Archive for August, 2011
There’s no doubt about it, the English love to ride their bikes (they call it cycling and people look at me oddly when I don’t). Maybe it’s just the summer madness, but everyone here seems to own a bike and, right now, they’re using it. Back at home, I know several dads who ride to work and plenty of kids who own bikes and ride them around in the back yard, of course, but I can think of very few mums who own a bike at all, myself included. Here, however, people honestly use them not only for recreation, but as an honest to god means of transport (this was an amazing thought until I worked out the parking situation over here, then it was slightly less amazing).
Within two weeks of landing, our kids had been very kindly gifted some bikes that were now too small for their owners and they were off. For the first time in his life, Mr4 was sans training wheels (stabilisers here… more odd looks if you say training wheels), but a few tumbles and he was riding (yes, fine, cycling) like a local.
My husband, who rides to work in Australia, also got into the spirit of the thing and bought himself a (cough, very expensive, cough) bike. And helmet. And special weatherproof clip in boots. And Kevlar tyres. And Kevlar tyre inserts. And weatherproof pants and jacket and undershorts and backpack protector and 1823 inner-tubes and… yes, well, you get my drift. It might have just been easier if he diverted his pay directly to the bike shop. So far he has ridden to work ten times and actually got there three times in a glorious adventure of punctures, flats, directing cabs to the middle of fields and 6.30am family outing pick ups from equestrian centres in the middle of nowhere. Still, this beats the time, years ago, that I picked him up from another woman’s house after he’d fallen down a mountain, broken his collarbone and split his helmet in two (it’s okay, the woman was a mum in a minivan and had seven or so children, so she was probably well used to this kind of odd behaviour).
The husband is persisting on the riding to work thing for now, but we’ve heard some horror stories of 60 knot winds in 0 degree temperatures, so we’ll see how that goes. Out of the four of us, he’s the one I worry about most when it comes to the weather headed our way. He keeps stepping outside in a t-shirt and exclaiming, ‘Oh! It’s a bit cold!’. Denial? I have no idea.
I guess I could have bought a bike, but having seen my husband’s success with his, I bought something else instead — a second car. I wasn’t sure how I was going to fit the kids and a huge shop from Tesco into the tiny basket on a bike. Also, I now knew from experience that a car would be infinitely cheaper.
We’ve just returned from a week in London. The children were amazingly, extraordinarily, unbelievably well-behaved. This is because, after learning a thing or two about travelling with children in Paris, I got smart and hired a babysitter. Each afternoon, from 2pm-6pm, the lovely Kirsty, a young teacher on summer holidays, would come to our apartment. She then proceeded to take the kids to the Science Museum, the park, or somewhere iconic like Harrods. The day it poured with rain, she brought DVDs and they cooked a chocolate slice.
I may well owe my life to Kirsty. Okay, my children’s lives.
What I learnt in Paris was there are different ways to get value for your money whilst travelling with kids. In Paris, we were in a sort-of apartment. ’Sort-of’ in that there was a dedicated space for the kitchen, with a small fridge and one hot-plate, but nothing like pots and pans, crockery, glassware, or cutlery. Because of this fact, we ate out every night. Let me tell you, nothing will make you grind your teeth harder than watching your child push away a $35 slice of lasagne because it’s not quite right. So, when it came time to pick accommodation in London, I made sure there was a real kitchen with real pots and pans, crockery, glassware and cutlery and even luxuries available like a toaster and a kettle. We ate breakfast in the apartment every morning and supped on Tesco fare almost every night. Which then meant we had money to pay for Kirsty. And everyone was happy.
Amazingly, the worst behaviour I saw in London was from adults. At the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground, I saw a dad throw a stick at a squirrel. At the Wellcome museum, I saw a whole lot of grown ups laugh themselves sick viewing an anti-masturbation device and a chastity belt (in fact, droves of them would come into the room just to look at this particular cabinet, leave, then bring more friends back, never viewing any of the other fascinating items in the room). But it was the Victoria and Albert Museum that was the real kicker.
It wasn’t until I hit the Victoria and Albert that I realised what a hell of a job museum staff have. I’d visited the Foundling Museum just the day before and some of the staff there had been able to sit in a corner of the room they were minding, reading a book. Not so at the V&A. It was raining the afternoon I went there and the place was packed. As I walked in, I saw the harried faces of some of the staff and just knew they’d woken up that morning and it had dawned on them that it was a) peak tourist season b) the school holidays c) pouring and d) their museum was free. At that point, they’d probably considered jumping out their fourth storey apartment window and being done with it.
At the V&A that rainy afternoon, I saw behaviour from adults that made my eyes pop. I saw a grown man hug a sculpture to have his photo taken. I saw a woman run her hand over a tiled picture. And my mouth literally hung open as I saw a man climb up onto a raised stand to sit on a 250-year-old chair that was obviously not begging to be sat upon. He seemed oddly surprised when a very loud alarm went off. Seriously, I’d never seen anything like it and I’d taken the kids to the Natural History Museum just that morning, which was teeming with much better-behaved toddlers.
Still, at least I didn’t know these people. Because, that night, I got to watch my husband misbehave at Pizza Express. Our waiter was something else. Around 60-years-old, he had an attitude you wouldn’t believe. Everything was too much trouble. We wanted water. We wanted menus. We wanted to order. We were just the kind of crazy, out there, demanding customers Pizza Express must have to deal with, oh… every ten minutes. By the end of the meal, my husband was sufficiently drunk enough to bribe another waiter to give us our own waiter’s life story. ’What’s his deal?’ My husband asked. ’Is he French?’
‘No,’ the other waiter answered. ’He’s just been working here 22 years.’
(From now on, my husband orders wine by the glass.)
There’s no denying it. It’s started. The mornings are getting a little chillier. It’s no longer light until 10pm. And then, just yesterday, one of our neighbours introduced me to a new phrase that struck fear into my heart.
‘It’s getting Septemberish.’
Apparently, this means we will soon be going from this…
When our relocation consultant sent us photos of the property back in early 2011, I didn’t really think very hard about the lack of foliage going on, though I did notice the cross-legged, cross-armed, slightly odd-looking assistant who appeared in the corner of one of the pictures. At the time, I wondered if she needed to go to the toilet. Now I realise she might have been just a teensy bit cold.
It’s getting Septemberish and I’m getting worriedish. I think those big yellow boxes they have everywhere that read ‘Grit’ on the side might actually be used for something, those ugly three-layer jackets that they sell for hundreds of pounds might truly be required and those Christmas cards with all the holly and snow and other un-Decemberish cold stuff on them might be a reality in some parts of the world.
Readers, expect eight to nine solid months of blog posts whingeing about the weather…
The question I get asked the most frequently over here (well, after, ‘Do you know my cousin Sandra who lives in Perth?’) has to be, ‘Are you homesick?’. I never know how to answer this question, because there is no right answer. It’s mostly a jumble of yes/no/maybe and if you asked me five minutes after I’d given some kind of reply, I’d probably have already changed my mind.
Mostly, my answer will depend on what is immediately happening to me. So, if I’m at Tesco trying to locate creamed corn (non-existent) and rice crackers (also non-existent) and anything that looks remotely like Australian bacon (also non-existent), I’m going to say ‘yes’. Yes, I’m homesick. However, when a B&B owner asked me the homesick question recently just as I was about to tuck into a very large plate of smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and perfectly buttered brown bread, the answer was decidedly ‘no’. Come to think of it, she didn’t even ask — she simply told us we all looked homesick (I do find people want you to be homesick, for some reason). This wasn’t the case as the kids were having the time of their lives harassing her ducks and my husband was busy wolfing down a full English breakfast. Maybe we looked hungry and she mistook this for pining homesickness.
Here are some other yes and no ‘are you homesick?’ answers I could have come out with in the past few weeks…
- alcohol in supermarkets is brilliant. I could live here forever
- the sun is shining and it’s approximately 25 degrees today. Life is good
- we’re on holidays in Paris/London/Cromer (we went to see the seals, okay?)
- groceries are cheap. This works for me
- the kids are happy at school, so I’m happy
- I finally have both my kids at school, I’m ecstatic
- a Mini Cooper costs what here? I’ll take one in all ten colours
- If you people learned to use a roundabout properly, that would be good
- I’m speaking English myself, it would be nice if I didn’t have to use the phonetic alphabet with you
- Nice riots you’re having
- Parking all over the road and in the wrong direction is uncool with me
- How can you pay that much for petrol and still eat?
- Why should I have to pay two quid to park in your 500 bay car park that currently has only 10 cars in it when I’m going to shop exclusively at your store?
- You call this summer/a beach/coffee?
When I had a Brisbane-based girlfriend over for the day last week, we discussed the homesick thing in detail. She’d been on the road for almost two months and was looking forward to getting home. But when we talked through things further, her issues were the same as mine. It wasn’t anyone in particular she missed (the kids and I had just Skyped with my parents, my aunt and our unwilling cat), or places (hell, we’d done the same parks approximately five million times over). It was the normality we missed most. The simple knowing how to do things. How to go about your life. How things worked. Which is odd, because this was a big part of the reason we’d left in the first place. Because things were so awfully, well… ‘normal’.
We’ll have to remember the bliss of normality when we return. Normality, as it turns out, can be a beautiful thing.
One thing I never expected about the English countryside is that it would be so full of bugs. I thought it was supposed to be oh-so mild, all gentle rolling hills, green and non-threatening and easy to stroll about in. It certainly seemed that way for all of Jane Austen’s heroines. I mean, I never once read a passage where her characters swatted bees off each other, swallowed thunderbugs or had to stop to extract them from each other’s eyes, screamed when they realised 30 spiders had invaded the house overnight, or shooed wasps from the kitchen. At no point did Elizabeth Bennet delicately have to tell Mr Darcy she’d just seen something crawl down his britches.
Well, Jane Austen lied to me.
We arrived in England in the middle of thunderbug season, apparently. It only happens for about two weeks, but when it’s happening, you know about it. At first I thought everyone was having me on. Thunderbugs? They sounded suspiciously like Australian dropbears. I was waiting for someone to tell me all I needed to do was put some cider behind both my ears and I’d be okay. But then the thunderbugs really hit and I had no choice but to believe, because they were everywhere. Tiny little things, they invaded my kids’ eyes and my kids’ throats. There’s even one, fossilised, in my husband’s laptop screen — a nice souvenir to take home with us (shh… don’t tell Customs). The height of my thunderbug panic happened on a school excursion to our village’s redundant church. Sitting in a pew behind my daughter, I saw something crawling in her hair. For at least 15 minutes, I panicked and made long lists of how we were going to deal with the nits. And then I realised all the kids had creepy crawlies in their hair. They weren’t nits at all. They were thunderbugs (did Jane Austen’s Emma have thunderbug hair? I think not.).
The thunderbugs have retreated now, not to return till next year, but there is still a lot of other insect-based summer fun to deal with — wasps that are attracted to anything sweet, for a start. This provides much entertainment at the park when we dish out muesli bars to the kids and the wasps descend. Mr4 was stung by a bee last year back at home and he hasn’t forgotten the experience. So, one muesli bar and he’s off, running around the park like a boy possessed in the hope of losing his winged friends (it might scar him mentally, but seriously, it’s the best way I’ve found yet to burn off that four-year-old endless energy). Then there are the big, dozy bumblebees that hang around our flower meadow, the normal bees that hang around the clover and, oh, let’s not forget the spiders…
English people ask me about our Australian spiders all the time. They’re fascinated by the fact that some Australian spiders can kill you. They’re also extremely disappointed when I tell them the only time an Australian spider has come close to killing me was when I saw a huge Huntsman spider at home and fell down a number of stairs trying to swat at it. However, I don’t think any Australian spider has ever made me lose the plot like the English spiders in our third floor apartment have. The other night, I left a window open in the lounge room to keep some air moving through the house and went to bed. In the morning, the spiders had gathered. Approximately 30 of them. They weren’t big, but they were everywhere. I gave the room a quick spray and retreated, only to come back five minutes later and find a house of horrors. The spiders were now hanging from the ceiling and the next hour was spent clearing away a sticky, webby mess so I could get to the kitchen (and make the coffee I needed to deal with my scare). I don’t leave the windows open overnight anymore.
I can’t remember Jane Austen ever mentioning whether her heroines left the windows open overnight, but I now know they wouldn’t have. I feel gypped. A bug-infested countryside is not what she promised me. Plus, I’m sure Pride and Prejudice could have done with at least one sisterly thunderbug hairpicking scene…
I’m hoping they’ll mate and produce little espresso cups with my title on them…