Houses of Glass

The Palm House at Kew Gardens-- definitely not a place to throw rocks.

The Palm House at Kew Gardens– definitely not a place to throw rocks.

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw rocks.

This piece of age-old wisdom came to mind last week while I was contemplating the fingerprints, crumbs, and sticky things smeared on our glass-topped kitchen table.  As I wiped, dried and buffed the tabletop for something like the 443rd time this week, I thought, “People who live in glass houses probably shouldn’t give their children crumpets with jam for breakfast, either.” (Unless they are lucky enough to have live-in window cleaners… which, come to think of it, probably should come included if one is building or buying a glass house).

And really, is there anything people who live in glass houses should throw?  Certainly not tomatoes or water balloons.  Maybe pillows?  Or used tissues, or paper wads (not spit wads!)?  Having wandered down that line of thought, I thought better of taking the next turning.  Just think of all the things people who live in glass houses shouldn’t do!

Our house... for a bit.

Our house… for just a bit longer.

I’ve been a little preoccupied with houses– mostly not glass ones– since we recently woke up in the middle of an episode of Househunters International.  (Minus the whining about how we really need a 3-car garage, a “bonus” room, and a pool…)  Our landlord is moving back into this flat, which he designed and renovated several years back.  Despite any complaints I may have had in the past year about that slight problem with our flat being a float… there’s nothing like being told you will have to move out to make you think that you’ve been living in the perfect situation.  I will miss my beautiful kitchen and our luxurious bathroom, if not the perennially reappearing water spots and occasional dripping walls in Quinn and Chloe’s rooms.

Chloe’s room.  I’m having a hard time with that aspect of the move: with breaking up the last household one of the big kids actually lived in full-time.  Packing up our home in Marblehead and moving overseas right when Will graduated made the end of a family era that much more undeniable.  Packing up this place we’ve worked so hard to make our new home means that our next abode will hold no shared memories with Will or Chloe living there.   It doesn’t help that when you go to college orientation they say, “You should keep your child’s room as it is for a while, so they feel like they still have a place.”  OK.  Thanks for that advice, but apparently we live in a different universe from most parents dropping their kids at university.  Clearly I haven’t yet acquired that famous British “stiff upper lip.”

A couple of things I have acquired over the last two weeks are squinting, red eyes and hunched shoulders, from huddling over every real estate website and database in the city.  A person could spend days, 24/7, looking at all the listings, exploring the floor plans and following the google street views to see what the neighborhoods look like…  What? No, don’t be silly!  I said “a person could“… of course that’s not what I’ve been doing all week!  The piles of laundry downstairs?  The dishes in the sink?  That neglected, hungry look in my children’s eyes?  Nothing to do with rightmove.co.uk.  Just because I have now memorized the north London streets almost well enough to take the taxi drivers’ exam?  Nothing to do with Foxton’s real estate website…

When we moved to London for the first time, we hired a relocation firm to assist in the housing search.  It just made sense, as we weren’t on the ground in the city, and we needed to find something in the short window we had carved out for a house-finding trip.  They had a driver and an agent ready for us, as well as a list of about 20 properties that more or less matched what we had described to them.  We went out and saw them all in one day– which was like a dream come true if you like that sort of thing (which I emphatically do) and probably a nightmare if you don’t.  After the last viewing our guide and new best friend, Ryan, took us to a pub and the three of us huddled over beverages and talked through our options.  He got on the phone and made offers and we negotiated in real time.  By the time we parted for the night we were pretty sure we had secured our place.

Our initial choice was a townhouse with a newly redone, beautiful, modern interior– in fact, it had glass railings on all the three floors of staircases… so practically a glass house!  It also had black wooden flooring, a sundeck cut into the middle of the master bedroom suite, and it was about 40 steps from Primrose Hill park.  But the two bedrooms the younger children would have been in were on the ground floor near the entrance, while we were two floors up from there.  And there were no shops or restaurants within a 5-10 minute walk.  The aesthetics appealed to us so much that we made the offer, negotiated a bit, and then went back to the hotel for the night thinking that was probably going to be the one.  But the next morning, Clay and I both woke up feeling like it was the wrong choice.  Luckily for us, the owners had not agreed to our offer, so we were able to walk away from the deal.  Literally.  Will and I took the half-mile walk up to the neighborhood of our second choice flat while Clay went to his office for a few hours.

What our exploratory walk revealed... coffee shop, wine shop, gelato shop, coffee shop, gourmet burger place, family restaurant, upscale pizza place.  All within a block of the prospective flat!  Yep... that's what we now have to leave behind...

What our exploratory walk revealed… coffee shop, wine shop, gelato shop, coffee shop, gourmet burger place, family restaurant, upscale pizza place. All within a block of the prospective flat! Yep… that’s what we now have to leave behind…

Our second choice flat was further from the school, and we needed to see if I could live with the neighborhood and the commute.  The flat hadn’t shown very well, as it was overfilled to stuffed with a French family, their nanny, and enough furniture for at least an 8-bedroom chateau.  One of the little girls in the family followed us around while we toured and fed us with bits of information like, “Daddy likes to sleep in the bathtub!”  (I found it very amusing, but I bet the parents would have thought otherwise.)  But I had seen this property online with pictures from less cluttered days, and I knew the floorplan would work for our family.  What Will and I also discovered when we walked up to the neighborhood that fateful June morning, was that it was in a great street (see photo), with the Tube, great shops and family restaurants, groceries, bakeries, and even a movie theater all within two blocks of our front door.  Second choice quickly flip-flopped to first choice!  (And ultimately, knowing that the bathtub would work as an extra bed in a pinch may have been the factor that swayed us…)

That was our Househunters International,  Round 1 experience.  This time around we really can’t justify a relocation firm.  We live here now.  We know what neighborhoods we like.  We know basically what we should be able to get with our budget.  It’s really just a matter of vigilance, patience, and nerves. All we have to do is spot the perfect place when it comes on the market, sometime in the next 4-6 weeks, and then hope that we can swoop in and be the first and/or best offer.  How hard can it be? (That’s for any Top Gear fans out there… “How hard can it be?” ALWAYS means there’s trouble ahead!)

I promise to be back very soon with an update.  In the meantime, no spoilers in the comments, please!

Half Empty (But Still Rather Full)

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I’ve had a crash course this week in being a half-empty nester.  Chloe left Sunday for the U.S., not to return until some future college break– maybe Christmas, unless we all decide to spend Christmas in the U.S.  Then Clay left on Wednesday morning for a regular kind of business trip– three nights away, returning on Saturday morning.

So it’s been the Littles– Claire and Quinn– and me for the last few days.  What’s strangest of all, maybe, is that because they are not in school right now, we have absolutely no commitments.  We could stay in our pajamas all day and never leave the house.  We could stay out of the house all day and eat every meal out (it’s so CHEAP with only the 3 of us!).  We could stay up all night watching movies, and then sleep all day.  I could neglect to load the dishwasher at night, leave the clean laundry in a pile at the foot of my bed, let shoes build up by the front door until no one can either come or go.

No, I haven’t done these things, not exactly… but maybe bits of them.  Conscience intervenes, you see.  I can’t keep the children in the house an entire day– even if it is raining (but I can let them stay in their pajamas until way past lunch sometimes).  I don’t even want to eat every meal out with the kids (ever watchful of table manners, preventing spills and other catastrophes, and managing bathroom trips alone? no thanks.)  Nix the all-night movie fest, too– we do that on the last day of school, and it takes the rest of the week to recover.  As for the housekeeping?  I hate having piles of laundry in my room (they just get all crumpled and it’s harder to fold them later), and the dishwasher really has to run at night (there’s nothing like coming up for coffee with a clean kitchen!).  There are shoes by the door, though.  Lots of them.  Also mail and umbrellas.

The thing is, all that freedom of having no adult supervision– or at least teen supervision– really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  And I guess maybe I’ve grown up a bit myself over the last 19 years– contrary to all expectations.  Bother.  So where do I find my fun, now that Chloe isn’t here to chat at night, watch a movie with me, or go to a cafe with me (and the littles, of course)?  When Clay’s out of town, there’s no one to handle the TV remote and find old NCIS episodes, stream Modern Family from his iPad, or just talk about things.  And there are no Malteasers in the house.

But hang on.  My mothering instincts must be intact, because I’ve just realized I’ve already been subconsciously working on this problem!  While other, “good” parents spend time reviewing math and working on reading skills in the summer, I’ve been helping my kids learn to play Rock Band on the Wii.  (Oh, alright, we’ll do a math page later!)  We pulled the instruments out of the utility closet last weekend– out of all the things we left in storage in the U.S., we brought Rock Band??  But obviously I knew what I was doing with that– because you don’t know summer fun until you’ve jammed out “Dead or Alive” or “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” with your kids!  Quinn’s got the drums, Claire’s the vocals, and I am obviously the guitar queen.  We’ve got some work to do, but you know, we’ll get there.

Classic Rock, with Paula on drums, Will on vocals, and Chloe on lead guitar.

So hey, my nest isn’t feeling so empty now.  We’ve still got enough kids around to cover the parts.  We might even have to go out and buy the bass guitar if Clay wants to play, too.  But even while I work on making this new nest situation work, I’ll be remembering my big kids so far away.  All my kids are Rock Stars, of course.  But Will and Chloe are the classics.  Love you guys!

It’s Complicated

The bubbler-- not to be confused with "the bubb-lah," which is a drinking fountain, in Boston-speak.

Ahh, the simple pleasures– like a cool drink of water. In this amazing, modern, convenience-filled world, what could be simpler than a cool drink of water? Open a tap: out it pours– clean, fresh, quenching. Mmmm…

Ummm. Unless you’re us. If you’re us, well… it’s a little less straightforward. Mark our relationship status with the world’s most basic necessity of life “complicated.”

We like our drinking water carbonated, you see. So there’s kind of a supply chain– I mean, even after the water treatment plant and the underground mains and household plumbing and all that. We’ve got online ordering with accounts and passwords, gas canister deliveries (requiring signature) and special trips to the Post Office to return empty canisters. We have to have licenses for the canisters we use to make our water just that little extra bit of delicious. Presumably we’re on some kind of tracking list for people who routinely obtain controlled substances. If there is ever a mishap or a spot of mischief involving CO2, we will definitely be hauled in for questioning.

But oh, the bubbles! They are worth the risk. They are worth the bother… Wait a minute… Are they? Are they really?

What if– indulge me a minute here– what if we drank regular (or as Claire used to call it “wiggly”– from “weg-a-ler”) water?  How much would that simplify our lives?  And if that simplification is worth doing, what others might we want to consider?  Coffee?  What if we also started drinking coffee we could buy at the convenience store and brew in any old coffee maker– no special pods to either order online (more accounts and passwords) or to have to trek to the busiest department store in London to buy?  Just a thought…  But then, I never have been one to consider Folger’s in my cup ‘the best part of waking up’– though I have occasionally been known to look forward to my morning espresso…

But I digress.  We’re talking about water.  Water and simplicity.  Since I began the above portion of this blog, our relationship with water has become even more complicated.

Monday morning, we noticed that the carpet in Quinn’s room was wet.  By the time I got home from taking them to school, it was quite wet, and I alerted the landlord and his maintenance guy.  By noon, the baseboards were curling and the drywall above them was bubbling.  I placed another call, prominently dropping the phrase “significant damage.”  That finally got the maintenance guy here– around dinner time.

Seriously. We're NOT tearing this out!

The saga continues from there, and though it is so tempting to dump it all out to you like water down the eave spout in a storm, I will resist.  I will hold back the floodwaters of frustration.  I have had to agitate at every turn, first to get someone here, then to get them to realize their first drying solution was not working.  And now, they are planning to tear out our beautiful, marble, walk-in shower in the master bathroom– sorry, the landlord’s beautiful master bathroom– to solve a problem that is probably not even originating there.  (How could the water be coming from the shower when we weren’t even here to take a shower for the last 10 days?)  How do I pull the plug on all this??

Our house smells like a dungeon– let’s not say sewer– and something certainly must be done.  But damned if I am going to live several weeks without my bathroom without clear proof that the problem is coming from there.  I think I will invite the landlord to come over and have a drink and a chat with us so we can try to insert some method into this madness.  Surely he can’t be anxious to tear out all that marble and glass?

(Sighing and rubbing my temples) I want to go back to the U.S.  Or at the very least, I want another coffee– the kind made from expensive pods in my expensive little machine.  A double!  And on the side I want a glass of carbonated water.  Turns out that’s not so very complicated.

Here at the Corner of Mulberry and Bliss… USA

We are, for once, in the same time zone as many of you– happy and warm in Orlando.

I’m so grateful to be warm.  To be basking in the sun (with sunblock, of course) beside the pool.  Lovely.

It’s also lovely to be in America.  As much as I like living in London, I guess I’m not at home there yet.  Because this break– first in Marblehead for a week, and now in Florida– feels like relaxing at home.  Tonight we’re watching Pirates of the Caribbean after having spent the day at Disney World– where, of course, we rode the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.

Funny thing is, I keep thinking of London… there’s a guy in Covent Garden who dresses up like Cap’n Jack Sparrow and poses for pictures with tourists.  After watching the actor at Disney play Jack Sparrow today (and he did it well), I’m pretty convinced that the guy in Covent Garden is actually the real Johnny Depp.  I mean, he does live in London.  And I read in a local magazine that he has been known to surprise school kids in downtrodden parts of London with visits from the Captain.  Maybe Depp gets bored and just likes to go out in character sometimes.  And really, can you blame him?  Once you’ve been Cap’n Jack, how do you go back to being just some famous actor??  Maybe you’d always have one foot in those big leather boots.

That’s kind of how I feel.  One foot here, one foot there.  But my boots aren’t nearly as cool.

Let me back up for just a moment and write a bit about our time in Marblehead last week.  Surreal.  Arriving in Logan Airport felt like coming home.  The rental people gave us a Nissan Quest, the same car we drove when the Littles were babies.  Driving home from the airport, we pulled through the Starbucks (DRIVE-THRU!) and got a round of frappucinos for practically free (well, almost nothing if you convert the dollars to GB pounds).  On the Lynnway headed to Marblehead, I found my mind wandering to what time I would go pick up Gus from the kennel (sad reality check).  Passing the turn to Humphrey Drive I had to remind myself we weren’t going to our house on Glendale.  In short, it felt like we’d simply been on a long vacation, and for the first day or two I often forgot that we don’t live there anymore.

Chloe’s friend Lillie pulled up in front of our rental place at the same time we did, and the girls jumped out of their cars to give each other a monster hug.  It made me cry, of course.  From there, we all saw as many friends as we could.  Claire and Quinn had playdate after playdate, and Chloe basically disappeared for the week (I’m expecting a room and board bill from Jaho cafe in Salem).  Honestly, it got a little exhausting for this mama who likes her down time to write and think and, you know, do laundry and darn socks and stuff (or, um, check facebook and read blogs and stuff).  My friend Laura planned a big “evening playdate” for the grownup girls.  I protested at first, thinking my friends would say, “What? Her again?  Didn’t we just throw a party because she was leaving?”  But Laura was right as usual, and it took so much pressure off of organizationally-challenged-me to see all my main girls at one go!  Thanks to Laura and her wonderful family– and to my friends who took time out on a Tuesday night.  You really are the best… xoxo.

Will joined us from Colorado Thursday night, and the whole family was together again.  I love my family.  And I miss that big guy so much.  We had a frenetic couple of days sort-of all together, a good bit of it spent with our good friends in Belmont.  We were together Easter morning for a simple brunch, and the Easter bunny did come, though we didn’t do an egg hunt.  Then off to the airport and a super-fancy (ha!) Easter lunch at Au Bon Pain before saying goodbye to Will, who was leaving from a different terminal.  Mom that I am, I still get teary thinking about watching him walk away across Terminal A, backpack on his shoulders, his height allowing me to sight him all the way to the pedestrian walkway.  Reminded me of all those years ago when I lamented watching him walk off across the soccer pitch in a first flight of independence (see Potato Chips and Nutella).  One month.  Just one month till he comes to London for a few weeks.

And then on to Orlando for the rest of us.  We’ve been here so many times.  Several years ago, when Claire was a baby, we thought about moving here.  We spent three weeks in a condo just a mile or two from where we are staying this week.  So it was almost home– and at any rate, it’s very familiar.

Beyond that, it is a magnet for all kinds of Americana.  In our two days at theme parks this week, we saw pasty-white families (that’s no criticism– we’re pasty-white, too!) from Minnesota and Des Moines, Buffalo and the Bronx.  We saw sun-soaked folks from across the South.  Cowboy hats and baseball caps and, of course, those nerdy Goofy hats from Disney.  Flip flops and trainers, sandals with socks, and even high heels.  We’re all there, sharing elbow space, screaming together on the thrill rides, competing for tables at lunch, and annoying each other in the endlessly coiling lines.  Of course, we also rubbed elbows with people from all over the world, including a great numbers of Brits– whose children are on half-term vacation for three weeks.  Like us, many of them are putting in some of their vacation time at Hogwarts.

I’ll spare you any further details of our itinerary, but I’m happy to report that Claire has a new wand.  She recently told me, “I really need a new wand.  My old one is useless.”  Apparently, incanting “accio” and waving a chopstick at items she wanted to move was not an effective way to pick up her bedroom.  We’ll see if the new wand can do any better with the summoning charm!

Back to London on Sunday.  Till then– you can find me by the pool!