Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Not Quite According to Plan

I love Christmas! I do, I love it! And when I am in the early stages of anticipation, I think it's going to be perfect and then somehow it always seems to get derailed. Perhaps that's the joy of it - the fact that it isn't 'just so'.

This year derailment came early. Last Monday, after a brilliant weekend of carousing with our friends and a canter round a tennis court with Wimbledon Men's Doubles Champion, Jonny Marray, my beloved announced he was ill. He is never ill. He didn't want fuss, he just wanted to be left alone with his poorly tum.

On Tuesday evening, after a school run that involved home to school, school to tennis centre, tennis centre to school, school to home, home to tennis centre, tennis centre to home, home to school and back twice (phew!), child number 4 (the small and beautiful one) announced she was also ill. Both father and daughter had a bad case of Vomiting Veronica (neat reference to Four Weddings in case you plan to watch it over Christmas).

I am bound to get it, I think to myself. But on Wednesday I am fine and having tea with a lovely girlfriend who is very Bah Humbug about Christmas which obviously I am not and then another cup of tea with daughter 2 who is as Christmas-enthused as I am. On Thursday I am feeling fine and anticipating (now that my beloved and number 4 are on the mend) going to see The Hobbit on Thursday night en famille. I love those little guys with hairy feet so a first night cinema trip was a must. On the way to the cinema, minus number 4 who wasn't quite up to it, I started to feel a bit sick...

I never made it to the film, nor indeed all the way home without having to stop. And none of us made it to the supper party at the singing, dancing doctors on Friday which we had so been looking forward to. Of course, number 3 was fine throughout and he claims that we were ruining his social life by being the house of sickness all weekend and if we ate two dinners every night like he did, we'd have been fine all along.

Anyway we are all better now that it's Monday and I am off to career round a tennis court with my chums except that whilst I have been ill, my beloved has been busy - draft-proofing the front door. Brilliant, warmer house, except that now as I am dashing off to cheer myself up after a weekend to forget, the front door won't lock. Cue me ripping draft excluder off the front door frame like a thing possessed but still it won't lock.

Eventually I decide the only thing to do is to lock the inside front door and go out of the conservatory door except ... that won't unlock! Feeling more than a little stressed I decide that really the only thing to do is climb out of the window. Which is what I did and on the way to tennis, I left an expletive-filled message for my beloved who is away on business this week.

On my return, I climb back through the window as the phone rings. It is he. He calmly explains which bit of draft excluder I need to remove and that actually I could have gone out of my office door. I had forgotten that my office has an outside door which opens and closes, locks and unlocks and does all those things which doors generally do. I can only admit that sometimes I miss the obvious.

So Christmas is already not quite going to plan with preparations running somewhat behind schedule but it will be all the lovelier for it and now I am busy sticking draft excluder back on the front door frame - well, most of it anyway.

Happy Christmas!

I can't explain why I missed the fact that my office has a door but here's a picture of my new best friend, Jonny Marray.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Three Dog Night

Three Dog Night - now there was a band... but you had to be alive in the 1970s to remember them.

Anyway back to the present ...  we have had two three dog nights this week as we currently have Milton, or Milty Pig as my number 2 daughter calls him, in residence. Yes, in addition to Molly the grumpy mongrel and Bobbie the under-achieving cocker spaniel with an impressive pedigree and an IQ score in single digits, Milton, the very big chocolate brown spaniel, has been joining the canine gang at the little house on the prairie so it's been an interesting few days.

Milton normally lives in 'the mosque' or rather the house that number 2 daughter and her partner have recently bought in Harrogate. It's a lovely terrace house, handy for shops, bars and restaurants and, more importantly where Milton is concerned, the Valley Gardens. The reason why we call it the mosque is of course that it is carpeted throughout the downstairs in cream and therefore any visit is heralded with "Take your shoes off!" before you get past the doorstep. Anyway it is a perfect first proper home for number 2 and we are unreasonably proud to have a home-owning child and it feels like she has really really left home for good this time in a way that renting doesn't seem to.

Number 2 and her partner have both been away on business this week so rather than putting Milton into kennels, I rashly offered to have him here as he knows us pretty well now and I thought he'd feel at home. However, he spent the first two hours after number 2 had dropped him off looking for his mistress and prowling round the house and garden in the hope that she was hiding. No chance mate, she's gone to Kidderminster.

So there is a three dog walk morning and evening and we must be an entertaining sight making our way down the bridle path to the stream with two of the three dogs on leads and usually entangled and me hanging on as best I can. Of course, we stop for a gambol in the stream - them, not me - and once off the lead, with a stick in his mouth, Milton is trying to decide whether to go for a full-on swimming experience or just a paddle. Molly likes a bit of a swim but the water is running rather fast just now and she doesn't fancy it whereas Bobbie is not prepared to get wet, dirty or anything unladylike at all.

The other thing about Milton is that he owns a sweater. Yes, half an hour on Saturday morning was spent with daughter 2, reluctantly accompanied by yours truly, in the pet shop trying to decide between a Father Christmas suit, a reindeer outfit or the aforementioned sweater. This sweater has to be removed before any kind of dog walking because I am NOT prepared to be seen out with the doggy version of Colin Firth!

So Milton has now settled down with us, licked the floor clean under my office chair (why?), consumed one of number 4's Father Christmas slippers (perhaps we should have bought the suit to match after all) and moved all the dirty socks which are just about to go in the washing machine from the kitchen floor to various other places for us to find. And now he's working through the contents of my office bin in case there's anything edible in there.

One other thing: in Milton's world, settees are for sitting on and stairs for climbing. Yes, in my world, but not for dogs. Yesterday, Milton had licked the floor under my office chair clean (again) and then disappeared. He had discovered that I had lit the fire in the sitting room and was basking on the settee looking for the remote control in case there was some good daytime television to catch up on.

Just in case you remember Three Dog Night, here's their classic from 1970: Mama told me not to come: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rKaQzQAlNn4. Mama might have told me not to come but she failed to offer any advice on large brown hairy house guests.


Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Striking Parent or House Elf?

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article about some parents who were so fed up with doing 'everything' for their offspring that they went on strike. The parents continued to cook, wash up and do their own laundry etc whilst they did none of those things for their children. The house quickly turned into a health hazard and after a matter of a week or so, a rapprochement (such a great word, don't you think?) was reached between parents and children whereby the children cleaned the whole house to their parents' satisfaction and a more equal division of duties in future was agreed.

In the little house on the prairie, things are not in quite such a calamitous state but there's a lot of things that go on to which the majority of the residents are seemingly oblivious. And straight away, I want to point out that this is not because I am a hero, I am just a mum.

Most days start with me waking about half an hour before the alarm goes off. I have no idea why this happens but even at the weekends when a small lie-in of half an hour or so could be achieved, I wake up. And once I am conscious, my brain starts lining up the things that need doing. So most days, with very few exceptions, I hop out of bed (actually that's attaching more agility than I have in all honesty so let me just say heave myself out of bed) and start the day. And in that half hour or so, I usually manage to let the dogs out, feed them if it's daylight (our shed where the dog food lives is probably rodent-infested so I'm not doing that one in the dark with bare feet), clean out the grate and lay the fire, make tea and wash up. No, it's not that I don't wash up after supper the night before but number 3 gets peckish about 9 o'clock in the evening and makes himself another meal. And plump the cushions. I could write at length about cushion-plumping because I love cushions and my children don't see the point of them but I must have my small pleasures in life and cushions are one of them!

Sometimes all this makes me feel like Dobby, JK Rowling's house elf. We have friends whose two older children spend a lot of time playing tennis with ours. Their youngest son is not old enough to partake in sport at such a high level (!) and sits at the side of the court until one of the older ones hits a ball on to the cricket pitch, car park, playground etc. The cry goes up: "Dobby!" and off he goes to get the ball and throw it back on to the court. One day, someone will give him a sock (you need to read Harry Potter to understand the significance) and he will rebel!

At this time of year, the Dobby-type activity at the little house on the prairie is drawing towards its seasonal high. Already, in addition to the usual stuff, there is the whole pre-Christmas organisation going on: presents bought and wrapped (last year's wrapping paper has ironed up wonderfully for another turn), cards bought and anyone whose surname begins with an A or B is likely to be a lucky recipient. I can't at this point promise to complete the whole alphabet from the address book but it usually gets done - just in time. And I am about to write an enormous cheque for stamps at the post office because I have decided that although stamps are obscenely expensive, I like Christmas cards too much to be bah humbug about it.

And I know that all my fellow Dobbies will be doing the same. All the ones with high-powered, stressful jobs, all the ones who work tirelessly for charities and give their time for free enabling our cash-strapped economy to limp on, all the ones with small children who require even more time, care and attention than the hulking teenagers in this house - yes, we're all at it. And the ones who are dear to my heart will be coming here for our annual girls' Christmas lunch (I may decide to rename it after this in honour of Dobby) in a couple of weeks before we throw ourselves into giving everyone (and all our relatives) a wonderful Christmas.

So, no, we won't be striking - we will be doing it for love.

Dobby - I think we share the same knees!

Monday, 12 November 2012

The Big List (part 2)

As I suspected from the off, the Big List has to be a two part blog so here is the concluding segment. A friend of mine told me a while ago that she enjoyed my blog but that there was a little too much sport in it. Having just read part one, I think there was very little in that, but I am about to redress the balance!

6    All Gone to Look for America*
As soon as exams were done, we headed off to the States for our fabulous tour of Chicago, San Francisco, the West Coast and Las Vegas. Of all the amazing sights and sounds of that trip with children 3 and 4, the one that stays with me is the spectacular fountain outside the Bellagio in Las Vegas playing Viva Las Vegas sung by Elvis. Utterly brilliant!

7   Sporting Heroes
Well, you knew it was coming... The Olympics were, without doubt, the best ever held - ever. We loved every tear-jerking minute of it (except perhaps Russell Brand - could someone explain to me why?... no, don't bother.) Anyway Jessica, Mo, Andy, Bradley, Sir Chris, the Brownlee boys, the beautiful dressage horses and all the rest, right down to Ripon's Jack Laugher who had the worst day ever, we salute you.

8    I name this house...
Number 3's cricket obsession took an unlikely turn when he (and his delighted family) were invited to Guernsey to name a house after a fielding position in cricket. Cow Corner became Couin de Vacque (in Guernsey patois) and we joined in the naming celebration led by number 3 (unveiling the sign below with a Guernsey flag) who had come up with the name in the first place.

9    The C word
We've become accustomed in this house to summers dominated by cricket. Playing his way up the age groups as well as infiltrating adult cricket at the earliest opportunity, number 3's obsession (see above!) knows no bounds. If he's not playing it, he's watching it. But I never expected to see my beloved and child 4 (she of the big hair and too cool for school) don the whites to play village cricket. They did and they were absolutely marvellous, cumulatively scoring 13 runs at their first attempt. A repeat performance in 2013 is, however, very unlikely!

10    The T word
Scarcely a single mention of tennis. There must be something wrong with me! We played all summer (and I played all winter, come to that) but my best tennis moment, right up there with Andy Murray winning the US Open, was watching our junior tennis team retain their Black Sheep Trophy. For years, we (my fellow tennis club players and I) have coached and encouraged our juniors and last year we entered a junior team in a local league just for experience. To our amazement they won. And despite a slight changing of the guard as some players were too old this year, they won again. And throughout the whole process, they were an absolute delight.

*in the words of Simon and Garfunkel

Monday, 5 November 2012

The Big List

Every year or so, I trawl through all the photographs we have taken over that time and choose a selection to create a montage which hangs on the kitchen wall. For me, it's a way of reminding myself of all the fun we've had and how much the children have grown. Also our wonderful friends and wider family get their places too and it's so lovely to see these pictures every day rather than when I remember to open an album. The wall is now fairly packed but I've worked out that there's room for one more before I have to reconfigure, so last week I chose and ordered the prints and reminded myself that the last twelve months have been fairly epic.

Last week, I also discussed with a client the value of lists as a way of encouraging people to read articles. People love a list - top ten of this and that, worst places to go for dinner, best dishwashers, and so on. Lists are a brilliant shorthand for imparting information. Anyway, the combination of the list conversation and the selection of this year's photographs (yes, I know the year isn't over but it just feels like the right time) caused me to try my hand at the top ten bits of the year so far. Now there has been some cheating, or rather, some grouping because otherwise I can't find the discipline to make the cut at ten but here are (and already I am realising that this might be a two-part blog...), in chronological order rather than top to bottom, some of the top things from this year and a few pics for illustrative purposes!

1    Keeping it Live!
Live music, live theatre, cinema, sport - all of it best when you're actually there. Two top nights of live music - Coldplay with the singing, dancing doctors who took us to Sunderland for a brilliant night, despite the rain, and George Michael at Manchester with Basil and Sybil (of Fawlty Towers fame). Then there was the amazing One Man, Two Guvnors at the theatre in London with the intrepid granny starring the utterly brilliant James Cordon. Conversation beforehand went "You know, Smithy from Gavin and Stacey... A League of their Own... the fat one in The History Boys... " followed by the sound of the penny dropping! The hottest ticket in town and the funniest thing I have ever seen in the theatre. We laughed till it hurt!
2     Edinburgh for the Rugby
We went, England won (somewhat unexpectedly) and we partied like teenagers. The only thing I can think of that would have made my Sunday morning hangover worse would have been if the tapas bar (where we were asked to leave so they could close up) had sold grappa. Brilliant time with wonderful friends. Going back in January to do it all again (but without the rugby).

3     Horseriding in the Lake District
A day riding heavy horses with Basil and Sybil and friends in the spectacular Lake District. Three competent female riders, three incompetent men and six massive horses. The scenery was amazing but the best sights were definitely three men in the saddle for the first time. Hilarious!
4     A Birthday in Rome
Not ours, but we were invited on a birthday trip to Rome by a friend and luckily, exams had just finished so we could leave the children with a reasonably clear conscience and head for the sun. During the winter, ie now, I sustain myself with the thought of sitting outside a cafe somewhere hot with a cappuccino or, better still, a glass of red. We did that in Rome in June and it was... well... heaven.
(Don't normally include a picture of me but here I am with my glass of red!)

5     Three Weddings (and one to come, in case you wondered...)
Three lovely weddings, though we were only at the actual ceremony for one, the other two being in the States. My gorgeous niece who looked stunning with my other gorgeous nieces as bridesmaids, then my dear tennis chum who jetted off to Las Vegas to do the whole Elvis wedding thing and who absolutely deserves to be the happiest woman on the planet. And finally little Hollie who was the prettiest bride and had the wedding to end all weddings. This is setting the bar very high for parents of three daughters - help! Here they are:

To be continued...

Friday, 19 October 2012

The Rule of Three

It's not every day you fulfil a lifetime's ambition but today I am that woman.

A very long time ago, at what would now be regarded as a very antiquated school for rather nice young ladies in Royal Leamington Spa (think St Trinians but with longer skirts and less make-up) a dwarfish, flat-chested fourteen year old dared to dream. She was utterly convinced - though no members of the English department, nor even less her friends, shared her conviction - that one day she would write a novel. Today that novel - albeit unpublished and unread - has been completed.

Funnily enough, the unpublished and unread aspects of this don't matter at this point. For me, the great act of will was to write it. For most of my adult life, I've been making up stories in my head and, for the most part, that's where they've stayed. In the early days, when I was a teenager, I would feature as the heroine - something which kept me going when other aspects of my life had less heroic qualities. As I got older, I would create stories about the strangers I would see on trains, in cafes, in their cars at traffic lights... Ask my beloved: he'll tell you how I made up a whole crime/drugs story based on the people sitting round the swimming pool at a hotel we were staying at in Bangkok nearly thirty years ago. Even now, I can entertain my youngest by telling her tales of strangers' lives that we see when we're out and about.

I've tried writing short stories for children. A couple even progressed as far as being sent to publishers but they landed with a dull thud and were heard of no more. Then about twenty years ago I started a novel really in earnest. I wrote a few thousand words which I still have, having transferred them from computer to computer as all things technical have progressed. But, although the plot is complete in my head, it's never got any further than that.

Then fast-forward to a couple of years ago when someone told me of an experience he had had as a very young child. It was arresting and, like looking at strangers and making up a whole back-story for them, I found myself germinating a complete plot based on the events leading up to this man's childhood experience. As time went on, the experience became less and less as he had described it but that was the tiny seed that set me on my way.

Then two other things occurred making the 'things happen in threes' or 'the rule of three' as it is more correctly known or even the Latin, omne trium perfectum (because I've just looked it up and I love it when we can all expand our craniums) have a satisfying ring of truth. One of these other two things was this: my blog. I write it and amazingly, people read it. Not just my friends (who are obviously very nice and polite and supportive about it) but people I've never met, in foreign countries I've never visited. And writing this has helped me to find my Voice. 

Which brings me neatly to the third thing. For my birthday last year, I thought (because if there was an Olympic event in birthday present-buying, my beloved would win it) that I would be getting tickets to either a rugby international at Twickenham or, even better,  the tennis in Rome. Nope, he had finally called my bluff. He gave me a week on a writing course in darkest West Yorkshire with a group of complete strangers (some stranger than others, let me tell you...) who could and did write. I went (because I couldn't think of any excuse not to, otherwise I would have bottled) and spent a terrifying week with these people, some of whom are now my friends. Who'd have thought it?

On the course there was a lot of talk about Voice which is, as far as I can remember, the unique style of writing prose which each of us have. This, obviously, is mine. Anyway I went on my writing course with the plots for two novels - the one I started twenty years ago and never finished and the one now very loosely based on my friend's childhood experience. The very patient and proper-published authors who were tutors that week told me to write the latter and I came home half a stone slimmer (nerves does that to me) on a mission to write it in a year. 

Well, fifteen months later it is done. As I said, unpublished and unread, and since my beloved absolutely deserves to have the final yay or nay on whether it ever sees the light of day, he will be reading it first. But I do have a slight sense of giddiness about having finished it. Perhaps I should write THE END.

Postscript: To save anyone asking later: no, you are not in it and it is not autobiographical. Hmmm... now that's given me an idea...

Monday, 24 September 2012

Harvesting Balls

This weekend there was a massive push in the garden. The various reasons for this included it being extremely overgrown, the weather being good with some diabolical weather on the horizon, the impending arrival of the intrepid granny who is coming to watch the Ryder Cup on our big telly next weekend, and the fruit needed picking. So whilst my beloved whirled round with the lawnmower and various sharp implements, I set about planting bulbs, weeding borders and picking fruit.

In previous years, we have had a shedload (literally!) of fruit with me performing as the fruit fairy to try to relieve the glut. This involved me bagging up fruit and leaving it on the doorsteps of friends who either have large numbers to feed or are keen jam-makers. For many years we had our own veg fairy - a lovely old gentleman (no longer with us, sadly) who sometimes found life at home rather too noisy and would seek sanctuary in my kitchen. He never arrived empty-handed so we always knew when he'd been if we were unlucky enough to be out because he left spinach or cauliflower or cabbages or green beans from his very impressive vegetable garden in Spofforth.

This year, there is a pitiful amount of fruit - no greengages, a few eating apples and there are cookers to come on the tree, a fair few blackberries and three plums. Three plums was a cause of great celebration amongst my children. In years gone by, we have had enough plums to feed a small African country. And, because I can't bear to waste food, as well as the fruit fairy thing, I would cook them and make plum pies and plum crumbles and other plum delicacies which I would freeze and then present to my family on a weekly basis all through the year resulting in plum-fatigue. So imagine their joy yesterday when I announced I had harvested all the plums and there were only three!

The other harvesting was the result of cutting back and weeding some of the borders which produced several golf balls - some rather good Calloway ones actually - and a good crop of tennis balls. I know there will be cricket balls as well, I just haven't got to them yet!

So the seasons have turned again and as well as the swallows leaving for warmer climes - I'm quite happy for them to fly solo unlike the Ryanair pilots - number two daughter will be leaving this week but only as far as Harrogate. Not very exciting you might think except that she will be a home-owner which is a most definite sign that she will have flown the nest. Number one, of course, lives in London and has never shown any signs of returning home apart from flying visits of which we had one last week. And she too is thinking of leaving for warmer climes but still at the planning stage so too early to say where or when.

Anyway on a positive note, as well as whirling about on the lawnmower, my beloved spent some time on Saturday sitting on the apex on the bathroom roof (not sure if apex is the correct term but you get my drift) mending the hole. So, even though it is raining today, I am no longer concerned that it is raining through the downlighters in the bathroom ceiling. It's probably still raining into the boiler room but you can't have everything...

And finally, as I mentioned, number one came home last week for a few days and it was one of those increasingly rare times when I have all four of my children under one roof. So numero uno and I did some nice things together including a trip to Malham Cove where incidentally they shot some scenes for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows prompting our idea that the next time she comes home we will go and explore another film location - perhaps Aysgarth Falls where they shot Robin Prince of Thieves. Anyway I decided it would be lovely to photograph all four children together and this is what happened...

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Happy New Year and other three word phrases

Last week, my youngest children joined the sixth form at their school. After much moaning, they condescended to stand in the garden and have their photograph taken in their school uniform to mark the event. "Why Mum?", they complained. Because it's only two weeks since I took you to nursery school - or at least, that's how it feels!

This is the start of the new year for me. Twenty four years of autumn terms marking new school years and so we begin again. Twenty four years done and only two to go before the last two flee the nest (probably) and twenty eight years of hands-on, sleeves-up parenting will have come to an end. It's all a bit scary really.

So whilst I am spring cleaning (yes, really!) and getting into those bedrooms which have been almost impenetrable for the last two months - either because they were occupied till nearly lunchtime by comatose teenagers or because, even if I could get in the door, I couldn't find the carpet to vacuum it - I have been looking back on what has been a really epic summer in so many ways.

Cricket and tennis started the summer here with training done and matches played, or not, between showers, and sport was rationed according to GCSE study demands. Then there were the dreaded exams which seriously stretched my maternal resources. I never cracked the conundrum of what to say when one twin gets in the car, post-exam, and tells me it was cool, paper finished, read through and all fine and then the other one gets in and says that it was a nightmare, didn't get to the last question and how everyone thought it was impossible. Nope, still don't know what to say...

Once the exams were behind us, we galloped off to America for our fabulous trains and boats and planes trip to Chicago, San Francisco, California and Las Vegas. Lots of lovely and amazing memories to be stored up for ever and a really special time with children 3 and 4 who will, like the swallows who have crapped all over the garden shed floor, be gone before we know it.

Then a few weeks at home before our great trip to name the house in Guernsey and stay with our brilliant and very dear friends in their amazing new home. And of course, those weeks were completely dominated by the Olympics - more wonderful, more emotional, more just jubilantly British than anyone could possibly have imagined - except maybe Boris Johnson who clearly has a mind differently wired from anybody else. Perhaps his terrific bonkersness is a sort of embodiment of how we are perceived across the world. Who knows?

For me, so ridiculously and often irrationally patriotic at the best of times, I have spent more time in front of the telly, frequently in tears, than I care to admit. But not a moment wasted because those extraordinary Olympians and Paralympians are such an antidote for our celebrity-stained world. And of course, we actually went to the Games. I have met so many people recently who didn't go through the tortuous process of trying to get tickets and who now so bitterly regret it. It was a once-in-a-lifetime.

And so to a rather traumatic results day (parents of twins: you will know what I mean) and we have YES! got a full set of GCSEs and despite some rather hasty A-level-choice-switching to play to our new-found strengths, the term has now begun and life is returning to something like normal.

I could and nearly did write this blog last week but there was one final piece of the jigsaw for me and I didn't want to tempt fate by predicting it. A few weeks ago, someone asked me for a stand-out memory of the Olympics. This is a tough question and after quite a bit of thought and a whole host of possible choices, I came up with the moment when Andy Murray won gold. No question, it was the only prize in tennis Roger Federer has never won and he wanted it but Andy denied him and the British public, for once, were behind him all the way. They called it the fifth slam and it was, so imagine how thrilled and delighted I am that Andy has now won the US Open. When he said his overwhelming feeling was one of relief he spoke for us all!

Finally to the three word phrases: I went to a hen night last weekend. I am not generally good at hen nights - spending the evening with a big group of women with a lot of booze on board is, for me, quite intimidating but I went and had, honestly, a very good evening. Before the do, as it were, we were all asked to describe ourselves in three words. I wasn't witty - though I wish I had been - but truthful. However I did ask the children if they could help me with this. One child decided not to get  involved, one was utterly charming and said nice things about me only to be called a creep by the others, and the other two came up with the following: loud, grumpy, bossy, weird, strict and funny. So much for my parenting skills!

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The House at Cow Corner (with apologies to A A Milne)

We've just come back from a short jaunt to Guernsey to stay with our lovely friends, A and A, in their amazing new home. We had a brilliant time with them, the fabulous Grannie Annie and their children who came and went much like ours do at home. Not only was it a lovely pre-exam results trip (to take our minds off tomorrow's results - ho hum) but we were there on a mission, the roots of which go back some three years to our last visit to this glorious island...

We go back a long way with A and A. My beloved was at school with A and there are pictures of the two of them from those long ago days with very dodgy haircuts looking very slim and youthful in their various school team strips. We went to each others' weddings - on Guernsey and in Yorkshire - and we have godparented each others' oldest children. Over the years, there have been a few trips to Guernsey with tiny, medium-sized and now rather large children and it's always a treat.

Three years ago we stayed at the house they had recently bought. The house was not quite in the A-and-A mould we have known over the years but the view was spectacular - an uninterrupted vista across the sail-dotted sea to Herm. In the hall of the house, there was a model of the home they intended to build on the site. It looked like Thunderbird Tracy Island right down to the swimming pool!

During the trip that year, there were a few cricket elements, not least because number 3 was with us and the Ashes was on. So when we weren't messing about in boats and on beaches, doing Scottish dancing (yes, really!) and barbequeing, the cricket was on the television. Also staying was a young man who was playing for the MCC against Sark (a rather unlikely venue for a cricket match) and we all went by boat to watch and support. So cricket was much on our minds.

One evening after dinner there was a discussion about what to call the new house, once the old house had been demolished and Thunderbird Tracy Island had been built in its place. Number 3's voice from the sitting room where cricket was dominating the evening television schedule proposed naming the house after a fielding position and suggested Cow Corner - somewhere between mid-wicket and wide long-on apparently.

Three years later and we're back on Guernsey - my beloved, numbers 1, 3 and 4 and number 1's boyfriend and we're here for the naming ceremony. While the house was being built - and it is amazing, making the spectacular view an integral part of the family home in a way that I couldn't have begun to imagine - Cow Corner was translated into Guernsey patois and became Couin de Vacque. Number 3 is given the honour of revealing the new house name, carved in stone by the gate, by pulling away the Guernsey flag. It's a great moment, with family and those involved in the design and build present and we are so thrilled to be a part of it. So in this most beautiful spot, there is a fabulous and unique house, proudly named by a Yorkshireman, translated into the local dialect and celebrating the game we love. Nice!

Postscript: While we were waiting for our plane this morning at Guernsey Airport, number 3 spotted the New Zealand cricketer, Lou Vincent. When we landed at Manchester, he introduced himself to the one-time opening bat for the Kiwis and very friendly he was too. Apparently he had playing cricket on Herm - how could we have missed that!

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Glorious Sound of Leather on Willow

When they talk about the Olympic legacy of people trying new sport, I'm not sure this is what they had in mind...

On Thursday evening, we were in the pub - me, child 4 and the intrepid granny - for the weekly quiz night, along with the singing, dancing doctor and Il Presidente of the village cricket club. Each Saturday during the season, our village turns out three teams to play in the Nidderdale League for this is a cricket village. Disaster was about to strike. There were enough players for two teams but not enough for three. Not fielding a third team would mean a deduction of six points and would put them in danger of relegation. Il Presidente was a man on a mission. He would not let this happen.

The singing, dancing doctor has two sons who are brilliant at cricket but are currently away on a World Challenge trip to the Far East so, in his sons' absence, he bravely volunteered. Cue the arrival with classic timing of my beloved. He had been on an all-afternoon lunch and had wisely arrived back from Leeds transported by bus and taxi. He was very relaxed. When asked if he would turn out for the village third team, he smiled and willingly agreed. If we'd asked him to do the Olympic pole vault, go bungee jumping, no doubt the answer would have been the same. Then, surprisingly, number 4 child - the small, beautiful one, volunteered too! Excitedly, with only one bar of signal in the notorious mobile phone black spot which is our village pub, Il Presidente texted the third team captain. Job done. Ten players so no deduction. They didn't have to win, they just had to turn up.

Fast forward to Saturday morning and the realisation of the task ahead had hit. Number 4 was kitted out in number 3's old whites whilst he was playing for the second team that afternoon. My beloved was promised kit by the team captain and off they went, with some trepidation to our next door village where the third team have their home ground. Intrepid granny and I followed in support.

We arrived to find that the singing, dancing doctor was dressed in his number 2 son's kit and looked the part which, coupled with his sons' own aptitude for the game, had convinced the skipper to put him in as batsman number 3. He went in (looking fabulous!), got a run and got out (still looking fabulous and so excited he hadn't got a duck!). Then other proper batsmen went in and were out but a half decent score was accumulating and things were looking up.

Then the legend that is Wilf who is a septuagenarian and normally bats, if at all, at number 11 went in at number 8. Not for long, sadly though runs were still mounting up, and suddenly he is walking off and my beloved is walking out to bat - 37 years after the last time he had done so. I worried: would he have a heart attack (fortunate that his doctor would be present) or split the captain's trousers which were snug to say the least!

He faced the first ball, he looked the part, he hit it ... over the boundary for four! The crowd gasped. The proper batsmen commented on his timing, "he's still got it" and he continued to amaze us - actually running between the wickets, but only singles. Then the last proper batsman at the other end got out and suddenly the small one, helpfully padded and helmeted up by the skipper strolled out to bat with her father.

"Will they be nice?" screeched intrepid granny who was assured by our captain that they would. Fielders crowded round the bat and she hit the ball. In fact, she went on to double the singing, dancing doctor's score before putting up a catch. The fielder sportingly apologised to the small one and she led, long hair blowing in the wind from under her helmet, the fielders and her father back in for tea. Number 4 out for 2, my beloved 11 not out and a total score of 140. Respect!

They didn't win, they didn't get a batting point but no deductions and the third team live to survive another day. Later in the pub, number 4 has been invited to play for the village ladies' team and play in a girls' cricket tournament in September and my beloved was asked if he could play next Saturday. Mercifully he can't - not least because he may not be able to walk tomorrow.

Proud doesn't even begin to describe it. And number 3's team won. A day to remember.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Flying the Flag - our Olympic Story

You know the way that small children say "he's been!" on Christmas morning when they find their stockings (or in our case, pillowcases) have been filled by Santa. Well, that was me on Wednesday morning when we arrived at the Olympic park "We're here!". Ridiculously over-excited because we, number 1 child and I, were there in the most amazing sporting place in the world.
Ever since London won the bid, the whole Olympic thing has been whizzing round my brain. I immediately told my children that it was one of my ambitions to be an Olympic mother. "Pick  a sport, any sport!"  I exhorted and yes ... they failed me. 
Then moving on to the torch, I nominated my dear and brilliant friend, Louise who is the inspiration for raising over £800,000 for two local charities - Alzheimer's and scleroderma - and wonderfully and emotionally she ran with the torch at Barkston Ash and we were there to celebrate her fantastic moment. 
And while all this was going on, I had spent hours - yes, hours - trying to score tickets in the ballots. High levels of abuse at Sir Seb that despite the huge amount of sport played and watched and coached and organised from the little house on the prairie no tickets were available. I chuntered a good deal and finally tried in the third and last ballot for tickets to the diving and yessss (pause for Olympic-size cheering) we got tickets to the men's synchro 3 metre springboard diving! 
So on Wednesday morning I was on the train to Kings Cross to meet number 1 for our Olympic diving fest. Straight on to the javelin train from Saint Pancras where we encountered a very smart volunteer who proudly told us he was in the flag team in the stadium for the victory ceremonies - what a great job! 
Through security and everyone - volunteers, army, spectators - are smiling and sharing their Olympic news. The park is amazing and we walk round to check out the various stadia - velodrome, basketball arena, hockey, pool and main stadium. Of course, there's a massive screen showing all the action from the rowing and cycling taking place elsewhere in the capital.

Lunch proved a bit of a challenge. This is the only the sign of difficulty that we encounter. The various food stalls have had logistics problems getting provisions into the park so paella with hardly anything in it but rice but we don't care - the sun is shining and we are on our way to the pool.  
Before the competition in the pool starts, all the divers from all disciplines are training so we see Tom Daley practising on the 5 and 10 metre board as well as the other GB divers. Then the competition starts and the Chinese are awesome. They have won every diving medal so far and this is going to be no exception. The Malaysian pair bow charmingly after every dive and the Mexicans, trained by number 1's old mate Fito who used to be the coach at Shipley, are doing incredible high tariff dives which are either very successful or a disaster. The GB team gets such a huge cheer every time they step on the board that it feels like the roof may come off. They finish 5th and that's a fair result because the Chinese win by a country mile and deservedly so. As Tom Daley said, winning silver in diving is like winning gold in any other sport. The Chinese have it all sewn up.
Then back out into the park to see Bradley Wiggins getting his medal on the big screen to huge cheers from the crowd in the park and then we join a queue for return tickets for the women's basketball. It takes an hour but yes, we get lucky and front row seats are ours for the GB Russia match. The atmosphere is like a party and the feel is very American but every British score is ear-splitting and the result is close... but the wrong way. 
I sometimes think that as a nation we are not proud enough of being British. I hope that national pride is a legacy of the Jubilee and the Olympics. Proud to be British and so, so proud to be there. A once-in-a-lifetime day. 

PS Massive good luck to Jack Laugher, our GB diver who goes to Ripon Grammar is in the springboard event next week. Can these Olympics get any better!? 

Monday, 23 July 2012

Viva, Viva Las Vegas!

So this is my last blog of our great American adventure. We are sitting in the airport unbelievably early - yes, really! - for our flight back to Gatwick. Number 3 is catching up on his cricket, rugby and golf news and number 4 has gone airport shopping. My beloved is editing the hundred or so photographs he has taken in that most eccentric city, Las Vegas.
The last three days have been a blast. This is a massive weekend destination for Americans and on Saturday, the pool area of our hotel was packed with stag and hen parties. The volume of the celebrations, coupled with music, made the pool a hot and noisy place to be. We hung out there till the heat and the noise got too much for us and then we headed out to explore.
The Bellagio has to be everyone's favourite. It's a surprisingly beautiful building and it manages to maintain its dignity despite having thousands of fruit machines in it. And the restaurants are superb which explains a lot why my beloved has such a fondness for the place.
At my insistence, we fight our way along the packed pavements to the Venetian which has, yes, proper canals and gondolas - and singing gondoliers. Lovely friends of ours stayed there when they got married earlier this year in the Elvis chapel so we had to go and check it out. All these hotels have huge shopping malls and I suppose the strange thing about this place is that actually you could come here for a week and never go outside. And I suspect that this is a reality for serious gamblers.
Amidst all the colours, sights and sounds of this brash city, we (my beloved and I - 3 and 4 being galleried out) went to the Monet exhibition in the Bellagio. Peace and extraordinary beauty by a painter who was a favourite of mine in my teens and twenties.
So our last forty eight hours have been spent relaxing by the pool, eating, drinking and taking in the sights and sounds of Vegas. For me, the high point is the amazing Bellagio fountain to which no video can ever do justice. We must have watched about five performances of the fountain - the last, appropriately Elvis singing Viva Las Vegas. So goodbye USA, now it's planes, trains and automobiles for the next 24 hours to get back to Blighty.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

In the desert you can remember your name

Three days in Dana Point and we're properly chilled. I've realised why I don't usually write a holiday blog (unless of course it's Kenya or Morocco or up the Nile, and those tend to be Granny holidays). Writing about going to the beach, lying by the pool and eating in lovely harbour restaurants looking at very nice boats probably doesn't make interesting reading. 
There has, however, been mother and son tennis - number 3 now beats me every time but I put up a tolerably good fight in the heat. And we did have plenty of Baywatch moments when the lifeguards rush into the sea like David Hasselhof in his prime which is probably why I burnt my back - clearly too much baywatching and not enough sun cream. Oh, and all the waiters sound like Freddie Prince Junior and say "awesome" when we tell them we come from England. 
On our last night in Dana Point we head up onto the cliffs above the resort to a restaurant called Cannons (absolutely nothing similar to the like-named gym) for dinner with a magnificent view of the harbour and yacht club - and a wedding which is taking place on the patio, one level below the dining room. Beautiful bride and a set of seven big bridesmaids dressed in red - and I mean big! Couldn't decide whether this was the bride's way of making sure the spotlight was on her but they were a buxom team of women squeezed into tight red dresses. Anyway this kept us entertained whilst my beloved took number 3 back to the hotel because he had a touch of sunstroke and couldn't eat - a cheap dinner for once but he needed to eat a lot the next day to catch up.
Then in the morning we leave lovely Dana Point and drive down the coast to La Jolla which is home to one of my beloved's favourite restaurants, George's, where we sit on the roof terrace and look across the bay. La Jolla is also home to a seal colony and loads of pelicans and we watch the seals play and relax on the rocks. Then back in the car for our last drive of the holiday - this time, along the coast to San Diego where we do a quick detour to Coronado Island so I can pay my respects to the Del Rey Hotel - scene of much of the action in probably my all-time favourite film "Some like it Hot" starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe. I jump about on the sand in front of the hotel in roughly the spot where Tony Curtis does his shell routine with Marilyn Monroe, probably looking more like Jack Lemmon in drag than the other two.  With a bit more time, we'd have gone to the Top Gun bar as well but that might have to wait for another trip.
So it's goodbye to Gloria, the sat nav, and now we're airborne on our penultimate flight - to Las Vegas for our last three days on our big American adventure. 
Whoa! We come out of the airport in Las Vegas and it's like someone's switched a thousand hair dryers on full in our faces. It's over 100 degrees and it's eight o'clock at night. As we snake round the taxi line which is mercifully fast-moving, we are virtually dripping. 
The ride up The Strip is literally an assault on our senses or at least our optical one. After three Oceans films, you'd think the landscape would be familiar but nothing prepares you for the Pyramid, Eiffel Tower, Disney, Arc de Triomphe, Trump, Cosmopolitan, Cesar's Palace  and, of course, the Bellagio. All this in a desert. We pull up at the Vdara and my beloved goes to check in along with a queue of others. And the fun begins ...
Swipe key in hand we head up to our room on the 14th floor. The card works and we open the door. It stinks of cigarette smoke - like proper old pubs used to smell. The room has half-eaten food, rubbish, unmade bed, clothes - it looks like students are living there. Back down to the lobby and my beloved is having words. Apparently they are "dealing with it". A moment later and we are crossing the walkway to the Bellagio to another of my beloved's favourite restaurants, Sensi. 
Sometimes I feel that my beloved leads a double life - the one at home with me and 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the little house on the prairie, and this one. The restaurant is fabulous and the kitchen is inside the dining room but divided by glass walls so we can watch the chefs work. And our waiter is, well, a hilarious tall, thin version of Stamford from SATC who comes from England but has been here so long he sounds mid-Atlantic. He can't do enough for us and the food is fantastic. And then (and this is another reason for thinking the whole double life thing is going on), the restaurant manager comes over - not the maitre d' but someone way loftier and greets my other half like he's a regular and promises us a special dessert. 
It arrives - fifteen desserts in a tower that makes other diners stop and stare on their way past. We manage 12 - not bad after five starters and three main courses! Stamford loves it and appears genuinely proud of us for our efforts although obviously number 3 has done more than his share of the damage. 
Then we have to go to the Bellagio fountain. Through the unbelievable visual cacophony of the lobby - a million flowers of every colour, thousands of people of every nationality and age, beautiful, ugly, dressed to the nines or looking like hookers and street kids  - it's all here  - and out into the hair dryer night to watch the extraordinary musical drama of the fountain. And for the few minutes the drama takes to unfold, the rest of The Strip stops and watches. And it does this four times an hour. 
It's late when we get back to the Vdara and yes, we are promoted to a top floor suite. Job done and it's been a long old day since we got up this morning in Dana Point. Long but definitely unforgettable. Living the Vegas life! 

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

I was thinking to myself, this could be heaven...

Every holiday with my beloved involves 'a big drive'. Even in Portugal where the most beautiful beaches are on your doorstep, he will have found one on the internet/in the guidebook that is 'absolutely superb' and off we'll go, driving for an hour or two and, lo and behold, the beach is as amazing as billed and I can't be cross that we've spent so much time in the car.

So the next two days of our holiday is 'the big drive' and we set off with the hire car packed to the gunnels - the four of us and Gloria - the sat nav. My beloved has a love/hate relationship with sat navs and he refuses to have one in his own car although he navigates the length and breadth of Britain for work. Anyway, Gloria is undoubtedly a spikey blond, a little past her best but she's had some work done and is only slightly disappointed that this is a step down from the newsreader's job she was hoping for. In my beloved's world, she is Myrtle, the big black momma and he persists in calling her that. Anyway, Gloria/Myrtle is the most patient woman on the planet because regardless of the directions she gives, my beloved is going his own way down the Pacific Highway. She says "recalculating" every time he does his own thing at a junction and even after a dozen or so "recalculatings" she doesn't let any edge come into her voice. This woman is a saint!

We have planned to stop off in Monterey and Cartmel but it's "oops, we've missed Monterey" but instead we go to Pebble Beach because it is famous for its classic car auctions apparently. Actually it is one of the greatest golf courses in the world and the fledgling golfer in me is rather enjoying the moment. I look at the names on the roll of honour: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and ... CB. Ah well, a girl can dream. Can I buy some new golf shoes here? (I wear the ones number 3 had when he started playing aged 9) No, apparently as a golf cap costs nearly 50 dollars so shoes would break the bank.

Then we queue through Cartmel but that's a bit cutesy for me - I can only take so much mock Tudor and overpriced boutiques and then on to Pismo Beach with just one stop on the way for the elephant seals. Everyone is parked on the side of the road looking at these giant growling slugs who coolly flick sand and indulge in some occasional pretend fighting. The usual questions from number 4: Can I stroke one/have one for a pet? No. Also, this is where I attempt to get into the wrong SUV much to the amusement of my family.

Gloria takes us to the door of our hotel in Pismo Beach - genius Gloria - and gets some grudging approval from my beloved. Supper then bed for us with another big drive tomorrow. Gloria must be exhausted!

I have cunningly persuaded number 3 to convince his father that we should go direct to Dana Point which is the beach and sun bit of the holiday and he obliges. We have sorted the spotify out on my ipad and we cruise down the rest of the route including the outskirts of Los Angeles listening to some tracks I downloaded before we came out especially for some California driving. Some chuntering from my beloved at the lack of interesting detours but here we are in a rather swish hotel with pools, fitness suite, spa and yes, a tennis court. After two days in the car, I definitely need to burn off some calories. Big drive done and Gloria and I are doing some chillin'.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Dude looks like a lady!

San Francisco this morning, the weather is warmer or at least clearer and we set out for breakfast in Washington Square. Sitting in the sun, it's easy to forget how cold it was yesterday.  Today's plan is to visit Lombard Street, described as 'the crookedest street in the world' where the road zigzags down this steep hill between gardens planted with purple and pink hydrangeas. We wisely start at the top (having walked up a parallel street) and walk down. So much of this city is a hill that there is always a climb involved somewhere.
And then, my treat - a cable car ride through the city to Market Street. It was just as I had imagined - like a roller coaster down the hills and all the clanking and bells. I was having a whole 'Meet me at St Louis' moment in completely the wrong city. Love that song, Judy! 
Market Street has the sort of shops that number 4 loves but it also contains the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art so three out of the four of us happy and the other one saying: "Not shops and art galleries again!" Anyway he survived. 
And then the must-do event for my Mrs Doubtfire-obsessed family - a visit to 2640 Steiner Street where Robin Williams' family live in the film. The taxi driver was bemused by our request but dropped us outside in the house in the middle of a quiet residential area. Two teenage girls were also taking pictures - the only other sign of Doubtfire worship and yes, they were English. Photographs taken, especially to send to number 2 child who can recite the whole film from memory and we set off to walk to Little Italy for supper. This is a great place for people watching, sitting on the pavement (or sidewalk since we're here) and watching the world go by with a glass of red wine and some great pasta and then the worst cappuccino in the world - ah well, you can't have everything! 
This is our last day in San Francisco and we're going to bike the bridge - or at least that was the plan until we got to the bike hire place where the little hippy guy/surfer dude said that there was a 4 hour wait for the ferry on the other side to come back. Anyway he gave us a great biking trail to follow instead and we biked across the city to the Presidio park where the view across the bay including the Golden Gate Bridge is wonderful. We stopped to admire the view and met some delightful New Zealanders with whom we shared cricket and rugby chat - excellent. 
Then at almost the furthest point from the bike hire place, disaster struck. Number 3 had a flat back tyre. Not just a minor flat that you can bike on, this was more the inner tube hanging out and having no option but to push. And push we did, to three other bike places who couldn't or wouldn't fix our tyre, for over two hours until we reached Citizen Chain which was a really proper bike place (as well as a great name) where the guy who fixed our tyre was totally in awe of Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins and the GB bike team and was an absolute hero to four weary bike-pushers. Anyway we biked back the rest of the way and the little hippy guy/surfer dude/bike hire man didn't charge us for one of the bikes so not such a bad result.
For our last night in San Francisco we went to my beloved's favourite restaurant which is like a little Italian canteen with fabulous food and a mercifully short distance from the Fairmont so only a stagger with very full bellies.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

It's cold and it's damp ...

Chicago's first stop today was the John Hancock Centre which is the second tallest building in the city with 360 degree views and a narration of all that you can see from the familiar voice of David Schwimmer - Ross Geller from Friends. As a Chicago resident himself, hearing him talk about Sue, the T-Rex makes you think he must have been a shoo-in for the part of the palaeontologist.  
The other sightseeing event was the Museum of Modern Art which was impressive and the theme of the current exhibition was skyscraper architecture as art with a number of poignant works devoted to 9/11. For me, the highlight was the Andy Warhol piece based on pictures of Jackie Kennedy taken by press photographers on the day of JFK's assassination. Very moving. 
Then number 3 was desperate to go back down to the beach for a last swim in Lake Michigan before we were loaded into a taxi by the large-than-life hotel porter, Carlos who, by the way he and my beloved were bonding, may be turning up at the little house on the prairie some time soon.
And finally, returning to the skin of our teeth travelling methods, once we were at the airport having been scanned, and in my case, patted down, I checked the departure gate whilst my beloved laced up his shoes, rethreaded his belt and so on. Foolishly, as it turned out, I had assumed we were flying to San Francisco so we trundled down to gate B20 and waited to board. At the head of the queue, we were told "You're boarding the wrong flight!" so back to the desk and a sprint back to gate B3 where we made it on to the flight to Oakland, San Francisco by, yes, the skin of our teeth and are scattered around the plane in the only available seats. Ring any bells?!   
We have checked into the Fairmont on the top of Nob Hill in San Francisco which is lovely especially when they checked us into a suite (which turned out to be a short-lived pleasure as they had overbooked and we are now in a normal room). Anyway, me with my time clock all wrong again and I was up with the lark at 6.30am and waiting for the rest to emerge from their shells like tortoises by 9.00. I'm not sure I'm very good at this time zone thing as I was wide awake at 1.00am last night too. If I fall asleep during the baseball tonight there will be trouble! 
Having fallen in love with the hot sidewalks of Chicago, San Francisco is going to have to be on a big charm offensive to make me love it as much. It's been a cool, foggy old day here so we walked down to Union Square and after grabbing a scrambler (note use of lingo - clever huh?) we bought tickets for the hop-on, hop-off bus to have a lightning tour of the sights. It may have been an error to sit upstairs on an open-topped bus to go across the Golden Gate Bridge on a day when it was damp, windy and chilly. By the time we reached the far shore we were, as we say in God's own county, nithered. The other thing which I always find stupidly amusing is how proud our hosts are about anything that's more than 100 years old. Crikey, if I lived here I'd nearly be an antique! 
The main event of the day was going to the ball game, as they call it here. My beloved had booked tickets to see the San Francisco Giants play the Houston Astros at the spectacular A T & T Park. As almost the only people not wearing orange (the team colour) we stood out somewhat until my beloved and 3 and 4 donned orange wigs (sorry, but I have limits) and we sat on the bleachers with the 50,000 or so crowd. 
Now the thing about baseball, from a British sport-watching perspective, is that more seems to go on off the field than on it. There is so much crowd entertainment - music, big screen, food - in unrelenting and unbelievable quantities and varieties - that the dozen or so guys wearing grey and orange on the far side of the pitch are almost incidental. The Americans want us to enjoy their very family-friendly sporting event. The man in front of us was one of three people who did their best to explain 'rounders for boys' as I see it, and we got the hang of the scoring - because there aren't many rules to this game. He also quoted Mark Twain to us which definitely summed up the weather: 
"The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco."
Anyway the Giants won, everyone made their way back through the crowded streets with scarcely a policeman in sight and we learnt a bit more about this great American city.  

Friday, 13 July 2012

My Kind of Town

Our first full day in Chicago was to be spent without the company of my beloved as he left the hotel at 5am to get a flight to Pittsburg where he had a meeting. We got up early and headed out of the hotel to walk along the edge of lake Michigan. This city is so bike- and jogger-friendly and we were amazed at the number of people who were training round the lake and in it, come to that. Of course, watching all that activity made us hungry again and we found a brilliant breakfast place in Streeterville called Yolk with a breakfast menu that ran to eight pages. Full of eggs benedict and fruit and, in number 4's case, a pile of strawberry and chocolate pancakes accompanied by maple syrup and butter (only discovered when number 3 ate a spoonful because he thought it was ice cream) we walked for the next hour across town to the Field Museum - home of Sue.
Sue is the largest, most complete T-Rex in the world and is the star of the museum but there was a lot to see in addition to her, and her life-story in 3D. We shrank down to less than an inch in size and explored the soil, met Ghengis Khan (who knew that Kubla Khan was one of his four warring sons?) and sat in a Pawnee hut learning how they lived and much more. Our plan then was to go to the Aquarium but the queue in the now-baking sunshine was so long that we headed for the river taxi and chugged along the edge of Lake Michigan admiring the spectacular skyline from the water. 
Like Barcelona, this is a city with a beach - or rather lots of beaches and we headed under the underpass (like you do!) which runs beneath six lanes of traffic and on to the beach where 3 and 4 consumed shrimp and chips before I could lie on the sand in peace.
My beloved arrived back after a successful day in Pittsburg and we met him down town and ate dinner (huge portions again. Memo to self: no starters!) before arriving back at the hotel where mercifully our energetic and noisy neighbours appear to have checked out or died...whichever!   
Our second day in Chicago and the man who needs half as much sleep as I do was up and out early going for a walk whilst the rest of us snoozed on. Eventually we got ourselves fettled in time to grab a cab and head up to the Aquarium - the biggest in the USA and not to be missed if you come here. The advice we had received the previous day to come early was a good shout because within half an hour the whole place was full of little people. Not in the sense of dwarves but small children aged about eight dressed in matching t-shirts and ushered round by guides in similar t-shirts who attempted with varying degrees of success to control their small, shrieking charges. Absolutely amazing jellyfish, seahorses and a very good guide who explained, in front of a tank of sharks, that it wasn't the shark's fault if he couldn't tell the difference between a seal and a man on a surfboard from underneath. Makes perfect sense when you put it like that! 
One of the must-do things in Chicago is, by all accounts, to go on the original architectural boat cruise and very good it is too. For an hour and a half we cruised the Chicago river and the coast of lake Michigan learning about the history of the city and some of its extraordinary buildings. 

And so out for dinner and a great night in the really buzzing Luxbar on Rush before staggering back to our hotel - tomorrow we have just a day left in Chicago before catching the plane to San Francisco. 

Thursday, 12 July 2012

I Say a Little Prayer

Chicago is a really surprising city.  I don't know what I expected but amongst the various things I've read in the last few weeks is that Chicago is where skyscrapers were first built and the skyline here is amazing. Amongst the modern towers of all shapes are the older buildings like the Chicago Tribune building and these are reminiscent of Gotham City, which turned out to be rather appropriate as we later bumped into Batman and the Joker in Millennium Park. Not the real ones obviously, but students filming but they had the make-up perfectly for the late, great Heath Ledger as the Joker - definitely one of my favourite film actors of all time.

Despite the fact that we had eaten lunch (and a lot of other things) on the plane, as soon as we had checked into our lovely old-fashioned hotel (think Ghostbusters) we headed out to feed child 3 again. We've been to the Chicago Cheesecake Company before in Annapolis and so, in order to refuel the one who is always hungry we went there, just a block away under the John Hancock Tower which is one of the tallest buildings in the city. We all managed a main course (I always forget how gigantic the portions are here) and then child 3 made it his mission in life to eat the most enormous chocolate cheesecake. He has just told me it was a chocolate biscuit base with a chocolate mousse layer, vanilla mascarpone, with chocolate on the top and whipped cream and chocolate sauce - how's that for detail! He finished it, declared that he felt pregnant - like he'd know! - and we set off to explore the Magnificent Mile which is the massive shopping street with all the US and global brands - retail heaven for number 4.

I find myself entertained at how much we know - or think we do - about the USA from watching movies. We crossed the bridge where Julia Roberts had danced on the boat in My Best Friend's Wedding (the same film where Rupert Everett stole the show singing Dionne Warwick's I Say a Little Prayer) and walked up to Millennium Park where there was a free outdoor concert playing in a magnificent hall that looked like they had started to build the Sydney Opera House and built just one side. People just rocked up, biked up, skate boarded up, listened for a while to the band who started off sounding like the Shadows, and then moved off in the evening sun.

My beloved had got very excited about The Bean. This is a giant shiny metal kidney bean, designed by an Englishman, which he promised, incorrectly as it turned out, to be the size of Copgrove Hall. Actually it was probably not much bigger than the village hall but its shiny sides made curious reflections of us all and it's obviously a big draw here and rightly so. Its image appears all over the city and as the park only opened in 2004 it is very popular.

By the time we got back to the hotel it was 2.00am UK time and we were ready to crash. However we have now discovered the downside of this lovely, old-school hotel - thin walls! Lots of gymnastic and noisy activity on the other side of the wall which made it impossible for child 3 to hear Jeremy Clarkson in a very early episode of Top Gear. Cue my beloved banging on the wall with a shoe and some wag saying they must be old and fat because they stopped pretty soon after that!

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

All gone to look for America

The last couple of weeks I've been playing in my head the Simon and Garfunkel song America as it sort of sums up how I feel about this trip to Chicago and the West Coast. It's going to be a bit of an adventure for my beloved, children 3 and 4 and me, of course, and as I can't take you along, I thought I'd blog my way round...

As I frequently point out to my children, travelling anywhere with their father is never dull. Already we have made the train at Knaresborough by the skin of our teeth and really only by virtue of the fact that our singing-dancing doctor drove us there. Then we managed to catch the wrong train from York to London - to clarify, the train was the earlier one but it arrived precisely at the time our slightly later train should have arrived had all trains not been temporarily derailed - time-wise rather than literally - by trespassers on the line at Durham.

We arrived at Kings Cross having been scattered through the carriage as our reservations were for the original train rather than the one we actually travelled on and - I can't believe I'm saying this - ate in the fabulous new concourse. Kings Cross station, so grim and grotty of old, sitting next to the very smart St Pancras, seems hardly to know itself and the new roof is really spectacular. I can't help thinking that there must be money to be  made if they lined up the Hogwarts Express at Platform 9 and 3/4 and ran a daily excursion into the countryside but then HP is dear to my heart so perhaps I am not entirely rational where the works of JKR are concerned.

Finally outward bound on our Virgin flight, disappointingly not skippered by our pilot pal who works for the airline and regularly flies this route but nevertheless in comfort having made the flight by the skin of our teeth - this appears to be a recurring theme already. First, number 4 child thought 'someone else' was bringing her luggage down from the hotel room - that would be the unspecified someone other than the three of us presumably, and so had to go back to collect it. Then it took forever to check in though we were entertained to see the imposing rear (and front) end of Serena Williams' mother also checking on to our Chicago-bound flight. I have seen her and I wouldn't mess with her! Finally, number 4 (yes, again) had to go and look for magazines and disappeared for so long that the trek to gate 20 had to be done at speed - not easy for me as my beloved (who may in future be known as the man who does not travel light) had had overweight hand luggage and consequently all his books were now in my hand luggage. Anyway, we're safely on board and 3 and 4 are happily glued to the screen in front of them - just like being at home then! - and my beloved (TMWDNTL) is on his fourth drink and deciding what treats lie in store later in the trip.

To be continued...

Saturday, 23 June 2012

A Break in the Weather

Last night I slept in my winter jamas, not that you need to know that, but it is a sign that the weather has been utterly abysmal. Child number 3, post-GCSEs, has had five cricket matches and two tennis matches scheduled over a nine-day period and, day 8 as I write, has managed one tennis and one cricket though he tells me his team won both so I imagine things could be worse.

Last weekend, however, we (my beloved and I plus 24 other guests) skipped off to Rome for the weekend to celebrate a certain 40th birthday. It was blisteringly hot and, after the summer we have had so far, a real shock - in a good way - to the system. The birthday boy had smartly organised meals altogether in the evening and left the days to do as we pleased. An excellent choice because this left us with the opportunity to do some very selective sightseeing (because this is our third trip to Rome) and some very pleasant eating and drinking.

For me, the great thing about Rome is that you can do the Vatican/churches thing (not for me this time), the capital city buzz thing including restaurants, shops and bars (need I elaborate?) or the Roman history thing. Now the last is a big favourite and if I list the top historical sites so far visited in the world, the Colosseum is right up there. For the sake of completeness and in no particular order, the others are Hampton Court, Tower of London, the Temple at Karnak and Abu Simbel in Egypt.

The one place I really wanted to revisit in Rome was the Colosseum because it just blows me away every time. How they even built it, without cranes and proper scaffolding amazes me, but human life was cheap and dying on the job an occupational hazard, particularly for slaves. On this occasion, we went with a guide who was not worried about making his charges stand in the sun or, more kindly, sit in the shade whilst he made the place come alive for us. Once I get into the zone, the millions of other footfalls are stripped away and I imagine how it must have been when the Colosseum was the greatest spectacle in the greatest city in the world.

At the time when the Roman Empire was at its height, not only did the Romans control most of the known world, but 2% of the world's population lived in Rome - something unimaginable with today's huge population but it nevertheless made Rome THE PLACE. Whether you were rich and powerful in another corner of the Roman Empire, or poor and hoping to better your lot, Rome was a magnet the world over. And in Rome, the biggest attraction was the Colosseum.

Ancient Rome as it was then
It's hard to imagine a world without multi-media communication and having so much knowledge about places we have never been to, but try to think what it would be like to live in Britannia anytime between AD43 and AD410 and to arrive in Rome and see animals like lions and elephants - it would surely be like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They would literally have appeared to be creatures from another planet. Of course, if you arrived at the Colosseum and you were a slave, you would probably be in the dark labyrinth of corridors and cells under the arena and your visit might well be your first and your last.

But to be in the huge crowds that were drawn to the amazing spectacle, to be amongst those watching the animals fight, and then the gladiators - the rock stars of their day; to be, along with the Emperor, choosing life or death for the losers by the flick of a thumb - that surely must have been an experience beyond anything in our sophisticated world.