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!

Having a Look About

Covent Garden gets its Christmas on!

Covent Garden gets its Christmas on!

It’s Day Two of the “Five Months in Five Days” series, and we’ve arrived at… drumroll…November!

What’s that?  No suspense?  No surprise?  You guessed that was coming?  Hmmm.  Why was there no spoiler alert??

One of my favorite kinds of street entertainment!

One of my favorite kinds of street entertainment!

Jump Start the Holidays

One Saturday night early in November, we took a little outing down to Covent Garden.  What a nice surprise to find the halls all decked and the crowds feeling festive!  I usually hate it when any season starts before its time.  Don’t show me Easter candy before Valentine’s Day; and please keep the red foil hearts in the warehouse until after New Year’s Eve!  But then, they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in the U.K., so what’s to keep us from starting the Christmas season in early November here?  In any case, the early Christmas vibe at Covent Garden that night was working.   A string ensemble entertained on the lower level– dancing around, spinning their cellos, and rocking the garden with the rockin-est of classical music– while a crowd watched from the tables nearby and the steps and balconies above.

IMG_0796This year’s decor featured spinning disco balls that cast snowflake lights all around the halls.  It was like some well done mashup of a party and a stage production– I kept feeling that tickle of anticipation I always feel when the Nutcracker Overture starts and the curtain comes up to all the people going to Clara’s family Christmas party.  (Does anyone else love that scene and get that same feeling??)  I snapped a thousand pictures on my iPhone– very few of which actually turned out at all.  We peeked at the macarons in Laduree, I ogled the soaps carved so beautifully into flowers at one of the stalls, and Clay let the kids pick candy at the ‘penny candy’ stall.  I think we even went upstairs in Pollock’s Toy Shop to see the puppet theatres and other old-fashioned toys.  When we’d soaked in the atmosphere for a while, we stopped for mulled wine and hot chocolate at one of the outdoor cafes with those tableside heaters that look like torches inside glass tubes?  It was too cozy!  (In fact, it was  probably was a little too cozy for the 20-somethings on a date at the table approximately 30 millimeters from ours… but it didn’t bother us!)

About Town

The Horseshoe pub is always on the list of stops.

The Horseshoe pub is always on the list of stops.

We had a full house for Thanksgiving, with Will and Chloe home for the holiday.  Since they had already traveled several time zones to be with us for a few days, we decided to stay in London.  We managed to procure a nice, farm-raised turkey– for something like an elbow and an ankle, if not an arm and a leg, as most of the British turkeys were apparently not on the market until December.   But we celebrated a proper American Thanksgiving, right down to the pumpkin pie.  And we had American guests– two of Chloe’s friends (one ASL, one Marblehead) who were in London without their families.  I was so grateful to have the whole family together this year.  We packed a lot into those days.  Here’s a look…

View across the courtyard at The British Museum.

View across the courtyard at The British Museum.

I love this bookshop across the street from the British Museum.  Can anyone place the name Jarndyce?  Leave your response in the comments! (no fair googling it!)

I love this bookshop across the street from the British Museum. Can anyone place the name Jarndyce? Leave your response in the comments! (no fair googling it!)

My favorite umbrella shop.

My favorite umbrella shop.  Yes, they have whole shops devoted to umbrellas in London.

Quinn was so happy to have the Bigs home.

Quinn was so happy to have the Bigs home… we ALL were!

Before Will went back to the U.S., Quinn decided he really wanted a #4 buzz cut like his big brother.

Before Will went back to the U.S., Quinn decided he really wanted a #4 buzz cut like his big brother.

And a Few Other Things

Also in November?  Mudlarking– digging around in the muddy banks of the Thames at low tide for whatever you can find!  It’s a time-honored tradition– and a way that some folks made their living back in Victorian times.  Claire’s class had a field trip to see what it was like, as well as to study the ecology of the Thames.   One kid dug up the sole of a hob-nailed boot– perhaps not valuable, but certainly old and interesting.  But mostly we did a lot of fishing around in tidal pools for freshwater shrimp and other “treasures” of the biological kind.  The group I was chaperoning collected a great Chinese Mitten Crab specimen– the guide looked it over and was excited to show the kids because he was obviously a ‘warrior’ who had survived a lot as he was missing some of his limbs.  Trouble is, while the children were mucking in pools down the way from our bucket, our little crab became a seagull’s lunch.  We’d left the poor old warrior out like a buffet for the birds!  Yes.  I felt bad about that.  What?  You think I should have let the kids go play near the river while I stayed close to the crab?  Still, it was fun to be down on the Thames, and the kids loved it, which is always so great to watch.  Coincidently, not long after the trip I picked up a book called DODGER, by Terry Pratchett.  It was a treat to read, with all kinds of Victorian characters– real and fictional– springing to life.  And yes, there was mudlarking in it.

We closed out the month with another bit of Christmas: a carol singalong at the church of St Martin in the Fields.  It’s one of my very favorite places in London to hear live performances, and it was really special to hear all those English carols we’ve listened to from the Chieftains for many years.  Last year Clay and I went to hear the Messiah by candlelight there.  This year we went to the sing along with the Littles instead (because they were begging me to take them out caroling, and I simply had to find a different way to scratch that itch!)  The church is in Trafalgar Square, so it’s also a great place to go for a nice little hit of London spirit– what with the National Gallery, the Nelson column, the fountains and the lion statues, all the theaters and all the diverse London people.  It’s also a beautiful, beautiful place.  I love the window behind the altar (look closely and pick out the cross and the Light in the center).  It was created and installed after the old, traditional stained glass window was shattered during the Blitz.

The sanctuary of St Martin in the Fields during a Christmas concert.

The sanctuary of St Martin in the Fields during a Christmas concert.

The older I get, the more I want to pause at this time and breathe.  And call it cultural conditioning if you want, but most of all I want to be thankful.  November seems like a very good time for that.

Five months in five days?

Time to pay the piper

Time to pay the piper

Much as I’d like to blame my blogging lapse on something dramatic and interesting– like an extended backpacking trip in the Himalayas with no satellite uplink for blogging.  Or perhaps an amnesia-inducing, but otherwise injury-free fall from a scenic overlook in Scotland?  Or more realistically, British Telecom and Virgin media internet services were down… for FIVE months!  Could happen, you know.

But no.  It was just me.  I checked out for a while.  I don’t know why, exactly, but every time I sat down to write (which was, admittedly, not that often), I could hardly finish a paragraph, let alone write a coherent blog.  Please hold your thoughts on whether I am ever really coherent.  With encouragement from a friend (you know who you are), I am back.  And I’ve set myself a challenge:  to summarize the last five months in five blogs over the next five days.  I don’t know if any of us has the endurance for this, but here goes…

Edinburgh in October

Edinburgh Castle from across the Princes Street Gardens

Edinburgh Castle from across the Princes Street Gardens

The Scottish countryside above Edinburgh.

The Scottish countryside above Edinburgh.  Nearly at the top of Arthur’s Seat.

It only takes a little more than a 4-hr train ride– part of it shockingly gorgeous, with the North Sea on one side, and the vast, rolling, sheep-dotted Scottish countryside on the the other– to get to Edinburgh, Scotland from London.  And what a great city it is!  We spent a glorious weekend there at the beginning of October: sunshine and architecture and history and bagpipes and castles and hiking to the top of Arthur’s Seat, an enormous bluff (or crag or small mountain or something) at the edge of the city.  And haggis and whisky, of course.  One must have the whisky to get past the thought of what is in the haggis…(hint: comes from a sheep and is cooked in a sheep stomach! I know, ewww!)  Maybe once was enough for the haggis, but we will definitely head back to Edinburgh again.

With Madeline and Bo near the University.

With Madeline and Bo near the University.

Added to the fun was seeing Chloe’s good friend (and our family friends), Madeline and her dad, Bo.  Madeline is a student at Edinburgh University now, and her dad was in town for the weekend.  Seeing old friends in a different part of the world always gives me a comforting sense of continuity despite all that has changed in our lives in the last two years.  Kind of a reminder that those years in Massachusetts are part of who we are, and we carry with us the experiences and friendships from those days.  Nevertheless… we had breakfast with our friends, and then we left them to their time together, and we went off to explore Edinburgh.

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The Firth of Forth in the background… no, I don’t have a lithp! Maybe I should just say it’s a bay on the North Sea.

An Edinburgh street...

An Edinburgh street at dusk.

A doorway into a courtyard bearing one of our family names:  Jollie.  The city is a warren of little courtyards and alleyways, and even old ruins of streets and city under today's city streets.  Fascinating place!

A doorway into a courtyard bearing one of our family names: Jollie. The city is a warren of little courtyards and alleyways, and even old ruins of streets and city under today’s city streets. Fascinating place!

The city is a fascinating and lovely place.  I’ll spare you the history lesson this time, but we can’t wait to go back there!

Arthur's Seat looms over the city, and makes a lovely afternoon hike if you want to feel like you're in the highlands.

Arthur’s Seat looms over the city, with Holyrood Park and its walking paths, which make a lovely afternoon hike if you want to feel like you’re in the highlands.

View over the city.

View over the city toward the castle (elevated in the background on the right).

Regatta in a Hurricane

Team meeting by the tent-- Chloe is in the royal blue shirt.

Team meeting by the tent– Chloe is in the royal blue shirt standing back by the boat trailers.

Just a couple weeks after our Scotland getaway, I jetted off to Charlottesville to spend Parents’ Weekend at the University of Virginia with Chloe.  When we booked the flight shortly after leaving Chloe at school last summer, we didn’t know that she would make the UVA women’s rowing team, which would mean she might be traveling to New Jersey for the “Princeton Chase” crew race.  So, after landing at Dulles and learning that she had made the roster for this event, I drove the two hours to Charlottesville for a late dinner with Chloe on Friday night, then took her early the next morning to the boathouse for her bus to NJ, then jumped back into the rental car by myself later in the morning for the 5-hr drive to Princeton (okay, it was a 7-hr drive if you factor in my pit stops at the US Postal Service and at Target, where every American expat longs to visit!).  My Parents’ Weekend experience at UVA was about 12 hours long, and I was only on campus in the dark!

Though I’d been feeling sad that the change in plans meant I would see a lot less of Chloe than I’d hoped, I was excited to see her row.  But then I kept hearing more and more about some incoming storm called SANDY (heard of it?).  Fifteen minutes with the Weather Channel early Saturday morning was all it took to classify me officially freaked out.  As I drove into New Jersey Saturday afternoon, big flashing signs in the highway medians read:  “State of Emergency Declared.”  Not a good idea, really, to drive into a state of emergency.  “Hmmm,” thought I, “I was under the impression there were some pretty smart people at Princeton.  I wonder why they think it’s a good idea to have a boat race in a hurricane?”

Okay, everyone.  There's a hurricane coming, so let's get these boats in the water!

Okay, everyone. There’s a hurricane coming, so let’s get these boats in the water!

I did get to hang out with Chloe some that evening in Princeton, and she spent the night in my room (which was right down the hall from her teammates).  After she left for the race, I put in more time with the Weather Channel, and then some quality phone time with United Airlines– trying to figure out if there was any chance my 11pm flight would actually make it out that night, and looking for anything earlier, or flying from any city I could possibly reach with a direct flight to London (Boston? Chicago?).  All to no avail.  They did offer me flights for the following Wednesday with no ticket change fees!  I decided to stay on the 11pm flight; but, envisioning panicked evacuation scenarios on my way back to DC for the flight, I did stock up on water and snack bars, and I even bought a mid-Atlantic map in case highways were jammed or closed and I needed to navigate without the highway-dependent GPS.  Then, hoping for the best, I went to watch Chloe row.

Chloe post-race.  So proud of her!

Chloe post-race. So proud of her!

What an atmosphere!  The river and the boathouse were gorgeous, and all the teams (a Who’s Who of prestigious universities) had tents cooking barbecue and serving food and drinks for their rowers and fans (mostly parents).  It was a thrill when I finally found Chloe with her team.  I couldn’t believe our little Chloe was part of this!

But despite the big race excitement, there was also a distinct feeling of foreboding in the air.  Everyone knew the hurricane was bearing down, and many of the people there had a really long way to go after the chase.  I heard a couple of the rowers worrying about it in the breakfast line at the hotel (“OK, this is not funny anymore!  I want to go home.”)  Chloe’s novice class race was almost the last one, and by the time it started the wind was beginning to pick up, though the rain held off.  I walked down to a bridge near the halfway point and fell in with some UVA varsity parents who were really nice (well, one guy was a crew snob who didn’t deign to talk with me because my daughter was only a walk-on– why do people act like that??).  What a thrill to watch Chloe’s eight approach the bridge, glide under, and be off!  All in a matter of about two minutes.  But still.  I am SO proud of her for stretching and daring to try it!  She is amazing.

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Just through the bridge. Chloe is in royal blue, near the front. My other pictures had the blades in better sync, but this one is the closest photo, so that wins over form!

A Travel Tale

After a sad goodbye (because Chloe had to return with the team), I hurried off to join the evacuating masses– which turned out not really to be masses at all.  Traffic was fine, and it didn’t even start raining until I was well into Maryland.  I made it to Dulles much faster than I’d thought I would, returned the rental car, and went into the terminal to see just how many flights were already canceled.  The answer?  MOST!  But mine was still on, so I somehow circumvented the massive lineup of people trying to rebook their canceled flights, and got myself checked in.  Then I sat down to wait.  Here’s where it gets interesting.

Some of you may know I have a severe case of “line anxiety”– I am extremely afraid I will be in the wrong place and miss something, or people will all stream around me and I will be caught out, or… I don’t know, maybe I might starve waiting at the end of a poorly disciplined line?  I hate it that I’m that way, but it’s deeply, painfully ingrained from way back in grade school– remember? “No budging!”  You should have seen what a mess I was when we would go to the movies in Paris– where they do not understand what a line is!  At least the Brits are brilliant at queues… even if they are useless at sauces and vegetables.  Tradeoffs…

Anyway.  For some reason, I was able to calmly find a spot and sit down to kill some of the 4+ hours before my not-yet-canceled flight.  I had that surplus of water bottles I hated to just throw out before going through security; and it seemed like a good idea to get my phone fully charged– just in case I ended up waiting out a hurricane in the airport, or elsewhere, without power.  I watched some families waiting nearby, and it made me miss mine.  Chloe called to say she’d made it back to campus.  I decided to work on my Bible study homework for the following week.  Guess what the topic was?  Trusting– really trusting– God.  I read and answered questions, and finally said, “Oh, all right then, God!  I’m honestly going to let go of all this worry and trust You to get me home.”  I meant it.  And then I closed the book, feeling like it was time to go through security to my gate… four hours early.

So I did that.  I stopped at the flight monitor screen just outside the cluster of gates from which my flight was departing.  As I looked at the screen, it suddenly penetrated my consciousness that my flight was being called to another gate way on the other side of the terminal.  So I sped all the way across to that gate– hoping, hoping– and sure enough, they put me straight onto the 7pm flight that had been overbooked just hours earlier when I tried to switch to it.  Apparently people don’t like to fly into hurricanes.

Not only was the flight no longer overbooked, it was practically empty.  They seated me in a window seat with an empty seat beside me (bliss!).  I hadn’t had time to get a water bottle before boarding the plane– no problem, the flight attendants brought water around at least twice before we even took off.  Though the woman sharing the row with me was freaking out about flying into the storm, I felt perfectly peaceful and, I hope, helped her feel more peaceful.  We finally took off some time well after scheduled departure– and we were the last London-bound flight (possibly the last flight at all) to leave from Dulles before Hurricane Sandy hit the U.S.

I felt bad for all the people who were about to get pounded by the storm– while hoping, of course, that it would not be as bad as they were saying it could be.  But I was so happy to be on my way to my younger kids instead of stuck in a soggy airport for three or four days.  As we bounced through the initial turbulence climbing to our altitude, I fell sound asleep and I didn’t wake up until it was time for breakfast over Ireland.  Even then, the nervous lady in my row had to give me a gentle shake.  I have never slept more than a couple of hours on a transatlantic flight.  Nor have I ever landed at Heathrow feeling fresh and rested!  Oh, and passport control/customs was a breeze, because there were no other flights arriving from the East Coast.  It was the easiest flight and arrival I have ever experienced.

I’m pretty sure that’s how it works when you stop worrying and put your trust where it ought to be (would it be inappropriate to say ‘when you put your trust in that Great Travel Agent In the Sky’?)

Reunions and Happy Endings

One of my favorite moments of the summer– when Gus realized it was us! Yes, Q and I are both crying…

Until I was twenty-two, I mostly thought of the word “reunion” in the sense of potluck lunches in the park pavilion, with multiple variations on baked beans and seven-layer salads, and distant relatives you were supposed to know but didn’t.

Then I moved far away from home for the first time and learned how it feels to anticipate seeing loved ones or dear friends after months or years apart.  Then I had kids and learned the joy of bringing your children and their grandparents together after time apart.  A year turned into twenty-five years away from my little hometown and the friends and family there.  Now I thoroughly understand the word “reunion.”

I look forward to every trip back to my hometown to see my parents and my sister and her precious and adorable family.  I’m grateful to get to see my sweet grandma, who still has a sense of humor at 92 and only stopped zipping circles around everybody with her walker this year because of a knee injury.  I’m so happy for any time I get to spend with my aunts and uncles, and cousins (like drinking Pimm’s in the front yard with Aunt Terri, my cousin Jason and his new wife Laura; or the too-short stop by Aunt Lana’s house one afternoon).  And there are still a few close friends who live in the area– like Sue (who shared a nuns-on-a-tour-bus sighting with me this summer), and Jill (who waited patiently while I drove circles around her brother’s house, trying to find it).  Sometimes I get lucky and a friend who has moved away just happens to be in town at the same time I am– as was the case this summer with my fun childhood friend, Emily, who happened to be in from Chicago the very day I chased her mother down on the downtown sidewalk just to say hello.

Visiting Grandma– love that lady!

Sometimes we try to orchestrate a big family gathering– not quite the old-style reunion with seven-layer salad, but maybe a party at the town pool, or a picnic at the park (okay, that sounds kind of reunion-y, doesn’t it?).  I always end up feeling weird about that– like we’re demanding that everyone come see us now instead of letting it just happen or not.  But then if we don’t do one big activity, we end up running around a lot of the time to see people, or waiting at home for them to come see us.  So it’s kind of a tricky thing, and even after twenty-five years I still wouldn’t say we’ve got it right.

This summer there was a different kind of reunion for us.  If you’ve been around here sharing a cuppa with us for a while, then you know of my heartbreak over leaving my sweet, rescue dog, Gus, behind in the U.S. when we moved to London last year.  If not, well, I did write about it a few times– like here, and here.  My amazing, fun, big-hearted cousin– she is my hero– took Gus to her home in Indiana.  He has acres and acres to romp in, a pond, two doggy brothers (including Marley, his best friend and larger twin brother– who’s actually a Great Dane…), and loving ‘parents’ in Josie and her husband, Mike.  Gus’ life is wonderful, and I am so grateful!

I wasn’t sure what to do about trying to see Gus this summer.  His home is a few hours away from where we were staying with my parents.  But more than that, I was worried about how the kids and I would feel after seeing him.  Of course, it did occur to me not to rock the boat for Gus and his new family as well, but anyone who has read a book about dog behavior knows that that is more something we project on dogs than they actually feel– given that they live in the present and all.  Right?  (I was so sure of this when I was reading Cesar books, but how can we really know?)  Anyway.  All these things were swirling around in my head leading up to and during the first week of our trip, and in typical me fashion, I simply chose to do nothing.

Look how happy the kids are: )

Then one day I woke up knowing I deeply, deeply wanted to see Gus.  It all clicked into focus and I realized that, for example, even though I really missed Will last year when he went to college, and even though I knew I would cry when he left again after a visit, that didn’t mean I didn’t want to see him when I could.  The same could be said about Gus, my fuzzy, four-legged son.  I also realized that though I was worried about protecting the smaller kids from more hurt, they really wanted to see him, too.  How could I have forgotten Claire’s poem about Gus?

So I got in touch with Josie and she– wonderful lady that she is– went way out of her way to make a reunion happen for us.  We spent a few precious hours with her, my aunt, and Gus.  He knew us and was ecstatic to see us (photo, above), but he clearly loves Josie as well, and is her dog now.  He would lie down by me for a while, then get up and go for a drink and lie down by Josie.  Seeing that was like balm to my soul and closure to all my wounds about betraying the rescue dog I had promised to give a ‘forever’ home (as they say at the shelter).  I felt peace about something that had pained me for the last 12 months.  That is, indeed, a happy ending.

I do love happy endings.  As an aspiring writer of fiction, I struggle with my innate desire to orchestrate a happy ending, versus the prejudice against a tidy and upbeat wrap-up in contemporary fiction.  Things are supposed to be messy in serious fiction, as well as in our dystopian world.  Maybe that’s part of why I keep stalling out near the end in my fiction efforts (the other part is that I’m afraid to finish things– but that’s another blog and another course of therapy).  I’ve written three-quarters or more of three novels.  Mathematically, that should be 2+ novels, right?  But I guess it doesn’t work that way…

And then there’s a fourth piece, for which I’ve written a very rough, but complete first draft.  This one I wrote for Quinn and Claire– it’s a middle grades story involving a dog and his family caught up in the conflict between rebels and establishment in a magical world they didn’t realize was right under their noses.  The dog is a hero in the story, but the wounds he sustains in saving the children make it impossible for him to come back to the children’s world with them.  He must remain in the magical land.  And though he can be happy there– and the children know he will be happy–  they are heartbroken to lose their beloved pet.  Are you getting any ideas about when I wrote this and why?

I finished that draft a year ago, but have never been happy with the ending.  My kids really liked the first chapters, but I’ve never read any further with them.  Maybe now it’s time to go back and try a rewrite– you know, now that I’ve seen an unhappy ending transformed?  I have no idea how our reality changes the fiction, and I won’t write something that ends in some folksy bit of wisdom about time healing all wounds.  But I think if I could find a happy ending in the real life story, there must be some way to pull out a better ending for the fictional Gus and family.  Any ideas out there?

Tears on the Traffic Island

This post is NOT going to be another chronicle of my tears. Really, it’s not. Well. Mostly not.

A quieter island than the one I cried on… but you get the idea.

Quinn and Claire went back to school this week. The most notable difference between last year’s first day and this year’s first day is that I didn’t find myself crying on a little concrete pedestal– the traffic island in the middle of a busy London street after drop-off.

Granted, Quinn started kindergarten last year. That’s a vulnerable moment for every mom. And I had only just left my oldest child at university a continent away for his freshman year. So double whammy vulnerability. Oh, and I didn’t know anyone here yet, and the time difference made it ridiculous for me to call my mom or my sister or any friends back home where it was 3:30 am. So I was feeling pretty isolated– the traffic island was an amazing metaphor, come to think of it. And possibly some of those tears were in the nature of, “Oh Lord, what have we done? What are we doing here?”

First Day of School, Aug. 29, 2012

This year was So Very Different. I had no nervous butterflies about getting to school via public transport (aka, big red London buses) in time. I was hugging people in the hallway, greeting the librarian and the assistant principal like old friends, giving the new families whatever help I could (even if that was just sending out friendly vibes)… It felt good to feel not quite so not-in-control, and it felt great to be able to offer a little help to people who were where I had been.

My life, I realized, has felt out of control for a long time. Nearly two years, in fact– from the time we decided we might move to London that fall, just when our oldest was starting his Senior year and all the stressful gearing up for college. Moves and graduations, leave-takings and growing ups. Yeah, that stuff will make a parent feel like she’s not the boss– of anything. (I’m smiling as I write, at a momentary flashback to itty bitty Chloe– hands on her skinny hips, strawberry blond curls sticking out– saying, for the millionth time, “You’re not the boss of me!” to her older brother. Now they text each other regularly from their colleges on opposite sides of the country.) So maybe boss isn’t the right word– it’s not like I ever really acted like the boss in the first place. Maybe being in the driver’s seat is a better metaphor. The mom is driving the family carpool for years and years, and then– suddenly– she’s not.  That’s the kind of loss of control that happens when the kids start the college thing.  Then throw in a move overseas, and, well…

But the moves are done, and for now we’re ‘sorted,’ as the Brits like to say.  Now that Will and Chloe have both left home for college, I have nothing left to dread in that regard for a long time (Claire is only in 3rd grade).  It feels like the major tumult might be done.  (God help me for saying that.) So I’m coming out of this 2-yr-long storm and surveying the damage. Mostly I’m pleased at the things that held up through it all. Not that I’m not battered. There are way more gray hairs and wrinkles than there were in Marblehead. But I have more compassion for myself and my body. After all, we’ve been through some things together. The gray hairs have sprung from the stress of moving, and worry about the kids (far and near) and the daily details of making a new life. The wrinkles have come from– I’m not gonna lie– a lot of tears through the last couple years. It sounds cliché, but those outward signs of aging represent the experience, the wisdom, the empathy I’ve gained through these hard transitions.

Don’t look now, but I think I’ve finally learned to be gentle with myself. And sister, right now I am positively exuding empathy for women in all stages and walks. I want to be an ear, a shoulder, a comforting hug. I want us each to respect the walk we’re on, and know that whatever trials we encounter, they tend to be universal. We love till we think our hearts will explode. We hurt until we think the sun cannot possibly rise again. But it always does. We condemn ourselves for what we don’t get done. We condemn ourselves for what we do. We create elaborate plans to improve ourselves, our lives, and even our loved ones. But we are still ‘just’ ourselves, and never the perfect version of anything we set out to be.

But we’re walking on this path. All the while we’re walking.

Maybe you have to have been on the trail for quite a while before you get to look back and actually realize you’ve covered a lot of challenging ground. You turn around and appreciate that you’ve climbed over rocks and boulders, across streams and through muddy bogs; and when you pause and look up, you realize that the view is… just breathtaking.

You can see others further back the trail, perhaps a woman wading through the exhaustion of having two or three littles at home. Losing her mind piece by piece. Making unrealistic plans for what she hopes to accomplish during nap time or during the two hours the oldest is in preschool. Disappointment and self-condemnation that she couldn’t get it done. Utter exhaustion by dinnertime. Falling asleep while reading the bedtime story, then staying up later than she should because she’s so desperate to have a little time to herself. You try to shout back, “It’s okay! Don’t be hard on yourself! All of us up here were just like you on that part of the trail– you’ll make it! And it doesn’t matter if the toys are picked up every night…” But she probably doesn’t hear you, because she is where she is on the trail, and the sounds of her busy life are roaring in her ears as she does her best to cross that river.

Or there’s another one resting on a trailside boulder (or possibly even a London traffic island), crying as she watches her 5-year-old walk away from her wearing a backpack. You smile at his sweetness and you wish you could reach out and touch her shoulder. “Yes, it feels like such a change, doesn’t it?” you’d say. “But he will still hug you after school today, and the day after that, and… you’ve got lots of time to love your little one.” Silently, you might add, Just pay attention! It all goes so fast, and you’ll barely realize it’s happening and then you wake up one day and realize his feet are bigger than yours and he doesn’t really hug you after school anymore. But you wouldn’t say that out loud because, well, how is that edifying, and why would you want to add to her sorrow?

It’s not just moms, either– that happens to be the trail I’m looking back at right now, but there are lots of junctions along the way: jobs and school, boyfriends and girlfriends, weddings and births. Funerals.  Something about the start of a new academic year this fall– and the first anniversary of our life in London– has me looking back, and looking at others, with a new view and a deeper tenderness. I suppose scientists would say there’s some hormone at work– that’s fine, because there’s plenty of room for science right here alongside this more metaphysical view. I mean, why wouldn’t God create hormones like little instruction codes to help us along this whole road: eat, grow, run away, reproduce, love…?

I also see better than ever that you can’t walk someone’s walk for them. That kindergarten mom has to go through her moment and her reactions (and maybe her reaction is ‘wahoo! freedom!’– which is also legit!) in her own time; just like no abstract knowledge that everything will be okay could stop me from shedding tears on the tarmac flying away after my term-long goodbyes to Will and Chloe in the last 10 days. Traffic island to tarmac, it’s a part of my walk, and I just have to feel what I’m going to feel.  The best we can do for one another is simply to be there, as our sisters and friends and parents and grandparents have been in their turn.

And we mustn’t forget to look back, and up and out, over where we’ve been. We might be kinder to ourselves and to others if we occasionally take another look at all the road we’ve covered.

Besides, the view is fantastic.

Half Empty (But Still Rather Full)

Image

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!

Italia, the Palio, the big Ciao

I never intended to write a travel blog, so I always have a hard time writing when we get back from a trip.  I mean, I have all these great photos to share, and I can spin out the narrative without a second thought.  But… but, but, but… that whole travelogue/home movie thing?  I’m wary.  The heart of the problem suffered by bores is that they don’t know when they are being bores, right?

Nonetheless, life has landed us where it has landed us.  Travel is one of the compensations for all the other things we miss about being home in the U.S.– like big family barbecues, and fireworks on the 4th of July.  So I guess that’s what I write about now.

We were in Italy last week.  Visiting an old friend, actually.  Someone you might know, but we haven’t seen here in England for a long time.  It was great to hang out all week with that friend my kids used to call “Mister Golden Sun.”  I can almost cry at the memory of that warmth soaking into my bones for the first time in months.  This as I sit shivering in my kitchen with the patio door open to another breezy, damp and overcast London day.  I’ve been keeping the door open so that if it stops raining and the sun peeks out from behind the clouds, I can quickly dash out and park myself in a chair to get a quick dose.

Stand clear!

But I digress (everyone in London these days finds themselves talking incessantly about the weather).  Back to Italy.  We started off hopelessly lost in Pisa after leaving the airport near midnight in our rental car.  Never trust a GPS if it can’t pronounce the local street names (and even you can tell).  Also, don’t assume the hotel address printed on your hotel reservation represents the actual location of the hotel.  We stowed the Garmin in the glovebox, went with the native-speaking, in-dash GPS, and never got lost again!.  Plus, we learned directional Italian in the bargain (a destra– turn right, a sinistra– turn left!)  Next day we saw the tower (yes, it really does lean) and the under-represented duomo church and the baptristry both next to the tower.  We took a walk through the city, and ate (what else?) pizza.  Then we left the tourist-trappy feeling behind for a drive into the Tuscan hills– our sense of wonder growing by the kilometer.  Tuscany is a gorgeous place, for sure.

Tuscany from the dining room window.

The villa we found is associated with a small, upscale hotel out in the Chianti countryside.  My thinking was that this offered us some insurance– if it was associated with a reputable hotel, it had to be ok, right?  Anyway, I’m choosing to remember it as charming– which will be easier to do as the mosquito bites fade, along with the memories of stifling hot nights with open windows, no screens, and neighboring dogs barking at all hours.  Everything else about the place was pretty lovely, from the amazing views, to the terra cotta tile rooftops, to the bougainvillea growing outside the dining room window.

Nighttime wildlife aside, we were in the perfect location.  We spent our mornings by the pool, which looked out over the gorgeous landscape.  Lunch was either in the breezy pavilion at the hotel, or back at our villa with melon and prosciutto and tomatoes and mozzarella.  Then, afternoons we went exploring the medieval villages and towns dotted all over the map.  Yes, yes… I AM about to launch into telling you all about them.  But you know how to skim, right?

Precarious person in San Gimignano.

First there was San Gimignano, with its 14 remaining towers– the skyscrapers of the middle ages (from an original 72, which kind of explains why they called it the medieval Manhattan).  We climbed to the top of the tallest tower (imagining what the climb was like before safety handrails) and looked out, and down across the endless landscape. On the way up, I was startled by the view of a figure atop one of the neighboring towers– holy don’t-lose-your-balance-in-a-stiff-breeze (don’t worry, it’s a statue)!  Then we went to a cafe in the piazza and had cold white Vernaccia wine and bruschetta, as one of Clay’s Italian colleagues had instructed us to do.  Perfect.

Italia fans gathered for the Eurocup final.

Not ready to be done that day, we climbed the winding roads to Volterra in our litte Ford Kuga, just as all the other tourists were coming down for the day.  We found a little osteria someone had recommended, and we had a beautiful, inexpensive dinner with waitstaff who didn’t treat us like tourists.  We strolled the cobbled hills with gelato, leaving town just as the locals massed in front of big screens at their favorites bars and cafes to see Italia take on Spain in the Eurocup football (soccer) finals.  We listened on the car radio– in Italian, of course!  Even with a vocabulary pretty much limited to what the nav system had taught us, it was clear from the commentary that Italy was not going to pull it off.  We watched the end of the game with other tourists back at the hotel– just as well… it would have felt weirdly voyeuristic to watch the dejection of the flag-draped folks back in the villages.

Another afternoon we visited a walled, hilltop village called Montereggiano (sound familiar, Laura?)  It was like being inside a medieval fortress town.  Oh.  Wait.  It was exactly like being inside a fortress because that’s what it was– a strategic stronghold of either the Florentian or Sienese city-states.

Standing above Florence.

Then Florence.  Oh my.  Just standing above the city first thing in the morning, looking out at that famous red dome.  Goodness.  But to tell the truth, even art-lover that I am, I didn’t get too wound up about the Uffizi art collection.  Not that it wasn’t stunning, but tours and tour groups and pushy crowds… it all just detracts from the Botticelli/Michaelangelo experience, capice?  

Lunch, shopping, wandering the streets in search of gelato and/or cappucino?  The crowds did not detract from that!  There’s so much more to say about Florence– a fabulous lunch at another place recommended by Clay’s friend, a trip to Ferragamo, the Duomo, the old Ponte Vecchio bridge (crazily covered with jewelry shops built on and over it).

The Abbey at Badia a Passignano– wine cellars within.

Another afternoon we went for a wine tour ending with lunch and a tasting at the vineyard’s Michelin-starred restaurant.  What a highlight!  Tavarnelle in Val de Pesa was home to a thousand-year-old Abbey still owned and run by the Vatican.  The Badia a Passignano winery rents their cellar space within the Abbey, so we got to enter the grounds and walk through on our private tour.  So amazing– even had a sundial made by Gallileo (broken in WWII).  Then the lunch was to die for, and we tasted great wines.  The kids really enjoyed that they got to taste olive oils, too.  Though our tour guide told us Italian children sometimes drink acqua vita at family occasions– wine mixed with water– we didn’t give them that option…

Siena, looking all Siena-ish!

Finally, Siena.  The first week in July is one of the biggest weeks of the year for this little city.  They run the Palio— a bareback horse race right around the central piazza, called Il Campo.  The race participants are from rival neighborhoods in Siena– all with historical symbols and meanings beyond my quick study– and they attach great importance to this contest.  We looked into renting a window on the piazza to watch the race (way too crowded and dangerous to take the kids into the interior of the piazza to watch).  But as it was upwards of a thousand euros for a small window, we decided to give it a miss this year.  Our trip to the famous town came a few days after the Palio– and just happened to coincide with a triumphal procession around the city by the winning team, beating drums, waving flags, and singing.  This just happened to unfold as we were dining al fresco in the piazza, so it was really fun for us to see.

The Palio winner’s procession emerging into Il Campo.

Il Campo at twilight

Apart from that, the little city is really beautiful.  We took more pictures there than anywhere else, I think, as every little street angling up from Il Campo held its own surprises and vistas.  We finished with gelato in the enormous piazza– the best gelato yet– as dusk fell and the signature Siena tower began to glow under night spotlights.  Of all the highlights on a wonderful trip, the afternoon and evening in Siena were the best for me.  It had been relatively quiet in the city’s public spaces, as most of the tourists were clearing out when we arrived.  And as we left, young people dressed for partying were beginning to stream into the old part of town.  We were the twilight people, and it suited us.

As we said ciao to Italy, a bigger goodbye was weighing on this mama’s mind:  Chloe would leave a week later for the US– not to return to London until Christmas break, or perhaps even later.  But that is a blog for another time… or maybe I’ll just let this picture tell the story of The Big Ciao…