20 November, 2007

the frantic run-up to adventures in Somerset

Well, the week before Avery's birthday adventure was completely mad. We had no sooner seen off John's sister Cathy than it was onto one of the busiest weeks I've ever had. Did I accomplish anything? Not really, but all my friendships are intact, not to mention my sampling nearly every place to get coffee or lunch within a mile of my house. Coffee with Dalia before writing class (she couldn't even make class but drove across town for coffee together, a true friend), coffee and intense life conversation at the Royal Institute of British Architects across from school (an unexpectedly nice place to go on a frosty morning, with a superb bookshop) with Becky, then lunch at The Natural Kitchen with Susan (a few complaints: they simply cannot get their wait staff in line, neither of the two specials was actually available, but the orange cake alone was worth a visit), then early-morning tea with my dear friend Lara. It's hard to believe that we have met only a couple of times, having encountered each other's blogs last year. Somehow our friendship has blossomed in emails so that the few times we actually see each other, we feel as if a tremendous amount has been said. A lovely time, at Pain Quotidien in the high street, always a safe bet in the morning.

Finally, whew, lunch at Bibendum Oyster Bar with a new friend called Gigi, a lively New Yorker who left a comment on my blog saying that she too was a former professor living in London with a little daughter! It seemed fated for us to meet. A hilarious lunch with a lot of shared reminiscence of academic life: I forced her to explain her special subject of Platonic philosophy, just to dust off that dissertation, but she also regaled me with stories of her days writing copy for the JCrew catalogue (a natural choice of career when one is in possession of a PhD from Stanford). "I don't know if he was ever aware of the subtext of what he was telling us to write," she said, laughing about the founder, "but seriously: underwear in 'stretchy cotton for when the action gets fast and furious?' Did he really think that would sound like he was writing about... rowing action?" Lunch was delicious. I always forget between visits how much I love Bibendum. Superb seared tuna with a honey dressing and radishes. Lovely, and so nice to make a new friend.

Wednesday night, then, saw Avery and me with all of her Form Six at the Royal Albert Hall for an incredible evening of "Music for Youth." Five thousand people squished into the Hall, most of them family members of the schoolchildren who gave the concert. Perhaps 20 orchestras, bands, chamber groups and other assorted musicians, from all over Great Britain, performing their hearts out. So inspiring, and to think it's the tip of the iceberg as far as childish talent goes. Everything from classical strings to soul, to jazz and steel drums and acapalla singing. What an event to chaperone! It was a total pleasure to see the girls all in their "own clothes," hair down, relaxed, as opposed to the level of stress and anxiety they've been living under with all this crazy exam prep. Definitely book your tickets for one of the three nights of MFY next year. At the end of the performance I had my first experience of "Pomp and Circumstance" and "The Land of Hope and Glory" in the great British tradition: complete with the rather imperialistic text and everyone waving British flags. A bit of a culture shock to see my child singing at the top of her lungs; she certainly does not know the American national anthem! But this tune, yes. "God Save the Queen," no problem.

Thursday we all rose, I know not how, to attend the Michaelmas Fair at school. Absolute pandemonium on all floors in both buildings: screaming children of every size and shape, the Toy Tombola, the Santa's Grotto ("Santa is somebody's grandfather," Becky hissed to me, "and since we don't really know him, there are two mothers just hanging out with him"), the Cake Room (Avery was in charge of teaching the little tiny children to decorate something or other), the Lucky Dip, you name it. Finally we repaired to the Assembly Hall, flung open the windows to get some much-needed fresh air, and underwent the Raffle. Mrs D absolutely bellowed the ticket numbers and prizes: "A Day With Mrs M's Chauffeur For Christmas Shopping, Ticket 527..." I won a hideous handbag and happily swapped it with Analee's mother for a bottle of Veuve Cliquot. Whew. Home exhausted!

Finally we were at Friday, the long-awaited birthday trip day. I spent the morning making macaroni and cheese and a lemon birthday cake (the cake was not memorable, but it served the purpose). I organised little White Company party bags with tiny silver picture frames, sparklers (these were, mothers note, a HUGE hit for very little expense), a biscuit and apple juice, and a little clutch of white tulips, and it was up to school to pick them up in the rental car John got, a Mini Cooper not being quite up to the task of transporting three girls with all their STUFF.

There was a positive fever pitch of excitement. Jamie, Anna and Avery settled down in the backseat for the long drive, and we soon realised it would have been very wise to bring a book on tape. As it was, conversation soon dwindled to be replaced by an energetic rendition of EVERY SONG they know. And they know a lot of songs. At one point Jamie asked, "Does anyone else smell... cheese?" I toyed with the idea of just letting her think she was having some sort of olfactory hallucination, but I gave in and said, "There's an enormous dish of macaroni and cheese sitting here at my feet." For some reason Jamie's question struck the other girls as completely hilarious and they spent a lot of the rest of the journey asking at intervals, "Does anyone smell... cheese?"

Really quite sweet, but we were all relieved when the three-hour-ish drive was over and we arrived in the dark in Stogursey, a tiny village near Bridgwater in Somerset. Since it was pitch dark we had no idea how to approach the castle where we were staying, and even the directions of the lovely housekeeper who gave us the keys weren't much help. We inched along in the dark, and came to a body of water. "It's the MOAT!" the girls shrieked, and John said, "I don't know, is this it?" We stopped beside an ancient, square stone building with, as far as I could see, no windows. A bit taken aback, I demurred, "Ooh, I don't think so," then John said, "I think I have to brave this water and just cross over to that road," which elicited another shriek, "We're going to drown in the moat!" Another few feet, across the water (which turned out in daylight to be a very shallow stream), and suddenly ahead of us was a blaze of light: the guardhouse of the castle, our destination!

There was an actual working moat! And two enormous white birds appeared from the darkness. "We have swans!" John yelled. "Uh, John, those are geese," the knowledgeable Anna corrected him. Sure enough, the castle geese. The girls promptly named them Fred and Ginger and were devoted to them for the duration of our stay.

We dragged our bags in and the girls opened every door, exclaiming in total delight over their cosy medieval bedroom, the enormous fireplace, the cross-shaped battlement windows. We tucked into the macaroni and cheese and red peppers, and then the birthday cake. This photograph isn't even a good one, but I couldn't resist because of the utter happiness of their expressions. It's a cliche, but I did think: life is hard at times for everyone, and filled with pressure and challenges and disappointments and fear, and to be able to give three little girls such an experience of togetherness, adventure and fun was a very satisfying thing.

More on Somerset soon. I must buckle down now, though, to an enormous grocery shop. This lovely country may not observe Thanksgiving, but that doesn't mean that twelve people aren't coming to my house on Thursday for turkey. So I have my work cut out.

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