Friday, June 29, 2007

Men at work

How many laptops do you think we're going to need to own around here before I can actually get my hands on one of them?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Lost: the plot. Found: a favorite new expression.

I got an email last night from a friend whose daughter is in Julia's class. She knew little about the school Sports Day that's scheduled for tomorrow, and was hoping I could shed some light on the particulars of the event.

The fact that she was turning to me for the inside scoop on something as institutionally British as a Sports Day amused me to no end. (The only reason that I even have the slightest clue what a Sports Day entails is that one of Julia's beloved Rainbow Magic fairy books takes place at a school Sports Day and Julia has regaled me with the details of the story with mind numbing refreshingly enthusiastic frequency. Julia and I are both going to be very confused tomorrow if this particular Sports Day does not involve both egg-and-spoon races and an evil goblin lurking about.) But what really made me laugh aloud was the way my friend described her confusion about the plans for the day. "Think I lost the plot completely a few days ago after the email about the picnic and blanket," she wrote.

"Lost the plot." Is there any expression more perfectly descriptive of the situation or more completely British than this one? I love it. I appreciate good language in general and creative expressions in particular, and quite a few British sayings have tickled my fancy since I arrived here. But this one is by far my favorite. Expect to hear me talk about losing the plot frequently from here on out. Hell, I was doing it all along... now at least I'll sound witty and British instead of clueless and American.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

It takes a village to write a blog post

For every entry I manage to post to this blog, there are dozens more that go unwritten except in my mind. I'd like to pretend that this is because I'm sparing readers all of the really boring parts of my life in London, but when you look at some of the junk that I actually do post, it's obvious that this is not the case. In truth, I'm just unable to keep up with my best intentions. I'll do or hear or see something interesting, fully plan to write about it and then get all caught up in some long meandering post about something far less fascinating and completely lose track of my more appealing subject matter. As a result, I'm sure that reading this blog gives the impression that I do little more in London than sit on the sofa with laptop in hand and contemplate my existence for hours on end.

Fortunately, while my failures at recording the details of my London life in painstaking detail are completely my own, I am not alone in making the attempt. An expat stint is one of those life experiences that seems to inspire people to write things down, and the opportunity to share with friends and family back home makes blogging a popular medium for our scribbles. I have a number of friends here who have been kind enough to share their blogs with me (and, I suspect, quite a few others who are also blogging but keeping their own links under wraps). Reading about life here through their eyes is nearly as fun as recording my own London musings, but it can also be guilt-inspiring when I see them writing about the things that never quite make it on to my Blogger dashboard.

Upon reflection, however, I'm beginning to think that my friends' dutiful efforts to record their experiences might turn out to be my savior rather than my undoing. I could look at the fact that Christine and Chris have both blogged about our girls' day out at Trooping The Colour and feel badly that I never got around to writing about it. I could note that Chris also wrote about the outing she and I took to the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms last week and feel even worse. Or... and tell me I'm not brilliant here... I could just link to their posts and go make myself a sandwich. So here. What she said. And what she said. And what she said here. Now you're all caught up to date on my life.

Phew. I feel much better now. This blogging thing really isn't so onerous when you get the hang of it.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The grass should not technically be greener when the New Jersey summer sun has fried it to a crisp

"How are you enjoying summer here," another mother asked me recently as we waited for our kids to be let out of class at the end of the day. I wasn't quite sure how to respond. We were both wearing light jackets over our long sleeved tops, and I'd actually just been wishing that I'd thrown fashion to the wind and opted for a warmer sock/shoe combination instead of my open ballet flats. Was she being facetious or is this truly what passes for summer around here? I was a little too afraid to ask.

My calendar tells me that it's officially summer now, and my friends in the U.S. confirm it. Their kids are out of school and hanging out at the pool these days, while mine still have another 3 weeks to go in the classroom. It's not just our schedule which feels decidedly unsummer-esque. It's also 57 degrees here today (I must confess that I still use Fahrenheit-based sites to get my weather reports, as Celsius remains one big fat mystery to me). This is admittedly a particularly cold spell for late June, even for London. But in a country where the highs rarely peak much beyond the mid 70s, I'm suddenly realizing that this July and August are unlikely to resemble any summer I've ever known. Hot, sticky afternoons at the pool and warm, relaxing evenings in the backyard are not going to be my reality this year (and not just because I have neither a pool nor a backyard). I don't have air conditioning because I'm not likely to need air conditioning, and it's just as well that women don't wear shorts in this country. Unless we get a reprise of last summer's big heat wave, I'm going to have quite a few months of something which may feel like summer to people who are used to it, but to me sounds like little more than an extended spring.

Hot weather does not bring out the best in me, and I have always had a tendency to bitch mightily when the temperatures climb past 85 or so. I hate the way shorts look on me and I'm much happier with an open window than a hermetically sealed air conditioned room. I've hosted far too many barbecues where the guests clustered inside because it was too damn hot in the yard, and I could certainly do without the whole sweaty, chlorinated mass of humanity that is my hometown pool on a hot summer's day. Summer in New Jersey, I truly believe, is overrated at best.

So why, then, am I so unbelievably sad to be missing it?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A self-professed deity

My kids got their school report cards today (and yes, I do feel ridiculous even saying that about my 3 and 5 year olds, so let's not dwell to much on it, OK?). Each came with a "self evaluation " page the child had filled out about him/herself; Evan had dictated his favorite things about school and illustrated the page, and Julia had answered a handful of questions about the school year and herself.

"What do you think you are not so good at?" one of the questions on Julia's self evaluation asked. Julia answered with the kind of cocky self assurance only a 5 year old could possess. "I am good at everything," she wrote. At least, that's what Julia meant to write. She missed one of the o's in good, however, resulting in a sentence that actually read "I am God at everything."

I love you dearly kiddo, but I daresay you aint so God at spelling.

Monday, June 18, 2007

OK, so I'm happy and I know it, but HOW do I show it again?

I learned early on that it was best not to sing too loudly when I took Evan to toddler music programs here. Many of the songs started out familiar at first and I would heartily join in, only to discover that the words I was belting out were not the words everyone else seemed to be singing. The wheels on the bus don't go all through the town here, they go all day long. There are no ashes, ashes in Ring Around the Rosie, only a tissue, a tissue. The alphabet song ends in zed. (This one offends me the most, I must admit; what good is a nursery rhyme that doesn't actually rhyme? That poor dangling v...) Even the Hokey Pokey seems to involve different steps.

Singing with my kids has always been a fun time waster for me, but it's getting harder and harder to do these days. Evan's favorite song is Wind the Bobbin Up, a ditty which I can assure you that I had never heard before we set foot in the UK and still don't fully understand. He also likes to Zoom Zoom Zoom , and he and Julia both love to be Sleeping Bunnies, both of which, while charming, are completely new concepts for me. Lately, both kids have been completely captivated by a song about a fish. (I originally thought this one was a little insipid, but have since reversed my option, as the song appears to have succeeded where I have failed in teaching Evan to tell his right from his left.) My children may retain their American accents and their American identity, but when it comes to nursery rhymes, they're 100% British these days.

Unfortunately for all of us, when it comes to British kiddie songs, I'm lost. I'm still a little unclear about what a bobbin is or why preschoolers should sing about them. I'll be damned if I can remember that little zed detail. I'm pokeying while everyone else is still hokeying. The tunes and lyrics that all of the other mothers seem to fondly recall from childhood, while cute and catchy, are all new to me and their subtle nuances still somehow manage to elude me. I can pull off the London thing in more and more ways these days. But among the 3-5 set, I'm still exposed as a fraud every time I open my mouth.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Socially awkward

Evan has reached that odd age where he is old enough to independently cook up elaborate play date plans with school friends but not yet old enough to attend said play dates independently. "Davin's going to come over to our house next week for a play date," he'll sing out gleefully as I greet him at the classroom door, leaving me little choice but to follow up with Davin's mother to arrange such a rendezvous and then chat politely with her while the kids play.

I hate this stage. I rarely actually hate the play dates themselves... most of the other mothers I've been forced into this kind of socializing with have turned out to be completely lovely and I've struck up some nice friendships of my own in the process of tending to my children's social lives. But the actual coordinating and planning and making sure the house is tidy and figuring out what to feed everyone for lunch is just the kind of Emily Post crap that makes me wonder why the hell I ever wanted to be a stay at home mom in the first place.

Everything about these awkward social situations is uncomfortable for me, but the worst part is always placing the phone call to a parent I don't really know to set the whole thing up. I dread picking up the phone, always procrastinating and putting off that stiff, uneasy conversation for as long as I can. Whenever possible, I hide behind the anonymity of email or the ease of an outside-the-classroom-door conversation. There is little worse, I've always thought, than calling parents I don't know on my kids' behalf.

I was wrong. There is something worse. Today, after weeks of begging on Evan's part and a mind numbing "Tristan, Tristan" chant that clearly wasn't going to let up until I had concrete proof of a planned get together, I placed a call to a woman I've only even laid eyes on once or twice in my life. And because my kids' silly school refuses to put parents' names on class lists, I actually had to say "hello, is Tristan's mum there please?" I have never felt more foolish.

On the up side, I suppose all of the social awkwardness of the situation can only be attributed to "Evan's mum." Maybe there's something to this school's anonymity policy after all...

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Leaps of faith

Some time next week, on a date that I can't quite recall and therefore can't officially mark, we will hit the one-year mark on this London adventure of ours. Those of you frantically flipping your mental calendars back in confusion right now are correct that the dates don't sound quite right; we've actually been living here for just over nine months now. But it was a year ago next week that Paul first called from work to tentatively float a crazy idea by me. By the time we hung up the phone, I was pretty sure that our lives had just changed forever.

For weeks afterwards, we played at deliberation, trying to pretend that we would make this decision with careful analysis and painstaking consideration. In truth, it was a gut decision, the kind that’s made in a split second as a surge of emotion lurches deep within your belly. Before I had even named the feeling, it had consumed me. “What would you think about moving to London for a year or two?” I didn’t know what I thought of the idea, could hardly process the question even as I foresaw the answer. But I knew that we would be going.

I’d like to think that I pulled off a decent show of evaluating options in the weeks that followed. In truth, I was already in full planning mode, researching communities and housing and schools…. which digital television service would best meet our needs and where to find decent sushi and how to locate soy milk. Before Paul’s package was even fully negotiated, I had memorized rental listings and lined up a playgroup for Evan. Before we had even begun to tell friends we were moving, I had picked a synagogue and found a book group. Somehow, in the name of research, the theoretical had become tangible.

Signing the contract was anti climactic. I had been on the phone with the UK for days by then, sorting out the intricacies of sea shipments and discussing Julia's academic needs with an educational consultant. The actual contract was just one more thing on Paul’s to-do list; paperwork was “his,” the logistics of shutting down a suburban American life and ramping up an urban British existence “mine.” We lost sight of the enormity of what we were doing as we lost ourselves in the minutiae of getting it done. There were dozens of goodbyes, countless appointments, errand lists a mile long. And then… nothing. An empty house. An empty calendar. A blank slate. Just our little family of four, strapped into our seats as the plane hurtled toward our new life.

There were many times in the heady, hectic days leading up to our departure for London that I felt we’d officially taken the leap into our new life. But only once we arrived did I realize that I hadn’t even begun to jump. It had been easy to envision life in London within the framework of my suburban New Jersey experience. The reality of adjusting to a foreign life in what was in truth a foreign city would turn out to be my true hurdle.

Nine months later, I’m still taking daily leaps of faith as I struggle to perfect that adjustment. How much of me can I retain? How much of the person who I was before this experience do I need to set aside? What can I learn from living here? What can the people I encounter here learn from me? Am I a cultural liaison, a world traveler or simply a stay-at-home mother based in a new locale? How do I reconcile my need to make the most of these years with my instinct to provide stability and a consistent home life for my kids? How do I do this right?

A year into the game, time has given me the gift of familiarity with my new life, but it hasn't been nearly as helpful in providing all the answers I seek. I still find myself questioning things on a daily basis: my values, my beliefs, my sense of what's right and what's wrong and what simply doesn't matter much in the grand scheme of things. It’s often the smaller stumbling blocks – finding a substitute for Mr. Clean Magic Erasers or accepting that my 5 year old’s curriculum includes French and spelling -- that trip me up the most, but somehow I keep jumping through the hoops. I have finally decided that I don't have to know where I'm headed in order to get there successfully. Again and again here, I close my eyes and jump. Even as the micromanager in me screams out in protest, I let go and wait to see what happens next.

A year ago today, the continuation of my life in New Jersey was a fait accompli. Julia would go to PreK with her friends and Evan would start preschool and I would do some volunteer work and some freelancing and a heck of a lot of chauffeuring. A year ago next week, I tossed all of that aside and started anew. Making this move felt like the biggest leap we'd ever taken, and I spent much of last summer dreaming of the day that the stress and uncertainty surrounding our relocation would all be behind us. But looking back, I know that the stress and uncertainty we felt then only foreshadowed what was yet to come. Getting here? That was the easy part. Making this experience as impactful as it felt in that first gut clenching instant it was proposed to me? I won’t know for sure that I’ve truly made that leap until my feet finally touch the ground.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Even our fiction is the sum of our experiences

Julia's class ran into some unexpected free time toward the end of the school day yesterday, and her teacher suggested that the children fill the time by writing their own stories. They weren't given too much guidance; the teacher just told them to use their imagination and to write something that they would like to read, but had never read before. Here's what Julia came up with (spelling kept intact, much to my spell checker's annoyance, but a bit of punctuation added to make it readable):

Ons apon a time ther was a flaiyg horse. He was macical. He had a byotafl gardin and he was byotafl in his gardin. He had suniy skys as log as he was in his gardin. The End.

The flying horse didn't surprise me in the least; Julia is all about girly things like fairies and flying equestrian creatures these days. Ditto the magical aspect to her tale; magic crops up in pretty much everything Julia talks about lately. But the horse's ability to keep the skies sunny as long as he was in his garden? That made me laugh out loud. I can't imagine such a plot twist would ever have occurred to Julia before we'd spent some time living in London, but now that we've been here a while, it's obvious to all of us that sunny skies are the stuff of true magic. What each and every Londoner wouldn't give to get their hands on that horse...

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Who put the "easy" in the EasyJet? (Whomever he was, he was a liar, but a damn good marketer...)

This part of the world is particularly rife with low cost airlines. I'm not sure why they're all clustered here (and it's entirely possible that they're actually not and that it is in fact only my attention span for such things that is entirely clustered here at the present time), but the European market is clearly big business for all of these low budget operations. I suppose the close proximity of dramatically differing cultures and climates in this region makes it easy to market diverse sounding destinations that are accessible via relatively short inexpensive flights. (It just wouldn't be the same in the U.S.: "An unbeatable bargain: fly from one side of Texas to the other at a low, low price!")

At first, I thought that these budget airlines were not for the likes of us. I'm a nervous flyer under the best of circumstances, and I don't care to cut corners when the plummet factor is a part of the equation. Logistically, these operations sounded like a nightmare, too. No reserved seats? With two small children in tow? The mental image of jostling amongst a gazillion self important business travelers to try to find space to deposit my offspring and their accoutrement made my mind spin. I had mentally dismissed the budget airline concept before we'd even arrived in the UK.

Eventually, all of that marketing and my inner cheapskate got the best of me, though. Flying as a family of four is expensive, and we do a lot of it. Every time I would see an advertisement proclaiming "Rome for £25" or "Dublin for £10", I would wonder what the hell I was doing shelling out full fares for big name airlines. And so we tentatively tested the waters with BMI when we flew to Edinburgh this winter, and were please with the results. It wasn't that much cheaper after I'd nervously upgraded us to the "choose your seats in advance" category, but the check in process went smoothly, the plane seemed to be in good shape and we arrived at our destination on time and unscathed. Perfect. I was ready for the big time.

I scoured the Internet for rock bottom rates to Prague, using every low fare aggregator I could get my hands on. Each time I'd think I'd found a good price, I'd run the numbers, only to stare quizzically at the final total. £35 fares, it turns out (once you've added the return flights and the taxes and fees and multiplied by 4 family members and multiplied again by 2 because I still can't stop converting to dollars) are the makings of thousand dollar trips. If I wanted to take a solo one way flight to Ibiza on a Tuesday carrying only a handbag and never return, I could probably get one heck of a deal. (Tempting. So very tempting.) But if not, the whole low fare thing is relative at best. It's lowER, perhaps. But there is no way that I can use the words "low cost" and "nearly a thousand bucks" in the same sentence without some serious eye rolling.

Nonetheless, I was committed to the thrill of the chase by then, and determined to get the best possible fares to Prague even if they didn't offer me the enormous savings I'd initially anticipated. And so I booked us on EasyJet. We were leaving on a flight that necessitated setting our alarms for an hour we've rarely seen since our kids' newborn days. We would be returning at an hour my children have never in their lives been awake to see before. But I was willing to be flexible to save a few quid. (At least I think we'd saved a few quid. To be honest, I had so many windows open and discarded on my laptop by the time I finally selected those flights that I can't absolutely guarantee that the conveniently timed, amenity-filled British Air flights weren't a pound or two cheaper.)

Could the whole thing have been anything but a disaster after that auspicious start? Could have been, I suppose. But it wasn't. The combination of no online check-in option, check-in counters that do not open until exactly 2 hours before a flight departs and a paltry few under-trained agents working at those counters led to insanely long, unbelievably disorganized queues full of irate passengers. Add in the fact that seating priority appeared to be given in the order that people checked in and all of that famous British queuing decorum just went completely out the window. In the end, I can't even imagine what all of the fuss was about, because even the priority boarding (which we did end up receiving because we had small children in tow) just meant first onto the bus that drove passengers out to the airplane. Once off the bus, it was a mad free-for-all. Delightful.

We did end up seated with our children, of course (who else would want 'em?) and from there, the flights themselves went smoothly enough. There was limited food available for purchase on board as they had run out of many of their offerings, but we'd brought our own. We had some delays both coming and going, but nothing I wouldn't have expected with any other airline. There was quite a bit of turbulence on the way out that had me clutching the armrests and wondering why on earth I'd opted to stick my whole family in this discount tin can in the first place, but we did obviously land safely in the end, so no harm there. But the kicker to the whole exhausting rigmarole was that because of some odd quirk of EasyJet's baggage policies, the stroller which we'd optimistically gate-checked was magically unavailable until we reached the baggage claim. That meant traipsing through long airport corridors with arm loads of kid crap which we generally stash in the buggy. It meant corralling two frisky kids during a 45 minute customs wait in Prague without the benefit of a 5-point-harness to keep the two separated. And on our return flight at that ungodly hour my kids had never seen? Well, let's just say that carrying the dead weight of a sleeping child through those long airport corridors is one heck of a workout. And that trying to bribe sleepy children with chocolate to get them to pick up the pace produces mixed results at best. (It was worth a try, though, Paul. And I certainly enjoyed the chocolate...)

In the end, I'm fairly certain that we lost more in convenience than we gained in money saved with the whole EasyJet experience. I'm ready to go back to my big name airlines with their online check-in and their convenient flight times and their free coffee and peanuts. And yet, as we slipped exhausted into our seats on the Gatwick Express at midnight after finally escaping the airport mayhem, I spotted a sign above our heads advertising trips to Marrakesh for only £35. Marrakesh. Doesn't that sound exotic and fun? And only £35? Well, that's a true bargain, too good to pass up really. I wonder whether there are any good family-friendly accommodations there. I'll have to do a search...

Somebody stop me, please. Quickly.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Prague recap

Prague? Fabulous. Insanely picturesque, a remarkably easy city to learn in a short period of time, and an incredible abundance of clean public toilets everywhere. I'll refrain from commenting on which of these factors was the most important to me (though anyone who's been in my company for more than 30 seconds can probably guess), but together, they conspired to make for the perfect travel destination for our family.

Was it touristy? Oh, God, yes. I don't know that I've ever seen such a touristy city, and I certainly haven't heard so many American accents since I left the States. (In my least favorite American encounter moment, we passed an American couple on a tight stairwell. The woman profusely apologized as we all did that little "I'll go left, you go right" dance and her husband chided her for bothering. "No one understands you here," he told her, "so you can cut with the social niceties." Um, yeah. Way to make me wish I didn't speak your language, mister...) But you know what? American buffoons aside, I'm OK with touristy at this point in my life. Touristy means there will be food my kids will eat and attractions that interest all of us. (And bathrooms. Did I mention the bathrooms? Lots and lots of bathrooms.) It's a guaranteed good time. Save the "go native and experience the region as a local would" type experiences for when our children aren't 3 and 5. For now, bring on the touristy, even if it means we're surrounded by more than a few other tourists. (I resisted the urge to tell the guy off in any language, by the way. Aren't you proud of me and my newly-developed British restraint?)

When we look back on Prague, I imagine we'll all have different favorite memories. Julia will remember St Vitus' Cathedral, which was quite literally the first sight anywhere we've ever traveled that has caused her jaw to drop and no words to pass her lips save a simple breathless "wow." Evan will remember the Prague Castle and the fact that there are 97 steps down from it to the street below (give or take a few dozen -- the counting efforts of a 3 and a 5 year old, while wildly entertaining to all those around us, may have been somewhat less than completely precise). Paul will remember that the beer was cheaper than the water (this, as he reminded us pretty much every time we sat down at any restaurant, is my husband's idea of true nirvana). I will remember the breathtaking postcard-like sights everywhere we turned. And my bladder will remember all of those WCs. A lovely touch, I tell you. The world could learn a lot from the Czechs about the placement and upkeep of public conveniences.

For more of our Prague memories, check out my Flickr album. Click "detail" or select the photos individually for my explanations and commentary or just view the slideshow if you've had enough of what I have to say already...