Friday, 18 September 2015

Helicopter Mother, or just a drone?

I did a naughty thing yesterday.

I was sorting laundry and suddenly realised that Littleboy 2 had merrily gone off to school clutching his swimming towel and goggles, for swim lesson, but minus the actual trunks.

At first I told myself that it would be fine, he'd borrow a pair from Lost Property (his brother has done that before) and I shouldn't interrupt my day. But I kept imagining his little face falling when he opened his bag and found the trunks weren't in there. My heart contracted, and I knew what I had to do.

So I jumped in the car, hair still wet from the shower, and zoomed down to the school to hand over the trunks, reaching the door just as his lesson was about to start.

Now this was naughty why? Well firstly, the school sent out an edict last year that parents were not to keep coming to school to hand over forgotten PE kit. It's a big school and it must happen fairly often, so I can understand it's a pain if they have to keep sending a teacher /helper to deliver missing items of clothing. (Perhaps in the future we should have drones to do it, like Amazon? Now that's an idea.)

But that's not the real reason it was bad. It was bad because, as I discuss with The Doctor all the time, I am not supposed to be the policeman of the bags. The boys are supposed to be checking their own stuff now in the morning and if something doesn't make it to school, on their own head be it. This patently doesn't happen: frankly, just getting Littleboy 2 out of bed and dressed in time for the school run is an achievement, let alone getting him to check his bag.

There have been plenty of articles in the media recently about helicopter parenting and how we are raising a generation of children who don't know how to do anything for themselves. By constantly being there for our children, making sure they're OK and helping them do their best, we're actually doing them a disservice, goes the argument. We should take a step back, let them look after themselves, like our parents' generation who just let us get on with it.

I generally agree with all of this. At my kids' age I was going to and from school by myself (on the Peak Tram in Hong Kong! I didn't know how lucky I was) and a year later travelling to boarding school on a plane. I don't ever remember much parental input in homework. I don't particularly WANT to be that mother insanely running to school with a pair of swimming trunks, and I want my children to grow up self-reliant.

But I think part of the problem now is the pressure that mothers, in particular, feel from all angles of the media to be perfect. If our kids fail at something, we get the blame. And if we aren't super-vigilant, we are terrible people -- this can range from the parents that are investigated by Social Services for letting their kids become obese, to the "free range" parents in the US who get arrested for letting their kids walk home from the park alone,  to the vilification of the McCann parents for leaving their children unattended in a holiday resort.

"Parenting," a word that didn't really exist in the 70s, is something every commentator has a view on. So of course we feel we have to be on the case 24/7, and making sure our kids don't forget their homework, lunch or swimming things, is a part of all that.

Incidentally, men don't seem to share our guilt, possibly because negligent fathering isn't a "thing" in the press.

What do you think? How do you square the whole helicopter debate?  And should I have chilled out over the trunks?

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Last of the summer suncream

The suncreams, all three of them, sit folornly by the door, unused since our holiday. Last week's tennis camp was necessarily indoors, so there was no use for the big tube of kids' factor 50, small tube to take with them, or indeed my special my non-greasy face cream.

Now the new term has started, and (bar a September heatwave) it won't be until next summer that we have to think about creams, hats and water bottles. Instead, we spent the last few days ensuring school shoes fit, arranging uniform on chairs and having last minute panics over mislaid pencil cases.

Reconvening at school, the children have seemingly all grown a couple of inches; some just look like they've been stretched out like elastic, others are more bulky. Most are sun-browned (clearly none of us put on quite enough of that cream, or perhaps, like me, we've decided to mind our Vitamin D), and most of the parents at the school gate sport a post-holiday glow that makes them look more relaxed than usual. We swap anecdotes of last minute shoe-shopping, holidays mishaps and new concerns about our children. We're regretful that summer is over, but also relish the school-gate conversation after a two month break.

At home, I pack away the swimming costumes, the shorts and the sarongs, and start thinking about plays to book, articles to write, social engagements to arrange. The house seems empty - even though I've often been on my own over the summer, while the boys are out at activities, today it seems to echo more than usual.

For everyone starting the new school year today -- may it be a good one.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Kid-friendly Lucca

Beautiful Lucca
Since I got back from holiday on Sunday it seems to have been raining non-stop.

After two weeks of getting up every morning to swim 30 lengths in an outdoor pool before breakfast, only pausing to sniff the lavender-scented air and look at the indescribably beautiful view of the Tuscan hills, this has come as something of a shock.

I love Italy. It's probably my favourite country -- I went there on my honeymoon, and have been back to Tuscany no less than four times since, as well as visiting other parts of Italy such as Sicily and Venice.

This time we had an extended family holiday in a beautiful villa, sandwiched between city stopovers in Pisa and Lucca at the beginning and end.

I thought I'd blog about Lucca because I was actually surprised about how child-friendly it is. Having dragged the boys around Pisa, admiring the beautiful architecture but being slightly dismayed at all the coach party groups with selfie sticks and lack of un-touristy restaurants, I was wondering how they would take to Lucca.

But they loved it. The highlight for us was renting bikes and cycling all the way around the historic city walls, which form a pedestrian and cyclist-only public park. It's a 4km ride which took us roughly 45 minutes, with a couple of rest stops. It's also shady and cool, particularly if you do it at 9am in the morning as we did, trying to avoid the heat of the day. The scenery is incomparable: you can look up at the Monte Pisano mountains, or down into the city of Lucca, at the Duomo San Martino in all its marble splendour, or busy street markets and charming piazzas, while cycling along at your leisure. The only hazard is avoiding other cyclists and pedestrians (something Littleboy 2, a rather wobbly cyclist, narrowly achieved).

Cycling round the walls
Wandering around Lucca is charming -- many of its narrow, winding medieval streets are pedestrianised (although watch out for the odd scooter). The shops are upscale and mainly independent, with very few chains. By night, it's incredibly atmospheric and you will suddenly stumble upon little hidden squares crammed with people, eating, talking or just enjoying the balmy night air. The Littleboys were in their element, marching around singing Abba songs on our final night, to the amusement of passers-by.

Then there are the towers to climb. The Littleboys had actually refused to go up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, announcing that it was too scary. (We didn't try and force them; frankly, the prices are scary too, at 18 euros each including for kids).

Torre Guinigi
But in Lucca, you can climb (cheaply) up two towers that aren't leaning: the Torre Guinigi, which is famous for having trees planted on top, and the Torre delle Ore, or clock tower. The latter was more precarious, with a wooden staircase that looked like it might not pass a British health and safety inspection, but had the bonus of being beautifully empty. Both afford an incredible view of the terracotta-coloured rooftops of Lucca, and the climb gives you a much-needed chance to burn off all that pasta. 

The Lucca botanical garden (Orto Botanico) is a sweet place and offers an opportunity to relax and sit in the shade. The lilypond there has rather a gruesome legend attached; it's said to have been the scene of a horrific drowning. As the story, goes a beautiful Luccan noblewoman made a bargain with the devil to stay looking young, and when she reneged on the deal was finally chased by Satan around the city and into the water. You're supposed to be able to hear her screams on Halloween. In reality, she died of the plague and was buried in a church nearby.  (We had our own excitement, when Littleboy 2 decided to touch a plant clearly labelled as "toxic" with a skull and crossbones; cue lots of frantic hand washing.)

Botanical Gardens, Lucca
Lucca is also stuffed full of places to eat: from cheap pizzerias to homely osterias, lively trattorias and upmarket ristorantes. The first night we had delicious pizza at Trattoria da Nonna Clara in a lively piazza. It was one of the cheapest meals of all our holiday, but all pronounced it excellent. For lunch the next day, we stumbled upon All'Olivo, a stylish-looking restaurant on a tiny piazza. Although it had a slightly bizarre canopy with jets that sprayed out water (it was supposed, we think, to cool you down but had the effect of being in a rather humid sauna), the food was again brilliant. The boys tucked into prosciutto and melon, bruschetta and salami; The Dotor and I had succulent grilled calamari salads.

For our final night we ate at Osteria Baralla, a traditional Tuscan restaurant near the oval Piazza Anifteatro. The meal was typically heavy Tuscan fare -- my beef stew was delicious, but far too filling, and the boys tucked into meaty ravioli after stuffing themselves with unsalted bread and olive oil. I would probably recommend this place more in winter. Like most Italian cities, Lucca is also full of amazing gelaterias. We bought fabulous chocolate ice-cream and lemon sorbet outside the city walls, on our walk back to our Airbnb apartment. (It was our first time booking through Airbnb, and everything went very smoothly -- our host, Petra, was very welcoming and helpful).

Villa Reale's Green Theatre
The next morning, before our flight back from Pisa, we explored the gardens of the Villa Reale outside Lucca. The Villa was once owned by Napoleon's sister Elisa Bonaparte and the grounds are incredibly ornate. The garden was virtually empty, which made it particularly atmospheric, and the house itself, closed up, had a very dilapidated air (we asked about the current owners, and were told it is a "family from Switzerland" but they never come). It seems something of a random tourist attraction -- the custodian turned up late to open up, and there was nowhere really to park -- but the gardens are fascinating and well worth a wander; there's an over-the-top interpretation of Pan's Grotto, a "green theatre" entirely made of box hedges, a lemon garden and plentiful classical statues and fountains.

All in all, I would thoroughly recommend Lucca as a short city break with kids. From the U.K., you could get there cheaply and easily by flying to nearby Pisa with EasyJet, and then taking a train or renting a car. And if you're going on a holiday elsewhere in Italy, why not break your journey there?

Monday, 13 July 2015

Vintage Wimbledon with the Littleboys

I don't know if this year truly was a vintage Wimbledon, but it felt like it to me.

Even though Andy Murray, who we were loyally backing, didn't make the final, the Federer/Djokovic showdown was brilliant, and I particularly loved the sight of Stefan Edberg, my pinup of the year circa 1988, sitting in the box as Federer's coach with his old rival Boris Becker coaching Djokovic. (Edberg has also aged better, which is rather satisfying).

The women's game was perhaps less interesting, although I think we may have a new star in Garbine Muguruza. Serena Williams is incredible, but I feel as if she's been too dominant in recent years.

I watched more of the tournament than I have for a while, mainly because the boys are now also tennis fans and, thanks to their lessons, understand what's going on. We had many hilarious conversations during the matches and the highlights program, which even Littleboy 2 steadfastly sat up to 9pm to watch two nights running. (Who else was appalled by the new look BBC Wimbledon 2Day? I was so glad when they changed the format back to normal, but the new, dreadfully naff name seems to remain. Macenroe is brilliant, though).

The boys were particularly interested in the seedings, and also in the fact that the women play the best of three sets and then men five. So we had many unanswerable questions such as: "If Serena Williams played Djokovic, who would win?" "If Serena AND Venus played him, would they beat him?" as well as random ones such as"Would Andy Murray ever play mixed doubles with his Mum?"

Littleboy 2 finally got quite existential, posing the question: "If Andy Murray played Andy Murray, who would win?" Answers on a postcard please.

But my favourite comment of his was when I was explaining that the players carry spare racquets in their bags in case one breaks. "The other day Murray got out another racket halfway through a game because his string broke," I said.

Littleboy 2 expressed consternation. "But - he wouldn't have time to label it!"

Clearly all those naggings about lost property have gone in.

Monday, 29 June 2015

End of the school year by numbers

Another year over, and what have you done? That's a Christmas song of course, but I always think of it at this time of year, because for parents of school age kids, the "year" begins in September and ends in July.

It seems to have flown by. So I thought I'd just list a few things, data-wise, to remind myself that actually, quite a lot has happened since September 2014.

1. Casualties of Lost Property: 4 (two different kinds of sock, 1 track suit bottoms, 1 pair of pyjamas taken in for a swimming test).

Not bad really and sometimes you just have to "let it go" as the song goes. I remember once really losing it over a lost towel at summer camp, and having to remind myself that there are bigger things in life.  Mind you, I find banging on about how the lost items will come out of pocket money is quite helpful these days. It would have been 5, but a lost shoe was miraculously recovered today.

2. Music exams taken, 3. 

All passed, two with merits. All that practising, nagging and banging on about scales wasn't totally wasted then. And Littleboy 1 seems to have taught himself to play "Dumb Ways to Die" on the violin. Result! 

3. Detentions, 0.

We are doing well here and I hope it continues this way. One of my sons even got invited to a "Good boys' tea," which in my day would have sounded like a recipe for being teased, but these days appears to be a badge of honour, even among boys.

4. Sports Days/swimming galas I missed: 1 (out of 8)

One of the advantages of working from home means I can be flexible about these things.  Mind you, judging from the numbers of Dads there, most of whom I am sure don't work from home, sports days are a 3 line whip these days.

5. Prizes won: 1

Proud parent disclaimer *Littleboy 2 has had a fantastic year at school, and came away with a prize for academic achievement. I couldn't be happier for him.* But actually just as important to me is the fact that he's made some really lovely friends in this first year at the school.

6. Things forgotten in the mornings: Not too many!

Much better on this score than last year, thanks to my trusty chalk board in the kitchen that reminds us what we have to take every day. I only once had to race back in the car to deliver something this year. Although Littleboy 1 went to school with a sopping wet PE kit last week that I had failed to put in the dryer overnight.

7. Inter-school Sports matches kids played in: 1

Not a great score this year -- Littleboy 2 has no interest in competitive team sports, and Littleboy 1, while athletic and fit, doesn't seem to make it into any school teams either (although he's doing very well at tennis lessons, done out of school, and has been selected for a local squad). Still, it means that weekends have been free of ferrying boys to sports matches, which more than makes up for anyone's disappointment.

8. Number of times I have been to the school for events since half term: too many to count.

See no 4. Again possible because I work at home. What on earth you do if you work in an office I have no clue.

9. Number of times we walked to school: 5

This is pretty disgraceful. We did mean to do it more. The walk is about half an hour. The problem is partly all the stuff they have to carry - musical instruments, cricket bats, heavy PE bags, homework, projects. Maybe next year we'll try to rationalise it somehow. 

10. Funny conversations with boys on the way home: countless

This is my favorite quote from Littleboy 2. We were driving home when we saw a boy who looked to me about 15 walking down the road. "Oh that's Mr. X." he said. "He's one of the teachers." When quizzed more closely it turned out he was one of the Gap year boys they have helping at the school. Then he added: "Yeah, we used to have another Gap teacher but he went skiing and never came back. I think he retired."


Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Expat friendships, two years on

Littleboy 2 shortly before we left New York
It's almost two years since we left the U.S.

It doesn't seem like that kind of time at all, of course - it seems like yesterday that I was packing up our house and and saying goodbye to my American friend, bidding farewell to the boys' school and doing everything we enjoyed in Long Island for the "last" time.

I was thinking the other day about expat friendships and whether or not they last a lifetime. My parents met many of their lifelong friends as expats in Hong Kong, some of whom I still keep in touch with today. But things are different now - social media has replaced the long letter and Christmas cards, long a method of keeping in touch, now seem to have fallen out of fashion with more and more people.

So what are my thoughts now that I can put my expat friendships in perspective?

Firstly, that it's interesting who you stay in touch with. Facebook of course makes it very easy to stay in touch with a lot of people but in a fairly superficial way. I have a bit of email contact with those people to whom I was closer but in the main, I do rely on social media.

One experience has been having a dear friend in America go through a terrible time, with her eight year old daughter diagnosed with leukaemia last autumn. Thankfully she is now in remission but it has been the most horribly tough year for her and for her whole family. This friend was lovely to me when I was having my own health issues, and I really felt it that I couldn't be there for her in person. I have been emailing her and sending cards, but it does make you realise that whatever the power of social media, being physically there is a whole different matter.

Then there are the people who are not on social media. In the case of my very good German friend, we've made a real effort to email, Skype and have even managed to see each other twice in the past year. I have a feeling this friendship will now be for life.

But others haven't been so easy.  There was one neighbour whom I got to know very well in the U.S. - we were always chatting at the school bus stop or in each other's houses. She's not on Facebook and I would love to know what's happening with her and her family.  But since being back, whenever I've tried to email her (apart from the very first time, when she replied warmly) I've been met with a wall of silence. I'm fairly certain nothing awful has happened to her, having asked other people, so I'm wondering if she just can't deal with long distance friendships, or (paranoia setting in) whether she never really liked me that much.

Others neighbours have made a real effort to look us up on trips to London - in fact we're due to see one family next week. And, later this year, we'll be heading back to Long Island as part of a U.S. holiday, so we'll get to see everybody again. I'm still debating whether to knock on Mrs. Email Silence's door, but I'm hoping others will be pleased to see us.

More interesting will be seeing whether the boys still gel with their old best friends, now that they've lost their American accents and think and act more like little English boys. I'm guessing yes, because kids seem to re-bond easily, and as long as they're all on the latest version of Minecraft they'll have something in common. But who knows?

Friday, 5 June 2015

Floral delights

I can't believe it's June already and the end of the school year is once again looming. The boys have three and a half more weeks, and then we are into the holidays -- that long cycle of me frantically trying to work while entertaining the boys and ferrying them around to different camps.

I've been neglecting the blog a little of late, so thought I'd write a quick update on what I've been up to.

I went to the Chelsea Flower Show for the first time ever. This was a fabulous experience -- a riot of colour, scent and sensation. What struck me most wasn't the show gardens, which is what everyone writes about and shows on TV. Those are indeed very impressive, but what I hadn't expected was the amazing floral displays from the growers inside the gigantic marquee. Huge walls of hyacinths, hydrangeas, roses, foxgloves -- you name it, it's there.

Selfie in floral garb

Hydrangea heaven

Purple paradise

Rose bower


The visit inspired me in a fit of impulsiveness to become a Royal Horticultural Society member, and start frantically buying seeds to plant in my back garden. Whether this newfound passion for gardening lasts remains to be seen, but it did reinforce my love of flowers, and a realisation that I need to teach my children the names of plants, flowers and shrubs on every walk we go on - because how else do you learn?

Then we went to the Lake District for half term. This was again a floral treat, as the rhodedendron, azalea and blubells were all in bloom up there. It's the first time I've ever visited in May, and it's a great time of year to be there -- everything shining with that bright, light green of early leaf, and newborn lambs everywhere.

Lakeland colours

Rhodedendrons in full bloom

A gorgeous view of Derwentwater

Now we're back and heading into the madness that is end of term, with swimming galas, school balls, concerts and parental drinks gatherings dominating the calendar for the next few weeks .

Wish me luck and see you on the other side.