Monthly Archives: March 2008

Growth

            When we moved to London two years ago, Zachary was twenty-one months old.  He had maybe fifty words, half of them animal sounds.  Somewhere over the Atlantic he picked up the English language, and in our first week there he acquired several new words a day plus started putting two words together.  By his second birthday, there was no limit to his sentence length.

            The biggest issue in that move was that he was instantly lonely.  He wanted children to play with, structure, and friends.  He was too young for school, so we got him into toddler classes right away.  In those classes, he showed a social confidence we had never seen before.

            Moving, it appeared, shook up Zach’s world enough to cause some serious cognitive growth spurts.  Unfortunately, it also precipitated a hunger strike, and it was over a week before he had a day when he ate more than a few bites of anything.

            So, this time around, we prepared.  We expected our picky three-and-a-half-year-old to starve himself for a week.  Instead, his brother, the one who eats anything, stopped eating.  Well, not completely, but he certainly cut back in his outrageous caloric intake.  Zachary, on the other hand, is suddenly eating more.  And trying new foods.  Once again, it appears that moving is spurring some serious cognitive growth, and hopefully some other types of growth, as well.

            But, yet again, he was instantly lonely.  Being in a whole new place, with new vegetation and new road signs and new foods was fine, but he needed friends and he needed structure.  Fortunately, this time we knew what we were getting into, and we had a school all lined up to start five days after we got here.

            I stayed with him the first day, as it was a “visit.”  Ten minutes in, a little boy in his class came running over on the playground.  “Zach,” he said, “do you want to come on the pirate ship with me?”  And off they went, hand in hand.  A big change from little Timmy, the frienemy he had contended with in London.  And, although Zach was still a little shy throughout the day, he joined in every activity, with the children including him every step of the way.

            The next day, I was with Benjamin in his toddler class down the hall.  I peeked my head over the wall in Zach’s class, and his teacher looked at me, pointing to the little blond head bent over his painting.  “I am amazed,” she said.  “It’s like he’s been here all year.” 

            Zach, however, had a different story to tell.  Over and over again, he just kept saying, “The teachers let us go outside to play twice,” in a voice struck that such wonders could ever exist.  In London, of course, he only got to play outside once each day, during the twenty minutes it stopped raining.  Here in Los Angeles, however, the teachers are working with what they’ve got, and what they’ve got is sunshine.   So, out they go, twice in the three hours they are in preschool.

            I think all that outside play time is making him hungry. 

The unmaking of Americans

            In Oleander, Jacaranda, Penelope Lively has a lovely passage about travel.  When she was young – an English girl being raised in Pakistan – she knew the distance between the two lands because it took so freaking long to travel between them onboard a ship.  She says it much more eloquently, but I cannot quote her because my copy of her book is in a crate somewhere on a boat taking a very long time indeed to travel between countries. 

            Gertrude Stein (whose work I love, all evidence to the contrary) was inspired by the breathtaking disturbances caused by modern travel.  She saw airplane travel as uniquely American (either because it was invented here or because she liked to figure any group to which she belonged was superior), and so she felt that Americans had a whole different way of viewing land and time, because our perspective was changed dramatically as we zoomed high above.  Stein felt this American perspective created a type of genius in writing (hers, mostly) that was shaped by a totally different and modern view of land and time.  Gertrude Stein said this all much more conceitedly than I can, but my copies of her books are in the same crate as Oleander, Jacaranda.

            This is to say that jet lag is a thoroughly modern invention.  It is the curse upon us that we accept for getting everywhere much faster than we really have a right to expect.  It is the punishment, perhaps, for our willingness to pollute our environment with the weight of all those airplane emissions.

            And did we ever feel that punishment around here for the past week.  J and I could not adjust our clocks until the boys adjusted theirs, which meant we watched with increasing desperation as the mornings got a little bit later each day.  3:00.  Then 4:00.  Then 5:00.  Then the magical jump to somewhere past 6:00.

            The problem, of course, is what to do with two boys in a tiny apartment on Easter Sunday at 4:00 in the morning.  There is nowhere you can go until well past 10:00, by which time they were ready for lunch and nap.  Fortunately, Denny’s was just down the street.

            Unfortunately, this was the day the stomach bug hit.  While J and Benjamin finished off the Lumberjack breakfast together, I held Zach’s head outside while he vomited up his three bites of waffle.  Later that afternoon, it was his brother’s turn.

            And so we sat, watching one another grow tireder and sicker each day.  And I imagine I was not the first person ever to entertain the thought that although Penelope Lively offers up much food for thought, Gertrude Stein is sometimes full of shit.

Things you wish you had not ever found yourself saying

            Having moved from London to Los Angeles last Friday, I found myself telling my husband on Sunday: “Oh, just let them watch a little more TV.  How often do you move across eight time zones and then get a stomach bug?  One more show won’t kill them.” Two silver linings, weak ones at best:  1) the UK changes its time a few weeks after the US, so we all only had to adjust to a seven hour time difference.  2) It was only a 24 hour bug, which we all got within two days of one another, and the repeated vomiting and other unpleasantries have ceased all around. I usually try not to whine here.  But, between J’s two-and-a-half months of mysterious gastrointestinal issues, the conjunctivitis we all got before leaving the UK, the eleven hour flight, and transplanting children to what seems to them an entirely different planet, what we really, really did not need was vomit all over the beige carpet of our temporary housing.   Things are a bit better now, and I’ll be putting up a more substantive post soon.  For today, it’s my blog and I’ll cry if I want to.

Last Friday

            We had expected tears, meltdowns, and other assorted flavors of preschool objections to being moved.  As the day approached, however, Zachary seemed to have made peace with the fact that he would be leaving behind the only life he remembered.  He told us he did not want to move, he expressed very clearly his concerns about leaving friends behind, but he seemed remarkably calm for a three-and-a-half-year-old who knew his life was about to be turned upside down but had absolutely no idea what the new place and the new life would be like.

            Other than an emergency stop in rush hour traffic to pee on someone’s gate, he took the ride to the airport hotel in stride.  He slept fine in the hotel that night, and ate well at breakfast the next morning.  He played happily at the airport, chattering on about who-the-hell-knows-what the whole time. 

They called our flight, and we gathered our children and absurd number of carry-on bags filled with books and trains, and headed for the elevator to join the masses getting ready to board flights.  And there, in the elevator, it happened.  J pushed the button.  The button Zachary wanted to push. 

I hauled a hysterical child off the elevator and plopped him down on a step, informing us he could come on over whenever he calmed down.  We stood, J, Benjamin, and I, four or five feet away, waiting.  Thirty seconds or so later, Zachary pulled himself together and whimpered his way over to us.  He and his father worked out an elevator-button pushing agreement, and we were able to proceed towards the gate.

Heathrow is a large airport, and the hallways can seem to stretch forever.  I pushed the stroller, Benjamin seated and Zach standing on the buggy board, while J played pack mule to our wide assortment of crap.  Halfway down the long walk to the gate, Zachary started crying again.  I thought we were just dealing with residual whine from the elevator incident, and I snapped as I stopped to listen to his problem, “There had better actually be something wrong.”

“What’s wrong, Zach?” I asked, hoping we could make it quick so we could, you know, actually make our flight.

In a very small voice, almost afraid of what he was about to express, he told me.   “I don’t want to leave.”  He was crying.  In earnest.  Not those tearless tantrums designed to manipulate his parents, but grief-filled sobs of heartbreak. 

There was no response but to pick him up, sit down in the closest chair, and hold him on my lap.  There was nothing I could say to make mitigate the loss and heartache that life dictates we all learn to cope with.  All I could do was be present and feel it with him. 

And, in that moment, it was clear to me that, although the doctors may have cut that umbilical cord in September of 2004, there was something they had left intact.  Something that flowed not from me to Zachary, but the other way around.  Something that has only grown over the last 43 months.  It was clear to me that his emotions flow towards me, that his grief and his joys are shared in a way that is deeper than empathy, stronger than concern, and more basic than love.

As I sat there in the middle of a hallway of people rushing to make their flights, holding a three-year-old who was mourning a loss he could not even comprehend, I realized that every pulse of his heart is echoed in mine.  

London with children under 5 (part 2)

Part two of a two-part post.  Click here for part one.

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            I won’t get into the general tourist advice.  If you want to know about Oyster cards or what time the Guard changes, there are plenty of places to find that information.  What follows are the sites our family has liked, what we liked about them, and advice on the best ways to see them with children under five.

 

Battersea Park Children’s Zoo – I am sure that the London Zoo in Regent’s Park is lovely.  Really I am.  But, I will tell you that little tykes, those not yet reading, get a heck of a lot more out of a little zoo than a big one.  And there is no better little zoo than the one at Battersea Park.  We were lucky enough to live a half-hour walk from Battersea Park and so we joined as members, which I highly recommend for those moving to London and living anywhere accessible to it.  If you are a tourist, however, you will need to pay the one-time fee, which is not cheap (although free for under-twos).  They need to charge what they charge to maintain the animals, so I don’t grudge them it at all, and it is way cheaper than the big zoo.  So, get there at opening, especially if you will need to leave for naptime, so as to get your money’s worth.

            The other benefit to getting there at opening is little perks like watching the ducks released from their nighttime hut or watching the little pony still in a blanket.  The zoo is never crazy busy, but it is even nicer when you have it to yourself.

            This zoo is very well laid out and you can easily do a circuit in about 45 minutes, seeing everything.  There is a mouse house, lemurs, monkeys, tunnels to get into the meerkat exhibit (not very pregnant-woman friendly, I must add), and a barnyard area.  I love the otters, Benjamin loves the ducks, their grandfather likes the meerkats, and both of my kids are terrified of the giant pigs.  It is not a petting zoo, but you can stick your hand out and pet the sheep and the like.  Then, once you have seen the animals, let the kids loose on the tractor and in the playground, which is a nice size and well-designed.  Bring a 20 pence coin for the little rides (a car and a train).

 

The Science Museum – The cellar of the Science Museum has a rockin’ hands-on exhibit – actually several designed for different ages.  GET THERE AT OPENING on weekends or school holidays.  I cannot stress this enough.  It is a madhouse by eleven-thirty.  Bring a change of clothes because the kids get w-e-t.  Child-sized bathrooms and stroller (buggy) parking are in the cellar, too. 

            Then, once they are totally overstimulated, head up to the ground floor.  There are several steam engines, including one that Zachary insisted was the Emily.  There is also a staircase that leads up to a viewing are above the hall with the trains and it has all sorts of kickin’ models (according to my husband – I was manning the stroller that we had stupidly brought back out of buggy parking in the cellar).  There is a hands-on exhibit in the main hall on the ground floor, as well, which is all the way to the back of one of the entrances.  I find this one less insane even once the museum fills up.

            This, plus rocket-ships, bubble shows, and airplanes.  Since it is free, you can go only until your kids are about to explode, and then leave for quieter environs.

 

The Natural History Museum – Right next to the Science Museum, it has DINOSAURS.  Need I say more?

            Again, a place to go at opening.  It gets very, very clogged as people stand in endless lines to see the animated T-Rex.

 

Changing of Queen’s Horse Guard  — I’ll admit it: we have lived here almost two years and never been to the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.  It is too late for nap time.  And, I cannot imagine camping out for good spots with the kids.  We have been a few times to the changing of the Queen’s Horse Guard at Whitehall, which is early enough for us on Sundays.  The kids like horses, and afterwards you can often pet them.  It is really interesting as the horses and costumed soldiers ride in, but it gets frightfully dull after awhile, so position yourself in the back in case you want to slip out.  Since it is right near Trafalgar Square, you can just head over there for some fake lions when the real horses start standing about.

 

But, then where should I go in the afternoon?  Well, in truth, everything gets crazier in the afternoon.  London is a big tourist destination, and that is the way of such places.  So, assume I think you should hit every place at opening if you can.  That said, here are some things that are less insane in the afternoon than others.

 

Princess Diana Memorial PlaygroundSet in Kensington Gardens, this is a Peter-Pan themed wonderland.  Little wooden houses to hide in, a giant wooden fort with slides, teepees, small boats to cast out in the sea of sand, and, of course, the pirate ship.  Kids wandering about barefoot as they dig and run and use their imaginations. 

            There are child-sized toilets and a concession stand with decent ice cream.  There is always a line for the swings, and it is madness in the late afternoon.  Nonetheless, we have often had a lovely time there even when it was jam-packed. 

            Just outside of Kensington Gardens, up by the Queensway Tube station, there are lots of restaurants, from waffle houses to a lovely Moroccan restaurant that always welcomed my kids.

 

HarrodsDid you know Harrods has a killer toy department?  Or that you can play with many displays?  Or that, if you sign up in advance, you can visit Santa there?  Or, that Harrods has a chocolate bar (yes, an entire café dedicated to chocolate)?  (Not that the chocolate bar did Benjamin any good.  He could not figure out why we would suggest we did perfectly good berries into chocolate fondue.)  Or, that there is a whole restaurant (not cheap) dedicated to pleasing children’s palates, yet with decently healthy and tasty adult options, too?

            The children’s changing area has child-sized toilets, but it is a disappointing place to breastfeed because it is stinky.  I used a dressing room.

 

Transport Museum – We’ve only been here in the morning, so I don’t know what it is like in the afternoons, but it is so well laid-out and spacious that I imagine it would be enjoyable even when crowded.  There are hands-on exhibits, little passports that the kids stamp at stations, ramps, elevators, a simulator or two, and, of course, trains and busses.  Shit – what kid doesn’t like trains and busses?  It is annoying that you have to exit through the shop, but it is worth it.

            That said, unlike many other museums in London, the Transport Museum is not cheap.  It is a great value if you live in London and join, but one-time visitors pay a good chunk of change for the adults.  Nonetheless, it is totally worth it.  I am a bit of a public transportation geek (I thought that a friend was the coolest person I had ever seen the first time we met because she works for public transportation), and this museum has something for adults and kids.

 

Covent Garden – The Transport Museum is in Covent Garden, which is a great place for little kids.  There are all sorts of street performers.  We like to get there at 10:00 because we like the string quartets (they sometimes don’t start till 10:30 on the weekends), but it is actually better a little later on when all the performances get rockin’.  (I don’t like crowds, can you tell?  I hide in my house in the afternoon.)  There are stalls selling all manner of merchandise (check out Pawprints), a stand with waffles (J is right: they are better without chocolate), a junk market, and sometimes the fastest carousel we have ever seen.  The best part is the ambience is free, although the waffles, sadly, are not.

  

National Army Museum – Embarrassingly, we did not go here for well over a year, even though it is a short bus ride from our house.  This is because I sort of did not want to bring my kids to a place encouraging war.  I don’t like guns.  But, finally, I went, because everyone told me there is a great play area for kids.

            Even if you are squeamish about guns, you really don’t need to see any (although we did have to discuss the large cannon out front, with Zachary explaining to us that it is dangerous).  Just after the entrance is a soft play area, with a castle for climbing in and costumes and toys.  It is not a London site by any stretch of the imagination.  You won’t leave thinking, “Ah, now I’ve seen London.”  However, your kids will have fun and get very tired.

            Word to the wise – on weekends and school holidays, the play area fills up quickly, and they only allow limited numbers in.  Get there well before ten to get a spot in the morning, or you may have to wait for the next timed entry.  Should this happen, head up to Sloane Square (4 minute walk) to bide your time, unless you want to wander about the actual museum (which does not work for us, since guns also freak out Zachary).  Also, call in advance to make sure there isn’t a birthday party planned in the space.

 

Hampton Court Palace – After seeing this place, I get why Henry VIII decided to steal it from one of his friends (although, good lord, what a lot of rooms to clean).  The kitchens are endless, the different apartments impressive, and the grounds stunning.  We did not do the maze because Zachary and I had hit a wall (although the toddler and the father were still going strong), but I hear it is great.  It has a full-service cafeteria on site and is well-serviced by trains. 

I would definitely do this before Windsor.  While Windsor is nice for adults, Hampton Court is more free form – there is no set walk to take that bores the crud out of little children.  You can do it ala carte, seeing as much as you can handle and then stopping, rather than being stuck in the middle of the Queen’s Apartments with crowds ahead and behind, as happens at Windsor.  (Or, in our case, being stuck in the middle of the Queen’s Apartments with someone who needs a change of clothes from the waist down while Grandpa has the diaper bag and is nowhere to be found.)

 

Brighton – If you are hankering for a day trip, do Brighton, which is fun for kids even in the winter.  There is a pier with all the usual amusements (and you’ll shell out for all those damned rides).  Then there are alleys of little shops, which the kids love.  And, of course, there is the Royal Pavilion, which is just the wackiest palace we’ve seen in some time.  I won’t do a whole guide to Brighton, since there are plenty of those out there, but let me tell you what I like about it for children in particular.  It is close enough for a daytrip (our kids always napped in the car on the way back, but you can use the train).  The pier and the beach are fantastically tacky.  Most of the restaurants are family-friendly.  The shops are lovely and the alleys are fun for the kids to wander.  The people are much friendlier than Londoners, so it is a good place to go if you are starting to wonder about the British…  (We have a tendency to head out of London whenever we need a reminder that LONDONERS may be cold and unfriendly, but the rest of the British are perfectly nice.  Big cities, I tell ya.)

           

Kew GardensHonestly, we don’t get what all the fuss is about.  Creepers and Crawlers, that kids’ area that the guide books love?  Eh.  Our kids were bored, and they can entertain themselves with clothespins when need be.  Kew is a lovely place to visit, but it is enough of a schelpp out of Central London that, with kids, unless you are obsessed with flowers, just go to one of the lovely parks in London.

 

So, that’s it.  My very, very biased view of London with tiny people.  Anyone have anything to add?

At least the kids have style

I am sorry I have not been around your places lately.  Our internet access went a day early, and J published yesterday’s post from work.  That, plus the move, means you may not get comments from me for a week or so.  I will still be posting, however, since I have a few already in the hopper.

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            In her long-ago and perhaps reckless youth, J’s grandmother was known as “Bootsie.”  She has long since shed this nickname, living now by a much more proper and staid first name deep in the heart of Ft. Lauderdale.  She has never met our children, which is as much our fault as hers, but mostly the result of one circumstance or another.  Neither of our children looks like her, neither has her personality, and the connection is weak.

            Weak, but definitely there.

            Here in London, a staple of children’s apparel is the ubiquitous rain boot.  Tall and plastic, they provide complete protection once trouser cuffs are tucked into their protective sheath.  These boots are named after a Duke of Wellington, the same Duke of Wellington, I believe, who lent his name to a certain beef concoction, making him perhaps the most well known of all the dukes of that particular name.  These boots, for short, are known as “wellies.”

            When we moved here, Zachary was 20 months old, and we had a dickens of a time convincing him to wear wellies.  He found them difficult to navigate in, and it was six months before he was willing to wear them on a regular basis.  Benjamin, on the other hand, is totally obsessed.

            He is our British child, born here and knowing no other home.  There is no breakfast so fine as eggs and baked beans, in his humble opinion.  And there is no footwear that can hold a candle to welly boots.  “Bootsie,” he calls them, because he has a strange linguistic habit that causes him to diminutize everything.  We do not know where he picked up this tendency, as we are very strict about avoiding words such as “horsie” and “doggie.”  Nonetheless, Benjamin likes to add an enthusiastic “—eee” to all his favorite words.

            “Bootsie!” he cries upon getting out of bed in the morning, starting to whimper if he cannot find them.  Only once he is properly shod can we proceed to things like breakfast, which he eats wearing pajamas and wellie boots.  Immediately after dressing, he puts them on again.  Before his bath in the evening, when he is prancing about in just his diaper, he often dons them again until the last possible minute. 

            Like most people we know, we have a no-shoes-in-the-house policy.  Obedient Zachary sometimes even takes his shoes off at school if they are a little muddy after outside play.  Benjamin?  We’ve given up.  If he really needs to wear his rain boots in the house, we acquiesce.  Unfortunately, the parents of his friends are not so lenient, and we need to wrestle the boots off over his vociferous protests before he can have a go at the toys.

            Clearly, he cares every bit as much about fashion as his brother ever did, even if he does have rather a different notion of what is stylish. 

He tries to convince me the wellies are required.  “Raining,” he argues, pointing out a window that, uncharacteristically for London, is flooded with sunshine.  I am not sure if he is hoping for rain, liking the wellies because he can stamp in puddles, or if he is simply arguing the necessity of he preferred footwear.  I suspect the latter.

            And so, today we get on a plane, leaving behind the land of perpetual drizzle and occasional downpour.  We will spend eleven hours together on that plane, alighting finally in Los Angeles, a city built on a veritable desert, where for six months out of the year there is no rain at all.  Three of us will be wearing comfortable shoes.

            Little Bootsie Rosenbaum, however, will be ready for rain.  Somewhere in Florida, his great-grandmother is smiling.

The smell of moving

            There is a smell associated with moving.  Like most smells, it is one I forget until it is upon me with all its traces and associations.  It is the scent of cardboard boxes, dust reluctantly uncovered, cleaning solutions, and persistent yet low-grade perspiration. 

            It is a smell from my earliest days, a smell that has changed its composition over the years.  As a child, packing up for my father’s sabbatical in San Diego.  We were renting furnished and were traveling with only the suitcases we could fit in the back of our car under six little feet.   Yet, we still needed the boxes, to tuck our personal items away from the prying eyes of the renters who would be living in our Amherst home.

            The smell was absent when I moved again, leaving my father’s house.  It was a move unworthy of fanfare, a simple suitcase filled with threadbare clothes.  We were off to camp.  When, at the end of the summer, we realized we would not be returning, there was nothing more to go back for, and so the formalities of moving were dispensed with.  We were erased from my father’s house and his life in the time it took to fill that one suitcase.

            And so, over the years, move after move.  Each time, I owned a few more things.  Leaving my grandparents’ house.   Each time the moves were a little more elaborate.  Heading off to college from my aunt’s house.  The smell built up, developed its complexities as my moves became more noteworthy.  Apartment to apartment in college.  I learned to assemble a stereo in less than two minutes.  My first job, my first real apartment.  My first order of business was helping the cat to adjust.  Following J to D.C., then more boxes a year later when we moved in together.  Security deposits, packing tape.  I dipped further below the Mason Dixon line, shipping off to graduate school. I could fill out the change-of-address card blindfolded.  Moving in with J part-time while we attended graduate schools in different states.  I could write a comparative assessment of DMVs.

            And then, the moves got more complicated.  There were two of us now.  We bought our first home, filled with starry-eyed visions of renovations and children, only to struggle to sell it two years later, moving into the house of our dreams.  The house we knew we would restore and raise our family in.  A house we rented out two years later to move to London, then sold when we found that once again we would be unpacking boxes in an unfamiliar place.

            The moves are more complicated, and the first order of business is now helping the children adjust.  But, the fundamentals have stayed the same.  Moving is about erasure.  One moment, we live somewhere; the next, the house is empty.  People who were part of our everyday lives cease to exist, and we cease to exist for them.  There is a woman I have passed every morning as I take Zach to school and as she walks to work.  We smile and nod.  On Friday, I will just disappear.  Will she wonder?

            As we leave this place, this place we have not liked, there is still a sadness.  A knee-jerk feeling of nostalgia, perhaps.  The smell triggers it, this realization that we are all erasable from places, from people’s lives.  We are traveling with everything that really matters, the boys and their spare blankies.  We all will remember this place, but it will quickly forget us.

            The house smells of cardboard boxes.