Friday, February 29, 2008

A mile (and then some) in my shoes

I left the house at about 8:30 this morning, walked Evan to his school building and then walked Julia to hers. After I'd dropped the kids I continued on to the grocery store, where I was lucky enough to bump into a friend who had driven there. "I'll give you a ride home with your packages," she offered, and I was more than happy to accept; I wasn't planning to buy all that much, but I usually catch the bus home from the market and those final few blocks that I have to walk on foot with all of those shopping bags are a killer. (Thanks again, Katie!)

An hour or so later, I was off on foot again, back to Evan's school where I retrieved him and a friend, met up with the friend's mum and shepherded everyone back here for lunch. We had a lovely playdate, but it was over too soon; not much time to play, really, when the walk back to Julia's school had to be factored into the time equation. Evan and I said our goodbyes to our friends, went to pick Julia up, and then walked on to the Tube station. I handed the kids a steady stream of snacks as we caught the train to Baker Street and then walked the 10 minutes from there to their swim lessons. An hour and a half later, we emerged and trudged the three blocks or so to the bus stop. Their hair was still a little wet, but it was raining anyway so I guess it didn't make much of a difference.

It was rush hour by now, so we waited on several busses before one actually stopped for us. When it did, we packed in like sardines and stood for the 10 minute ride. The kids were way too tired to walk the 15 minutes home from the spot this bus left us off, so we waited at least that long for a second bus, trying to keep warm in the inadequate shelter of the bus stop as the wind howled by us. When the C11 finally came, Evan started to cry because his preferred seat was already occupied, Julia started to whine because she was tired and I very nearly violated the poor man standing behind me when the driver turned sharply to the left before I'd really had a chance to get my footing. (In my defense, it was no easy task to juggle Julia's school bag, the backpack full of wet swimming gear, the carrier bag full of snacks and sandwiches to carry the kids through the journey, and the stroller Evan couldn't quite manage without but didn't exactly care to ride in either.) I apologized profusely as I steadied myself, reassuring the kids that we were nearly home and that I was proud of their efforts. Only a 7 minute ride and a 5 minute walk to go.

I know that I often extol the benefits and the virtues of life without a car. I mean every word of praise that I utter; I am in far better shape for all of the walking I do on a daily basis and public transportation can in theory carry me and my family pretty much anywhere we want to go here. But sometimes, the ease and convenience of a car would be awfully nice indeed. Today was one of those days.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Anticipatory nostalgia

They are beautiful all year round. In the spring and summer, they shade the street with a canopy of green which feels impossibly lush for the urban landscape that surrounds them. That canopy becomes a carpet in the autumn, a sidewalk blanketed with the largest leaves I've ever seen; proof positive that everything about this country -- even its trees -- has an age and a longevity I could never expect to find in the US.

Those autumn leaves have long since been cleared away and the green canopy still exists only in my wistful future. Right now, beauty can be found in the mottled skin of bare bark and the spidery reach of branches. I admire their stark outline against the winter sky, trying to burn the image into my memory. The next time the trees outside my house look like this, we will be gone.

Friday, February 22, 2008

This post is solely the opinion of the author. It is presented as humorous observation and does not imply any bias or bigotry. All rights reserved.

One of my favorite differences between English and American culture is the discrepancy in the way we express ourselves in print advertising. In sharp contrast to the careful, over-analyzed, painstakingly worded, extensively-focus-grouped, legal-reviewed-to-death copy we seem to turn out in the States, the English seem much more focused on being witty and conversational than on being politically and corporately correct. There are exception in both cultures, of course, but overall I have found the writing in adverts here to be remarkably more candid, notably more relaxed and generally far wittier than in the ads I see in America.

(Did you notice that? I had to note the exceptions there. Couldn't leave that disclaimer alone. Might as well wave my own little American flag in the air now... no doubt which culture still exerts a prevailing influence over my instincts.)

It's ironic given the fact that our cultural stereotypes would lead one to expect much more formality on this side of the pond than on the other. But I have to think that the American advertising industry actually has a lot to learn about the merits of being informal from the British, improbable as that might sound. Just think how much easier life would be, not to mention how many more trees would still be standing in the US, if the legalese on American marketing materials looked more like this:

Monday, February 18, 2008

My parents dragged me to the countryside and all I saw was a big pile of rocks (subtitle: uh, Julia, that was Stonehenge...)

The kids had last week off of school (yes, again), so we headed off to Wiltshire for a few days to see a bit more of the English countryside and enjoy some uncharacteristically sunny February weather.

It was one of those lovely last second trips that comes together as if you'd spent weeks on end planning every detail. (We'd been doing plenty of that planning stuff, in truth, but none of it had resulted in any concrete plans. Instead we'd waffled so endlessly about where we might want to spend this February Half Term that we had never actually booked anything, with the end result that this charming "winging it approach" was actually more default than design. But shhh... don't tell anyone. I like the idea of appearing to be a spontaneous and carefree traveler even if nothing could be further from my nature.) When the weather report showed an unprecedented number of sunny days ahead, we borrowed a guidebook, booked a room in one of the B&Bs the book recommended and set off a day later. (True, true, all true. This had been the only plan -- to do some last minute planning -- and it worked. But the angina it caused me... oy.)

For three beautiful days, we enjoyed the great outdoors as we tracked wild horses in the New Forest, collected sea shells on the Christchurch beaches and bounced on the giant trampoline in the yard of our B&B. We got a bit of culture visiting the cathedral and city of Salisbury and we ate terrifically at the local pubs. We even did the typically touristy thing and visited Stonehenge, which I have to say interested and even awed me far more than I'd anticipated. And throughout all of this fun spontaneity, we were treated to the newest word in my daughter's vocabulary, repeated endlessly at each stop along the way.

Apparently, 6 is the new 16 where family outings are concerned because seemingly overnight, our engaged and interested travel companion has morphed into a pre-pre-pre-teen. Everything is boring and lame and unworthy of her excitement. We are boring and lame and unworthy of her excitement for suggesting any of these activities, not to mention how boring and lame we are for daring to show our own (gasp) enthusiasm.

Thankfully, she hasn't quite perfected her technique yet. There are still flashes of delight that she can't quite hide and quite a few moments when she plumb forgets that she's not supposed to be enjoying herself. She's still conditioned enough to smile whenever I stick a camera in her face. The sneer is not fully formed yet, the disdain still overruled by her overwhelming desire for our affection and attention. Pieces of our cheerful world traveler still remain for now. But she's increasingly... bored (or so she claims). At six.

I suddenly have a feeling that our impending return to American life and the end to our regular traveling adventures which it will bring are going to arrive not a moment too soon.

The last of the happy family travel photos?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

All he ever really needed to know he learned in pre-Reception

To be fair, I should clarify the Evan reading thing. He is beginning to read, but not necessarily because of any great stroke of brilliance on his part. Yes, I think Evan is brilliant because he's my son, of course, but I think he's reading because of the English educational system. He has been systematically taught to read in school this year, which makes the fact that his reading light bulb has clicked on exciting and gratifying, yes, but somewhat less awe-inspiring than if he had simply picked up Hop on Pop one day, examined the words on the page and pronounced it great literature. (Might he have done that anyway if his teachers hadn't intervened with their Letterland characters and their Jolly Phonics techniques? I guess we'll never know.)

Watching Evan learn to decode the written word has been fascinating because the process has been so completely different than the way his sister began to read. She was a head-under-the-covers-with-a-flashlight kind of kid who actually did teach herself to read, almost entirely without help or intervention. I never understood her process or her technique and neither did she, it seemed; one day she just... knew what all of the words said. (All of them. Seriously.) She was -- and still is -- a whole word reader, and it was only later in school that she doubled back and learned the phonics rules behind the whole business. As a result, she's a fantastic reader but a horrific speller, and she still struggles a bit with the process of sounding things out. She simply seems to recognize 99% of the words in the English language, so when she comes across an unfamiliar name or a word she's never heard before, it can completely confound her. Evan, in comparison, is already shaping up to be a better speller than Julia and he's not at all bothered by the process of sounding out a word he doesn't recognize. But simple everyday words which just do not follow the laws of phonics flummox him to no end. I presume this is a time and experience thing, but I'm no help since my experience with Julia leads me to make useful suggestion like "well, just look at the word and see what it says."

Now that Evan is classified a "reader" in school, he has his own special reading folder which he brings home with him every afternoon. Each day, he receives a new game or activity designed to strengthen and encourage his reading skills. To me, this sounds suspiciously like homework for my barely-4 year old. I remain skeptical and a little disparaging about the whole idea of teaching children this age to read in the first place; I now can't deny that it can be done and I also can't deny that my child is overjoyed about the whole thing and that's all terrific of course, but I also still wonder whether it's necessary and how this is going to help Evan to do his very best at the sand and water table in American pre-K next year. The homework thing pushes me over the edge, though; every time I sit down to play one of these games with Evan, I feel like the flash card-wielding Mommy of my worst nightmares. I'd just blow it off, except predictably, Evan loves his reading folder and can't wait to get to work each afternoon.

This morning, Evan and I realized simultaneously that in all of the excitement of his birthday, he'd never done his reading work yesterday. He looked like he was on the verge of freaking out about it and I was in a hurry to get us all out the door, so I set the 2 worksheets on the table and told him to go grab a pencil. "This stuff is easy for you," I told him. "I'm sure you can finish it while I get breakfast together." I was right; I came back less than 5 minutes later to find that the work was done, and we all ate breakfast in peace. But it occurred to me later that perhaps this tantrum-avoidance tactic was a dumb move on my part. Evan is a sponge right now and he's learning things left and right which will undoubtedly stay with him throughout his academic career. From his teacher, he's learning to read. And from his mother? Apparently, he's learning from me that it's not a problem if he parties too hard because he can always just do his homework quickly at the breakfast table the next morning. Which one of us do you think he'll thank in his valedictory speech some day?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The annual birthday letter

Dear Evan,

Despite my best efforts to hold back time, it's February 5 again and today you are 4.

You've spent hours over the past few weeks pouring over the photographs of your first few years. As your fourth birthday has approached, you've asked me again and again to sit with you and look at your baby pictures, to tell you the stories that comprise your short history. In addition to our marathon photo viewing sessions, you've also initiated countless conversations lately about the fact that you are now a big boy, as well as a handful of sweetly reminiscent discussions about the things you've loved about being little. It's obvious that you're processing this 4 thing, that in your mind, you've taken the step from little to big with this birthday.

I'd beg to differ (4 is still awfully little and you've got a long way still to go on this growing up thing), except the thing is, there has been a dramatic change in you over the past few weeks. You've apparently thought this all through and decided that you're older now and that you're going to act the part. After years of playing the role of the family baby, you're suddenly standing taller and expressing mature thoughts and working so hard at being big. I must confess, I look at you and I still see a little boy, but if you look in the mirror and see something different then far be it for me to interfere. I've been waiting for years for you to put on your own coat and brush your own teeth, and if 4 is suddenly the age where you can be responsible for such things? Bring it on.

It's been a little surprising to me as I've participated in your ritual reminiscing to discover how much of the last 4 years I've already forgotten. I'd have been in big trouble these past few weeks without the photographs I've archived and the stories I took the time to write down along the way. I don't see how that can be, how I could so quickly have forgotten what's really still recent history, but apparently this getting older thing is happening to me, too. My memory is only going to get worse, I suspect, and if you're going to continue to expect me to be able to regale you with the tales of your youth, I'd better keep writing stuff down quick before it disappears forever. And so here goes... a written snapshot of you on your 4th birthday.

At 4, you are passionate about purple. And Sesame Street -- the Count in particular. You adore travel and trying new foods but you only like the milk in London. You beg to be tickled. You color in the lines precisely and you are the world (or at least local) Musical Statues champion. You have a giggle that is contagious and a grin that makes adults just a teensy bit nervous. You quietly take yourself off to your bed for a little rest when you are tired. You have the squeakiest, highest pitched voice I've ever heard. You can be reasoned and rationalized with most of the time, but you also still believe in the power of the 1, 2, 3 countdown. (Thank God for that.)

At 4, you play cricket every day on the school playground with your best friend Ben. There are no cricket balls or bats there, but it doesn't much matter; the two of you can pantomime an imaginary cricket game with far more finesse that you can play with the actual equipment. You love many physical activities, from football (soccer!) to dancing to scootering, but nothing on Earth compares to an imaginary cricket game as far as you're concerned. I half suspect that you'll have the entire 4 year old population of our American hometown equally devoted to the sport within months of our return.

At 4, you are persistent. If you are interrupted mid-thought, you will go back to the beginning and tell your whole story again from start to finish. There is absolutely no point in rushing you along; you are going to say what you are going to say and no one is going to prevent you from communicating whatever it is that you wish to share. Woe betide the person who tries -- or the adult who does not build an extra half an hour into every activity or outing to allow for your monologues.

At 4, you are caring. You seem to always say the right thing, made all the more right because you're not doing so intentionally. You regularly compliment people and tell them how much they mean to you, not because you think that people want to hear these things but because they are the things that you genuinely think and feel. You have a lot of love in your heart and you're not afraid to share it. Needless to say, it comes back to you a thousand times over. I am constantly prying you out of the adoring clutches of some other small child when it is time for us to leave a place.

At 4, you are determined. You have begun to read at the age of 3 simply because you believed it was time for you to learn, and you have recently stopped sucking your fingers during the day because it seemed to be time for that, too. Ditto skipping and hopping and riding a scooter and putting on your own clothing (finally!); when you decide to do something, it's pretty much a done deal. (There is, however, no telling you that is time to do something. Damned if I haven't tried.)

On the day you turned 4, you woke up slowly and a little bit grudgingly when Julia and I came into your room singing Happy Birthday. When we asked you whether you felt older now that you were 4, you spent a good long time considering the question and then you nodded solemnly. "I think that I do," you replied thoughtfully. Fair enough. Grow up if you must... I won't stop you. But please don't change too much along the way. Because who you are at 4 -- passionate and imaginative and persistent and caring and determined? Those are all traits which will make you a damn fine adult someday. They're also traits that make you a pretty amazing 4 year old right this very minute, though, so try not to rush too much, OK?

I love you, Evalah. But do I really need to say that here? I may not always remember every little detail of your life at 4, but I'll never, ever need a written reminder of how much I adore you or how lucky I feel to be your mom.


Friday, February 01, 2008

When in London, do as the Turks do

It's not often that I indulge in a spa day but when I do, I have a few basic requirements. Warm rooms. Soft lighting. Fluffy towels and bathrobes. No drop ceilings. A musical selection that goes beyond Enya. A permeating scent of lavender. Or sandalwood -- I'm not picky. The thoughtful touches don't matter much provided that there are some; it's not asking much, I would think, for a place that specializes in relaxation to set the mood a bit. But I willingly threw all those requirements out the window last week for a relaxing trip to the Turkish Baths at Ironmonger Row.

Going into this outing, I wasn't quite sure how to reconcile the description of this "haven of relaxation" with experienced friends' advice to bring my flip flops. Plunge pools and saunas and steam rooms all sounded lovely, but the Baths' location in the midst of a council block and the £7.70 price tag for three hours' relaxation tempered the mental image a bit. "It's like nothing else you've ever experienced," one of the friends who organized our little outing assured me. "It's certainly not luxurious, but it's relaxing all the same." I was intrigued, and since I was also pretty sure that I wasn't going to encounter any Turkish Baths back in the States, now seemed as good a time as any to give it a go. I packed up my flip flops and off we went.

There were 5 of us who made the trip together, and we met up in the lobby of the Leisure Centre which houses the Baths about an hour after the morning school run. I had envisioned an old building, possibly art deco or baroque, something uniquely European and undeniably charming in its age. What I found instead was a mid-1930s facility which looked suspiciously like an unrenovated YMCA. People were arriving for aerobics classes in other parts of the building and I even spotted a laundry off to one side where patrons appeared to be dropping off their bed linens and unmentionables for cleaning. This was a genuine Turkish Bath? On the up side, the towel that the receptionist handed me after I'd forked over my £7.70 was suitably fluffy (albeit a slightly glaring shade of aqua). If I closed my eyes, I thought as I followed my friends down a decidedly municipal-looking flight of stairs, maybe I could sink into my fluffy towel and imagine myself into that haven of relaxation I'd been promised.

Closing my eyes, as it turned out, would have been a terrible mistake. To be fully appreciated, these Turkish Baths needed to be seen and appreciated for what they were. An attendant showed us around the place -- a TV room with an attached kitchen and some plastic lounge chairs where one could get a sandwich or a cup of tea and have a chat. A changing room filled with beds of indeterminate age and some more loungers where you could read a magazine or have a little snooze. The promised plunge pool... a small, square of cement filled with freezing cold green water. (Was that eucalyptus or disinfectant in there?) Two marble slabs in a corner where one could get a scrub (though not today, we were informed, as the regular scrubber was home with an ill child). A pulsating, thick steam room (definitely eucalyptus this time). Three interconnected saunas which offered increasing amounts of heat as you moved through them. Down separate corridors, two massage therapy rooms and a large swimming pool. The whole tour took about two minutes. I was a bit dubious about the plunge pool, but the rest of the place looked OK if a bit basic. I donned a bathing costume and got down to the business of relaxing.

Several hours later, having steamed and heated and lounged to my heart's content, I met up with my friends in the TV room to order some lunch. I had just emerged from a surprisingly good half hour massage and was feeling undeniably relaxed, and my friends looked equally comfortable. As our attendant Ann prepared sandwiches and tea for us, we chatted with her and the other patrons in the room about the Turkish Baths experience. "A few years ago, they opened a spa down the road and all of our regulars went to try it," Ann told us as she settled down with her own cup of tea. "They were back a week later. Said it didn't compare to this place." A woman lying on a lounger in a bathrobe she'd clearly brought from home nodded her agreement. "I lived around the corner when I started coming here, but now I'm living in South West London," she said. "I tried a few local places, but in the end I came back here. I come every Friday. Sometimes I read the paper and sometimes I actually fall asleep, but I always look forward to a relaxing day." It was clear talking to this woman that she works hard the other 6 days a week, but her Fridays at the Turkish Baths are obviously an important priority in her life. I couldn't quite see myself toting my bathrobe and flip flops across London for this each week, but her description of her weekly visits to the Baths definitely got me thinking about life balance in a whole new way.

Our sandwiches, a bargain at £1.60 ("Are my prices OK?" Ann asked me as I counted out change for her), were just what we needed -- it's amazing how hungry relaxation can make a person. Even better was the conversation we enjoyed with Ann, who is clearly the heart of the place. A charming woman of indeterminate age, she has lived in the neighborhood all her life and maintained the Turkish Baths for the past 5 years. As we ate, she regaled us with stories about her life and the Baths and the regulars who frequent the place. I'm sure she's never had any formal PR or marketing education, but Ann's one heck of a natural saleswoman. She loves her work, which has seen her through an illness and sustained her even as she cares for an elderly mother at home, and her pride in her little domain is both undeniable and a bit inspiring. The more she talked, the more I warmed to this odd little place. I stopped thinking about how due the facility was for a good makeover and started appreciating it for the slightly bizarre oasis of calm it actually was. "There's no place like it," Ann told us proudly as we eventually left amidst a flurry of goodbyes and promises to return soon. I couldn't have agreed more.