Saturday, May 26, 2007

My little saving grace

We took a family trip to the bookstore today to prepare for our trip to Prague, which we will be embarking on early tomorrow morning (translation: don't expect a blog post from me for a while). I was in search of a guidebook (what I was really looking for was something with a title like "What To Do In Prague When It's Raining from The Second You Arrive Until The Moment You Depart" but alas, I found nothing of the sort -- perhaps this is an opening in the market which some enterprising travel writer ought to pursue). Paul wanted a new novel for the plane (apparently, the last book I bought him, while entertaining, is "too damn big" to go anywhere with). And Julia and Evan, well trained in the art of travel by now, were keen to select the "can't open until we're on the plane" books that they know I always purchase to ensure that they are cheerful participants in the airport transfer and security checkpoint processes (it works like a charm every time).

Before we left, I warned Julia that I would not be buying her a Rainbow Magic book today and that she would need to come up with a different selection. I have nothing against the Rainbow Magic fairies (with which Julia is totally and utterly obsessed right now) in theory; they are the subject of a gazillion sweet, if slightly insipid, books which, while certainly not fine literature, are guaranteed to be harmless and entertaining independent reads. Julia has almost a dozen of the books in her own personal collection and has checked dozens more out of the library, and there's no question that they've been instrumental in fostering her love of reading. She can finish a whole damn Rainbow Magic book in 20 minutes flat, however, and I was looking for something that would entertain her through a bit more of the flight. "But I want a Rainbow Magic book," she whined. "Then you can have one," I cheerfully replied. "But you'll have to buy it with your allowance money."

The allowance card is the best tool in my parenting bag of tricks right now. We started Julia, as I'm sure many families do, on an allowance when she reached the age of 5. The 50 pence a week that she receives from us (when we remember, which I must confess is not yet a weekly happening) was supposed to instill a sense of personal responsibility and teach her about money management. In practice, it's not only done both of those things, but it's also had the unexpected benefit of releasing me from playing the heavy every time she spots a trinket she'd like to own or a little kiddie ride she'd like to try out. "Sure," I answer each time she begs for this kind of impulse purchase. "I'll lend you the money until we get home and then you can pay me back with the allowance money in your piggy bank." The first few times, Julia gave the matter careful consideration. Now she barely even pauses to think any more. "No thanks," she'll invariably answer. "I don't want it that badly." Beautiful. I'm not the heavy and yet I'm not stuck buying bracelets that will turn her arm green or feeding coins into big Thomas the Tank Engines that lurch and sing for 35 seconds before screeching to a halt.

Generally, I love the allowance because it makes Julia think about the value of money and it keeps me from ever having to face the "spend foolishly or deal with the ensuing tantrum" dilemma. Today, however, I actually wanted Julia to consider breaking into the piggy bank to make a purchase. She's not spent a single pence of her allowance money to date and while I appreciate and value her natural instinct to save, I also wanted her to see the pleasurable side of spending her own money on a thoughtful and valuable purchase. So I suggested that we get out the piggy bank and see what she's saved.

It took over an hour for Julia to count out all of the coins and work out all of the math equations necessary to calculate her net worth. Once we'd determined how much she had (and I'd realized just how many weeks we've forgotten to pay her and guiltily made a private vow to get better at remembering such things), she wanted to know how much a Rainbow Magic book would cost and what she'd have left if she bought one. We worked out those equations, too, and she sat staring at the piles for a bit. Then she swept up all of the coins and fed them back into the bank. I wasn't sure what exactly that meant, but I decided to wait and see.

At the bookstore, Julia read the back of every Rainbow Magic book on the shelf. She admired the dresses of some of the new fairies we've not seen before and told me the back story behind others she'd seen allusions to in the books she's already read. And then she picked out a new book in the Princess Mirror-Belle series for me to purchase for her to read on the plane. "Are you going to buy a fairy book, too?" I asked. She shook her head. "Nope," she replied, walking easily away from a display that generally inspires long involved discussions of want and need and must have. "Not today."

I'm not sure where she came from, this daughter of mine. In the hour or so that we were shopping today, Paul and I probably managed to drop upwards of a hundred quid; first there were the bedside reading lamps we've been needing that were a good price at Woolies and then they necessitated light bulbs and a new power cord, we were out of printer paper, Julia needed new school socks, I had no raincoat for our wash-out trip to Prague, and the bookstore meant a book apiece. All reasonably priced, necessary purchases, of course, but they added up (as they always do) and we shelled out the cash easily (as we always do). We're all for saving in theory, but we're all about spending in practice. Julia, it appears, might turn out to be the polar opposite. She seems to have an innate need to sock her cash away which wins out over any desire she might have to spend it. And while that throws me a bit, as such revelations about how different my daughter and I are often do, it also pleases me. At least at the rate she's going, she'll be comfortable enough that she'll easily be able to care for me in my old age... provided, that is, that I can somehow convince her that I'm worth it.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

I'm just a girl who CAN say no

Those who know me will not be in the least bit surprised to hear that two separate people tried to hit me up this week to serve as the Class Rep for Julia's school next year. (In fact, I think I can hear several of you giggling right now...)

There are two types of people in this world: committee people and non-committee people. I fall into the first category. From the high school youth group to the college sorority scene to the National Council of Jewish Women to the PTA at my kids' school in the States... even the Hampstead Women's Club here in London, I invariably find myself on executive boards and task forces and sub-committees almost as soon as I've introduced myself. I find myself unable to casually look away when someone asks for volunteers and I'm completely incapable of keeping my mouth shut when discussion ensues about the best way to get something done. This is a lethal combination, I've found. Any good committee person recognizes suckers like-minded committee people a mile away, and it's never long before I'm pressed into service by a fellow volunteer type.

In general, this isn't a bad thing. I like committee work and I enjoy volunteering. Why shouldn't I make eye contact and cheerfully welcome the opportunity to contribute? And so I always say yes to this kind of crap. Always. Until this week. I'm so accustomed to saying yes that I wasn't sure quite what was going on when I heard myself politely demure and offer up a litany of excuses (and suggestions for alternatives -- I still can't quite keep my nose out of the mix completely). But the bottom line, I realized later, was that I simply didn't want the job. That seems kind of odd; I always want the job, regardless of what the job might be. But I have very little interest in socializing with this crowd, so why should I be the one responsible for organizing coffee mornings and other parent social events? I have limited knowledge of the area and equally limited transportation options, so why should I be the one schlepping around looking for teacher gifts? I find this particular school's PTA to be poorly run and oddly irrelevant to our kids' academic experience, so why should I attend monthly meetings on behalf of the families in Julia's class? And so I said no. Let someone else step up to the plate. Not me. Not this time.

Big deal, right? Ordinarily, I suppose it wouldn't be. People say no to things like this all the time (as the person who is nearly always the one trying to corral them into saying yes, I can testify to this). But for me to say no? To a committee type thing? That is a Very Big Deal -- a first, even. It felt strangely liberating (and far more empowering than saying yes has ever felt, I must admit). I could get used to this. Perhaps here in London, where my life is a temporary one and the stakes (real or imagined) are lower, I can finally learn to set some boundaries and say no to things.

Or perhaps I've just left myself open to be the Rep for Evan's class instead.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The golden hour

It is just past 7:30 p.m. on a Tuesday evening and I am officially off duty. Both of my children have been tucked into bed and, while I know full well from the humming that can be heard in one bedroom and the swish of turning pages that is coming from another that neither child is actually asleep just yet, the hustle and bustle of baths and stories and "tickling teeth" is all behind me now. With Paul not yet home and an easy meal waiting to be prepared, I feel no great compulsion to start dinner just yet. The house is picked up, my "to do" list is appreciably shorter than it was this morning and the dryer is busily spinning the last of my whites for the day. I have poured a glass of red wine, the first thing I've actually done for myself in many hours, and I'm absently looking out my dining room window as I take my first sip.

I may have just said "good night" to my children, but it's clearly not night time outside my window just yet. The time change and the approach of summer and the fact that we are living in a city that is so far north have all conspired to provide us with a lot of natural light these days. I open my eyes to daylight far earlier than I'd ever actually consider starting my day and the sky stays bright here well past 9 p.m. already, though it's not yet even June. Now, at a little past 7:30, it's still clearly daytime out there, and yet the sun has lowered just enough that all of the buildings I can see on the horizon are bathed in a luminous golden glow.

Several hours from now, when the sky is dark, I'll be able to look out this window and spot the lights of the London Eye to help me to orient myself to the city. I never tire of that sight, or of that "pinch me" feeling which reminds me of my early days of working in Rockefeller Center (before I got bored and jaded and wished they'd just take the damn Christmas tree down and shut up the ice rink so that all those bumbling tourists would go home and stop messing up my commute). It's too early for me to see the Eye now, though; to be honest, with this strange light, it's hard to identify much of anything. What I'm looking at is little more than a mishmash, one big gilded expanse of buildings. As much as I love the sight of familiar London landmarks like the Eye, I don't really miss them right at this moment. The buildings before me may not be identifiable, but they're nearly iridescent in places, and the warmth of that illuminated skyline perfectly matches the calm that's finally settled over my home.

I spend the next 15 minutes trying to capture the view on camera. I'm a lousy photographer, though, and I'm working with a little point and shoot Nikon designed for capturing first teeth and dance recitals, not a vibrant city on the cusp of evening. I just can't seem to get that warm glow to come across in my snapshots. My photos are ordinary images of a distant city skyline, without any of the brilliance or the magic I can so clearly see with my own eyes. Eventually, I give up and put down the camera. There are other ways to capture this moment. I won't waste any more of my golden hour fiddling around with a camera. I may not be guaranteed to remember this sight from my photos. But I can burn it into my memory nonetheless.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Why yes, my camera is working again... however did you guess?

One of the nicest things about having house guests is that their presence provides a built-in opportunity for us to play tourists in our own city. The first few times that people came to visit, this was a no brainer for us; we hadn't seen or done anything here, either, so we were happy to visit whatever traditional attractions our guests found appealing (sometimes with less than fabulous results). As time passes and we get more and more checked off of our mental London "to do" list, however, we find ourselves casting a slightly wider tourism net in an effort to entertain ourselves as well as our visitors.

Our guest this past week was my Aunt Carol, who flew in from Los Angeles to spend a week with us before continuing on to Rome. Carol's quite well traveled and, having been to London several times before, has probably seen even more of the city's traditional tourist attractions than we have. With this in mind, we decided on Saturday to get the heck out of Dodge for a day and check out the sights of Windsor, most notably that big stone building in the center of the city... you know, the one where the Queen lives?

(Yes, the flag flying in the distance does mean that the Queen was in residence the day that we were there. And no, we didn't meet her. But Evan stepped in some royal dog poo. Pretty equally exciting, wouldn't you say?)

Windsor Castle was a great day trip for the adults and kids alike... Julia was fascinated by Queen Mary's doll house and both kids were wowed by the grandeur of the State Apartments. Personally, I was a big fan of the little touches, like the little tiny enamel crowns on the top of each lamp post.

That's just cool, no?

We've been to a number of castles and palaces at this point (you truly cannot move two feet without stumbling upon a royal residence of some sort in this country. I can't think of a proper parallel in America. Target, maybe? There are a heck of a lot of Targets in the States, and lord knows I find them impressive, too...). So far, Windsor Castle has been my favorite. The place is just vast and incredibly grand. And the best part? The place was jam packed with tourists, of course, but it was also big enough that you could actually see around the masses. For once, I didn't even have to borrow photos from Google Images; the ones I took myself came out halfway decent.

Add in the obligatory cute kids shot, and it's clear that a good time was had by all. (Oh, come on... that guard was loving every second of our visit. Can't you just see it in his eyes?)

Friday, May 11, 2007

Shop locally, eat globally

One of my favorite things about living here is the fact that we have a fabulous greengrocer around the corner. I adore my local fruiterer (yes, they call them fruiterers here, a grammatical construction so bizarre sounding to the American ear that Paul insisted for the first month or so that we lived here that all of the "fruiterer" signs simply must be jokes). I love walking in to a beautiful, colorful display of fresh produce. I love hand selecting a wide range of local and exotic fruits and vegetables for my family to enjoy each week. I love the neighborhood feeling in the shop and the fact that all the guys who work there know me by sight and my kids by name. "The Gala apples were a little mushy last week... can you suggest something better?" I'll say when I come in, and I'll get an answer like "try them again. You haven't been here in about four days, and they're much better now." I love getting this kind of guidance (which is always completely accurate, by the way), and the fact that these guys so clearly knows their produce and their customers endears them to me all the more.

This week, my fruiterer steered me toward the Pink Ladies when the time came for me to purchase apples, and I obligingly purchased several, though I'd never tried them before. As usual, he was right -- they're crisp and delicious and my kids have been gobbling them up. I was slicing up one of the last of them just now, while thinking how grateful I am for this foreign and fabulous fruiterer experience, when I happened to notice the sticker on the piece of fruit.

Oops. Perhaps not so foreign after all, to me anyway. Turns out that the produce I'm loyally purchasing at my local greengrocer was actually grown in my other backyard. Go figure. I guess it would be a real stretch to say I'm supporting local farmers with these kinds of purchases, huh? Oh well. At least I've got easy access to some damn good apples.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A special message to Daddy, who achieved hero status by fixing Evan's little yellow car after he was in bed last night

You take them to see the world and they seem terribly blase about the whole thing. But you screw back together a silly little 50 cent yellow die cast car and they worship you for life. That's what it is to be a Daddy, I guess; you win some, you lose some and you never know which it's going to be. You hit this one out of the park, hon...

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


We had a fabulous time in the English countryside this past weekend. If I'd had a working camera, I could show you just how lovely the Cotswolds truly are. Alas, I have only a horrifically blurry set of photos and my memories, so I'm afraid you'll just have to trust me that it was all quite spectacular. And spectacular it was...

We drove through some of the most stunning pastoral scenery I've ever seen in my life and we wandered through some of the most charming Cotswold villages I could ever have hoped to see. I had wondered if the countryside would live up to the hype, and there's no question that it did. I've seen my share of farms and open spaces in my life, but never anything as gorgeous and green and picturesque as this.

We ate delicious meals in pubs that were around long before Christopher Columbus discovered America and we snacked on delectable ice cream that was very clearly not of the mass-produced variety. Everything we ate, in fact -- from the eggs we cracked open for breakfast to the clotted cream that went on my scone at tea time -- was locally grown and produced. Was it my imagination that I could taste the difference?

We all stared in awe at the stately old buildings and beautiful grounds of Oxford, wondering aloud whether one day one of our children might return to study there. The kids giggled as they fed goats out of their hands and chased baby pigs down a path, and they laughed uproariously as they jumped on giant trampolines. Evan watched closely as a giant steam engine refueled with water before carrying us in an old fashioned First Class car through the forest. Julia worked carefully under the tutelage of an experienced potter to create something special on a pottery wheel. Paul sang silly falsetto songs about each and every animal we passed along the way. ("Daddy, look! Sheep! Sing the sheep song," Evan would cry out every time we passed a pasture. "Daddy, these songs are getting worse and worse," Julia would groan when he obliged.) I took lots of blurry pictures, for all the good that did me.

Yes, a memorable weekend, to be sure -- just the kind of experience we'd dreamed of giving our kids here in England. And sure enough, the kids pronounced it a fabulous trip. Evan declared that he'll never forget how fun it was to share a bedroom with Julia. Yep. A country full of beauty and he liked sharing a bedroom. And Julia? Her favorite part of the weekend was "the fact that we had a swing set right outside our cottage." Uh, kind of like our house in New Jersey, perhaps?

All righty, then. I can't wait to see what they make of Prague. Perhaps there will be some particularly fabulous hotel soaps waiting for us there or something.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Musings of a library lover

I have fond memories of many things about my elementary school experience, but Library Day is way at the top of that list. Library Day was the best day of the week, and not only because the "cold water fountain," which offered up the very best drink in the whole school building, was located right outside the library doors. Library Day meant an uninterrupted half hour spent perusing the shelves for something new and different and exciting to read about. It meant curling up in a quiet, sunlit corner to try out a new book before making a firm commitment to borrowing it, and it meant the hard punch of a date stamper on the inside covers of the selections I eventually made, signifying that they were mine to explore and enjoy until the next Library Day. In the school library, I learned independent thinking and good decision making and I reveled in the power of making my own choices, all before I'd ever even cracked the spine of a book.

I can't begin to hazard a guess how many books I checked out of the school library during my elementary years. The school library wasn't huge, its selections weren't endless and its presence in my life certainly didn't supersede the town library, which I also visited frequently and with much delight. But something about the in-school experience of making my own autonomous choices to explore my own individual interests in the midst of a day full of organized classroom lessons? That had an impact. I don't remember much of what I borrowed from the school library. But the memory of the borrowing itself? That is both indelible and impactful, even decades later.

There is no library in Julia's school. I scarcely even noticed its absence when we were touring schools last September; some schools had libraries, others didn't and really, after two harried days of viewing school after school, I was lucky if I remembered which ones I liked, let alone what amenities each had to offer. When I realized that we'd selected one of the no-library schools, I was saddened, but not overly concerned. Julia's current teacher has been fabulous about scrounging up appropriate reading material and recommended reading lists when Julia's abilities have outstretched the resources of her Reception classroom. Between the library and the bookstore and a wonderful, devoted teacher, we've made things work for Julia this year. And a year, I figured, was all it would take. The facility my kids attend is actually just one of a number of buildings that house students in this particular school. Next year, Julia moves around to the Junior School building, where she'll be the youngest of the school population rather than the oldest. Surely there, she'd find a library?

One would think. But yesterday, I got my "official tour" of the Junior School, and guess what? No library there, either. There is a lovely outdoor play space and a warm and inviting music room. There are sunny, well lit classrooms and interesting examples of the students' work adorning every spare inch of wall space in the building. There are, of course, dozens and dozens of books on individual shelves in each classroom. The children all look happy and confident and well adjusted and well cared for. It is a wonderful school. But there is no library. There is no room that smells of book bindings and ink and well worn paper, no quiet nook to browse, no sunny spot to lose yourself in an exciting new read. And that makes me unbelievably, indescribably sad.

Julia doesn't need a school library to develop a love of the written word. She's already a devotee of the public library and a huge fan of the bookstore. She's up way past her bedtime reading in the glow of her night light and she's awake for God knows how long in the early mornings devouring entire chapter books before she leaves the warm comfort of her bed. She inherited the bookworm gene from me every bit as much as she got my round face and my brown hair, and that gene will easily keep her invested in the written word without weekly school-sponsored trips to a library. But it is because of that shared gene, because of our identical tendency to stick our identical noses in books for hours on end, that I am the saddest about the loss. I loved the school library. And I can't help but wish that Julia would have the opportunity to feel the same way.

My kids are getting an amazing education at this posh London private school, of that there is no doubt. But I can't help but be suspect of an institution which doesn't see the value of a school library. I understand, of course, that space is of a premium in city schools. There's simply not room for everything, and so decisions need to be made and priorities need to be placed. But how could you not place enough of a priority on a library to at least allocate a broom closet somewhere to ensure the creation of one? "How will you ever leave this amazing British private school experience for an American public school?" people ask me all the time. If there is a library in our local NJ public school, my answer will be "easily."

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

All my bags are packed, I'm ready to go (and it's a shame I haven't a clue where I'm headed)

This week, I have booked two vacations and begun to research two or three more.

Due to a quirky school holiday calendar and a desperate desire to see as much as possible whenever possible (for as little money as possible), this is the beginning of a busy travel time for us. This weekend, we're off to a country cottage in the Cotswolds for the long Bank Holiday weekend. Three weeks from now, we're heading to Prague for a little half term adventure. A month or so after we return, my mom and her sister will be in town and Paul and I can finally get away on our own for a night or two; Brugge, here we come... I think. (This one's not booked yet, which means I'll no doubt change my mind 80 or 90 times before I make reservations.) And then it's time for some summer vacation choices. Will it be a train/ferry trek across the UK to Ireland? A journey through the archipelagos of Sweden?

No, seriously. Ireland? Sweden? Which will it be? And will someone just plan the damn trip for me already? Because here's my dirty secret: I hate nearly everything about planning a vacation.

Yes, yes, it all sounds so exciting and glamorous and bohemian and fun. The world is our oyster and this is our chance to see its pearls. What's not to like? Well, the seeing pearls part, I like just fine. But the actual identification of appropriate pearls and convenient flights and kid-friendly accommodations and travel itineraries that meet the very different needs of every member of this family, all at prices that will leave us free to up and go somewhere else a minute and a half later? Not so much.

I have spent the vast majority of this week planted on the same increasingly sunken spot on my sofa, the laptop open on my lap and about 18 windows open on my laptop. I've been cross referencing flights against hotel availability against travel reviews against God knows what else, to the point that my head is spinning and I find myself almost completely incapable of making any decisions at all. Every time I step away to, I don't know, care for my children or something crazy like that, I come back to discover that all of the airfares have just gone up 50 quid and that the perfect hotel I was all excited about is now booked solid. Travel itself is a joy. But the planning and coordinating part is a whole different ball of wax. This? Is just not fun.

The Internet is good for a great many things. I love the way it keeps me connected with my old life and helps me to explore my new one. It's a very useful spot for making purchases and converting the prices on said purchases to dollar figures I understand. But where travel information and planning are concerned, the Internet offers nothing but Information Overload. Too much of a good thing ceases to be good. And there are way. too. many. travel resources on the web. To be honest, I'm not even sure how it happened that we're going to Prague. Prague sounds lovely, yes, and I'm looking forward to it. But up until yesterday, we were going to Barcelona. I had researched Barcelona inside and out and was looking forward to the perfect little Spanish getaway. But the prices were high enough that I kept looking for a better deal, and I finally found one... in Prague. With the touch of a button, it was adios, Barcelona. The mind boggles.

For a decisive, already informed traveler, I'm sure the proliferation of web-based booking and review resources is nothing short of a God-send. But for the indecisive, clueless waffler (i.e. me), it's overwhelming and exhausting and just plain maddening. I'm excited about the Cotswolds. Looking forward to Prague. Downright bullish on Brugge. But what I really want to see? Is a good, old fashioned travel agent who can take this planning job off my hands for the next year and leave me free to simply pack and go. Does such a thing exist any more?