Thursday, 27 October 2011

Craving British fiction - an expat phenomenon?

Tamara Drewe: A British classic

When I first moved to New York, I was keen to read anything set in my new milieu. I devoured modern novels set in Brooklyn (I loved Amy Sohn's Prospect Park West), Manhattan (Zoe Heller's The Believers), and re-read New York chick lit like The Devil Wears Prada, suddenly delighted that I recognized the locations and local references. I was also desperate to watch movies set in the city, checking multiple Woody Allen DVDs out of the library. I have made a point of reading many American novels over the past two years. Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, an epic saga of the American family through the 60s to present day, was probably one of the best but I also adored The Help, and loved another book club pick, Girl in Translation, about a Chinese-American immigrant to New York in the 70s.

This was not a new phenomenon; as a child, I loved American fiction. Among my favourite books were Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women and What Katy Did. American writers from that era seemed to specialize in headstrong female heroines that were particularly appealing.

But recently I have begun to crave English fiction. It's a bit like craving comfort food - at the moment I want to read English novels, set in London, or even better in the English countryside. William Nicholson's two novels The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life and I Could Love You were recent examples. His style is so very understated and British, in a 'Brief Encounter' type way. I've also got a sudden appetite for Alexander McCall Smith's Scottish novels - his characters are somehow so typically British and unlike anyone you would meet here. When I go to the library, I dive upon any book by a British author, and for my summer holiday reading I chose books set in England by British authors I love: Esther Freud's Lucky Break, Amanda Craig's Hearts and Minds and Barbara Trapido's Sex and Stravinsky (downloading them to Kindle as you can't buy them here).

As for films, I recently watched Stephen Frears' Tamara Drewe, a fabulous modern-day riff on Far From The Madding Crowd based on the hilarious graphic novels of Posy Simmonds. Compare it to Bridesmaids, which I also watched recently - this was a laugh out loud American comedy, and I enjoyed it- but Tamara was so much more to my current taste. After a girls' movie night, when I persuaded my American friends to see the recent adaptation of Jane Eyre- amazingly, none of them had ever read it - I did begin to wonder if I was turning into the sort of English person who only really likes costume drama and novels about middle class people living in the Costwolds.

But I wonder if this longing to immerse yourself in the world of home is typical for an expat? Do you always want to read about home when you're away? Perhaps I'm mentally preparing myself for the move back (which is now definitely going to happen in summer 2013, by the way). Or perhaps it's just a form of escape - after all, one of the joys of reading is to escape into a novel, and why not escape to somewhere you're not?

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Falling for Fall

Fall really is my favourite time of year on Long Island.

Summers are fun here in some ways - you have reliably warm weather, sandy beaches, barbecues, a community pool and of course the wonders of summer camp. But on the downside, there are mosquitoes, poison ivy, excessive heat and humidity; oh, and of course, the odd hurricane.

Winters have their pleasures; reliable snow means sledging and skiing, and it tends to be sunnier than in the UK. But they are long and relentless, and the snow gets ridiculous after a while. Spring is sweet but short; you can go from freezing cold to hot and humid in a matter of weeks.

But fall is long; cool, crisp or even pleasantly mild weather can last until early December before winter really sets in in. The turning leaves and foliage are stunning, and the Fall customs - pumpkins outside the door, apple picking and hayrides, and even the over-the-top Halloween celebrations - are really growing on me.

Looking back at last year's blog posts (including this Halloween homes 'n' gardens display) , I seemed to have become obsessed (possessed?) about Halloween so this year I wanted to highlight some other autumnal traditions over here.

First of all are 'Mums'. (No, not the 'Moms' - the Moms are just the same as in Fall as in other times, with the addition perhaps of Ugg boots and a polystyrene cup of hot, rather than iced, Starbucks latte). I'm talking about the 'Mums, as in chrysanthemums; Americans always having to abbreviate any long words, you see. I'm not sure/can't remember if we share this enthusiasm for 'Mums in England, but it really is a phenomenon here - I wonder if the whole of America is just as obsessed? The moment September approaches, huge displays of 'mums' are on show outside supermarkets, garden centers and private houses, and on roadsides you will see painted signs excitedly proclaiming 'Mums! Now! $4.99' (or similar) everywhere. When I was first here, I wasn't sure what this was all about, but this year I have joined in (well, for $4.99, who wouldn't?) and am sporting a potted 'Mum' on my doorstep as well as the obligatory pumpkins (see above). At the New York Botanical Gardens last weekend, we saw an incredible hothouse display of Japanese chrysanthemums, as well as some fantastic carved pumpkins.

Pumpkins are, of course, a massive part of the autumnal decoration tradition. They are not just about Halloween by any means. Quite often you will see displays of giant pumpkins, gourds and squashes outside people's houses, together with a corn dolly or two. (If you want to combine pumpkins and 'mums', there are are 'mums' in jack-o-lantern style pots you can buy). Every town has a 'Pumpkin Patch' or two where you go to select your pumpkin or twelve. You can get a Pumpkin spiced latte at Starbucks (which I haven't actually dared try - it just doesn't sound right to me).

Decorating one's table in an autumnal/harvest style is de rigeur - I am now the proud owner of pumpkin candleholders and an 'autumn harvest' tablecloth. Chances are your children will produce some attractive pumpkin-style craft from school, too (pictured below is Littleboy 1's offering from last year, which I rather love).

Fall is also about apples galore. Whereas in the UK we might go apple picking in the back garden, here, there is a whole industry devoted to going to an apple orchard, usually with a 'hayride' thrown in and some apple cider. The latter is not your Strongbow or Scrumpy - that is known as 'hard cider' in the US - but instead a pulpy apple juice, sold in huge vats and on offer at farmers' markets, fairs and the like. It can be served hot or cold. In the shops and farmers' markets, there are fresh apples from upstate New York. It took me a while to get to know the different varieties, as they don't have, for example, Cox's or Bramley's out here, and don't seem to differentiate so much between cooking and eating apples, but if you pick the right kind, they are just right at the moment.

So, while others are bemoaning the end of summer (New Yorkers love to complain about the weather just as much as the Brits, by the way), I'm a fully paid up fan of Fall. I'm currently unearthing my sweaters, loving the lack of biting insects, and looking forward to the turning of the leaves (following, as always, the Foliage report in the New York Times). And after that? Well, there's always ski-ing....

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Clearly I have Republican squirrels

Around this time of year in America, little blue or red signs start appearing on roadsides, on trees and all over people's lawns, urging us to cast our votes for local politicians. Election Day is looming (something I am not particularly thrilled about, because it means the kids are off school, but naturally it is NOT a public holiday, so I am supposed to be working).

While there's no obviously Presidential election this year (I can't wait to see what next year is like), we are being exhorted to vote for County legislators, police commissioners, town controllers and all kinds of legal positions including Supreme Court judges. The 'lawn sign' is an equivalent of you poster in the window saying 'Vote Labour' or 'Vote Conservative', but they are much more ubiquitous, as are car stickers.

I find it all slightly meaningless, because I can't vote due to not being a citizen, but this year I actually know somebody who is standing in a local election - the mother of one of the boys' friends. She's very nice, and a Democrat, so when I bumped into her recently I explained that while I wasn't allowed to vote for her, I wished her all the best. So she asked me if I wanted to put up a lawn sign, and I agreed. When in Rome and all that. (My German friend, on seeing me carrying the thing, teased me: "Finally, you have Arrived!")

Well, the sign was up on my lawn for a total of 48 hours. Coming back from the shops on Saturday, I noticed that it seemed to have been ripped in half, and was hanging forlornly off its poles. There was no sign of anyone nearby, except for some kids playing with a hockey stick and a rather guilty-looking squirrel that was running away, with what looked like a piece of cardboard hanging from its jaws.

So now I don't know what to think. Was this the work of furious new neighbours, outraged that I had dared to put a political sign on the lawn just weeks after moving in, however discreetly placed in the corner (I notice there are no others in our street)? Had the kids had been using it as a hockey goal? Or (sinister music starts to play) do I have Republican squirrels?

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Music practice - where do you start?

The Littleboys have started piano lessons.

I have to say, week 1 did not go well, at least from Littleboy 1's point of view. It was probably my fault; we were in the middle of the Move, so I picked him up from school, rushed him down to the New House (which we were in the process of moving into) then off to the lesson. So he was both tired and overexcited - a devilish combination with him - and spent most of the first lesson banging on the piano and not listening to the teacher whatsoever. I was mortified, even though the nice East European teacher insisted she was 'used to it'.

The next week, I bribed him with a cookie from the bakery afterwards if he behaved - and he was much better. It's gradually improved; in fact last week he made huge progress, and is now able to bash out a little tune and even draw a treble clef. (Little digression: did you know that in America, they don't talk about crotchets, quavers, minims and the rest? It's all half notes, quarter notes etc. I had assumed this musical terminology was universal, but apparently it's just British).

Littleboy 2 was the keener of the two to play, and his first lesson went well - he listened, did what he was asked and by the end of the half hour was able to identify Middle C. Since then, he's also made some progress - but has also decided that practicing is really not for him. He tends to announce "I'm tired," and put his thumb in his mouth when they idea is mooted (despite having been running around two seconds earlier).

Herein lies the problem - when to find time for piano practice, and how to get them in the right mood? Now I am no Tiger Mother, and distinctly have memories myself of trying to get out of piano practice (and particularly 'cello practice - I played until the age of 16, not particularly well). In fact I even recall taping myself playing for 10 minutes, then sitting reading a comic while the tape played for another 10 minutes, craftily adding up to my 20 minutes allotted practice time. But even I appreciate that they are not going to get very far with playing an instrument if they don't practice - and The Doctor, who is a good musician, says we just have to make time somehow.

It's hard. Littleboy 1 has homework and reading every day now, and if we do another activity after school, it's supper time and homework time before you know it. When we have a free afternoon, it's either a playdate or I just tend to let them play for a bit before homework/suppertime starts- you can't force two lively small boys to come straight in from the schoolbus and start practising the piano. I also know that if you force children to do something they're not in the mood for, they are really going to hate it - and who wants that? We want them to enjoy music, not resent it. When we do have enough time, (for example, yesterday when they had no school due to Columbus Day), the practice went much better - but fitting it in around the normal week is more difficult.

So, I'd appreciate any tips on piano/instrument practice for smaller kids. What time of day works best? Do you have to bribe them (and if so with what?). Do you make them do it every day, or less often - maybe just at the weekend? And how do you strike the balance between being disciplined and making it fun?

Thursday, 6 October 2011

A whale of a time

St Vincent, The Caribbean, 1997.
The Doctor and I go on our first whale-watching trip. This consists of a rickety small boat sailed by a random but genial guy we meet near the beach. He serves us lots of rum punch. We see dolphins. The boat slows down so we can watch them and starts to rock from side to side. I am seasick. Practically on top of the dolphins. We see no whales.

Kaikoura, New Zealand, 2004.
This is meant to be one of the best places in the world to see whales, and we've booked the trip up in advance. But that night, the weather turns bad and strong winds almost decimate our campsite. The whale watching trip is cancelled. We go on a tour of a local vineyard instead. With a flight the next day, we continue our journey to Christchurch. We see no whales.

Fast forward to...Cape Cod, last weekend.

Some friends had regaled us with tales of their wonderful whale watching trip two years ago. They persuaded us to go with them again, for the weekend. It was tempting; I knew the boys would love to see whales (as would I). But The Doctor and I warned them: "We are jinxed. If you're with us, we won't see any whales."

Even so, the boat trip guaranteed a sighting, with the promise of a free trip next time if you failed to see a whale. As we headed out into the blue Atlantic ocean off Provincetown, we still weren't convinced. It seemed to be taking a very long time to get out to where the whales were apparently hanging out today. (I could tell The Doctor was wondering why on earth we had driven six and a half hours to the Cape, then set off on a three hour boat trip with three small children who were already getting bored; plus Littleboy 1 was starting to look rather green around the gills).

But, suddenly, there we were. Finally, we got to see a whale in the wild. And not just one. At least 20 humpback whales, dipping and diving close enough to our boat that we could see shiny black hides, their gaping mouths, not to mention those majestic tails.

The Littleboys were ecstatic; grabbing my camera to take pictures, constantly crying out as they spotted the spouting in the sea that appeared just before the whale did. We had half an hour of whale-spotting, then headed back to land, the boys falling asleep with happy exhaustion. So it really was worth it - even the $25 parking fine when we returned to Provincetown (we hadn't realised the trip would take so long) failed to dampen our spirits.

For bedtime we had one of the Littleboys' favourite stories, The Snail and The Whale by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. I love this book as much as they do - it's beautifully written and illustrated and it resonates with me, as it's really about wanderlust. It's about the tiny sea snail who has an 'itchy foot' and is not content with sticking to a rock with the rest of the snails. She wants to travel the world, and hitches a lift on the tail of the humpback whale. After many adventures they return; the other snails say "How time's flown! And haven't you grown!"

And the whale and the snail

Told their wonderful tale

Of shimmering ice and coral caves

And shooting stars and enormous waves

And how the snail so small and frail

With her looping, curling silvery trail

Saved the life of the humpback whale.

Then the humpback whale

Held out his tail

And on crawled snail after snail after snail

And they sang to the sea as they all set sail

On the tail of the grey blue humpback whale.