Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Just when I thought I was beyond the challenges of the American/English divide

This was the first week that Julia has not come home with a Super Speller sticker affixed to her school jumper on a Monday afternoon.

The Super Speller stickers are a great example of the English practice of expecting serious academic work from seriously young kids. Julia comes home from school every Tuesday with her list of spelling words for the week. She and her classmates copy down the week's 10 words (often made up of suggestions from the class or taken from a book they are currently reading) and after the teacher has checked their lists for accuracy, they have just under a week to learn the words before their regular Monday spelling test. And then, because they're 6, they get a pretty sticker if they get all of the words right on their tests.

In typical "it's hard to believe we share any genes at all" fashion, Julia adores the very concept of spelling tests and works hard to master her words. Up until this past week, she was one of only two children in the class who had never gotten a word wrong. Trust me to ruin her perfect streak.

There were a couple of particularly hard words on last week's list and a few of them looked to have been fixed when Julia's teacher had checked her list before sending it home. One word still looked wrong, however, and the proliferation of eraser marks and odd letters in and around the word led me to wonder how closely her teacher had looked at Julia's corrections. "In America, this word is spelled with an O that you don't have here," I told her the first time that she showed me her words for the week. "I suppose it's possible that the British spelling of marvelous doesn't have an O in it, but I'd be awfully surprised. You should really check with your teacher."

Julia being Julia, she didn't want to approach her teacher with the question, but she did assure me that she'd checked with her friends and there was definitely an O in marvelous here, too. And so she altered the spelling accordingly, I quizzed her on her words as always, and she went into school on Monday confident in her spelling skills. She did a marvelous job of spelling her words exactly as I had taught her. And that turned out to be her crucial error.

Marvelous, I am now fully aware, does have an O on both sides of the pond. It also (who knew?) has an extra L over here. (Remember all those odd letters in and around the word? Perhaps they were meant to be there after all...) Marvellous. Julia's American spelling did not pass muster in her English classroom this week and I have just officially flunked Year One Spelling. I think I owe my daughter a sticker.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Seen one bridge? Seen 'em all? (I'm not quite sure, really.)

We pride ourselves in being fairly seasoned in the use of foreign public transportation at this point. We’ve ridden busses in Sweden, trams in the Cech Republic, trains in Belgium, subways in Spain… the list goes on and on. Each place has its little idiosyncrasies of course (would it kill the Italians to mention that you have to validate train tickets in those little yellow boxes on the platforms?), but in general, we’ve got the transport thing under control. So when we arrived in the Venice train station loaded down with luggage and tired kids who had not yet had their daily gelato fix, we weren’t too concerned. Paul purchased our vaporetto passes and we were ready to be on our way.

“We need the 2,” he told me squinting at the route map. Looking up, we easily spotted a “2” sign. We were in luck; the boat appeared to be there waiting for us. “Come on kids,” we yelled, grabbing armloads of suitcases and backpacks and breaking into a run. “Wait, wait, no wait,” Paul called to me moments later as I charged down the gangplank. “This one’s going the wrong way.” We re-traced our steps as he studied the signs again. “Do we want that one?” I asked hopefully, pointing off to our right. “Cause it looks like there’s a boat waiting there, too.” Sure enough, that appeared to be our route, and so again we charged, racing to get aboard. “Get seats near the window,” we urged the kids. “Look out at Venice.” And so they did and so we did. They sat and we looked as we bobbed up and down on the big square yellow boat. One minute we sat. Two minutes we sat. The view did not change. The boat did not move. “When do you think we’re going to leave?” the kids finally asked. “I think,” I replied slowly as I surveyed our surroundings more carefully, “that we’re not leaving ever, at least not until we board an actual boat.” We had raced, it turned out, to catch a loading dock.

After that auspicious start, is it any wonder that I felt lost the entire time that we were in Venice?

is without a doubt the most disorienting city I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s all narrow passageways and little bridges and signs that shed absolutely no light on your whereabouts.

Perhaps signs like this are funnier if you have any sense of direction whatsoever? I wouldn't really know.

Bringing kids to Venice, contrary to the “expert” advice, is absolutely no problem; the back alleys and wide canals provide a rich wealth of sights and discoveries for an enthusiastic child. Bringing a geographically challenged adult to Venice, on the other hand, is probably not such a wise idea. I wandered around Venice for 3 days in a constant state of confusion and disorientation. I've never seen lovelier vistas or more charming views, but damned if I could tell one from another. “OK, so we’ve definitely been here before,” I would announce confidently every time we came to a bridge or stepped into a square. I was wrong every time.

Before long, even my kids were laughing at me. (I can only hope that this means they inherited their father's navigational skills rather than mine.) So I left the navigating to Paul and concentrated on taking my photographs. If worse came to worse, I figured, perhaps I could scroll back through my memory card and use the images as digital breadcrumbs to lead us home. Trust me when I tell you I did some serious weeding out before I posted the Venice photos on Flickr.

Did I adore Venice as much as I'd expected? Meh. I was too disoriented by Venice to truly say that I loved the city. There were a lot of tourists and a lot of mediocre restaurants, and that's generally not a winning combination for me, particularly just coming off the high of our Florence adventure. Nonetheless, Venice is a simply beautiful and incredibly unique place and I'm not just trying for the easy, trite blog wrap-up when I say that I'm so glad to have had a chance to seen it for myself. (At least... I think I saw Venice. It's also entirely possible that I just saw one bridge over and over again from different angles. If so, let me tell you, it was one heck of a bridge.)

OK, kids... say "Mommy's lost again!"

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Il mio cuore appartiene a Firenze

For the past two years, we've carefully planned our travels with our children's limitations (or at least what we perceived to be their limitations) in minds. Short trips. Single destinations that have plenty of indoor and outdoor activity options within easy reach. Apartments rather than hotels wherever possible so that we can all spread out a bit. Minimal amounts of packing up and moving on.

These guidelines have made for many a successful holiday for us. The formula wasn't really working when I sat down to plan our April trip to Italy, however, and so I had reluctantly booked a different kind of vacation -- a night in Pisa, two nights in Florence and 3 nights in Venice. Our itinerary involved flying in and out of different airports, two significant train journeys, two different hotels and an apartment. We would be on the go, rushing to pack and catch some form of transportation roughly every two days. To say I was nervous about how it was going to all work out would be an understatement.

It worked beautifully. (In fact, it worked so beautifully that Paul and the kids kept asking me why we don't always travel this way. Go figure.)

Despite the fact that the kids were really excited to see the Leaning Tower (the Wonder Pets and the Little Einsteins have been there so it must be great, they figured), even Julia announced after we'd taken the requisite dozen photographs of ourselves holding up the tower that she was pretty much "done with Pisa." We agreed; it's a cute town and we're glad we saw it, but half a day was enough. Fortunately, half a day was all we had, and we set off for Florence the next morning.

Children unclear on the concept: "Does it look like we're holding the tower up now?"

We made our way to the Duomo that first afternoon in Florence and after admiring the gingerbread house-like effect of the massive structure's white, green and pink marble exterior, we went inside. As we stood gazing up at the elaborately painted ceiling, Julia noticed the thin corridors located along the perimeter of the dome. "I want to walk in the ceiling," she announced. Paul and I looked at each other doubtfully. The path up to the dome had 463 steps and no lift. Neither of us were exactly enthusiastic about the prospect of carrying a child up or down any portion of those 463 steps. "I think it's beautiful and I want to see it up close," Julia persisted. "I won't complain about the steps." I shrugged my consent. "If she wants to see the ceiling of the Duomo that badly, I think we kind of have to do this," I whispered to Paul.

Julia's inspiration: the Duomo dome

926 steps later, we had admired the ceiling up close and emerged at the top of the dome, with the entire city of Florence laid out before us. We had taken our requisite photos, admired the view and counted off each and every step as we made our way back down. Neither child had voiced a single word of complaint. They were both high from the experience, incredibly proud of their stamina and excited about what they'd done and seen. "That," Julia told me happily, "was not boring."

Please explain to me how the same children who whine at climbing the single flight of stairs up to our flat were not even winded at the top of this ridiculously high building...

With this kind of motivation and excitement from our kids, Florence was the surprise hit of our trip. I had been unsure how we were going to do in a city so focused on art, but once we completely chucked any museum hopping aspirations, it was great. Art is everywhere in Florence, so why not leave the Uffizi and the Academia with their timed entrances and huge crowds and velvet ropes to the other tourists? We found beauty in other places -- in the Duomo and Baptistry ceilings, which awed and impressed my kids, in the extensive greenery and breathtaking views of the Boboli Garden, in the glittery gold of the Ponte Vecchio, in the markets full of buttery leather and colorful scarves, in a little storefront museum filled with beautifully constructed wooden machines which helped my children to get a hands-on understanding of Da Vinci's inventions, in the piazzas where they played, and most especially in the pizza, pasta dishes and colorful selection of gelato in which we indulged at every opportunity.

David, schmavid. People, this is art.

By the time we left Florence on a train bound for Venice, we were all more than a little in love with the place and I was wishing I'd packed my fat jeans. It was time to move on, though, and we were all ready and excited to keep going. Tune in next time for Venice, where all the bridges looked exactly the same yet I still felt compelled to pause and photograph each and every one of them. And every gondola. And every water view. And every mask shop. (Don't worry. If you skim -- or even skip -- that particular Flickr set, I'll never know the difference.)

Photos from the Pisa and Florence legs of this trip are now up on Flickr if you want to check them out!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

On making travel accessible for children

The train rolled through the Tuscan countryside en-route from Florence to Venice. Julia was hard at work planning our Venice itinerary, working from a series of articles I'd printed out about taking children to Venice. None of these articles were particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of Venice as a family vacation destination, but Julia seemed unwilling to let this dampen her own enthusiasm for the next leg of our trip.

enice may be a great town for kids to live in," Julia read aloud, "but it probably wouldn't be anyone's first choice as a tourist destination for the preschool through junior-high crowd. Hand a copy of Venicewalks or Venice: A Literary Companion to a child, and you're likely to hear, 'Mommy, why can't we go to Disney World?'" Scowling, she crossed these sentences out with a green marker and wrote "not true" in the margins of the page. "We don't need Disney," she told me proudly. "We're going to love Venice."

I smiled in agreement, trying not to look too smug as I sized up my 6 year old travel snob. "Obviously the kids described in those articles must not be the kind of experienced travelers that you are," I replied, to which Julia beamed in response. As she returned to her list making, I turned back to the window to drink in more of the most unbelievably gorgeous views I've ever seen. Evan, who had been following the conversation, also turned to follow my gaze.

"Hey," he shouted, his high pitched voice overcome with excitement, "I think the Little Einsteins have been here!"

Chalk one up for Disney after all.

(Just back, obviously, from a week long trip to Pisa, Florence and Venice... one of our best holidays to date. Photos and a trip report to follow soon!)

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Oceans apart (in more ways than one)

Prior to our London move, I consulted every source I could find for information and advice about moving to the UK. Unable to anticipate the shape our lives would take in the coming months, I hung on ever word ever written about the expat experience. Only some of the conventional wisdom that I so diligently took to heart turned out to be particularly accurate or applicable, but I was on the whole very grateful for all of my pre-move research and preparation once we arrived here. (I am, however, still using up a stash of Secret deodorant purchased in a frenzied pre-move Target spree after I read somewhere that English deodorant doesn't work very well. "Did you expect us all to smell all the time?" an amused English friend asked me recently after I confessed to this misconception. "Um, yeah, I guess I did," I replied ruefully. Is it any wonder that the whole ugly American stereotype holds strong around here?)

I've been told that repats (or returning expats) often have an even harder adjustment upon arriving back in their home countries than they experienced when they first moved abroad. It makes sense; you move back to a place that you consider "home" only to find that you have changed and the place has changed and nothing fits as you expected. When living abroad, you had a ready excuse for your cultural confusion and occasional ignorance, but that excuse rapidly disappears when you hit your home soil. You're left in a place that looks, yet doesn't feel familiar, trying to figure out how to break back into a community which has quite rightly gone on in your absence.

It sounds quite dreadful, doesn't it? I'm certain that it is at least partially accurate, of course; it seems awfully naive to think that I could just slide back into my former life as if nothing had changed. But just as I have been delighted to discover for myself that my friends here don't actually smell, I'm choosing to believe that my repat experience won't always stink either. No, I don't expect this move to be without its challenges and frustrations, but I've weathered my share of those here and come out the other end, so surely I can do the same back there. Just to be on the safe side, I'm once again attempting to forestall the inevitable challenges that lie ahead by doing my research in advance, however, this time by devouring every resource I can find for British citizens who are moving to the US.

Stop laughing. I'm not deluded enough to believe that I've become British after less than 2 years here. There aren't a lot of repat resources to be found out there, however, and my appetite for things to obsess over is insatiable. So I figured maybe I'd at least find a bit of a clue about American lifestyle issues which might be likely throw me after having lived in the UK if I looked to my British equivalents in the US. It worked... to a point.

I found plenty of discussion on British expat forums about the mysteries and challenges of life in the US. Some of it I was able to gloss over right away. I will not have visa issues, nor trouble obtaining a Social Security number, and no one is likely to tease me about my accent. Hell, I won't even be missing bangers and mash. Maybe this won't be so hard after all, I thought. But then I kept reading. People who move to America from the UK find the clothing styles boring and predictable after European fashions, I discovered. Fair enough. I don't dress all that European now, but I can make an attempt to jazz up my wardrobe before I head back. People who jump the pond in reverse also can't figure out the lack of electric kettles in American kitchens. I agree whole heartedly with this one. Fortunately, I've pre-shopped at Target and I think I'm good there. Moving on. Everyone misses the prevalence of pubs and many who have landed in suburban America bemoan the loss of their walking lifestyles. Oh, God. Those are some of the things I love most about London. Am I going to be miserable driving around in my gas guzzler back in the US???

As the panic began to set in, I hit the kicker, the longest thread in the whole forum. Pages and pages and pages of discussion about the issue that this group of British expats appear to find the hardest about life in the US. They hate American washers and driers. Life would be good again, it appears, if only they could return to something like this (you know, that appliance which is naturally broken for the gazillionth time right now, just as I am attempting to recover from a week of missed washing opportunities due to house guests while simultaneously trying to gear up for a week-long trip to Italy).

Call me crazy, but I think I'm going to be just fine back in the good ole' US of A.