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?