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Saturday, December 31, 2011

In With the New

I love the clutter that comes with Christmas.  The new toys, errant bows, ornaments hung from doorknobs and cherished members of the Nativity scene that seem wander off and befriend LEGO minifigs.  I love decor where there is normally none and nothing brightens a room like a fresh Christmas tree.  I love that all up to a point.

Today we went merrily sailing way, way passed that point.  Everyone camped out at the table writing thank you notes and the boys worked on their 2 big homework assignments.  One of those projects involved paper mache.  Can you start to see our things, already a little messy because we've been home playing for 2 weeks?  Now lighted coated in a gluey paste?  Including Baby Sister's hair.  Perfectly content, the girls opened a play restaurant in the kitchen.  I think it was called "Chez Benign Neglect" because the entire floor of the kitchen was covered most of our pots and pans and serving utensils.  All at once, it seemed that most every belonging we had was on the floor.  Strewn all over our flat.  It was as if the Christmas tree and every drawer and cabinet had held a contest to see which could make the biggest mess.  It was a tie.  We lost.

Then, racing the clock, we went our separate ways to the skateboard park and to get the all important snacks for a family New Year's Eve party.  I'll leave it to you to guess who went which way.  All around was evidence of our being stricken with acute onset hoarding.  If I am brave enough, I'll add a picture of the mess.  The skaters started out ahead of the shoppers.  Because it was of critical importance, once the flat was cleared of most of the people, I got down to business.  The business of making our January wreath.  Because isn't it critically important to announce our new year's cheer with door decor?! Of course.

It should also be noted that I like order.  I want the waste baskets emptied at least every day. Sometimes more often.  I scrub bathrooms before we leave on a trip and feel best if clean clothes are all tucked away in their drawers then, too.  I worry that someone will even once have to come into my unoccupied house and decide just what makes us all tick by the relative mess we leave in our wake.  Pitiful but ridiculously true.  When the police raid someone's house in the movies, I'm always yelling to the Mister, "SEE?!  This is why you have to make the beds every day!"  So today, it was all I could do not to park Big Sister in front of a library dvd and whirl around making order out of chaos.

But our new wreath was made and London awaited. Big Sister and I knew we'd be back before too long and exhilarated by the afternoon of skateboarding, others would be on hand to bring sense back to our home.  So we left this note.

And what a joy it was to be with Big Sister solo. Made especially dear as we were bustling through our new city in the last hours of the year.  Usually parked in the front seat of the stroller quietly observing, today she busily chatted, skipped and pushed her doll baby in a little stroller on and off buses and along the Marylebone High Street.  We had a sweet afternoon out, enjoying each other and the New Year's Eve excitement. I honestly lost count of how many people talked to Big Sister about her baby.  Our last stop was Waitrose which was only open a few more minutes and very crowded.  A woman passed Big Sister and me and told me how lucky I was to have such a nice helper.  I couldn't have agreed more.

The others had already started cleaning up and ordered the pizza for our party by the time we were home.  After dinner and a movie, we started to undo our Christmas decor.  We're thinking about waking the kids at 5 a.m. to watch the ball drop in Times Square.  Just as long as they promise not to make a mess.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Scoop of mince pie? It's not the wurst.

Some things, like the delightfulness of a new dolly under the Christmas tree are universal.

Others, like mince pie ice cream (which is admittedly delicious!) would be harder to market in the States. Also that a scoop of Philadelphia Cream Cheese is good on pasta. And Marmite (although the jar is graphically perfect and should be displayed next to our Lyle's Black Treacle can for aesthetics alone).

There are countless delicious things about living in Europe.  We've gobbled up endless delectable new (to us) cuisine on Edgeware Road, all over London and in travels to Paris, Bidart, Cologne and the British countryside.  I was never more proud of the kids than when days after we arrived, they enjoyed a plate of Lebanese kibbeh that looked nothing like any meatballs they'd seen before.

All things ending in wurst have been deemed wonderful by my family after a trip to Germany last week.  The Mister and I especially enjoyed wursts in drizzly Christmas markets with a Kolsch or mulled wine in the other hand.  The dairy and cheese counters here alone make me stop my "shopping trolley"* in my tracks.  London is a great restaurant and food city.  But there are some foods we may never become accustomed to seeing or daring enough to try.

It is the straightforwardness of the food that is so fantastically and admirably British.  Maybe this is also why we love British news.  Food here is not doctored by nuanced descriptions or packaging. Tinned meat and lard have their own sections on the grocery online order.  No one here thinks twice about selling "clotted" food.  They clearly don't think it sounds hematological.  You should know that anything clotted is amazing.  The new year will find me working off a fair amount of Marks and Spencer clotted cream champagne rhubarb yogurt sold in "pots." It started innocently enough:  I'm the mom.  I'll try an anthropological experiment for my family.  It became a bit of an addiction.  Clotted can be so very good. Digestives are delightful but wouldn't dare be called that in the US.  Same with streaky bacon.

Enjoy your Christmas celebrations.  We're across the Atlantic toasting you over savory biscuits while we pull apart crackers. Cheers!

*Baby Sister asked for a shopping trolley from Santa.  She considered asking for a buggy.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Happ eChristmas

I worry that having not sent Christmas cards two years in a row and adding the complication of international postage this year, that we're quickly getting dropped from Christmas card lists.  I hope not.  I love cards. Especially love those with photographs.  At our house, those get saved and packed away to look through when we get out the ornaments.  

I just love mail.  Almost as much as pretty paper and ribbons.  This is why I hope never to receive another evite and why I am going to apply for diplomatic immunity at the Apple store.  The other day I took notes while talking to an Apple employee in the Regent Street store.  With a pen and paper.  (The alternative was I could have walked to one of their computer filled counters (I won't say "bar" - that's just goofy) to book a service appointment.)  I was tempted to explain to him what these charming instruments I was using were.  Next time I'm going to take an inkwell and quill. I used go there and basically announce myself as a little old lady (think Jitterbug phone owner) until I noticed plenty of little old ladies in studious conferences with teams of red shirted people, clearly knowing perfectly well what they were doing there.  Truth be told, I usually know what I am doing in the Apple store.  I've just never quite understood what ALL of those employees and most of the customer-types are doing, busy with various tiny motherboards housed in plastic.  But that's just me.  

Maybe you'll think I'm going green in sending electronic cards or posting a family photo on our blog.  That's a lovely thought and I'm all for the environment, but it is also that I've spent a fair amount of spare change in hurried cab rides up and down George Street to school. But I know you'd agree that it was the right thing to do on many an occasion (and on others you'd have planned better but you won't point that out which is why we're friends!  Hooray, us!).  Some days I try my hardest not to wake Baby Sister from an afternoon nap and then the bus doesn't come in time and I don't want to be on the wrong side of school folk and be late to pick up the school-going smalls.  Worse, there are evenings when it is cold and dark and I've already had to busy 3 smalls for an hour or more while a sibling had an after school club or class.  That's when the kids' belongings seem to have quadrupled just as their ability to carry more than their snack has drastically diminished.  That is usually also the evening Baby Sister insists on being carried and we turn the stroller into a cart, heaping it full of what I'm betting it would take several sherpas to carry to Base Camp. Then it begins to rain.  

So, this is your card this year.  

While I'd like to think it is not true that I spent what I could have on cards on cabs, mostly up and down one street (and will beg comedic artistic license if the Mister is reading this), I think it might be so. This week I watched Baby Sister and Big Sister playing "Moms." And I am not making this up.  They got skirts and shoes on, hoisted purses on their tiny shoulders, put out arms and hips to hail cabs (I tried to tell myself they could have been motioning for a bus...) and then announced they were "going to John Lewis."  Oh.  John Lewis.  In the spirit of Christmas confessions, I'm very sure I also spent a significant portion of monies that could have gone to a lovely card (which I imagine to be photo, cardstock, ribbon, colorful envelopes and international postage) there this year, too.  At least on floors 1-5 and in a few of the cafes but now that the kids are in school, not at all in the restaurant.  Since September.

So please keep documenting your exciting life, photographing your beautiful family, sending us your newsletters, and by all means, keep us on your Christmas card list.  In exchange, I'll gladly direct you to dozens of places around London where you're sure to catch a cab or give you a guided tour of John Lewis.  Baby Sister will help.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Cards

Instead of one ribbon festooned photo card, this year you're likely to get a bunch from us online.

Here are two from Big Brother.  He can march to his own drummer sometimes and be blissfully oblivious to the pressures of time (particularly on mornings when we are hurrying to get to school it seems) but he is also probably our cuddliest of children (which is saying a lot - they are often draped in piles on us) and incredibly sweet and affectionate.  He is also the reason I once slammed a door so hard the glass panes broke.  In my defense, the glass was single paned from 1924 and our handyman said it was only a matter of time.

Big Brother is also a quick wit and is happy for an audience.  I cannot even explain the costume here, 3D glasses without the lenses, my bathrobe and the Sunday paper, but it cracked us all up which meant he kept it on long enough for me to get the shot.  He might still be wandering around the flat in it now and I took this weeks ago.

About those glasses. Biggest Brother got them on a school field trip (to see a movie based on a book they'd read in class.  You know I was glad about that given my usual dislike of kids' flicks.)  Anyway, maybe picking up on timeless nerdy glasses appeal, Biggest Brother started wearing them around without the lenses.  Just the GI-issue, Buddy Holly look only giant, black and lens-less.  If only you could have seen his Head Teacher's face one afternoon when he slipped them out of his backpack and popped them on as we walked away from school.  I'm telling you, it is not possible to be meek when mothering my smalls.  Fortunately, I've had 10 years OJT for this though.  The boys would wear underpants on their heads with their fireman costumes to replicate the stretchy hood firemen wear.  Their little faces peeked out the waistband and their helmets went on top. Think about it.  It really completed the look.
But it is so like Big Brother to make me the Christmas tree card.  In our old house I taped their cards and notes and scribbles on the inside of kitchen cabinet doors as a reminder of their sweetness. The London one thrills me, too.  He probably won't write "Mary Crismis" next year.  That the Big Ben is saying "dong" and that the double decker bus "crsismis" (sort of reads like "crisis-mis" -- probably some shoppers would agree this week!).  And that it is snowing but not enough to cover the city.  His new friends don't believe him about all the snow in our last town.  (I'm fairly sure he did not tell them that he walked miles through it in his bare feet, but can imagine children who've only ever seen a few wet inches think he's full of hooey for telling him about Mom-sized drifts!).  He is eager to see some snow this year here.  I hope one day we live where we play on a beach instead of a playground.

I love what they already know about London and Europe and history and geography.  I might be a bit jealous of their worldliness, too.  Big Brother crafted a spelling sentence last week about Queen Victoria. At 7 and likely even more than a decade later I wasn't conversant about Victorian times.  They all have enviable passport stamps and visits to US landmarks.  I hope they'll keep that up.  And stay in close touch with their London friends who are from all over the world.  Oh, the places they will all go.  As our world gets smaller, I'm so convinced they will be tripping over each other in decades to come.  Maybe while my smalls are travelling together.  We can only hope.

He asked for plane tickets to Chicago for Christmas and his gang of boys from First Grade, too.  Do you know that in our old school the children could come home for lunch?  One of his friend's mothers (also mother of 4) would regularly host a giggly brood of boys mid-day for a lunch party.  Those remain among his favorite memories from our town.  The wistfulness of Christmas makes us unpack those memories.  I hope they're ones he'll always treasure just as I'll always treasure these cards from him.

So Merry Crismis from Big Brother and all of us, too.

Baby Sister says, "Happy Christmas" this year. Where does she pick it all up?  She puts nappies on her dolls and pushes a buggy up the lift!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Guardsmen on Parade

Everything about life in London is delightfully new to us* so it is no surprise that even last minute Christmas errands have been a treat this year. The lights and decorations of Oxford and Regent Streets are spectacular and even our own little square nearby has lights strung throughout. Navigating the crowds on foot while bands play in the streets makes parking garages seem a world away.  A few weekends ago I went out by myself and happened upon streets closed to vehicles and stores practically throwing parties - live music, endless champagne, coffee, mulled wine and trays piled with mince pies to entice shoppers and ensure everyone's blood sugar remained appropriately high. Now that I think about it though, it is a wonder any shopping got done.  It felt more like a street fair. And speaking of those mince pies and mulled wine,  I promise future discourse on what we're eating here (and admittedly a few things we've heard about but not tried, too) this season.  Meanwhile, know that Philadelphia Cream Cheese is heavy in "advert" rotation.  It is true.     

Anyhow, this week Baby Sister and I had reason to be shopping near Buckingham Palace.  We quite literally stumbled upon a Changing of the Guard complete with the arrival of dignitaries in carriages! In their full length grey winter coats and tall, furry hats, the Coldstream Guards never looked more breathtaking (or more like some of the scariest characters in the Wizard of Oz. And here I am not talking about the flying monkeys). Assuming you can stand around for a bit to appreciate it (and I usually can), life in London is always a spectacle.  I so often feel like I'm in a movie.  Here were countless tourists who likely planned this as part of their visit to London and Baby Sister and I just happened upon it on our day's errands.

I was reminded of our summertime adventure near Buckingham Palace.  While touring the Guards Museum, the smalls and I bought a Coldstream Guard hat for our dress up collection.  Brothers wanted to wear it right away and it quickly became obvious that we would make good use of 2 hats.  So we bought another at our next museum stop along with 2 pairs of guardsman pajamas. Big fans of uniforms, Brothers soon had the uniforms on over their clothes and topped with their new hats.  Lines of people waiting for palace tours and queueing for a look through the gates were more than thrilled to see my little guardsmen go trooping by.  Brothers stayed not just in costume, but in character, through the playground at St. James' Park, passing the palace and under Wellington Arch.  Giggly and grateful tourists posed next to them for countless photographs all along the way.  At Hyde Park Corner we happily got tangled up in a pre-Olympic delegation tour of Hyde Park.  Opting for a bus ride instead of continuing to march through the park, we waited on Park Lane.  Here, I thought, the boys might lose their theatrical momentum and be ready to be boys in t-shirts and shorts.  

Not my boys.  They stood at attention and saluted every city bus, tour bus, cab, and police car that drove by until we boarded ours.  The bus drivers were particularly funny in returning their salutes and they were mentioned by more than a few bus tour guides.  Never once did they drop their stoic visages to let on just how much fun they were having.  I, on the other hand, have never laughed so loud for so long.  

Mothering our small people isn't for the meek or shy.  I wouldn't have it any other way. 

*Christmas here is new to us except that we've kept our nearly decade-long tradition of getting and sharing a stomach bug in time for the holidays.  I am embarrassed to admit the 10 year thing is not an exaggeration.  Whole branches of our family must think we lack creativity in coming up with excuses for why we can't visit on Christmas Day.  I do have a fond memory, though of taking Biggest Brother to the movies and ice skating on Christmas while the Mister and well enough smalls went to a gift exchange.  

The Mister reminded me that this time last year after declaring "air, ship, or storage" for every single item we own, watching most of it get loaded onto a shipping container, bidding a tearful goodbye to our beloved house and setting up household in a rental house with rental furniture, we did indeed NOT get a stomach bug. He's right, but I think I was too busy last Christmas to notice.  I certainly forgot to appreciate a year without it. 

Should your family ever be felled by a stomach bug in London, prepare your children for the lack of their recovery favorites because Jello, Gatorade, and saltines are not readily available here.  They may actually be for sale in the American aisle of Selfridges but I am trying not to find out so as not to have to choose between saving for college and soothing little tummies.  But if I get it next, I will promptly send the Mister out to find all of that and more. Meanwhile, we are managing on 7-up, cream crackers and iced lollies.  

Maybe if I wasn't so addled by dual roles of Christmas elf and nursemaid I could figure out what happened with this entry's spacing.  Meanwhile, we're sending you well (yes, pun fully intended) wishes for Christmas.  This is NOT your card - yet - but don't go watching your mailbox for it.  I dashed a few packages in the mail in between patients last week but that's all that made it out so far and even they were late. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Day In A Manger

I've been longing to shine the spotlight on Big Brother especially since his tummy problem on a bus and dazed stare in the airplane photo are so far his only mentions here.  I felt sure today was his day when I had the opportunity to chaperone his class field trip to our cathedral where he would be a shepherd in the nativity play.  This, I thought, is Big Brother's great blog debut.  Here is where he'll burst onto the scene with Yuletide fanfare.  He was wonderful, made me proud, and seemed to love every moment.  Gone apparently is my shy little boy who wouldn't have wanted this big role.  Gone, too is the rambunctious toddler who kept running out of the church while our preschool director honored Biggest Brother by casting him in the coveted role of nativity sheep circa 2005.

Big Brother (and his sweet 5 other shepherd friends) were asked by the man playing Joseph to RUN down the cathedral aisle as part of an exciting telling of the Christmas story.  What could be better than running in church in front of hundreds of people?

Well, what if I told you there would be a live donkey in the nativity scene who would walk all the way up the aisle, take part in the play and walk back while we sang a carol dedicated to him?  Even better, right? A real live donkey I say!

What if I told you what that donkey did at the back of the cathedral before the shepherds were cued to sprint toward Mary and Joseph?

Unbeknownst to me what was happening, at that moment I heard said donkey make a VERY loud donkey noise (You are thinking the word is "braying" but I promise you that would be way too gentile a description) and noticed a shepherd holding her nose and looking horrified. Honestly, I thought they were playing a VERY loud donkey noise on the PA system for effect and thought it was a bit much. Apparently not.

So if you are a 7 year old boy and you have a starring role in a nativity play, get to RUN down a cathedral aisle, and take 2 of your beloved London buses with 29 of your best pals on a great field trip, the biggest takeaway from the day will be that a donkey pooped "IN CHURCH!"  You will reenact it for your giggly siblings all evening.  Your hopelessly immature mother will laugh the loudest.

I have to say here that I hold a very firm line against potty talk outside our house which is sometimes why we nearly fall down laughing when Baby Sister, newly educated in how everything works, makes anatomical announcements on buses.  Our children haven't seen many kids movies because I reject the crude humor. But make no mistake, this is a line I draw with my very own grey fat fuzzy pen.

Despite nearly ten years OJT, I am still not nearly mature enough for my job.  Don't even get me started on the day the boys talked the ENTIRE way home about their research projects on Uranus.  (I can assure you that they are neither wise nor naughty enough to know what I was thinking nor are they clever enough to cover it up if they were.)  That walk was excruciating.  They endlessly debated how big Uranus is, what Uranus looks like, whether there are rings around Uranus, and whether Uranus got bumped and is now always on its side.  I had to maintain a straight face and appear on the edge of my seat with interest (and not about to dissolve into giggles) over the latest yer anus nuance.  It can be so tough my job.  No one knows the tribulations...

Anyhow, back to the donkey.  Despite hearing some of what was happening from the pews (oh, gracious! I swear I did not mean to make that pun), it was made all the sillier by Big Brother's retelling at home.  I don't know who laughed harder.  Tears running down my face asking him to "tell it again.  Please.  Just once more!"

Rest assured that I mean this as no sacrilege. And I'm not just saying that because I filled out Baby Sister's Nursery application today and dropped it off for our priest's approval, or because Big Brother is preparing to make his First Holy Communion.  Hopefully God knows that we are enjoying many happy and wholesome preparations for Christmas.  I also believe God made little boys to be delightfully simple and silly, and in their best moments, God helps mothers be just as simple.  God made those Christmas donkeys, too.

And I'd be willing to bet that even Mary would have laughed at whatever tickled Jesus.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Four Minutes to Festive

Before you go thinking that one of the Hyde Park swans came across the street and exploded on our front door, let me assure you that in fact we are starting to decorate the flat for Christmas.  This is my "Four Minutes to Festive" feather Christmas wreath.  It is a little whimsical decor that gets us in the spirit and most importantly, was able to be completed between Big Sister's Christmas assembly* and picking everyone up from school.

This confection can adorn your door in just a few easy steps:

STEP One:  Gather supplies.  Many of these are likely to be ones you already have on hand.  Well, except two white feather boas.  And if you do happen have those on hand...discuss.  But I suppose you could innocently have a few lurking in a dress up bin.  In which case, Christmas decorating is a fully authorized reason to steal (really just borrow...unless you want to keep it up for Valentine's and just swap out the tartan ribbon) from small girls.  Especially if they are your offspring.  Anyway.  You need two white feather boas, ribbon, baubles and a wreath form.  In my case, still navigating life in London, I used a 12" embroidery hoop from John Lewis but a white styrofoam wreath form would be best.  I bought the boas there too.  For £16 each.  The Mister suggested months ago never to think about the dollars to pound conversion, but I just know Hobby Lobby, Michaels, or JoAnn undoubtedly have them much cheaper. I also bought clear thread to secure the boas to the hoop but didn't end up using it.  I love that this is a simple project and if you manage to do it without buying £32 worth of boas, it is inexpensive, too!

STEP Two:  Wrap boas around wreath form.  If you use a styrofoam wreath, it would be good to secure them with several floral (big pearl end) pins.

STEP Three:  Pick up dozens of pieces of a broken ornament Baby Sister has tossed across living room while "playing ball with the pretties!"

STEP Four:  Add bow and embellishments.  The possibilities here are limited only by your ribbon collection.  A lime green bow with a few pink touches would be very pretty.

STEP Five:  Wait in eager anticipation for Royal Mail carrier to notice the new wreath!

*Big Sister sang a solo.  Did you know the British sing "Away in a Manger" to an entirely different tune?  Of course they do.  She was nervous but you sure couldn't tell as she belted it out, her smiley face beaming above her tiny shepherd costume.  I tried to get it all on video but got a little misty watching and it was tricky to juggle Baby Sister on my hip, too so she may have to do an encore tonight.  Big Brothers were treated to her dress rehearsal in school yesterday.  Biggest Brother said he was so proud of her that he cried.  (When I asked him for more details - knowing full well we've poured lots of sentimental happy tear genes into our smalls - he said, "Well. Only a little bit.  I was at school.").

Hearing 60 dear British children tell the story of Jesus' birth is about the sweetest way I can think to spend a morning.  So you can understand why I was eager to bring the Christmas spirit to our new home today.  That is, after I got this deliciousness inside. She sat on our front step for a bit waving to cars, cabs and buses.  Surely if she'd known a project involving white feather boas awaited she would have hustled right in.