Thursday, 18 December 2014

Festive traditions, there and back again

There are things I miss about Christmas in the US.

 For example, the decorations outside almost every house. What's striking about these is that, in New York at least, many of them were pretty high quality. In London, the decorated houses stand out - maybe one in twenty -- and they're usually quite naff, all inflatable Santas and blinking lights. In our neighbourhood on Long Island, you'd be more likely to see giant candy canes, fairy lights round trees, red velvet bows on every window and -- on one house's immaculate lawn -- a real wooden sleigh.

I also feel bizarrely nostalgic for American Christmas songs on the radio. I'd never heard Dan Fogelberg's poignant Same Old Lang Syne (see below) or the insanely catchy Feliz Navidad before I moved to America and at the moment I wouldn't mind hearing Kelly Clarkson's Grown Up Christmas List. Magic FM, are you listening? It's fine to play Phil Collins' "Coming in the Air Tonight" all year, if you want to - but not on the 18th December, OK?

Then there's the Christmas cards. When we first moved to the States, I noticed with mortification that I was the only parent at the Montessori nursery not to have sent a "happy holidays" card featuring a lovingly chosen family photograph. The following year, we fell into step. We've now of course reverted to traditional cards, but as Christmas cards fall more and more out of fashion (I still send them, but more and more people don't) I can see the point of the  American card. It's more of a memento than perhaps receiving a hastily written card featuring a cartoon Santa -- and I have to admit it was rather fun choosing the photos.

But there are things that we missed in America, and are now totally gorging on in London. Like mince pies, mulled wine.....and carol services. We went to three last year, and this year have notched up two so far, as well as having lustily sung carols at two school assemblies. Littleboy 1, who didn't know any Christmas carols in America, is now in the school choir and is currently racing around the house singing Latin words from "Unto Us a Son is Born." (This was charming at first, and is now rapidly starting to grate on my nerves).

His brother meanwhile, read a very heartfelt lesson at the country carol service we go to every year. While they both missed out on Nativity plays (so I'll never see them play Joseph, or a shepherd, sadly), they've both recited lines about the Christmas story in their Christmas assemblies, something that would never happen in secular US schools. And most importantly, they now know the "silly" version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (you know, the one that goes "like a lightbulb").

I also went to a very traditional work-related Christmas lunch last week, in a Soho boozer -- let's just say lunch didn't even start till 3, and by the time I left at 5.30, we'd only just had the main course and quiz. Somehow I don't think these happen in New York in quite the same way......

I hope you are enjoying the festive season on both sides of the pond -- what traditions would YOU import?

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Bears and royals: the UK in a nutshell?

We took some bears to see 'Paddington'
Apologies for the relative lack of blogging recently. I'm coming up for my sixth blogging anniversary soon, and I'm beginning to wonder if that phase in my life is coming to an end.

When my children were young, blogging was almost a form of stress relief; when endless winter afternoons stretched out with the boys napping or watching Cbeebies, or when I'd run in from a walk with the toddler Littleboys and bash out a blog post while I was waiting for the pasta to boil, just because it was such a blessed relief from thinking about chasing small children around the playground.

The older the boys get, the less demanding they are in some ways but the more time they seem to take up. Laundering sports kit. Supervising homework. And the birthday parties! I think I'm starting to lose it. For the first time ever, we arrived at a party on Sunday with no present or card, and what was worse, I hadn't left it behind. As we parked, Littleboy 1 piped up "Shouldn't we have a present?" and that was literally the first time it had occurred to me.......

Anyway -- London life remains busy and ripe with opportunity for experiences, from seeing the display of poppies at the Tower of London last month (brilliant) to taking the 176 bus all the way home to Crystal Palace after seeing a play in the West End (mistake). This weekend, either end of the two birthday parties, we packed in two contrasting cultural experiences: a play (King Charles III) and a film (Paddington).

The play is a "future history" written by Mark Bartlett; that is to say, it takes its cue from Shakespeare, is written in blank verse and has elements of both high comedy and high tragedy. It predicts what might happen when the Queen dies, and Prince Charles becomes King. Very quickly things go pear-shaped when Charles (the brilliant actor Tim Piggott-Smith) refuses to sign a bill concerning press freedom. Meanwhile, Prince Harry (whose scenes provide some hilarious comic relief) is romancing an anti-monarchist gal wearing Doc Martens, there's a groaning ghost around Windsor who sounds suspiciously like Diana, and Kate is busy supporting William's cause like a modern-day Lady Macbeth. Act One ends with Charles dissolving Parliament after a stand-off with the Prime Minister; I won't reveal the rest, but it's incredibly thought-provoking, whether you're a royalist or republican.

Paddington showcases another side of British life with a gentle humour that everyone, old and young, can enjoy. While few elements of the actual books remain (and there's a ridiculous, unnecessary sub-plot involving a taxidermist played by Nicole Kidman), the film captures the essence of Paddington -- an accident prone, but utterly well-meaning bear with excellent manners. Ben Whishaw voiced him perfectly, but it was Hugh Bonneville I was really impressed with. Forget Downton Abbey, what with this and the brilliant Twenty Twelve, he's shaping up to be one of the funniest actors we have. Paddington is also an illegal immigrant from "Darkest Peru", and with immigration a huge topic at the moment in the UK, the film had a lot to say about whether or not the British are welcoming to newcomers.

So there we are: British life in a nutshell, royals and bears included.

What have you been up to?

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The one where I review the Christmas ads

Work was crazy last week. I write about adverts, and the first week of November now seems to be when all the big U.K. advertisers release their Christmas commercials. I sat through, and then wrote about, at least a dozen festive offerings, then felt surprised when I went back into the real world and everyone wasn't making mince pieces or watching the snow fall prettily outside.

I'm sure virtually everyone in the UK has seen the John Lewis ad by now, but I'm going to post it here for the benefit of my non-UK readers. I like it, even though I know it's highly manipulative and designed specifically to appeal to me, the middle-class mother. The Doctor said it looks as if it was directed by Richard Curtis, and I agree (it wasn't. The director, Dougal Wilson, has done many of John Lewis's "hits", including The Snowman). Some people (including the lovely Melissa at Talk About York) said the little boy in it was too good to be true, and of course she's right, but an ad featuring grumpy tired kids who don't want to do their homework probably wouldn't have worked as well. A minority still said it left them cold -- one Facebook friend of mine said she just kept thinking the grubby penguin toy needed a good wash.

Marks and Spencer's, ad, meanwhile, is just as whimsical but not quite as winning, in my opinion. It concerns a couple of fairies who go around spreading their magic dust to better everyone's Christmas. I particularly noted that they manage to get a bunch of kids, who are sitting around watching TV and on iPads, outside playing in the snow.But that wasn't enough to make my eyes smart.

Maybe laughter is better than tears? Mulberry's ad is the one that made me laugh the most. Even though I'm not into fancy handbags, I love the humour and the portrayal of the snooty family.

 Waitrose, meanwhile, has a child who's bad at baking being saved by the lovely people at Waitrose. Now I sympathise with this child. I was/am rubbish at baking too. But if I went down my local Waitrose and asked for help with making biscuits, I can't really believe they wouldn't stare at me like I'm a crazy woman. Anyway - it's nicely done, and if you didn't know, the choir singing Dolly Parton's "Try" is made up of ordinary people who uploaded clips of themselves warbling the song.

Finally Vodafone has a bunch of people singing "Let it Go," in their Christmas ad this year. I wonder if they thought this would be a hit for anyone with small children? But perhaps these parents are fed up with hearing the bloody song, and will groan when they hear it yet again? 

Which is your favourite? Have you seen another one you like?

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

What happened to October?

Stunning autumn colour in Germany
The University library, Leuven

Where did October go?

Oh I know.  There was a work trip to Amsterdam (fun), a family funeral (not so fun), a couple of three-line whip family events.... oh, and half the month was taken up with a bloody two week half term. That was what happened.

I'm really not sure about these two week half terms. (It's a private school: as my friend says, the more you pay for education in this country, the less you get). It feels like we're starting a whole new term now, and it's going to take everyone at least a week to get back into the whole routine.

As I was working for most of half-term, it wasn't exactly relaxing, involving either a) rushing the boys from one activity to the next while trying to fit in work or b) working with them in the house and having to fend off constant cries of "Can I write a story on your computer?" which seems to be their new favourite activity. I'm all for budding authorship, but I don't really want my Mac overtaken with stories called things like "Lord of the Pigs."

However, we did manage a four day trip to Germany, to stay with our lovely German friends from New York days, who we haven't seen since 2012. Apart from seeing them, which was the main thing, there was a a trip to the Chocolate Museum in Cologne, which kept both adults and kids amused, a stunning, autumnal hike to a castle, and an evening at a superb swimming pool, which had slides, various pools and best of all, a massive outdoor hot pool (the Germans do this kind of thing very well). We also ate a lot of sausages, potato salad and cake (the Germans do that well too. But November will be diet month). The boys also got to go to a German school for an hour, with our friend's son; they took part in an English lesson in which they apparently refused to say very much about Halloween.

On the way back, we stopped at Leuven, which is a beautiful University town in Belgium, full of gothic architecture, bookshops, bars and pubs-- a bit like the Belgian version of Oxford.  I hadn't been there since a school trip when I was 17 and everyone rushed off to smoke Camel cigarettes and drink Stella Artois (we were supposed to be looking round the town, but honestly, what did the teachers really think we were doing?). I also remember at the time that "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" was number one in the charts, and we went around singing "You've Lost That Leuven Feeling.". Oh, how witty we thought we were......

Now, it's back to the grindstone again. Littleboy 1 has just been asked to learn the capitals of all the EU countries for a test next Monday. I do not even know the capitals of the EU countries, so I don't have high hopes for him being able to remember, say Ljubjlana. He still thinks the Prime Minister is called David Beckham, so I don't think names are his strong point.

Talking of which, if we do end up leaving the EU, I think I would have preferred Beckham as the Prime Minister.....

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Am I really that disorganised?

I used to pride myself on being pretty organised when it came to the kids.

Not to the point where I'm arranging their clothes in matching colours, or booking playdates a couple of months ahead or signing up for things like schools several years in advance. No, that's just scary.

But I write things in a diary, I've never yet forgotten a meeting/playdate/appointment, and I'm generally not late for things.

Recently, standards have been beginning to slip though. Since September I've doubled my working hours, and balls are getting dropped left, right and centre.

Two boys at the same school was fine in America - they had their own personalised backpacks in different colours, wore different clothes and didn't have to take much, other than their homework and lunch.

Now, they have identical backpacks, identical games bags, similar looking music cases and both have violins. Their scehedule, with each playing two instruments at school, is so complicated that I have a chalkboard in the kitchen on which I've written what each boy needs to bring each day.

And still I get it wrong.

Over the past fortnight I have packed piano music instead of violin music, sent Littleboy 2 to school with his brother's games bag, and failed to pack a snack on numerous occasions. I even set myself a reminder to pack a special themed snack for Littleboy 2 (which I'd bought and put in the fridge, but knew I'd forget) but failed to hear the bleeping go off on my phone as we left the house.

I've also on several occasions put the wrong homework in the wrong bag -- potentially a more serious crime as Littleboy 1 can now get into trouble for not bringing it on the right day. As I result I've emphasized to the kids that they now must check their own backpacks before school in case I've got something wrong.

Iota blogged this week about people who let their kids come out of school and simply dump all their belongings on their long-suffering parents. I know I've been guilty of this before. But I feel duty-bound to try and sort out the family kit in the mornings, not trusting the boys to do it all themself.

I'd feel awful if one of them got into trouble for me not signing their homework book or leaving their football boots behind. But at what age can I let it go -- and let them take the rap?

Monday, 6 October 2014

Tears Before Bake-Off time

My two boys love The Great British Bake-Off. And I'm wondering. Am I alone?

Nine-year-old Littleboy1 in particular seems to be fascinated by this show, which in itself is strange as, of the two, he is the more traditionally "boyish".  (His brother, meanwhile, has been known to say he wants to be a girl, and prefers drawing pictures to football.)

Although I'm not a big fan of baking, we happened to watch it a couple of times in the summer, and now, despite the fact that it's on at bedtime, he wants me to record it so we can watch it together the next day. He then sits down and solemnly watches people baking cakes for an hour. It's quite funny to watch him; he doesn't get any of the Mel and Sue smutty references on the show, but laughs like a drain when they try to sneak some of the food. So I suppose I have to hand it to them for appealing to audiences of all ages....

Last week he burst into tears when Chetna, (his favourite), was voted off the show. I think he finds the whole voting-off procedure quite traumatic -- we don't watch The X Factor or anything like that with the kids, and it's the first time they've experienced that particular aspect of reality TV.

But he's clearly fascinated by the show and it has caught his imagination. Having last week said his ambition in life was to become a Bake Off judge, he's now decided he wants to be a baker when he grows up, and open a patisserie. Never mind that his mother is one of the world's worst bakers and the extent of our (joint) baking repertoire runs to crumble, a blackberry cake a few weeks ago and several batches of chocolate brownies. But his eyes lit up when I suggested making a cake next weekend to take to a Harvest Supper.

I have an inkling that there might be other small boys out there who are addicted to this show (his-10 year-old cousin apparently watches it in cookery class at school). Although I have no idea if he ever discusses his Bake Off passion with any of his mates. Anyhow, we will solemnly be sitting down to watch the final on Wednesday night. I might even bake something in celebration.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Twelve Labours of Homework Time

"We all you YOU can do your child's year 3 maths questions, or write a story about a caveman," said the teacher at the recent parents' talk at school. "We want to know if THEY can."

Sensible words of course, but oh, how hard when you're standing over your child as they struggle with a homework question. The rational me knows that you mustn't help them, it's for their own good, the teacher needs to know that they can cope with the work.

But the mother  in me, and the journalist in me, desperately wants to copy-edit their English homework, come up with creative ideas for their project, and help them do the very best they can. And there's another voice whispering in my ear: the one that says: "I bet all the other mothers are helping too, so if I don't help, my child will end up with the worst project in the class."

I can't stand to see smudgy writing, bad spelling and little errors such as full stops left off the end of sentences, and it takes a Heraculean effort for me to hold back from correcting such mistakes, or at least hinting to the child that they need to read through the work again.

I could, of course, book them into after-school club every night and leave them to do their own homework on their own, without hovering nearby with my 5pm mug of tea. The rationale is you then cast a cursory, relaxed glance over the work to check they've done it before signing the homework book (at our school, the children get reprimanded if the book doesn't get signed by a parent). But does this really happen? Or do such parents still agonise over messy work and wrong answers? (Funny anecdote time: a Mum I know told me recently that one evening she noticed her child had written, for a geography assignment on a "place I've visited", all about Mount Everest. "And he'd written it all in pen, so I couldn't even ask him to rewrite it!").

Then there is the homework that clearly they can't do on their own - the assignments that involve, for instance, looking things up on the internet and printing things out. (I'm sorry, but how many 9 year olds know how to use the family printer? I can barely work out the combination of different gizmos that are required before it actually does something other than give me an "error" message.)

In the past year, I've slaved over looking up homophones, making a fez, putting together collages and more, while gritting my teeth over mis-spelled words, messy writing and silly words inserted in stories. And I know it's only going to get worse, as they're really piling on the homework at school this year. I know at some point in what seems like the distant future, they're going to be doing homework alone in their rooms -- but in the meantime, how do I stop myself from having a nervous breakdown over it?

 How do you cope with homework - and what's your involvement?