Category Archives: London

Stretch before running

 

If you don’t see me around your blogs the next few days (maybe a week), it’s ’cause I got a crapload going on right now.  I’ll post more on it tomorrow.  For today, here’s my contribution to Julie’s Hump Day Hmm.  Go on over and read the other posts about moving outside comfort zones.

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            We hated living in London.  While neither of us is quite ready to live in the suburbs, London was just too big, too busy, and too damned English for us.  There was no end to the noise and the stimuli, which assaulted me unbidden even as I slept.  But, even though I never left my house without seeing people, even though there were dog-walkers and stroller-pushers everywhere, even though I was privy to cell-phone conversations that drunken strangers had at three in the morning outside my window, I felt isolated.  People rarely said “hello” unless they knew me.   Passerbys avoided eye-contact.  And those dog-walkers?  I had to tackle them to get them to stop and let my kids pet their dogs, even with Benjamin screaming “DOG!” at the top of his lungs.

            We had a few friends beyond the Americans we knew before moving.  The French people we met were welcoming, and despite the language barrier, we managed to get along quite well.  A few families on our street became friends, including my sons’ beloved James and his parents, but they don’t really count because his mother is Welsh and his father is in the film industry.  For the most part, however, the English people we met seemed to wonder why in the world I was talking to them.

            In the U.S., it is rude to ignore people.  I have been trained up to believe I should offer to help, say “hello,” smile and nod, or strike up a conversation.  In English culture, it is rude to draw attention to the other person’s existence.  It is an invasion of privacy to start talking to another person at a bus stop.  A woman’s decision to take her dog for a walk is not an invitation for me to pet it.

            This principle extends to arenas that a wacky American like me takes for granted.  On a crowded Tube train, no one so much as looks up at the eight-months-pregnant blimp that has just stepped on board.  She stands unless there is a non-English person around to offer her a seat.  Try getting away with that kind of behavior in Philadelphia.

            London shoved us kicking and screaming from our comfort zone.  We did not know which stores sold what, we had to navigate a foreign health-care system, and the vegetables all go by different names.  We made few friends, certainly an unusual occurrence for me.  And we had to learn to continue life in semi-darkness for half of the year.  It was, in a word, uncomfortable. 

            Moving to another country is not all about double-decker busses and quaint accents.  It is about learning the subtleties of cultural expectations.  It is about learning to read unspoken signs.  It is about learning that everything from children’s birthday parties to how to start a business meeting to when to put a child to sleep is culturally constructed.  This kind of learning is difficult and always incomplete to those who grew up elsewhere.  And, it leaves ugly stretch marks.

            But, it is learning, and it is ultimately beneficial, much like calculus, I suppose.  While I failed miserably to learn anything about math my senior year of high school, I did grow and change in London.  I came to identify myself as a writer.  I learned a lot about questioning cultural parenting norms.  I got better at reading between the lines.  And I learned there are lots of wonderful things about the United States.

            It is fashionable to malign the U.S., especially if you were born and bred here but are of a somewhat left-leaning tendency.  One of the things I learned was to appreciate my country and my compatriots, even as I remain skeptical about things like government, ethnocentrism, Bratz.  The U.S. has its issues, and then some, but that does not make it all bad.  Believe it or not, it took living outside of the U.S. for me to recognize that fact.

            I left my comfort zone and found out a lot about myself.  Now, having returned, I find myself changed, socially, politically, and linguistically.  When someone asks how I am, I answer, “Well, and you?” and when someone wishes me a nice day, my answer is “And the same to you.”  This is not just about new linguistic patterns.  I have come to appreciate the social courtesies of another culture.

            If, however, you see my giant pregnant self standing up on a subway anytime soon, I would appreciate your seat.

P.S.A. on behalf of my son

            Zachary, who is three and a half, has recently started a new preschool here in L.A.  He is the kind of child who actually comes home and tells his mother what he did at school.  And what his friends did.  And what the teachers did.  And what the children in the other classes did.  And whether someone in the main office farted during snack time. 

            One day, about a week into his new school, he was well warmed up for his afternoon of non-stop talking, when he shared with me the following important information about his day.  “At school, I showed my new friends my Thomas underwear because they didn’t know what kind of underwear I had.  And they showed me their underwear because I didn’t know what kind they had.  And they had Spiderman and Superman. “  Ever so pleased with himself for having conveyed this crucial bit of information, he went on to reminisce about his best friend and neighbor from London, a boy we will call James because of his fondness for a certain 007.  “At James’s house, I dressed up as Spiderman.”

            Zachary appears to be balancing his memories of his old friends with the new relationships he is forming. 

And, a few days later, when we bought him some new underpants to replace the ones that were getting so tight I was concerned about his ability to walk, he was thrilled.  He would have something new for the show-and-tell that apparently takes place in his preschool bathroom.  “I am going to show Eric my new underwear,” he mused.

            But then, that evening, he realized that his joy was incomplete, that there was something missing from the fulsomeness of his bliss.  “My friends in London don’t know that I have new underwear,” he told me, clearly worried about leaving them out.

            Since I know that Zachary’s former teacher and James’s mother both read my blog, I would like to make the following announcement on behalf of my son.  I hope they will be kind enough to pass it along to all of his friends from London, who are no doubt anxiously awaiting an undergarment update.  Please inform them that Zach is now the proud owner of truck underwear, tractor underwear, and lizard underwear.  If they are ever in town, I am sure he will be happy to show it to them.

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.

London with children under 5 (part 1)

I realize this may not be of interest to everybody, but if it is up on the web, people who need this information can find it.  Feel free to click away if it is not of relevance to you; my feelings won’t get hurt.  Also, feel free to add points in the comments if you have any ideas.   This is part one, containing general information.  Part two, with information on specific sites, will post sometime in the next week. 

            When we found out we were moving to London, my in-laws started buying us books on things to do in London with children.  Knowing us as they do, they had a hunch that I would enjoy an opportunity to read through several different books, folding down corners and making color-coded marks in the margins.  I am, after all, the woman who reads Zagat’s Guide as though it is a book and then highlights the entries with various colored markers depending upon the location, cuisine, and affordability of the restaurant.  I am not compulsive, really I am not (shut up, PokerChick).  But it just gives me so much satisfaction to be able to break down my leisure opportunities into easily digestible chunks.

            The problem with all those books, however, is that they are not broken down by age.  Book after book told me that the museums in London are very child-friendly because they had activity packs and scavenger hunts.  That’s fantastic, except we moved when Zachary was 21 months old and Benjamin was not yet born.  Zach had only recently mastered walking; he was not yet up to running about the National Portrait Gallery with a pencil seeking a painting of a woman with three eyebrows.

            That’s where these posts come in.  We have been in London almost two years, and we are grateful to be leaving, as life in London has not been easy.  Nonetheless, it has been fun.  We have seen and done almost everything the city has to offer for children under four.  We have taken day trips, we have schlepped about the city, and we have figured out all the hot-spots for the toddler and pre-school sets.  All without interrupting nap-time.  And, now, I am happy to pass it along to any hapless traveler or relocater who is trolling the internet wondering what the hell to do with the children once the thrill of the double-decker busses wears off.  First, some practicalities, later, specific sites.

Busses – But, let us begin with the busses.  As adult tourists to London, you have probably exclusively relied upon the Tube.  Let me tell you something, baby.  Most Tube stations have no elevators.  And lots of stairs.  Which is all well and good when you are nineteen with a backpack and a Rough Guide, but it sucks when you have a diaper bag, snacks, a stroller, a sleeping baby, and a whining three-year-old.  Go for the busses.  If you have two adults, one can take the kids up top to sit in the front and look out the window while the other can man all the crap and the stroller downstairs (I always gun for that job).  As our kids have gotten older (three-and-a-half and nineteen months), we have hit a point where we can fold the stroller and put it on the luggage rack so we can both go up top with the kids, which is such a thrill for them, but less restful for me. 

            Be advised, the busses can be slow during heavy traffic times.  But, they are often much more door-to-door, which is very helpful if you are not staying right by a convenient Tube stop.  Let me say it again: transferring Tube lines with a stroller is akin to the seventh circle of hell.  So, go to Transport for London’s website, put in the postcode (get the whole postcode because the second part is specific to the street) or location from which you will begin, and it will tell you ALL your options.  Anyone out there have more to suggest about getting around?

Breastfeeding – Let me tell you some places I have breastfed.  Walking to the Tube.  Entering the Tube.  On the train.  In Covent Garden.  Sounds lovely, no?  Well, not every mother really wants to show off her swollen ta-tas to a gawking tour group of teenagers from Maine or Italy or wherever.  And, not every baby is focused enough to feed in public.  Like my kids, who stopped breastfeeding in public at three months old because it was way too distracting.  In fact, come to think of it, they refused to breastfeed with anyone else in the room.  Benjamin sometimes got distracted when I turned the pages in a book.  So, even though I have no shame about baring the girls when it is time for my boys to eat, I am an expert on quiet places to feed.  Every now and then, it meant a bathroom stall at the Café Rouge in Brighton.  Usually, however, I was able to fare much better.

            You see, the British women I have met are far more squeamish about breastfeeding than were the women I knew in Philadelphia, which, let’s be honest, is just not one of the world’s most squeamish cities.  So, there are lots of quiet places designated for breastfeeding.  Almost every site you will go to probably has a “Family Room” or a “Breastfeeding Room.”  Windsor Castle, for example, has a lovely one.  Unfortunately, that was all I got to see at Windsor Castle, but my husband says it is an OK place to take kids.  (Skip the doll’s house with young kids – they just get frustrated that they cannot play with it.)  At any rate, most sites have these rooms, quiet places to feed and change the baby (very handy when the two-year-old has an accident in the middle of the Queen’s apartments).  Ask.  Just ask.  They are ALWAYS willing to help, if only to prevent those brazen North Americans from embarrassing everyone by lifting their shirts in public.

Diapers – As I mentioned above, the places for breastfeeding are usually in the same area as diaper-changing facilities (in the case of Harrod’s, too close and very stinky, so I insisted upon being given a dressing room to breastfeed in – more later).  Diapers are called “nappies” in England, although most people know the word “diaper.”  Diaper pails are not common.  Diapers usually go into bins but you are expected to have “nappy sacks,” plastic bags designed to hold the stinkers.  You can imagine how I feel about buying plastic bags just to throw away diapers.

Formula – Because London’s water is a little more, shall we say, alive than the water in Philadelphia, the formula canisters advise people to boil the water, then cool it, before making formula.  This process alone would be enough to keep me breastfeeding in London.  I suggest using bottled water to mix your formula if you cannot boil it.  Please, please, try to find it in glass bottles, which are better for the planet (and make sure it is STILL water).