Tuesday, 19 January 2016

A Musical Education

Abba - definitely not old school
Littleboy 2 was recently teased at school by a boy for not having ever heard of Michael Jackson. When he said he liked Abba, the same boy told him: "Abba is old school."

While I honestly think 9 is a bit young to be dissing each other's musical tastes (!) the above, and a few other recent incidents, have made me wonder about how and whether we, as parents, influence our children's musical tastes. The death of David Bowie last week made me realise the children didn't have a clue who he was -- so I remedied that by playing them a few tracks at the weekend. (They liked "Space Oddity" and went crazy dancing to "Rebel Rebel"). Also this week, Expat Mum posted on Facebook about her 12-year-old singing "Bohemian Rhapsody" - I've tried to get the boys into that one and so far, failed.

There is a great feature-ette on BBC Radio 4's 'Saturday Live' called "Inheritance Tracks" where a celebrity talks about the music they inherited and the music they will pass on. And if you read interviews with musicians they will quite often cite the music their parents played in the house as being inspirational. But what age does this start? (And did those people actually hate their parents' music at the time, and only now recognize it as cool?)

My boys are both pretty musical, although to date their musical education has been more about learning the piano and violin and listening to a few, mostly classical, concerts at school. Very occasionally they comment on a song that's playing on the radio in the car, and as they get older this is happening more regularly. This weekend they both announced that "Stay with me" by Sam Smith is "actually quite good" and they're also quite vociferous about stuff they don't like -- so far, anything involving rap. They also love Abba (see above) since we played it in the car quite a bit last summer on holiday in Italy. But they've never been into watching MTV, like one of their cousins, and we're not the kind of hip parents who take our kids to Glastonbury or Bestival, so they probably know relatively little about modern music (other than the stuff I listen to in the car).

I sense they're at an age now where I could start to give them a bit of a musical education - not that I'm any kind of expert, but I know what I like and have, I think, fairly broad, although mainstream, tastes. But in a few years, won't this just be the equivalent of "Dad Dancing?' Is there any point in trying to get your children to appreciate the music you like? Or is liking different stuff to your parents just a perfectly normal form of teenage rebellion.....and maybe I should just let them work it out for themselves.

Oh, I asked Littleboy 2 what the mean boy did like (apart from Michael Jackson). His brother Littleboy 1 snorted before he could answer and said: "Probably One Direction."

At least he shares my opinion on that one....

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Christmas 2015 - Santa's last stand?

Littleboy 2's Christmas letter
I can't help wondering if this will be the last year of belief in Santa. Littleboy 2 is already deeply suspicious. He keeps asking questions about how he manages to deliver all the presents, and wondering why no-one ever, actually, gets put on the naughty list, despite their bad behaviour. There were also comments about why the reindeer ate less carrot than last year (answer: I was so stuffed with mince pies on Christmas Eve I couldn't even fit in half a carrot) and today, he enquired why we don't write thank-you letters to Santa. He did write a very sweet letter to Santa warning him not to get squashed in our very small fireplace -- but I think maybe he was just humouring me.

Littleboy 1, although older, won't hear a word said against the possible non-existence of Santa. This despite several children at school having told him "it's your parents" (have these kids not heard of spoilers?). He even commented that, if it weren't true, it would be terrible, because then you would have to endure being a grown-up and know there was no Santa. (That's a good point, actually....).

While in some ways it would be easier, (I wouldn't have to find different wrapping paper and gift tags for Santa's presents, and have to spend ages doing special curly writing for the tags -- yes, though small children don't notice these things, big children do) it will be terribly sad when they do stop believing. As an adult, Christmas becomes less about excitement and more about getting everything done -- but the sight of the children's pure delight as they opened their stockings meant December 25th was still one of 2015's best days for me.
Looking back at the ghosts of Christmas blogs past, I see that I've blogged before about The Calpol Christmas (2008) and The Lego Christmas (2013). Well this year, books were the dominant feature of the boys' Christmas: partly because I'd decided no more Lego for the moment. (I'm not being mean; they have a whole playroom full of the stuff, and now that their themed models have mosty fallen apart, they are quite happy to make new creations out of the old Lego).

I bought them books; Father Christmas bought them books; relatives bought them books, partly directed by me. They even bought each other books: Littleboy 2 gave Littleboy 1 "Magnus Chase," the new book by "Percy Jackson" author Rick Riordan, which he was terribly pleased by, while Littleboy 2 received several David Walliams books, and from me, "Five Children on the Western Front" by Kate Saunders, which I'm really looking forward to reading too. Sticking with the literary theme, we gave Littleboy 1 a Tintin-themed duvet cover; Littleboy 2 has a Roald Dahl duvet from last year.

Meanwhile Littleboy 2 also had something of a Tiger-themed Christmas, fuelling a long-held obsesssion. He'd written to Santa requesting "something to do with tigers," so I adopted him a tiger through WWF. It came in a box with a tiny tiger cub toy, a "child" for his original, much-loved WWF tiger toy, and we'll apparently get monthly updates on the tiger, who lives in Nepal; I hope, though, we don't have to visit, as she's a tigress with two cubs, and I'm sure they're not as cute and cuddly in the flesh.

Happy new year!

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Going back "home": on revisiting the expat experience

Back in New York State for the fall
As the part of the US trip mentioned in previous posts, we spent some time staying with friends in our former Long Island hometown.

We wanted to go back and reconnect with people before they forgot us, we forgot them and the boys forgot that they were ever little kids with American accents, at an American school and with American friends.

The experience was lovely, but it was also strange.

As we drove into town, everything seemed both familiar and unfamiliar - the streets I had driven down endless times, the shops, the road names. The first morning, The Doctor and I lay awake with jet lag, neither of us able to remember the name of a road we used to drive down daily -- eventually I had to go and look it up. Within about 24 hours though, it all came flooding back, and I was able to remember everything and everyone.

With a packed schedule of seeing friends, there wasn't really time to slow down and process how I felt about the whole experience. It did make me feel quite impressed with myself that I'd managed to make that many close friends in such a short time -- maybe it was the time of life (small children starting school) or maybe it was the fact that I knew I had only limited time there so had to make the most of it?

(One funny thing; I was waiting for a friend in a coffee shop when I saw a woman I had been quite friendly with at the start of our four years there. I went up to her excitedly telling her how I had come back to visit -- but she didn't even realise I had left!)

The boys' behaviour was pretty interesting. 

Littleboy 1 had verbal diarrhoea from the moment our friend picked us up at JFK - telling her about his school, new friends, his brother's new friends, life, the universe and everything. I'm not sure whether this was over-excitement at having FINALLY arrived in New York (we'd had a 24 hour delay due to a faulty plane- thanks Virgin Atlantic) or a need to fill her in on our new lives. Anyway, having exhausted his supply of new information, he never mentioned any of it again the whole time we were staying with them; instead he just slotted back into his old games with his friends, and even started sounding vaguely American again.

He was also incredibly excited to revisit his old haunts, including his favourite burger restaurant, Smashburger, which we had to visit twice. (I'm afraid all the upmarket burger joints we've been to in London -- Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Byron et al -- don't cut the mustard with him, compared to this mid-range chain, a sort of hybrid between fast-food and a sit down restaurant that does rather fabulous sweet potato fries.) As we went around town, he was constantly exclaiming how he remembered this, and that, and how much he loved it.

Littleboy 2, the quieter of the two and my little philosopher, said virtually nothing to his friends at first. He kept his thoughts very much to himself until I asked him outright, having taken them to play in the park where we always went when they were small, how he felt about being back there. He replied "a bit sad and a bit lonely." I knew exactly what he meant -- it was as if we were revisiting the past, but we couldn't really recreate it -- the friends we used to play with at the park were no longer there, and all the local children were in school, so there was no-one else around. I'm not sure he knows the word "nostalgic" but I think that was probably the feeling he was also trying to articulate.

Going back to their old school was weird; we went to watch their Halloween parade, with all the kids and teachers there in costume. It felt odd, I'm sure, for them to be on the outside looking at something they once took part in.  We called out to a couple of teachers, and one immediately recognised the boys (and me), which was nice. But it definitely felt like we weren't part of it any more.

A lot of people asked us whether we wished we'd stayed. But the trip confirmed to me that, no, I didn't. I absolutely loved living there, and we were lucky to have had a beautiful town to live in and some lovely  friends. I loved seeing the fall colors, and the decorations, and spending Halloween there with everyone getting into the party spirit and the whole town trick or treating. But I didn't feel an urgent need to move back -- I feel much more settled in London than I ever did there, perhaps because I know that this is our home and it's not just temporary. I'm also glad that the boys are being educated in the British school system, which I think on balance I prefer.

So I'll be happy to re-visit every few years. And we might have to do that, just so Littleboy 1 can eat "the best burger in the world."

Friday, 20 November 2015

Grand Canyon En Famille

Early morning at the South Rim
I've always wanted to go to the Grand Canyon. However, as our trip approached, I was more than a little apprehensive. Someone had warned us that, once you arrive and look at the view, there "wasn't that much to do" there -- particularly with kids. I had also been told that the South Rim, where we were going, was far too touristy and it was much better to go to the less visited North Rim. Would it all be a huge disappointment?

But I am happy to report that it was all I expected, and more.

The South Rim is indeed the more touristy part of the Canyon -- the North Rim is much higher, and at this time of year can be closed due to snow. But maybe because we were slightly off-season,  I didn't find Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim too overwhelmingly ruined by other people. It reminded me rather of a ski resort, and was particularly quiet in the early morning and at night, when the day trippers had gone.

We stayed at Thunderbird Lodge - basically a motel, but perfectly OK -- right on the Canyon edge. For food you can eat at Bright Angel Lodge which is right next door and slightly more posh, but with a rustic edge; if you want to go very posh you can stay at El Tovar, which has a very fancy-looking restaurant. We ate our evening meals at the Arizona Room, a steakhouse with particularly delicious food -- it would have had a view over the Canyon, but it was too dark in October to see it even for an early supper; darkness fell at around 6pm.

Descending into the Canyon
The view is just incredible.  I could spend simply hours looking at it. The colours in the canyon keep changing throughout the day, and depending on the light and the weather. You can see why it's called "grand" -- I've been to canyons before, but the vastness and majesty of this one is incomparable. It makes you feel very small and very aware of the power of nature, as if you were standing on the moon or something.

So what do you do there? We went hiking into the canyon. We took the boys down the Bright Angel Trail to the three mile resthouse, then back up again. Down is pretty easy, up is obviously steep and much harder, but the path was well-made, the track easy to follow,

There are hundreds of signs warning you to take lots of water, food, etc and not to overdo it -- I think this must apply particularly in the summer, when temperatures can reach over 140 degrees, but in October it was a very pleasant temperature for walking, cool and crisp in the morning rising to t-shirt weather in the afternoon. We took a picnic, plus plenty of chocolate and snacks for the way up.

Sunset and moonrise
Our six mile walk was over by mid-afternoon, so there was time to do something else. We drove the 20 miles to the Desert View Watchtower, where you get a completely different view of the Canyon, this time including the Colorado River (which isn't visible at Grand Canyon Village). On the way back, we were lucky enough to see the full moon rising just at the time the sun set, which afforded the most glorious palette of colours. As we leapt out of the car to take photos, we weren't alone -- there were, as The Doctor put it, people almost "orgasmic" at the sight.

The next morning we were leaving, but got up early  and walked for a few miles along the Rim Trail before breakfast. This walk would be much more suitable for people with small children, or who aren't into proper hiking; it's paved, mostly flat and you can take a bus back to the village from various points along the way, so you don't have to worry about turning around. And you still get the incredible views.

So - would I recommend taking children to the Grand Canyon? Yes, definitely. What I would say is -- if  you want to walk, go at half term in October, and avoid the heat and the crowds. American schools aren't on holiday in October, either.

In fact we liked it so much, we are planning to go back when our boys are older. The plan next time is to hike all the way from rim to rim, a two day hike, and stay at the romantically-named Phantom Ranch lodge in the base of the canyon. For this, you have to book at least a year in advance. But I don't mind  that-- it's even more of an excuse to fantasise over future holidays.

Monday, 16 November 2015

How do you talk to your children about Paris?

My older son was lying in bed with us on Saturday morning when we turned on the radio. We knew nothing about the events in Paris, having been driving down the M4 the night before and not watching any evening news. So when we heard the headlines we were naturally jolted awake, and he, who doesn't always listen to the news, was hearing it all avidly too.

He's 10 now, and he's been asking questions recently about Isis, as some of his friends are apparently talking about it at school following the Egyptian air disaster. Some of what he comes home with has been a little misinformed (eg Isis bombed the Twin Towers) but he understands the gist of it. And yet, he doesn't.

How do you explain to a primary school kid what motivates terrorists? And even more, how do you reassure them that they, and their loved ones, are not going to be affected? To tell them that "it couldn't happen here" feels disingenuous. We all know that it has happened in London, and surely will again.

I have told him now about the 2005 attacks, which happened just after he was born. He also knows about 9/11, having been recently to the Peace Garden in New York. But he still can't get his head round why people actually did these things. He's a gentle child, who dislikes seeing or hearing about any kind of violence (he doesn't even want to see the new James Bond film), so he does find it very upsetting. 

A friend posted this article on Facebook, in which a psychologist explains that you need to reassure the child that they are safe. But I sometimes feel as if the more we talk about these things, the more it makes them feel unsafe. I'm trying to walk the line here between not hiding things from him, not making him feel that I'm world-weary on the subject and at the same time reassuring him.

I find it even harder to talk to his younger brother, 8, about it all. The questions come thicker than the answers with him, and it's harder with him to know what he's thinking afterwards. And I do want to make sure he's not secretly worrying.

How does anyone else cope? 

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Vegas, baby -- with kids?

Not New York
"Las Vegas is like Disneyland for Grown-ups."

I must have heard these words a thousand times from people in America before we went to visit Las Vegas as part of our holiday this half term. But what if you are the kind of grown-up who hates Disneyland, doesn't like gambling, prefers real scenery and the outdoors, and has two real kids in tow?

I hadn't planned on ever visiting Las Vegas, in fact, but it was the obvious jumping off point when visiting the Grand Canyon (of which more later). We flew from New York, where we'd been visiting our old town on Long Island and our friends, and decided to take in the sights of Las Vegas rather than just hiring a car and getting the hell out of town.

Once we'd planned this, I decided to embrace it, booking tickets to a couple of shows on the recommendation of a friend (Elton John's Million Dollar Piano and Cirque du Soleil's Beatles extravaganza "Love"). I also booked one of the few non-gaming hotels (the Mandarin Oriental) with a pool for relaxing during the day before we saw the shows in the evening. Other than that, I wasn't quite sure what we would be doing during the day with the boys. But there was plenty to explore.

The most amazing thing about seeing Las Vegas with kids is the themed hotel/casinos: in one morning, you can visit Venice, Paris and Luxor, not to mention New York, New York. As Littleboy 1 said in awe as we drove from the airport along the lit-up "Strip" where all the hotels and casinos are laid out in their neon glory, "This place is totally messed-up."

 The Venetian is perhaps the nuttiest: with actual canals flowing through the shops in the hotel's basement, complete singing gondoliers, and an indoor replica of St Mark's Square with a fake sky that makes it feel like you are permanently at dusk (quite weird at 9am in the morning).

The Venetian

Of course, I'd rather be in the real Venice, but the fact they have done it at all is just rather surreal and amazing. Luxor has a gigantic pyramid as a lobby, and a huge sphinx outside; New York, New York has replicas of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, and Paris has a half-size Eiffel Tower. It is, (as Littleboy 2 put it), the "Capital of fakeness".

Another hotel / casino, The Mirage, boasts a volcano that "erupts" every evening on the hour, with fake lava and flames. This hotel is also home to the Secret Garden, a zoo that houses white tigers and dolphins (probably the highlight for Littleboy 2, a tiger fanatic). Next door, the Bellagio has an incredible, dazzling display of fountains, if you hadn't yet been entertained enough.

There is plenty to do, any kind of food you could possibly imagine eating and the shows themselves were spectacular -- my only caveat to taking kids being the jet lag (Las Vegas is eight hours behind the UK, three behind New York and the boys were simply too tired in the evening to really enjoy them properly). The weather in October is warm and fine, but not too hot, and our hotel pool was a delightful place to laze during the midday hours (mornings and evenings were chilly).

Would I go back to Las Vegas? Well, it was great fun. If you're in that part of the world, your kids will be amazed by the spectacle of it all, and they'll probably enjoy it.  But let's just say that as we drove out of the city towards the Hoover Dam and Arizona, I knew the perfect music to play from my iPod. I'll leave you with that.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Old fashioned blogging

Back in the stone age of blogging (pre 2010 that is), there was a thing called "tagging" and also little badges that bloggers gave to one another to stick on their pages. I've still got a few on mine -- look down the bottom of the page and you'll find awards, some from bloggers now faded into the mists of the internet (Nunhead Mum of One, what happened to you?)

You see, this was in the days before official blogging awards, and blogging league tables and blogging conferences and PR freebies and Twitter ratings. It was just a low-key way to show your friendliness and love to a few people whose words you'd read online.

Anyway, I mention all this because Expat Mum -- one of the first bloggers who ever commented on my own blog -- has "tagged" me in this post about Old Fashioned Blogging, because I've been blogging since 2008 and therefore count as a golden oldie in this new-fangled world of weblogs.

Just like the old days, I have to display the badge (which looks a bit like something out of Harry Potter), link to the nominating blogger (done)  and name seven other bloggers on whom I bestow the award. I also have to list seven things about myself that not many people know. I've DEFINITELY done this one before but I can't find the post -- so here goes another effort. I'm going to make them all writerly/blogging related this time.

1. I've inspired at least three good friends to go into blogging (at least, I think it was me - correct me if I'm wrong!). Step forward Circles in the Sand, Don't Panic and Four Down Mum to Go.

2. When I was 15, I won a short story competition in Just 17 magazine. I won a huge boxload of Penguin Books -- and had my name read out in assembly at school, which was rather embarrassing.

3. I read English at University and of all the books I had to read, the only one I didn't finish was James Joyce's Ulysses. I just couldn't stand it.

4. As a student I did work experience at Cosmopolitan magazine. I was overseen by then features editor Kath Viner - who recently became the first ever female editor of The Guardian.

5. I absolutely love reading novels and can polish off a book in a couple of evenings if I'm enjoying it. I've currently devouring "After You" by JoJo Moyes and plan to read Margaret Atwood's "The Heart Goes Last" next, after recently seeing her live at the Write on Kew festival.

6. For work, I have ended up specialising in writing about ads. This is actually more interesting than it sounds. And you meet some very bright, creative people in the industry.

7. I would love to be a novelist, but have not been able to galvanise myself to write anything beyond a first chapter. I have huge admiration for my friend Circles, who has just finished her first novel. And maybe she will now inspire me to go for it.

Now to the nominations. I'm sure everyone else has already tagged these people, but here  are a few.

1 Melissa at Talk About York (who used to be Home Office Mum).
2. Motherhood the Final Frontier (who gave me such good advice when I moved to the US)
3. My mate NB at Don't Panic 
4. Tanya at Bump2 Basics  (I first started reading her blog when she was pregnant. Now her oldest is at school).
5. Michelloui at The American Resident. Who needs to start blogging again!
6. Ditto AConfusedTakeThatFan, whose blog I can't find but who commented here last week.
7. Finally PantsWithNames aka Brit in Bosnia. Emily, if you're still out there, I also miss you terribly.