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Friday, November 25, 2011

What a Turkey

Everyone has been very dear to ask whether we were able to find all the needed ingredients for our first Thanksgiving abroad.  I was admittedly a bit smug in my response because we found Whole Foods in Kensington would deliver an entire dinner to our flat! Fantastic.  Days of thawing, brining, and more advanced cooking in Celsius than we were ready to tackle could be swiped off the calendar as easily as they'd run our VISA card.  I was so busy proselytizing about such luxuries to every American I knew that I neglected to read the details of the brochure.  

So while the Mister walked the kids to school, Baby Sister and I whipped up desserts.  Then the 3 of us (strange to have 2 big people to 1 small) went to St. Paul's Cathedral for an amazing Thanksgiving service. It was inspiring to sing "America the Beautiful" with thousands of Americans so far from home.   (I held Baby Sister's face up to mine, hoping to see glimmers of recognition of a familiar tune only to realize she'd decided to take a nap.)  

Later, with the big kids gathered from school, we awaited the dinner delivery.  And waited some more while we put off countless requests for snacks.  Then after frantic emailing and phone calls, our lovely dinner arrived 45 minutes late but in a gloriously stuffed box filled with oodles of side dishes that would nicely complement the pie, brownies, muffins, and chocolate lollies we were taking to our friends' after dinner.  This bounty included a 6-7 kilogram turkey.  Which needed to be baked for 4 hours.  Or so.

A bit of angst ensued.  We made a quick sannie dinner, piled desserts, smalls and pilgrim hats into a cab and found humor over more pie and wine with a girlfriend I've known for about 30 years.  Good cheer filled her flat along with family and friends.  The china went back to the sideboard* for a few days and I left the tablecloth and centrepiece in place.  Dinner will be served on Saturday.  We will now quit looking down our noses at our friends who planned to do that all along.  Thanksgiving continues again on Tuesday when the ladies are coming for coffee.  THEN I will let Brothers decorate for Christmas.  

Before all that though, this afternoon will find Baby Sister and me in Big Sister's classroom wearing pilgrim hats, reading Thanksgiving books, passing around a tray of pumpkin chocolate chip muffins and gently explaining to 30 sweet British children that it all began when folks left this lovely island.  

*and about that sideboard.  I know JUST what you're thinking:  "She is so grown up."  I KNOW.  Pinch me.  

Thursday, November 17, 2011

One is Silver and the Other Gold

I'm throwing a Thanksgiving Coffee.  Can you come? My mother used to (still does) have coffees for friends and neighbor ladies.  I think many of them were around holidays like Valentine's and maybe even St. Patrick's Day.  Maybe that's why I love a theme and always volunteer to host playgroups and throw parties around something special.  It makes the decorating, tablescape, food, and favors so much more fun.

In La Grange, I had a Thanksgiving coffee to tell my new friends there just how grateful I was for them.  I remember a tearful exchange with my "mentor mom" who'd been assigned to us when we arrived at school. I could always count on her (also mother of 4).  She taught me how to dress the children for school when they would play outside in 10 degrees F and was my personal shopper when I was housebound solo with an infant and 3 children with H1N1.  Friends deserve a bounty of pumpkin muffins, ham biscuits, and an endless vat of coffee.  How often to you have a chance to treat a houseful of your girlfriends, count your blessings, and form new friendships along the way?

Some of my friendships here are still in their infancy. The coffee is a selfish exercise on my part to get to know the invitees better.  Remember going home with friends in college?  Seeing their hometown, bedroom, family and friends was a quick shortcut to understanding them.  Thus the coffee.  We also threw ourselves a cocktail party in La Grange for the same reason.  And who isn't up for a few more friends?

For the wanderers out there - you may relate:  I always feel like finding new girlfriends where you've landed is much akin to dating.  If that is so, I'm already London's biggest floozy -  smiling and waving and inviting most everyone I can.  Much like overtipping, I figure the worst that can happen is that I will continue the stereotype of Americans being outgoing and generous.  Guilty.  Anyway, the boys found it very funny that I've invited some whose names I don't even know ("Waffle Mom" (we made waffles together at the Pumpkin Festival at school and I swear knew her name last term...), "Twins' Mom" and "New Spanish Mom - Big Brother's class") were actual names on my invitation list.  Rest assured that was not how I addressed their envelopes.  They were blank.  And my ribbon topped invitations are new to my new friends here - hooray!

I'm already excited about the morning and some of the moms said it gave them reason to research Thanksgiving.  (Maybe they can do the Thanksgiving lesson in Big Sister's Reception class!) It will be lovely to have everyone here as we are usually immersed in Parent Committee Meetings* and managing not to get plowed down by double decker buses while getting small people, rucksacks, and PE kits (see what fun British terms you are learning just by logging on?!) to their appointed places on time.

Today I remembered how grown up I felt at my parties in La Grange serving coffee and cider from two 40-cup West Bend percolators!  That they were on an actual sideboard nearly put me over the top. I'm simple.  I didn't envision needing the percolators here (neither the antique trunk that was our toy box - sniff!), so they sit in storage in IL undoubtedly not missing me as much as I miss them.  Meanwhile I noodle through their UK equivalent (an exercise for which you must free your mind of US terms and start to think like a Brit.  If you have to know, it is "coffee urn" and of course, don't look for cup capacity as it will be in litres instead.  Oh the time I'm saving you for future research!)

Some things, like driving a station wagon, keeping crayons in my purse, and owning not just one but two party-sized percolators make me feel even a tiny bit older than my average daily sensibility of approximately 8 years old.  I don't think, tho that anyone outgrows the nervous anticipation around a party.  I hope everyone comes, that the flat is filled with laughter and cheer, and mostly, that I don't throw a Mary Tyler Moore party!

*Those committee meetings deserve a whole 'nother blog entry or maybe better yet, an SNL skit.  They are a bit like a UN gathering.  Especially those with Ahmadinejad at the podium.  Maybe if we had those cool translation headsets ours might be slightly less contentious.  At a recent meeting I suggested (Catholic school and all where the children pray every few minutes or so) that we open with a prayer. Peace reigned.  Until the subject of the disco ball-less disco came up...

Anyway, can you come to the coffee?  It would justify my owning a UK percolator or two.  I mean coffee urns.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Proper Tea For Two

Make that thirteen.  But that's when you include Big Sister's siblings, two of whom were nice enough to help serve the multitude of little girls lunch, eat their own lunch in the kitchen, make a playlist and be the DJ, meet families at the door and direct them upstairs, and help translate American English for the guests.  One brother wanted to put cones out around his DJ booth, wear a whistle, and actually did wear a police/security badge.  They love a job -- I am grateful they were so helpful!

The tea was lovely and sweet in every way.  I told the girls to imagine they were having tea in a candy shop as there were jars and dishes filled with lots of sweets.  I confess to buying 100 candy necklaces and more gumballs than remotely reasonable.  This bounty was our first issue needing translation.  The British say "sweets" for candy.  When Big Sister told one of her first guests to "come see all the candy" it was met with a blank stare until we translated.  Also when I offered them "jelly sandwiches" until Biggest Brother told me that was akin to offering them Jello sandwiches (! who knew?) which explains the great relief on their little faces when it was discovered there was a tray of strawberry jam sannies.

The girls looked lovely and were dear little guests - sparkly, pink, and fluffy!  We are used to seeing them in blue polo shirts and navy sweatsuits (oh, the horrors Big Sister endures to attend her most lovely school!) so seeing them in their tiny feminine finest was a gift in itself!  Big Sister had a great time being hostess to her new friends and Baby Sister must have felt so fancy to be part of all the fanfare.

The girls were ready early and apologies for the poor photo, but I loved that they were peeping out the mail slot waiting their company.  It was a grand time of glitter stencils, decorating cookies, learning the "I'm a Little Tea Pot" song and dance, passing a stuffed tea pot (hot potato style), lunch, cake and gifts!  So grand that we skipped the Lord Mayor's fireworks that night.  But never fear - the celebrating goes on -- we're keeping the pink bunting (so British!) up until Friday when Big Sister actually turns 5 (and gets to wear her own clothes instead of a uniform to school -- what excitement!!!) and then our decor will turn to Thanksgiving...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

No Monkey Business

Baby Sister keeps reminding us how funny 2 can be. And how much of their lives are phases.  Apparently a climbing one has just dawned.  Before she put pajamas back on* and began to scale our back door, she'd done done a full body pull up on the railing in our building's lift.  And yesterday she kept trying to hang from the overhead strap on the bus like a little monkey at the zoo.  She must have enviable upper body strength.

*There's another phase:  changing clothes all day long.   No complaints there - that one says to me "I can dress myself" which is amazing, laudable, and efficient!  It also means that many days she wears shoes that don't match.  

Another phase is to announce that someone is "NOT in charge."  That one is less funny, but like all of them, we know it won't last too terribly long.

Biggest Brother would never have dreamed of pulling this type of trick, which probably explains why he laughs the loudest at her.  Baby Number 4 and not only did I let her do it, but I got the pix to prove it. Further evidence that there really is something to that birth order thing.  If for no other reason than your parents have figured out what is funny.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Frogs Like To Kiss

Big Sister will only be 4 for a few more days.  Four is such a wonderful age and it has gone so quickly - what with moving twice, longing for her pink room, enduring my homeschooling, and becoming a little British girl and all.  

Today she told me she couldn't "make an heyach" with her hands and arms like she could other letters.  (Think YMCA arm motions).  She has already forgotten how we pronounce "h."  Her birthday list includes a Barbie, "girly books," and a keychain.  This list was much too short for Brothers so they're already conspiring to give her things they know she'd like but doesn't think to ask for -- especially pink LEGOs.  

Saturday will find her celebrating with lots small ladies from Reception at a tea party at our flat.  It is her first real party with friends.  Days ahead of her party, our home hasn't seen so much pink since she was born and mountains of pink gifts arrived daily.  It is a delight.  So is she. Also that she chose a frog cookie cutter for the tea because, as she explained, "frogs like to kiss!"  That made us all laugh, but somehow I think a table full of her tiny, fancy friends will completely understand and agree.


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Clean Heart and A Cheerful Spirit

I'm always noodling through what we will bring back from this experience to the States.  It is a given that much of it will be in home decor.  No one who visits our future homes will have to be told that we lived in London.  Our flat has a fair amount British icons and treasures collected along Portobello Road, and that's just 8 months in and long before the Queen's Jubilee next summer.

Undoubtedly the children will pick up British words, sayings, and accents.  I already hear myself asking people, "Y'aright?" but haven't quite caught onto "Hiya!"  I'm very much hoping the amazing style sense of the French moms at school will rub off on me.  Meanwhile, we've decided the best souvenir would be to adopt the motto of The Portman Estate (a huge Marylebone landowner since the 16th century):   "A Clean Heart and A Cheerful Spirit."  We don't even have to wait to repatriate.  We'll start now.

And it is indeed already the season for cheer in London.  We were treated to an abundance of it on our bus ride home from school as all of Oxford Street is now glittering with Christmas lights, baubles, and decorated windows.
We needed that cheer, too because moments after enjoying that lovely view, Big Brother had an upset stomach on the bus. (Dear 274 Driver:  Again, I am so, so sorry and greatly appreciate how kind you were to all of us!  Also grateful that we happened to be the only ones on the bus.  So happy, too that he seems fine now and even found some humor in the whole episode.)  My apologies that only a few days into blogging and I've already discussed a bodily function.

Anyway, there's a renewed focus here on clean hearts, cheerful spirits (and vigorous hand washing, too).

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Characters All Around Me

Our bit of London is an interesting kaleidoscope of characters.  From the travelers dragging luggage along Bayswater, the inebriated at Marble Arch, the hookah smokers on Edgware, and the wealthy all throughout Marylebone, they are all fascinating.  I am always casting an independent film in my head.  Given that this is my first experience in urban living, it is hard to say if the tableau of people is indicative of London in particular, or city life in general.  I love it.
I have several favorite types just crying out to be in a movie.  One set is the parents and children walking to a very high end boys' private school on our walk to our sweet, tiny, Catholic (tuition free) primary.  That school is so fancy that a future monarch and his brother attended its other campus.  The children are gloriously, Britishly preppy.  They are supremely disheveled in the morning and adorably kitted out in cricket gear on my favorite afternoons.  My mind wanders to what their homes look like and what their futures hold.  I assume these are boys of great privilege learning together.  Maybe theirs are friendships that will continue in laudable universities and as they go on to lead the world in business, government, and the arts.  I hope they are learning about those much different than themselves, too.  One of our favorite "neighbors" along our walk to school is the staff member who greets the boys every day.  If his attitude is any indication of the spirit being delivered to those boys, I am sure they are well tended to.  
Then there are those I call the“professionally thin.”Having never seen anyone of acclaim, (although I was once just minutes and steps away from spotting Hugh Grant at Waitrose.  Or so I was told by another“mum" at the school gate.  Argh.) the professionally thin are as close as I've come to the famous.  (I also really think I saw the Queen in the back of a car near Wellington Arch but I was on a bus going in another direction and can't be sure.)  Anyway, these unimaginably rail thin beauties always catch my eye and make me curious about their lives.  Have you seen those shows profiling modeling agencies?  They detail models traipsing around big cities for casting calls and photo shoots.  These are the types of women I see lots.  They are usually supremely tall made even taller by tottering in sky high shoes, fashionably messy, and have amazing hair.  Maybe one could come home with me and help edit my closet.  I'm always hoping they'll pause just long enough at a zebra crossing to toss me a quick life changing makeup tip or hairstyle idea or face product recommendation.  I'm open.  I watch them and ignore just how different I must look.  
My toddler and I could be undercover spies of everyday people.  In a way we already are although my partner is so deep as to be completely unaware of her assignment.  We have the best cover.  No one really sees us unless she's doing something particularly noisy or adorable or if I've unwittingly dressed her in something unusual to Europeans.  But following folks will really be the job of my movie camera man.  My favorite films are ones whose scripts must read like a Venn Diagram.  Just as you understand a bit of one character's life and follow them walking, you inevitably see a new character and literally pick up on their path. I love the concept and illustration of overlapping and intersecting lives.
In all honesty, though there are way too many characters to cast just in my regular goings on in my little corner of London.  There's the woman who rides her bike extremely fast (and even worse, downhill!) with a teeny dog (which means possessing very short little stumpy legs) on a leash running hurriedly right alongside.  When I see them I can't help but to stare because the sight almost defies logic, but I have to turn away, halfway expecting to hear the tragic yelping of poochie v. bike tires and chain.  Then there is the woman I have seen on more than one occasion in a short trench coat with what I believe is nothing underneath.  She looked sheepish the first time and I envisioned a funny story about being her locked out, or her dry cleaners not being opened as early as she'd hoped, or a catastrophic date.  I was sure that behind her half smile there was a hysterical story brewing that she'd share with her girlfriends over drinks.  It would be a story so good her friends would inevitably retell it to other friends in tears of laughter.  Then I saw her again just days later dressed exactly the same - lapels gathered in one hand around her neck and bare legs jutting out of the same chicly mini trench as before.  Now I'm left to wonder if that's just how she strolls in the early hours.  Hard to say.  My new neighbors.  Characters all.
*And one more thing about Venn Diagrams:  They will always remind me of one my oldest made for school a few years ago about his brother and himself.  In the separate circles were things like “likes chocolate” and “likes vanilla” and “likes UPS” and “likes FedEx” and in the crossover in the middle was “likes to snuggle together at night.”

Dear Virgin Atlantic

I want to commend two Virgin Atlantic employees for wonderful and heartfelt customer service that made a daunting task possible for me. The Saturday before last, I flew from London (October 22, VS021 from Heathrow to Washington Dulles) with my four children (ages 9, 7, 4, and 2) for a week’s holiday in the US. A last minute business trip meant my husband would already be Stateside and would meet us there. Our children are seasoned and happy travelers and we packed plenty of favorite and surprise books, games, and snacks to keep everyone entertained. But I was still a bit nervous about how we would all fare crossing the Atlantic encapsulated with lots of strangers. As added insurance, I’d asked for thoughts and prayers (novenas even!) from friends, family, and our parish priest.

Those well wishes and prayers were certainly answered by your crew. Thanks entirely to the kindness and service of Clare Murphy (FSM) and Yvonne (Flight Attendant just back from maternity leave), the flight was not only possible, but we were kept happy and comfortable and felt genuinely cared for despite being troublesome passengers. Clare and Yvonne will probably tell you that they were just doing their jobs and in that way, I know they’re right -- I suspect the true warmth with which they tended us is very much a part of how they treat all passengers. That we were the beneficiaries of being on their flight was our good fortune and I want them to know how much they helped me.

Without a car since moving to London last spring, our youngest child has enjoyed a life without car seat restraints as we mostly walk and ride buses in the city. At take off, she protested her seat belt in ear splitting, face melting, mortifying, heartbreaking, and maddening tantrums. We endured this with kind help from both Yvonne and Clare. It is notable that they asked me immediately what was distressing this small person instead of just trying to shush her, and actively tried to make her more comfortable. Clare suggested Yvonne stay close to us and help as needed as long as possible.

Once airborne, seat belt light off, a parade of entertainment, snacks, and naps followed for a happy 8 hours or so. B
oth women continued to visit and check on us throughout the flight and we were always delighted by their chats, especially those related to British football! The boys if anything, suffered from benign neglect while the girls and I snuggled in 2 seats. We were all content.

Then it was time to buckle the youngest again for our descent. She protested. Loudly. First Class passengers may have had their cocktail glasses shatter. It was like something out of a really bad movie. Only in the movie, the mom would be only comically rumpled or Adam Sandler would be the dad and it would be funny. This was all too real for an entire packed flight who had to sit with us and a crew who had lots to do. The descent began to hurt my 7 year old's ears and he started to cry. Maybe the hours of being good caught up to my 4 year old or it was just infectious, but she, too began to cry. And what is a mother to do, strapped in a seat out of reach of three crying babies? It’s true. I am not too proud to say that I started to cry, too. What a complete mess we were. Only my 9 year old managed to keep it together and I’m fairly sure he was just inking it all for notes for a future therapist.

At that very moment, Clare appeared with genuine concern written all over her face. (Maybe she was actually looking for a hidden camera hoping this was a spoof!) She knelt next to my youngest and stroked her little feet, talking in soothing tones. Then as if she were waving a wand, she directed us to rearrange our seating so I could be right next to the baby. Yvonne came too, helping with everyone. I managed to find one remaining lint covered piece of gum in my pocket to help my son's ears and my daughter began to sniff instead of sob. Within seconds, all was well and without a 2 year old screaming, I think I heard a collective sigh of relief from the entire Economy section. I’m sure if they’d been allowed to stand or didn’t fear breaking the now blissful silence, they would have given Clare and Yvonne a standing ovation.

And here I should say that credit too goes to the countless nice passengers who despite suffering through screaming, somehow instead of shooting us dirty looks, were extremely kind to me and complemented the children for being good travelers. As we left the plane I thanked Clare and told her if I tried to say just how much she and Yvonne had done for me that I would simply stand there and weep. I think there is something about parents in general, and maybe mothers in particular, that makes them look out for families with children. I am so grateful to 2 mothers on your team who mothered my clan in our travels.

When I was working I used to keep “atta boy” notes like this in a file to flip through on days when the complaints seemed to outnumber the praise. I hope this letter will make its way to both Clare and Yvonne as well as their personnel files on the odd chance they ever need reminding of their value to customers.