Sunday, December 18, 2011

Missing Christmas

We're missing Christmas this year: 'missing' in the nostalgic sense that you might miss a favourite television programme which has subsequently been remade with different actors, a slightly altered script, and the wrong geographical location. Christmas in Cambridge, Massachusetts is not Christmas in England.

Some of the differences can be attributed to the different cultural contexts of the two places. Perhaps if we drove out to a huge shopping mall, Christmas would look more familiar, but we shop locally and we don't have a car. And, perhaps, if Cambridge were not so notably liberal (which we love) then people would assume that other people would be celebrating Christmas on the 25th December too. But daily life here is assertively secular: at weekends, people might pack out the pews in denominational and non-denominational churches, meeting houses and revivalist services, Jewish or Sikh or Buddhist Temples, and Islamic mosques, but outside one's religious enclave there is little discourse around God or anything remotely God-related. The girls' school, for example, celebrates neither Christmas nor Hannukah this week; although Iola is looking forward to performing as a cow in the upcoming Kindergarten performance of 'The Gingerbread Man'. 
Some of the differences might also be attributed to history. While Thanksgiving has, allegedly, been a major American holiday since 1621, it was a criminal offense to celebrate Christmas in New England until 1681. The underlying Puritannical scepticism of the event and its paganistic roots continued for several more centuries. In 1712, for example, the Reverend Cotton Mather criticized Christmas because "the feast of Christ's Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Mocking, and in all Licentious Liberty... by Mad Mirth, by Long Eating, by Hard Drinking, by Lewd Gaming" (thanks to Fred Small for sending me this quote). Christmas didn't become an official holiday in New England until the mid-1800s.

In the changing rooms of the local gym today I overheard one woman reminding another that there would be no yoga class next Sunday because of the "holiday". They both know that I am from England: "Do you have Christmas in England?" I was asked.
I nodded: "Yes, we have Christmas in England" (but do we have 'have' Christmas, or do we 'do' Christmas? I've reached a grammatical quandary on this.)
The larger of the two women was almost overcome with excitement on my behalf. "Oh, so you know a bit about Christmas already - how wonderful for you to have this opportunity to celebrate Christmas in Cambridge. I bet that you've never seen anything like this before!"
In so many ways she was, of course, completely right; but not for the reasons that she imagined. I began to try and explain some of the ways in which Christmas here contrasts to the English experience, but conversations in changing rooms are by their nature difficult to sustain - I needed to shower, she needed to pull an assortment of turtle necked sweaters over her head. It's easier to explain when you can use a few bullet points...

  • Christmas decorations.

The house down the road has updated its garden decorations: the inflatable Thanksgiving turkey, which replaced the inflatable witch and pumpkins at Hallowe'en, has now been replaced by an inflatable Santa's grotto complete with inflatable elves and penguins (we will keep you up-to-date with what happens next...). A few local houses have Christmas lights in their gardens and Christmas trees visible in their living rooms and Feneuil Hall, a tourist mecca in Boston, displays the largest Christmas tree we have ever seen. But we have struggled to find ornaments for our own tree. One can buy neither tinsel nor baubles in the Cambridge shops. And, while Harvard Square looks beautiful with white lights on a few of the trees in the park and a very tasteful blue light display over the main shopping street, the decorations ostensibly bear little relevance to Christ's birth and look more like a visual representation of the beginnings of the universe. Pretty, but not Christmas as we have previously known it. 

  • The soundtrack.

Our favourite busker performs as a one-man band. He knows a fantastic array of songs including every word to Bob Dylan's 'Tangled up in Blue'. He does not know all of the words to 'Jingle Bells' and, to Iola's utter amazement, had to dismantle his one-man band to look for the lyrics in his rucksack. 
The Salvation Army do an amazing job here, as in England, through their work with the homeless and needy. In England they raise money through brass bands performing carols in nearly every town. In Cambridge, one man sits alone on a fold-down red stool near the main entrance to Harvard Square station and rings a small tin bell. It is not the same. 
We were excited on Friday evening to hear a bunch of carolers. We paused to listen. They heard our English accents and begged us to join them: did we know the tune to 'In the Bleak Midwinter'? They had the lyrics, but they didn't know the melody. We're not the world's best singers, but we did our bit - standing for ten minutes in the doorway to Harvard Coop Bookstore bellowing out a few of the carols from their printed sheets. They did not sound as good, with us singing, as they would have done by a proper choir. 

  • The food.

Thanksgiving has a set menu to which nearly everyone we met adheres: turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie. For weeks beforehand, people talked about how they were going to cook their turkey, for weeks afterwards they compared notes on the success, or otherwise, of their Thanksgiving meal. We have not had any conversations about Christmas lunch. We have grown used to managing without many of the eccentricities of our English diet: marmite, marmalade, tea; but we hadn't anticipated managing without mince pies or Christmas pudding (we found one for sale, but at $25 it seemed an extravagance too far).

When we first moved here, we were sent on a cultural awareness training event by Nathan's employer (a standard practice, they claimed, for all new international recruits rather than a response to something we had said or done). Maya was particularly excited by the fact that she had become a "third-culture kid", that is a child who lives at the intersection of two cultures rather than feeling the need to conform unquestioningly to either one. There is, apparently, an increasingly sizeable body of evidence of the benefits to children from living at the intersections between cultures rather than being mono-cultured. They are able to appreciate other cultures, but they are also able to develop their own ways of doing things from what is available, merging and cross-fertilising traditions and new ideas.

We are missing Christmas in the way that one might literally 'miss' something - a bus, for example. But Nathan has taught me well - if you miss the bus (as he, ahem, frequently does) you walk to your destination instead. Therefore, our Christmas tree is decorated with a strand of lights we were able to find in the hardware shop (the box carefully replacing the word 'Christmas' with 'celebration') and a blizzard of paper snowflakes which the girls have enjoyed making. We have a wide range of Christmas carols downloaded onto Spotify and we’ve bought a few new vinyl records of Christmas classics and less well-known tracks (including a song by the 1950s blues singer, Johnny Guardiani, which claims that the secret behind Santa Claus' smile is his reefer-smoking habit!) I'm typing this blog while cooking our last-minute Christmas cake and making a vat of mincemeat (apricots have replaced candied peel, sour cherries have replaced the glace ones, and my fingers are crossed that 'all purpose flour' will work as well as 'self-raising').

We can't fully recreate an English Christmas but we're not adhering to the Cambridge way of doing Christmas either. It might be an improvised and makeshift Christmas in some of its aspects, but it will still be perfect for us and our third-culture kids. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The lost child (or reflections on parenting)

A man lost his son at basketball practice on Saturday morning.
We were a crowd of parents sitting on the bleachers of an indoor gymnasium, the floor brightly marked out into basketball courts. The children had finished running around and shooting baskets and were gathered around the edges of the court waiting for the practice to begin.
We were a mixed crowd. There were parents who arrived early (I arrived early, I always arrive early out of fear of being late) and spent time playing with their children. Some ran out onto the basketball courts, took hold of a ball, and started to throw it and bounce it around with their child.
(There is a terminology for basketball which I don't yet know and a way of controlling the ball which escapes me completely. I watched four year old children walking and running around the court with the ball bouncing along next to them like a well trained gundog. Later, in the privacy of our local tiny playpark at dusk with only a few dog walkers nearby, I experimented and Maya's ball bounced away like a badly behaved puppy. Maya assures me that I just need a bit of practice... Iola assures me that I need a lot of practice!).
Other parents appeared only moments before the coach told the children to sit down. These parents were armed with laptops, smart phones, papers and books, surreptitiously sneaking take-out coffees and bags of donuts past the No Eating signs, complaining about their children's weekend schedules.
"Yeah," I overhear one dad saying, "She's had to come in her soccer shirt too because we're going straight to soccer and then she's got violin this afternoon and a playdate at 3.30." He looked exhausted, his daughter more so.
And there were parents who looked as though they should have been wearing L plates. I might be unable to bounce a basketball but I can, after nearly a decade of practice, get my children out of their coats without looking flustered. Not all parents are as experienced. The father who lost his child wore an air of bewilderment and realised, just as the coach blew her whistle to start the morning's training, that he couldn't see his son.
"Johnny?" he called from the side of the court, his head turning to and fro as he tried to scan the faces of 142 children. "Johnny?"
The children sat in a single row, cross-legged on the floor. They were silent. No children moved. No balls moved. (Note to self: how does the coach do this?)
The man ran onto the court. He ran like a dad, arms impeded by the coats and rucksacks that he was carrying, legs flailing. At the start, we parents smiled indulgently - kids, eh, never where you want them to be when you need them to be there. And then a ripple of anxiety began to move through the bleachers. People stopped reading their papers and books and text messages. - Has he lost his child? Is it a boy or a girl? Do we know how old he is? Has he told the front desk?
The man still ran around the court, his voice rising in panic. Then he ran out of the doors towards the front of the building, still calling his son's name. He ran back onto the courts. The other coaches talked to him and left the gymnasium, office staff appeared and disappeared. The children continued to sit in silence. The dad ran around the court again and the parents talked in increasingly hushed voices. There was a palpable sense of rising panic.
And then the dad saw Johnny, sitting very quietly two children away from Iola. He had been there all the time and he had not said a word. His father had simply not seen him.
"If that were my kid, I'd whup his ass," said the man behind me.
Johnny's dad ran over to his son, relief etched on his face.
The woman next to me took a mouthful of coffee and started to chuckle. "Pickney been there all long and not say anything? Yuh need to tell him man."
The dad hugged his son to him. The son didn't seem to speak and continued sitting with his eyes on the coach.
"The dad didn't see him? Sitting right there. Should have gone through the faces one by one by one until he had seen his son wasn't there. He didn't look hard enough." Another voice chimed in.
The dad left the court and the coach began to speak to the children. We were here to watch the children playing basketball but you could sense that the crowd were enjoying this entertainment: a shared moment of relief after the rising panic. An officious looking man in a suit arrived and we watched the dad explaining what had happened to him, his arm flapping vaguely towards his son and his face going slightly pink. The other coaches reappeared, and the dad walked over to them and blushed slightly more. The woman next to me, taking her donut out of the Dunkin' Donuts bag, began a loud conversation with the man behind us, discussing parenting styles and stating, in no uncertain terms, exactly what she would have done if the boy had been her own. And then the crowd settled back down to their morning's parenting. An assortment of faces focused back onto their phone screens  and laptops and papers; groups of parents began to chat in quiet voices, and the rest of us watched as the balls and the children, all of the children, bounced around the court.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


As a family, we like bikes. Since Maya arrived in 2002, we've progressed through a variety of bicycling possibilites. We cycled around London with a very happy Maya sitting in a seat on the back of my bike.  Maya tried out her first little pink bike and stabilisers along Morecambe promenade. When Iola arrived, we invested in a bicycle trailer which I have hauled around Lancashire and the Lake District. Initially, Iola snoozed away in a tiny hammock suspended next to Maya, then she grew into a boisterous toddler who filled the trailer with so many toys that Maya couldn't squeeze in alongside her. Maya spent time riding around Tyneside and Northumbria on the back of the tandem. Over the past four or five years I have spent time running alongside Maya as she's gained confidence on two wheels among the hills of the Lake District, and alongside Iola as she's narrowly missed parked cars on cul-de-sacs in Tyneside. Now, here in Massachusetts, we have finally reached the point of all being able to cycle independently as a family. It feels like a landmark!

Through careful and considered packing, we have arrived in America with a selection of pans, no crockery, children's clothing suited to all climates from polar to desert, 752 vinyl records, a broken turntable, three bikes, and one tandem. Since arriving Maya has acquired a red vintage women's racing bike, which she adores, and we bought a set of cheap white plates and bowls. Nathan doesn't yet have a bike (the packing logistics involved the strategic balancing of 750 LPs against Zoe's bikes ... it seemed fair at the time!) but can fold himself into a small enough shape to fit onto my mountain bike.

Cambridge, Massachusetts earned an honorable mention from Bicycling Magazine for some of the best cycle paths in America. There are cycle paths of all shapes and sizes, from the purpose-built tarmaced paths and converted railway lines through to the narrow wriggly lines on major highways. There are cyclists of all shapes and sizes and ages all over the city. We were keen to join in. 

Iola was particularly keen to join them and to find out how quickly she could travel from one end of Cambridge to the other. 
"Iola, we need to be very careful because we need to ride on the road for the first part of the trip...", we calmly began to explain.
"That's ok," Iola interrupted, "I'll be quite safe because I can go faster than any car."
Iola and Nathan led the way. Maya bent to adjust her stripey leg warmers (worn in honor of the antique qualities of her new cycle) and then we watched in horror as Nathan and Iola disappeared down the road, apparently heading towards the border with New Hampshire. We were relieved when we eventually caught them stopped at a red traffic light.

The cycle path near Harvard Square is beautiful - flat, smooth tarmac with wide grass verges. The Charles river is on one side and trees are on the other. With Iola leading the way, the miles soon disappeared beneath our wheels.

Then the cycle path becomes more "rural", with patches of mud amongst the tarmac. At this point, Iola got very excited.
"Look, I'm off-roading," she called and disappeared towards the trees. I am reminded of a joke my friend Glen once made about the sign of a happy cyclist being the dead flies stuck to their teeth (note to self: always close mouth when cycling downhill). Iola reappeared with mud all over herself and her bike.
"It's great," she told us, "It's like having icicles in my sneakers!"
There was a huge smile just visible behind the mud on her face.

Iola's bike has six gears. Maya's bike has ten. We started to climb a hill.
"Drop down to gear 3," advised Maya, with the sage wisdom of a nine year old who has her own racing bike.
"Why?" asked Iola.
"It will make it easier to get up the hill."
"I don't want it to be easy, Maya. I just want to go really, really fast."

We tried to pace ourselves (difficult when one is struggling to keep pace with one's youngest) and decided to stop and stretch our legs at a play park. Maya had already decided that our cycle ride wasn't challenging enough, so circumnavigated the park on the monkey bars, leapt from climbing frames, and ran around the fields several times.
At some point, it seemed inevitable that Iola would get tired. There were moments when we were convinced that she must begin to flag. After about six miles, I suggested that I could walk for a while and push her bike with her sitting on it. She liked the novelty of the idea... for about a minute, and then Maya overtook her and Iola flew after her and Nathan flew after them both and I felt a little like one of the cartoon Roadrunner's victims, spinning and confused and watching the Roadrunner disappearing ahead in a cloud of dust.

The really big change, for me at least, in cycling as a family now that we all ride our own bikes is that I'm bringing up the rear. I'm used to pulling the trailer, or having the childseat behind me, or running alongside a child whose legs aren't yet long enough to pedal further than the end of the road. You have some control when they're younger. Now they're pedalling furiously away with their legs pumping and my heart in my mouth. Iola didn't really slow down for the entire ride. Maya would have liked to have done another 10 miles. I'm exhausted. I'm blaming the adrenalin!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Bostonians pride themselves on having some of the best healthcare in the world... if you can afford it, if you can find it, if you can understand it.

We're lucky. We have a healthcare package mediated by Nathan's employer. It only costs us $800 a month. (I find it difficult to write that sentence - the use of 'only' is ironic, the figure seems to have too many zeros). It's not the best of policies: one of Nathan's colleagues pays over $1000 a month, but we have a health care package at least. Our next step is to find a doctor who is taking on new patients to their practice, who is approved by our health care provider, who is listed on our health care provider's website (a virtual place in which the casual visitor can become lost for several hours at a time). When we find a doctor, we are expected to interview them and to research their practice (a range of quality markers are made available by the district and the state, the health care providers' own league tables of listed practitioners, through heated discussions between parents at the school gates). The amount of data and the sense of choice is overwhelming. I don't know how to navigate this but I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility for making the right decision. I want a roadmap for the health care provider's website, a script that I can adapt for interviews with prospective doctors, a list of basic instructions for successfully navigating this entire process.

Our neighbour's nanny is a politics student at Harvard. She recently described to us a class that she is taking on the American Healthcare System. Not one of the students attending this class fully understands the health care system, she tells us. It is too complex, too fragmented, too incoherent. It isn't possible to understand.

On a Tuesday, I volunteer at a soup kitchen in Cambridge. It's a big venture: the kitchen provides sit-down meals to 100-150 people. I've worked with homeless and socially excluded groups in England and Scotland. Some of the issues are generic to both sides of the Atlantic: there are the story-telling streetdrinkers and the drug-users whose addictions don't leave them with money enough for food; the people whose struggles with mental health problems have knocked them out of the mainstream and the people whose quirks and ways of living have meant that they don't want to fit into the mainstream anyway; there are the ones who have lost too much and the ones who have never had enough to lose. I thought that it would be familiar, and in many ways it is.

But I have never before seen so many people with no teeth, because they can't afford dental care. I have never before seen people taking turns with a broken down old wheelchair because that's all that they had been able to beg, borrow or steal. I've never before looked across a table and seen rows of eyes rheumy with infection or blue-ing with cataracts. I have never before seen old men who have only stumps on their hands because they have lost their fingers to frostbite over a series of winters. When I asked one man whose two remaining fingers were blackened with infection if he had been to the doctor, he shrugged. My question was nonsensical. A doctor volunteers at the soup kitchen. She does what she can. What she can do, in a few hours for over a hundred people on a Tuesday evening, will often be the most that these people can hope for.

As a mother, I want the best possible doctor for my children and I'm trying to find a way to do that. As a citizen (although not yet eligible to vote), I commend the politicians and activists who want the best possible medical system for the people of America and who are currently trying to find a way to do that (even when some of the brightest young people in the country, working with their professors, struggle to understand what is already there).  As a human, I am disgusted to live in a time and place where some people just need, desperately need, a doctor.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Young Americans...

Hallowe'en costumes: the bad bunny and a singer from Kiss

As requested, this blog is filled chock-full with images of the younger Parrys and focuses upon their new lives.

A direct consequence of our current lack of furniture (apart from the enormous green beanbag) has been the time we have spent 'out-and-about'. Within Cambridge alone there are tens of parks and we have already discovered those parks which Iola considers to have the best swings, the highest slides, the most complicated climbing frames... We're still figuring out local bus routes and the different coloured "T" lines, but we normally end up where we intended to go, or have a discussion on the beauty of serendipity and circumstance. 

We have moved to a child-friendly area with parks and trees and relatively slow-moving traffic and people who stop and talk to the girls and let Iola stroke their dogs... The girls have become accustomed to chatting away to people, any people, whom they meet in the street: why are you digging up those weeds but not those plants? How old is your dog? Where do you live? How many people live in your house? People haven't begun to avoid us (yet). 

Our new house

Boston  relies heavily on tourism, and the prices of museums and main attractions tend to reflect this. However, locals have tipped us off on the best places to have an annual membership, and the price for this tends to be not much more than the cost of a single visit. We now have membership to the New England Aquarium. Today (no school because it's Eid Al Adha - 'Eid Mubarak!') the girls took advantage of looking cute and having "adorable English accents" and were invited into the seal pen to play with the fur seals. Magic! The seals waved for them and ended their show with a big wet fishy kiss for both the girls.

We've also joined the Museum of Science, but we haven't managed to see more than about a third of the exhibits despite returning twice already. Maya's favourite exhibit is the Van de Graaf generator which shoots lightning at the presenter while he stands in a metal cage, apparently thereby proving that you're fine in a car in a thunder storm. It seems a tad reckless to me. Iola enjoyed dissecting and inflating a pair of sheep's lungs on our most recent visit. My favourite part so far is the virtual aquarium where children spend ages designing their own fish, writing their names on them, and then watching them be devoured by a virtual shark (the girls assure me that the fish is then reborn out of a pirate's treasure chest as an angel fish... I love science).

As one-off trips, we have been down to Plymouth to see the replica of the Mayflower, to learn about the Mayflower pilgrims through reenactments at the Plimoth Plantation, and to spend time with the Wampanoag tribe learning about the Native Americans.

We also had a one-off visit to the Children's Museum where Iola instantly disappeared into the four-storey high climbing maze and didn't reappear for nearly half-an-hour (a few more grey hairs on my head), and the girls spent hours experimenting with gears and tunnels and slopes and gravity. They finished the day in a cage pretending to be construction workers and I took advantage of a few moments of calm to catch my breath before they found their way out again... Onwards.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Hallowe'en and other hauntings

We have a new home, moving in appropriately enough on Hallowe'en. A good time to meet the neighbours, a bad time to get spooked when finding ouija boards in cupboards and small tin statues of Satan wedged behind cupboard shelves!

My initial navigations to find the house have been completely Hallowe'en dependent - cross the road from Porter Square, walk past three houses decked in cobwebbing and enormous spiders, turn left at the house with the gravestones in the garden, then take the second right at the house with the enormous pumpkin. If you see the house with the inflatable witch trying to get into the hot air balloon then you've gone too far... With a sinking heart I came home today and saw that nearly all the decorations have been taken down, but - hoorah! - the inflatable witch house now has an inflatable turkey gobbling on its lawn so I have a new landmark.

In the spirit of our new lives we went trick or treating - a misnomer, as there were no tricks but many treats. We were clearly the amateur English family with outfits cobbled together from a local shop - Maya wore a mask which made her look vaguely like the lead singer of Kiss on a bad hair day, Iola was a self-styled "bad bunny", I borrowed a neighbour's hat, and Nathan wore a suit and tie (which possibly raised more eyebrows in this uber-liberal part of Cambridge than any other outfit seen that night). Grown-ups came out of their houses and sat on porches to admire children's outfits, several streets were closed off to cars, neighbours held street parties - our favourite was the street with the enormous inflatable haunted house with steaming cauldrons. Children screamed inside while grown-ups drank hot chocolate outside....

I feel a bit twitchy about Hallowe'en generally - taking all that stuff about devils and witches and the dark side a bit too literally. Finding that our new house contained various bits and bobs like ouija boards, rusting razor blades, scorched floorboards, and devil masks scared the bejeezus out of me! However, with vats of strong coffee, elbow grease, and an ever-increasing collection of cleaning products, we're beginning to find a flat filled with sunshine (now that it can get through the windows) and antique pine floorboards (they looked as though they might be mahogany when we moved in...). In terms of belongings, we have a lot of hallowe'en "candy" and very little furniture - 1 bed, 1 mattress, a slowly deflating airbed, a wok, a table, a collection of stools, a computer, and an enormous green beanbag. The beanbag is a revelation - if the ship now sinks mid-Atlantic with the rest of our belongings, my grief will be tempered by the fact that I will always have somewhere comfy to sit. Have a look -

The next big event is going to be Thanksgiving, and we have lots to be thankful for. We love Cambridge, the girls bounce off to school very early each morning on their big yellow all-American school bus, Nathan is enjoying his new job, and I'm hoping to start writing again soon... perhaps, given this past week, it's time to shift genres and try my hand at a ghost story?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I'm not sure if I'm decisive enough...

Bostonions are decision-makers. While I have always tended to think of myself as fairly assertive and confident in my decisions, I am completely out of my league here.

This realisation began in the lift last week. You know how it goes - you and a stranger get into the lift at the same time and you've got another 10 floors to travel before one of you will leave. You can stand awkwardly, staring at your feet and their feet and the horribly swirly carpet which big chain hotels specialise in, or you can throw in some anodyne conversational starter to make the minutes seem less drawn out and uncomfortable. The weather is normally a fairly safe converational starter. I was on my best behaviour, inoffensive, blandly dressed, and merely said, "It's a hot day today, isn't it." The man looked at me and began a quiet rant: "If you don't know whether it's hot or not, I'm not going to make up your mind for you. You're English, right. Only English people comment on the weather and then ask the person they're talking to whether their assessment of the weather is correct. You need to make up your own mind whether it's hot or not, don't ask me!" And with that, the doors opened and the journey ended. (Note to self: don't use the weather as a conversation starter in a lift).

A few days later I was at church with the girls. Hundreds of people, hundreds of children enrolled at Sunday school, a good sermon, a beautiful white clapboard building near Cambridge Common. As a stranger, I was asked to complete a slip asking why I had attended the service. It's a tough question, and I was tempted to get all philosophical about the rationality of morality and the possibilities of a greater Being, but there were only two possible tick boxes - was I (a) a member of another church community in a different geographic area, or was I (b) church shopping. After the service I asked one of the established church goers what 'church shopping' was - it's shopping around for the religious community with which you feel most comfortable worshipping. But what if you don't know what you believe in, I asked. She explained that very few people in America were atheist (or admitted to it, at least) but that virtually none were agnostic. That church had sub-groups (called committees, but hey! bureaucracy is everywhere) in Buddhist meditation, living with one's Jewish inheritance, a recently formed committee on paganism. They were even planning a big celebration of the Aztec Day of the Dead for November 5th (you see what happens when you don't have Guy Fawkes?) It struck me that it was okay to believe almost anything as long as you believed something - no-one was saying 'I'm not sure, what do you think?' or 'let me think about this a while'.

And then, today, I took the children to have their feet measured. You know the routine - children's feet grow, you take them to a shoe shop every few months, and someone sits down with them and measures their feet - in the really posh shops in England, you get those funky machines that my girls love to stand on which offer an accurate reading of the width and length of each foot and a commentary on their toe shape and arch. Then you work with the shop assistant to find the shoe which best fits your little darling's feet, and the shoe that fits is never the actual size that they measured because of a tersely explained logic that always seems obvious at the time but too complex to recollect in tranquility. So, today off we went to Boston. First step - find a posh looking shoe shop - easy peasy. We found a shop opposite Macys with shelves of beautiful shoes of every shape and size and labels name-dropping designers that I know and those I have never heard of (which says far more about my absence of taste than it does about the authenticity of the label). Next step - go up to the counter and ask if someone is available to measure the children's feet. There is a slight awkward pause, but it's a straightforward question and they say that someone will deal with me in a moment. Me and the girls peruse the shelves. Then a shop assistant comes over, takes us to a bench covered in shoes and pulls a dusty tape measure from a drawer hidden below the display. She asks the girls to take off one shoe each. One? She flops the tape measure around for a moment and announces that Iola is a 12.5 and Maya a 3. Can she help us to find some shoes that fit? She looks surprised - she has, she tells us, measured the girls' feet and told us how big they are. Why would we need any further help?

I'm guessing, in my non-decisive English way, that sometimes, here in Boston, the decision itself becomes more important than the actual knowledge it carries. Personally, I am quite interested in whether someone else thinks that it is warm or, indeed, wants to reminisce about the truly hot October of 1979 or the contasting weather in, say, Outer Mongolia. I'd love to be party to the struggles that someone might be having to reconcile themselves to a belief in God, or otherwise. And I'd really like my children to have shoes which fit their feet rather than just being given a number which offers a vague approximation of what size their feet might be.

The same barista has served me my coffee the past few mornings and he always asks, "And how are you today?" I am practicing a decisive smile and only allow myself to say, "Fine. You?" It's my first step towards becoming Bostonian (isn't it?). 

Friday, October 21, 2011

The first week in the USA

Some weeks pass quickly. This week has moved slowly, packed to its very seams with endless paperwork and appointments. I'm not sure why we thought that it would feel like a holiday - it hasn't. It has felt like a full week's work with overtime, jet lag, and not enough sleep. It's nearly a week since we arrived - a good time to take stock.

The first morning we picked up the local paper over breakfast to be faced with the headline announcement that Cambridge had the worst housing shortages known in the past twenty years. Nice! Our "destination consultant", Ken (kindly provided by Nathan's new employer), confirmed this at our first meeting: rents were at their highest, availability at its lowest. We dutifully explored surrounding areas: beautiful suburbs filled with lovely houses... but our hearts had already been captured by Cambridge. Maya had fallen in love with the main library, Iola adored the squirrels and the huge cheese bagels with cream cheese and cheese on the side, Nathan had found a vinyl shop on Mass Avenue, and I loved loved loved walking around people-watching. In desperation, we nearly moved to a block of managed apartments, with a swimming pool and a cinema room and no space for visitors or coats or furniture or Nathan. We decided not to move to a tiny apartment on a dodgy street with a suspiciously cross dog living next door. And then, just as we were losing the hope that anything affordable might appear in Cambridge, we found a rambling ramshackle flat north of Harvard with a rainbow room for Iola, space for our bikes and Nathan's records, and our own pet squirrel tree outside the balcony. We'll be moving next Friday, if our UK bank will talk to our US bank - address will follow.

Renting the house has been a case of culture shock. They have a realtor, we have a realtor, we have Ken, they have a Greek man in a sharp suit who oversees all paperwork from a glass office. The four of us, Ken and our realtor arrive at their realtor's office, with the intention of signing the paperwork. Ken and our realtor disappear into their cellar. They both come out of the cellar nodding and happy. We are happy but the sharp suited man says 'no' (with the same unquestioned authority with which the man from Del Monte says 'yes' - apologies for Canadian friends who might not know the ads). Ken escorts us out of the building. Ken and our realtor stand on the sidewalk and there is much waving of hands. Our realtor leaves and we are escorted back into the building and return to the same seats. Ken talks to Mr Sharp Suit about his Greek brother-in-law and restaurants and their church. The sharp suited man says yes and the filling-in of paperwork begins. Ken looks sad. We do not see our realtor again. When we discuss this with Nathan's colleagues, they tell us that this is normal.

So anyway, on the one hand we've been sorting out housing. On the other hand, we're trying to sort out school places. Yay - some of the best schools in the US are in Cambridge. Boo - the schools are mainly full. In fact, out of the eleven elementary schools, only two had places and one of those adheres to a core knowledge sequence approach which I renounced in my PhD. We walked over to the other school and looked at the shabby buildings and torn curtains and our hearts sank, and then one of the teachers passed us, invited us in, arranged a proper visit  for us and we were instantly converted. The kindergarten class performed a song for us when they passed us in the corridor, the classes only have 20 students, the library is epic, the computer room is filled with brand new macs, and the music, oh! the music... during our tour we dropped into a music lesson. As with so much, our first perceptions were completely wrong. The music lesson had just started, the children were sitting looking bored on the floor while the teacher tried to remind them of the composer of the month. Half a dozen children put up their hands, but I didn't catch the composer's name - I expected a classical heavyweight. The next minute, the teacher was telling them to get to their feet and they were all dancing a jazz sequence to Cannonball Adderley. Maya is going to love her music lessons here!

On the down side, it's a long bus journey each morning for a 7.55am start to the school day and, inevitably, the bureaucracy has tripped us up again. The children's immunisation records don't meet the requirements of school enrollment, so there have been more hours upon hours spent on the phone to English medical practices in Newcastle, Lancaster, and the Lakes trying to track down evidence that the girls have had chickenpox (they have, but we didn't take them to the doctors), and trying to prove that the English boosters contain the same vaccines as the American equivalents (they do, but the labels unfortunately are different). Now we need to pay $90 a shot for a few more vaccinations - the health insurance can't cover these until we have a social security number, the social security number can't be given to us until we have had 14 day's residence... There's an amazing service culture here in Cambridge where nothing has seemed to be too much trouble, until one is suddenly in the position of having neither social security number nor insurance. The only medical practice which will take us (without social security numbers etc) is grim and rude and unpleasant and the paperwork maze continues unabated. The positive thing is that we are all getting some insights into both sides of living in Cambridge.

Amidst all of this, we have done some exploring in our hire car which, to the girls' utter delight, looks like the red sports car out of the film Cars and forces their faces back into a G Force rictus whenever we touch the gas. We spent an afternoon in Rockport, rock climbing and watching the lobster nets being collected. We've walked around a tiny section of Boston - eaten pizza in an Italian restaurant in Boston's North End and clam chowder at Quincy Market. The girls have become obsessed by Dunkin Donuts (I strongly recommend buying shares in this company immediately as their profits must have increased incrementally this week, largely due to our two girls). We've bought books in toy shops and Harry Potter lego in the Harvard Coop book store (so that's what these students get up to!) We're happy and excited to be here and utterly exhausted by trying to navigate the complexities of the spaces where the English and the American systems collide.

Nathan starts work on Monday in Atlanta, Georgia; we move at the end of next week; the girls should be able to start school in the foreseeable future once all the paperwork has been resolved and then, I'm sure, the weeks will begin to gallop past as they usually do.