Monthly Archives: July 2013

My American shopping experience

Target logo

A store for everything, even a Starbucks coffee

We’ve been one week in the United States and I’ve had a few American experiences, none more than going shopping. This is not the London variety of shopping, where you pick up a cute little basket for a few things you might need for dinner that night. Or browse through a little boutique for an overpriced dress. This is the American variety of shopping, where you push a massive shopping cart through a store where everything seems to dwarf you.

I’m in Target, an American institution, when I have a disorienting experience. Everything is large and I’m pushing a cart twice my size through aisles packed with products made for what appear to be families of six big people. Worryingly, the cart is actually half full with stuff.

I am in American-mom mode, picking up sun block and a beach towel, some gifts for the Raging Bull’s fourth birthday, a pinata shaped like a butterfly, a t-shirt, a DVD, even a couple of random zucchinis and frozen waffles from the food section.

There’s not much you can’t buy at Target. It’s the kind of store I always wish for in London, but which has no equivalent. Where I live in in the UK, everything is small. To get what I find at Target would take me an entire day of frenzied shopping, zigzagging through a myriad of places that sell different things; you’d never find it under one roof like you do here in California.

So the fact is I don’t bother trying to find it. I make do without closet organizers, plastic boxes and wicker baskets. I don’t buy milk in the same place where I can buy clothes or DVDs. Is this is a bad thing? No. Is it less convenient? Yes.

The irony of my Target shopping experience is that it makes me feel less American than I ever do in the UK. Here in the United States I feel totally out of place pushing my gigantic shopping cart. I feel weird (and anxious) getting behind the wheel of a car and driving. All the things that are quintessentially American make me feel like anything but. I am an imposter here – I have the right accent, but not quite the right attitude or frame of reference anymore.

I always have this disorienting experience when I go ‘home’. I find that I’m not quite as American as I feel in London, where people hear my accent and immediately make assumptions about me. The things that make me American in the UK don’t make me American here. In fact, they make me a kind of strange hybrid.

The kids are enjoying their American summer, though. It doesn’t escape my notice that they have two homes in two different countries. They have two passports and two distinct nationalities, but one day they will have to choose. This is the choice I have avoided making for a long time – where do I want to end up, London or sunny San Diego?

The Raging Bull turned to me the other day, her milky skin already turning a golden brown. ‘I like America. It’s sunny and I like the sun. I don’t want to go back to London. I want to stay in America forever.’ Her heart-shaped mouth is a small pout as she overemphasizes ‘forever’.

I sometimes wish for the same thing. As I left Target today – my second visit in a handful of days – I buy my iced caramel macchiato from the in-store Starbucks and then head to my mom’s air-conditioned car in the gigantic parking lot. I’m getting comfortable, but I still need help parking the car.

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A thief is born

Cookie the beanie dog

Cookie was kidnapped from a shelf

Something happened to me the other day that made me wonder if I could become the subject of a fly-on-the wall documentary called My Toddler is a Kleptomaniac.

The Raging Bull, nearly four, has been many things in her short life – but up until recently she had not been a thief. A terror, almost daily; a Disney princess, sometimes; but a daylight robber, no. This all changed one ordinary weekday afternoon.

It was a fraught supermarket outing like any other. I was frazzled, the kids were acting up, and I was trying to think about what I needed for dinner. For some reason my memory freezes when I see aisles of food; I can never remember what I’m in there to buy, and I never write it down unless I’m actually having people over. After dashing around for about 20 minutes I drag all my food on the bus, one of the peculiar joys of London living.

I’m in the kitchen when I first spot the Raging Bull smiling at me slyly and holding what appears to be a new toy. On closer inspection it’s a beanie dog named Cookie. It’s a cute little thing with floppy ears and big, round eyes that seem to be accusing me of something, like being a bad parent.

‘Where did you get that?’ I ask incredulously, fearing the worst, but hoping for some reasonable explanation.

The Bull is beaming at me when her older sister blurts out, ‘She stole it from the supermarket!’

I am surprised, not surprised. After a short inquisition, I find out that my three-year-old took Cookie and hid him behind her back. Oh yes, she knew this was wrong but she was as brazen as a drug smuggler at an airport, calmly transporting a haul of cocaine in his hand luggage.

My youngest child also has the perfect cover for a thief because she looks like an angel. There will be no one looking for a four-year-old shoplifter, including me.

My method of punishment occurs to me suddenly. I decide to bluff about calling the police. I look down at the Raging Bull and muster my serious, outraged expression. ‘I think I might have to call the police,’ I say. ‘That’s what happens with people who steal.’

Little did I know what kind of hysteria this would set off. My child’s triumph quickly turns to tears. She is beside herself with dismay and now seriously worried that she might end up in jail.

I wonder how long I can keep this going before it becomes some kind of child cruelty. What surprises me most is that the Chatterbox, now nearly 7, also gets worried. I didn’t think she’d buy the bluffing, but she is totally convinced I’m going to turn her little sister over to the cops.

‘Mummy,’ she says very soberly, ‘you can’t tell the police. She can’t go to jail because she’s too little.’ Her eyes convey her concern.

I start to crumble, losing the will to keep the act going for much longer. But before I give in and tell them that there will be no screeching police cars showing up at the house, the Chatterbox has scraped together £14. It’s all her tooth fairy money and whatever she has saved.

‘I’ll buy the doggie for her,’ the Chatterbox says. ‘That way we don’t have to call the police.’

This generosity and kindness nearly melts my heart. I tell the girls that we’ll visit the supermarket and explain to them about the dog tomorrow, which is probably the tactic I should have taken in the first place.

That evening I notice all these little plastic balls all over the floor. They’re in the kids’ room, in the kitchen and in the dining room. I can’t figure out where they are coming from until I realize that Cookie has a massive hole under his tail and it’s leaking.

There is only one word for it, karma. But the question is this: Is it karma for what I’ve done or for what my child has?

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Here comes the summer

Kids at Norfolk beach

Here comes the beach and very long days

Summer is a relative term in England. At best it’s inconsistent. At worst it’s almost non-existent.

But though it doesn’t always feel like the middle of July – London is going through a mini-heatwave, by the way – the kids are nearing the end of school. All of a sudden the wheels are coming off the childcare too. Just to prepare me for a number of weeks without any educational structure, there are all these little parties and school-related activities that are requiring me to take time off work or scramble around for alternative care.

At this point I feel like the unfit marathon runner reaching the 25th mile. All I need to do is limp over the finish line, exhausted.

So I’m approaching the six weeks the kids will have off school with some trepidation. The languid days stretch ahead of me like a blank piece of paper teasing the author who has writer’s block and a looming deadline. What will I do? How will I fill those days?

When I was child myself, the summer was a time of liberation. There was the feeling that the shackles had come off. Little did I know that my parents probably felt exactly the opposite. They probably dreaded the end of school as much as I loved it. Even though school means making an endless number of uninspired packed lunches and rushing in the mornings, there is something comforting in the routine – you know where you are.

In about two weeks I will be lost at sea. Like a sailor without a compass in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, all of my normal anchors will have disappeared.

On the upside, the summer means that I will get some time off work (much needed at this point), but not time off being a mother. If anything, I’ll need to be an even better version of my mother self: the version that doesn’t start screaming before the kids have even had their breakfast cereal. The version that is creative and inspring. The version that comes up with activities to entertain them. The version that doesn’t exist.

The children, who are still too young to be truly independent, will likely end up pointing out all my shortcomings. They seem to take great pleasure out of calling me the ‘angry elf’ when I raise my voice or ask them to put their pajamas on for the umpteenth time.

‘You’re an angry elf, you’re an angry elf,’ they tease me, conspiratorially laughing together. I’m no better than the Grinch who stole Christmas, always ready to put a dampener on things that should be great fun. At least that’s how it seems.

Then I get the Chatterbox mocking me. She is good at impersonations and mimicking others, even down to my own American accent. It’s a surreal thing to have your child making fun of your accent in order to get you riled. It works too.

The Raging Bull is supposedly in her cute phase, as an almost-four-year-old. And she is cute; but she’s also a terror. She’s taken to stomping her feet when she doesn’t want to do anything, and humiliating me in public.

‘You’re not my friend!’ she screamed at me today, throwing me a look that would reduce Medusa to a quivering wreck and jabbing me in the stomach with her little fists.

I’ll be in California for five weeks of uninterrupted summer – no English Husband and no routine.

I know I will be stretched as a parent, because family holidays have that way of testing your familial bond. If you are speaking to each other at the end of it, I’d say you’ve done pretty well.

I remember once going to Europe with my parents and sharing overpriced, tiny hotel rooms. I barely slept. My dad snored his way through every night, leaving me shattered the next day. We fought over wine, we fought over directions, we fought about what we wanted to see. In general, it was an exercise in contained hostility with some sightseeing thrown in.

My mother broke down, with swollen feet and exhausted, frayed nerves – crying that she would never, ever go on holiday with us again.

California, here I come.

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