Sunday, October 21, 2012

It's all about the Truff!

It hasn't been the best of weeks.... we have been without hot water for most of the week, without any water for some of the week, and Iola succeeded in her ambition to find out what happens when one calls 911 (in her case, a fire engine and crew cut one's leg free from the bicycle wheel in which it is mangled, the police introduce themselves to you and give you a free teddy bear, and the ambulance crew race you to the nearest accident and emergency...) Rather than dwelling upon the dismal aspects of our week however, this blog is all about The Truff.

On Friday, Iola spent much of the day lying on the sofa with her broken foot elevated. The Truff made her feel much better by bringing her every one of his toys (the Truff's stuff!) and putting them on the floor next to her sofa.

Once again we have a wheelchair parked on our front porch and a daughter with limited mobility. The Truff takes his wheelchair duties very seriously. Iola hopes that we might design a harness so that he can pull the wheelchair along by himself (and we think that, once the snow falls, we might have the fastest sled in Massachusetts).

Maya plays with the dog more than anyone else. They have a very close relationship: the Truff lets her know when he needs to go out into the garden to pee, when he wants a walk, and comments on her trumpet practice with the occasional woof.

Here, she is walking The Truff across Radcliffe Yard...

... and here they are on the banks of the River Charles. 

The Truff is only eleven months old and, as a rescue dog, has had very little experience at walking on the leash. 

But he is already learning to walk to heel and to sit on command. 

When he arrived last weekend, he had no experience of being in a city. Since then, he's seen school buses, trucks, subway cars, trains, and about three hundred rowing squads competing in the Head of the Charles Rowing Festival this weekend. 

It's hard work being a young dog in the Fowler Family Parry household. Alongside all of the playing, training, and childcare duties, he also has a lot of growing to do.
 Look at the length of those legs which he needs to grow into!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Ten things Americans have said when they find out I'm English.

1. My cousin went to Edinburgh once.
2. What about that Tony Blair, eh!
3. I really really loved the Queen Mother. Did you know her?
4. Do you have your Thanksgiving at the same time that we do?
5. Oooh, I bet you watched the Olympics.
6. Do you celebrate Christmas over there?
7. Is your Christmas at the same time as ours?
8. I'm meeting the Dalai Lama tomorrow. Do you have him in England?
9. I love England! I've never been. But my sister went to New Zealand. They're near to one another.
10. I watched a film set in London once. It had that guy in it.Tall. I'm sure you'd know him if I could remember the name.

(And I need to contextualise just a little: some of the questions were asked in a small town called Herkimer in upstate New York. The guy we spoke to was excited that we came from Boston, which seemed like another world to him. When he found out we were English, it was as though we came from another planet. It was a great conversation, but I have never felt so foreign to someone in my life. Some of the other questions come from our school crossing guard, our plumber, a woman we met on the bus, and random strangers. I have asked each of them, unintentionally stupid, questions too.)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Twelve hundred miles on the American highway...

For our first really big road trip, we drove out of America. It was Canadian Thanksgiving last weekend and friends invited us to celebrate. They offered good music, excellent food, and wonderful company - how could we refuse? There was the small matter of how to keep two grown-ups and two children happy for 1200 miles, but where there's a will (and a full tank of gas) there's always a way.

Had we been in England, which is roughly 400 miles long, we'd have had to drive the length of the country at least three times, but in American terms the trip wasn't seen as remotely excessive. Here, the roads just keep on going. We've a map of the United States pinned to the wall and a thirst to see as much of this country as possible. Reflecting on the weekend, we've put together a survival guide for the big American road trip.

1. Get a Sat-Nav...
I love maps. I really love maps. I like understanding where roads go; I like the aesthetic of reading strange place names out loud and exploring different possible pronunciations; I like the intellectual challenge of taking unplanned diversions and still arriving where I want to be. I also love driving.

I don't, however, like being a passenger and Nathan doesn't like map-reading. If you find yourself lost in the mist on the side of a bleak mountainside, you would do well to have Nathan beside you. He's the kind of man who can take compass readings, do funny little equations to account for North not quite being in the north, and work out where to go from studying which side of the tree has moss on it. Put him on a highway (or any kind of signposted thoroughfare) and you might wish for an alternative navigator. I'm training Maya up but, in the meantime, we hired a sat-nav which got us to Canada and back, but expressed increasing irritation whenever I tried to take a short-cut.

Sat-Nav: In 300 yards, turn left.
Zoe: I'm not turning left. The traffic isn't moving there. I'm sure I can take a short cut by turning right.
Sat-Nav: Turn left.
Zoe (turning the wheel to the right): No.
Sat-Nav: Recalculating... recalculating. At the next intersection, do a u-turn and proceed 0.4 mile before turning right.
Zoe: No. I don't want to do a u-turn. I want to see what happens if I go up here.
Sat-Nav: Recalculating... recalculating. At the next intersection, do a u-turn and proceed for 2.2 miles before turning right.
Zoe: Now, I'm fairly sure that if I take a sneaky left here, I can skip a junction... Girls, there's a sign there for Herkimer. Shall we go take a look?

2. ... and avoid traffic jams
I tried to take quite a lot of short-cuts because I don't like traffic jams. There seems to be no logic to the sudden traffic jams which occur on American freeways. One minute everyone is merrily speeding along, bumper-to-bumper, undercutting and overtaking with joy and abandon... and the next minute, the traffic squeals to a halt.

Everyone sits in their cars. Children read books, cuddle teddies, play complicated games on their Nooks, and tell the same joke over and over and over (Iola: 'What's a ghost's favorite food?' Maya: 'I don't know, what is a ghost's favorite food?' Iola: 'I SCREAM!' And how we laughed for the first seventeen times we heard the punchline). Grown-ups fidget with their stereos, telephone those mysterious people they don't know whose names are somehow stored in their mobile phone's memories, and eat all of their children's sweets. The sat-nav shows that one's estimated time of arrival is slipping slowly away... it had told you that you would arrive at tea time but the minutes slip away and it seems that you might not arrive before your own bed time.

Then - as if by a miracle - the traffic zooms away. I have been unable to understand what makes the traffic stop, and what happens to make the traffic move again. Nathan thinks that there might be a possible equation for this in Chaos Theory - it's the kind of thing you hypothesize when you're sitting on the tarmac for an hour.

3. Visit people you love...
The drive wasn't that bad - not even with the occasional traffic jam - but even if it had been terrible, it would have been worthwhile. We spent Friday night and Saturday morning in Guelph with our friend Meg who plays the piano endlessly for the girls while they sit at her feet, wide-eyed and adoring, then allows them to make chocolate chip cookies in their pajamas before serving up pancakes for breakfast. (You can get a taster of Meg's music at Meg's website, but you'll have to just imagine how good those cookies were!)

The rest of Saturday and Sunday was spent with other friends - Linda Dawn, Beth, Shannon, Violet and the new grandpuppy, Peggy - in Toronto. We were so busy eating traditional Canadian Thanksgiving fare, enjoying the company, chatting about Beth's next novel and my attempts at my first, and chasing children and dogs around the park that we didn't manage to take any photos for our blog. The memories, however, are beautiful.

4. ... in places that you love to visit
Guelph is quirky and filled with independent shops, a bustling farmers' market, and a strong hippy vibe. We never have enough time there, and we're already planning our next visit.

Linda Dawn lives in my favorite part of Toronto - just by the University of Toronto, close to Chinatown and on the doorstep of Kensington. As part of the sleepover, Iola found herself in a house filled with toys and more adoring grown-ups, while Maya, Nathan and I spent the first few hours of Sunday morning walking around Kensington, fuelled up on good coffee and cakes from Moonbeam Coffee Company, and enjoying the street art. 

5. Plan good places to stop...
The girls' Auntie Jess has introduced us to the glories of American diners and barbecue joints. With a little bit of forward planning (and a word or two with the sat-nav), we found great stops all over upstate New York. 

Nathan is tall and slim, once described by a Jewish waiter in the Upper East Side as a 'tall drink of water', but his appetite is colossal. There are not many people who can eat an entire 'Trainwreck' (as Nathan's epic meal was affectionately called), but Nathan is part of that elite (he went a bit pale when we suggested dessert).

6. ... and better places to sleep
By Sunday evening, we were completely exhausted. Our cheeks ached from smiling, our mouths had nearly (but not quite) run out of words, we'd listened to the entire CD of the first Harry Potter book, and we felt that our bodies were beginning to resemble the shape of our car's seats.

Niagara Falls is conveniently situated somewhere between our house and our friends' houses, so we found ourselves a room with a view and spent the evening watching the light change color across the Falls.

It was a great trip and we have much for which to give thanks. American Thanksgiving is here soon. We just need to decide where to go....

Thursday, October 4, 2012

All weather cycling

Autumn has arrived earlier than last year. We remember landing in Cambridge nearly a year ago and wearing summer clothes for several more weeks. We haven't reached our first anniversary of being here, but already we are wearing our waterproofs and sweaters. Today it seems that the clouds are too heavy for the sky to hold: the tops of the Boston skyscrapers are shrouded in gray and the air is so damp that it feels that you could wring it out like a wet face cloth. I rode into Boston this morning in a rain coat with both my bike lights flashing. The roads are still busy with cyclists, but there is a shared feeling that winter is close at hand.

For the past couple of months we have cycled everywhere. We bought a second-hand cargo bike, thinking that it would be useful for our weekly grocery shop (we're still a car-free household), but we soon realized that both girls could happily sit on the back. They love it! The cargo bike is big and orange and has become affectionately known as Bob (the Big Orange Bike). It's fantastic to ride in traffic as we are very large and very visible - cars slow down to look at us (normally because the girls are waving at them or singing loudly) and tend to stay out of our way (we have mastered the art of the occasional 'wobble' if cars have got a little bit too close, and this seems to be very effective in encouraging other vehicles to give us more space). The girls have a little cushion which fastens onto the back so that they can have a more comfortable ride and we've added a little set of handlebars so that they can hold on more safely.

We also have the tandem which was originally a wedding gift from Nathan's grandmother. Both Maya and Iola enjoy taking turns on the tandem - and it's proved very useful for visiting grandparents (see photo to the left). So, as a family of four we can manage quite well on two bikes. But two bikes are never enough! Nathan got a Surly cyclocross (see right) for his birthday - good for commuting and getting muddy on the tracks around the reservoir. Maya has an under-sized 1970s racing bike which we bought for next to nothing from a local shop and she's beginning to discover the joys of going fast. Iola has a children's mountain bike and takes her pleasures in haring across fields and down steep slopes with Nathan shouting encouragement and me covering my eyes in fear. When I'm not on Bob, I have a nippy roadster which is great for commuting... and Nathan has a unicycle (but is yet to let me take photographs of him riding this).
Cambridge is fairly good for cycling. The girls go to school about 3.5 miles from our house and we take a route which is primarily on cycle paths and relatively quiet roads. My route to the library is on busier roads and today I really noticed that the change in weather seems to bring about a change in the attitudes of motorists. I had the sense that people weren't really looking out through their windscreens. I understand that the weather is a bit dismal, and the view isn't as enjoyable as it normally would be, but I found it difficult to get car drivers to notice me (even with my fluorescent yellow jacket and flashing lights). I remember this from commuting in London: drivers put on their heaters, turn up the radio and their awareness of other road users dips. The council is being encouraged to make better provision for cyclists, but there is a backlash from motorists who object to cyclists who jump lights or zigzag about within traffic jams. Overall, the roads aren't as safe as they should be, but there is a chicken-and-egg aspect to the argument: better provision needs to be made for cyclists, but cyclists need to ride with respect for existing traffic. If you're interested (and there are lots of shots in the video clip of the roads where we ride) then you might want to look at this news story about cycling in Cambridge. I ride respectfully: I stop at red lights, stay close to the kerb, clearly indicate when I'm about to turn.... but today I spent a lot of the time just wanting to shout 'HELLO!!! I'M HERE! CAN YOU SEE ME!!'
I haven't tried to ride through a New England winter as yet. Last year, we didn't have most of these bikes and the bikes that we brought from England were still in transit. A local cargo bike rider has advised me that I will need snow tires for Bob and neoprene socks, gloves and hats for me. I don't want to just be a fair weather cyclist, but I'll let you know how far into the winter I manage to ride. In the meantime, if anyone has any advice on getting noticed by passing cars, please let me know...