Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Time keeps on slipping (slipping, slipping) into the future

The first removals company came yesterday to quote the job of shipping our belongings back to the States. Hours earlier, I had called our landlord to let him know that we are leaving and to recommend friends of ours as the next occupants of this flat. Taking care of these simple routine details has consumed me a bit more than I had anticipated. All that I can think about these days is our impending departure.

Our London life can be counted down in weeks now -- 10 1/2 more, to be exact. On August 1, we will be on a plane back to New Jersey and our time here will be nothing but a memory. Already, it has begun to feel like a memory, like we are living moments that I can fondly recall before they have even had a chance to occur. I'm ten steps ahead of myself it seems, because in my mind's eye we are already strapped into our seats as the plane hurtles down the runway, pointed towards home and away from home all at the same time.

"Slow down," I want to beg the clock, the calendar, the people around me. "Slow down," I want to tell myself as my brain launches into overdrive planning yet again. Slow down. Let me enjoy this. It's not over yet.

But there is no slowing down. I try to stop, to savor the moment, to really look at our current life and to enjoy what remains of it. But even that effort betrays me; if I open my eyes, I'm forced to see how quickly this has become this:

Any day now it seems, those new leaves will already be changing color and tumbling to the ground, blanketing the path of someone else's daily routine. It won't be mine. Our time in London will be over then, just as it now seems to be over even before it has actually come to an end. We're still here and yet we're already on that airplane, too. Fasten your seatbelts, folks. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The look of friendship

A good friend and I have an expression that we often use when talking about new acquaintances whom we've hit it off with: "she looked like me." This description has nothing to do with a person's physical appearance and everything to do with who she is inside. A person can look like me in philosophy or parenting style even if on the surface we look entirely different. A person can look like me in her wardrobe choices or her preferred reading material, her sense of humor or her passion for chocolate. Sometimes it's entirely intangible and undefinable why a person looks like me. But I know it when I see it, and those are the people I seek out as friends.

When we made the decision to move to London for a few years, I worried a lot about whether I would find anyone who looked like me here. I'm the kind of person who needs other people around me to be happy, and I don't tend to do a very good job of faking it with people for whom I don't feel a natural affinity. If I couldn't find anyone who looked like me in London, if I couldn't find anyone who I could be real with, I knew that these would be two very long, very lonely years.

I worked hard at making friendships when we arrived in London. Sometimes I could spot the ways in which the people I met looked like me easily (the other ex-PR mavens from New York were a slam dunk), but I also saw reflections of myself in the Swedish mother who thought about parenting almost as hard as I did, in the English woman who refused to wear stylish, uncomfortable shoes when she was just going to pick up her son at school and in the Israeli neighbor who knows that a quick cup of coffee or glass of wine with a friend can make any day infinitely better. I have also met plenty of wonderful people here who don't look a blessed thing like me here, however, and I've been pleasantly surprised to discover that it's been possible to form great friendships with a lot of them even without that initial click.

Last night, Paul and I went on a London Walks Hampstead Pub Walk with a big group -- mostly friends, with a few friends-of-friends sprinkled into the mix. For every person who looked like me on that tour there was one who doesn't, but it was a congenial, well matched group all the same. We all had a great time getting to know the area that we call home a bit better, and along the route we traded our own stories and observations along with the guide's official patter. As we stopped in front of a local theatre toward the end of the evening, I commented that Paul and I had once seen a singularly unimpressive production there. "I desperately wanted to re-write the whole damn play," I said as I described why it hadn't worked for us. "What else is new?" a friend standing next to me replied wryly, and everyone within earshot started to laugh.

I threw an arm around my accuser, laughing along with the group. Two years later, there's no question that the friends I've made here know me well. They know that I'm blunt and often forthright, they know that I'm obsessive at times and they obviously know that I have a bit of a bug up my butt where good writing is concerned. They may not look like me, but they're willing to look at me and they like what they see. And that, I now realize, is far more important in the making of a friendship than the similarities ever were.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

One man's trash...

Score! Found at the Hampstead Women's Club Nearly New Sale this past weekend (price: 75p):

I am fairly certain that I am the only person in Hampstead London the UK the known free world who would consider this a treasure.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Do you haiku?

My last few posts have been far too verbose, even by my standards. And so today, I offer you a succinct little 17-syllable summary of our overseas experience.

Expat existence:
Marvel at our foreign life
Then go clean your room

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Last call for booking enquiries

I'm busy readying the house today in anticipation of our 28th American visitor, who will be arriving tomorrow morning for a weekend stay. My friend Kari is leaving her children (including a beautiful new 4 1/2 month old daughter) in her husband's capable hands and escaping to London for a weekend of girl talk and sightseeing, and I could not be more excited about her impending arrival. Her visit will be the highlight of my May, just as my parents claimed that honor for April, close family friends for both March and January, one of Julia's best friends for December... the list goes on and on.

I suppose that the fact that we've had so many visitors here speaks as much to the appeal of our current location as to the allure of our company. If we lived in Podunk, USA and people came to visit in droves, now that would be a testament to our friendships and our great charm as hosts, but London's a slightly easier pull. With the price of hotels and the exchange rate being what they are, who wouldn't want to take advantage of free lodging in one of the world's most amazing cities?

Nonetheless, I can't help but feel incredibly touched that so many people have made the transatlantic trip to see us in the past two years. This will be the 15th time in 20 months that I've stocked the fridge and prepared guest linens and laid out extra towels, and each time it's given me a thrill to know that the relationships we hold dear have stood the tests of distance and time. Kari's not the first person to leave a baby behind to come see us. Others have even brought their kids (if voluntarily flying across an ocean with small children for a visit isn't a sign of love, I don't know what is). A few hardy souls have actually come back to see us a second (or even third) time. Each time, our guests are our whole world for as long as they are here, and the warm glow of familiarity and cameraderie that their presence brings to our London home lasts long after they've left.

I will do the Buckingham Palace/Trafalgar Square/Big Ben and Parliament/London Eye loop for about the eighty-fifth time this weekend. I will make yet another trip to Kensington Palace and I'll point out the highlights of my neighborhood for the gazillionth time. We will visit a classic English pub for a pint, a classic English park for the pictures, a classic English tchotchkie shop for the requisite souvenirs. I've got the tourist shtick down pat by now and I'd be lying if I said it still holds the same "wow factor" for me that it did two years ago. I could very nearly give the full Thames boat ride spiel myself. I'm kind of over Diana's dresses. I still don't much care for warm beer. And yet, somehow it's still fun every time.

It was great to see my father in law's delight at the sight of cars with steering wheels on the right. It's been fabulous to watch Julia and Evan show "their" London to other American kids. It was exciting to host our friends who are Giants fans for a game played on London soil. It's been lovely to welcome back people who've come to feel a bit at home here themselves. And most of all, it has been unbelievably important and wonderful for us to discover over and over again that despite the fact that we up and left everyone we cared about to move here, our American relationships remain strong and true and real. The whistle stop tour of London may be getting old, but our guests provide all the "wow factor" we need.

I'm hardly a natural hostess and this is not a huge flat. Our lives and routines are thrown out of whack every time someone turns up on our doorstep. And yet surprisingly, that's been just fine with me. I'm going to miss these intense stints of sharing time, adventures, and tight living space with the people we love. I'm even going to miss the extra meal planning and the schedule juggling and the tour guide routine intrinsic in each house guest's visit. Kari's the last scheduled guest on our calendar, but we've still got a few months left here in London and fares are pretty low right now. The sleeper sofa still has some life to it and there's some more money left on the extra mobile phone and Oyster cards we keep ready for guests. Anyone else want to see Big Ben?

Thursday, May 01, 2008

From the diary of a not-so-young girl

I must have read Anne Frank's diary about a thousand times as a child. We were both Jewish girls who dreamed of writing, and in my youthful mind, that made us kindred spirits. Never mind that she faced persecution and eventual death while I enjoyed the privileged of a suburban middle class upbringing; if anything, I thought that I envied Anne her dramatic story and the writing material she was able to extract from her situation. (I may have been lacking in first person experience, but I clearly had the melodrama thing down pat...)

Last weekend, Paul and I took advantage of a visit from my parents and left the kids in their capable hands while we headed off for a weekend trip to Amsterdam. The top item on my "must do" list, unsurprisingly, was a trip to the Anne Frank House.

We followed our guidebook's advice and arrived at the museum late in the day to try to avoid the worst of the queues, but we still had about a 15-20 minute wait before we entered the building. As I looked up and down the peaceful, tree lined street, I kept trying to see it as Anne's last sight when she entered hiding and her first one two years later as she emerged in the custody of the Nazis. I couldn't wrap my mind around any of it. Intellectually, I understood what had happened in the spot where I was standing, but I found myself unable to connect any emotion to that awareness at all.

Numbly, I entered the building and numbly I walked through the exhibits. I studied the model of the annex from above, listened to the recorded interviews with those who remembered Anne and her family after the war and viewed the artifacts on display. "This is the bookshelf I read about so many times," I told myself as I entered the stairwell. "These are the walls the family stared at, this is the attic where Anne and Peter escaped to be alone. This is what I read so much about, imagined in my mind so many times. This is it." They were just words, though, and these were just rooms. None of it was sinking in.

I walked slowly through the annex, careful not to miss anything, as I waited to feel... something. It didn't seem to be happening. After years of imagining a connection based on a book, I felt no connection whatsoever as I finally stood in its setting. This was a museum, carefully staged to convey meaning and evoke emotion. But all of that careful cultivation wasn't working for me. Here in the house where she had lived and written, I could no longer identify with or even recognize the young girl who had captivated me so much in print.

Resigned to a museum experience but determined to make the most of it, I continued on to a room which featured a recording of Otto Frank talking about what it had been like to first read his daughter's diary after the war. He described his surprise at the thoughts and reflections expressed within the pages, so different and so much deeper than the ideas Anne had shared with him in person during their time in hiding. He had thought they had talked about anything and everything, he said, and yet here was so much more to his daughter than had ever met his eye. "From this I can only determine," he said, his face carefully composed around his grief, "that as parents we can never truly know our children at all."

I thought of my own children, of the ways in which they are still transparent and of the complicated layers underneath their surfaces which I am beginning to sense and unable to penetrate. I pictured how completely I had known them in their infancy and how much less I seem to know them with each passing day. I reflected on the odd mixture of wistfulness and pride their blossoming independence sparks in me. I contemplated the experience of watching your child's shoulders hunched over in concentration as she secrets her innermost thoughts away day after day. I thought about what has to go so terribly wrong before you are privy to those reflections. And then -- finally -- I felt my heart break open into a thousand pieces.

At 10, it was Anne Frank with whom I felt an imagined kinship. Twenty five years later, it is her father with whom I identify the most. Anne is frozen in time as a teenager, but I am not, and I should have realized that time would change me and my perspective. What time hasn't changed is the impact this one family's story has on me. I walked out of that house wanting to go back and re-read the Diary for the first time in many years. But as I look at my children and reflect on my obligation to protect them, I wonder if I could even make it through the book now, reading it -- as I surely would -- through Otto Frank's eyes.