Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Best Money I've Spent in Ages

Crumpet and I returned from our month-long visit to the States yesterday. I was on my own with her on the flight back, and I had been dreading it since we booked our tickets back in May. I flew solo with her last year, but she was much younger then, so there were different issues to deal with. This time, she was older, stronger (meaning she can put up more of a fight), and needs much more to occupy/distract her. So I made sure I packed her colored pencils and sketch pad, a couple of new books and some old favorites, and the cuddly toys she can't live without. But on Monday, while my sister and I went on a Target run, I made the purchase I referred to in this entry's title: a portable DVD player. And, yes, it really was the best money I've spent in ages. It didn't stop Crumpet from putting up a fight when it was time for "night-night" (I have a pretty big bite mark to prove it), but while she was awake it at least kept her quite for a good length of time. She was mesmerized by Dora the Explorer, making the flight much more pleasant for me and, no doubt, the other passengers in our section. Before I had children, I always kind of turned my nose up at parents who used television as a way of controlling their kids, but, damn it, when you're on a transatlantic flight (especially alone) you do what you have to do.

Luckily, we scored a whole row to ourselves in the front section of coach, so we were actually quite comfortable. Or as comfortable as you can be on a plane. We're still battling jet lag (and a little bit of homesickness on my part, which I'm sure I'll write about in an upcoming entry). It's amazing how quickly four weeks can pass, which makes me nervous about how quickly the next four weeks will pass, after which I will be back at work for the new school year. Until then, here's hoping we have some decent August weather to finish off the summer.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

10 Things I Love About North Carolina

 Morning on Lake Tillery, Central North Carolina

One of the things I love about coming back to my home state (other than catching up with family and friends, of course) is being able to see it with new eyes or, in some cases, rediscover things I took for granted when I lived here. Here are just a few things I love about The Old North State:

1. The whirr of the cicadas on a warm summer evening.
2. Summer thunderstorms. There is nothing more comforting than the roll of distant thunder or a sudden downpour to cool a hot summer day (provided I'm inside, of course).
3. The changing seasons. One of my favorite times in NC is the fall, when the trees are ablaze with red, orange, and yellow hues. Then again, the spring is also beautiful, when the azaleas are in their full fuchsia glory. The UK doesn't have such defined seasons; there's foliage or no foliage, cold or really cold. 
4. Produce stands. Nothing I have experienced in Europe (not even the woman selling fresh figs on the side of the road in Crete) can compare to the raw honey or fresh sweetcorn or boiled peanuts you can get from a makeshift stand in the middle of nowhere.
5. Barbecue. With hush puppies. And honey butter. Need I say more?
6. Mexican food. Like curry houses in the UK, there is a Mexican restaurant on just about every corner in the South. It may be a bastardized version of Mexican food (like curry is a bastardized version of Indian), but it's oh so good.
7. Talking to strangers. When you're used to the big city, where people are afraid to make eye contact, it's nice when a complete stranger strikes up a conversation with you in the supermarket.
8. Driving. Now I know this goes against what I have said before about my dislike of driving, but I love how here you can just get in the car without having to plan anything. And in five minutes from just about anywhere, you can be in the middle of nowhere.
9. The landscape. Whether it's the soft, undulating peaks of the Appalachian Mountains or the rolling dunes of the Outer Banks or just a backroad tobacco field, there is no denying that North Carolina is a beautiful part of the country.
10. Quiet. No city traffic, no shouting from the nearby flats, no buzz of the fans from the neighboring butchers, no airplanes flying overhead. Just the sounds of the crickets chirping and the cicadas whirring (see number 1) and the occasional freight train whistling in the distance.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Redefining the Term "Long-Distance"

The Other Half headed back home to England on Tuesday, so Crumpet and I are here on our own with Grandma and Grandpa in North Carolina for another week and a half. But despite the nearly 4,000 miles that separate us, we've still been able to see each other every day. The evolution of technology really has redefinied the meaning of long distance.

When The Other Half and I started courting ("dating" seems like the wrong word to use since we didn't really go on "dates"), Skype was still relatively new, so we mostly resorted to (what now seems like old-fashioned) e-mail and phone cards to keep in touch. By the time we got married in 2006, Skype and other video messaging services had become more popular, and we were doing web chats maybe once or twice a week. Now, we regularly do video calls with my parents and my sister and her family when we're back in England. Since we've been here in NC, Crumpet has even been able to see her Nana in England three times. For the majority of my childhood, I lived 3,000 miles away from one set of grandparents and 1,000 miles away from the other. If we were lucky, we got to see them each once a year. Even long distance phone calls were expensive, so we maybe talked to them once or twice a month. The idea that one day my children would be able to see people while they were talking to them across the country (or across the ocean, as it turned out) seemed very Jettson-esque, one of those things that I associated with "the future" but could never really picture materializing. It isn't quite the same as being able to see someone and spend time with them in the flesh, but web cams have certainly made it easier to endure the distance.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Licensed to Drive

Today I had the pleasure of renewing my North Carolina driver's license. And I say that, of course, with total sarcasm. After waiting for over an hour while only one DMV employee processed a room full of people, it took me all of five minutes to renew my license.

Getting or renewing a driver's license in the US is a totally diffrerent experience than getting a driving license in the UK. The first time I drove, I had just turned 15. I passed a written test that exempted me from the classroom portion of Driver's Ed, so all I had to do was complete 5-10 hours of driving with an instructor in order to get my learner's permit. That allowed me to drive, supervised, until I was 16, when I got my full driver's license. It's been nearly 15 years since then, but I can vaguely remember having to do a "road test" with a DMV employee in order to get my license. This road test consisted of pulling out of the DMV parking lot, driving down the block, reversing backwards, and parking in an empty parking lot nearby. I then drove back to the DMV, where I took a brief vision test and a road signs test. And that was all it took to prove my competency on the road. Every five or so years since then, I have had to renew my license, which has consisted of the vision test and an abreviated version of the road signs test. And we're talking basic road signs that any five-year-old could identify (stop, yield, speed limit, school zone, etc.), not the less common, but just as important, ones a driver might encounter. They make it ridiculously easy to get and keep your license in the US, I suppose partly because there is no alternative to driving in many places.

In the UK, on the other hand, you have to do a lot more to prove that you can responsibly operate a vehicle. That doesn't mean that there aren't any nutcases on the road, but at least the process does weed out a few of the extreme cases. For starters, the minimum driving age is 17, and the government is apparently thinking of increasing that to 18. I think 18 (or even the current age of 17) is much more sensible. The difference between a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old is pretty dramatic, and when I think back to what I was like when I was 15, I really had no business behind the wheel. And I was pretty responsible. Imagine some of the 15-year-olds out there! Anyway, back to the subject at hand. I got my UK driving license over two years ago and before I even took the written test I took at least 20 hours of lessons with a private instructor. Then I took the test, which was probably the easiest part of the whole process. A couple of months later, after I had had a few more lessons, I took the driving (or "road") test. This was a 35-minute test in which the examiner scrutinized my every move. Luckily, I passed with only a couple of minor offenses, but apparently it's not uncommon to fail your driving test at least once. Some people fail several times before they finally pass. But once you have your driving license, you don't have to renew it until you're 70 (unless, of course, you get too many points or lose it).

So, nearly two weeks after my license had expired (which the DMV employee didn't even question today), I am now licensed to drive again in North Carolina. I have been driving legally with my UK license in the meantime (my UK license allows me to drive in the US for up to a year, I think), but at least it will be another five or eight years before I'll have to prove once again that I can identify a railroad crossing sign or a stoplight.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Fourth of July Fun

Today was Crumpet's first Fourth of July in America, and the first time I've been here for the holiday in four years.

We kicked off the festivities on Friday, when we visited with family friends in Mt Gilead, North Carolina. We spent the afternoon swimming in Lake Tillery, "cooking out," and watching the fireworks over the lake. It was well worth keeping Crumpet up three hours past her normal bedtime to see her face light up as she watched the sky explode with colors and sparks. The next morning we took a paddle boat ride on the lake before heading back to my parents' house in Sanford. We took Crumpet to a local family Fourth celebration downtown at Depot Park and then went out to eat at a new-ish restaurant serving modern Southern cuisine. The Other Half heaped high praise on The Steel Pig when he claimed that his spare ribs were the best he had ever eaten. My crab cakes weren't bad either. Today we spent a lazy day at home and had an all-American dinner of grilled chicken and apple pie before we lit off some of our own fireworks.

I look forward to exposing Crumpet to many more American holidays and traditions... on American soil. As much as I try to replicate the experience of Thanksgiving at our home in the UK, it's not quite the same.