Monday, 23 February 2015

Social secretary

Since moving back to the UK almost (gulp) 18 months ago now, my social calendar has taken something of a dive.

I've seen old friends, of course -- although many of the friends who have kids (nearly everyone) have moved out of London in the past few years. And what with working five days a week and then dealing with sons who have increasing amounts of homework, "playdate" type stuff has had to be restricted to half terms and holidays.

I tried quite hard with the school gate mums the first year back, but it seemed to be quite difficult to penetrate the layers of existing friendships between women who had got to know each other when their children were young, and who didn't particularly want a new mate to chat to on the school run. And I definitely missed the close community that I experienced in the US, where -- knowing no-one -- I'd made a huge effort to get to make friends. Although I'm not a huge party animal (I'm quite happy to sit at home watching Gogglebox on a Friday night),  I am someone that needs people, and a chance to put on a nice outfit and go out occasionally.

Which is why this year I plunged in at the deep end when it came to school stuff, signing up as class rep (something I said I would never, ever do). I've never been the social secretary type - I'm quite happy to volunteer for things and help out, but usually on the sidelines and not running the committee. Organizing events tends to fill me with horror - not because I'm disorganized, but I can't just chill out about things not coming together, which I presume is a prerequisite for being a cool-headed events person.

But I have to say, it's been a surprisingly good move. I've palled up with a very nice fellow mum who's doing it with me (and is also new to the school, and back in London after a spell living abroad). I've got to know all the parents in the class, via various occasions, and even felt confident enough to suggest starting a book club - something I've missed every since we left America. There was an enthusiastic take-up, and our first meeting is next week.  There's also a quiz night coming up and a summer party, both of which I'm sorting out tables for.

I'm sure The Doctor thinks there are an unnecessary number of school engagements in the calendar. But what I think he (and most husbands) doesn't realise is that, if you're at home all day -- even working from home -- you do need some social interaction other than talking to your children about their day and nagging them to do their homework. I look forward to my two or three work meetings a week, but, unless it's someone I've known for years, I'm always on guard and in "totally professional" mode. (Although occasionally, if I find a work contact is pregnant and/or has children, I have a tendency to gabble about various aspects of motherhood. Embarrassing).

So I think my role as social secretary will hopefully pay off -- it's either that or join the local Amdram club......

Monday, 9 February 2015

Bearded at the BAFTAs

Ralph Fiennes: surely better without it?
Is there no end to the trend for facial hair at the moment?

In my line of work, there are plenty of "hipsters" -- so I get to see a lot of big, bushy beards. Advertising creatives are among those where the trend first started, and many's the time I've been told to look out for someone in a cafe or restaurant with the information: "Carlo/Nick/Andy has a really massive beard." Which isn't really that helpful when you're in Shoreditch House.

However, the hipster trend has now become mainstream -- The Doctor tells me that many of the junior doctors at work now have beards, something that would have been incredibly unusual when he was at the equivalent age. (I don't think many city types are bearded, but I bet there's the odd goatee, and stubble on the weekend, even among this crew).

But watching the BAFTAs last night it occurred to me -- all the good-looking actors and celebrities are now bearded too.

David Beckham's had one for a while now, but I also spotted beards on Ralph Fiennes, Steve Carrell, Ethan Hawke and Best Newcomer actor Jack O'Connell, and various other good-looking actors who I didn't even recognize because their chins were covered in hair.

Now, I'm not beard-ist. Some men suit beards, it's true. (I can't really imagine Mike Leigh without one, for instance).

But in my opinion, all of the above would look better without them. So come on, enough is enough. Shave it off! Leave beards to artists, Santa Claus and English teachers (like when I was growing up). It's high time chins made a comeback. I'd even give them a BAFTA fellowship.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Resident Aliens

Waiting in line -- a New York tradition
A girl from work, who's based in New York, is over in London for a time and has been complaining about the woes of being an alien. She's not American, and has lived all over the world so I was therefore surprised to hear her take on landing in London.

She writes in an email: " I'd forgotten how bureaucratic everything is in Europe... so lots of queues and lots of appointments to get the basics took almost an entire week (and a fair amount of sweet-talking) just to open a bank account and get a new phone number!"

I had to laugh, because this was exactly our experience in America, and we spent the whole time complaining about how bureaucratic Americans were. 

It was impossible to do anything until one had a social security number -- which didn't arrive immediately, despite us registering with the social security office on our very first day in New York. So everything we needed to get set up -- renting a house, registering with utility companies, getting a bank account sorted -- was virtually impossible, despite the fact that we had visas and documentation saying that The Doctor was employed by a hospital there.

Buying a car was similarly nightmarish. We'd agreed to buy one off someone we knew who was leaving the US -- however, we weren't allowed to drive it without car insurance, and we couldn't get any car insurance until one of us had a New York driver's licence. We ended up renting the car off the friend for three months while we went through the process of registering for, and then taking, the NY driving test.

One of the most frustrating things was not being able to get an American credit card for over a year, because we had no credit history in the US. This was necessary, not because we buy things on credit, but because ordering things online in the US is virtually impossible without one. My British credit cards just didn't work, because they didn't have a zip code - and I had to get a friend to help with simple things like paying for children's swimming lessons online.

Given that credit checking companies are global, you'd think they could share some data (and it might even benefit them - after all, people with bad credit histories can start from scratch in a new country under the current system.

Coming back was similarly frustrating -- with four years away, we had lost all our car insurance history, and were forced to start again paying premiums for new drivers, despite having driven for twenty years.

As the world becomes more global, there must be a simpler way of making the transition process easier. Surely the time is ripe for someone to invent one, and tear through some of this unnecessary bureaucracy? 

Sunday, 25 January 2015

This (Mama's) Life

This Life: What happened to the women?
January. When everyone gives up eating, drinking and spending money, and the only thing that can possibly brighten up your day is a brilliant new television series to obsess over.

At least, that would explain the incredible excitement in the UK last week over the
BBC's dramatisation of Wolf Hall. Not to disparage the beautifully acted drama, based on Hilary Mantel's excellent novels -- it's set to be a classic. But I'm not going to review it here - plenty of others have done that. This is about something else.

I spotted, amongst the cast, the actress Natasha Little, who played Rachel in This Life back in the 90s, when that show was the one we were all talking about. For those who didn't watch it, the show was about a bunch of 20 something trainee lawyers sharing a flat in London. A sort of anarchic, UK version of Friends, but with more drama than comedy, and which explored issues such as drugs, promiscuity, gay sex and infidelity.

In Wolf Hall, Little was playing a relatively small part, Cromwell's wife, who (spoiler alert) succumbs to early death in episode 1. She'd been a big name in her day, memorably taking the lead role in Vanity Fair a few years after This Life. That got me thinking about the other female stars of This Life. Where were Amiti Dhiri (Milly) and Daniela Nardini (Anna) now? Some of the male actors have gone on to have highly successful careers: in particular Andrew "Egg" Lincoln, who now plays the lead role in The Walking Dead. (I never could quite get my head round that). Jack Davenport, who played Miles, starred in films like Pirates of the Caribbean and the comedy Coupling  and has acted in numerous US television series.

I googled Dhiri and Nardini and found they'd had perfectly respectable careers, playing roles in series like The Bill and Judge John Deed. But unlike their male counterparts, they hadn't become major stars. And yet they -- along with Natasha Little - were just as good, if not better actors than the men. So what happened? Why, of course they've all had had time off to have children.

So it seems the acting world is just like any other profession. As I was discussing with a friend and ex-colleague the other day, all the brilliant women I've worked with are doing just OK, whereas almost all the men have risen, almost effortlessly, to top jobs just by virtue of being there all the time. (There is light at the end of the tunnel in journalism, though -- the Economist has just appointed its first female editor, Zanny Minton Beddoes, and there are rumours the Guardian will do likewise).

Maybe this is what we need to be shouting about, rather than the fact that so many top British actors are privately educated. I hope all the luminous young female actors in Wolf Hall are just starting out on their brilliant careers, and that they've gone stratospheric by the time they're 40. Not reduced to a role so small they don't even make it to the official Wikipedia cast list.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015


School run fashion: oh, the glamour
"You're wrapped up warm," said another mum to me yesterday as I did the school run.

Er, yes. That would be because it is 2 degrees celsius out there this afternoon. So, yes, I am wrapped up in my full Long Island winter gear: fashionistas might like to note it consists of LL Bean coat and sheepskin boots, J.Crew hat and scarf-from-ages-ago. And my special smartphone-friendly leather gloves.

Other Mums looked quite jaunty in their normal get-ups, without hat or gloves, but not me. I believe in dressing appropriately for the weather, however unglamorous it may be. I'll have you know if it gets any colder I'll be wearing my thermal ski leggings underneath, and my toasty Uniqlo heat-layering black top (note to self: do not wear it to any more work meetings in overheated offices. People will think you are having hot flushes).

Fellow blogger Tara at Sticky Fingers posted the other day about wrapping up warm for the rugby sidelines, and I'm totally with her on that. If I go to a sports event, I'm the one huddled in the most clothes possible, wondering where the hot coffee is (and not knowing what on earth is going on in the game). The boys have tennis lessons in a local park, and it takes place outdoors on a floodlit court. Which has been fine until this week, when it really is too cold to sit around watching for 45 minutes, so I retreated indoors. Normally, I would be there in full ski gear, daydreaming about being at the Australian Open instead of watching a bunch of nine year olds try to get the ball over the net.

Earlier this winter, when the temperature was somewhat milder, I was amused by another Mum at tennis who was far more concerned about her child being cold. As they are running around (and don't seem to feel the cold anyway) this wasn't really an issue. In fact, the child was determinedly throwing his thick coat off and insisting he was fine, until she finally she took off her own pink jumper and made him wear that - oh the indignity - while she sat there, martyr-like, looking frozen. As you an imagine it all ended in tears.

I know Toni aka Expat Mum, in Chicago, will scoff at our softness, but it really is a bit parky in England at the moment. And, unlike America, we don't have nice heated car seats, well-insulated houses and efficient, vented-air heating systems. In the land of clunky radiators, British Gas and "put on another jumper," winter is really quite harsh.

I'll leave you with a lovely advert from Sweden which I happened to write about this week. It's called "Vintersaga" and it's all about melancholy wintery feelings in the land of the frozen north. Enjoy.

Monday, 19 January 2015

On birthday party etiquette

I've been jolted out of my blogging ennui by an article in The Guardian this morning, about the parents of a five year old who were sent an invoice by the parents of another child, for missing the latter's birthday party.  The family were charged15.95 for failing to show up at a party at the Plymouth Ski Slope and Snowboard Centre.

I'm appalled, amused and fascinated by this story in equal measures, not least because people not replying to invitations, or replying and then failing to show, is a subject close to my heart. In the US I experienced this a few times as the host of a party. (I also experienced people turning up with other siblings at the sort of party where they do a headcount and you pay per child, and letting them join in. Which is arguably even more infuriating.)

The lack of manners always infuriated me -- in fact, I once telephoned round all the parents who hadn't replied, only to realise I had myself committed something of a cultural faux pas by organising a birthday party on Mother's Day. Which, I now know, is a completely no-go date in the States. But still.

Another time, a mother replied to our invitation at midnight the night before our party - to say yes, her child could come. But in the morning, sent another email saying he couldn't. We wondered if she'd been drunk when she sent it the first time, then in the cold light of day couldn't face the party....

Nevertheless, to send an invoice? It seems a bit much. Yes, sixteen quid is a lot of money, but how about finding out first if there was a good reason that the child hadn't showed. (Looks like there wasn't by the way. Some rather nebulous story about not knowing how to contact the parents and cancel).

But there's something else going on here. It's the fact that we feel pressurized to throw this kind of expensive party for a five year old. It's no longer good enough to hold it in your house, play a few games of pass the parcel and eat some sandwiches and birthday cake.(Another anecdote - we once did have this kind of party, and heard via the parents how much the kids all loved it. To them it was a novelty). We feel forced into shelling out for party venues, who in turn see us as a captive market and rachet up their prices.

I bet a bunch of five year olds on a ski slope was a total nightmare, by the way. No wonder the poor mother was furious.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

New Year, easyJet style

New Year's Day: Not recovering from a hangover, but on the slopes
At 5.30 am on New Year's Day I was wide awake.

Not kept up by partying the night before -- that hasn't happened for many, many a year. But en route to Gatwick for a nice easyJet flight.

New Year's morning is quite eerie as you trawl through the dark, cold, empty streets of London -- no traffic, no people save the odd miserable-looking person at a bus stop. But once you are inside the artificial light of an airport, frankly it could be any old day, and any old time of day. Although the grumpy woman on the check-in desk did grudgingly wish us a Happy New Year once she'd handed us our boarding passes.

We decided a few years ago that New Year's Eve just isn't fun when you have small kids. Unless you are to host your own party, going out isn't an option (who's going to babysit on the biggest party night of the year?). So you grimly sit up until midnight watching Jools Holland or the London fireworks, drinking champagne because you feel you ought to, before retiring to bed at 12.15. It's always an anti-climax.

Therefore, it seemed a good idea to book an early flight to Geneva. Very early.

As we waited for the airport bus from long stay parking in the dark and cold, I remembered various New Years' Eves from years gone by.

1987, when I was 14, and had my first kiss behind the garages during my parents' block party in Hong Kong. A drunken fumble with a teenager who wore train-track braces.

1990, a party when we Scottish danced all night and my friend and I said; "This is our decade!" as the clock struck 12.

1992, spent with my Uni friends in one of their parents' houses, a large country estate which we had all to ourselves. We drank solidly till 4am. I seriously regretted it the next day.

1994, in the Alps with The Doctor and his brothers, throwing snowballs as we made our way to a dodgy apres-ski bar.

2000, Millennium Eve, when The Doctor had to work, and I spent the moments after midnight trying to call him in the rain in a Devon village. My mobile never really was the same again.

 2003, spent with our neighbours in Clapham, trying not to drink too much because we were setting off on a four month round the world trip the next day (though not at 6am).

2005, in a ski chalet, and The Doctor's cousin insisted on waking up Littleboy 1 at midnight to see the fireworks. (He was 9 months old and didn't appreciate it). 

2009, watching the Ball Drop in Times Square, New York. On TV of course - we had a two and four year old. And we didn't have any good enough friends to have been invited to a party. 

2011, in Vermont, watching a torchlight procession and fireworks in ski resort. (At 9pm -- it was a "family" resort). Then going to bed early.....

2013, when a massive, champagne-fuelled family row occurred at about 12.15am. 

Looking back, there's no doubt the really good New Year's Eves were those early ones, when it was still massively exciting to sing Auld Lang Syne and toast the coming year, not the later ones when, to misquote John Lennon, the feeling is more "Another year over....and what have you done?" .(I doubt The Doctor would even say that, as he is a solid hater of New Year.)

So, no regrets as I got on that easyJet flight. And certainly none when we arrived in sunny Geneva, and three hours later were strapping on skis and joining the New Year crowds on the slopes.

Happy New Year!