10 July, 2006

next post: Connecticut

One last sleepover for Avery at Anna's, and I'm nursing a John with a streaming cold (as they say here, along with "heavily pregnant", but not for him I'm pretty sure). We had such a nice time this weekend with a picnic under low gray skies, in our garden, hoping for clearing for Wimbledon, and then that evening with Avery's New York pony barn friend Nina here to watch the final of the World Cup, with her family. Funny to have our first barn friend visit just days before we return! We're tracking the arrival of a long-awaited trampoline for Red Gate Farm, our dear farmer friend Rollie has turned on our water, The Maids have cleaned up a winter and spring's worth of cobwebs, and our friends Anne and David from across the road have put groceries, bless their hearts, in our refrigerator. Bags are packed, cats told of our plans, housesitter left with mail key, books tucked away in suitcases for the long summer in the hammock! See you there... if anything of note happens in Connecticut, I'll let you know, but happily, I think the chances are LOW! Enjoy your summer.

08 July, 2006

School's OUT!

Whew! It's been six months and four days since Avery began her odyssey through King's College Preparatory School, and we are all ready, I can safely say, for vacation. Homework, skating, swimming, ballet, handwriting, packing and unpacking the rucksack, do you have your tennis racket, drama club and LUNCH. No doubt by September she'll be raring to go again, but right now she's relishing choosing her own clothes every day, playing with Lucky, her new Build-a-Bear, and packing those essential items without which her summer in Connecticut will suffer. It's a motley assortment: a book on horseback riding with her beloved trainer Joey's picture in it, most exciting, her flute, an assortment of clothing that hasn't been worn since last summer, and all her fancy dress items for the Hamptons Classic. I must begin packing as well, although I confess to a sort of "what the hell" attitude toward it, as in why not just take a carry-on with a toothbrush and see what I find at Red Gate Farm? Plus Avery has outgrown nearly everything she owns that has a waistband or cuffs, so a major shopping trip is probably in the offing when we get back. I might as well do the same.

I'm also leafing through my catalogue of CityLit courses for September, since registration is this week. Shall I take "Writing for Children," or "Screenplays 101," or "Autobiography Into Fiction"? Or maybe more than one, why not. Spareribs marinated in my own special secret mixture are sizzling in the oven, and I think we'll pack our picnic basket and have dinner in Hyde Park, unless there is some mind-bendingly thumpy public concert going on. No one warned us about the dark underbelly of living adjacent to the park. It is really loud, when it is. Dunraven Street is a haven of peace, but even its gentle environs are pierced by the sheer decibel level of some of the bands that play. Oh no, I sound like a little old lady.

The last day of school was quite touching for Avery. I arrived at school to pick her up at noon, along with Anna and Ellie to give Becky some breathing room to pack for Scotland. I was chatting with my friend Angela when she suddenly said, "Avery's at the head of the group in the doorway, in floods of tears [one of my favorite English expressions]. You had better go see what's happening." And sure enough, there she was with her little pink cheeks and teary eyes, clutching all her belongings and looking quite forlorn. "What's wrong, what's happened?" I asked in some alarm. "It was a really SENTIMENTAL last assembly!" she quavered. "Form Six are really, truly gone." Poor dear. All the other mothers and the teachers were looking on in sympathy. "Perhaps it's the heat," Mrs Davies suggested. "No, she's just feeling sentimental about Edwina and her other Form Six friends leaving," I assured her. "Well, in my opinion the assembly was not quite the display of mawkishness that we have seen in years past," the lady mentioned darkly, and retreated into the school. Poor lady, can you imagine what her life has been like the past few weeks? All those cups to engrave, all those wounded egos to salve when not everyone can be Joseph in the play, all the report cards to sign with "Well done!"

I gathered up the girls and we headed to Nando's in Baker Street for a little rotisserie chicken and air conditioning, where I proceeded to blow my head off with spicy chicken wings. Ellie in particular watched with glee to see my head actually blow off and was quite disappointed to find it was merely a figure of speech. "But it could PARTLY blow off, which would still be fun," she suggested. We all looked over report cards, and I'm happy to kvell a bit and say that she just did marvelously. And it was quite a collection of documents, that report card. Accustomed as we are to the rather more minimal efforts of PS 234, as devoted as they were, the eight or so pages were rather intimidating! "Wow, the folder isn't blue or green, it's turquoise!" Avery marvelled. And with her name printed on the front and everything. All the teachers remarked on how wonderfully she had done with merely half a year. Good on you, Avery.

We're now about to watch a hilarious programme on the BBC called "Only Fools On Horses," a charity deal wherein minor celebrities raise money by riding and jumping, when most of them aren't any good. It will run for seven nights. Hard to believe that on night five, we'll be in Connecticut...

07 July, 2006

Pick a Complete Stranger, Then Root Your Heart Out

Boy did we have fun at Wimbledon! Way more than I expected. My single experience with the tennis in the past was way back in... gosh, was it 1991? That year, there was so much rain in the first week that Middle Sunday, always playless until then, had to be called up to accomodate all the delayed matches. And since there had been no advance ticket sales, since that day had never been open for play before, the powers-that-be at Wimbledon decided to let the masses take control. First come, first serve, in PERSON! So John and I gathered up our waxed cotton coats, and blankets and whatever else, don't even remember, and slept out on the pavements all night, waiting for dawn. As I remember it, we had a great time! There are some very scary photos of us to prove that sleeping rough is not a way to look your best the next day. But we didn't care. We trooped in, and it was a blast. Our crowd, on Centre Court that day, brought The Wave to Wimbledon! Until then, and since, such a breach of etiquette and Stiff Upper Lip would never have occurred. Such fun.

It was quite a different story this year. I showed up in a little black sheath dress and the beautiful Ferragamo scarf John's mom brought me from Florence, and John was in white shirt and linen khakis. We headed for the Debenture's Lounge, where corporate sponsors and their clients can hang out, and met up with John's work colleague Ed and his drop-dead gorgeous new wife Trupti, for lunch at windows overlooking Court 17. Lovely rose wine, langoustines and avocado with marie rose sauce, smoked salmon. Yum. Then down to Court One, where two players we had never heard of were listed, just by their first initials and last names. "Now how to we decide who to root for?" I asked. "Not even knowing their first names. It's rather random." "Oh no," said Trupti, "You see who has the better bum, and that's who you go for. It's easy." So we decided that Random Czech Whoever had a better bum, consigning his Random Swedish Opponent to ignominy, and the match was on. Unfortunately for court manners, Trupti and I (and several hundred other people) found much more interesting things to focus on than the match, like how she and Ed met, and her Indian heritage, and of course Avery's winning the Latin cup. The referee had to shush us, so we calmed down and decided really to get behind our Random Player and show our support.

When play was dull, I pelted Trupti with questions about proper English. She and Eddie speak quite the most perfect plushy version of the language, with all the most elegant phrases and responses to queries. "Precisely!" and "Yes, very much so indeed." I would love nothing more than to have been born such an elegant person. "How bad is it these days to say 'bloody'?" I asked. "Oh, not bad at all, it's quite the done thing," she assured me. "There are far worse. Things I am afraid to say I said during the Portugal match, in front of my mother! In quite a family environment." Of course I cannot print them here. And then there is "chap" versus "bloke," and it seemed that "chap" was rather more formal, where "bloke" is chummy. I should follow in Avery's footsteps and read the wonderful book I gave her, "Watching the English," which explains all the little intricacies of the class system, the way different words for different things are used by the various classes. For instance, who says "lav," who says "loo," who says "toilet," who says "ladies"? We'll have to read it to find out. Or ask Avery.

There was a rain delay conveniently just at teatime, so as the ball boys ran to cover the grass with the precise and perfect rolled-up cover, we retreated into the lounge again for peppermint tea, egg and cress sandwiches, and strawberries. Just as we finished eating, play was back on! Perfect.

Well, as the hours and sets went by we got more and more enamored of our Player. Finally, frustrated by cheering on someone about whom we knew nothing, we got Eddie to look him up on his Blackberry, thereby revealing that his name was Radek Stepanek, and of course we knew he was Czech. By that time we could identify all his tricks, his weak points, like approaching the net and trying to hit the ball back without letting it touch the ground. "No, Rad, no! You know what happens when you do that!" Finally Trupti said, "I've got to get down there and talk to the man. He's losing my loyalty." The match went on and on, into the fourth set, with even tie-breakers being tied. The sun sank below the top of the stadium, revealing a perfect summer evening sky, and it even got a bit chilly. At long last the Swedish player, Bjorkman, broke our boy Radek. He was quite cute in winning, hugging himself and dancing a little jig. Since then I've discovered he was the oldest player in the singles tournament. I think we backed the wrong dude. Although as John pointed out, I think I enjoy watching the little ball boys and girls as much as the players. They are so earnest! Hands behind backs, little white sneakers planted precisely hip width apart, ball in hand shooting up in the air, virtually begging the player, "Choose this one, choose this one!" Funny story: this year Ralph Lauren was awarded the coveted task of dressing all the ball kids and linespeople and judges. Certainly they look very swank, in cream trousers, blue jackets piped in cream, the whole nine yards. Except that on the first day of play, 60% of the line judges needed repairs as their trouser seams burst! And there was only an hour of play. Got to get better sweatshops, Ralph, how embarrassing.

We headed off back toward London in Eddie and Trupti's darling little black Mini convertible, or "cabriolet" as John insisted on showing off. I would dearly love to have that car. They dropped us at Vauxhall Station and purred off. We had arranged for Avery to stay the night at Anna's (poor Becky, although apparently her children get up easier in the morning when Avery's there to entertain!), and so came home in the soft twilight, feeling that we need to do things like that more often. A Day Out, as they say here in our adopted land.

06 July, 2006

The Latin Prize and other thrilling events

Before I get to what's shown in these photos, I'll tell you what times we are having, these last hectic days in London before the end of school and time to whisk ourselves off to Connecticut for the summer. Having school last until the second week in July certainly does alter one's perception of summer: it's here, and yet it isn't.

For example, our version of the Fourth of July was rather muted. John went to work, Avery went to school, I guess I cleaned the litterbox or some such thing, and hung around killing time with household chores. Finally we got an email inviting us to a barbecue at the Smiths', hooray! As always happens in such situations, I decided to take potato salad to them and immediately the day turned from boring and slow to a race against the clock to grocery shop, boil potatoes, chop herbs, mix dressing and assemble, all in this awful heat wave we've been having. Try boiling potatoes and then having to cut them up, in a kitchen without air conditioning in 90-degree heat! I felt like a pioneer woman in Kansas. But it turned out perfectly, if you'd like to try it. Boil potatoes as usual and cut in bite-size pieces. Then chop finely handfuls of chives, lemon thyme, dill and parsley, as well as a red onion. Mix equal parts mayonnaise and sour cream with the juice of a lemon and its zest, salt and pepper. Toss all this together and chill. The potato salad, I mean, not you (although that would be good too).

A rush to pack the salad in a cool bag, wash my hair and face and sling Avery's ice skates over my shoulder, and off to the rink to meet her class for the last day of skating, waah! Always such fun to watch their little selves and gossip with Angelica's nanny and Coco's mum. All over until next year.

I decided that with potato salad, a bag of little cans of that Marks and Spencers gin and tonics I was waxing lyrical about recently, a backpack, a gym bag, skates and handbag, I was unequal to the task of finding the proper bus, so we splurged on a taxi and arrived at the Smiths' to find Emily closeted with some extremely important Russian art historian, unexpectedly, so I dropped Avery and the food off with the kids, and Mick and I went up to Blenheim Books in Blenheim Crescent, to find birthday presents: his for an Eton mate and mine for Anna's little sister Ellie. Only in such a charming shop might one be able to satisfy both requirements! I bought "Tim in Danger" for her, a fantastic book from the 1940s in a series by Edward Ardizzone, known mainly for his illustrations, but the "Tim" books are completely charming. For some fantastical reason, little boy Tim has convinced his parents that if does well in his schools, a proper reward would be to let him hire himself out as a merchant marine on the high seas. Naturally! They're just wonderful stories. Of course I came across one old copy of "Tim and Charlotte" when Avery was tiny, and found that they were all out of print, so I laboriously tracked down vintage copies from all over the globe, of the whole series. Whereupon the publisher promptly decided to reissue them all. Darn! Mick found a particularly winsome cookbook and a tempting novel for his friend's birthday party, and we walked home in the intense late afternoon heat, discussing his plans for his first year at Harvard in September, how to ship 300 books to school and still have money for tuition, his specialization in Middle Eastern languages. With this area of interest, and his parents both ex-Marines, John has immediately concluded that he will become a spook. Cool, my own Tom Quinn!

A very nice evening. We staggered home very late, and did not really get enough sleep for the big day that was to follow: Prize Day! Now, everyone in Avery's class had been warning her in the nicest possible way not to expect a prize, because she had been in the school only half a year. Fair enough. Underpromise, overdeliver, as John used to say (generally in terms of when he was coming home from a business trip). We all got dressed up and went to the Royal Institute of British Architects, and chatted in the lobby waiting to be summoned into the enormous Great Hall. Such excitement when the gulls came in from their walk across the street, all scrubbed and shining and excited to get their prizes. We were given a program, which all the English parents knew listed the prize winners, but we didn't, typical American dodos, so we didn't even look at it, just kept talking to friends, until several people said, "Avery won the Latin Prize," and "Avery won the Howard de Walden essay prize, third place!" Howard de Walden was the original owner of all the land that is Marylebone, and his estate still controls the daily running of the neighborhood, as the Grosvenor Estates controls Mayfair. There, I've provided my little London educational titbit for the day. Back to the really important stuff: she really did win! A silver cup with "Latin" on one side and the names of all the past winners, with her name and the date on the other! She gets to keep it for a year, and then gives it back for next year's winner.

We all filed in and sat down and tried to behave ourselves under the censorious eyes of not only Mrs D, but the Chair of the Managers of the school overall, built like the bow of a ship and just about as warm and fuzzy. Until she gave her very funny, very wise speech, that is.

A very odd, apparently pornographic writer was the prize presenter! It's traditional for the school to commission a minor celebrity parent to officiate, but hello, erotica? Well, all right. She was a Miss Kathy Lette, and I must say she was funny, if not quite the role model one would expect the school to choose: she confessed to never having been to a Prize Day before, and to having left school at age 15, "so I'm an autodidact, which means self-taught, and lets anybody else off the hook." Mrs D made the Annual School Report, which detailed the many curriculum points the children study, the new librarian to begin in September, the big changes in school life since they acquired the building adjacent and allowed them to accept more pupils (like Avery! thank you, Mrs D). Then it was prize time. There were dozens of silver cups and salvers and platters lined up on the long table, and Mrs C presided in a sort of nervous way, trying desperately to give the right thing to the right gull. Avery did not find out she won anything until she and the other Form Four winners were plucked from their seats, and even then she didn't know what she had won until she heard Mrs D announce it! Her little smile just went from ear to ear. All the parents in our row were so very gracious and pleased for us, the New Family.

Coming as we do from the American school of "no one is better than anyone else," in which singling out is a crime punishable by death, it was very hard to get used to the idea that right out in public, announced with a microphone, children could be differentiated from one another. Several others of Avery's classmates received two awards, and many received none at all. Amazing. Of course I don't know how we would be feeling about all this if she hadn't received a prize. I suppose it would have to be taken as an opportunity to encourage the child for next year, which could work if you said exactly the right thing. But in any case, that is the system here. Of course Becky's elder daughter Ashley looked back in our direction in time to see me all teary-eyed, very embarrassing! I couldn't help it. It seemed an incredibly touching, rewarding event, to celebrate how hard everyone, including the teachers and staff, have worked all year. We are so proud of her.

Professor S's speech was very interesting, focusing as she did on the importance of contributing to the greater good. She said sternly, "Hold up the index finger of your right hand and place it on your chest. Good. Now say to yourself, 'this is ME.' And as you're saying that, and thinking about the Big You, realise that aside from the people in this room, very few people in the world care, or know, about the Big You. They're thinking of the Big Me themselves, and most of them do not come from the advantages that you gulls have. It is your responsibility to take what you have been given, and think about what contribution you can make in the Great World." Very interesting, considering that the rest of the day had been very much about back-patting, praising, giving to them. It is difficult sometimes to know how to temper all the giving that our child experiences, with some limits, and some sense of her place in the greater scheme of things. Of course it's wonderful to give to her, not just things but attention, and approval. But how to moderate her perception that the rest of the world, and the rest of her life, will treat her that way. It can be a quandary.

But we didn't have much time to ponder these large questions, or to enjoy the triumph, because Wimbledon beckoned! So I put Avery into Becky's hands, the poor thing off to organise her youngest daughter Ellie's birthday party, so of course what she needed most was an extra child. It bears saying again: Becky is a saint. We headed off in the most expensive cab ride of my life, to the tennis. Traffic was understandably horrendous, but for some reason we just sat back and chatted and didn't obsess over the rapidly mounting fare. As we arrived, it was clear that the skies could open at any moment, but nothing could dampen our spirits.

More about Wimbledon later, but right now must go collect Avery from her friend Sophia's birthday party, at a place called "Build a Bear," which is, according to Avery, a veritable Shangri-la of childhood. I think the parents who do such a birthday party deserve medals, because it must be more than slightly enervating to take a large group of little girls to choose flat bears, put them through the stuffing machine (including a real plush heart of the child's choosing), dress them in minute little outfits and come away with an adoption certificate. Imagine the decibels! Imagine the pushing and shoving and "you got the dress I wanted for Kiwi!!" potential disasters. But Avery will be in heaven, I can guarantee you that. One more creature to add to the several hundred now in her bed every night! Bliss.

01 July, 2006


Well, we are. Gutted. England were defeated today by Portugal in a PSO, the dreaded "penalty shoot-out," which means that after you've played the whole game and you're tied, in this case "nil/nil", the outcome is stripped to just this: a kicker, and a goalkeeper. The other players all stand in a symbolic row, arms around waists, for both teams, while the kicker kicks into the goal. Each team gets five tries, and if one gets to three ahead of the other, it's over.

But the real drama was with these two pictured above. For one thing, David Beckham is the heart and soul of the team. An hour or so into play he was kicked, or wrenched his shin, or something, and after continuing to try to play for a few minutes, gave up and was invalided out. It was announced later that he tore his Achille's tendon. Enough said. UNTIL the arguably most important actual footballer, Wayne Rooney, got into a tussle over the ball with two Portugal players and after completely stomping one in the groin, then went on to shove away a Portugal player who came to "help" with the referee's decision. Result, RED CARD. It's almost comical, the so-called "booking" process of penalization. The referee actually produces a colored card (beginning with yellow and progressing to red for a double offense) from his pocket and waves it in the air. But in this case, as when a small boy on a playground moves straight from "dare ya" to "triple dog dare ya" without the crucial "double dog dare ya" in between, the referee skipped right from neutral to red card, with no yellow card warning in between. So as punishment for a childish temper fit, Rooney was off and England were reduced to 10 men, minus as well their captain.

They were valiant, however, and until the loss at the penalty shootout played better than they had all the World Cup long. End of story. There are people crying in the streets. And let me tell you: I kindly let John off picking up Avery at Anna's, in the penultimate moments of the game, and got in a taxi myself, the radio in the cabby's spot blaring loudly. Aside from the occasional random Russian or American tourist, there was NO ONE on the streets. I have to wonder what will happen to all the pent-up energy in the pubs, not to mention in the little German town where the match took place. English fans are notoriously difficult, even in triumph. Who knows what will happen in defeat.

So there you go. Quite heart-wrenching. What will pencil-thin Victoria come up with to say to her man, when he limps off the pitch? What will the new queen of the WAGS ("Wives and Girlfriends" of the footballers, to the uninitiated), Coleen McLaughlin say to her best guy Wayne Rooney about his temper fit, possibly leading to the loss of the match? Much better to be us, who can shed a tear and then move straight on to the compelling battle at... WIMBLEDON! Right now it's Murray against Roddick. John and I are going on Wednesday, so I'll be sure to have a great court-side report for you then.