Friday, 20 November 2015

Grand Canyon En Famille

Early morning at the South Rim
I've always wanted to go to the Grand Canyon. However, as our trip approached, I was more than a little apprehensive. Someone had warned us that, once you arrive and look at the view, there "wasn't that much to do" there -- particularly with kids. I had also been told that the South Rim, where we were going, was far too touristy and it was much better to go to the less visited North Rim. Would it all be a huge disappointment?

But I am happy to report that it was all I expected, and more.

The South Rim is indeed the more touristy part of the Canyon -- the North Rim is much higher, and at this time of year can be closed due to snow. But maybe because we were slightly off-season,  I didn't find Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim too overwhelmingly ruined by other people. It reminded me rather of a ski resort, and was particularly quiet in the early morning and at night, when the day trippers had gone.

We stayed at Thunderbird Lodge - basically a motel, but perfectly OK -- right on the Canyon edge. For food you can eat at Bright Angel Lodge which is right next door and slightly more posh, but with a rustic edge; if you want to go very posh you can stay at El Tovar, which has a very fancy-looking restaurant. We ate our evening meals at the Arizona Room, a steakhouse with particularly delicious food -- it would have had a view over the Canyon, but it was too dark in October to see it even for an early supper; darkness fell at around 6pm.

Descending into the Canyon
The view is just incredible.  I could spend simply hours looking at it. The colours in the canyon keep changing throughout the day, and depending on the light and the weather. You can see why it's called "grand" -- I've been to canyons before, but the vastness and majesty of this one is incomparable. It makes you feel very small and very aware of the power of nature, as if you were standing on the moon or something.

So what do you do there? We went hiking into the canyon. We took the boys down the Bright Angel Trail to the three mile resthouse, then back up again. Down is pretty easy, up is obviously steep and much harder, but the path was well-made, the track easy to follow,

There are hundreds of signs warning you to take lots of water, food, etc and not to overdo it -- I think this must apply particularly in the summer, when temperatures can reach over 140 degrees, but in October it was a very pleasant temperature for walking, cool and crisp in the morning rising to t-shirt weather in the afternoon. We took a picnic, plus plenty of chocolate and snacks for the way up.

Sunset and moonrise
Our six mile walk was over by mid-afternoon, so there was time to do something else. We drove the 20 miles to the Desert View Watchtower, where you get a completely different view of the Canyon, this time including the Colorado River (which isn't visible at Grand Canyon Village). On the way back, we were lucky enough to see the full moon rising just at the time the sun set, which afforded the most glorious palette of colours. As we leapt out of the car to take photos, we weren't alone -- there were, as The Doctor put it, people almost "orgasmic" at the sight.

The next morning we were leaving, but got up early  and walked for a few miles along the Rim Trail before breakfast. This walk would be much more suitable for people with small children, or who aren't into proper hiking; it's paved, mostly flat and you can take a bus back to the village from various points along the way, so you don't have to worry about turning around. And you still get the incredible views.

So - would I recommend taking children to the Grand Canyon? Yes, definitely. What I would say is -- if  you want to walk, go at half term in October, and avoid the heat and the crowds. American schools aren't on holiday in October, either.

In fact we liked it so much, we are planning to go back when our boys are older. The plan next time is to hike all the way from rim to rim, a two day hike, and stay at the romantically-named Phantom Ranch lodge in the base of the canyon. For this, you have to book at least a year in advance. But I don't mind  that-- it's even more of an excuse to fantasise over future holidays.

Monday, 16 November 2015

How do you talk to your children about Paris?

My older son was lying in bed with us on Saturday morning when we turned on the radio. We knew nothing about the events in Paris, having been driving down the M4 the night before and not watching any evening news. So when we heard the headlines we were naturally jolted awake, and he, who doesn't always listen to the news, was hearing it all avidly too.

He's 10 now, and he's been asking questions recently about Isis, as some of his friends are apparently talking about it at school following the Egyptian air disaster. Some of what he comes home with has been a little misinformed (eg Isis bombed the Twin Towers) but he understands the gist of it. And yet, he doesn't.

How do you explain to a primary school kid what motivates terrorists? And even more, how do you reassure them that they, and their loved ones, are not going to be affected? To tell them that "it couldn't happen here" feels disingenuous. We all know that it has happened in London, and surely will again.

I have told him now about the 2005 attacks, which happened just after he was born. He also knows about 9/11, having been recently to the Peace Garden in New York. But he still can't get his head round why people actually did these things. He's a gentle child, who dislikes seeing or hearing about any kind of violence (he doesn't even want to see the new James Bond film), so he does find it very upsetting. 

A friend posted this article on Facebook, in which a psychologist explains that you need to reassure the child that they are safe. But I sometimes feel as if the more we talk about these things, the more it makes them feel unsafe. I'm trying to walk the line here between not hiding things from him, not making him feel that I'm world-weary on the subject and at the same time reassuring him.

I find it even harder to talk to his younger brother, 8, about it all. The questions come thicker than the answers with him, and it's harder with him to know what he's thinking afterwards. And I do want to make sure he's not secretly worrying.

How does anyone else cope? 

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Vegas, baby -- with kids?

Not New York
"Las Vegas is like Disneyland for Grown-ups."

I must have heard these words a thousand times from people in America before we went to visit Las Vegas as part of our holiday this half term. But what if you are the kind of grown-up who hates Disneyland, doesn't like gambling, prefers real scenery and the outdoors, and has two real kids in tow?

I hadn't planned on ever visiting Las Vegas, in fact, but it was the obvious jumping off point when visiting the Grand Canyon (of which more later). We flew from New York, where we'd been visiting our old town on Long Island and our friends, and decided to take in the sights of Las Vegas rather than just hiring a car and getting the hell out of town.

Once we'd planned this, I decided to embrace it, booking tickets to a couple of shows on the recommendation of a friend (Elton John's Million Dollar Piano and Cirque du Soleil's Beatles extravaganza "Love"). I also booked one of the few non-gaming hotels (the Mandarin Oriental) with a pool for relaxing during the day before we saw the shows in the evening. Other than that, I wasn't quite sure what we would be doing during the day with the boys. But there was plenty to explore.

The most amazing thing about seeing Las Vegas with kids is the themed hotel/casinos: in one morning, you can visit Venice, Paris and Luxor, not to mention New York, New York. As Littleboy 1 said in awe as we drove from the airport along the lit-up "Strip" where all the hotels and casinos are laid out in their neon glory, "This place is totally messed-up."

 The Venetian is perhaps the nuttiest: with actual canals flowing through the shops in the hotel's basement, complete singing gondoliers, and an indoor replica of St Mark's Square with a fake sky that makes it feel like you are permanently at dusk (quite weird at 9am in the morning).

The Venetian

Of course, I'd rather be in the real Venice, but the fact they have done it at all is just rather surreal and amazing. Luxor has a gigantic pyramid as a lobby, and a huge sphinx outside; New York, New York has replicas of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, and Paris has a half-size Eiffel Tower. It is, (as Littleboy 2 put it), the "Capital of fakeness".

Another hotel / casino, The Mirage, boasts a volcano that "erupts" every evening on the hour, with fake lava and flames. This hotel is also home to the Secret Garden, a zoo that houses white tigers and dolphins (probably the highlight for Littleboy 2, a tiger fanatic). Next door, the Bellagio has an incredible, dazzling display of fountains, if you hadn't yet been entertained enough.

There is plenty to do, any kind of food you could possibly imagine eating and the shows themselves were spectacular -- my only caveat to taking kids being the jet lag (Las Vegas is eight hours behind the UK, three behind New York and the boys were simply too tired in the evening to really enjoy them properly). The weather in October is warm and fine, but not too hot, and our hotel pool was a delightful place to laze during the midday hours (mornings and evenings were chilly).

Would I go back to Las Vegas? Well, it was great fun. If you're in that part of the world, your kids will be amazed by the spectacle of it all, and they'll probably enjoy it.  But let's just say that as we drove out of the city towards the Hoover Dam and Arizona, I knew the perfect music to play from my iPod. I'll leave you with that.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Old fashioned blogging

Back in the stone age of blogging (pre 2010 that is), there was a thing called "tagging" and also little badges that bloggers gave to one another to stick on their pages. I've still got a few on mine -- look down the bottom of the page and you'll find awards, some from bloggers now faded into the mists of the internet (Nunhead Mum of One, what happened to you?)

You see, this was in the days before official blogging awards, and blogging league tables and blogging conferences and PR freebies and Twitter ratings. It was just a low-key way to show your friendliness and love to a few people whose words you'd read online.

Anyway, I mention all this because Expat Mum -- one of the first bloggers who ever commented on my own blog -- has "tagged" me in this post about Old Fashioned Blogging, because I've been blogging since 2008 and therefore count as a golden oldie in this new-fangled world of weblogs.

Just like the old days, I have to display the badge (which looks a bit like something out of Harry Potter), link to the nominating blogger (done)  and name seven other bloggers on whom I bestow the award. I also have to list seven things about myself that not many people know. I've DEFINITELY done this one before but I can't find the post -- so here goes another effort. I'm going to make them all writerly/blogging related this time.

1. I've inspired at least three good friends to go into blogging (at least, I think it was me - correct me if I'm wrong!). Step forward Circles in the Sand, Don't Panic and Four Down Mum to Go.

2. When I was 15, I won a short story competition in Just 17 magazine. I won a huge boxload of Penguin Books -- and had my name read out in assembly at school, which was rather embarrassing.

3. I read English at University and of all the books I had to read, the only one I didn't finish was James Joyce's Ulysses. I just couldn't stand it.

4. As a student I did work experience at Cosmopolitan magazine. I was overseen by then features editor Kath Viner - who recently became the first ever female editor of The Guardian.

5. I absolutely love reading novels and can polish off a book in a couple of evenings if I'm enjoying it. I've currently devouring "After You" by JoJo Moyes and plan to read Margaret Atwood's "The Heart Goes Last" next, after recently seeing her live at the Write on Kew festival.

6. For work, I have ended up specialising in writing about ads. This is actually more interesting than it sounds. And you meet some very bright, creative people in the industry.

7. I would love to be a novelist, but have not been able to galvanise myself to write anything beyond a first chapter. I have huge admiration for my friend Circles, who has just finished her first novel. And maybe she will now inspire me to go for it.

Now to the nominations. I'm sure everyone else has already tagged these people, but here  are a few.

1 Melissa at Talk About York (who used to be Home Office Mum).
2. Motherhood the Final Frontier (who gave me such good advice when I moved to the US)
3. My mate NB at Don't Panic 
4. Tanya at Bump2 Basics  (I first started reading her blog when she was pregnant. Now her oldest is at school).
5. Michelloui at The American Resident. Who needs to start blogging again!
6. Ditto AConfusedTakeThatFan, whose blog I can't find but who commented here last week.
7. Finally PantsWithNames aka Brit in Bosnia. Emily, if you're still out there, I also miss you terribly.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Helicopter Mother, or just a drone?

I did a naughty thing yesterday.

I was sorting laundry and suddenly realised that Littleboy 2 had merrily gone off to school clutching his swimming towel and goggles, for swim lesson, but minus the actual trunks.

At first I told myself that it would be fine, he'd borrow a pair from Lost Property (his brother has done that before) and I shouldn't interrupt my day. But I kept imagining his little face falling when he opened his bag and found the trunks weren't in there. My heart contracted, and I knew what I had to do.

So I jumped in the car, hair still wet from the shower, and zoomed down to the school to hand over the trunks, reaching the door just as his lesson was about to start.

Now this was naughty why? Well firstly, the school sent out an edict last year that parents were not to keep coming to school to hand over forgotten PE kit. It's a big school and it must happen fairly often, so I can understand it's a pain if they have to keep sending a teacher /helper to deliver missing items of clothing. (Perhaps in the future we should have drones to do it, like Amazon? Now that's an idea.)

But that's not the real reason it was bad. It was bad because, as I discuss with The Doctor all the time, I am not supposed to be the policeman of the bags. The boys are supposed to be checking their own stuff now in the morning and if something doesn't make it to school, on their own head be it. This patently doesn't happen: frankly, just getting Littleboy 2 out of bed and dressed in time for the school run is an achievement, let alone getting him to check his bag.

There have been plenty of articles in the media recently about helicopter parenting and how we are raising a generation of children who don't know how to do anything for themselves. By constantly being there for our children, making sure they're OK and helping them do their best, we're actually doing them a disservice, goes the argument. We should take a step back, let them look after themselves, like our parents' generation who just let us get on with it.

I generally agree with all of this. At my kids' age I was going to and from school by myself (on the Peak Tram in Hong Kong! I didn't know how lucky I was) and a year later travelling to boarding school on a plane. I don't ever remember much parental input in homework. I don't particularly WANT to be that mother insanely running to school with a pair of swimming trunks, and I want my children to grow up self-reliant.

But I think part of the problem now is the pressure that mothers, in particular, feel from all angles of the media to be perfect. If our kids fail at something, we get the blame. And if we aren't super-vigilant, we are terrible people -- this can range from the parents that are investigated by Social Services for letting their kids become obese, to the "free range" parents in the US who get arrested for letting their kids walk home from the park alone,  to the vilification of the McCann parents for leaving their children unattended in a holiday resort.

"Parenting," a word that didn't really exist in the 70s, is something every commentator has a view on. So of course we feel we have to be on the case 24/7, and making sure our kids don't forget their homework, lunch or swimming things, is a part of all that.

Incidentally, men don't seem to share our guilt, possibly because negligent fathering isn't a "thing" in the press.

What do you think? How do you square the whole helicopter debate?  And should I have chilled out over the trunks?

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Last of the summer suncream

The suncreams, all three of them, sit folornly by the door, unused since our holiday. Last week's tennis camp was necessarily indoors, so there was no use for the big tube of kids' factor 50, small tube to take with them, or indeed my special my non-greasy face cream.

Now the new term has started, and (bar a September heatwave) it won't be until next summer that we have to think about creams, hats and water bottles. Instead, we spent the last few days ensuring school shoes fit, arranging uniform on chairs and having last minute panics over mislaid pencil cases.

Reconvening at school, the children have seemingly all grown a couple of inches; some just look like they've been stretched out like elastic, others are more bulky. Most are sun-browned (clearly none of us put on quite enough of that cream, or perhaps, like me, we've decided to mind our Vitamin D), and most of the parents at the school gate sport a post-holiday glow that makes them look more relaxed than usual. We swap anecdotes of last minute shoe-shopping, holidays mishaps and new concerns about our children. We're regretful that summer is over, but also relish the school-gate conversation after a two month break.

At home, I pack away the swimming costumes, the shorts and the sarongs, and start thinking about plays to book, articles to write, social engagements to arrange. The house seems empty - even though I've often been on my own over the summer, while the boys are out at activities, today it seems to echo more than usual.

For everyone starting the new school year today -- may it be a good one.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Kid-friendly Lucca

Beautiful Lucca
Since I got back from holiday on Sunday it seems to have been raining non-stop.

After two weeks of getting up every morning to swim 30 lengths in an outdoor pool before breakfast, only pausing to sniff the lavender-scented air and look at the indescribably beautiful view of the Tuscan hills, this has come as something of a shock.

I love Italy. It's probably my favourite country -- I went there on my honeymoon, and have been back to Tuscany no less than four times since, as well as visiting other parts of Italy such as Sicily and Venice.

This time we had an extended family holiday in a beautiful villa, sandwiched between city stopovers in Pisa and Lucca at the beginning and end.

I thought I'd blog about Lucca because I was actually surprised about how child-friendly it is. Having dragged the boys around Pisa, admiring the beautiful architecture but being slightly dismayed at all the coach party groups with selfie sticks and lack of un-touristy restaurants, I was wondering how they would take to Lucca.

But they loved it. The highlight for us was renting bikes and cycling all the way around the historic city walls, which form a pedestrian and cyclist-only public park. It's a 4km ride which took us roughly 45 minutes, with a couple of rest stops. It's also shady and cool, particularly if you do it at 9am in the morning as we did, trying to avoid the heat of the day. The scenery is incomparable: you can look up at the Monte Pisano mountains, or down into the city of Lucca, at the Duomo San Martino in all its marble splendour, or busy street markets and charming piazzas, while cycling along at your leisure. The only hazard is avoiding other cyclists and pedestrians (something Littleboy 2, a rather wobbly cyclist, narrowly achieved).

Cycling round the walls
Wandering around Lucca is charming -- many of its narrow, winding medieval streets are pedestrianised (although watch out for the odd scooter). The shops are upscale and mainly independent, with very few chains. By night, it's incredibly atmospheric and you will suddenly stumble upon little hidden squares crammed with people, eating, talking or just enjoying the balmy night air. The Littleboys were in their element, marching around singing Abba songs on our final night, to the amusement of passers-by.

Then there are the towers to climb. The Littleboys had actually refused to go up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, announcing that it was too scary. (We didn't try and force them; frankly, the prices are scary too, at 18 euros each including for kids).

Torre Guinigi
But in Lucca, you can climb (cheaply) up two towers that aren't leaning: the Torre Guinigi, which is famous for having trees planted on top, and the Torre delle Ore, or clock tower. The latter was more precarious, with a wooden staircase that looked like it might not pass a British health and safety inspection, but had the bonus of being beautifully empty. Both afford an incredible view of the terracotta-coloured rooftops of Lucca, and the climb gives you a much-needed chance to burn off all that pasta. 

The Lucca botanical garden (Orto Botanico) is a sweet place and offers an opportunity to relax and sit in the shade. The lilypond there has rather a gruesome legend attached; it's said to have been the scene of a horrific drowning. As the story, goes a beautiful Luccan noblewoman made a bargain with the devil to stay looking young, and when she reneged on the deal was finally chased by Satan around the city and into the water. You're supposed to be able to hear her screams on Halloween. In reality, she died of the plague and was buried in a church nearby.  (We had our own excitement, when Littleboy 2 decided to touch a plant clearly labelled as "toxic" with a skull and crossbones; cue lots of frantic hand washing.)

Botanical Gardens, Lucca
Lucca is also stuffed full of places to eat: from cheap pizzerias to homely osterias, lively trattorias and upmarket ristorantes. The first night we had delicious pizza at Trattoria da Nonna Clara in a lively piazza. It was one of the cheapest meals of all our holiday, but all pronounced it excellent. For lunch the next day, we stumbled upon All'Olivo, a stylish-looking restaurant on a tiny piazza. Although it had a slightly bizarre canopy with jets that sprayed out water (it was supposed, we think, to cool you down but had the effect of being in a rather humid sauna), the food was again brilliant. The boys tucked into prosciutto and melon, bruschetta and salami; The Dotor and I had succulent grilled calamari salads.

For our final night we ate at Osteria Baralla, a traditional Tuscan restaurant near the oval Piazza Anifteatro. The meal was typically heavy Tuscan fare -- my beef stew was delicious, but far too filling, and the boys tucked into meaty ravioli after stuffing themselves with unsalted bread and olive oil. I would probably recommend this place more in winter. Like most Italian cities, Lucca is also full of amazing gelaterias. We bought fabulous chocolate ice-cream and lemon sorbet outside the city walls, on our walk back to our Airbnb apartment. (It was our first time booking through Airbnb, and everything went very smoothly -- our host, Petra, was very welcoming and helpful).

Villa Reale's Green Theatre
The next morning, before our flight back from Pisa, we explored the gardens of the Villa Reale outside Lucca. The Villa was once owned by Napoleon's sister Elisa Bonaparte and the grounds are incredibly ornate. The garden was virtually empty, which made it particularly atmospheric, and the house itself, closed up, had a very dilapidated air (we asked about the current owners, and were told it is a "family from Switzerland" but they never come). It seems something of a random tourist attraction -- the custodian turned up late to open up, and there was nowhere really to park -- but the gardens are fascinating and well worth a wander; there's an over-the-top interpretation of Pan's Grotto, a "green theatre" entirely made of box hedges, a lemon garden and plentiful classical statues and fountains.

All in all, I would thoroughly recommend Lucca as a short city break with kids. From the U.K., you could get there cheaply and easily by flying to nearby Pisa with EasyJet, and then taking a train or renting a car. And if you're going on a holiday elsewhere in Italy, why not break your journey there?