Saturday, March 27, 2010


This past year the term “staycation” was all the rage. It was used here in the UK to describe people who holiday on this island instead of traipsing off to another part of the world. Of course Americans do this quite a bit, taking it one step further by taking time off of work and just staying at home, enjoying their daily surroundings.

With A in France and H finished with work we’ve been having our own verion of a staycation. Sure, I was still going to work every day but this week I vowed to work a normal UK workday and not accommodate other timezones in the evening and it has been heaven. H has been enjoying cooking at a leisurely pace and the kitchen is an absolute disaster because of it. I’m at peace with that because one, what’s the point of being too neat as we tear the house up to pack and two, who’s gonna complain when you sit down and a bowl of homemade Jerusalem artichoke soup and sandwich on homemade bread is handed to you for dinner?

Gordon Ramsay has a television show here called The F Word and this season one of the components of the show was a viewer-nominated favourite local restaurant competition. We rarely go out to dinner, but seeing Retsina in Belsize Park featured on the show made us take note and make an exception. Thursday night was my Friday night so off we went to north London.

The Freud Museum is somewhere along the way to the restaurant. I had to stop and take a picture of this statue because at night it’s pretty creepy.

We took our chances and didn’t book a table. It was packed when we got there but we were told to come back in 30-45 minutes and there would be a table for two. I am not quite sure how it all worked with reservations because there seemed to be no reservation book. You just walked in and whatever member of wait staff was closest to the door came over and asked how many.

When we arrived back, a couple had just gotten up from the table that was smack dab in the middle of the noisy full house and once a new table cloth and flatware was added, it was all ours. Every time H said something to me my response was, “What?” The noise wasn’t annoying though. Looking around there were two big parties celebrating birthdays and a few other groups. Everyone was having a great time. I picked spanagopita as a starter and H got a mixed starter. They brought out some carrot sticks, olives, and peppers and pita with some homemade tsaziki that was divine. As soon as I tasted the dolmathes on his starter I was taken back to my youth. My uncle Bill made homemade stuffed grape leaves and they were delicious. My original choice of lamb souvla as a main was sold out so I went for the stifado. H got a mixed grill. As we were eating I told H that no meal since we had been in the UK made me think of home as much as that meal did. His response with a smile was, “Which home?” Of course I meant where we grew up in Chicagoland where going to any local restaurant you could have a Greek classic for breakfast lunch or dinner if you wished. Oh how I’ve missed that. The only time the noise in the restaurant failed me was when I didn’t hear what H was feeding me off his plate until I began to chew and realized it was liver! The flavour was good but the texture of liver, yuck.

After the mains H went outside to smoke and ended up talking to the owner who we recognized from television. They talked shop, lamb especially. H asked him if they had a boost in business after the F word and he said that they were always busy. Looking around I believed it.

For dessert, I had a Greek coffee, thick like mud and some baklava. Again that brought back childhood memories. We had a neighbour who honestly as I think about her I don’t know if she spoke English or just Greek. She would bring us Greek desserts on occasion and one of them was baklava. Baklava is one of those desserts that borders on being so sickeningly sweet but good baklava doesn’t cross over that line. H had some vanilla ice cream for dessert and dipped pieces of my baklava in it proclaiming that combination to be the best dessert. It probably was good but when I eat baklava I want the full effect.

As we were waiting for the bill we noticed Zeta, the owner’s mother who also cooks and was also featured on the F Word. As she walked through the restaurant she smiled at me and patted me on the shoulder as she passed. She sat down at a table close to ours as the night began to wind down. Rather than looking completely exhausted, which is what I would imagine every member of staff felt at the end of this super busy night she seemed like a woman who was enjoying being a part of a place where people gathered for good food, drink, and celebration.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Very Long Day

A and her friend J have had tickets to see YouMeAtSix at Brixton Academy for about four months now. This would be their last concert together and A was really looking forward to it. Following the success of this band was the first British thing she embraced when she got here so it seemed appropriate that this would be her last concert before leaving. She wanted to go down to Brixton really early and it’s not an area where you send your kid alone for several hours. Inevitably I ended up spending more time in Brixton than I was planning on Saturday. There was some drama surrounding getting the girls where they needed to be but by show time it was all okay.

Before we went to Brixton we went into Fortnum and Mason to round out the gift for the French family with some tea. A mentioned it first. The crazies seemed to be out in full force Saturday. Strangers struck up conversations with us. As we rode down the escalator, A standing behind me, she put her chin on my shoulder and told me to slowly turn around and look behind her. There was a bald guy in a peach cardigan with nothing on under it. The V in the cardigan revealed the thickest carpet of chest hair I think I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t a good look.

When we arrived at the venue the line was already crazy long so we thought we’d explore a little bit, check out Brixton Market and get some lunch.

The girls had downstairs tickets. I had a balcony seat where you weren’t allowed to stand up during the show. A license to stay seated, that sounded good to me when I’d been standing in line with her for hours. By the time I got J home it was about 2:00am. H had only been home about an hour and I had to be up by 6am to get A to her bus for her French trip.

She woke up in a foul mood, no surprise after 3 hours of sleep. After a few tense conversations between us I drove her to the bus in silence still in my PJ bottoms so unlike the other parents, getting out of the car was not an option. I was tempted to yell out the car window as I left “Hope you’re nice to your French family because you treat your American family like crap!” I thought better of it since I hadn’t had any coffee yet and driving a car AND trying to make a statement would be considered multi-tasking and at that hour without caffeine something could go horribly wrong with that plan. Oh yeah, and I wouldn’t want to embarrass her.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

"Pick Up and Put Down"

That’s what B, one of our all-time favourite people calls walking through posh stores where you can’t afford anything.

I got out of work on time on a Friday night for the first time in many nights and A met me at the train station and we headed into London. We both have colds and it was one of those chilly and rainy nights so we didn’t go far, but needed to buy a gift for her French host family. I had a couple of ideas in mind based on some suggestions from my friend L. I can’t really pick out a gift for anyone without major assistance, LOL. We were going to go by Fortnum and Mason and pick up some tea but we headed to Liberty first. This store is fabulous. The building alone is gorgeous inside and out and filled with tons of stuff that had A going “Who can afford this? Who buys this?” Up on the 3rd floor they have a sewing department. Did I ever think we’d be spending a Friday night looking at buttons? Probably not, but that’s what we did. It was the fanciest sewing department I have ever seen and everything was beautiful down to the pin cushions. They had these birds for sale that were little statues probably about four inches tall that instead of being covered with feathers were covered with bits of fabric of different patterns and colors like quilts. Hard to describe without making them sound tacky but they were very intricate. A wanted one until we saw the £150 price tag.

The V&A Museum just opened a quilt exhibit so in conjunction with that Liberty had some quilts displayed. I covertly took a quick picture of some of them. The quilting supplies they were selling were amusing. My grandmother was a master quilt maker and watching her work, it was always about taking the scraps of other projects and making something beautiful with what is left. This store was selling little packs of swatches of “American Retro” fabrics for £35 ($55-$60). This is not your grandmother’s quilt shop!

We left with gift in hand. The exchange student’s mother is a children’s writer so we got a really cool children’s picture book with retro illustrations of London and a patterned Easter Egg box filled with chocolates.

The Moving Starts to Happen

A is walking around with a spring in her step. She keeps hugging me and saying “We’re moving to Utah!” I keep smiling and saying she’ll be singing another tune once we get there, because after all she’s 14 and it’s change. She’s just so happy to be going back to the States. I always ask her if she’ll miss her friends and she says yes but she doesn’t feel like she knows them well enough to be that upset about it. Is this a cultural thing or just an A thing? She says that while she has a big group of friends here, none of them are her best friends. Being in a big group seems to mean that you tell one friend something and it’s like telling the group which makes people more guarded. I was talking to a friend here about it and she said when she was growing up “the group” was the most important thing, forget about having one close friend. I see it in their interaction, it’s kinda cool and polite. I wonder if being at an all girl’s school has anything to do with this.

She’s been compiling a list of things she’s looking forward to and the funny thing is that two things high on her list are Tuna Helper and SpongeBob Squarepants Macaroni and Cheese. Forget that she’s been eating better the past year than many people eat their whole lives!

H is wrapping up his last week of work so he can focus on the logistics of the move. We’ve put together a list of things to sell and I think about having to buy a new life again when we go back to the States. If we would have seen into the crystal ball and known we wouldn’t be here for at least five years we would have put some things in storage, but in a way, it’s nice to not be saddled that way. Financially not the best thing we’ve done but it’s just stuff right? I was telling one of my colleagues here that I think about the future sometimes when A meets the boy she wants to marry (although she swears that will never happen) and we get invited to the soon to be in-law’s house and they have beautiful furniture, china and a fancy dining room table. Then they come to our house and we’re still living like college students because we’ve moved around so much. What will they think of us? She just laughed that I would be concerned about that. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking of that because in the end I guess the lesson we can teach her is that possessions don’t really matter. Get some life experiences instead.

Me, I feel like I’m having a mini mid-life crisis. With this big move, work not letting up a single moment, and a milestone birthday around the corner that I am trying desperately to ignore, it’s a little stressful right now. The day my mother died, we were leaving the cemetery after the service and while her death in many ways had been a long time coming, I still felt like I’d been sucker punched. As we walked to our cars, my best friend put her arm in mine and said to me, “Just promise me you won’t do something stupid with your hair”. Fast forward to London a few weeks ago and me admiring a woman with bleached platinum blonde hair. The train journey home I was thinking to myself, yeah that would be cool! The next morning when I verbalized this to one of my co-workers and saw the reaction it evoked, I realized how well my friend knew me. The moment of insanity passed. I will be heading back to the U.S., brunette as usual.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Driving - Something I Won't Miss

Let me say that I don't mind driving in the States and especially like a good road trip.  But I seriously will miss nothing related to driving in the UK. This past week with our exchange student I’ve been more of a taxi than ever and I’ve hated every minute of it. Car maintenance is ridiculously expensive, driving on narrow roads with everyone parked on the street is frustrating, and I’m ready to be back in the land of the enormous parking lot where parallel parking is rare. Yesterday I was taking one of A’s friends home. She gave me directions and told me to turn down this road that was named “The Clump”. If I didn’t see the sign I wouldn’t have believed it. I was amused for about 10 seconds and back to hating what I was doing.

This morning I was back to training it and happy to do so. 

Au Revoir

Our student headed home yesterday. A will be taking the Eurostar to his house on Sunday. She’s nervous but I think it will be a good experience for her.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Time to Go

The time has come my friends that we will be moving back to the States. We were hoping to leave with the Olympic athletes of 2012 but now for economic and employment reasons, it is best to move along. We will be back in the U.S. by the 26th of April at the latest but it might be sooner depending on how quickly we can get rid of our household goods. We only have a few things of substance and then a lot of IKEA furniture. How do we feel about it? Well, it’s bittersweet. We aren’t moving to a place we’ve lived before, but out west to Utah, so the unknown is once again there. I know the next few weeks will be rushed and full of to do lists and all I really want to do is wander through London until we leave and prepare to say goodbye to a city I so dearly love. More later on what we’ll miss and what we’ll welcome.

What will become of J in the UK? Will it become J NOT in the UK, J in the USA, or just fade away? I was talking to a friend the other day about the move and that was one of the first questions she asked.  I love you Meg!

She's Dreading France Now

As A watches our exchange guest struggle to understand English she is starting to freak out about going to France and staying with his family.  In true dramatic fashion she keeps saying "I'm gonna die there".  Unless the family puts her through a death-defying obstacle course I kinda don't think that will happen, and after the stress of this visit, SHE IS GOING.

Yesterday they went ice skating with a few of her friends and their exchange guest.  Ours had never been ice skating before so he liked that.  I then took them to the chippy for dinner (fish and chips shop).

Today it's a Thai lunch and bowling with two other friends and their exchange students.  Our exchange has not even seen H yet due to his work schedule so he'll get to meet him today.  H is going to make a Sunday roast dinner while we are gone.

If You're Wondering...

why the top pic in this blog keeps changing it's because I've been going through the pics I have taken since I've been here and there are so many that I love.  I thought it woud be a fun way to share some of those either again or for the first time.

Friday, March 12, 2010

This is Awkward

I imagine hosting a student for a week that’s part of a group of students visiting is different than hosting a student travelling alone who will stay for a full semester. Initially I thought this student would be someone who really wanted to practice their English, but actually no. My smattering of French is the only thing he understands and I believe he’s trying to avoid us because he doesn’t want to speak English.

I have been dreading this Friday night trying to figure out some entertainment. Thank goodness A’s friend came over and her friend’s mother was smart to come by with her friend’s teenage brother and volunteer to have him hang out here tonight as well. They are now speaking the universal language of Guitar Hero.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

It's a Boy!

He arrived today, our bundle of joy. I’m talking about A’s French exchange student. He’s here with us this week and part of next and then she will stay at his house in Versailles the following week. When she first brought the paperwork home for the exchange program she told me she would have a better chance of getting into the program if we said a boy or a girl would be fine instead of just a girl. Reluctantly I wrote down “doesn’t matter” on the form. Soon after we found out that a boy would be staying with us. I wrinkled up my nose and acted disappointed. I think I commented on it a few times before A said to me, “Gosh mom, what’s wrong with you? You have nephews! You act like you don’t like boys!” Was I worried about the balance of power in our household evening out for once for H? Was I worried she might fall in love with him? Maybe all of the above.

So far he seems very sweet and terribly nervous. He looks so much younger than A even though he’s only about six months younger. He came bearing gifts, some chocolates, a book on Paris, and a book of French cartoons. I have to pack him a lunch every day so I was trying to find out what he likes and what he does not like. Because his English is not so good I said to A, I’m going to ask him what he likes for lunch, is that voulez-vous manger pour le dejeuner? A’s response was, “You could just ask him what he wants for lunch, he is supposed to be practicing his English”. She didn’t say this to be cruel to him, she was trying to cut me off from continually embarrassing her with my smattering of French. I am sure next week she’ll be happy if one of the parents breaks out a little anglais every now and then, even when he is cringing in the corner.

The two of them and one of her friends and her exchange student went to see Alice in Wonderland tonight. I’m not good with awkward silences and as we drove to her friend’s house I wanted to ask him some questions just to be polite. I held off because I was thinking of a story that A told me recently. Her friend R was getting a ride home alone with another parent. R grabbed an extra muffin at lunch and when someone asked her about it she said something like “I’m hoping if I’m eating this on the way home K’s mom won’t ask me questions”. I laughed until I realized I should no longer be relating to the teenager in that story. I’m the dreaded mom!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Las Vegas for Kids

I have to quote my buddy Meg as that was her impression of sunny Lake Buena Vista. In the past couple of months I’ve found myself at probably the top two U.S. tourist destinations for foreign visitors which are both pretty far off the path of reality. You know any flight headed to Orlando will be packed with small children who need naps. The direct flight from London sounded like a great idea until looking around my fellow travellers at the gate I realized it would be nine hours of small children needing naps. As we were belting into our seats I was in full on envy of one of my seat mates who looked perfectly serene in his Bose noise cancelling headset.

Florida was unseasonably cold, so cold that I saw frost being scraped off of windshields in the morning. And all of us agreed, it’s weird being at a resort working when everyone around you is on vacation.

I caught a little tv here and there before heading out to work. Floridians are up in arms that there are cameras being installed to monitor stoplights and reduce crime. Seriously, let one camera get installed and you could end up living in CCTV nation! :)  Also, the healthcare bill is causing quite a controversy. Listening to some of the arguments like “people who have insurance are happy with their coverage and don’t want to change” made me wonder, are Americans so independent and unlikely to go for the greater good that the healthcare bill will never pass? I also heard that people have been unemployed longer in this recession than any recession in the past. That makes me worry a great deal about all those folks without health insurance for long periods of time.

I walked around Downtown Disney on Saturday and took some pics of some of these treats. I love how something like a caramel apple is taken to the next level at WDW to the point of looking sickly sweet and unappetizing.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Keeping Busy

Duke of Edinburgh Award activities are happening. A has a practice overnight hike next week and had a list of items that she needed for it. Now it’s rarely over freezing here so sleeping in a tent would be my idea of hell, but she’s looking forward to it. The funniest thing about this activity was A telling me all horrified that they were going to have to pee outside and that their leader suggested they practice “performing” (their word) in the far corner of their back garden (yard). A’s friend responded, “I don’t have a back garden”. A offered her our back garden. While I want them to be prepared do the girls really have to squat in our back yard?

She also started her volunteer work three weeks ago and loves every minute of it. She’s working at the farm we visit and she is getting a workout. I wonder if she will come out of this experience either wanting to be a farmer or a vegetarian because she loves the animals. She cleans chicken coops, collects eggs, feeds sheep, cows, and pigs, and lots of other things. They don’t seem to coddle her. She comes home absolutely exhausted. When I picked her up Saturday evening she said that a calf had been born that morning.

She’s also enjoying her horseback riding lessons. I don’t understand it at all, especially when it is just a few degrees below freezing, raining, and I’m sitting in a stinky barn while she is having her lesson. After sitting out in that, it is difficult to warm up the rest of the day. It’s made me look forward to my business trip to Florida this week.

Figures, as I drink my coffee and get ready to pack the last of my things the sun looks to be making an appearance in the UK!