Monthly Archives: November 2012

Parties with strangers

Saturday morning, 10am. My first thought is that this is very early to be having a party. Who has a party at 10am? Not a 22-year-old hipster, who would only be wrapping up the festivities.

The answer is pretty obvious: children have birthday parties at 10am, which I figure is a parent’s way of getting it over with early so that everyone can do something else. Having reached an age where my children’s weekend social events rival mine, I am in a soft-play area surrounded by a roomful of strangers and 30 screaming children at a place called Little Dinosaurs.

It’s what you might call, in simple terms, a form of torture. Terrorist interrogators, take note.

But I am determined to try to mingle for the sake of the Raging Bull’s popularity at school. As a full-time working mother I feel like I might be unintentionally ruining my children’s chances of being popular. I can never invite kids over and feed them cookies, scoring essential brownie points; I can’t reciprocate play dates; and I can’t help out in the classroom. I am essentially invisible and not highly desirable because I can’t do favors for other parents, ever.

So the first thing I do is introduce myself to the woman holding presents. I figure she must be there in some Official Capacity. And she is. She tells me that her little girl – who is sharing the party with two other children – talks about the Raging Bull non stop, from the very first day of pre-school. Unfortunately, I’ve never heard of this child, nor do I have a clue who she is. The first I heard of her was when I saw the invitation to the party.

I say bravely, ‘Well, I must meet your daughter, then.’ I say this as if a four-year-old child would take any interest in me. Let’s face it, I’d be of more interest if I could make animal-shaped balloons or was dressed up as Snow White.

I decide the coffee bar is a safe bet, and getting a drink has given me a renewed sense of purpose. I try to be friendly so I say nonchalantly to someone ordering drinks: ‘If I don’t get a coffee soon I will have a headache.’ I flash this man a wry smile.

He turns out to be one of the hosts. I am now convinced he thinks I’m rude for insinuating his party is the cause of my headache. My discomfort increases when I find out that the coffee is on the house. It’s like a wedding but instead of free booze we get free caffeine.

I eventually meet a mother who also lives in a basement flat with mold on the walls. This is probably the highlight of the morning.

By the time the cakes come out, the kids are wired on a mixture of juice, sugar and the contagiousness of high spirits. Someone is going to get hurt or lose their hearing.

There was a time when a party with strangers meant going to someone’s house with booze and a tingly sense of anticipation. We’d show up to the house close to midnight, vaguely knowing someone who knew someone who might have once lived in the house with the party. Everyone would eventually end up talking in the kitchen.

Now it means picking presents for children you’ve never met, guessing whether they might prefer a flip-top Toy Story watch or a car that also turns into a gun.

It was easier when all I had to do was choose between beer and wine.

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Coffee snobs

Harris and Hoole signage

Posh coffee sign

England 1996. I am freshly arrived in London and I know nothing much about it, apart from what I’ve read in books and learned through watching Masterpiece Theatre. One thing I quickly realize is that the English don’t truly like coffee. They regard it as inferior to tea, which they drink at every opportunity. For some people, it’s a bit like water.

So I don’t buy coffee from anywhere and I rarely think about it. Before arriving in London, I was working for a coffee chain in Los Angeles. I’ll admit, my diet consisted of a variety of frozen coffee drinks, made with powder, so this switch to no coffee is pretty extreme.

But I’m young and carefree. Who wants coffee when you can have beer or gin? I live my life in the pub anyway.

England 2012. I have two children, precious little spare time and regard copious drinking during the day as something guaranteed to give me a headache and make me incapable of feeding the kids, bathing them and putting them to bed, which requires the energy of an athlete on steroids.

So what do I? I drink coffee and lots of it. I spend my weekends generally lurching from one coffee to another, always looking for the next high or something to get me through an hour in the park on a drizzly and cold day.

In other words, I’m an expert. The English are becoming experts too. Gone are those dark days when the English used to drink milky tea with sugar and not much else. Now they regard themselves as coffee snobs. Coffee shops have sprung up everywhere. Getting good espresso has become some people’s idea of a pastime.

I happen to live in a part of London where I can walk to about 15 different coffee shops in about 10 minutes. From this, any Londoner can infer something immediately: this area is so gentrified you wouldn’t be able to afford a house unless you are:

  1. very rich
  2. a banker
  3. or you bought 50 years ago

Which is why we live in a tiny flat being devoured by mold.

A few months ago a cheap greeting card store went out of business. For a few weeks there was tantalizing advertising on its boarded-up exterior. ‘Harris and Hoole is coming’ it proclaimed. I had no idea what Harris and Hoole was, but I was intruiged.

Honestly, I should have guessed it would be yet another coffee shop. This one, though, is aiming a bit higher than its neighbor, Starbucks, who is literally next door.

You see, it’s not enough to be a good coffee shop – you’ve got to elevate it to an art form. When I walk into Harris and Hoole, I notice the cool-but-chic interior. It’s understated, in the way black pants are understated. Yes, it tries to exude class but not too much. Hence, there are strange chalkboard drawings on the wall, designed to make it look artistic, perhaps, or a bit bohemian. It reminds of a child’s art project.

When I go to order, I realize the drinks menu is minimalist. There’ll be no triple-shot, venti, gingerbread latte with whipped cream. Nope, you just get the basics.

So I order a latte. I am told my barista’s name and today’s recipe, also helpfully on the board. The recipe is this: espresso extraction time, 23 seconds; extraction temperature, 93 degrees Celsius; and the coffee is served at a coolish 60 degrees because it will bring out the natural sweetness. Who am I to question this quest for perfection?

Inside Harris and Hoole

The Raging Bull likes the juice

I get the coffee and it’s good, as you’d expect, but it’s also a little too cool for me. It says you can ask for it hot from your barista, but I imagine that your request will be met with a stare that says, ‘you are nothing more than a coffee heretic, why don’t you just go next door and order from the enemy because all you really want is dessert?’ So I will probably never say anything.

I am sure I will go back to Harris and Hoole. I might even grow to love it. But there’s just something vaguely irksome about a place that takes itself a tad too seriously. Lighten up. Great coffee is great, but must we really venerate it so much?

It’s like when I went to San Diego and tried to order vodka from a bar. You’d think a bar would have vodka. Uh, no. I was told – by a poker-faced master spirit distiller (bartender) – that vodka tasted, well, just a bit too plain for their liking and they didn’t serve it. I would have laughed if it wasn’t so damn preposterous.

Next thing you know, people will be trying to sell us upscale water. Oops, that’s already happened.

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Married with children and animals

Chloe

Chloe: rescued from the streets of Compton (I swear)

My second grown-up love had blonde silky hair and eyes the color of liquid caramel. He never demanded much of me, apart from the occasional caress and dinner every night. He was a bit feisty, though, and did look perpetually haughty, as if life and people bored him.

Harry lasted nearly four years and then died suddenly. My Persian cat was my child before I had children. When he died I felt the grief of knowing he died too young.

We replaced Harry with Robbie, another Persian. He’s now 11 years old and shows a distinct preference for my company. He wants my attention as soon as I get home and curls up with me on the sofa the minute I sit down. Sometimes I want to shoo him away.

I have long days that start before 7am, and evenings with two kids which are generally chaotic affairs characterized by crying, screaming, pleading, imploring and everything that comes in between. Really, truly, I want to be left alone on occasion to drink my glass of wine in solitude.

And there’s the problem: this cat is what’s left of a life I no longer lead. He came along five years before kids, when I had more time to spare and when I welcomed the love of another thing.

Bottom line: it’s just one more thing to look after and feed – and he costs money. Robbie is insured for more money than we are.

A few weeks ago, Robbie started going to the bathroom outside his litter box, to my increasing irritation. I don’t know if it’s a behavioral thing, but I suspect my return to work, which leaves him alone in a dark flat for most of the day. Yeah, I’d start rebelling too.

One night I get home from work, feeling like a pack mule laden with bookbags and lunchboxes, coats and sweaters, when the Raging Bull slips on a huge pile of his vomit as she literally walks in the door. Well, I wanted to scream. I probably did, for more than a minute.

Last night he has something stuck to his backside –  I smell it when I finally plonk myself on the sofa at 9pm. You get where I’m going with this. I wake the English Husband from a deep sleep to tell him that he has to help me hold the cat still while I yank the damn thing off. He utters words to this effect: ‘I am done with animals. I don’t see the point of them any more.’

Was there ever a point? Let’s see, I grew up with animals. There was Zoika, the black poodle who used to bite me because I’d taunt her with names like the black breath ninja of death. Then there was Pinta, a stray we found, who lived until her legs started to buckle from arthritis.

Laika was a dog who liked to escape from the house. We used to chase her down the street in a burgundy Oldsmobile, screaming her name from the car while my brother cried. There was Coco, the cockatiel who used to whistle to me and eat from my plate. There was also Astro, the love bird who liked to masturbate by using his perch as a sex tool (I kid you not).

Gigi was sold to us as a Bichon Frise, but she was actually more of a mutt who eventually lost her teeth. She died in my dad’s arms. And then there was one more cockatiel, two Chihuahuas, another poodle, another cat and finally Chloe, who is now the love of my mother’s life.

All but Chloe and the cat are dead. This is my childhood gone. I never saw my father cry until the day we put Zoika to sleep, the cancer eating her up. I remember first seeing the bloody tumor under her front leg and being astonished at the pungent smell. I was 12.

With the passing of each animal, I ticked off years, decades and eras. You see, animals are more than company. They teach us about life and death, they teach us about love, they give us companionship when we are spent, they don’t judge, they can break our heart. In essence, they teach us everything we need to cope with life.

Sure, Robbie drives me crazy sometimes. The last thing I want to do is clean his crap off the floor when I get home. Yes, he’s one more chore. Yes, his fur lurks in every corner of the house and clings to black clothes like a San Diego Charger fan clinging to hope. He’s a child who never grows up.

But would I give him up? Never. He’s part of my life and bound up in my memories. Surely, that’s the point.

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Obama: four more years

It’s big moments such as the election that make me feel very isolated and far away from home. I watch the events of yesterday unfold from a distance of 6,000 miles and wish I could be closer. There’s no one I can share it with here. The English Husband is, to put it bluntly, not American and sometimes I feel the difference in our cultures pretty acutely. I sense that the kids will be somewhat alien to me, too, if we continue to stay here.

But I have to hand it to the Brits – they know how to cover a US election. What I’m always impressed with as an American in a foreign country is just how much news coverage the US gets, the election included. We are not talking about a 3-minute segment with a pundit in the UK who talks about the differences between Democrats and Republicans.

The biggest media outlets in the UK, including the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, have thrown huge resources at this election and they have an army of reporters and correspondents in the United States, giving a literal blow-by-blow account of what happens. The BBC, for instance, aired its famous, live election-night program that started at 11.35pm GMT yesterday; it goes on until the winner is declared. It wrapped up today at 7am, with the presenters and guests starting to look a little worse for wear.

I didn’t stay up to watch it, but it’s a testament to how much the US matters that the BBC does it at all. I can’t imagine ABC News doing something like this for the UK’s election. My guess is that anchor Diane Sawyer would do one of her famous dewy-eyed looks at the camera, announce the result in 10 seconds and then cut to a 1-minute recorded package.

In my dreams

Two nights before the election I have a restless sleep that’s punctuated by dreams related to politics. Last night it’s more specific. I have dreams about Mitt Romney winning the presidency. In my dreams, the headlines read: ‘Mitt just tips it. Yip.’ I toss and turn, wake up and then toss some more. In the middle of the night I want to go over to the television and turn it on, to see what’s happened, but I know I’ll get sucked in and stare at it like a zombie.

In the morning I switch on the TV as Obama’s victory speech is being broadcast live. My mother calls me at 7.15am, just before I go to work. The first word out of my mouth is simply ‘Obama’. At that moment I wish, more than anything, that I could be there in person to hug her.

In London, without exception, I can tell you that the mood is one of jubilation. In the office I can hear many people breathing sighs of relief while saying how happy they are that he’s been given another term. They’re not even American, but they seem to care. He’s a popular man here and in other parts of Europe. The world respects America more because he is in office. Of that I have no doubt.

On a funny footnote, the BBC reported today that a woman who lives near Obama’s ancestral village in Kenya has named her newborn twins Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Perhaps she is expecting that they will grow up waging bitter childlike wars against each other.

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Guy Fawkes night

firework explosion

A cracking show (sort of)

For all their pretenses at civilization – tea parties, quaint villages and princesses – the English have a barbaric history. I have a childlike understanding of their bloodthirsty past, but I’m in good company in my ignorance. Prime Minister David Cameron, who was educated at Eton, couldn’t tell television host David Letterman what Magna Carta stood for in Latin. So much for a poncey, overpriced education, but I digress…

I intend to give you a condensed/idiot’s synopsis of certain past events. On 5 November 1605, Guy Fawkes tried to famously blow up the houses of Parliament in what was called the Gunpowder Plot. Fawkes, who was devoutly Catholic, wanted to replace King James I with a Catholic monarch.

Without getting bogged down in too many details, let’s just blame King Henry VIII for the English Reformation, the Church of England’s breakaway from the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church. As is well documented, the King wanted to annul his marriage to one of his wives (I forget which) in 1527; Pope Clement VII refused. So he decided to just get on with it anyway and bypass the Catholic Church by reforming existing laws.

Our dear King James I is therefore Protestant, although he has a Catholic wife, and is oblivious to a plot to dethrone him in 1605.

With the help of 12 co-conspirators, Fawkes – who was not the leader of this rebellion as some believe – stockpiled some explosives under the House of Lords and intended to detonate it. The authorities, tipped off by a letter, caught Fawkes guarding the gunpowder on the night of November 5.

Fawkes was tortured for days and finally executed on 31 January 1606. He was to be hung, drawn and quartered – a savage custom by which a person convicted of high treason would be emasculated, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered (chopped into four pieces). Fawkes jumped to his death before enduring the worst of this torture, but his broken body was chopped into four pieces anyway and these were then distributed to the metaphorical four corners of the kingdom. I told you they were savages.

Today, the English – for reasons that are hard to fathom – gleefully celebrate the death of this terrorist with fireworks and the burning of a Guy Fawkes effigy on a pyre, called Bonfire Night. I suspect this tradition handily taps into their savage past. As with all celebrations, many English also get drunk and try to light fireworks simultaneously, whereby they end up in the emergency room, overtaxing the already overburdened NHS (National Health Service).

Bonfire Night 2012

This all brings me up to the present. We celebrate Bonfire Night on November 2 at a cricket ground about a 15min walk from where we live. It is being put on by the Raging Bull’s school. We fork out £30 (about $50) for a mediocre fireworks display that would probably cause most Americans to ask for their money back. This being an event put on for the school to raise funds for computers or some such, we kind of see it as a bit of charity.

Chatterbox, Raging Bull and me

Me and my two savages

It’s a good thing we are feeling charitable, too, because the night would be many people’s idea of Hell. We get to the muddy, cold field at 6.30pm and find that the line for the food is extremely long and barely moving. We finally get to the dehydrated hamburgers and sausages about 45 minutes later. By this time there is no ketchup, and I find myself squirting orange hamburger sauce on a piece of veggie sausage that looks like it has been trampled by a herd of buffalo and cooked by someone who hates vegetarians.

We miss some of the fireworks when we lose one child in the crush of people and see the rest while munching on cold chips. Shortly afterwards, the bar runs out of beer and there is toilet paper and mud on the floor.

We’ve been promised a disco ‘hut’, but what we actually get is a disco corner with a forty-something DJ, who is playing Katy Perry, Michael Jackson, YMCA and various pop songs on repeat. The kids love it. I’m feeling old. Welcome to the next 15 years, I think.

I see other middle-aged parents staring vacantly at their kids, who are writhing on the dance floor and jumping up and down as if on a trampoline. None of the parents dance.

Does anyone even remember why we are gathered here tonight? Does anyone remember history? I doubt it; the past has been reduced to insignificance. I’ll tell you what, though, I am feeling vaguely mutinous.

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Halloween in England

Sisters

This is not the girls on Halloween. Being disorganized and frazzled, I forgot to take a picture.

I survived Halloween but for a moment I did feel like I was in some sort of slow-motion horror movie. Mostly, the horror was of my own making, because I was determined to give the kids some special Halloween night in a country where trick-or-treating feels more or less like a criminal activity.

The night doesn’t start well. I am held up at work and I’m late to pick up the kids from their respective childcare places. The Raging Bull, luckily, is already dressed in a bizarre get-up that is half 1950s sock hop teenager and half Madonna circa 1985.

The Chatterbox, however, is wearing jeans and a t-shirt. I thought I’d have time to go home and change her into her princess costume (the only thing she will wear), but I realize that I was being wildly optimistic. Instead, I am running down a dark and cold street, urging the Raging Bull to keep up on her chubby three-year-old legs.

We are heading to my friend’s house, who has promised that we’ll go trick-or-treating as a group. I honestly don’t have the courage to go alone. I wouldn’t even know where to start – no one seems to do it around here, and ringing the doorbell makes you feel like a hooligan disturbing the peace.

The unwritten rule in England, I discover, is that houses with a pumpkin left outside might be participating in Halloween’s trick-or-treating traditions. Don’t even bother with anyone else.

Unfortunately, I don’t make it to my friend’s house before they set off, so I’m left to try to find them on a street around the corner from where she lives, dragging the moaning kids behind me, who have already been walking for 15 minutes and are tired. We wander around in the blustery night and find about three or four houses that open the door and offer candy.

It’s all a bit woeful and sad. I feel let down, although the kids don’t seem to care much. They’re just happy to suck on a lollipop, even if they only get one.

We get home late, the kids haven’t eaten any actual food and I’m still determined to ready myself for late trick-or-treaters. I don’t know why I even bothered because no one – not one lonely ghost or ghoul – shows up to ring our doorbell. I had left our pumpkin outside with a candle and had even decorated our door.

Later that night, the Chatterbox asks me why no one came to our house. I try to explain that, in England, it’s just not the same as it is in the United States (read what we did last Halloween), where people spend a fortune on candy and costumes. She accepts this and shrugs.

I am totally frazzled by this point. I feel like I’ve literally been on the move for hours, trying to be merry and jolly, even though all I want to do is collapse on the couch and gulp wine. It makes me realize that, as parents, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves.

I was the one who had to meet these unrealistic expectations, I was the one who wanted everything to be ridiculously perfect. The kids would have been happy with less. Perhaps I was trying to recapture my own hazy memories of Halloween. In my mind I remember every Halloween as a pinnacle of childhood happiness. But, in reality, I think we only walked around my neighborhood for about an hour and then had a few pieces of candy at our kitchen table. Why was this so amazing? It’s the memory, of course, that has got sweeter with time.

Whether I try this hard or not, I think the kids will remember every Halloween as special because it stands out from the ordinary. No need to go to extreme lengths. In any case, imagination, a bit of chocolate and a scary story is all you really need.

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