Tuesday 25 January 2011

Help - what to get for a 7 year old boy?

Here's the thing: we have a lot of toys in our house. A lot less than many others I've seen but still waaaaay more than any children need.

We have games and puzzles a plenty, a billion colouring things, more alien shaped figurines than you could shake a stick at, weapons of many descriptions, enough lego and duplo to build a replica of our house, about 1 gasquillion soft toys, a pretend castle with knights and horses, a land of dinosaurs with plastic dinosaurs, toy animals, hot wheels, marble run, playmobil, planes/trains/automobiles including garage and mini town mat, tops, marbles, dress up, books and books and books. And they have a Nintendo DS each (which I despise and loathe and want to get rid of despite them only just having got them).

So now son 1 is about to turn 7. He could do with some sports training kit but that's not exactly going to put a smile on his face. That's sort of like saying he needs new underpants as a gift. He wants a Harry Potter robe, which I am getting him as part of his Harry Potter party (and there is a WHOLE blog post coming on this topic soon). And he's asked for some face paints and a diary he can lock.

Now the thing is, that's some new training kit, a robe, a diary and some face paints. That should be enough right? But there's nothing there that says whoop de doo it's my birthday! I know he wants something else - something he can actually play with - but he doesn't seem to know what. He's suggested a workbench but I have vetoed that on the basis that it will take up a huge amount of room and will never get used except to saw off his brother's fingers.

I did consider saying that I'd take him somewhere like Legoland in lieu of getting a present. But I'm not sure he'll understand that when he opens an envelope on his birthday.

But I hate buying STUFF for the sake of buying STUFF. I don't even like getting presents for myself unless they are something I really need and want. Consumerism has gone mad and I just can't take the clutter anymore. I yearn for the good old days when kids had one raggedy doll and a matchbox car and that was enough. That and a bit of imagination and an old cardboard box.

So suggestions please - what would make the ideal gift for a seven year old boy.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Moving to the US - would you do it?

You may recall last year I mentioned that we were considering moving. Many plans were put forward and shelved. Initially it was to live by the sea and let husband do a weekly commute. Then it was live by the sea and let husband do a daily commute. Personally I wanted to move to the sea and run a tea shop so that I'd have an excuse to eat a lot of cake. We spent weekends driving all over the country, visiting seaside villages and market towns. We nosied around plenty of houses and read up on schools up and down the country.

But all of the plans came to nothing. Because no matter what, it kept coming back to one thing. We need my husband at home more. The boys need their dad. He needs to not be so exhausted from his commute and his job that he just wants to lie on the sofa in a coma all weekend. I need to not be a single parent 90% of the year.

So another option presented itself. Move to Seattle in the USA so the husband could be close to his office (20 min commute vs 1.5 hours) and less international travel. Better work life balance (in theory).

When I mention this to people, most people react the same way: Go for it! I'd love to live in the US.

But would you? If it meant starting from scratch with no friends, no support network, no family, no job (for me), finding schools, finding a home, living with a culture foreign to both of us, raising American children, watching American football instead of rugby, not being able to buy decent pork sausages....

These are some of the things I will be considering when we head over to Seattle in just over two weeks time to 'suss out the joint'.

The pros are there too. A hopefully less tired, more available husband and father, a better quality of life, beautiful scenery, all the first world slickness and optimism that comes with the USA, the chance for me to become whatever I want to be and do whatever I want to do, the opportunity to meet new friends, and a whole new adventure.

I feel as though I am sitting precariously on a set of weighing scales just waiting to see which way they'll tilt. Which would way would you want them to go?

Tuesday 11 January 2011

An unexpected treasure trove

While on holiday, I rummaged through the books in my father's study. To my utter incredulity, there was an early edition of Irma Rombauer's 'Joy of Cooking'. You might remember it being mentioned in the film Jules and Julia. To find the book at all amongst my father's military tombs was a delightful suprise (my father's not known for his cooking skills, other than his signature dish 'mush'), but once I opened it, I found hand written notes scrawled in the margins by my great aunt. I was entranced.

I hunted on. I found an original Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management (first printed in 1861). This one belonged to my great grandmother. It too was stained and dog-eared and covered in hand written notes, with an overpowering aroma of old book. The spine had long since broken and and the pages were so fragile it was terrifying to touch them. But it was quite possibly the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.

As I searched on, I came across a number of equally lovely old cookery books, including recipe files of tips cut out of fifties-style magazines and yellowing newspapers, all punctuated with lots of personal notes about what was good or what needed adapting. Even menus from dinner parties gone by were tucked inside like little vignettes of past lives - devilled eggs and chicken chasseur anyone? It was a treasure trove from a different era.

Having gorged myself on cookery books, I found an small old hard-backed book which had my great grandfather's name printed on the first page. It was called '15 000 miles in a ketch' by Raymond du Baty. It charted the true story of an adventurous young Frenchman who set sail in search of the Desolation Islands. It was a delight, partly because some of his voyage was the same one I did in 2009 across the Atlantic - and it sounded virtually identical in so many ways - but mainly because it was such an honest, funny account. I could barely put it down.

Once I'd devoured that, I was on the hunt for a new read and to my delight found 'Pride and prejudice' by Jane Austen. I confess, I have never read any Jane Austen, but have watched the films. The book was brilliant - not only the story, but the actual book. Brown-aged pages snuggling into a small, hard-backed, blue cover, the perfect size to tuck into your pocket, ready to be snuck out whenever conversation might turn dull.

As if all of that wasn't enough, my father brought out all the old family albums to browse through. By old, I mean some pictures going back to my great, great, great grandparents. Not just pictures but poignant letters, like those written by my father's father, just months before he died aged only 48. They gave a snapshot of lives gone by. Fascinating lives interrupted by the Great Depression and World Wars.

Never before had I felt such a sense of connection to my past. To understand where I had come from and what had made the people in our family what they are today. It was such a grounding yet uplifting experience.

So while the normal holiday pursuits of lying in the sun and walking on the beach and going for a sail were lovely, what transformed this holiday into something truly special was the treasure trove I discovered tucked away on my father's shelves.

Friday 7 January 2011

What children really want

Now that heat has been restored to the house, my brain is defrosting enough for me to blog again. Here is the first of the holiday insights I had:

As parents, we often over complicate things. We imagine that children want expensive toys, when they're perfectly happy turning a carboard box into a den. We believe that unless we take them to expensive theme parks or zoos, they'll be bored. We feel the need to control what they're doing so that they're kept safe and don't bother other people. We think they need to bath everyday because the books said bathing helped babies settle well and we just stuck with the routine. We think they need to have three well balanced meals a day at roughly regular times.

But here's the thing. While discipline and healthy eating and safety and cleanliness are all important things, every once in a while it's ok to let it all go to hell in a hand basket. What's more, 'treats' like going to funfairs and meals out aren't necessarily what kids want.

What they want is the freedom to be, without the constraints of over zealous parenting.

Where we spent Christmas is the perfect place for children to experience the freedom that most kids just don't have these days. My children would get up, occasionally change out of their PJs and into shorts and Ts, reluctantly submit to an application of sunblock and then bolt out the door in search of their friends. They'd spend hours at a time out of our sight and without my knowledge of where they were, but with my knowing that they couldn't have got too far and were probably with someone I knew.

On one particular occasion, I found them four houses down in someone's else garden, high up in a tree. The tree was directly above a brick wall, which would have made for a fairly unpleasant landing place had they fallen out of the tree. The tree also had some kind of electric box on it for lights, another potential hazard. When I found them, my youngest child was hammering the tree with a large piece of metal. My normal mother antenna flicked on: Danger - could fall out of tree. Danger - could land on wall. Danger - could electrocute self. Behaviour - hitting someone's tree and potentially causing damage. Danger - could hit someone with metal. Behaviour - had they asked permission to climb the tree?

I knew the family whose tree it was, not that I could see them anywhere. I was about to start asking them to get down when my son turned to me and said: 'Could you leave now please?'

And I realised that sometimes, you just have to let go and let them be. They came to no harm. Neither did the tree and the people who's tree it was didn't bat an eyelid.

The kids would come back home when they were hungry. They were allowed fizzy pop (creme soda - vile green stuff with way to much sugar and artificial things in it) albeit in limited quantities. They got cleaned once a week despite having black feet and rings of dirt around their necks. They swam for hours and hours and hours. They learned to do forward rolls and forward flips and dives. We always had someone watch them swimming - I couldn't let go that much - but they were allowed to do outrageous things on piles of floating tubes that had me clutching my phone ready to call an ambulance, without saying a word (or at least not often).

They played impromptu games of football and rugby with a bunch of random kids and grown ups - whoever happened to be passing by. They flew kites and got them tangled. They played board games to escape the sun - and yes, they did play on their nintendo DSs that they got for Christmas a little more often than I would have liked.

They explored rock pools on beaches and pretended to hunt for pirate loot. They skimmed stones. They collected shells. And my eldest even managed to swim right across the river unaided, although my husband was on lifeguard duty on a canoe.

In short, they were free to be. And they loved it. We've had some lovely holidays, but never before at the end of a holiday have I had two small boys sobbing - I mean body shaking sobs with rivers of tears - about having to leave.

So parents if you're planning your next big expensive holiday, packed with activities and outings, I suggest you choose somewhere relatively safe where kids can play, ideally with other kids, and let them explore and be free. The sneaky plus side of this is that you get to chill out and read books (more on this in my next blog post). A win win.

Thursday 6 January 2011

Balls off a brass monkey

Our Christmas holiday in South Africa has given me a great deal of blog fuel. So many juicy ideas popped into my head while I was there that I should have hired an underling to run behind me jotting down bleats on a notepad wherever I went. But that will all have to wait. Because I have a more pressing subject to discuss and I cannot dilly dally because if I do, my fingers shall freeze right onto the keyboard as I type.

You see, I arrived home this morning after a relatively easy flight (including a handy upgrade to premium economy) but it was still very long and involved very little sleep. We left a nice 25C in Port Elizabeth, had a brief taste of 39C in Cape Town before landing in thick, cold, wet pea soup which appears to be covering Britain (for a change). Now I know that the current temperatures of 2C to 5C are positively balmy in contrast to the baltic climes that we escaped.

HOWEVER. Our house (300 years old, incredibly cold at the best of times) didn't manage to fit in our suitcases and had to stay here in the big chill. We had left the central heating on for one brief blast per day just to ensure the pipes didn't freeze and so that when we returned we wouldn't need to wear coats indoors for several days.

Back to my triumphant return home.....after getting soaked to the core carrying bags into the house, I rushed to boost the central heating, noting as I did so that it was rather parky in the house. I bustled about doing chores in a sleep deprived haze while the boys huddled under blankets on the sofa and demanded tea and toast and peeled grapes.

It was some time later that I realised I still couldn't feel my hands or the end of my nose. And then I got two further clues. I tried to spread some bovril on a crumpet for one of the small fascist dictators lying on the sofa and noted that it had frozen inside the jar. Later I went for a pee. Without wanting to be overly graphic, let me just say that when your pee results in large plumes of steam to bellow up out of the loo, you realise that perhaps all is not as it should be.

I investigated the boiler. The Red Light of Death was on. This could mean just one thing. No oil. I rang the oil company. They told me I could get some oil on 24 January. I told them some short four letter words. They rang back and said they can hopefully deliver tomorrow or Saturday. Of course I won't know if the boiler is on the blink until there is more oil added to the tank, and if it is on the blink, my chances of getting an engineer on a weekend aren't massively optimistic.

Suffice to say I have spent the entire day shivering, while wearing my yeti coat and thick boots, lugging basket after basket of logs into the house in a vain attempt to generate enough heat in our wood burning stove and cooking belly warming chilli con carne so that at least one part of us is warm. The children had a luke warm bath, have a princess and pea type bed situation only with blankets stacked rather than mattresses, I've boiled plenty of kettles of water for hot water bottles and now all that is left, is for me to decide the following:

Do I have a luke warm bath and quite possibly freeze to death getting out of it? Or do I go to bed wearing all the travel grime of the last 24 hours? I know which one I'm leaning towards. I might be quite smelly by next week.

Oh it's good to be home. (there's that word again)

PS - the boys were in bed and asleep by ten to six. It is now 6.35pm and I am about to follow suit. Whoop whoop. Rocking in the new year.