Thursday, 20 December 2012

An American Tragedy

This morning, I attended Crumpet's first "school concert." I watched with a lump in my throat as she and the other lively, pink-cheeked three- and four-year-olds in her nursery class sang holiday songs they had been practicing for weeks. In the run-up to today's big event, she has come home every day excited to share with me her newest song. (I must say that my personal favorite has been "When the Robots Came to Dinner.") In the end, today's "performance" was only about 10 minutes long, but it will stay in my heart for much longer. It's unfathomable to think that I have shared over 2,100,000 minutes with Crumpet since she was born because it seems like just five minutes ago that we brought her home from the hospital. And, yet, I can barely remember what my life was like without her, and, as unfathomable as two million may seem, I know that two trillion minutes will never be enough time to make enough memories for her and Cupcake to know how much I love them.

Less than a week ago, as I was eating dinner, I heard the unimaginable news of the Connecticut school shooting broadcast over the radio. Like the rest of America, I am at a loss for words when it comes to trying to articulate just how deeply saddened -- and outraged -- I am by this tragedy, both as a parent and as an educator. I know I am not the only parent who has found it impossible to fight back the tears when looking at the photos and reading the stories of the youngest victims, thinking, "Thank God it wasn't my children," but also feeling guilty and heartbroken that any parent has to go through such unspeakable pain. Nor am I the only teacher who has felt a mixture of terror, pride, and sorrow for my chosen profession and, more importantly, for the courageous women who lost their lives doing what they loved. And I also know I am not the only American citizen who has had to stop myself from shouting out loud in response to some of the vicious rhetoric and finger-pointing that has come from both sides following this horrific event. I could write an epic post about gun control or violence in America versus the U.K., but I don't think this is the right forum or the right time for that. I only know that today, as my daughter beamed out at me while singing her little heart out, I took a moment to reflect on how thankful I am for all of the minuets in life that are so easy to take for granted. Tonight, I hugged my girls a little bit longer and a little bit tighter.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Ten Years Ago Today...

...on what I thought was a once in a lifetime trip to London (if I had only known how wrong I was), I wandered into a back alley pub in Covent Garden with my friend Ashley. I locked eyes with a shy, handsome stranger at the bar and, after a little help from Ashley, we started chatting. He had popped in for a quick pint with his brother after a job in town, having just driven five hours home from Plymouth the night before, and was nearly ready to leave until I walked in. Instead of going home for an early night, he ended up staying out with us until the wee hours of the morning. By the time we parted at 2 AM, he had told one of the girls with us that he fancied me (I'd never been "fancied" before!), and we had made a date for two nights later, which happened to be Thanksgiving. That was how it all started and how, nearly four years and almost a dozen transatlantic flights later, I became "accidentally English."

We've talked about how to celebrate this "anniversary" for some time now, thinking how romantic it would be to have dinner at the same restaurant overlooking Tower Bridge where we had our first date all those years ago. But the reality of having two children and a tight budget this time of year mean we'll probably end up having a curry and going to see the new James Bond film at the local cinema instead. And, yet, even though it may seem a bit boring to some people, it's the best way I could imagine spending our evening together. Anyone can have a romantic holiday romance, but not everyone goes on to build a beautiful life together.

Friday, 23 November 2012

British School Admissions 101

It doesn't seem like that long ago that I started this blog, when our little Crumpet was still baking away in my oven. Boy, how time flies. This week, I submitted her application for primary school to the local council. Even though she won't start reception, which is the British equivalent of kindergarten, until next autumn, the process starts now. And let me tell you, that process is turning out to be quite the educational experience in itself.

The whole idea of applying for primary school is a bit of a foreign concept to me (no pun intended). As far as I can remember from the three different elementary schools I attended -- all in different parts of the U.S. -- my mom just went to the school that was in our district, filled out some forms, and that was it. There was no choice in the matter, but there was also no competition to see who could get into the "best" schools. Here, it's a whole different ball game. There are several schools within our local "catchment" area, and we have to apply for the ones we want Crumpet to attend, in order of our preference, by mid-January. The council will review the applications and allocate places, and we will find out in April which, if any, of the schools we have applied for Crumpet has been accepted to. Yes, it's possible (unlikely, but still possible) that she might not be accepted to any of them depending on the number of other applicants within the local area. It's also possible she could be offered a place at more than one. Once she has been offered a place, we can choose to accept or decline, and if she hasn't received an offer from our first choice school, we can appeal and get a final decision in July. And let me be clear: these are state schools we're talking about, not posh private schools.

Slightly complicating the process is the fact that our first choice school is our local Church of England school, where The Other Half and his brothers attended many moons ago. It is a very highly-rated school with only a one-form entry, as opposed to three or four forms like the other local schools. Again, it is a state school, but faith schools have their own admissions criteria in addition to those of the local council. And let's just say that the criteria is pretty strict, and our history with the church and school (the fact that my in-laws were married there over forty years ago, The Other Half and his brothers were head choirboys, Crumpet was christened there, etc.) will not guarantee her a place. In fact, the competition for this school is so fierce that some parents have even resorted to downright devious tactics to get the vicar to sign their admissions forms, like printing up their own versions of the forms with a different set of criteria in order to pull one over on him and the local council. It has become an all-out battle for those coveted thirty places.

Luckily, we live in an area with several good schools, and our second choice school isn't necessarily second-rate (it's just much bigger), so I'm pretty sure Crumpet will get in there based on proximity alone. But the whole process is doing my head in, and I feel like Crumpet is applying for a place at Oxbridge with all of the drama involved. And to think that we'll have to go through the same thing in a few more years when she applies to secondary school...

Monday, 19 November 2012

Thanksgiving Small-iday

Every year since I moved to the U.K., I have cooked a Thanksgiving dinner. Some years have been bigger than others, but I always mark the occasion. The Other Half and his family have embraced Thanksgiving and always enjoy the excuse to get together and indulge without the stress and expense of Christmas.

This year's menu is going to be a downsized version of the classic Thanksgiving meal, partly because I am still recovering from jet lag after our trip to the States and partly because we'll be celebrating with a big meal at our neighbors' (another English/American family) on Saturday, and there's only so much turkey I can take. I will be cooking turkey breast instead of a whole turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, maple-glazed carrots, green beans with bacon and shallots, and caramel-pecan pumpkin pie with whipped cream for dessert. I also found a recipe online for pumpkin pie martinis that looks to die for, so I may make those as an aperitif. Then again, maybe that's better served with dessert so the dinner actually makes it to the table.

Crumpet is already getting into the holiday spirit. Today she happily set off for nursery school in her new Thanksgiving top, excited to tell her teachers and friends that "Thanksgiving is an American holiday for giving thanks for the things we love." To come to that sophisticated understanding of the holiday, we've been reading a new book I purchased while in the States called Thanksgiving Is... by Gail Gibbons. I wanted to find a book that explains what Thanksgiving is all about without being overcomplicated, and this is a really lovely book with lots of colorful pictures that does just that. Crumpet also discovered the delights of the Peanuts gang while in America, so she has been watching It's Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown for the past week.

Now more than ever, I think it is important to celebrate both American and English traditions, wherever we are and whoever we are with, so our girls can grow up appreciating both parts of their heritage. We may not be able to wake up Thursday morning to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade or spend the afternoon watching American football, but we can at least enjoy the flavors of the holiday and give thanks for our many blessings, which is what Thanksgiving is all about.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Home(sickness)

We are going home to the U.K. today. We are going home, but we are also leaving home. It's a process I should be pretty used to by now, but it doesn't get any easier. I should be packing, but clearly I am putting off that task. Instead, I am trying to fight off the first pangs of homesickness that I always experience before I hop back on that plane, wishing I had just a few more days here (while knowing a few more days still wouldn't be enough) and already thinking of our next visit but unsure of exactly when that will be.

I have lived in the U.K. for over six years now, and while it has gotten easier to think of London as home and even identify myself a little bit with the English, I still refer to North Carolina as "home" by default. I wonder if that will ever change. Every time I leave the States after a visit, I go through a bit of a grieving process.

I don't exactly miss the home (or hometown, to be more accurate) I left. I miss the idea of home, the mythologized version I have created in my mind. I miss all of the things I took for granted when I lived here but would bore me to tears and make me feel trapped if I actually moved back. More than anything, I miss the comforts of my childhood home: the smell of my mom's pancakes in the morning, tucking Crumpet into my old bed at night with my old stuffed animals, and several other experiences and emotions that are hard to put into words. I suppose that's nostalgia more than it is homesickness, since what I really miss isn't a place I can visit but instead the moments in time when I was most happy. I guess Thomas Wolfe had it right: "you can't [really] go home again."

Eventually, once we have settled back into our usual routine, I will come out of my funk. With time and distance, I will readjust to my life in the U.K. and remember that "home" is wherever we are as a family. I will remind myself that we are doing our best to give our daugthers the best of both worlds (England and America) and, above all, a happy childhood filled with wonderful memories of their own.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Making Memories

Our annual trip to the States is quickly coming to a close. We'll be back in England by the end of the week, and our time here will soon be just a memory. And I have made a point of making lots of memories for the girls during this visit, as it is Cupcake's first trip to the U.S. and the first time Crumpet has been truly excited about coming to America.

I say "making memories" because it really is a bit of a creation process. When you're lucky enough to live close to family, memories happen organically, but when you're separated by several hundreds or thousands of miles you have to go a little more out of your way to orcehstrate those little moments that become lasting memories. Weeks before my parents' and our annual visits to see each other, I make lists of places to go and things to do to maximize our time together and create those Kodak moments. In fact, I actually have a file on my computer dedicated to said lists. I know, it's kind of sad. I don't think that planning these memorable moments makes them any less special, but it does take away some of the spontaneity.

In a way, though, knowing we have a finite amount of time to spend together isn't always necessarily a bad thing. It kind of forces us to seek out creative ways to spend our time together and gives us the opportunity to play the resident tourist. Besides, when they reminisce years from now, Crumpet and Cupcake won't know that I pre-planned our s'mores-making evening or that our trip to the local bowling alley was anything less than a spur-of-the-moment decision (unless they read this blog, of course), and that's all that really matters.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Election Fever

Before I begin this post, I just think it's worth mentioning that when I logged on to Blogger just now I noticed that I have had 10,025 page views since I began this blog. Now, when you break that down, it doesn't seem quite so impressive. That's about 2,500 a year -- just over 200 a month -- since I started writing back in mid-2008. And when you consider that most of those views are probably by my mother, I guess it really isn't such a big deal. Still, 10,000 views does make me feel like a little bit of a cyber-lebrity.

Okay, now on to the post I originally intended:

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past two years, you'll know that today is election day, and after weeks of back and forth with my (former) local board of elections over my absentee ballott, I finally voted in person at my old polling station, which just so happens to be located at my old elementary school. How's that for a shot of nostalgia?

The first time I voted for president was in 2000, and I remember feeling a sense of excitement not unlike that of a child the first time she really understands what Christmas is all about. I stayed up late to watch the electoral college votes come in and felt genuinely cheated by the outcome of the race, hoping for some miracle in Florida at the eleventh hour. I remember feeling similarly enthusiastic during the 2004 election, but 2008 was when I had the biggest case of election fever. I had been living in the U.K. for just over two years and had had Crumpet only about six or seven weeks before the big day. Even though I was no longer a resident of the U.S., I felt the most invested in this particular election. I remember watching all of the debates online while Crumpet slept, and on election night I set my alarm for some ungodly hour so that I could check the results live online.

This election year has had a very different feel for me than those past. For some reason, I've felt a bit of a disconnect. Maybe it's because my personal life has been so full that I haven't really cared too much, or maybe it's because the longer I've been living outside the U.S. the less connected I've felt to American politics. (I've definitely been keeping up to date with my fair share of British political issues lately.) I haven't really followed much of the news, being very selective about those articles that I have read, and I've only really watched a few clips of the debates so that at least I'm not totally uninformed. I did watch some of the convention speeches, but I was actually more impressed with Elizabeth Warren's DNC speech than with either Obama's or Romney's, and I found myself kind of hoping she'd be on the Democratic ticket in 2016. My election fever has sort of turned into an election headache, and I'll be happy when the polls close and the campaign phone calls have ceased. Even Crumpet was less than impressed when I asked her this afternoon if she wanted to go help me vote for the President of the United States. Her eyes lit up for the briefest of moments, but then she said, "Um, maybe next time. I want to stay here and play with Grandma."

Perhaps my enthusiasm will return this evening when I settle in front of the television with my glass of wine to watch the votes being tabulated. But regardless of how jaded I feel about the election, I am very thankful for my (and my daughters' future) right to vote, a right I hope to gain in the U.K. soon.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Trick or Treat: American-Style

Every day for the past three weeks, Crumpet has excitedly announced, "It's nearly Halloween! We're going to America!" Indeed, I am writing this post from the other side of the pond, and the day she has been waiting for has finally arrived. The pumpkin has been carved, the costumes are ready for an evening of trick-or-treating (in the very neighborhood where I trick or treated as a child), and I have It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown on stand-by to calm her down after the inevitable sugar rush.

Halloween is BIG in America. As far as holidays go, I would rank it second only to Christmas. Yes, Thanksgiving is important -- and uniquely American -- but it's really just one day (two, if you count Black Friday, which is really more of a prelude to Christmas anyway). There isn't as much preparation and excitement involved in the lead-up to Thanksgiving as there is with Halloween. And you don't really see too many people decorating their houses or shops with turkeys or pilgrims and Indians.

In the six years I've lived in the U.K., Halloween has become more and more popular, with the supermarkets capitalizing on its success in America. Every year, I've taken Crumpet to pick out a pumpkin at the local pumpkin patch and she and her daddy have fun carving it into a jack-o-lantern to display on Halloween night. Several of the houses on our street have even gotten into the holiday spirit, and last year Crumpet came back with quite a big haul (for a three-year-old, at least) after her little trick-or-treating mission.

But no one does Halloween like America. And that's why I am so exicted to be back in North Carolina so that Crumpet and Cupcake can experience it like I did when I was a kid. Grandma has enjoyed decorating her house with all of the little Halloween knicknacks she's picked up over the years in anticipation of our visit, and Crumpet has enjoyed finding little "ghosties" and witches and bats hidden here and there. She has already made Halloween cookies and Jell-O jigglers with Grandma, and this morning she carved her pumpkin with her grandpa. We had pumpkin pancakes for breakfast, and Grandma made one into a little jack-o-lantern for Crumpet. This evening she'll put on her witch costume (Cupcake will wear the same pea pod costume that her big sister wore for her first Halloween), and we'll set off in search of spooktacular goodies with the other vampires, monsters, and mummies who will be at large.

I think it's so important for children of dual nationalities to experience holidays and traditions that are unique and special to both cultures. Which is why I didn't feel guilty pulling her out of nursery school for two weeks to make this trip. She'll be in "big school" next year, so this is really the last opportunity we have to visit outside of the major tourist seasons. Cupcake won't remember her first Halloween in America (at least I'll have the pictures to prove she was here), but Crumpet is at an age where she understands what holidays are about, so hopefully one day she'll look back fondly on her first America-style trick-or-treating experience.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Value of Family

Today is a sort of mini milestone. Five months ago, I began my maternity leave. These five months have been a real blessing. They have allowed me time to really get to know Cupcake and settle her into a good routine, not to mention the fact that I have been able to spend more time with Crumpet and help her adjust to her new role as big sister. And I still have over six months of maternity leave left.

I admit that I haven't done that much research into U.S. maternity benefits, but from what I understand there is no law that stipulates that an employer must provide paid maternity leave. As far as I know, most businesses or organizations allow a maximum of twelve weeks, but this time off is not always paid. I'm sure there are exceptions (in fact, just today, there was a feature on the Today Show's website about this very issue), but many of my American friends have had to return to work a mere six weeks after giving birth. When I had Crumpet, I could barely walk for at least two weeks. And I don't think I got a decent night's sleep for at least three or four months, when her colic subsided. Women need time to adjust emotionally to being mothers, and babies need time to bond with their mummies. At six weeks old, the world is still brand new to them. And six weeks after giving birth, a woman's hormones are still all over the place. I could not imagine trying to juggle the demands of work and the needs of a newborn at the same time. And although I don't judge anyone for the choices they make for the benefit of their families, I personally could not imagine handing my six-week old baby over to a nursery or child minder.

My school paid me my full salary for the first six weeks of my maternity leave and 50% of my salary for the next ten weeks. From seventeen weeks to nine months, I am being paid the government's statutory maternity benefit, which is less than £500 a month (but at least it's something!). I can take another three months off at no pay, but I retain my job and my management position. Men are also entitled to two weeks of paternity leave (whether or not it is all paid depends on the company, as far as I know). When I go back in February, I will have taken just over eleven months off. This, however, is nothing compared to the maternity benefits women are entitled to in other parts of Europe. In Sweden, for example, women and men can share parental leave of up to 16 months at at least 75% of their salaries. (Anyone who is Swedish and reading this, please correct me if I am wrong on this.) Slovenian women are entitled to 12 months at 100% pay. Spanish, Polish, and Hungarian women can take up to 3 years off, unpaid, and retain their jobs. This all seems so much more civilized to me than the American system. For a country that prides itself on family values, it certainly doesn't seem to place much value on the family unit. It shouldn't be so difficult for women (or men -- I am certainly not one to assume it is always the woman in the role of primary caregiver) to take time off from work to be at home with their children in the formative years.

This is a contentious issue, I know, and not everyone will agree with me. Some women, for various reasons, may choose to go back earlier that I am, but that is their choice. And I am so thankful to live in a country where I am even given that choice.

These five months haven't always been easy. Contrary to my boss's sarcastic comment when I left in March that he hoped I would enjoy my "holiday," I have not been sitting around with my feet up all day. Keeping a three-and-a-half-year-old entertained without over-tiring a newborn has been a challenge. Sometimes I have craved a few hours of child-free adult company. And even with The Other Half working and my maternity benefits still coming in, we've had to pinch a few pennies. But I wouldn't trade this time with my girls for anything in the world. This year is something I can't even begin to put a price tag on.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

An Emigrant's Dilemma

I am currently facing a dilemma that I am fairly confident nearly every emigrant or long-term expat has faced at some point or another: when to book my next trip home and how to cope with the realization that those trips home are inevitably becoming less frequent. (Getting out of the habit of referring to North Carolina as "home" is another dilemma, which really warrants another post).

When I first moved to the U.K., I promised myself I would go back to the States at least once a year. It was sort of my way of easing the guilt I felt at moving so far away from my family. For the first few years, I kept that promise; a couple of times, I even managed to make it back twice in one year. Now, with two children, that is becoming less and less of a reality -- until we win the lottery, of course (and I'm not holding my breath for that). I suppose it's inevitable, especially when both girls are in school. Holidays will have to be strategically planned around school breaks, which are, of course, the most expensive times to travel. And, not to sound selfish, but sometimes we're just going to feel like using one of those breaks to go on a proper family holiday -- just the four of us -- which is what I am contemplating for next summer. (I'm thinking of a beach somewhere in the Mediterranean.)

Right now I have to decide whether to go back in October on my own with the two girls or wait until February when The Other Half can join us. Both options have their pros and cons. If I go back in October, that means I'll be on my own with both girls on an international flight for the first time. But I don't think it will be as bad as I initially feared. Crumpet is at an age where she can easily amuse herself with a sticker book or my iPad, and (touch wood) Cupcake is much better at getting herself to sleep on her own than Crumpet ever was (or is). Plus, as a friend pointed out, she'll still be relatively immobile, which is good for traveling at this age. If we wait till February, I'll (maybe) have The Other Half's help, but I won't really be able to relax while we're there since I'll be stressing out about going back to work at the end of the month and sorting out childcare (another blog post in the making). So October seems to be the best choice in that regard. But if we go back in October, it's very likely we won't get back to the States at all next year, but I guess that's just an inevitability I will have to face sooner or later.

This may all seem very trivial to some people, but it does occupy a fair part of most emigrants' minds. A former colleague once told me that, as teachers, we're always wishing time away because we're always looking towards the next break; I couldn't agree more, but I think the same can be said for many emigrants or expats. I find myself planning holidays or visits a year or two in advance in order to maximize our time with my family without minimizing our time to ourselves.

My family is wonderfully supportive of me and my life here in England. Sure, they'd love it if we lived closer, but they certainly don't begrudge the fact that we don't. I grew up 3,000 miles away from one set of grandparents and 1,000 miles from another. In those days, long-distance calls were a big deal -- a special treat -- so we were lucky if we got to speak to them once a month. We saw them maybe once a year, if that. Technology has made it possible for Crumpet and Cupcake to see their grandparents (and aunt and uncle and cousin) virtually every day, and my parents' yearly visits (I don't exactly have to twist their arms to come to London) mean we get to see them in person every five or six months. Still, Skype isn't quite the same as popping in unannounced for a cup of tea and a chat.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

American Baby: The Sequel

There's another American in the family. As of last Wednesday, Cupcake is officially an American citizen, just like her big sister. Our trip to the embassy marked a couple of firsts for little Cupcake: her first time on the Tube and her first time into central London. And we couldn't have asked for a better baby: she slept when she was supposed to, and when she was awake she was smiley and content, like she usually is. Even the journey itself turned out to be better than expected. I had strategically booked our appointment two days before the start of the Olympics so we could avoid the major crowds; still, I was convinced it would be a bum fight on the Tube, so I was pleasantly surprised when we actually managed to get seats. And even though Wednesday was the hottest day of the year so far, at nearly 90 degrees, the atmosphere under ground was not as insufferable as I expected. At the end of the day, I came to the conclusion that I really have been here too long because, like a true Brit, I am starting to expect the worst in most situations.

Wednesday turned out to be quite a memorable day for another reason. On the way home from the embassy, we stopped in Whetstone in North London to catch a glimpse of the Olympic Torch as it made its way through the Borough of Barnet. We had a great spot along the road, so I was able to snap this picture:
We concluded the day with cake and champagne in a friend's garden and a fish and chip supper at home. What a day to celebrate being American AND British.

Friday, 6 July 2012

British Summertime

There is no bigger oxymoron than the phrase "British summertime." Apparently, June was the wettest month since records began, and so far July isn't getting any drier. We've had a few days above 70 degrees since March, but let's just say I don't think I'll be putting away my winter jumpers anytime soon.

I know I shouldn't complain too much. My parents have been experiencing 100+ degree heat and saturating humidity in NC, and the Midwest/Mid-Atlantic has been plagued with severe storms and power outages. I would gladly trade them a few inches of our rain for a few degrees of their heat.
Even Crumpet was bemoaning the soggy weather on the way to nursery school this morning.

"I'm fed up with all this rain," she said.

"I know," I agreed. "I am too."

"Poor Queenie," she continued.

"Queenie? Who's Queenie?"

"Of the country."

"You mean the Queen of England?"

"Yes."

"Why do you say 'Poor Queenie'?"

"Because of the rain."

"I wouldn't worry about the Queen," I reassured her. "I'm sure she's indoors enjoying a nice cup of tea."

Thursday, 14 June 2012

School's (Not Quite) Out for Summer

As a child, I remember eagerly (and impatiently) counting down the days till summer vacation. I looked forward to sleeping in, spending lazy afternoons by the pool and evenings enjoying summer barbecues and catching fireflies with friends. Things didn't change when I became a teacher. I still looked forward to that sometimes elusive-seeming summer vacation with just as much (if not more) anticipation as I had when I was a child. When times were stressful (which was often), I would simply remind myself that I only had x number of weeks/days/hours left until I could totally switch off for two months.

Well, despite the British weather, which honestly feels more like March than June (don't even get me started!), summer is (very nearly) upon us. But unlike her American peers, Crumpet still has another five weeks of school left before we can belt out any Alice Cooper.

Our little Crumpet has nearly completed her first two terms at nursery school, which is the British equivalent of preschool. It seems like just yesterday that I started this blog, before she was even born, but here we are reaching the first milestone in her school career. And it's gotten me thinking about one of the big differences between the US and the UK: the school calendar.

On the surface, the biggest difference is that British school children get a much shorter summer vacation than American children (about six weeks compared with two and a half months), but don't go feeling sorry for them. The Brits are also blessed with several vacations throughout the year, and, in the end, I think I prefer the British school calendar to the American, both as a parent and as a teacher.

Let's compare the two:

In the US (at least in NC, which is what I base my comparison on), children start school in late August. They get one day off for Labor Day, one day off for Veteran's Day, three days off for Thanksgiving, a week and a half to two weeks (if they're lucky) for Christmas, one day for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a week for Spring Break, and one day for Memorial Day, plus a few odd teacher workdays. They finish for the year in early June. I think I've remembered everything (although suddenly Columbus Day comes to mind for some reason; is that actually a holiday?).

Here in the UK, the children start in early September and have the following holidays: three week-long Half-Term holidays (one in October, one in February, and one in June), two to three weeks for Christmas, two weeks for Easter/Spring Break, two Bank Holidays in May, and a few odd teacher workdays (called INSET days). At my school, we don't have a June Half Term holiday, but we do have three weeks at Christmas and finish for the summer three weeks before the rest of the British schools, so we come out trumps in the end.

As a parent, I like having the holidays spread more throughout the year because it gives us a chance to travel and do things outside the busy summer season (though, trust me, travel companies over here take full advantage of all of the school holidays, so it's not necessarily always cheaper to travel in February, but at least a ski holiday is actually an option). As a teacher, I think having a shorter summer break benefits children more because it gives them enough time to unwind and refresh themselves without forgetting everything they learned the previous school year. It certainly makes for an easier start to the new school year because teachers don't have to spend a month reviewing last year's material. I also like knowing I only have to work a few weeks at a time before I get a good break of at least a week or two to refresh myself. The last three years, I have actually been ready to return to work after the Christmas holiday, energized and ready to plow through the rest of the school year.

Since our lives will be revolving around this calendar for the next 18 years or so, we'd better get used to it. Otherwise, the school days may turn into a school daze.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Simple Pleasures

For as long as I have lived in the UK, I have avoided baking chocolate chip cookies. I've baked cakes and pies and other types of cookies and even learned to bake scones and Yorkshire pudding, but I have never baked chocolate chip cookies... for one very good reason. Chocolate chip cookies require shortening, and until yesterday I had no idea what the UK equivalent was. Finally, in an effort not to have Crumpet miss out on one of childhood's simplest pleasures (after all, she is half American, and the chocolate chip cookie is an American childhood staple, much like the peanut butter and jelly sandwich), I Googled my quandary (honestly, what did we do before Google?) and found out that Trex is about as close to Crisco as you can get here. So I sent The Other Half on a mission to Sainsburys. The result? Yummy scrummy... even though I had to substitute "milk chocolate chips" for the semi-sweet chocolate chips the recipe called for. At least it's a start, and I can now sate my nostalgic cravings.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

A Secret Longing

I am harboring a secret longing, a desire for something from my past that is all-consuming. But hold on, it's not what you might think. Allow me to explain.

Since I moved to the UK, people on both sides of the pond often ask me what I miss most about America. Of course, there's the obvious answer: family and friends. Other than that, I've never really been able to pinpoint one specific thing that I yearn for or can't live without here in the UK. Is it the space? The weather? Target? While I certainly do miss all of these things (especially Target), the truth is I've learned to adapt without them.

Two children later, I now have the answer to that lingering question. What do I miss most about America? It would have to be the tumble dryer.

Now, you may be thinking, "It's just a humble appliance," but having lived without one for almost six years, I can tell you that it is so much more than that. In short, it is a "sanity-saver." My husband doesn't get my obsession with the tumble dryer, but he (like many Brits) has lived his whole life without one, so he has no idea what he's missing.

Within the first year that I moved here, we purchased a washer/dryer combo (we simply don't have space for a separate tumble dryer, which I suppose links back to one of the other things I miss). I was tired of planning my washing around the unpredictable weather. Too many times had I hung washing on the line, only for the sun to make a hasty retreat and the heavens to open on my nearly-dry clothes, thus necessitating at least another rinse, if not a complete re-wash of the load. Or, in other instances, I'd wait days for the rain and wind to stop until I had run out of underwear and had to resort to hanging things on the radiator to dry. But there's only so much you can fit on the radiators. And in the middle of winter, when it is simply out of the question to hang anything outside for fear the bedsheets might turn into sheets of ice, getting the timings right on each load of laundry so I didn't run out of space on the indoor drying rack took a bit of choreography. (And I still ended up using the radiators.) Of course, I did have the option to traipse down to the local laundrette to dry things if I needed to, but I'll plead laziness here as to why that never became much of a habit.

The washer/dryer does help a little bit, but a drying cycle takes about two hours, so it's not the most practical (or energy-efficient) option. Plus, I can't save time by washing one load while drying another. So these days, with all of the dirty laundry created by a three-year-old, a three-week-old, and a breastfeeding mother, it feels like I am doing washing all day every day.

Oh, tumble dryer, I am sorry for all of the years I took you for granted. I never appreciated what I had until it was gone.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Life is Sweet

Crumpet 2 is three weeks old today. It truly is amazing how time flies the second time around. With a three-and-a-half-year-old to keep up with, there isn't much time to slow down and savor every moment, but we're trying. Cupcake (as she will be referred to henceforth) has fit perfectly into our lives and is (let me not jinx myself here) so far a very laid-back, easy-going baby. She is a total contrast to the way her big sister was at this stage. While Crumpet was awake from the moment she was born (and still does everything she can to fight sleep), Cupcake will quite happily sleep the day away. She is gradually getting her days and nights sorted out, though, so the sleep deprivation we experienced in the first couple of weeks is beginning to fade.

I've been told by many friends and family members who have more than one child that the second time around is a lot easier. I'm not sure if I'd agree that it's "easy," but I would definitely say we're more relaxed than we were when Crumpet was born. At least this time we're a little more clued in to how things work, we don't jump at every little sneeze or hiccup, and we don't feel guilty for not rushing to pick her up at the first cry.

Crumpet, for her part, has been an attentive and helpful big sister. We really couldn't ask for more from her. Yes, we've had our share of issues that have tested our patience a bit more  than usual over the past three weeks, but they are typical three-year-old issues and nothing really related to jealousy. (I'm not kidding myself, though. I'm sure we have that to come in about ten years' time.)

It's early days still, and I know there will be challenges ahead, but one thing is certain: our little Cupcake makes our life so much sweeter.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Out of the Mouths of Babes...?

A conversation I had with Crumpet the other day:

Crumpet: Hey, you didn't have the baby on Nana's birthday. (Nana's birthday was three days after Crumpet 2 was born, so this wasn't just some random observation.)
Me: Well, the baby was ready to come out. At least now she has her own birthday, which is nice.
Crumpet: Maybe the next baby you have can be born on Nana's birthday.
Me: Sweetie, Mommy's done having babies.
Crumpet: No, I want there to be three of us.
My internal monologue: Did Nana put you up to this?

Monday, 9 April 2012

Express Delivery

She's here! Our beautiful baby girl, whom we'll refer to as Crumpet 2 for the time being, arrived Saturday, April 7 at 4:35 am, weighing 6 lbs. 14 oz. Despite being overdue, like her sister, the birthing process was entirely different this time around. I'll try to spare everyone the gory details and offer the abridged version here instead.

A few days prior to her arrival, I started experiencing what I am now pretty sure were warm-up contractions, but nothing actually happened until around 1:30 early Saturday morning. Contractions grew in intensity and length pretty quickly, and by 2:00 I was out of bed and The Other Half was phoning his mum to come down and be prepared to stay with Crumpet should the hospital say that I could go ahead and come in.

By 2:50, the hospital had confirmed that I could go in. Contractions were coming quick and fast now. We phoned my mom and sister in America to tell them things were on the move.

3:09. This is the time I remember displayed on the digital clock in the car as we arrived at the hospital.

3:30. By now, I was in the delivery room and had been hooked up to the gas and air. The midwife examined me thoroughly at this point, confirming that I was indeed in labour (duh!) but that I was only 3 1/2 centimetres dilated and that delivery wouldn't be long but probably not imminent.

4:10. This is the next time I was conscious of the time. I'd been on the gas and air for what seemed like a very long time, with the contractions lasting longer and longer and with much shorter intervals in between. I asked for an epidural around this time. Later, the midwife told me she knew the baby would be born before the anaesthesiologist would arrive, but she went to consult him anyway.

Shortly after 4:10 a senior midwife arrived to help with another exam. By this time, my waters broke, and I was suddenly at 10 centimetres. The team who had assembled to assist with the birth said I needed to start pushing the baby out now, that we needed to get her out quickly. I would find out later that this was because her heart rate and oxygen levels had dropped, but they did a good job of not panicking me at the time.

Things happened very quickly from this point, but after about three or four big pushes and the help of a "kiwi" (a sort of suction cap), our baby girl was born at 4:35.

My mom was shocked when The Other Half phoned her again, just two hours after our initial call, to say that she had a new granddaughter, and when I spoke to my sister the next day she said she thought she had been dreaming when my mom woke her around midnight to tell her the news.

We are settling in well at home. Crumpet loves her little sister and has been fascinated by her every move. Hopefully the novelty won't wear off for her any time soon.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Extreme Makeover: Blog Edition

If you're one of my regular readers, you might have noticed that I've made a few small changes to the blog recently (besides actually posting something for a change, that is). Namely, I've added some extra pages. I've started with an About Me page, which is an expanded version of what you see in my sidebar. I've also added a page called "The Resident Tourist," which is a collection of links to some of my favourite London attractions and events, and one called "A Child's-Eye View of London," which is pretty self-explanatory. The "expanded" version of the blog is a work in progress, so I'll be adding more things from time to time.

My aim is to keep Accidentally English the personal blog it was from the beginning, but with more practical tips and information for others who are (or are planning to be) accidentally English, accidentally French, accidentally Spanish, or whatever. It might also encourage me to post more often (although please forgive me if the blog goes inactive for a while again when Crumpet 2 arrives in the next few days). Happy reading!

Monday, 26 March 2012

Back in the Driver's Seat

Well, we finally did it. After lots of talk and a fair amount of arm-twisting, I finally managed to convince The Other Half to buy a car. As of about two weeks ago, we are now the owners of a Volkswagen Polo... and just in time for Crumpet 2, who is due one week from today. Wow, I feel so (British) middle class.

I have personally driven the car once since we bought it. It isn't so much the car that I think I'll have such a hard time getting used to; it's gaining confidence on the other side of the (crowded, very narrow) roads. Incidentally, this was the first time I had driven here in the UK since I passed my driving test back in the spring of 2008. I did okay, but I did feel like I was fifteen again, with my newly acquired learner's permit. Only this time I had a nervous husband sitting next to me telling me not to get too close to the shoulder instead of a nervous father. Of course, having two children to shuttle here and there means I'll have lots of time for practice, but for now I'm happy to let The Other Half take the wheel until I no longer have my big belly in the way.

Ironically, our purchase comes at a time when petrol prices are the highest they've ever been, so we won't be planning any marathon road trips anytime soon. But owning a car has certainly given me back a sense of freedom that many Americans take for granted.