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!

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.

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…

All this Leaving

It’s a beautiful morning in London.  People are smiling, and even the dogs I’ve met on the street today seem to have a little extra friskiness in their trot.  Several days of sunshine and mild temperatures really change the vibe around here.  Where was it I read recently that the reason London has such dismal weather is because if the weather were at its best all the time, then everyone would want to live here?  Maybe… but only if they’ve never been to Santa Fe in October, or Marblehead in June, or Paris in May.

A funny thing about nice weather in London seems to be that people strip down immediately.  I passed one of the pubs on my route to pick up the kids one day last week, and a guy was sitting outside at 2pm, shirtless and having a pint.  Then I walked past the England’s Lane Starbucks, which tends to attract a local student population around that time, and noticed (didn’t take great powers of observation!) that many of the young women were sporting spaghetti straps and mini-minis.  It was warm, yes, but hardly beach weather.

Hanging in the sun with the cubs... for now. The sign warns, "Danger (this gets) Deep."

But all this talk about the weather clearly means I’m avoiding my topic.  Small talk, you know?  Chloe headed out this morning in hiking gear to catch the bus and rendezvous with her group at school for their trip to the French Alps.  They fly out of Heathrow this morning to Geneva, then get ground transport to Samoens (France?), where they will hike to a yurt for the night.  Then onward and upward from there, mostly hiking, with some snowshoeing at the higher altitudes atop Mont Blanc and environs.  Pretty amazing, huh?  All of the American School high school kids are on”alternative” learning experiences this week– some in London, doing things like intensive cooking classes, and some in places like South Africa, Cyprus, Spain, Nice, or the French Alps.  This is what the annual school trip (not just for Seniors!) looks like if you live in Europe.

Last Saturday, Chloe and I went out shopping to get her outfitted.  She really had almost none of the things she needed for the trip:  Waterproof jacket and hiking pants, hiking boots, appropriate socks and underlayers, and a few specialized items such as a sleeping bag liner.  Luckily, the school was providing (through the trip operator) the big backpack and rain cover, headlamps, and sleeping bags.  But still, we had a lot of shopping to do, and we knew just where to go, having stumbled across the Covent Garden “outdoor store” district during Will’s visit in December. There’s nothing like the focusing power of an impending trip into the wilderness to get a couple of dithering shoppers down to business… we powered through that list!  Even with a late lunch break (with hundreds of our closest friends!) in the sunny outdoor seating at le Pain Quotidien, we were able to finish up in a day what we should have been doing over the last couple of months.

I’m so glad I had the opportunity to help with the shopping– and not just the paying, but the considering and comparing and choosing.  Because that was about it for my involvement in the preparations.  I can clearly remember 3-yr-old Chloe telling us, “I do it myself!”… and she still does, in not so many words.  She prepped and packed, and made her final decisions about what to take (knowing she would have to carry it all on her back the whole trip).  She alone decided what snacks to take, and she made sure she had her passport and other necessities.  We’re even past the part where I drive her somewhere to see her off– she walked out the front door this morning to catch the bus by herself.

But even as I write about this pulling away that’s such an ongoing process, I’m cheered to have received a few texts from her while sitting in this cafe writing this post.  A little smiley about having found her Budapest ticket tucked in her passport… a funny observation or two about her group… the news that they are down to 2 girls amidst a bunch of boys on this particular trip…  And meanwhile, I’m responding, telling her I’m missing her here at Euphorium (a cafe we often go to together when she has an early free block at school), and offering back a private joke about her observations.  As we text, I remember that just yesterday we sat across the street together at Costa Coffee– which has sunnier sidewalk seating in the morning– before she had to be at school.  If I step back and observe, I can see our relationship transforming slowly toward what it will be when she is an adult.  Toward what it will be next fall– whether she finds herself stateside in university or gap-yearing in Europe.

These children.  They grow up.  And the sun shines, and life buzzes on around a mom– right in the midst of all this leaving.