Saturday, 19 April 2014

French ski-ing revisited

Me and my boys, on top of the world
We've just returned from a ski-ing holiday in the Southern French Alps. 10 days in the resort where I learned to ski, and where The Doctor has skied since he was 10 (with a stopover on the way in Les Gets, where an old school friend has a chalet -- a chance to see how the other half, i.e those who have hedge fund manager husbands, live).

Being back in France after an absence of five years was fabulous; the food, the scenery, the cheese, the cheese (I really need to go on a diet now). Having holidayed in the US and Canada for the past give years, at last the Littleboys got to see that people don't all speak English, and had an opportunity to practice some French, which they started learning at school last September. We had been slightly concerned that while Littleboy 2 was happily coming home and addressing me as "Maman" in a perfect little French accent, his older brother hadn't appeared to pick up a single word, so I was determined that he should learn. In a fit of enthusiasm, they insisted we buy an AA Kids' Phrasebook at the Eurotunnel shop, and proceeded to fight over who got to look at it for the next 48 hours (before they lost interest). Two weeks later, and I think Littleboy 1 knows just a few more words - including "frites", "je deteste", "bonjour" and "au revoir". But it's a start.

The ski-ing itself was very different from our last visit to the Alps five years ago. Then, we were encumbered by a three year old who cried every morning when we took him to ski school, and a baby who spent his mornings in the creche while we frantically skied for three hours and zoomed back to reclaim both of them. In Vermont, things were different again as they were in a very child-friendly ski camp all day, leaving us to potter around in a relaxed fashion (while trying not to freeze to death). No longer. We now have two rather intrepid, and frankly quite scary, young skiers on our hands.

The boys' ability to get down a mountain improved enormously during the fortnight. Two years of good American ski school clearly did the groundwork -- all it took was a couple of morning sessions with a decent instructor, and they were shooting around (although wiping out rather often). This meant they could ski with us all day, and go anywhere we wanted to go (we even managed a black run en famille, something I would usually avoid at all costs but I was determined not to be the only family member not to attempt it. For those that are interested, my own ski-ing was thankfully OK despite the pain condition - I took painkiller and somehow concentrating on getting down the slopes took my mind off things, and was no more painful than walking down the street).

They also joined us for picnics, meals at mountain restaurants, and various drinks pitstops (where they downed hot chocolate and lemonade, and looked disapprovingly at us if we ordered a vin chaud). These were not always very restful, as Littleboy 1 would usually put his skis back on and look ready to go after about five minutes of recharging, but it was a little bit more like the ski-ing I remember. It was also a welcome break from worrying about house buying/selling - having sold our own house the night before we left, we began the holiday fretting about phone calls from estate agents but ended it by hardly thinking about them at all.

Other memorable moments included listening to the entire first two Harry Potter books, read by Stephen Fry, as we sped down the French autoroute; Littleboy 2 throwing up on an Alpine pass (renderng our car smelling of vomit for the entire 7 hours of driving we had left that day); teaching both boys to play Scrabble in the flat, and having many chairlift conversations with Littleboy 2 about how one becomes an author (his latest plan) and with Littleboy 1 about characters from The Hobbit.

As the Littleboys become older, I increasingly often have moments of nostalgia where I remember how they were as little ones, and wish I could slow time down. But this holiday wasn't an example of that at all. Some things defintitely improve with age - and a family ski-ing holiday is one of them.

Monday, 31 March 2014

One step closer

We're one step closer to finding a permanent home for the Nappy Valley family (at which point I promise I am going to change the name of this blog to something else, as it certainly isn't based in Nappy Valley any more, and thank goodness, my children have been out of nappies for some years).

I've spent the past four months manically house-hunting. This might sound like fun, and probably would be if I was on my own in the company of Kirstie Allsop with an unlimited budget and an architect on speed-dial. But actually, negotiating the estate agents of south London in a crazy property market is quite another matter.

With the apparent scarcity in property on the market compared to numbers of buyers, viewings were often conducted in groups, so you'd be tramping round a house along with lots of other people, trying to size up how keen they were based on the number of photos taken with their iPhones (one guy scarily photographed everything about five times). There was pressure to make offers, even if you'd only seen the place once, which is ridiculous when you think about it -- the biggest purchase of your life and you devote 20 minutes to making your mind up?

We spent a few Saturdays doing viewings as a family. It's not exactly easy to concentrate with two boys running around people's houses, touching things and testing out sofas as if they were in a furniture showroom. Even when they were being good, agents or owners looked paranoid that they would do something bad -- one woman (who had about nine cats positioned throughout her house, including in the shower) constantly pleaded with them not to tease or chase her cats when in fact all they wanted to do was stroke them.

Nothing was quite right -- if the location was right, the price was always too high or the house was too small. If the house was nice, it generally didn't have a big enough garden for our football-playing boys, had parking issues or wasn't in a convenient area for our various journeys to work and school. There was one big and far-too-expensive house that we liked, and we waited in vain for the owners to lower the price (as it's been on the market for a while), but they never did.

Can I just confirm here that London house prices are going crazy? The other day I noticed a house near us had a board outside it --I'd looked at a similar one in the same street before Christmas which needed a bit of modernisation, and knew (so I thought) roughly how much it would go for. As it wasn't yet on the web, I phoned the agent thinking I'd arrange a viewing. I simply couldn't believe my ears at the asking price -- a cool 800,000 more than the one down the road that was essentially the same. Well, it might have been beautifully modernised and had a loft extension but surely, that is ridiculous?

Finally, though, last week we found a house we like. The right size, the right price, the big long garden, not too far from school or work. We like its unusual architecture (vaguely Gothic) and its promixity to a leafy park. I'm not going to jinx it by saying where exactly but all will be revealed IF the whole thing goes through. We've had our offer accepted, but as we all know that's only the beginning of the story when it comes to house purchasing.

So maybe, just maybe, in six months' time we'll have reunited all our furniture and crockery and put some pictures up, and can start to talk about "home" again. And I will be able to pass an estate agent's window without feeling I have to look at it.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

You want to wake up in the city that never sleeps? This post is for you.

The land of the free: but it isn't easy for new arrivals
From time to time, I get emails from readers of this blog who have found it by Googling something like "moving to New York" or "life on Long Island" and want to ask me for some tips. These emails are always slightly apologetic in nature, but believe me, I am only too happy to be of use to people who are moving abroad and I'm just delighted that my blog is helpful in any way.

I often wish I'd done a bit more research myself before I moved to New York - it would have saved me from a few nasty surprises. I'm eternally grateful to several bloggers who did help me in those early days too. I actually used the moving company recommended to me on this blog, and in turn recommended it to another blogger who was moving back to the UK.

This week I've also been asked to contribute to an Expat Tips page from foreign exchange company HiFx, which might be useful for those of you moving abroad generally. (They also do a currency converter on the website, which is handy for those of us who get paid in dollars).

Here then are my top five practical tips for Brits moving to New York State. (This is assuming you really are at the beginning of your moving research and don't know anything much yet.)

1. Be aware that you can't buy a car in NY without having insurance - and you can't get insurance if you don't have a New York driver's licence. You will need to take your test at the first available opportunity....and this can pose a problem too, as to apply for it (through the Department for Motor Vehicles) you need a...

2. Social security number. This is key to doing virtually anything in the States. Of course, those who are going out there with a job will get one fairly soon after arriving through their job, but if you're not working, you might want to think about applying too, as soon as you can. (This will also depend on what kind of visa you have.)

3. Getting a credit card is also very difficult, as you won't have a credit record in the US (credit rating companies don't share data between countries, which you would think might benefit them -- after all you could have a terrible credit record at home, and no-one would know...).  You have to build up your credit record gradually; it took us over a year to get a card, and even then with a very low limit. In the meantime, you will get very fed up of constantly having to explain to people like Gap that you can't apply for a store card. You can use your UK cards, but they'll have exchange rate commission. Do your research: there are a few that don't, like the Post Office credit card.

4. Kids don't start school until 5+ in New York; a year later than they do in the U.K. There are, however, plenty of preschool/ pre-K options and indeed there is a movement in NY to make "universal pre-K" available to everyone ie. you wouldn't have to pay. Be aware that summer holidays are very, very long (10-12 weeks), so if you are working, you need to sort out some kind of childcare/camp option for the summer.

5. If you want to get a job once out there, you first need a work permit from the Department of Homeland Security. This again depends on your/your spouse's visa type. The Doctor was on an academic (J1) visa, so for me to be able to work, I had to write a letter stating that I was not going to be working to support my husband, but to have money for "leisure activities" (!) Luckily this was accepted, and I was able to get a job, for which I am eternally grateful.

This was a sponsored blog post.

Monday, 17 March 2014

A Theatrical Education

I'm very keen that my boys grow up loving the theatre. I suppose I want them to have that thrill that I remember from my own childhood of seeing something live.  In interviews with actors and actresses, you often read that they wanted to act from the first time they saw something performed on stage, and as a child, I was like that. I wanted to be one of those children up there at the end of the panto when certain kids from the audience were allowed on the stage! I wanted to be the people singing and dancing in musicals! As a teenager I loved the theatre, taking Drama A-Level and loving everything about school plays, from having pancake makeup applied to hanging out in the wings waiting to go on. 

I'm not sure if the Littleboys are as starstruck by the theatre as I was - although both have performed quite well in school plays recently, they show no signs of wanting to leap up on stage at a moment's notice. But I'm trying my best to instil my own love of theatre in them. I've taken them to panto, The Snowman on stage, various school productions and now, a few real plays. Even if they don't grow up to be Damian Lewis or Benedict Cumberbatch (how fun that would be!), at least they might take ME to the theatre in their old age.

This weekend we went to see Emil and the Detectives at the National Theatre. If you know the book, by Erich Kastner, you'll know that it's a very child-focused story. Like Matilda, (which we saw in New York last year), it was full of brilliant child actors and the adults (apart from the sinister Mr Snow) were not only quite peripheral to the action but portrayed as quite naive and silly compared to the streetwise kids. It was a fantastic production, with the best stage design I've seen in years, and a great chase through the audience at one point.

Afterwards, I tried to get the boys to talk about it, encouraging them to compare it to Matilda.After a bit of prevarication, Littleboy2 said that on the whole they had preferred Matilda. Why, I asked? Was it the singing and music?

"Because a child actually gets thrown into the air and comes back down again (only you said it was a dummy, Mummy). "

"Yeah," chimed in Littleboy 1. "And that was SO awesome."

I think we have a little way to go on the theatrical education front....



Thursday, 13 March 2014

School run fashion -- and stylish teachers

When I lived in the US, and didn't have to do a "school run", I used to read tales of how women in the UK would feel pressure to dress up for the school run and breathe a sigh of relief. As my neighbours and I ambled out to meet the school bus, the dress code was anything but fashion - as many layers as possible in winter, and in summer, shorts, flip flops and bug spray.

So I was apprehensive at having to do the school run over here. Would I be forced to think about how to look stylish every morning and afternoon, among the yummy mummies of South London's private schools? I work at home, so generally don't bother to put on more than (non-designer) jeans, and never wear makeup unless I've been into town for a meeting.

I am happy to report that the mums at the boys' schools are on the whole, not designer types, and seem to lean more to the practical than to the pages of fashion mags. (There is one who wears her Hunter wellies every day - I happen to know she lives in suburban Southeast London, not in the Cotswold countryside, so at first thought this was rather over-the-top. However, with all the rain we've been having, I have now actually had to buy myself some "London wellies" in order to attend events such as rugby matches. I'm beginning to have some sympathy). There's lots of sportswear, and lots of fleece, and in the morning, Dads in fluorescent cycling jackets.

However, the one person who puts me to shame is Littleboy 2's teacher. She has clothes, and a figure, to die for. And it's not as if she's 25 -- she's older than me! (Or at least I would think so). I've rarely seen her in the same outfit twice, and some of them are so nice I'm tempted to ask her where she got them. In the winter, out came the stylish coats and knee boots, and now that spring is here, I'm seeing her spring collection and liking it. She's tall and slim, has immaculate highlights and always looks good in whatever she wears. I feel like taking secret snaps of her with my iPhone and starting a Tumblr or Pinterest page or something for inspiration.

I'm interested to know what it's like in other places. Do you dress up for the school run? And if so, are you more stylish than the teacher?






Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Town and Country

Half term seemed to come and go in a flash last week. I was working for most of it, and had conveniently found the boys a sports camp to go to (thank goodness these seem to exist in the UK too), but I did have Monday and Friday off, so I decided to treat the boys to some London culture.

We visited the National Portrait Gallery, which was a somewhat mixed success. The half term drawing workshops I'd noticed on their website were fully booked (something I should probably have anticipated) and by the time we'd taken a bus and two tubes to get there, the boys were already hungry.  Nevertheless I marched them around the Tudor Gallery. Littleboy 2 has a big Henry VIII obsession, so he was interested to see the six wives as well as various portraits of Henry himself.

Littleboy 1 was more interested in Queen Victoria so we had a look at her, and found various other monarchs including a very bizarre portrait of Charles II as a six month old baby. But other than the Royals, the boys took little interest in the line up of the great and the good that the NPG offers.

We did like this picture of Michael Caine, and Littleboy 1 was very intrigued to hear that he voices Finn McMissile in Cars 2.


After that their hunger could not be staved off, so we went off in search of a burger and found one at Gourmet Burger Kitchen. Now, the boys are really missing our new York favourite, Smashburger, and gbk offers a similar experience (order at the counter, sit down and wait for your food, kind of half way between a McDonald's and a proper burger restaurant). And the food was pretty good. But I have to say that Smashburger is half the price. Why does London have to be so expensive I wonder? And then, on the way home, we decided to go into St Paul's Cathedral, but stopped when I realised it would cost about 50 quid for the three of us to look round. What's that all about?

Our second treat of the week was The Lego Movie. I'd booked tickets in advance, knowing it would be hugely popular at half term, and the boys were super-excited. And we did enjoy it. But I have to say, after all the hype, it wasn't quite as fabulous as I was expecting. Making everything out of Lego was, of course, enormously creative, but the script felt it had gone through a lot of rewrites and some of the jokes felt like they'd been done before (in movies like Wreck-it Ralph and Toy Story). But things do perk up when Will Ferrell appears and it all gets a big meta. We hummed "Everything is Awesome" all the way home. What did anyone else think?

The week was rounded off by a trip to see some friends in the deepest Kent countryside. Despite the fact that the UK countryside is now one big marshland, we managed a beautiful walk, seeing spring lambs gambolling and crocuses and daffodils blooming. So I think we got the best of both Town and Country during half term, and maybe the boys are starting to understand what living in England is all about.









Monday, 17 February 2014

All About Me

The lovely Iota has tagged me to answer some questions in an All About Me post. (The idea is that I answer her questions, then think of some of my own and tag some other bloggers.) So here goes....

1. What is the view from the window of the room where you are currently sitting?

My view is of a quiet South London street, and at the end of it, a lot of very tall trees. The trees are in a very grand and large old Victorian cemetery where I occasionally take the boys for a walk. (It's quite hilly, and good for scooting, and they don't seem to mind that it's a graveyard). If I poke my head far enough round the end of my desk, I can see the Crystal Palace television mast.

2. Do You buy lottery tickets?

I have only ever once bought a lottery ticket, and that was on the night the National Lottery launched, when I was a student back in 1994 and it was a big news story. Needless to say, I didn't win, and after that, I lost interest.

3. If you had to live in the Arctic Circle or The Equator, which would it be?

Definitely the latter. I cannot stand being really cold and the dark winters would kill me. Whereas I could happily live somewhere like Singapore, given decent air conditioning and a swimming pool.

4.What's the novel inside you, you know the one everyone is supposed to have?

I've had several novel plans over the years, and still plan to write one set among the yummy mummies of South London. As a teenager I planned a Gone With The Wind style epic set in Hong Kong in the 1930s, and I actually have several unpublished teenage works among my files, including one about a girl detective solving a murder set in a chateau (I had been reading a lot of Agatha Christie at the time) and one about a teenage tennis player who goes from being crap at sport to winning Wimbledon (I had been watching a lot of Wimbledon). 

5. Do you still have your wedding dress?

Yes, it's hanging in a cupboard. I don't know what will become of it, though, as I don't have any daughters to hand it on to. Maybe one day I'll dress up in it and sit around like Miss Havisham.

6.Is your big toe longer of shorter than the one next to it?

Shorter.

7. Name a guilty pleasure.

Facebook. Total time waster, but I do like to look at it. Occasionally reading Grazia. And watching I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, which I blogged about here.

8.If you could change one thing you've done in the last week, what would it be?

Spelled someone's name wrong in an article I wrote for work -- a complete rookie mistake for a journalist, and totally my fault.

9. What's your middle name (come on, we're all grownups now, it's not embarrassing any more)?

Mary. And I've never been embarrassed by it - it's a good solid name that you can't argue with.

10. Can you say, with Edith Piaf, Je ne regrette rien?

Definitely not -- see above. But in the biggest matters of life, I have few regrets.

11. What fairy story do you most identify with (don't over-think this one).

At the moment I feel a bit like Goldilocks, as I'm looking round people's houses and trying them on for size.  They're either too big or too small, but I'm sure as soon as I find one that's just right the three bears will come storming in and kick me out.

Right, here are my questions. And I'm going to tag:

Talkaboutyork
Metropolitan Mum
Flower Fairies and Fairy Cakes
Bump2Basics
Nota Bene

1. What's for dinner tonight?

2. Do you read a daily newspaper?

3. If you could take off on a no-expense spared holiday next week, where would you go?

4. What was your favourite book as a child?

5. And who is your favourite author as an adult (it doesn't just have to be one).

6. Do you buy your underwear at M&S?

7. What's your dream career, and do you wish you'd done it?

8. Do you ever Google people you meet afterwards? (and not for work reasons).

9. What was the last thing you saw at the theatre?

10. Do you use Pinterest - and if so, do you get the point?

11. What's been your proudest moment as a parent so far?