Friday, 15 May 2015

Do Brondes have more fun?

It's all the rage to have streaks of mouse and blonde
I've been amused to read, recently, all sorts of articles about how it's fashionable to be Bronde.

Apparently, it's all the range to have your hair not quite blonde and not quite brunette - Cara Delevingne, Jennifer Lopez and - er - Nicola Sturgeon have all "embraced the trend."

I'm so happy about this because I've been unintentionally bronde since I was about 14. Having been honey blonde as a child, my hair suddenly darkened in my teens to what, in the old days, was called "mouse" (it happens to a lot of us -- just like duckling down darkens from yellow to brown).

After some disasters with Sun-In, lemon juice and (most heinously) a home dye kit, my mother marched me to the hair salon for highlights in my mid teens and I have never looked back. However, as my hazel eyes and olive-ish complexion don't suit white-blonde, ash-blonde or "Scandi-blonde", I've always gone for a sort of honey look, mid way between blonde and brown. Depending on how often I get to the hairdresser, or how rich I'm feeling, it's sometimes darker and sometimes fairer. In the summer it tends to go a bit streaky and sun-bleached, in the winter it's duller.

But now, apparently, I can cease to worry about this middling shade, and my protruding roots, because celebrities are actually colouring their hair bronde. Apparently, it's great because it hides the grey. (As I've recently found a few of these, that's another "yay" for me). You also don't have to touch up the roots so often, so it's also austerity-chic.

In these sobering post-election days of five more years of cuts, what more could I possibly want? All I need to hear now is that ratty jeans and sneakers are right on trend - wait, hang on a minute? They are?

Thursday, 7 May 2015

On birthdays and voting

This year's General Election has an especial poignancy for me: it's almost ten years to the day since I was in St Thomas's Hospital, cradling a newborn Littleboy 1, staring out over the river at the Palace of Westminster and wondering if Tony Blair was still in power.

So at the weekend we celebrated his 10th birthday (Littleboy 1's, not Blair's) while feverishly anticipating a new election, and I can't help but reflect on the passing of time.

I didn't vote in that election: Littleboy 1 was nine days overdue, so I hadn't registered a postal vote, thinking naively that I'd be well in an out of hospital by the time the election came around. The fact that I had an emergency c-section and ended up staying in for three days meant I was still there on the Thursday, despite giving birth on the Tuesday after the bank holiday.

What I most remember about that experience is that for the first time in my life, once Littleboy 1 was born I couldn't get worked up about the election at all. I was overwhelmed by dealing with a tiny baby, recovering from a frightening birth and not being able to get out of bed for the first day. My world shrank to that hospital ward, and even when we got home, the newspapers lay around unread. (There's a great photo somewhere of The Doctor lying on the sofa asleep, baby asleep on his chest, surrounded by packs of nappies and one copy of the Times with a photo of Blair in a victory pose on the cover).

Five years ago, we were in the US, and although we marked the election by inviting an English friend round to dinner and I even baked an Election Cake, it was hard to feel too excited when we weren't in the country. The Littleboys, aged five and four, were too young to care. I remember stopping my car in the middle of the street outside the boys' nursery (to the annoyance of lots of angry Moms in minivans) to tell my one other English friend at the time that Gordon Brown had just resigned; she, having lived for 10 years in America, could not have looked less bothered.

Another five years on, I'm far more engaged with the election -- and so are my kids. Littleboy 2 is like a Radio 4 Today programme sponge; he solemnly told me this morning that "326 seats is the magic number"; and yesterday he informed me that one prime minister was going to shoot another one in the eyes. I told him he must have misunderstood; later I realised that a UKIP candidate had actually said this.  His older brother, meanwhile, has finally got over his misapprehension that the Prime Minister is called David Beckham.

This morning I voted, though which box I put my X in I'm not going to reveal here, so any trolls had better go elsewhere. Tonight I will be watching the exit polls and eating fajitas with my lovely friend P, and thanking God that we live in a democracy, where -- however confusing the political choice can seem -- what we vote can still make a difference.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

My Back Garden (The Photo Gallery)

It's a while since I've showcased my (very amateur) photography skills by linking to Tara's Photo Gallery, but her prompt this week - My Back Garden -- has nudged me into taking my new phone outside and giving it a go. All the below were shot with iPhone 6 (as the ad campaign goes) - and I think it did an OK job.

We're at an interesting stage with the garden; having moved in late last summer, we don't really know what's in there, and Spring has served up some pretty surprises. We've had crocuses, daffodils, snowdrops and a whole host of bulbs appear in unexpected places; recently I've spotted some bluebells, and there's a sprig of wisteria growing over our fence from next door that's about to bud. (We also have some over our front door; my dream has long been to have a purple shimmering curtain on the front of my house, and maybe one day this will be a reality).

I love the stories gardens tells about the previous owners of houses; there are an incredible number of overgrown roses, and according to a neighbour, the owner before last was obsessed with roses. However, like almost everything in the garden, they've been left to grow rampantly out of control in the intervening years. There's also an insane amount of holly (and ivy) -- I like holly, but we've had to be rather ruthless in cutting back.

The Doctor is more green-fingered than I am, but I love gardens, and can quite imagine myself getting more into it as the years go by; I've even found myself listening to Gardeners' Question Time on the radio recently and not immediately switching over to something less middle aged. I'm also going to the Chelsea Flower Show next month for the first time ever; and I couldn't be more excited if I'd scored a ticket to the Baftas.

Here's a quick tour then:

I love forget- me-nots. I know they're a weed - but they're just so pretty.

The wisteria is about to bud.

No idea what this is - but I like the colour

A couple of bluebells snuck in somehow

We have an insane amount of holly in our garden

Sunday, 26 April 2015

How to upgrade your iPhone (if you're clueless)

1. Eke out the usefulness of your iPhone 4, bought almost five years ago in the US, until emails take about ten minutes to load, apps randomly crash on you and the battery mysteriously dies several times, requiring emergency resuscitation on several occasions.

2. When you can hold out no longer, make trip to the Apple Store, having carefully backed up your phone and taken all the photos off).

3. Get to Apple Store, having parked 20 minutes walk away. Don't bother with any browsing. You're not here to have fun (unlike the kids who are straight on the iPads). Home in straight on the one you want ( a "normal" iPhone 6) and commander an Apple geek to help you buy it.

4. Go to get out your old phone, to find it's still in the car. You were using Google Maps on the way and left it sitting in the front seat.

5. Worry that you won't be able to swap all your information onto the new phone. Husband, and Apple geek, assure you this is not a problem.

6. Get to the swapping stage, where another Apple geek informs you that actually, you do need the phone, as they need to send you a text.

7. Husband is dispatched back to the car, while you make small talk with Apple geek and try to sound knowledgable about iPhones. Nod as if you understand everything he is saying.

8. Husband is back, looking sweaty, with phone, and the swap is successful. However, Husband advises you not to buy iPhone case from Apple Store as it is "a rip off". Compared to price of iPhone, cost of case seems trifling but you concur.

9. Tramp around shopping mall looking for a nice iPhone 6 case. Fail to find one; cases are either all for other sizes of iPhone, or they feature One Direction.

10. Go to dodgy looking, "off the back of a lorry" mobile shop in the nearby high street. Choose cheap, serviceable case, but are persuaded to spent ten pounds on a clear plastic cover for the screen. Total cost is almost as much as Apple case. Plastic cover turns out to be impossible to use without smearing.

11. Finally use new phone. Feel actually astounded at what apps are like five years on - and what's more, now, Google Maps doesn't show the traffic jam on the wrong side of the road. You are like a new woman. Who knew?

Monday, 13 April 2015

A tourist's eye view of London

They're changing guard at Buckingham Palace
Last week, we were tourists in our own city.

Our German friends from Long Island days came to stay, and as, they had barely visited London before, I decided to take them on a really Grand Tour. They'd sent me a list of things they wanted to see which included: the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard, Big Ben, Hamleys, the London Eye, Carnaby Street and (bizarrely I thought) Queen's Park.

Well, we managed to see all of these in three busy days (except Queen's Park, which it turns out my friend had read about on a blog. We decided our local Crystal Palace Park was just as good if not better). Amazingly, the best weather of the year descended as if from nowhere and we had three days of brilliant, warm sunshine that made it feel like summer.

On the first day, we started at Buckingham Palace. I'd never seen the Changing of the Guard, and to be honest, the huge numbers of tourists with selfie sticks made this rather difficult to see, but see it we did and even the children, who had been grumbling at the wait for the action to begin, were enthralled with the parade. The best bit? The band played the Star Wars theme. Perfect for three small boys.

Walking down to Westminster
After this we picnicked on hot dogs in St James's Park (luckily for us we had three little New Yorkers in tow) and wandered down to Westminster Abbey, where we walked round the cloisters for free (go in the back way and you can do this) and peered through an archway at the school where The Doctor was educated.

Then, we caught a Thames Clipper from Embankment Pier to Tower Bridge - again, something I've never done, and well worth the albeit short trip. You do get a different perspective on London from the river. At the Tower, we wandered around the outside, avoiding the queues for the Crown Jewels but taking in the forbidding stone walls and the Traitor's Gate while imagining the memories that grim building must hold.

Sunset at the Oxo Tower Brasserie
Day 2 started with a trip to see the stone dinosaurs in our beloved local park, then a bus ride all the way into the West End - more familiar territory for me. We got off in Regent Street and did a quick tour of Hamley's, the boys all acquiring new Hexbugs which kept them happy for hours afterwards. Then it was on to Carnaby Street for a coffee, before a stroll through Soho and Chinatown to Covent Garden where we watched a street performer sitting on the sun-warmed cobblestones of the piazza. From there we walked to the Oxo Tower Brasserie where we'd booked a table for dinner. It being so warm, we were seated outside on the balcony and caught the most incredible London sunset.

View from the Emirates cable car
Day 3 started with rain but then cleared up and was fine once again for our ride on the Emirates Airline cable car, from Royal Victoria Docks to Greenwich Peninsula. This again was a first for me and is really worthwhile, affording great views over London and the river. From there it was on to Greenwich Park and the National Maritime Museum. The boys played in the kids' section while we learned about Nelson and Trafalgar, then it was up the hill to the Royal Observatory, for more fabulous views from a different angle, and a peek at the Greenwich Meridian line.

All in all I think our friends loved London; what I noticed was they constantly remarked on how green it is, how full of parks and trees, and on the contrast between the old and new -- for example the Tower of London juxtaposed to the Shard and the other modern skyscrapers of the City. Interestingly, they also felt that in comparison to New York, which can feel a little crumbling at times, our infrastructure and skyline seemed a lot more modern and up to date. Sometimes you have to step outside your own shoes to make such observations.

Seeing it through their eyes brought home to me that we do truly live in one of the world's great cities. Other places may sound exotic, but to a foreigner, London is an incredible place, rich in history, beauty, culture, colour and interest. Now, if only we could order that sunshine for 52 weeks a year.....

Friday, 27 March 2015

Books for Children: In praise of Judith Kerr

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit
I've always loved Judith Kerr, the writer of the Mog books and The Tiger Who Came to Tea. As a child I loved those books, for the artworks as much as the brilliantly intriguing stories. (Mog goes out in the garden and thinks "dark thoughts" because she's forgotten that she has been fed. What a complex idea for a children's book, and so memorable).

Recently I heard Kerr being interviewed on Radio 4 about her memoir, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, and I decided to read the book to the boys. It's an autobiographical story about how she, her brother and her Jewish parents fled Germany just before the Nazis came to power, travelling first to Switzerland, then Paris and finally London, where the family ended up.

I remembered enjoying the book as a child, and I also thought it would be a good way to introduce the thorny topic of Hitler and the Holocaust into conversation (a tricky subject with boys, who I find are simultaneously fascinated by this kind of thing and also liable to be traumatized). It is; because although there is a hidden menace behind much of what is happening in the book, it's also an everyday story of a family.

On some nights the boys were laughing out loud at passages in the book (such as when Grandma and her annoying dachsund, Pumpel, come to stay); on other nights they were scared (such as when the family are escaping from Germany on the train and having their passports checked) and on other nights we were all angry or sad (such as when the family meets some other Germans who shun them because they are Jewish).

It's stimulated some amazing bedtime conversations, from what to do if you buy something and it doesn't work (there's an episode in the book where Papa is sold a dud sewing machine), to why Hitler was such an evil man.

The boys, from having initially been reluctant to read this book (they're obsessed with Percy Jackson at the moment and wanted another installment), ended up loving it and asking me if there was more about Anna and her family. I said no, but I've just been on Amazon and found to my delight that there are two more autobiographical books by Kerr, Bombs on Aunt Dainty and A Small Person Far Away. They sound more grown up, so I'm going to read them first myself before I try them on the boys, but I think she's a hugely under-rated writer so I'm looking forward to reading them myself.

One of the quotes stuck out from the final chapter last night - it's from when Anna is reflecting on whether having moved countries so many times means she has had a "difficult childhood.'

 Sometimes it had been difficult -- but it had also been interesting and often funny. And as long as she and Mama and Papa and Max were together, she could never have a difficult childhood.

I think all of us current and former expats can reflect on that one.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Do US audiences really not "get" Brits?

Downton Abbey: Americans love it
I was reading Mail Online today ( a dirty habit I know - I do hate most of it, but I occasionally can't resist the temptation to find out who's dating who in the celeb world) and came across an article about the fact that actor James Corden (The History Boys, Gavin and Stacey etc) is about to start presenting the Late, Late Show in the US and Hollywood bigwigs are worried that Americans "won't get him."

In typical Mail style it seems trying to set him up for a fall and I was particularly amused/irritated by this paragraph.

 During the rehearsals Cordon's use of language has been criticised as U.S. audiences are far more sensitive to swearing compared with those in Britain. Also Americans do not understand words such as 'knackered' which describes somebody who is excessively tired. 
Also, British references to drunkeness will prove difficult to U.S. audiences, who do not understand terms such as 'half-cut' or 'bladdered'.

Yes, we all know that the UK and Brits are divided by a common language - goodness knows, I surprised some of my American friends a few times during my stint in New York. (A particular example comes to mind -- when I asked a woman at a party whether her children had had the "lurgy" yet. She looked horrified.)

But honestly, this patronises both American audiences and Corden, who I am sure is a clever bloke and knows exactly what he's doing. And what about all the American shows that U.K. audiences watch? Yes, we might not understand all the references on The Daily Show or even an "easy" sitcom like Friends, but isn't that what's nice about watching something from another country? You learn something. You go and look something up. 

Americans have embraced always British actors with open arms -- see Eddie Redmayne et al at this year's Oscars. They love Downton Abbey -- and I'm sure they don't understand all the references there. They love our shows and steal the ideas (The Office, House of Cards ). As for TV hosts - well, the Daily Show's John Oliver is a Brit, and although Piers Morgan got sacked from CNN the end, in the beginning he was quite popular, I seem to recall.

If Corden fails, I don't think it will be because he's British. It won't even be because he's bad. It'll be because US TV is so ruthless that if something doesn't get massive ratings in the first few weeks, they pull it. 

I hope he's a roaring success.