January 10, 2013

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We live in an area where every house has a gate.

It is unusual in the U.S. but very common in England. I think it goes back to a moat mentality, fearing conquerors in knight dressage leaping onto ones property at any given moment. So now we all have gates. They are old and creaky and not reliable. I told this to my “letting” agent upon signing our lease but he did not agree. Fast forward to an icy, cold London morning with a sick child at home.

It was one of those mornings where everything was off. My daughter woke up ill with the virus that was flying through her school. After racing out the door, late for other two’s school run, I realized that I did not have my phone. Is there any panic like not having your phone, lifeline to the universe? Normally I would have enjoyed the break but with my daughter home, alone, and feeling awful I felt full on panic. Additionally, I had to pick up a package at school and tick tock it was taking FOREVER. Finally back on the road – about a 20 minute drive in moving traffic, screech into the driveway, push the button – and gates do not open. What the %^&$ ? Why won’t the gates open??? I get out to call on the intercom and it is silent. Now I am truly hyperventilating. Child inside, can’t get in – only one possible solution – climb over the gate.

No problem, I can push myself over.

After five heave-hos I am riding the the ice covered brick part of the gate bare back holding onto that mare for dear life. Now what? I could stay, frozen till help arrives (possibly never) with my ailing child inside the house or I could roll myself off the gate with the grace of a hippopotamus and go splat on the other side. I voted for the roll. Slowly, slowly, eeeerrrrgghhhhhhhhhhh, got it. Success. Run inside the house to find said daughter relaxing in front of the TV. “You forgot your phone”.

I know.

December 20, 2012

Looking out the kitchen window I see…

…my youngest walking Ruffles in his jammies and my coat

Is it just me or is this tree croaked?

in the window Santa watches all

Raindrops on jingle bells

that’s better

See you in the New Year

December 19, 2012

We love Christmas. Gingerbread houses, drinking eggnog lattes at Starbucks (well, I do) decorating with sparkly ornaments and dazzling giant nutcrackers bought years ago. We love it all. So when faced with the annual challenge of creating Christmas in a new country, the task is daunting. Happily, the English love Christmas as much we do. Yet with all the charm an English Christmas season brings it is missing one American touch. The gigantic tree. I never gave a great deal of thought regarding the arrival of the 9 foot tall tree in our home each year. A lovely little shop in town delivered the sweetest smelling “most beautiful tree ever” and took it away when called in January. This wonder happened because, why? Christmas tree forests. Hundreds and hundreds of acres of dedicated farmland growing big, sprucey lush trees.

England does not have these farms.

England has little trees.

As our exuberant love of Christmas is represented by the tree, we set off to find our jewel with 11 year old daughter and 8 year old son leading the way. 15 year old son begged off with mumblings about studying and finals but I, being razor sharp, sensed a certain disinterest in the project. Not to worry, we will return with our beauty and you can help decorate. Excitement lit up his eyes – not.

First stop, the local garden center. Driving into the parking lot we feel salmonish, as hundreds of tiny cars drive past us. Jammed inside the tiny cars – two to three tree trunks poking through the front seats. So much for the question of delivery.

Undeterred, we proceed with anticipation to the back of the shop and acres of trees. Yippee! My youngest ran ahead and found one instantly. It was 5 ft. tall and sparse. Upon perusal, all the trees were 4 – 5 ft, mis-shapen and bare. In the states, the whole lot would have been last weeks rubbish. “Now that’s a beautiful tree” I hear from the tree hawker behind me. “Shall I wrap her up for you?. “We were looking for a fuller one” “Fuller than this?” I have shocked this man out of his socks. “You’re not going to find one fuller than this!”. As I ponder Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree my daughter chimes in “But our tree last year was 9 feet tall. We always have a BIG tree.”

Re-creating Christmas away from what your children have known as their only home is hard. They want everything to be the same. It’s not so much the height of tree as that all aspects of the holiday season are different. I’m finding that I want to recreate the familiar as well. But it’s not possible. No matter how similar it may appear, it is still different.

We decide to continue our search.

The following weekend we pass a large hand painted sign on the high street. GRADE A X-MAS TREES , TURN HERE.
So, of course we did. A small local florist had stacks of trees tilted against the back of her shop. Lush, sprucey BIG hearty trees.

And she delivered.

It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

December 7, 2012

The kick-off to do one cultural activity per week officially began today at the Valentino Master of Couture exhibition at Somerset House. The exhibit is perfection. Human scale in a stunning 18th century public building that began its life as a Tudor palace. Like all of England’s royal history the buildings past is fraught with horror and peril, but has been resurrected as a cultural jewel in the city of culture. Glorious after glorious gown on display mannequins staged as a runway. Calligraphed name cards on front row seats prominently state Valentino’s famous clientele.

Okay, it depends on what your definition of culture is whether or not this exhibit qualifies. In the words of Valentino “I like spectacular things of beauty but really I have simple taste.”

I have been living in England for five months. Five months is a concise amount of time from which to assess one’s environment if one is awake – which I am on most days. We left our American hamlet in July to re-locate to London, three school age children in tow off for an adventure. And it is.

London is truly one of the great cities on the globe. Welcoming to all cultures, sharp, posh and the most literary city I have been where I can speak the language. I mention that caveat because Barcelona and Madrid appear to be well steeped from a literary viewpoint but, alas, I cannot read Man of La Mancha in the native tongue. Paris also feels literary, bookshops on many streets, people holding and reading books in cafes, metros. The front of Parisian bookshops are filled with serious books that would be in the back heap collecting dust in US book stores – that is if you can find one. But I digress.

This blog is about living in London.

Every story ever heard about living in a different country rings true.
It is:

Utterly Fascinating:

The day is heightened with a learning curve a mile high – if you want it to be. Journeying outside the door requires Google maps, trains, cars, buses and numerous questions of generally helpful strangers.

Sensorial Beauty:

London and England are stunning. Architecture and physical beauty delights the eye. Twenty minutes outside of Central London bucolic sheep graze on the hillside. What the English think of as “far” we Americans think of as “nearby”. As I have been told many times since arrival, “We are a tiny little country” and as a result, nothing is particularly far away.

London is a city of Culture:

The school run begins with classical music and ends with classical music. Several good classical stations play on the radio and no one complains when I turn them on. The children sit back and relax. What really amazes me is how the classical stations refer to the “school run”. Picture hundreds, maybe thousands of children across England taking in beautiful, soul filling music everyday.

The arts are supported by the government in a big way and are offered as respite for all. Museums are free and the performing arts are bolstered by people with deep pockets, happily and as a matter of course.

A Literary City:

Not just in the Dickens, Bronte historical way. People read here. On the train, tube or bus at least 70% of the passengers are viewing the written word. And not eating. Notice any contrasts here? The British school system focuses on reading well. Aside from US cable – which is less popular here than one might expect – there is an absence of endless children’s programing. The little ones are encouraged to pick up a book as a way to amuse themselves and for many it sticks.

Peace and Calm:

The English are organised. They que up for lines and everything requires an appointment or reservation. Visiting Santa, ice skating outside of various palaces, bowling – you better make a rezie or it will be a cheerful “I’m sorry. We are fully booked. Better luck next time.”

This culture of order transcends into a general sense of calm. It’s like generational knowledge – great when you have it, follow it and know that it’s good.

Oh, and treat yourself to a little online entertainment, www.valentinogaravanimuseum.com.

The man is a genius.

October 7, 2010

This time of year sends me flying into the kitchen, as if possessed, like a bloodhound desperate for a scent of impending smell. I want food, delicious aromatic food, yummy to look at and even better to eat. Summer is all about combining fresh and beautiful produce, but not about cooking. There is the delight of a fresh fruit pie or crumble – won’t turn that down -  to make or  eat. August delivers the possibilities of gazpacho along with anything else that can be beautifully carved out of a tomato and fresh basil. But October, ahhhhh, that is when the kitchen is really in her prime. As the evening temp dips down and AC is replaced by heat I heed the beckoning call, persistent and intent. Come back into the kitchen and make something already!

The gorgeous array of cookbooks that bloom in bookstores this time of year entice  me all the more. Clearly my true calling is stirring, sauteeing, baking and roasting. After the latest trolling of our local book store I walked away with three inspiring and mouth watering books. First one, the new Marc Bittman The Food Matters Cook Book. Filled with plant based tantalizing recipes I went running to the store to buy brussell sprouts (and I don’t like brussell sprouts). Next in line In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite by Melissa Clark.  Beautifully written, it is both a pleasure to read as well as cook from. Last but not least, the exquisitely photographed and meticulously researched new book by Dorie Greenspan, Around my French table. What a treat!

September 12, 2010

I sat with a learned man recently who told me the story of the frog in boiling water. Evidently frogs are very thick skinned and possibly not particularly smart. So, say a frog is put in a pot of water at room temperature and is  happily swimming around. As the temperature of the water is turned up the frog continues to swim unaware of the increasing heat because it adapts to the temperature. It adapts and adapts and adapts and then BOOM – dead.

Eww. Not a good story. But as I overcame the utter gruesomeness of it , I thought it actually is quite a brilliant analogy. Think of mothers. All the mothers of young and growing children that I know knock themselves out on a daily basis. They are exhausted and harried, constantly trying to catch up. It doesn't start out that way. Originally, as motherhood descends, the woman's life is still as she has known it for probably all of adulthood. But things happen. Children have needs and the needs of a baby doesn't come close to foreshadowing the needs of the bigger ones. Then, often, there is more than one. Or two. It's not like they have less needs just because there is more of 'em. But there is still only one mother. Ah, that's the rub. We don't multiply in ratio to the size of our growing families. So we adapt and we adapt and we adapt and then BOOM – we no longer remember who we were to begin with.

If every day we start to recover a small piece of our authentic selves, and nurture it with a modicum of  care, perhaps we can create a truly satisfying balance of past and present.

August 25, 2010

What is more comforting than an old friend? I mean a really old friend, like as in knowing each other through marriages, careers, children. Most importantly having been there when you were both fresh faced and young, desperately pondering if  you would ever figure it all out. I saw just such a friend the other day. Seeing her is as comfortable as putting on my favorite robe and tucking in with a delightful book. Our history makes our present all the more awe inspiring, horrifying and  grounding. I treasure my friendship with her aware that  these types of friends are few and far between. Having lost my oldest and most beloved friend from childhood nine years ago I relish the few relationships I still have in this category. It's one thing to have old friends and acquaintances. It's another thing to care.

August 13, 2010

This time of year is somewhat goofy. Trying to step around the hot, hot , dog days of summer while enjoying the time before school starts and managing all the children being home. Not an easy task. My children have all decided this would be a good time to get a puppy. I have put this idea off for a year and a half. We had a much loved dog for 17 years. But losing her was very painful and then not having a dog to care for became really easy. No walking the dog, no feeding the dog, grooming the dog, running to the vet. You get my drift.  Just now, as in this summer,  I have an actual itch to have a dog again. Not necessarily another Bichon, maybe try another breed. Back to school and back to dog walking. HHmmmm.

August 8, 2010

It feels like a year. Okay, the expected re-entry process has been more difficult than anticipated. Picture a CD playing at full tilt that's ripped out of the player. That's me.  For one thing, let's discuss the bugs. Evidently there has been an infestation of mosquitoes from a horror movie since we left. Creature Features lives.  While walking around the backyard and surveying the weed situation, myself and my five year old were attacked by mosquitoes. They went down my shirt and up my pants legs. Who gets bit on their knees while wearing pants? I do. Then I noticed many small children in town looking like they had chicken pox on their faces. Upon further investigation it appeared that the evil mosquitoes had descended upon them as well. Ick.

I love farmer's markets. From the first sign of spring I am anticipating the energy rush of all the beautiful produce plucked so recently from the ground. Summer is my favorite time to cook and prepare meals, inspired by the gorgeous bounty. Obviously our local farmer's markets are not going to bear any similarity to the ones in France. We have different soil, light, weather conditions. So my expectations were not particularly high for the local market, and it was o.k. Smaller than last year, and a little anemic, though I did find some beautiful triple creme cheese with apricots and almonds that was amazingly delicious. We ripped it open, slathered it on water crackers and practically ate the entire chunk standing at the kitchen counter. 

Now for the boxes. Coming home to a house filled with packed boxes that need to be emptied overwhelms me with fatigue. This is the most difficult hurdle of all. Getting back into the swing of children's schedules and school necessities is "child's play"  compared to this. How do people cope with unpacking moving boxes? How would a French woman cope with the unpacking and organizing of hundreds of boxes. Those bastions of efficiency and energy would certainly not allow boxes to sit around for weeks collecting dust and above all, looking ugly.   One friend says attack it head on, get it over with, then on with your life. Another's advice is one box a day – it's not so miserable. I would love some advice on this.

August 2, 2010

I wake up in the shape of an upside down question mark and can't move. Oh, I see. It is due to two children in my bed, one on either side of me. There is snoring coming from the floor. My oldest has placed himself there sometime during the night. Re-entry after six weeks in France is not going to be easy.

Upon return the children all felt our house was tooo big after living in a sardine can for four weeks. Just goes to show the affects of environment even in the short term. The house does feel cavernous, but that is because it is empty. We moved a month before leaving and half the boxes have yet to be unpacked. Uggghhhhh…..

Ice. Being dry and parched from my jet lagged sleep I reach for a cold glass of anything and realize I can pull out ice. Ice is a great luxury in France. Restaurants rarely serve it and our apartment did not have a freezer – big surprise. The refrigeration systems there are teeny tiney dollhouse size, and electricity  chuggs along in what seem to be limited amounts in the old buildings of the Marais. Ice is a welcome friend.

Bread. Wandering through the grocery store yesterday in a bit of a culture shock stupor I was at a loss as  what to buy. The bread aisle  looked  cartoonish ,  filled with Disney-like bundles of plastic. At the corner boulangerie in Paris the smell of fresh bread wafted in the windows in the morning and by afternoon their  shelves were empty. And it was DELICIOUS. Chewy in that perfect way, rolling with flavor. The bread here looks about as appealing as eating a sponge.

Cheese. Well, maybe I'll purchase some cheese. That was a mistake.

Olives.  Love olives. Always have. One of the tastiest concoctions we had in Paris was a thin crusted pizza on the Champs-Elysees with cheese, tiny capers and olives. It was sublime. That is one recipe I will try to recreate. The olive selection here is all in bottles, but there is a nice olive salad in the deli that looks fresh. We will have one of those please.

Fruit. Generic and  industrial looking. The berries at the local market in Provence were still warm from being picked. This fruit looks like it's been hermetically sealed in a vast refrigeration system. This was getting depressing. I picked up a peach, hard as a rock and ice cold. Eww.

Why is our food so disgusting? Perusing our local grocery store is a viewing of food like substances with very little real food.Not a novel discovery but  visually shocking when coming from such a different food experience for my family. Summers with my grandparents when was a child were a bounty of fresh produce picked everyday from their own garden. And it was absolutely delicious.  Sitting at the kitchen table chatting while munching on sliced green peppers and warm, sweet tomatoes was vividly recalled for me with the beautiful produce of Provence. The leisurely abundance of the Provencial markets was replaced with the fervor of Paris, but the food remained the same.

Change #1 – pay strict attention to what I feed my family and where it comes from. No more lip service. 

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