28 February, 2006

the plague and a party

I shouldn't even joke about the plague, what with all the dire
warnings about bird flu, but John has been down with the flu that ate London, everyone seems to have it. Half the teachers at school, several of his colleagues at Reuters. High fever, terrible cough, you name it. Unheard of for him to stay in bed for three days, but he did. So he was fortunate enough to miss the last day of ice skating at Canary Wharf on Saturday! I had arranged to take Anna, so
the Linszes and we met up at a pizza place in Baker Street and munched happily, then I spirited the girls onto the Jubilee line, SO FAR down into the bowels of the underground system that it kind of creeps me out, and off to Canary Wharf. From that optimistic beginning, everything simply spiraled downward. There was no doubt, as soon as we arrived, that it was far too cold to skate outdoors. The wind was simply wicked, being right on the river as we were. But we had bought those tickets, and damn it, we were going to skate. The girls' hands were somewhere between blue and purple, and most irritatingly, they seemed to be positive magnets for large adults who couldn't stay on their feet. Six-foot-tall men were clutching at them to stay upright. They stopped to have hot chocolate, and it was hard going to get them
back out. "We aren't even skating," Avery wailed, "we're being SKATED." A girl whizzed past me screaming, "I'm not even trying to move."

Finally, mercifully, our hour of martyrdom was at an end and we
repaired to the cafe where they had crepes filled with something noxious (at least not tuna and sweetcorn) and I perused a business newspaper, since it was the only thing there. Dropped Anna off at her house. Poor John just a lump of misery.

Sunday was Angela's Big Birthday Party. Again cold as anything, we
walked down the Marylebone High Street to a little road behind the shops and up to Angela's house. I met a lot of parents I had not seen before, including Jade's elfish and friendly father.
class="mobile-post">I picked up Anna and Avery and we walked home amid a shower of
information about the party. Two white stretch limousines, Fanta and Sprite to their hearts' content, and a trip all around Trafalgar Square, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, the London Eye. "People thought we were celebrities and they videoed us!!" Fever pitch of excitement. Home to pitiful John curled up coughing up various

Yesterday was his birthday but we have decided to postpone it until he feels better. I completely exhausted myself unpacking and putting together the 90-piece limestone brick sculpture installation by Mary Judge. It has reposed in a pile of moving boxes in the dining room for so long that it began to look like an art installation itself, but I finally bit the bullet and set it up. Since it has a powdered-pigment drawing of intense precision on the top and sides, it
can be put together in one, and only one, exact way. So I hunted through the boxes until I found the inner, blank bricks, then the labeled upper layer with the drawing on them, and after I would say two hours of backbreaking labor, it was done. It adds so much to the room. Worth the trouble. I got a call yesterday from an artist who is willing to hang all our pictures, after his exhibition opens on Friday and he has some time on his hands. I was curious about what sort of art he made, so he sent me his mission statement: he paints distended brassieres with pigment and then makes monoprints of them. Lots of Lacanian theory, references to both Freuds (Siggy and Lucian), de rigeuer in the art world of the 1980s but I would have thought a bit passe now. I think I'll pass on his opening reception on Friday, but as long as he can pound a nail and hang a picture, he's the man.

Today I'm hot on the email trail for a pony for Avery. Yesterday over chocolate cake after school we discussed the requirements, not more than 14 hands 2 inches, a good jumper but not too aggressive. Actually I'm a bit more focused on the potential commute to
Herefordshire, but that's neither here nor there. Wish us luck.

18 February, 2006

coda to our evening back home

I forgot how nice it is to have a little girl spend the night with Avery!  The sound of little voices saying, "now let's pretend..." and a completely torn-apart bedroom because secretly they've arranged their sleeping quarters on the floor of the guest room, and the complex arrangements of special bears, blankets, being bullied to brush their teeth.  Now they've been tucked in and sung to and kissed goodnight and we can still hear them chattering away.  John says that as he passed their room he heard, "Shh, my daddy's coming."  Who knows.

And I forgot to say that when I put my chicken in the oven, I surrounded it with little cherry tomatoes and wedges of fennel.  Because then, all you have to do after you eat your luscious roast chicken is to throw the entire contents (which means all the parts of the chicken you didn't carve for dinner, plus the juices and tomatoes, and everything) of the foil-lined dish into a stockpot, cover it with water, and simmer high for a good two hours.  Again, you do nothing!  Just wait.  If you pass by and the little bones are sticking up out of the water, add water.  I have always loved the Laurie Colwin (my favorite writer of all time) story of a boyfriend who, while cooking together, asked her what to do with the soup next. When she told him to 'add water to cover,' he asked, "What cover?"  Just goes to show, one person's basic bit of knowledge is another person's coded message.  So I just put the stockpot out the door of our little garden entrance, smelling like absolute ambrosia.  Tomorrow morning I can skim the fat off, heat it again, pour it through a sieve into another pot, add rice, and have dinner.

OK, the girls are slowing down and so am I.  Good night.

back home again

Before I tell you about our sojourn in Rome, which already feels like a dream, I have to report the ultimate comfort food dinner.  And it's EASY.  Allow 2 1/2 hours start to finish, and the beauty of it is, most of the time you don't have to do anything! 

First, get a good large roasting chicken, around 4-5 pounds.  Buy four or so good big boiling potatoes, a bunch of broccoli, two lemons, a head of garlic and two large onions (this is for two adults and a child, you can imagine why my proportions are such).  A bunch of rosemary, some grated parmesan cheese, about six strips of bacon, some rough salt, some not-great white wine, a half pint of half and half and two sticks of butter.  Make sure you have some olive oil, and enough aluminum (or aluminium, as they say here) foil to cover two oven-proof dishes.  Preheat your oven to 425.

Now is the easy part.  You line a dish big enough for your chicken with foil.  Lay down some sprigs of rosemary.  Put the chicken on top and sprinkle liberally with salt.  Drape with the bacon.  Cut the lemons in quarters and stuff one whole lemon into the chicken.  Pour some white wine around the chicken and stick it in the oven.  It's done for 2 solid hours, nothing to do with it AT ALL.  While it's cooking, peel your potatoes and put them in salted water on the stove.  Cut the broccoli in florets and throw them in a skillet with olive oil and salt.  Don't turn it on.  Now, cut the top half off your two onions.  Peel off the skin from the tops and chop the onion bits.  Chop three cloves of garlic too and saute the two chopped bits in some olive oil.  Add some chopped rosemary.  When they're soft, add maybe a third of a cup of half and half, and a good handful of parmesan cheese and let them melt.  Take it off the stove, and with a spoon scoop out most of the insides of the onions.  Save for something else.  Spoon the cheesy stuff into the onions and put them in a dish lined with foil.  Now you have a good hour and a half or so to watch curling on the Olympics and hope your child's college education results in something a bit less... absurd.

Half an hour before the chicken's done, turn on the potatoes and put the onions in the oven.  While they cook, saute the broccoli really slowly.  Melt a good stick of butter with hot milk.  Now you need somebody to help you.  While you mash the potatoes, the helper can take the chicken out of the oven and carve it up.  You can be stirring the broccoli.  As everything else is on the table, take the onions out, which will be bubbly and brown.  IMPORTANT: eat at least one bite of EVERYTHING together.  A bite of chicken, a bite of broccoli, spearing some cheesy onion and dipping it all in mashed potato as you go. 


We had this tonight with some really awful red wine, sorry, while Avery's friend Anna was here spending the night.  We decided to spare them the wine.  Last I saw they were playing some elaborate game that involved Avery crawling on all fours with a long scarf around her neck as a leash, barking.  The cats are intrigued to say the least.

Rome.  What to say?  We arrived around dusk, Avery had her first enormous gelato, a creme caramel, and was an instant convert.  Fueled by sugar, we decided to walk to the Vatican, since we could see it from the river's edge so close to our little albergo.  It was quite a walk!  Close to two miles, I'd say, but it set the tone for what Avery feels was our Marathon Trip to Rome, since we walked probably six miles a day each day.  The Vatican was only tantalizing in the darkness, albeit lit up, so we determined to go back the next day and went back to our cute little neighborhood, Campo dei Fiori, to get a perfectly adequate but average pasta dinner out and be grateful for food.  Avery got super tired and I made the colossal error of believing that she could find the way home, so we left John to settle the bill with whatever the waiter's equivalent opposite of "eyes in the back of his head" is, as in, he could see nothing of our attempts to get the bill!  She and I ventured out and promptly had no idea where we were, so we clung to each other like babes in the forest, finally asking directions from a nice taxi guy, just as John walked up to us resignedly, knowing we had got completely lost.  Incredible but true.

Thursday we had a lovely breakfast at the hotel, and then we did everything!  It was alternately raining a lot, and raining a little, but since we're from London this seemed perfectly normal, so we persevered.  We were absolutely determined, after the evening before, to go to the Vatican and see what all the fuss was about, so off we went.  A surprisingly quick very long queue, and then to the Basilica, about which I knew embarrassingly little considering that only 15 years ago I was deep in a PhD in art history, a good part of which was to be on the Italian Renaissance.  I excuse myself on the grounds that everything I knew about Michelangelo has been replaced by an encyclopedic knowledge of children's picture books and cookery principles.  We took the lift (so funny, the ticket specified "round trip"!!) and then walked the supplementary 320 steps after that.  I think the warning that people with heart conditions should "consider" whether they want to make the trip is completely inadequate!  Anyone not really, really fit and THIN would be challenged by the teeny tiny winding staircase that leaned precipitously toward what I realized, with huge fright, was the inside of the DOME itself.  Eeek!  We made it to the top and Avery's claustrophobia and my fear of heights were conquered by the luscious view of Rome.  Stunning.  Avery was amused to see the backs of the sculptures we had seen from the ground, complete with a pigeon on every head.  Lovely.

We were gutted, as the English would say, to find that the Sistine Chapel was "chiuso" on Thursdays, but the upshot of my excellent Italian accent was that the rest of the guard's explanation was completely a mystery.  Possibly it will open again someday in the future, but his comments were far too extensive to be of any help.  I should have been flattered that he thought I could understand.  Whew.  From there, we headed close to home for more gelato for Avery and a nap for John.  I realized I was peckish myself, and ventured for a snack I had seen from the window of a cute wine bar: tiny little tartlets filled with everything under the sun, each for a euro!  I chose a crabmeat with lemon and mayonnaise, and a langoustine with aioli and parsley.  Heavenly, could have eaten twenty of them, with caviar (OK, maybe not that), eggplant, roasted red peppers, sundried tomatoes, prawns in lemon mousseline.  MMMmmm!  We went back and woke up John and headed out to try to find two major sights, both from "Roman Holiday" and on the must-see list from my mother and sister.  We found the Trevi Fountain without too much trouble, and it was worth the trip.  A grey, heavy, leaden sky, with the marble horses rearing and the mist from the fountain soaking the tourists, of whom there were a surprising number given the season and the rain.  Lovely.  Then to the Spanish Steps, YAWN!  So much smaller than I expected!  But we got a picture of Avery to rival anything Audrey Hepburn had to offer, and decided to call it a day.  However, on the way home we stumbled on the Pantheon, which set off all sorts of examination alarms in my post-graduate head, and the glorious Piazza Navonna, such gorgeous fountains.  The find of the day: a leather good store where for about 25 dollars, John got his birthday present, a black wallet of buttery softness with his initials stamped on it, and I got a black belt with a silver buckle, and Avery got a tiny little backpack to clip onto her backpack from school, as all the girls do.  I committed my usual error of figuring out how to ask a really complex question, and then not having the language skills to understand the answer!  "Should we wait for the engraving, or come back for it?" I asked, all full of myself and my linguisitic aplomb.  "Blah blah blah blah!" was the response, only in Italian, and I was lost!

After a welcome cocktail and hot water bottle break at the hotel, we dashed out to meet my friend Michele Bambling and her family at their apartment near the Colosseum.  Her husband Bill is the Wall Street Journal bureau chief for Europe and Africa and was full of alarming and entertaining stories about his work.  Their two children, Jackson and Adele, are just younger than Avery and she was happy to relax in a Roman apartment and play dollhouse while we adults had a drink and caught up.  Michele and I used to talk "nihonga," a Japanese painting technique that she was studying for her PhD and which was the lynchpin of my wonderful gallery painter Makoto Fujimura's style.  We repaired to a pizzeria that simply defies description in any American context.  Filled to capacity with Roman natives, it was warm and spicy on a rainy night.  We settled for a selection of four pizzas and pounced on them all, as the children had basic margheritas (tomato and mozzarella).  Our choices were all piled on the thinnest and crispiest of crusts.  We had funghi and porcini with provolone, carciofini (the tiny Roman baby artichokes), beef carpaccio (although I think it was aged rather than simply raw) with argula and parmesan, and my personal favorite, a very unusual combination of radicchio, anchovy cream and shaved grana padano (a superior parmesan).  Quite easily the most stimulating and enjoyable combination of tastes I have ever had.  Glorious!  Lots of fun to catch up with the family and imagine what's happening in Tribeca, which feels a million miles away.  Dropoff and pickup at PS 234 together is like a dream that happened to someone else.  Their apartment is a glory of simplicity: old, old tiles on the floor, carved plaster mouldings on the ceiling, floor to ceiling windows.  It's tempting to chuck it all here and join them.  Home exhausted!

Friday we decided to tackle the Colosseum, but we had asked Bill the night before to point out on a map how to find my sister's other must-do, the "Mouth of Truth."  It took some doing to find under scaffolding, but we found it.  John was disbelieving that we were going to brave the enormous tourist line to put out hands in a dumb stone mouth, but we were adamant.  My single favorite photograph of my mother is of her about to do just that, at age 20 or so, so sweet.  So we waited, and in the end, the sight of Avery faking her bitten-off hand inside her sweater cuff is the best photo of the trip.  Hilarious!  From there to the Colosseum, which just amazed us all with its scale, of course.  Avery was quite able to regale us with the complete story of Romulus and Remus, and lots of other Roman trivia.  And thank goodness, there were KITTIES.  Jill told us there would be! 

We were all wilting, so we repaired after some wrong turns to the restaurant Michele had wanted to take us to but was full: the Trattoria La Domenica, a tucked-away glory no one would find without knowing, where the menu was entirely in Italian as was the staff, so Avery went for safety and ordered fettucine alla ragu, I convinced John to go for something alla calamaretti, which I was pretty sure was baby calamari, and I myself ordered something bearing the word "vitello", and since nothing with veal can be bad, I felt pretty secure.  Luckily, I like liver, because it was that of a calf!  Lovely, though, grilled with lemon.  Such fun to find a little unknown neighborhood place.  Across the street was the glorious Basilica San Clemente, where you can descend, if you're brave enough, deep, DEEP into the ground to see early Roman frescoes and columns and fresh water springs.   A bit of a diversion, in its cold dampness, to the hot sunshine outside. 

From there, we headed across the river to the little neighborhood of Trastavere, where I had thought our hotel was to be, to find a darling bookstore Avery desperately needed, the Almost Corner Bookshop, for supplies to get her though the trip home.  This place is an ivy-covered oasis in the twisting, mossy, slightly menacing but tempting streets of this artsy area, owned by a man of indeterminate accent (maybe South African?  maybe New Zealand?) who told us who he had come upon the shop six years ago and fallen in love with it.  Shortly after his visit, back home in Saudi Arabia (?) he received a phone call that the owner wanted to sell.  Can you imagine simply lifting up your life and moving to Rome to run a bookstore?  I have to remind myself that this is a rhetorical question.  Avery came away with a huge pile of books, and then we visited the gorgeous church, Santa Maria in Trastevere, and sat in the piazza listening to a guitarist and tambourine player, and then realized we needed to head to the airport. 

What a whirlwind.  We walked, talked (I so enjoyed airing my bad Italian!), ate our heads off, enjoyed each other's company enormously, and realized that we've got to do this a lot while we're here.  Within a two-hour radius by plane we can hear 10 languages at least being spoken, and I for one would like to join them, however badly.

The theatre, and the Continent!

Prepare yourselves for a long message from me today!  Maybe read half, make yourself a cup of tea, and come back later.  So much has been happening here and there in our lives.

Last weekend we had the excitement of a day out across the river, and an evening at the National Theatre.  Since seeing it in several movies and television shows, I was really hot to cross the Millenium Bridge, a foot-traffic-only slimline affair crossing just past the Blackfriars Bridge.  So we collected Avery from her sleepover with Anna, and got ourselves bundled up to go out for our adventure.  We took a long tube ride to the nearest spot on our side of the Thames to the bridge, and then walked toward it, being totally surprised to find ourselves face to face with the enormous spectacle of St. Paul's Cathedral.  Part of it is under refurbishment, so in the typically clever English way, they have painted an exact architectural replica of the Cathedral on the canvas sheeting covering the scaffolding!  Odd, really, kind of surreal.  Avery was terrified of the bridge, for some strange reason, although it does bear a sort of insubstantial delicacy.  You can see forever from it, to Tower Bridge on one side and nearly to the Houses of Parliament on the other.  We descended finally, and I broke my vow of No Art and we all went to see the exquisite and massive Rachel Whiteread installation called "Unilever", a series of piled up plastic casts (as she always casts the inside of a negative space) reaching nearly to the ceiling in places, of this former power station, known as the New Tate Modern.  Really impressive and fun to chase each other around the piles, some random, some very precise and symmetrical.  It reminded me of the divine Tara Donovan show of some years ago at Apex Art on Seventh Avenue in New York.  Never forgot her rooms full of tar paper, tiny pencil cities, and drinking straws.  Loved it.

Then really super pizza and salad at a warm, cozy spot called, with a singular lack of felicity, The Gourmet Pizza Company, on the river as well.  We ended up at a booksellers' just closing up and snapped up a copy of the history of King's College, Avery's sister senior school!  Thence to the theatre, for "Once in a Lifetime," the famed David Suchet vehicle I had been hearing so much about.  Since we all love him as Agatha Christie's "Poirot," and John and I had fond memories of seeing him onstage in "Timon of Athens" our last lifetime in London, it was really something to ancitipate.  The play itself, from the 30s by George Kaufman, was over the top ridiculous with hilarious gags and extravagant costumes, but Suchet was worth the whole price of admission.  Gone was Poirot's precision and elegance, replaced with a sort of Anthony Trollope-ish wheeling and dealing business man, only set to music!  Loved it.

Then a short couple of days of vacation, spent mostly watching the Olympics and one daytime adventure, a skating trip at the outdoor ring in Canary Wharf, the new development across the Thames where Reuters is based.  It alternated foxy brilliant skies and raindrops, but hey: we were ice skating outdoors in London, so what could we expect?  Amazingly John was able to take out an hour of his busy day and join us, and afterward for hands-down the worst lunch I have ever tried to eat: hot tuna and sweetcorn in some poisonous bread.  UURGH!  Go there for the skating, by all means, but skip the tuna panini!

Home to make microwave popcorn (thank you Alyssa!) and watch the incomparable Audrey Hepburn in "Roman Holiday," in preparation for our trip!  Avery loved the film as I knew she would.

So crack of dawn Wednesday we were up in the dark to get to Liverpool Station for the train to Stansted airport.  Never heard of it?  Neither had I, but it houses a lot of the new budget airlines, one of which we were flying, Ryanair.  I was slightly disturbed to read big headlines the day before where Ryanair refused to comment on undercover investigations of their appalling treatment of staff and crew… but since I have so bravely got over my fear of flying, I threw caution to the winds.  Well, we get to the station, huff and puff our way onto the express train, feeling quite smug, only to realize that we had no… passports.  Oh, John had his, the experienced business traveller.  But it never occurred to me to ferret out Avery's and mine!  A last vestige of the baby wife, I suppose.  Nothing for it than to go home, put them in our bag, and wait till the next flight, hoping we could get on it.  Back out, on the train, and sure enough, with a little penalty we were OFF! 

Can you imagine that in less time than it takes for my parents to fly from Hartford, Connecticut to Indianapolis, Indiana, we were in ROME?  I couldn't believe it.  A very racy ride from the little Ciampino airport (where scary incompetent airlines are forced to land, what fun), to our hotel in central Rome, in the via del Mascherone, just off the Campo dei Fiori.  And there our adventure began.  We are about to land right now (on our way home, completely knackered!), so more tomorrow after a good night's sleep in our own beds!  Buona notte…

10 February, 2006

almost forgot Avery's achievements!

Avery had two red letter milestones this week: she was awarded the
coveted Pen License from her beloved Mrs. Bickley, which puts her in
the category of gulls allowed to use pen instead of pencil, with all
the rights and privileges thereto! The License itself must still be
laminated, but the privileges have been extended already.

Furthermore, she received her Level One skating badge, the one she
earned last week on her sick day, unfortunately, missing hearing her
name read out at assembly. The actual badge is red and impressive,
and needs to be attached to something. Apparently some of her
colleagues attach them to their backpacks, but in that case it had
better be iron-on so I don't perforate my finger trying to get through
layers of ballistic nylon. I think better is to sew it on her games
jersey. We'll work out the finer points over the weekend, at which
time I must also sew a missing button on her overcoat, a task that
occurs to me precisely once per day: as I'm buttoning her up in the
morning. Then I don't think about it again till the next morning.

I just got off the phone with my family in Connecticut, everyone
gathered together (except Joel, the hedonistic boy, having a massage!)
to enjoy Jane's exploits. How we miss them all.

the school lunch dilemma

It seems a universally accepted truth: lunch at school does not count as food. OK, it's hampered from the get-go by the sad fact that the street where the school is located, has some arcane prohibition against food preparation in
commercial, non-residential spaces. So Avery's poor school gets its food from its big sister senior school in Harley Street. I already think it's tempting fate to cook in the great medical street of London (you know how in stories someone's always
saying lugubriously, "I'll go up to town and see if someone in Harley Street can do anything to help me"). So the "food" is placed in a van, although I like to exaggerate and say it's wheeled along on a white enamel trolley alongside sterilised medical instruments, and taken all the way around the corner to Avery's school, which does not have even reheating capacity. You can imagine.

Monday is generally what Avery calls "bendy chicken," pointing out that chicken in its usual forms does not bend. Then Tuesday could be shepherd's pie, that wonderful concoction, when done properly, of a sort of bolognese sauce covered with mashed potatoes and baked. At school it's apparently not quite of that description. "There's something slimy and red all over it and it MOVES," Avery asserts. Then Wednesday might be pasta, just penne, with no salt or sauce or anything else. Thursday could be lamb, Avery says sliced super thin and it's grey. Oh, speaking of slicing, I read the funniest joke in one of the tabloids yesterday. "How many men does it take to wallpaper a house? Four, but they must be sliced very, very thin." Mmmm.

Friday is fish, of course, being a nice Church of England school. Then there's allegedly only warm, dirty water to drink, with a fly floating in it once, and never forgotten. Apparently early on in the school's history my friend Emily appproached Mrs D about, er, um, the food, and the fact that no one at ALL eats anything for lunch. Mrs D was completely taken aback and said, "But my dear, the food is delicious!" We have a problem.

So yesterday over a consoling slice of apple pie after school, Avery was telling me all about the three times a day they pray. She demonstrated her pose with her little hands clasped in front of her and an unbelievably innocent look on her face. "First we pray at assembly, then before lunch, then after lunch. Before lunch we say, 'for what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly
thankful." "But Avery," I said, "don't you feel a bit odd, hoping to be thankful for such awful food that you never eat?" "You know, I DO! But I have to say it. It's just a white lie." "Well, maybe you could say, 'for what Lily is about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful,' because you say Lily actually likes the food."

"Yes," she said, warming to the theme, "or I could say, sort of under my breath, 'for what I'm about to put in my mouth because Miss Clarke makes me, but then I'll spit it in my napkin, may the Lord make us truly thankful." We finally decided she can be thankful for having been offered food. That works.

Fully half the teachers were ill this week (maybe they ate lunch one day). So apparently some controlled chaos reigned. I went to read with my kindergarteners and the Upper Kindergarten assistant teacher was clearly not in her element without trusty colleague by her side. "I'm flying solo today, so I'm AWFULLY glad you're here!"

Well! I just got off the phone with my friend Becky, and Avery is having her first London sleepover! It was half day today for the start of the winter break, and Becky and I took the girls to Villandry for some ruinously expensive farfalle bolognese (have to say it was really good, though), and then Avery went home with Anna to play. Becky says they're having the time of their lives, laughing their heads off (it really reminds me of the way Avery plays with Cici, totally goofy and out of control), and could she stay. So she'll stop by here on her way to pick her youngest at a playdate and get Avery's beloved Bumper without whom she'd rather not sleep, and perhaps Abby Bear and Chestnut the Pony. And John and I can finally have my birthday dinner by ourselves! Peking duck without having to feed Avery ahead of time, since she is a conscientious objector to duck, on
cuteness principles. What a nice surprise!

Just to keep things consistent here, the washer had an adventure today. I saw that the cycle had stopped and there was an error message flashing, so I looked it up in the maintenance manual and the
instructions said, "The drain pump has become blocked. Place a shallow dish under the pump, open the lid and drain the water out, taking care to mop up any extra water with a towel promptly." This last phrase should have clued me in. Maybe if the shallow dish had the square footage of Waterloo, Iowa, I could have taken care of the
situation, but as it was I held a dish under the pump, opened the lid, and let me tell you, Niagara Falls was no rival. Honestly, galllons and gallons onto the laundry floor where it slid slyly under the boiler, who's already been through enough. I shoved the lid shut and mopped frantically with all the dirty laundry on top of the washer, but to no avail. I began to have visions of electrocuting myself on the boiler, so I just shut the door and left. When I got back from coffee, I decided that since the boiler was standing on little feet, maybe it would be OK, and most of the water seemed to have gotten soaked in one thing or another. Urrrrggh. The problem, though, seems to have righted itself without any further intervention (probably the thing blocking the pump is now under the boiler), so disaster averted.

I'll let you know how the sleepover goes!

08 February, 2006

my birthday

A sunny day! The first in ages. The British, who are famous for
being perpetually astonished by the weather every day, were well and
truly stunned today to see the sun.
Spent the day walking, walking, walking, as I decided to see "The
Constant Gardener"
, with my old crush Ralph Fiennes before he was
supplanted, and GEE! Much too scary. Really violent. But a good
plot, and he was lovely, but really too scary for mushy me. Tried to
walk home but got hopelessly lost and saw Buckingham Palace from fully
three different sides, several times! Hailed a taxi and told the cab
driver it was time to put my case in the hands of the professionals.
He sympathized and said that it had taken him three years to "do the
knowledge," the incredibly precise training London cabbies do so they
know places like Dunraven Street, a cool two blocks long, when a New
York driver could easily ask you how to get to Broadway and Spring and
MEAN IT. Becky brought Avery home from her playdate, with gorgeous
flowers for my birthday! And a really sweet note. She is truly a
good friend, even though both Anna and Avery lost their homework,
about a "papillon" that I heard a lot about at dinner, feeling good
that unlike with maths homework, I actually enjoy remembering French.

Avery has a new babysitter! The gorgeous Katie from Chicago, here on
a University of Notre Dame scholarship for finance, sharing a flat
with three girls in the Edgware Road, tall, sophisticated, lovely and
friendly. So shocking to find she's turning 21 this weekend. I am
trying to remember 21 and failing! To think she could be my child
quite easily. She will pick Avery up each Tuesday at school and
they'll have some adventure. Guess what the first adventure is Avery
has planned? To come home and meet the cats. I think the strain of
moving and adjusting comes out in funny places with Avery. Every once
in awhile she reveals how hard it has been, but not directly. "Anna
has not had trouble putting her earrings in every weekend, like I
have, but then she has not had to unpack." As though Avery has done a
thing to unpack since about day two. But she must be absorbing the
strain. If only through her earlobes.

Our two big pieces of news: we are going to see David Suchet in a
play, "Once in a Lifetime," at the National Theatre on Saturday! And
two, we're going to Rome for Avery's half term break next Wednesday.
Today dropoff was rife with discussions of destinations: Zermatt,
Tenerife, the Seychelles. Ah, the drama!

I have to say how much my package full of microwave popcorn from
Alyssa meant... reminded me that no matter how cosmopolitan a city,
you need your friends when you need your friends. And a People
magazine! How I miss her... Had a long talk with my Uncle Kenny,
staying with my parents this evening, and must try to get ahold of
some of that Reuters' guy's tea for him, he's such a tea buff. They
all seem far, far away tonight...

07 February, 2006

a poem from Avery

Before I forget, here on my desk is a framed poem from Avery, that she wrote for me on New Year's Eve, John says completely unprompted. Of course it made me cry.

Dear Mommy
A year has passed,
A lot has happened,
Let's say some last
New York, the barn,
Things that have knitted together,
Loosely, with yarn/
There's something to say.
It's Goodbye.
But be happy, don't cry!
Hello to England,
Oh my, oh my!
Lasso our life,
It's wild!
And don't forget, adventure and happiness are man and wife.

I reallly like that little girl... I hope she's feeling better at school and can enjoy her skating lesson this afternoon.

the good, the bad, and the still-under-warranty

Where to begin?  John is at an "off-site" in Sussex for a couple of days, even though I keep reminding him that "off-site" is not a destination.  Avery is at school, somewhat reluctantly still not feeling quite her best after her weekend's bout with fever, and I?  I am sitting at my desk surrounded by boxes of books, unpaid bills from increasingly impatient American creditors who don't seem to realize I don't care about them anymore (but of course I'll be good and settle up Ladybug's vet tab and the Connecticut phone bill, etc.).  Mostly, however, my function today is what it has been since Friday, that is to answer the doorbell constantly and let in one after another alleged repairman to "take a look" at the stove.  Call it a cooker, call it a hob, it just doesn't work.  And last night after Avery woke up from a very odd nap after school, all hot and sweaty, I went down to her bathroom to draw her a nice, refreshing bath, only... there was no hot water.  I realized as well that it was quite cold throughout the flat.  With a sense of sinking inevitability, I went to look at the boiler, and yep, gone.  Dead as a doornail.  I called up the landlord's office, the mysterious Grosvenor Estates who hold us in such expensive thrall, and the young man on the other end eventually came back to me and said a repair guy would be there around 11.  " P.M.??" I gasped.  "Well, you see, it is quite late now [six o'clock] and it will take awhile for him to get there."  Where was this guy, Paris?  I said absolutely not and was there a supervisor I could talk to.  "Not at the moment, you see, everyone's left."  But me, his sad little voice implied.  "Well, keep the work order in for FIRST THING in the morning, then," I huffed.  "It's just as well, then, that I can't cook dinner, because I also couldn't clean it up," I said sulkily and on that biting exit line I hung up, wondering what else could go wrong.

An hour or so later, just after John turned up, the repair guy showed up at the door.  Much beringed and spiky-haired, Gavin did not impart confidence.  Sure enough, after an hour or so banging around in the boiler room, he gave up.  "The display panel is on, and then blower is working like crackers, but there doesn't seem to be a flame."  The flame being the essential part to any heating source, we were a bit frustrated.  But the crowning blow: he said, "You know, I should really not have been mucking about under the lid of that thing, not being licensed properly, really."  !!!!

We got Avery settled in her bed anyway, and since her room was freezing, I went to get her an HWB (hot water bottle, of course), but then remembered there was no HW to go in it.  Boiled water in the electric tea kettle, grateful for the first time for what I have always thought was a peculiar obsession with the English, their electric kettles.  Ah well, we settled down to watch a hilarious show on BBC1, "Balderdash and Piffle," where a presenter hunts down the meaning of an obscure word, usually something new and culturally-inspired, and then tries to convince an unbelievably solemn team from the Oxford English Dictionary to put the word in the next edition.  Last night's words were "balti," a Pakistani-inspired way to sauteeing meats in a deep-bottomed pan, and "bingo."  Only in England could such a programme fly in prime time. 

AH!!!  Tony is the man!  This lovely bloke just fixed my boiler!  It was the rare but vicious "internal fuse."  I have now had a complete course in how boilers work, as well as thermostats and timers.  He seemed amazed that I could take it all in, being a dumb American, so I brandished my PhD.  I coaxed him to take a look at the cooker, but as the English say, we had no joy.  Iain, the sweet but lame replacement for my beloved Bob, has gone away disconsolately to order a new cooker from Siemens who are dragging their feet about the warranty.  Grrr.

But I was supposed to start with the "good", wasn't I?  Pessimistic Scandy that I am, I forgot.  I was just feeling sorry for myself yesterday, saddled with laundry, sorting sweaters and fielding repairmen, when it was time to pick Avery up, and although she said she didn't feel very good, this news was overshadowed by the official report from the English Speaking Board, they of the dreaded exam last week, and she earned a "Merit"!  The grades begin with, obviously, "Fail," then go up to "Pass," "Good Pass," "Merit," "High Merit," and the coveted "Distinction."  Of the four categories on the exam, she scored two "Good Passes," a "Merit" and a "Distinction," the last being in the spontaneous question and answer period in which the examiner found her to be "lively, well-informed and articulate."  She is very, very proud.  Added to that, she was mentioned (in her absence) at assembly on Friday for having passed her skating test, for which she will get a cool little badge to put on her cardie.  Very impressive.  What a trouper.  We had ice cream and caulifower soup at Villandry, her favorite snack spot, and the lovely French server asked, "How did your exam go, pet?"  I felt we had passed a mile marker!  We have been remembered and treated like real people.  So Avery showed her the report, and the nice lady brought her two chocolate ladybugs.  Sweet.

Her homework last night was such a revelation, of what she's contending with in the way of cultural adjustment.  "Mummy, this does not make sense at all.  I'm meant to look at these different words and say how they each have different meanings though they sound the same.  But they don't."  There were several groups of words:


Of course in English English they DO sound the same!  She laughed and laughed.  "Coco has the most, most, most POSH accent and I can just hear how these words would sound the same if she said them, in that haughty way she has.  The homophones that aren't homophones to me!"

On the cultural side for me, I've discovered an excellent miniseries on DVD, because of course it stars my crush actor Matthew Macfadyen, but it's well worth seeing for the rest of the stellar cast as well.  It's called "Perfect Strangers," but not to be confused with that awful 1980s sitcom with Bronson Pinchot.  It's the tale of a family reunion where most of the family members have not ever met, and one particular family who's been ostracized, we know not why for a long time.  We see the secrets unfold through the experiences of the main character, Daniel, and it's very complex, rewarding and unexpected.  I haven't seen the end yet because of my hostess duties regarding repairmen and porters, but I shall at lunchtime I think.  Then, I've discovered a very important writer whose name I've always heard but never got around to reading: Nancy Mitford.  I suppose she probably got a rediscovery boost from the film version of "Love in a Cold Climate," which now I want to see.  But I started out with "The Pursuit of Love," and it's laugh-out-loud funny.  Go get it from the library, do.

Then yesterday as I was running to Boots, the chemist, to get a spray bottle for Dorrie to sprinkle John's shirts (I came away with a teeny tiny travel-sized perfume sprayer!  I don't think she thought it as funny as I did, so I'll have to track down a real one this week), I realized all the crowds were looking in the same direction and people were whipping out cell-phone cameras.  I turned in that direction and there, coming down Oxford Street and turning into Portman Street, were perhaps 60 or 80 horses with soldiers in full uniform!  Glorious!  At the risk of looking like a tourist I turned to an obviously native Londoner next to me and said, "OK, I'll bite.  What's going on?"  "Oh, every once in awhile the Queen just sends out her horses, to show that she has them.  It's a sort of defence thing, in the old days, for foreign visitors."  I love this place.

03 February, 2006

the first sick day

Poor Avery. I picked her up at school yesterday, after feeling rather off-colour, as they say, myself all day, sort of sore-throaty, and the poor thing was positively grey. Which is much worse than "gray". I was chatting with another mother and she just hung there till I finally looked at her properly and felt quite sure that all was not well. We walked along to get a snack. I'm sorry to confess we went to Starbucks. "Miss Clarke was so sweet," she said as we trudged along. Miss Clarke is a most magnificent, gentle, ageless person about whom everyone you mention King's College to says, "Oh, is Miss Clarke still there?" A person shaped sort of like a jacket potato as they call baked potatoes here, and solid and kindly but severe. It didn't really surprise me that she had taken a sick Avery under her capacious wing. "She told me just to go ahead and lie down," Avery relayed, and I said, "Oh, is there an infirmary and a nurse?" with pictures of old boarding-school novels I have read passing through my mind. "Well, no, actually, the King's College version of lying down is sort of putting your head down on your desk." Oh.

So she ate an enormous piece of chocolate cake and had hot chocolate and I was telling myself she was just tired, but when I came back from getting my peppermint tea put into a cup to take away, she was lying on the cushiony chair looking like I don't know what, something one of the cats dragged in, if they were in a position to drag things in. We went home and both of us felt sort of pathetic, so I put the chicken in the oven to roast, wrapped in streaky bacon, lying on a bed of rosemary (doesn't that sound like part of that poem, "The Lady of Shalott") and we had hot water bottles on our feet and read our books with a purring Tacy. Avery slept for a bit as the dusk turned into dark in our garden and when she woke up she was hot as anything. John came in shortly after and I sent him straightaway back out for some medicine, which she downed with considerable drama, shivering and bucking. John and I sat down to dinner, but it wasn't very yummy with poor Avery lying doggo on the sofa across the room. We repaired to our beds and I'm glad to report she slept through the night and today is very, very thirsty but cheerful. John went off to a presentation in front of the CEO, the CFO and just about everyone in the civilized world, quite calm I thought. I hope it goes well.

Our new sheets are odd. Not enough elastic, so they sort of migrate around the bed. I shall put them in the washer and hope more elastic appears. The sizes just made me laugh. I must get someone official to put me in the picture about how they size things, because the Marks and Sparks lady seemed utterly bemused by my questions. First of all, Avery has what I would call a double bed. That is, between a twin and a queen, right? Well, here they seem to call that a single, but the sheets are measured in feet and inches. Hmm, could you say right off
the bat how many feet and inches make up a double, sorry, single bed? I couldn't. But it turns out to be 4 feet, six inches. Or maybe centimeters. I have no idea. Then what we call queen is called king here! Or rather, it's labeled "5 feet" but it's called "king" by the saleslady. Then they have a "queen" size that's labeled "6 feet."

Now. Do you suppose this designation shifts with the reigning monarch? That is, if it's King Edward, the largest size sheet is a King? But now that it's Queen Elizabeth the largest size is a Queen? I could not say, but in this culture governed at turns by history and by whimsey, it's entirely possible. TGIF.

And Happy Birthday to my niece, Baby Jane! I wonder how she's
doing... We gave her a really cute boxed set of four of the Brambley Hedge books by Jill Barklem, a truly darling series of books about voles, field mice and other people who live in English hedges and fall in love and find secret cupboards and such. Plus at the grocery store I found a box of baby-sized gingerbread men, and a jar of something called "puree of William Christ pear" which sounded so English I couldn't resist. I hope she has a great day. Lots of love from London, Jane. We miss you.

02 February, 2006

so much new stuff happening

Well, things are looking up, in short. I have a new friend, Avery has a new friend, we have a new cleaning lady and Tuesday we will meet the
new babysitter!

Yesterday my new friend Becky called to see if I wanted to go with her to a store called ASDA, the English Wal-mart, to get cleaning supplies for today's cleaning lady visit. I was feeling at loose ends so we
went, and apart from getting lost listening to the GPS tell us the wrong way to go on the motorway, we arrived safely somewhere on the outskirts of London and I bought everything in sight. I simply love the notion of Fairy Liquid, and I have always doted on the term "washing-up liquid." It's so to the point. Then Fairy make
dishwasher pellets too, in some weird self-degrading packaging per pellet, so I succumbed. There were many many products that Becky was sure I needed, so I came away with a mop, some bathroom cleaner, some limescale remover for the scary hard water here, some steel cleaner, oven cleaner, you name it. There was a food section, but it was frightening to see what they were selling, in enormous quantities: many kinds of indigestible-looking gravies, tinned tuna mixed with everything under the sun including sweetcorn (the British are obsessed with mixing tuna with sweetcorn in every dish imaginable), the ubiquitous blackcurrant juice called Ribena, thousands of varieties of plain white bread. They specify thin-,
medium- or thick-sliced, interestingly. Something for everyone.

Home again, then to school pickup where the report on the frightening English Speaking Board exam was mixed. I was bringing Becky's daughter Anna home with us for the landmark First Playdate in London, so I packed both girls in a taxi and got the lowdown on how the speeches went ("I forgot fully half my speech," Avery claimed with some pride, while Anna felt she had acquitted herself quite well), the poem, and the reading-aloud. They assessed each girl's performance in detail. "I cahn't believe Sarah chose her Nintendo as her object, for her speech. It's just a game and she didn't even tell how she got it, just how to play it. The examiner was quite bored, I think," Avery said. Compared to the eloquent obsequies Avery was able to offer about HER object, her riding helmet, one can only imagine poor Sarah's plight. Home for microwave popcorn (once I had deciphered the
incredibly complex instructions for the oven, which included the advice to "try it out straightaway, why not? make yourself a cup of tea, and then drink it while reading this instruction manual quite thoroughly"; can you imagine American instructions having that sort of charm?). The girls screeched and laughed and threw toys all around, and it was a total pleasure to hear Avery being goofy and silly for
the first time since we've been here. Dorrie, the new cleaning lady from the Philippines, came to look over the place and see what was required, and left. A lovely, soft-spoken lady of 51 who looks 30, and has many tales to tell of her previous employers, a Saudi family who took her to Germany, Poland, Lebanon, Joran and New York. I felt sadly uncool beside that scenario, but one can but try.

Becky came to pick up Anna, bringing along little Eleanor the
kindergartner and Ashley the touchingly super-cool 11-year-old who is desperate to babysit, and to adopt all our cats. "Do you ever go away and need a sitter for them?" We went down to the bedroom where the girls were playing and it was completely adorable to see all three little girls in their uniforms. Ashley affected a lively disdain however, and said she wouldn't be caught dead in
something someone else told her to wear. I gave them a hefty portion of the bolognese sauce I had spent the afternoon making, and if I do say so myself it's the best bolognese ever: full of carrots, white wine, nutmeg, garlic and tomatoes. We assessed the reception (English for living) room furniture and determined that everything was in the wrong place. I have an estimate for some shelving to install, but the whole prospect is daunting. I need my sister or my mother to some and
tell me what to do, and then someone else actually to do it.

This morning Avery and were a bit wiped out from so much... stuff
happening. But to school nonetheless, and I sat with the kindergartners to be read to. What happens is that in between my Thursdays, there is another day when another mother comes to read. So I often come in the middle of a book. Last week little Kathryn was reading to me, inexplicably, about a little boy who had somehow caused
a number of flans to go missing. A flan is a particularly noxious, at least to me, French-inspired pudding of a custardy variety, and how a number of them went missing I never found out. Today Emilie's book was an Edward Gorey-illustrated book about a boy called Treehorn who began to shrink. Their piping little voices are just too much. "'Mummy,'" Emilie read earnestly, "'my sleeves all seem to be too long and I keep tripping on my trouser legs.'" She stopped in consternation. "If he isn't careful," she said seriously, "someone
will trod upon him." !!!

Then, as if it weren't all too much anyway, there's a whole identity here called a "Yummy Mummy," which seems to mean that not only are we all required to take care of our husbands and children, volunteer nicely, cook meals and decorate our reception rooms, but we're meant to be really sexy as well. Too much pressure!

Home now, trying not to act like I'm watching Dorrie clean. It's odd for me to have a total stranger here, after the years and years of Carmen's friendship and devotion and familiar litany of misfortunes. I wonder how she's doing. A call to her daughter is probably in order.

Well, you're up to date. We're all feeling the end-of-the-week frazzlement and I think it's a roast chicken, early bed night. Perhaps a wild-mushroom risotto for comfort.

01 February, 2006

little idiosyncracies

We got in the taxi to go to school this morning, Avery all a-flutter about her exam, and the driver, a central-casting London cabby, said
cheerfully, "On your way to school, then, my love?" "Yes, today is the ESB exam and I'm SO nervous!" she confided. He chuckled and said, "Well, a pinch and a punch, you know," "No, what do you mean?" "A pinch and a punch, it's the first of the month! You pinch your best friend and punch your enemy." Avery, indignant: "Not at my school!"

I offered that I had heard in Massachusetts one says, "Rabbit, rabbit" on the first of the month and he said that was an Englishism as well. Whaddya know. He also explained that the word "toddler" came from the
days when London drinking water was unsafe and they fed babies beer, making them...toddly!

Yesterday at pickup she came hurtling out of the coach (bus to us Americans) from skating, shouting, "We luhnt to tuhn!" Say that
phonetically and you'll get an idea of how her accent is progressing! She talks that way for about 10 minutes everyday at pickup, then gradually reverts to being a little New Yorker. She defends this saying, "Well, Mummy, if you were completely immussed in it as I am all day..." I had to translate to "immersed", but you get the idea.

She's really nervous about her exam today, where she has to read a passage for the examiners, then recite a poem, then recite a story
about an object important to her. It's at one o'clock and I'm meant to be sending her supportive vibes at the time. It's too early in the morning to ask any of you to do that, I fear, but I'll report how it all goes after snacktime today. Yesterday because I had had no lunch, I had the most lovely salad: smoked mackerel, beetroot (as always!) and watercress, with a mustardy vinaigrette. Avery of course had ice
cream. I have to think of some really compelling snack for her playdate this afternoon. Hmmm...