Friday, 28 October 2011

Making a U-Turn

I haven't owned a car in over five years. It's been very liberating not to be burdened with a monthly car payment or insurance premiums or have the added expense of petrol, which certainly isn't cheap. I haven't had to worry about yearly inspections or unexpected maintenance costs. In many ways, I've enjoyed not having a car. But...

... it's time to put our idealistic views aside and be a bit more realistic. The fact is that, with two children, it's just much more practical to have a car, especially where we live in North London. Not everywhere is easily accessible by public transport, and places that are usually require one or two changes and a minimum of an hour's journey time. It's hard enough struggling with one child (and buggy and other gear) on a bus, but it's manageable. I cannot, however, imagine struggling with a toddler, a baby in a buggy, and any shopping I might have. Even with The Other Half's help. And as lovely as my friends have been about giving Crumpet and me lifts to play dates and parties over the past three years, I can't expect to keep bumming rides forever. So we need a car. As much as The Other Half grumbles, it's a non-negotiable issue for me.

This is a time when I really wish I had learned to drive a stick shift. When I took driver's ed in North Carolina, everyone learned on automatics. I don't even think we were given the option of learning to drive a manual. Here in the UK and in mainland Europe, the opposite is true. So that means that automatic vehicles are more expensive (I can verify this by the prices we have paid for rental cars in Europe). But you know what they say about old dogs and new tricks. I've already learned to drive on the other side of the road (which still makes me a bit nervous, but perhaps because I haven't had much practice since I got my UK license in 2008); I am not about to learn to drive a manual at this stage in the game.

So I guess you could say I'm making a metaphorical U-turn on my car-free philosophy, but you know what they say about how having kids changes things. I'm hoping (or least trying to convince The Other Half) that having a car won't drastically affect our daily lives. We'll still walk to most places and he can still use his bike as his primary mode of transport. I wouldn't even think of driving into central London. But at least having a car of our own will give me back a little bit of my independence and make it easier for us when driving is just the easiest way to get from point A to point B. And if all of my arguments fail, I'll buy the car in my name and add him as a named driver so he can still say he doesn't technically own a car.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Baby on Board

I am nearly 17 weeks pregnant, and although I think it's pretty obvious by now that I have a baby on board, I have opted to wear the above badge that Transport for London makes to avoid any confusion on my daily commute to and from work. So far, it has worked, and usually someone kindly offers me their seat, which I gladly accept (especially this week, as the sciatica I experienced with my first pregnancy has come back with a vengeance).

However, I still find it amazing how possessive some people are when it comes to seats on the train. Even with the badge, I'm a bit uncomfortable asking people outright for a seat (maybe when I'm seven or eight months pregnant it will be a different story), but I do make an obvious show of moving right inside the carriage and, when possible, making eye contact with people. For the most part, it works, but earlier this week a woman looked right at me, then at my badge, then back at me, and then lowered her head and closed her eyes as if to pretend she was asleep. I sighed audibly and rolled my eyes, at which point the woman next to her offered me her seat, but I felt sort of guilty accepting it. Then this evening a woman offered me her seat, apologizing profusely for not noticing me earlier (she noticed when she looked up in between stations instead of when I got on the train). I assured her it was fine and that I appreciated it. The man standing next to her said, "It's a shame it has to be you to offer a seat" and then gave a disapproving look to the man next to me, who hadn't even budged from his seat. A pregnant colleague of mine, who is just a few weeks further along than me, asked a man last week if she could sit down (proudly displaying her badge at the time). He reluctantly got up and then said, "So much for equality of the sexes."

I can understand being reluctant to give up your seat for someone who "looks" pregnant because there have been situations where passengers have made embarrassing mistakes in that regard. It can be a bit like asking someone "When are you due?", only to be told "I'm not pregnant, thank you." A male colleague of mine, on hearing me refer to my pregnancy recently, congratulated me and then apologized for not saying anything earlier because he had always thought it best to wait until two weeks after the baby was born to offer congratulations to avoid awkward assumptions. But this badge eliminates any doubt, so as far as I'm concerned, common courtesy is to relinquish your seat without too much fuss.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

And Baby Makes Four!

I have been incredibly neglectful of the blog lately (what's new?). But it's not as if I don't have good reasons (as usual). Let's see... in the past two months, we've been up to quite a lot, including:
  1. We were involved in a family wedding, which allowed us a mini-holiday in the leafy South London suburb of Kew.
  2. Birthday party season has consumed most of our recent weekends. (Think EIGHT toddler birthday parties within about a month, including Crumpet's).
  3. I have begun a new promoted post of responsibility at work and, as part of my new duties, led an eventful Outward Bound trip of 46 15-year-olds to Wales. Luckily, we all came home with only minor (metaphorical) cuts and bruises.
  4. I celebrated five years of wedded bliss with The Other Half, Crumpet's third birthday, and five years since my arrival in the UK (not necessarily in that order).
  5. Oh, and I also got pregnant... Crumpet 2 is due in early April! (And, please, someone suggest a good nickname, perhaps in keeping with the baked goods theme. Tart seems highly inappropriate, and Scone just doesn't sound right. Beyond that, I'm at a bit of a loss.) More news on our growing family (and my growing waistline) to follow.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Notes from the Emerald Isle

Oh, boy, do I have a severe case of the post-holiday blues. As a result, I have spent most of today organizing the 247 photos I took on this week's trip to Ireland. To say it was idyllic would be a bit cliché, but it is the best word I have to describe our holiday.

We met up with my sister and her family in Doolin, in the northwest part of County Clare, last Saturday. It was the first time we had been on a family holiday together as adults. When I spoke to my mom this evening, one of her first questions was, "Did you girls get along?" Obviously, she remembers every childhood squabble we ever had (and I admit there were a fair few), but we're much closer now that we're both adults (and not living together!), and it was nice spending time together away from our ordinary surroundings. We weren't joined at the hip and didn't feel guilty going off and doing our own things some of the days, but we did do several things together, and Crumpet loved playing with (and bossing around) her big cousin.

We struck a nice balance between relaxation and sightseeing. Our cottage didn't have Internet access, which suited me just fine because it meant I had to switch off and leave work and other worries behind. In our down time, we took country walks, talked and played games in the evenings in front of the peat fire (yes, I know it's July, but it was Ireland, after all), and enjoyed some traditional Irish music at the local pubs. We explored seaside towns and parts of The Burren; saw the famed Cliffs of Moher (which I was more impressed with than The Other Half; I think he was just miffed at the 6 Euro per person charge for the car park!); visited the Aillwee Cave and Doolin Cave, the latter of which is home to the largest free-hanging stalactite in the world; and spent a day on the mystical island of Inisheer in the Aran Islands, where we toured the island in a traditional pony and trap, climbed up to O'Brien's castle for an impromptu picnic, and played on one of the best beaches in Europe. Even though the area we visited is a tourist hot spot, it didn't seem overwhelmingly so (except when we were unlucky enough to encounter giant coach tours), and it was still possible to get away from it all.

Our trip gave us a good taste of Ireland, but it has certainly whet my appetite for more. Unfortunately, we didn't win the Euromillions this week, so I'll have to make do with revisiting my photos for now.

Fisherstreet, Doolin
Doonagore Castle, Doolin
A country stroll
Shipwreck on Inisheer, Aran Islands
O'Brien's Castle, Inisheer

 The beach on Inisheer

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Decline of Civilization as We Know It (or Why I Am So Glad to Be Out of the Dating Scene)

Note: This post was originally written last month, but due to various other distractions I have only just gotten around to posting it.

Last night I went out with a friend to celebrate her birthday. We started the evening with a nice, laid-back Japanese dinner and then headed over to a local bar/lounge/club. My friend is a dancer, so she was in her element. I, on the other hand, have never really been a "clubby" sort of person (mainly because I have no rhythm on a dance floor), so that, and the fact that I had set myself a drinking limit before I left the house and was actually sticking to it, meant that I didn't really have the best time. I did, however, find myself in the middle of a comic episode which has inspired this post, so I guess the evening wasn't a complete waste.

One of the women in our party is recently divorced, so she has been enjoying reliving her youth and flirted mercilessly with a group of guys who said they were twenty-six but barely looked older than twelve. They were typical local boys ("townies," as a friend labeled them) and had been drinking for a while by the time they cozied up to us, so I really had to restrain myself when one of them asked me six times where I was from and then still insisted on telling me his friend had just moved to Canada too.

But the icing on the cake -- the moment I began to question my faith in humanity and worried about the future of civilization -- came when one of the other guys sidled up to me. The following conversation resulted (completely unembellished or exaggerated for dramatic effect, I might add):

"So what do you do for a living?"

"I'm a teacher."

"Really? That's cool. What do you teach?"


"English? So, like, you're an American over here in England teaching people how to talk?"

"No, I don't teach English language, I teach English literature."

Blank stare. "So, like, if a guy came up to you and said, 'You're really beautiful,' what would your response be?"

Blank stare, from me this time. "I'm not sure I understand."

"You said you teach English."

"Yes, I teach English literature."

"Like the romantics?"

Ah, now we're getting somewhere. "Yes, exactly."

"So, like, what if I said you were well fit?" At this point, I am really contemplating escaping out the bathroom window (which I did once or twice in my single days).

"Again, I don't understand what that has to do with what I do for a living."

"You said you teach English."

"Yes, I teach English literature. Like Dickens, Bronte..." His eyes have glazed over, and I realize I am talking way over his head. "I teach books," I finally say.

"Oh, right." It's a lightbulb moment. "So, what if an English bloke came up to you and said you were really beautiful?" Oy veh.

"Well, an English bloke did, and I married him." I flash my ring, because the ways in which I have subtly tried to attract his attention to it (brushing my hair behind my ear, taking a drink with my ring finger prominently displayed) have not worked.

"You're married? Awesome!" He makes a move to high five me, and I realize it's time to call a taxi.

When I got home, I took an extra long look at Crumpet sleeping peacefully in her bed, snuggled up to The Other Half, and silently thanked the gods that I am not in the dating scene anymore. Because, as I said, if that guy was a representative of the single man, I really worry about the future of civilization.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

My British Hair

I got my hair highlighted today for the first time in about four years (if not more). Since having Crumpet, I have kept my beauty routine as simple as possible. My semi-regular haircuts are about as extravagant as it gets these days. I have managed to fit in a few eyebrow waxings and even a couple of pedicures, but that feels like a real luxury now. So today was a treat. After years of neglect, I finally put some life back into my hair.

"It just feels so dull. My hair used to be so much lighter, naturally," I mused to my hairdresser. "I guess that was due to all the sunshine where I'm from."

"Face it," she replied. "Your hair has become British." How right she was.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Our Annual Holiday: An Encore

For most Brits, the annual "holiday" is a sacred institution. For those with school-aged kids, it is either the Easter Holiday or the Summer Holiday, and everything seems to be planned around this monumental event. And, for those of us without school-aged kids (which is still the case with us until next January), we try to avoid these holiday times at all cost. (I'm lucky in that the school I work at goes on Spring Break a week before the rest of the British schools and finishes for the summer three weeks before everyone else, so we have managed to avoid the main crowds for the past couple of years.)

Most holidays consist of jetting off to some sunny locale like the Costa del Sol, Greece, Turkey, or any number of islands -- the Canaries, the Azores, or the Cape Verde Islands, for example. "British" holidays don't really count as holidays for most people; I guess the UK isn't exotic enough, though I've been lucky enough to visit some pretty spectacular places here in Britain.

I can't speak for all international couples, but in our case a holiday is a bit of a complicated affair. I make sure that we schedule at least one trip back to the States a year; before we had Crumpet, it was much easier (and cheaper) to go back, so I sometimes managed two trips a year. The Other Half counts this trip as a holiday (and, according to our credit card bills, it qualifies as one), but as much as I love going home to visit my family and friends, I don't really consider these visits a holiday in the true sense of the word. To me, a holiday is a luxury; our trips back to the States are more of a necessity in my book. So we have to agree to disagree on that one.

Last month, we had a lovely kind of last-minute and unexpected holiday in Northern France, which would have been our "annual holiday," but we are now planning a second holiday (I know, it's a bit of an indulgence, but totally justified, in my opinion) to... drumroll, please... IRELAND!

Yes, we are headed to the Emerald Isle at the end of July -- incidentally, in the first week of the summer holidays I previously mentioned we try to avoid. My sister, brother-in-law, and nephew will be meeting us there, and we are renting a cottage together. We are still working out the details, but we will be staying in County Clare, in the West -- home to such natural wonders as the Cliffs of Moher and The Burren; and just a short ferry ride away are the mystical, car-free Aran Islands.

In the nearly nine years since I first came to England (nearly five of which I have actually lived here), I have never been to Ireland, even though it's just a short hop away. So I am beyond excited.

Castle and ruins and pubs... oh my!
Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Kids Say the Darndest Things: Redux

Crumpet's developing vocabulary and language skills have been the subject of many a blog post. At two and three quarters, I am literally amazed by the new things she comes out with every day. Lately, she has been telling stories to her toys, and last night she surprised me by "reading" an entire Peppa Pig book (actually, she had just memorized it because we had read it to her so much, but she said it perfectly and in sync with the right pages and pictures). But this morning she truly proved her creativity... and growing cheekiness.

As she was eating her porridge, she attempted to pour her milk into her bowl, something she has been told not to do many times because she just ends up making a mess. So I told her again not to do it. This time she replied, with her finger pressed to her lips, "Shh, my porridge is talking to me." "Really?" I said. "What is it saying?" And then, in the porridge's "voice": "'Crumpet [my substitution here, of course], I'd like some more milk.'"

Gotta give her credit for her imagination, although I'm not sure if this quick-thinking is a good thing or if it just spells trouble for the future...

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Fun With Language: Part 2

Last year, I wrote a post about Crumpet's expanding vocabulary and the development of a very hybrid accent. Now, at two and a half years old, her accent is distinctly British. At least, according to my sister. I personally don't notice it so much because I hear her every day and, to me, she doesn't sound especially British or American; she just sounds like my Crumpet.

However, the most interesting linguistic evolution that has occurred this year is my changing accent. When I first moved to the UK nearly five years ago, I never thought I would lose my American accent. Sure, early on I adopted new words like aubergine instead of eggplant and lorry instead of truck because, quite frankly, it was easier than having to correct myself when people gave me blank stares or chuckled in response. On one of my first trips back to North Carolina after moving to the UK, one of my friends even noticed that I had started to use the phrase "ring me" instead of "call me." But I was particularly adamant that I would not turn into Madonna and adopt some faux-British accent.

When you have a child who pronounces bath bahth and tomayto tomahto, however, it's bound to rub off on you. I now find myself enunciating my ts (as in butter, not budder, and water instead of wadder), saying musn't and naughty (in a very affected sort of way, not in a way that sounds like the word has ds in it), and calling myself "Mummy." On our recent holiday, I even found myself wavering between saying France and the very-British sounding Frahnce, depending on my mood.

I guess, like all species, I am simply adapting to my new habitat. But as soon as I set foot on Carolina soil (or speak to my family or friends), there is a slight twang that returns.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Springtime in France

Veules-les-Roses, Normandy
It's been almost two weeks since we returned from our spring holiday in Northern France, and it is already starting to feel like a distant memory.

We stayed for nearly a week with extended family in Montreuil-sur-Mer in the Pas-de-Calais region. I admit that my initial reaction when we first started planning our holiday was not very enthusiastic; I had an image of Calais as a tacky port full of Brits doing cheap booze runs. While there may be an element of truth to that, the area outside of "Calais proper" is lovely and underrated. Montreuil itself is a walled town and is famous as the setting of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. With cobbled streets, half-timbered buildings, and even a Michelin-starred restaurant, Montreuil certainly lives up to its "storybook" reputation.
The surrounding villages in the Vallée de la Course (those nestled within the valley of the Course River) and Les Sept Vallées (the Seven Valleys) are quintessentially "French": quaint, picturesque, and just about every other cliché adjective you can think of. Northern France is known for its good cheese and chocolate, and I can vouch for that.

During that first week, we took gentle strolls around the town's ramparts, enjoyed long evening meals with good food and wine, and explored some of the surrounding villages and seaside towns. The Étaples Military Cemetery was both surprising and overwhelming, and the Dutch-influenced city of Arras was an interesting day out. I have a hard time slowing down and doing "nothing" while I'm on holiday (my first instinct is to "see" as many things as possible, but I'm working on that), but we struck a nice balance between relaxation and activity.

After we left Montreuil, we headed to Upper Normandy for another three days, where we did a bit of touring. We stayed near Forges-les-Euax, an old spa town in the heart of the countryside, and took day trips to Veules-les-Roses and Rouen. The latter is the capital of Normandy, and The Other Half and I had been there nearly six years ago when I led a group of American high-schoolers on a trip through Europe and he accompanied me as a chaperone. It was nice to return, especially with Crumpet. Funny how it seemed bigger than both of us remembered. Veules-les-Roses was a lucky find recommended to us by the owner of the B & B where we stayed and is probably one of the most beautiful villages I have ever seen, so much so that I'm having a hard time doing it justice with an appropriate description.

In the first few days after we returned, we managed to avoid the usual post-holiday blues by keeping ourselves busy every day – mostly with outdoor activities since the weather has been unseasonably hot and sunny. When the sun shines here in England, you take advantage of it because you never know how long it will last. But now that the slightly cooler weather has returned, the chocolate eggs that Crumpet found over Easter weekend are rapidly disappearing, the Royal Wedding is over, and I've had time to catalogue our photos and reflect on our holiday, I'm thinking wistfully of the next time we can hop the Channel.
Chateau Martainville, Normandy

Friday, 29 April 2011

An Afternoon Tea Fit for a (Future) Queen

Well, they've said their "I Dos" (or, technically, "I Wills") and sealed it with two kisses seen round the world.

We started today with a mimosa to toast the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton and finished it with a very traditional afternoon tea. The title of this post may be a little bit of an exaggeration, but the tea did turn out pretty well, as you can see below. The macaroons were a little crumbly, but they tasted good, and the shortbread and lemon meringue cupcakes (both first attempts) were a success.

Watching the coverage of the wedding did make me feel the tiniest twinge of regret that we didn't venture into London to take part in the festivities, but in the end I think we got a much better view at home. It's funny how easy it is to get caught up in all the hype and celebration. I think I could get used to all this pomp and circumstance. In fact, the idea of becoming one of the Queen's "subjects" when I get my British citizenship doesn't seem so weird anymore; it seems like a bit of a fairy tale itself.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Wedding Fever

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few months, you know that tomorrow is the wedding of the century... or at least the decade. I don't in any way consider myself a royalist, but I do like tradition and a bit of pomp and ceremony, so I will be celebrating Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding with the rest of the world. But unlike the hundreds of people who have been brave (or crazy) enough to camp outside Westminster Abbey, I will be watching the ceremony from the comfort of my couch. Well, actually, my mother-in-law's couch.

It's pretty exciting to be in London for the event, even if I don't plan to go anywhere near the city tomorrow. Let's face it: I'll get a much better view on TV. The bunting is out, the flags are up, and today I even treated myself to a festive Union Jack-themed cupcake from a local cafe (and bought myself a commemorative William and Kate mug, which I know is a bit tacky, but I figured £5.50 wasn't too bad for a bit of fun).

We plan to mark tomorrow's occasion by indulging in a very British tradition: afternoon tea. Tonight I have been busy baking shortbread, almond chocolate macaroons, and lemon meringue cupcakes. My mother-in-law is in charge of the finger sandwiches and scones with cream and jam. If all goes according to plan (and my macaroons don't collapse), I'll post photos tomorrow.

Like I said, I may not be a royalist, but I do like to be a part of history... and have an excuse to party. And, like millions of other Brits, I'm extremely grateful for the wedding gift William and Kate have given us: an extra holiday!

Thursday, 21 April 2011

In My Mind I'm Goin' to Carolina (Reprise)

We returned last night from our French voyage that I mentioned in my last post (yes, yes, it has been that long since I last blogged, and I'm beyond embarrassed about how badly I have been keeping it up). The Other Half, Crumpet, my mother-in-law, and I had a lovely time staying with extended family in Montreuil-sur-Mer in the Pas-de-Calais region and then touring Upper Normandy for another few days, and I will write a proper post with photos soon.

While we were away, I didn't go near a computer or a television, and I only used my mobile for emergencies. It was nice being detached from the rest of the world. At least, at the time. You could imagine my shock when I returned last night to learn (via Facebook, of course) that my hometown of Sanford, North Carolina had been devastated by a deadly tornado that killed two people (and more in the surrounding towns) and damaged several homes, including the home of one of my close friends. Thankfully, she and her husband and two children are okay physically, but I can't even begin to imagine what they are going through emotionally. My parents were spared major damage, but if the path of the storm had been just a few miles north, they might not have been so lucky. The storm was so bad it made international news; here it is on the BBC.

I've seen natural disasters like this before unfold on TV: the tsumani in 2005, Hurricane Katrina... and growing up in a state that is a frequently struck by hurricanes, we've had our share of near misses. But I never imagined something so devastating would strike this close to home. I just wish I could help in a more tangible, constructive way. It's times like these when I feel very disconnected from home. Facebook and Skype are wonderful for keeping in touch, but virtual reality isn't always the most comforting substitute for being with the people you love in person.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

My Little Francophile

As preparation for our spring holiday to France, I have been enlightening Crumpet on all things Gallic ("all things" being "all things that appeal to a two-and-a-half-year-old," that is). She is very excited about tasting France's famous cheese and grapes, and she knows that Mummy and Daddy will be drinking wine (I managed to convince her that grape juice is better and will be her special drink). I have also been teaching her the very basic, school-girl French I know. So tonight I asked her, "Can you tell me what you know how to say in French?" Without missing a beat (and with perfect pronunciation) she said, "Bonjour. Je m'appelle Crumpet." (Well, of course she didn't say "Crumpet," but I don't want to ruin her anonymity.) At this rate, maybe we'll have a translator should we decide to hop the Channel one day.

Friday, 14 January 2011

My 15 Seconds of Fame: Part 2

Remember back in August 2009 when I wrote a post about my experience filming as an extra in Gulliver's Travels? No? Well, anyway.... The movie has been out for a few weeks now, and Tuesday night The Other Half and I took a trip to the cinema to see if I made the final cut. And I did! I saw myself in two shots at the beginning of the movie. I may only be a flash on the screen or a blur in the background to most people (even people who know me well would probably have a hard time picking me out unless I pointed myself out), but I clearly recognized myself. (I'm in the office scenes, by the way, wearing a dark brown skirt and a pink flowered blouse, but good luck finding me.) It's amazing to think of all the money -- and time -- it takes to produce just 10 seconds of film. And it cost us nearly £60 to see that 10 seconds (I don't think I can fairly say it was "15," as I suggest in the title of this post); over £21 for the movie plus dinner afterwards, making for one expensive date. But it was worth it, and I can't wait to buy the DVD so I can play it in slow motion and pause it during "my" scenes. I know, it's pretty cheesy and a little bit sad, but I'm not going to apologize for my overzealousness, because who else can say they've been in a movie with Jack Black? Besides Amanda Peet and company, of course.