Category Archives: holidays

A vacation in Cornwall

Ocean view from Sands hotel

The ocean as seen from our hotel room

So it was off to Cornwall for a week-long Easter break. Forgive me, but I am barely catching up with myself. The vacation has left me in a lethargic frame of mind. Hence, the blog took a holiday too but has not come back with a suntan.

I’ve said this before – and I fear I am repeating myself – but holidaying in Britain is an experience akin to riding a rollercoaster in lashing rain. There are ups and downs and you are likely to get wet at some point. This is true of any time of year, including the summer.

As it turns out, there was no rain for our tour of south Cornwall, near Newquay. It was gorgeously sunny most days but a bit cold and extremely windy. The English Husband would tell me that this is dwelling on the negatives. I believe I am pointing out a few facts.

This is my third visit to Cornwall and it’s a beautiful place. There is something desolate about it – you have windswept views of cliffs kissing the sea. Waves lap at sandy beaches, and there are endless stretches of hills and green fields dotted by the bright, mustard yellow of rapeseed and some token sheep.

The view from our hotel room was breathtaking. I am used to staring out at my small patch of weeded grass from a cramped London flat, with the view of more apartments in the distance.

This was the world unfurled like a red carpet – where the sea meets the horizon. During sunset, there were violent purples, deep oranges and golds melting into the sea. It was the sky putting on its very best, jewelled gown every evening.

Mevagissey harbour boat

Mevagissey harbour

We had ice creams by the beach and visited a small and quaint fishing village with a long history called Mevagissey. We went at low tide, so all the small fishing boats were sunk in mud at the port. It’s surrounded by bright Cornish houses, looking down into its mouth.  

The Cornish are a proud lot, and Mevagissey has its own three-floor museum that goes through some of its historical highlights.

There are doll houses and old clothes, fascinating photographs, a timeline dating back to about 1085 and lots of fishing paraphernalia. There’s even a recipe for a Cornish stargazy pie.

The Raging Bull dug sandcastles at Perranporth beach with her shoes on and a coat, a peculiar English tradition. I stood on the beach with the girls for about 10 minutes before the whipping wind drove me to find shelter. We did not stare at the ocean from a car while eating our lunch, another English tradition.

Perranporth beach

Perranporth beach on a windy day

There were fish and chips and cream teas (scones with clotted cream and jam) – both of them musts if you holiday in Britain. But if you don’t eat meat, like me, you will find much of the food in Cornwall about as interesting as a traffic jam.

The children mostly behaved themselves. We took them to a place called Sands, an affordable family-friendly hotel. If you ever find yourself in this part of the world, I highly recommend it. The staff are very friendly and it caters well to people with kids.

There is baby listening in every room, so adults can dine each night (kid-free) if they so choose.

I had a few moments when I thought wistfully of a romantic European break, a warm whisper of a breeze, a balcony looking out onto a bustling piazza. No such thing here but there are other charms.

It’s no wonder author Daphne du Maurier (one of my favorite writers) set her gothic novels here. She ended up living in Fowey (a beautiful place) and found plenty to inspire her.

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The Christmas comedown

Robbie the cat

The cat didn’t ask for much at least

I was really looking forward to spending a nice Christmas with the kids, but there is inevitably a downside and the downside is that we have created mini monsters. I feel not unlike the mad scientist after he’s made Frankenstein and his beloved creation turns on him.

Our Christmas Day has the hallmarks of a long car journey. Whenever we get in the car, the kids always kick off a refrain of ‘When are we going to get there?’

For Christmas, all you need to do is substitute that question for this one: ‘When can we open another present?’ This repeats itself more often than the chords of Jingle Bells.

I know they are little, so I cut them a bit of slack; but by that evening I’m not feeling like a jolly old elf. I realize at some point that they resemble drug addicts searching for their next high. Their drug of choice happens to be opening presents. But the high will never be as good as the first hit or that first drink – so it all goes downhill.

The Chatterbox loses it at around 8pm when her sister has finally opened her last gift: a Lalaloopsy doll. Despite the fact that Santa has brought the Chatterbox a Kindle Fire HD for her main gift, she is hysterical that she didn’t get a doll too. Perhaps the whole day was just a bit too much. A friend tells me that you always need to buy girls almost identical gifts or it often ends in tears.

I fall back on my remedy of choice in these situations: a good stiff gin and tonic. I reflect on the fact that Christmas hit its high about two weeks ago when I bought a homeless person a fruit juice. He was incredibly grateful and wished me a merry Christmas, a genuine smile lighting up his face. I felt good all day and I haven’t quite felt as good about giving since.

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I don’t believe in Santa Claus

Christmas treeLike a dictator might do with his generals, I was doling out my daily bribes to get the kids to behave. At Christmas the bribes tend to be more effective. ‘Santa is watching you right now,’ I’ll warn when the kids are being particularly bad. This tends to get better results than issuing vague threats such as ‘I will take one of your toys away’ or ‘You’ll get a time out.’

The other day the Chatterbox was acting less like a seven-year-old and more like a sassy teenager. I brought out my old standby Santa line when she casually said: ‘I don’t know if I believe in Santa anymore.’

I’d been half expecting something like this, but I’m still taken by surprise. It feels so quick. I’d like to think I have the energy to stage some elaborate ruse to get my seven-year-old to believe again, but I’m kind of short of ideas. Perhaps I could leave muddy Santa prints on the floor of our tiny living room, knowing that a half-eaten cookie and empty glass of milk is probably not going to cut it anymore.

The reality is that this will maybe buy me a year, but it’s likely she won’t be deceived next Christmas.

Every parent tells you that children grow fast. I’m reeling by how fast. One moment she’s a toddler with chubby little hands, the next she’s a long-limbed girl who likes to listen to Katy Perry. It’s frightening, and I’m not just talking about her taste in music.

I find a letter sent to the editor of the New York Sun many years ago. Eight-year-old Virginia wrote it to the newspaper, at the suggestion of her father, when she had doubts about Santa. The editor wrote her a thoughtful and touching reply, which is well worth reading.

My friend in Los Angeles also sent me a standout letter (see below) from one mom and dad to their disbelieving child.

In the meantime, of course, Santa is still spending his money, whether the children believe in him or not. I suspect this will not change with the passing of years.

Santa letter

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All I want for Christmas is …. (and it’s not two front teeth)

Christmas card to SantaI almost dare not write the word, but it has somehow started to become part of my daily vocabulary against my will. I’m talking about Christmas, of course. Here we go again with another big helping of seasonal songs, rich food and gifts.

If you’re a parent you will know that the gifts part of the equation will essentially take over your life for the next 6 weeks, tipping you precariously close to bankruptcy and wreaking havoc on your festive goodwill.

Nothing makes me think violent thoughts more than trying to negotiate a Christmas crush of frantic people in a toy store. It might even beat taking the tube during rush hour, which occasionally makes me fantasize about wielding a deadly weapon.

With a slight shudder I learn that the Chatterbox, now seven years old and still (miraculously) believing in Santa Claus, has finally composed her Christmas wish-list, all 14 items of it.

She shows me her cute card to Santa, adorned with a mini replica of the jolly old man, while I’m frantically trying to decide what I could possibly make for dinner with half a packet of green beans, two carrots, hummus and some eggs. They’re the kind of ingredients likely to stump even the most accomplished chef, which clearly I’m not.

Later that evening – with the trauma of dinner mercifully behind me – I look closely at the card and discover that top of the list is an ‘Apple phone’.

It has me thinking nostalgically about what I wanted for Christmas when I was seven. I’m pretty sure it would have been a Barbie sports car and some new Ken, Skipper and Barbie dolls with all the accessories.Chaterbox wish-list

How have humans evolved to the stage where a seven-year-old wants an iPhone? I’m not entirely sure this is what I would call progress.

What has happened to the innocence of childhood and playing with an assortment of cheap Chinese plastic?

I say to the Chatterbox, with my serious mother face, ‘Honey, I don’t even have an iPhone.’ I lie to the kids a lot, but this happens to be true. My phone is the kind of archaic thing that still does nothing more than text or make phone calls. For some reason I’m reluctant to part with it. It could be because getting an iPhone, or one of its rival equivalents, will then mean that I spend even more time with an electronic device in my life. I just don’t need it.

So the Chatterbox turns to me, her tone just a tad sulky: ‘But Kate has an iPhone.’

Kate happens to be eight, and I’ve not seen her take the iPhone out yet. Still, it’s quite possible she has one, especially because she lives in the United States, the land of plenty.

‘Well,’ I say, trying to sound firm, ‘I don’t think that means you should have one.’

Since I’m dealing with a seven-year-old, I think I might have outwitted her. I give myself three more years before I find that I need to come up with a better argument for why my daughter shouldn’t get a smartphone.

On a parting note, the Chatterbox has actually been missing her two front teeth since last winter – so, yes, she could really do with getting them for Christmas.

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Blog on holiday

Shamu show

The Shamu show was not the highlight of my summer

The blog has been on vacation – and you probably haven’t noticed because the Earth keeps turning on its axis and it’s getting distinctly chilly in London. Autumnal. There was one day of raging-hot temperatures – a show of last-summer bravado – but I fear it might be truly OVER.

With that in mind, I’ll recap on summer’s last few weeks before it becomes nothing but a dusty memory in my brain:

  • We all got lice. I had one of those moments as a parent, an epiphany you might say. I discovered that parenthood will continue to surprise you, no matter how long you’ve been at it. I also learned that lice are incredibly tenacious and remarkably evolved to survive. Damn them. So I thought I had zapped them a few weeks ago, only to discover that they came back with a vengeance and attacked me. There is something distinctly surreal about having your nearly 70-year-old mother combing through your hair looking for the parasites and remarking, ‘You do have a lot of grey hair.’ Thanks, Mom.
  • I went to Sea World in San Diego. Americans just know how to do theme parks. Thanks to the sponsorship of Anheuser-Busch, I also got to enjoy a refreshing Bud Light lime. The only downside of the day, really, was the Shamu show. I couldn’t help but notice that the mammals hardly seemed happy, with their dorsal fins flopping about and a lack of space. And I also noticed that the trainers no longer get in the water with the orcas. I guess it’s just one accident or death too many. So there is no more diving off Shamu’s nose. In fact, all the orcas do nowadays is splash water at people, which seems a tad undignified if you ask me.
  • I went to the San Diego Zoo. Can’t recommend it highly enough. If you suffer a pang of guilt at the thought of sea otters and walruses performing tricks at Sea World, the SD Zoo is a reminder that not all cages are either visible or entirely bad.
    Koala

    But I did like the zoo

  • I got behind the wheel of a car for the first time in over a year and learned that I hate driving just about as much as I remembered I did. If I move back to southern California, I really do have to get over this perpetual feeling that I will end up in a car crash.
  • I discovered that the top posting on my blog is none other than the one about my verruca (plantar’s wart) disappearing after 13 long, painful years. I don’t know why this has captured everyone’s imagination, but I suspect there are quite a few people with warts out there.
  • I now officially have two children in school. I’ve gone from pushing them around in a stroller to holding their hands as they cross the street to ‘Big School’. I didn’t cry, but I’m rather astounded the baby phase is over. At the time, however, it felt like it might go on forever, particularly when I was awake with a crying infant at 3am. Now I sneak into the kids’ room when they are fast asleep and look for the babies they once were in their sleeping faces.
  • I turned 40. That’s right, I’m middle aged. I now fully understand why it’s middle age, because precisely half the population appears to be younger than me. In my head I never look much older than 30, so I am always surprised when I meet someone and think how terribly old they look, only to discover that they are actually younger than me! So then I have to ask myself, do I look that old? I don’t truly know, but I have started spending almost as much time plucking grey hairs as I do on makeup. That must tell you something.
  • A friend in San Diego gave me a letter from my past. It was dated January 1997 and mentioned my arrival in London all those years ago. In the digital age we have forgotten the permanence and power of letters. Here it was, my thoughts on the city that has become my home, written on three densely packed pages. I wasn’t very impressed, but I explained how this experience in a foreign country was bound to make me a better person and how travelling opened my eyes to another world. The English Husband got mentioned as ‘one of the most decent people I have ever met’ but sadly with Girlfriend. I want to write to the previous me and tell her, you will never believe your future.
  • I saw my family for nearly six weeks and discovered that the true downside of travel is that you always have to say goodbye, whether to your vacation, your days of freedom, the people you love or your experiences. Goodbye is the hardest word.

That is the summer in a nutshell. The light is changing here in London. The harsh summer glare has been replaced with something softer and gentler. It went, as always, too fast.

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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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A seaside holiday in Cornwall with kids

Kids in Fowey

The kids in Fowey, home to Daphne du Maurier

Prior to having children, a holiday would entail a weekend break somewhere exotic. We’d eat, drink and sightsee. There’d be downtime, moments when all we’d do is sit at a café and watch the world go by. Perhaps we’d even drink wine at lunchtime. What rebels we were.

A holiday today means not having to cook meals for anyone.

So we just came back from a week in freezing Cornwall – and I didn’t make any food or have to shop for it. This made me reasonably happy. The sun was out most days, although there wasn’t much standing around on beaches. Even contemplating such a thing would be pure folly or the undertaking of someone masochistic.

Cornwall is beautiful – ports, quaint villages, whitewashed cottages and plenty of locally caught fish.

The beaches are stunning, although not all are sandy. There are craggy cliffs that skirt the sea and dramatically fall away into the azure water. You could be at the end of the earth. It does feel desolate in parts, surrounded by rolling English fields and plenty of sheep.

We had a beautiful ocean view from our room. I could even pretend it was warm, so long as I didn’t open any doors or windows.

Shell gas pumps

Even the gas pumps in St Mawes were quaint

There was quite a lot of looking at the beach from windows, so it was a typical English holiday in spring. The kids, however, seemed to take hypothermia in its stride and dealt with it better than I did.

We stayed near Newquay, a down-at-heel city with plenty of bars but not that much charm. I think it might have once been good for a night out, but it’s all a bit tatty nowadays. Many English seaside towns have this feeling of faded glory.

Ordinary people on a budget used to have no choice but to holiday in England. But budget airlines have made it possible for people to travel abroad. Not surprisingly, many Brits choose to go to Spain, where they know they are guaranteed a bit of warm sun at this time of the year. It affects the tourist economy, which many of these places rely on to make money. Sadly, the lack of money does show – but some places have escaped from it.

The highlight of the trip was Fowey, a beautiful village that sits perched at the mouth of the sea. This picture-perfect place is the former home of Daphne du Maurier, who is famed for writing Rebecca. She also wrote several books – Fisherman’s Creek and Jamaica’s Inn – that are set in her home of Cornwall. She was apparently very fond of the place and one can see why.

We got very lucky that day with the weather and did actually enjoy a little wander around the upscale shops of Fowey.

sunset in Newquay

A rare sight in London – a spectacular sunset

Another highlight was visiting St Mawes, another hilly village on the other side of the coast from Newquay. It’s smaller than Fowey, but you will find a hotel, one pub, a general store and two very old Shell gas pumps that resemble something from the Art Deco period. There is also one very nice gallery, where you will find artwork by local artists – and there are plenty of them in Cornwall. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them were ex-Londoners keen to escape the polluted city.

Amusements

I’m not sure when motherhood turned me into a hardened drinker, but the holiday wasn’t a vacation from booze. Every night, at the hotel bar, I’d be having a pre-dinner drink, two dinner drinks and then another after-dinner drink. I’m trying to wean myself off this habit, but I usually hit some kind of wall by 6pm, about the time the children start to give me high blood pressure.

I read an article on the holiday, ironically, which said that drinking wine daily will do incredible damage to your face by the time you hit your 40s. Among the things listed were a saggy chin, grey complexion, bags under the eyes, uneven skin tone and broken blood vessels. What this journalist failed to realize is that motherhood appears to do the same thing – so perhaps I’m now aging at double the pace.

Bob, a Tawny owl

Bob: not quite as amusing as fecal matter

To be fair to the children, they were fairly well behaved. They dealt with the car journey – an excruciating six hours – incredibly well. They were most amused by owls at a sanctuary. We saw them fly and they told us about their diets (little fluffy baby chicks, which they were fed as snacks). I was worried they would try to land on the hood of my parka, which is trimmed with fur – but it was far too cold to take the jacket off.

Bob was the star of the show – he was apparently looking for a bit of love so didn’t perform very well for the crowd.

Bob took second place in the amusement category to a bit of human baby poo, which closed the indoor hotel pool one afternoon. This seemed to give the children no end of fascination. Nothing like a bit of floating fecal matter to give the kids something to talk about.

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