown new additions in my absence, not to mention the ones that have been razed or those that now sport For Sale signs on the front lawn.

New stores display appealing new wares in their windows, new restaurants entice me to mosey in for a quick sample, and even in those familiar downtown haunts that remain the same, the faces behind the counters aren’t always the ones that greeted me half a year ago.

As much as things remain the same here in my hometown, plenty has changed as well. The passage of time is reflected in all of the faces and the places that I love, reminding me that just as I have changed and evolved while I’ve been in London, life here has gone on, too.

And yet...?

And yet my Target number; that magic total that pops up on the register every. single. time. I walk into that store, regardless of whether I’ve come in for a box of band aids or a full-out shopping spree? It remains the same almost to the penny.

Aint no doubt about it. Target's clearly kept the porch light burning in anticipation of my return.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Capital H

"Does it feel like we've been gone forever," I asked Julia yesterday as I drove down familiar streets to take her to a playdate at the home of one of her closest friends, "or like we've never left?"

I didn't expect much of an answer from my daughter, given the fact that I wasn't quite sure of the answer myself. We've all enjoyed every minute of our visit to the States so far, but it's been far too whirlwind of a trip for me to have processed any of what we've experienced here just yet. To be honest, I was finding it a little surreal to once again find myself driving on autopilot to a house I've logged so many trips to and from in the past few years. My question was just mindless out-loud chatter, words to fill the space until we arrived at our destination. But Julia barely skipped a beat before she replied.

"It does feel like we've been gone for a long time," she replied decisively. "But it also feels like we've come home."

Home. It was a word I hadn't even dared to suggest, but Julia offered it up as easily and naturally as if there was never any doubt. And the minute the words were out of her mouth, I knew how right they were. We reside (quite happily, I might add) in London for the time being. But this little New Jersey town where we've spent the past eight years putting down roots? This is our Home, the kind that comes with a capital H. I must confess that it made me beam to hear Julia say that so easily. But the fact that she said so in a decidedly British accent? That made me smile, too.