Thursday, October 27, 2011

This Wouldn't Happen in America

So today I had to rush out to buy a last minute gift for the school bus driver.  Since I'm in England I couldn't dart into Target and pick up something inexpensive but useful and fun at the same time.  Instead I had to go to my closest "target-like" alternative which, believe it or not, is called Longacres

Yes, Longacres is a garden shop.  They sell plants, and lots of other miscelaneous stuff too.  But it's nowhere near as good as Target.  It's not even as good as a fake Aussie Target.  It's more like a beefed up 7-11 with a floral department.

Proposed Floorplan for the soon to be remodeled Longacres

One of the best things about Longacres is that you can get your car washed while you shop by a guy who has set up a little "valet-ing" business in the carpark.  This is very common around here.  I have yet to see a real purpose built car wash facility, but there are these random "hand-wash" detail centres all over the place. 

So I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone and have my car (which we have owned for nearly 2 months and have not yet washed ) cleaned up while I desperately searched the garden shop for a bus- driver-appropriate gift.

But, unfortunately, it was not meant to be.  You see, there was a 2 hour wait for the car wash service.  And here's the kicker:  it was pouring rain today!

A 2 hour back up of cars waiting to be washed at the garden centre in the pouring rain.  I couldn't help thinking to myself, "This just wouldn't happen in America."

Monday, October 24, 2011

Legoland Windsor

What to do when an unavoidable business trip ruins your plans for a family vacation during the half-term break?  Plan a stay-cation instead!  My kids are off school this week for "travel week" but sadly we aren't traveling anywhere.  To make up for it I am determined to do some fun, local activities with them instead.

First up, Legoland Windsor.

Why do Americans call the toys "Legos" when the name is actually "Lego"?  

25 million lego bricks were used to create Legoland.

Being from southern California means I am completely spoiled (spoilt?) when it comes to theme parks.
I only visit them under optimum conditions: no crowds and good weather.   Luckily, most British schools start their half term breaks next week so crowds were not a problem.  And, even more luckily, the weather cooperated and we stayed dry and (relatively) warm all day. Hooray!

The key to having a wonderful day at Legoland (or any theme park) is to have a plan and get there early!  We arrived a half hour before the barrier opened so my kids could pick out their souvenirs and stow them in lockers.  My bag was packed with sandwiches and snacks so we didn't have to waste precious time stopping for lunch.

For the first time ever I took my kids to a theme park without a stroller.  It was so liberating! (The bub was at home with a sitter).

We hit our "must do" rides first to avoid disappointment.  When my little guy saw the driving school he exclaimed, "This is my heaven!" and then when he saw the fire academy he added, "This is my double heaven!"

Then we spent some time later in the day exploring the other activities (like the pirate playground and the Lego Miniland).

The three of us had a really wonderful day together. I hope the rest of our stay-cation is as much fun.

PS:  If you are planning a trip to Legoland with a child under age 6, do not miss out on this offer.  It's not widely advertised but you can get one adult and one preschool admission for only £15 total.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

What Barcelona Taught Me

We just spent a gorgeous, sunny, warm weekend in Barcelona.  How European of us!  Jetting off with the kids to the continent for a quick getaway.  It was the first of what I hope will be many such weekends this year.
But, since it was our first time, we learned a thing or two from the experience.  Here is what Barcelona taught me.

1.  Plan on spending the year doing a "Playgrounds of Europe" tour.  I will seek out the best playground in every city.  Let the kids run around. They are, after all, just kids.   Set realistic expectations and don't be disappointed when the kids don't want to view yet another gothic cathedral.  We found the best playground in Barcelona to be right out in front of the Sagrada Familia.

La Sagrada Familia
2.  Buy their souvenirs early.  Get this out of the way so they can stop gawking at every shop you pass by.  And, for the grown ups- if you see something you like, buy it right then and there.  Don't assume you'll be able to come back later and pick it up.  I like to try to focus my kids on a particular type of souvenir.  We collect t-shirts (which I plan to have made into a t-shirt quilt someday) and patches from the cities we visit.  I also try to pick up a Christmas ornament wherever we go.

Kate with her souvenir fan
3.  Guide books can be wrong.  Frommer's led me astray a couple times on this trip.  The 7 Portes is not at all a kid friendly restaurant and the Parc Guell is definitely NOT "mostly playground".  (In fact, if you have small kids I would just skip Parc Guell altogether).

View from Parc Guell
4.  Watch out for pick pockets.  On the overcrowded bus to Parc Guell, the man behind me had his wallet lifted right out of his front pocket!  Luckily, he noticed and was able to grab the thief who dropped the wallet.  Made me feel very happy about my recently purchased anti-theft hand bag!

5.  Know your limitations.  Sure, going on a little cruise on the Mediterranean seemed like a good idea at the time.  But we should have remembered that one of our children gets extremely motion sick.  And freaks out on boats.  And cries.  And even a pair of sea bands and an old motion sickness lollipop pulled from my emergency mommy kit couldn't salvage a trip like that.

Amazing market near La Rambla
6. Be prepared for anything and travel light.  We were able to book a room with a crib and a high chair at the Eric Vokel suites.  We relied on public transport while in Barcelona so we traveled without car seats.  One small stroller and one piece of carry on luggage each.  The kids each had a school backpack and I used this bag for me and the baby.  The ergo baby carrier is a must have when flying into London Gatwick because you cannot collect the stroller until you reach the baggage claim area.  That is a very l..o..n..g time to hold a squirmy baby. 

7.  I'll never have enough time (or enough energy) to see everything in every city.  So I will cherish the moments I do have, enjoy spending time as a family, take lots of pictures.  Someday my kids will look back at their passports full of stamps and see photos from around the world and I will tell them about all the places we went.  They might not remember much of it- but I certainly will. 

I loved Barcelona.  Next time I'd like to go back with just my hubby and spend the weekend sitting at a sidewalk cafe along La Rambla drinking sangria and people watching in the Spanish sun.  Because the last thing I learned from Barcelona is that family trips are great, but sometimes you need to get away without the kids, too!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Bit About Birthdays

My middle child celebrated his birthday today.  Five years old.  He has now lived abroad for longer than he lived in America.  But he still fiercely identifies himself as an American.  He's the only one in the family who frequently talks about missing America and wanting to move back and live with his Nana.

But, for the time being, he's living here, in England.  And so we celebrated his birthday with a mish mosh of American and Aussie and a few English traditions too.

We had a party at one of those crazy indoor play places- mostly because I just couldn't muster up the energy to host a party at home.  The only thing I had to do was bring a birthday cake and a parcel for passing.

The little guy had his heart set on a fire engine cake so you can imagine how thrilled I was to find this one on display at my local grocery store.

When I asked to order one for the coming Monday the woman behind the counter chuckled and said, "Those cakes don't come in on Mondays."  She proceeded to flip through her book and then added, "I can get it for you on Saturday."  Now, Saturday is a full three days before my party.  Personally, I'm not too fond of three day old cake.  So I gently ask, "Will the cake still be good on Monday if I pick it up on Saturday?"  Another chuckle as she replied, "It's got 2 weeks life on it."  Of course it will still be good three days later!

I contemplated my chances of actually finding a fire engine cake that would be fresh on the day of the party.  But I quickly realized those chances were slim to none.  So I ordered the cake, knowing it would be stale before we even lit the candles.

But, the truth is, the kids loved it.  It looked really cute.  And actually, at an English party, that's really all that matters.  Because no one actually eats the birthday cake at the party.  They light the candles and sing Happy Birthday.  Then they cut up the cake, wrap the pieces up in napkins, and pass them out for the guests to take home with the party bags.

I have a hunch no one actually eats the cake.  A mashed up piece of stale birthday cake in a greasy napkin just isn't all that appetizing.  Even my cake obsessed kids couldn't stomach it.

The take away cake is one tradition I don't plan on keeping when we return to the US.  (Unlike the Aussie tradition of giving the birthday boy 3 cheers at the end of the birthday song.  That one's a keeper).

Happy Birthday Buddy.  Hip Hip Hooray!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

What a Load of Rubbish

Imagine my surprise when we discovered that the rubbish collection here in our lovely borough is only once a fortnight.  (Translation for Americans: once every two weeks).  Not only that, but we are allowed only one medium sized wheelie bin for our regular rubbish.  Now, we are a family of 5, the smallest of whom is still in nappies.  I just can't see how this is going to work.  So I called up the council and pleaded my case.  I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I must adhere to the limits.  Never mind that 2 weeks worth of nappies will fill up half of that bin.  According to my local council the only things that should be going in that bin are the nappies and a certain kind of plastic wrappers.  Everything else is recyclable.  Really?  I can think of a few other things that shouldn't be recycled (dryer lint, used Kleenex, etc. but who am I to argue?).

Which brings me to the next point:  Recycling.  The council has set up a convoluted recycling scheme with multiple buckets, bags, bins and barrels.  Food waste in one, tins and glass in another, cartons and cardboard separate from household paper.  One bag for junk mail, but not envelopes.  A bag for dead batteries and one for clothing that is clean and useable.  Three green bags for garden trimmings.  I think I need a spreadsheet to keep track of it all!

In the meantime, I'm trying to figure out how to organize all these items while I wait for them to be picked up.  At the moment, I am simply shoving all recycling into a spare kitchen cabinet.  It looks like this:

There must be a better way.

And what about the garage full of cardboard we were left with after Tom assembled our house full of IKEA furniture?  Well, that required three trips to the local recycling centre which in and of itself is a sight to see.

Leave your unwanted fridge here.

Yes, one of those is actually for recycling used postage stamps. 

Now I've seen everything!
Did you know you can actually recycle your old bras?  Yep, here you can.  I guess everything actually can be recycled after all!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Etiquette Tip

Here's a little tip that might save my fellow American expats a bit of embarrassment:
It is expected that you will offer the (insert any type of worker who comes to your house) a cup of tea.  A biscuit to go with it would be nice as well.

I must admit that I did not offer our movers anything.  We didn't have a kettle, or any cups for that matter.  Movers must be used to this, because they brought their own!

But every gent who has shown up to fix something at my place since then has been offered (and accepted) a cup of tea.  With milk, thank you very much.

I am still a bit uncomfortable with this tradition.  It's just not part of American culture.  Am I supposed to sit with him and have a chat while he drinks the tea?  Do I offer it upon arrival?  In the middle of the job?  Or at the end as a way of saying "thanks"?

This ritual is further complicated by the fact that we have exactly 4 cups in our house.  Two are teeny tiny demitasse cups we bought to make babyccinos for the kids.  One is a standard white cup which we bought because the mugs in our old apartment didn't fit under the fancy coffee machine.  And one is a big cup with the words "Yummy Mummy" on it, purchased at the Mother's Day Stall last year by my darling daughter.  Can you picture a middle aged plumber with a few missing teeth sipping tea from a "Yummy Mummy" mug?  Neither can I.  That's why my sweet husband has to use the Yummy Mummy mug for his morning coffee.

I've got to have that one cup ready at all times.  You never know who might drop in for a cup of tea.

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