Sunday, July 29, 2007

Beyond Epcot

Last weekend, Paul and I left the kids in my mother and aunt's very capable hands and ventured off for an adults-only trip to Bruges. Our fabulous mini-holiday included exploring the picturesque Belgian city on bicycles, taking frequent refreshment breaks at quaint local watering holes, dining in style at a Michelin-starred restaurant and sleeping so late that we very nearly missed the exquisite champagne breakfast offered by our luxury hotel. In other words, we went out of our way to enjoy the kind of trip that we never, ever could have considered with our kids in tow. We had nearly forgotten how much fun it can be to travel in style, given how accustomed we have become to searching for kiddie menus and proximity to playgrounds, and we enjoyed our little sojourn into our pre-parenthood lifestyle immensely.

Paul consults the map, eager to locate our next beer stop

As much as we appreciated the time to vacation as adults, and as beautiful as Bruges was, there was something about the area which I found a little unsettling. I finally pinpointed the source of my complaint on our second day there as I watched the world go by from my vantage point in an outdoor cafe; there wasn't a single person walking by who not carrying a guidebook. Bruges is beautiful, yes (though in an "old world Europe" way that was starting to feel a little too familiar, coming as this trip did on the heels of our visit to Prague), but it's so touristy that there seems to be little in the way of real life there. The town has what I call the "Epcot Factor" -- it's completely darling, but nearly entirely devoid of anything not aimed directly at visitors -- so much so that it might as well be sitting in the middle of Orlando's Epcot Center rather than the Belgian countryside. Lots to see, lots to do, and every bit of it manufactured for our enjoyment and pleasure. I can't deny that the effect is lovely, but the artifice is a bit... well, artificial.

Check out those charming, quaint... tourists

Tomorrow, we'll be setting off on a week-long trip to Stockholm. When we tell people that we're visiting Sweden on our summer vacation, they tend to assume that we're from the area, or at least have family or friends to visit there. That's not the case. We chose Sweden for our next destination simply because we expect it to look nothing like any of the other European cities we've visited thus far in our travels, and we're ready for a change of pace. We're looking forward to a sparkling clean city featuring an eclectic mixture of modern and ancient, to pickled fish (OK, maybe not so much the pickled fish), to crisp lines and sparse decorations and to lots and lots of water surrounding us.

Having polished off the last of the Pippi books at breakfast the other day, Julia can't wait to visit Junbacken. Evan's looking forward to riding the ferries out to islands in the archipelago. We'll continue our tour of European royal residences at the Kungliga Slottet and we'll get a sense of maritime history at the Vasamuseet and an overview of Swedish culture at Skansen, all of which I'm genuinely excited about. But in addition to the obviously appealing tourist attractions of Stockholm, what I'm really hoping is that we'll also get to know the city itself a bit. As we get more and more travel under our belts, I find that I'm yearning for more than another Epcot experience. In between all of Stockholm's "must sees," I'm hoping that we'll gain at least a small sense during our visit of what everyday life is like there. Too much to ask in a week's vacation? I'll let you know next week.

Friday, July 27, 2007

A parenting dilemma

When your 5 year old arrives at the breakfast table with book in hand and proceeds to absentmindedly consume her meal while continuing to devour her novel, do you:

A) Try to teach some tenuous table manners to your already-unmannered-enough offspring by insisting that books do not belong at the kitchen table. Encourage your child to chat with you about the book over breakfast and return to it when she has been excused.

B) Smile indulgently. Reading while eating is one of your own great pleasures and it's nice to see your child following in your footsteps. Who are you to discipline kids for behavior that you yourself engage in?

C) Revel so much in the unexpected and somewhat unprecedented silence of a dining companion who is lost in her book that you neglect to make any conscious parenting decisions whatsoever.

I think it's pretty obvious which way I went. The silence, it was golden, people. But I should probably choose option A or B next time, right? Somehow, the authoritative, decisive parenting thing always looked a lot easier when I wasn't the one who was expected to exert the authority or make the decisions....

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The world is my oyster (card)*

Evan had an appointment with his asthma specialist at 6:30 p.m. tonight. The doctor's office is almost halfway across the city, and I'd assumed that we would just take a cab there as usual. But I completely forgot to book the car early in the day, and when I finally thought to make the call at 5:30, I waited on hold for 20 minutes only to be told that there were no cars available. I now had 40 minutes until we were expected to arrive and no one was even answering the phone at my backup minicab company. Clearly, if I wanted to get us to this appointment, I was going to need to be a bit more proactive.

Out of the flat I ran, dragging my annoyed children, a stroller and my battered old A to Z street map. Studying the Tube map as we half-jogged, I steered us toward a local station. Wuss that I am, I had never actually taken my kids on the Tube without another adult before. This would have been uncharted territory even if I'd had half a clue where the heck I was going. No time to think about that now.

Despite our collective inexperience, the kids sensed and responded to my determination, and I was delighted to find that we were a well oiled travel machine. Down the steps with Evan's folded stroller on my back and both kids following cheerfully. Down the escalators with their hands in mine. Onto a train. Two stops and out. The line that I had intended to transfer to was experiencing delays, so I decisively announced that we'd just be walking from there. Up the escalators, hands in mine. Up the stairs, all in a line. Into the stroller went Evan as Julia and I commenced our half-jog down Marylebone Road. I turned my A to Z upside down (the only way I can follow a map is if it's facing the same way I am), consulted it briefly as we waited at intersections and forged ahead in what I prayed was the right direction.

We arrived at the doctor's office only 2 minutes past our allotted appointment time. The doctor saw us nearly immediately, pronounced Evan to be in good health and sent us on our way. I could have tried to call the cab company again and maybe lucked into a ride home, I suppose, but by now I was in the groove. Into a nearby station. One stop over and then a line change. Up and down stairs and escalators, kids by my side, stroller on my back, confidence soaring. Onto our last train, which would take us to a bus stop where we could catch a lift very nearly to our front door.

I beamed with pride as I looked down at my fellow travelers, who had handled the journey with such finesse and street savvy. Why had I waited so long to take my kids on the Tube by myself? This was a snap. They knew what to do and I knew what to do. We were Londoners now, through and through, I thought proudly.

And then, as the kids and I rode out the remainder of our journey, I happened to glance up at the Tube map posted above my head. I studied this detailed depiction, which had been designed to highlight only this section of the Underground's extensive network, for a moment and was pleased to have visual confirmation that we were headed in the right direction. I was just starting to look away when something caught my eye. And there, looking closer at the map, I saw my error. I had completed the walk-Tube-transfer-Tube-bus thing like a near pro, yes. But a true pro would probably have known that there was direct route from point A to point B which would have cut out more than half the steps in my journey. We had just done a giant half-circle around a short, straight shot.

Have I mastered this city? I was almost ready to think so for a few minutes this evening, but apparently I'm not there just yet. I'm damn close, though. And the high I got from my near mastery leads me to believe I'll close that gap in no time. I wonder where the kids and I should venture out to tomorrow...

* Am I dumbing things down too much or shedding some much-needed light on this post title if I mention that refillable Tube payment passes are known as Oyster Cards?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


One of the more nerve wracking things about moving to London was the process of renting out our house in NJ. Becoming landlords and inviting strangers to live in our family home felt a little odd, but it was clearly the logical solution; having tenants in the house would cover our mortgage expenses and keep the property waiting for us when we returned, plus there would be someone keeping an eye out for burst pipes or pests or any of the multitude of other things that can go wrong in a house. We rejoiced when we found a terrific family (British expats, no less!) who were interested in living in our house, and when it rapidly became clear that they were dream tenants, we set out to make them so happy that they would never want to leave.

Unfortunately our plan backfired a bit, as I discovered a few months ago when perusing my hometown paper online (you can pretty much keep up with virtually all of the gossip in a town if you simply read the front page, real estate transaction notices, police beat and advertisements of the local rag on a semi-regular basis). Our tenants loved living in our town, all right. In fact, they loved it so much that they up and bought their own house there. They'd neglected to mention their impending move to us because they still had some renovations to deal with, but when confronted with the black and white evidence of their purchase, they had little choice but to admit that they'd be leaving us with no renters (or rental income) when their lease is up in September.

I've been trying very hard not to freak out about this over the past few months as we've re-listed our house and prayed for the perfect new tenants to magically appear. OK, so we made all of the decisions about where and how to live in London based on the assumption that we'd have monthly rent coming in from our house in the States. OK, so the real estate market has bottomed out in the past year and little is moving in our area for sale or rent. OK, so London is pretty much the worst place on earth that one could live if one suddenly found oneself cash poor. But I'm thousands of miles away from the house and I can't exactly obsessively polish the granite countertops until a rental genie magically pops out of them and offers us a contract, now can I? So I've tried to be all "what, me worry," "out of sight, out of mind" and "que sera sera" about the whole thing. With the exception of a few wide-awake-and-panicked-at-4am episodes, I've been surprisingly successful.

All of my ostrich-like behavior finally paid off this week in the form of new renters, who sound lovely and perfect (and, more importantly, have written us several large checks that pretty much ensure that they're at least good enough). I've breathed a huge sigh of relief that my travel-filled London lifestyle is not suddenly going to come to a screeching halt because of lack of funds and I've all but offered my realtor any future children I might bear in experessing my extreme gratitude for her assistance in getting this albatross off our backs for the next year. And yet...

As relieved as I am to have new tenants lined up, I must also admit a tinge of jealousy as they rejoice in their new rental home. Apparently, they're a young family with 3 kids only a bit younger than my own, and they're thrilled by the fenced in yard, delighted by the swingset and overjoyed about the friendly neighbors who will no doubt welcome them with open arms. "It's the perfect kid house," my realtor enthused. Yeah, tell me about it. I've raised a few there myself, or at least made a good start on the process. The more she went on about how great our house would be for these people, the more I found myself wishing that we had such wonderful living circumstances. Then came the kicker. "They say that those his and hers walk in closets in the master bedroom are going to save their marriage," she laughed. And I looked at the single cupboard which Paul and I share here and thought I might cry.

We said the same thing about those closets when we moved into that house. We were equally enthusiastic about the double sinks in the master bathroom, which I've always maintained are the key to a happy marriage. (A year into the shared-cupboard, shared-sink routine, I think they may be overstating the value of those closets just a tad, but I was most definitely not underestimating the value of that second sink.) We bought that house expecting to live happily ever after in it, and it's a little jarring to suddenly find someone else doing so instead. I'm incredibly grateful to have found renters for our house, of course (and yes, I know that what I'm getting in London is every bit as valuable as a second sink). But now that the problem is solved, I'm beginning to think that I envy our new tenants that house every bit as much as I recently feared that I'd never be able to unload it on someone.

I'm not homesick, really I'm not. But at the moment, I think I might just be a little housesick. (Closetsick? Sinksick? You get the idea.) Sick, aint it?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

First I vanish and then I babble (which is worse?)

We're nearly a week and a half into the summer holiday here, and I'm so disoriented and thrown off of my regular routine that it's taking a supreme effort for me to even figure out what day it is. Could I perhaps pretend not to realize that it's been nearly 2 weeks since my last blog post?

In lieu of blogging, I spent the past eight days enjoying house guests; my mother and aunt arrived last Monday for a visit which turned out to be the perfect bridge from school year to summer holiday. (I realize that the word "holiday" should in theory be superfluous here, but as July in England is turning out to resemble a dreary early spring far more than anything else, I feel the need to qualify the whole "summer" thing a bit. This is indeed our July and August school break. But it aint no summer.)

It is one of those blogging frustrations that the most things happen when there is the least time to write about them. I was much too busy enjoying my mom and aunt's visit to actually sit down and blog about it while it was in progress. Now that my house is once again quiet and all of those sheets and towels are washed, I'm a victim of too much time passed. I want to play catch up here, but instead I'm sitting here flummoxed by how to capture a few of the past week's memories for posterity without inadvertently writing the Not-So-Great British Novel in the process.

Definitely worth a few words was our trip to Covent Garden last week, where Julia inadvertently ended up the star of a street performer's show. He pulled her up to assist him with a trick and I guess he found her quirky combination of serious demeanor and willingness to play along engaging, because he ended up keeping her up there for the next 20 minutes or so. She was darling; intent and focused and poised while at the same time seemingly unaware of the growing audience of spectators cheering her on. Evan even got a small bit part in the action, which he enjoyed heartily. His deep belly chuckles (obviously the more expected response from a child onstage) were quite the amusing contrast with Julia's determined stoicism. My mother had her little video recorder with her, so we even have a portion of the performance recorded for posterity. My favorite part of the clip, however, has nothing to do with either of my kids. It is the spot where the recording begins abruptly, partway through the action, and you can hear my mother say "oh damn, I pressed the wrong button. I thought I was taping but I don't think I actually got any of that." And then you hear me moan "Moooooom...." There's nothing quite like capturing family dynamics at their finest for posterity.

I always see my kids and our surroundings with different eyes when we've got guests in town and this visit was no exception. Both kids proved themselves to be true city kids at last as they ran happily through town, stopping appropriately at street corners, pointing out important London landmarks (or at least those that are important to the 3-5 year old set) and conducting an exhaustive tour of playgrounds and ice cream distribution points. Evan taught my mom and aunt about the London bus system, Julia gleefully explored the National Gallery with her two enthusiastic visitors in tow and both kids were able to make a critical comparison between the crepe we enjoyed on the High Street and the ones they'd enjoyed in Paris (final analysis: they each got their own in Paris, and I made them share here, so the Paris crepes win because quantity is far more important than quality). It's still a little mind blowing to me that I suddenly have such worldly kids, but it was fun to watch my mother and aunt enjoy my family's new found Britishness.

My biggest regret about the time we're spending in London is the distance it puts between my kids and their extended family, and visits like this one are always a little bittersweet as we try stock up on memories by cramming huge doses of "regular life" into short periods of time. But I think we hit just the right combination of entertainment and comfortable companionship this time. When asked what their favorite part of the visit had been, my kids debated for a while between several London sightseeing outings before eventually deciding that baking cookies at home had actually been the most fun. I'm so grateful that they're still able to make that kind of everyday memory with their grandmother even during this anything-but-ordinary period in our lives.

It's always a little sad when guests leave. It's nice to have things back to normal, I suppose, but I also feel the hole that's left behind when the people I love depart quite acutely for a few days. With no regular school year schedule to fall back into and less familiar friends in town to ground us, I suspect I'll be floundering for a few days as we officially begin the Season Formerly Known as Summer. (Seriously. I know I'm harping on this. But people, it has been cold.) Fortunately, we leave for Stockholm in less than a week. There's nothing like a summer vacation to get our spirits up again. Except given what the weather is like is Eastern Sweden right now... "nothing like a summer vacation" may turn out to be the operative words here. Do you think they make seasonal affective disorder lamps for use during this time of year?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Today's assignment: compare and contrast

This is the last week of school, and the walls of the classrooms, usually decorated with brightly colored student artwork, are empty save the faded construction paper backgrounds that have yet to be ripped down. Both of my kids have been coming home each day loaded down with armloads of papers and projects as their teachers scramble to get everything sent home before the children scatter for the summer.

There's nothing like the end of a school year to get me nostalgic about my kids' growth and development. Faced with a year's worth of schoolwork and memories, I find myself caught in that familiar parental trap of wistfulness and pride. Julia in particular has grown up so much this year. When I think back on those first few weeks of school spent holding my breath and praying that she'd be able to make this work, it's hard to believe that she's the same confident kid who's now 100% in the mix at school, both socially and academically. Julia found her fit here. The structure and discipline that continue to throw me a bit are a perfect match for her personality and interests, and she's thrived both in the classroom and out of it. For all of my worries early on, this move has probably been the best thing we ever could have done for her.

How to capture the change I've seen in my child this year? Photographs don't do the comparison justice; a few inches are the tip of the iceberg where Julia's growth is concerned. Words fail me here as well; they have too many meanings and it's hard to convey just the ones that fit. Kids are, by definition, growing up all the time. How to describe quite how dramatic this year's evolution seems to me right now? I finally found the answer today while sorting through piles of projects, trying to decide what to hold on to and what to quietly recycle while the kids are still at school. Julia, it turns out, illustrated her own development this year better than I ever could.

When asked to draw a picture of herself for a project done last fall, this is what Julia proudly produced, a lovely -- albeit crude -- drawing of her smiling self:

When faced with the same assignment last week, something dramatically different emerged:

I brought a preschooler to London and now I have a little girl. I see the changes in Julia in so many ways; in her knowledge, her interests, her self confidence and her sense of humor. But most importantly, I see the changes (right here in black and white) in how she views herself.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Too much road, not enough trip

We had no pressing plans for the weekend. It had been raining for so many days straight that it was hard to envision being able to do anything recreational, save perhaps building an ark. So when Saturday dawned unexpectedly sunny and beautiful, we were caught a bit off guard. "Let's take a road trip to Cambridge today," Paul suggested. I loved the idea of a spur of the moment adventure, so we booked a car and were on the road in less than an hour's time. We arrived back in London ten hours later and fell happily into bed, where we dreamed pleasant dreams of our fun family day in Cambridge. The end.

What, you want the middle of the story, too? Yeah, that part's a little less idylic. It involves an ill-fated choice to take the scenic route and a little bit of a directional snafu when we tried to make up time on the way there. It further involves getting stuck in traffic on a "closed" motorway (only in England... how do you just close a motorway?) and a resulting eternity of stop-and-go traffic (emphasis on the stop) on the way home. The full story of our little impromptu jaunt out of London involves 6 1/2 hours of the only nice day we've seen in weeks spent in a car and a scant 3 hours spent outside enjoying the weather. Cambridge itself was lovely. It was not, however, 6 1/2 hours in a car worth of lovely. Not by a long shot.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

You Are From

Just as I forgot that I could not count on the schools to prep my kids for Thanksgiving last November, so was I remiss this month in setting the stage for the Fourth of July. This morning, as we ate a hurried breakfast before school (yes, we're still in school here, and no, this is certainly not a national holiday in England), I scrambled to fill them in on the basics of this very American holiday.

It turned into a slightly trickier conversation than I had anticipated. It was kind of hard to explain why independence was such a desirable thing, given that we currently call the country from which our forefathers sought their freedom "home." I couldn't very well paint the English in a negative light, now could I? We somehow lost track of the Fourth of July conversation as I bumbled through this explanation, and instead ended up having a lovely (and much safer) discussion about the merits of each country. Both England and America, my children firmly pronounced, have good ice cream, and both are therefore equally good places to live. Fair enough. It was definitely worth the entire Revolutionary War to be able to open our own ice cream shops wherever and whenever we wanted, wouldn't you say?

I was thinking later about our morning conversation and about how much my kids' identity and frame of reference has changed since we moved here. As much as I value and appreciate the opportunity they've had to obtain a more global view of the world, on days like today, it makes me a little sad to think of how little of their Americanism they sometimes seem to retain. The Fourth of July is an institution to me. It is fireworks and barbecues and decorating bicycles with red white and blue streamers. To my kids, it is now a day to go to school like any other.

There was a meme going around the Internet for a while based on a poem by George Ella Lyon called Where I'm From. It was a great writing exercise and I always meant to do it myself, but I somehow never got around to it. Instead, today I dug up the template and rather than writing my own history, I wrote one for my kids. I'm patently aware that we have already rewritten their personal history a bit with this move abroad, and that no childhood reminiscing they do as adults would be complete without mention of the time we spent in England. But just for today, I wanted to capture their American selves: a part of their childhood that currently (curiously) feels as much like ancient history as my own youth.

You Are From

You are from Trader Joe's balloons, from Kellogg's Nutrigrain Waffles and big SUVs.

You are from the big yellow house with the short, stubby driveway (warm in the winter, cool in the summer; the quiet whoosh of regulated comfort blowing constantly through inconspicuous vents.)

You are from the dandelions,

the weeping willows you called mango trees whenever friends came to play.
You're from ice cream cake for birthdays and licking your plate,

from Cortney and Andrew and Moose the cat.

You're from stubborn independence and Mommy kisses that make it all better,
From don't you dare climb into that sandbox while you're still wet from the sprinkler and well, then I guess we'll have pizza again.

You are from Judaism

Tot Shabbat and Bim Baum and a dot-painted kippah you wore proudly, if a bit off-center.

You're from from New Jersey in the good 'ole US of A,
flank steak on the grill and juicy tomatoes (neither of which you'll actually eat).

From the day I agreed to buy those hot pink Merrells that Julia just HAD to have even though I hated them with a passion
The gazillion different times that Daddy got poison ivy trying to retrieve a ball which Evan had kicked over our back fence

Our mementos may be locked in storage at the moment, but our memories are not, and opening your eyes to the world in front of you need not mean closing them to the world you left behind.
Where ever you go and whatever you become, all of this will still be where you're from.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Americans abroad

Our plans for today weren't too elaborate; we were going to head over to Selfridges for some good, old fashioned browsing. Paul needs new shoes, I have a couple of birthday gifts to pick up and we've both been keen to check out the shopping monolith's legendary food hall. We'd make a day of it, we figured.

But last night, as we watched coverage of the latest foiled terrorist attacks here in the UK and listened to the new prime minister urge the British people to be vigilant, I turned to Paul. "I'm not so sure I want to take the tube tomorrow," I said hesitantly. I was surprised at how quickly he agreed. "Yeah, I was just thinking a big department store might not be such a great destination for us," he replied.

Paul and I were in New York on September 11 and we returned resolutely to the city each day in the frightening days and weeks that followed. When anthrax was found in my office building less than a month later, I squared my shoulders, rubbed my pregnant belly for luck, got in line with my NBC colleagues for a nasal swab and then went back to work. Paul flew to London on business just days after the July 2005 tube bombings and we did not change our travel plans when a foiled terrorist plot at Heathrow wreaked havoc on the airline industry shortly before we were scheduled to move to the UK last year. We have never been the types to let the threat of terrorism stand in the way of anything we want or need to do.

So what gives now? Is it the fact that the British threat level label of "critical" just sounds more ominous than the American color-coded levels? Does an admonition delivered calmly by a British accented television presenter carry more weight than one proclaimed by a shrill-voiced American reporter? Is the fact that parts of this city are still confusingly unfamiliar to me the reason that I feel less comfortable venturing out into streets where a car bomb could be lurking? Do I feel, as an American here in London, like there is a double target on my head? Or am I just a little more sensible and a little more protective of my family's safety and well being these days? There's really no reason we have to go to Selfridges today. "Something to do" hardly seems worth risking bodily harm...

"We will not yield, we will not be intimidated, and we will not allow anyone to undermine our British way of life," Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in a BBC-televised statement last night. As his rah-rah speech came to a close, I sighed. "That's all well and good," I told Paul as he flipped through the channels in search of something a bit more entertaining, "but we are not British. We are American. And instead of maintaining a stiff upper lip and continuing on my merry way, I plan to cower like a yellow bellied fish."

We're going to have a Monopoly Junior tournament here today and gorge ourselves on the peanut butter cookies I baked with the kids yesterday. Perhaps later, we'll check out some local shops and see if we can locate the items we need without venturing too far from home. It's a stopgap solution; tomorrow, Paul will board the tube as usual for his commute to work and the kids and I will resume our weekday schedule of school and activities. But for today, it's comforting to stay close to home. Do I feel silly for letting this all get to me? A bit. But if what we get out of our nervousness is a quiet day of family togetherness? Well, one could hardly say the terrorists have robbed us of anything at all.