Monday 28 February 2011

Sleepless in Seattle - Part 3

As we tried to find our way across the bridge using our delightful, not fully functioning satnav, we got a bit lost. In the process, we managed to see more of the lake, a beautiful park and some really, really dodgy parts of town. The bits you don't want to see ever, much less when you're trying to decide whether to move to a place. So far there were definitely more cons than pros.

We finally found the bridge and headed over Lake Washington, stopping at Mercer Island on the way. This, we had been told, was one of THE spots to live with fab schools and a very nice area.  But all we saw was one shopping arcade and suburb after suburb after suburb. We decided to call it quits as we were in dire need of food and figured that there wasn't much more to Mercer Island than lots of houses. Nice houses admittedly, but where do all the people in those houses go when they need to pop out for a pint of milk? There didn't seem to be such a thing as a corner shop or local Chinese take-away. It was simply suburbia....for miles.

We finally entered the promised land of Bellevue. Initial impressions were underwhelming. It was a mini city with sky scrapers and a mall and lots of 'retail parks'. By retail park, I mean the kind of places you'd find on the outskirts of a British town that tend to feature a Homebase, sports shop and possibly a Matalan. You know the feeling that goes along with those places. It's not a shopping pleasure. It's a shopping chore. You're going there with the express purpose of getting something, normally not something you want to buy, but something you need to buy. So it was that feeling which seemed to permeate the place. And I was starting to realise that it was places like these that serve as the corner shop or the hub for an area.

It wasn't helped when we returned to our car, having nipped into a pizza joint for a bite to eat, to discover we had a parking ticket. Apparently  we were a 'walk off'. In other words, we'd parked in the retail park but had crossed the road and eaten at the pizza joint facing the car park, rather than going to a shop in the car park. Luckily when we came to pay for this ticket, the man on the telephone found the concept of a British credit card very complicated and he kindly cancelled the ticket. (Incidentally, good pizza.)

We then began exploring the suburbs of Bellevue. Think Desperate Housewives. Think Wisteria Lane. Think perfect houses on perfect streets, with perfect cars parked in front of perfect garages. It was surreal. And strange. Again, no corner shop. No feeling of a suburb/village centre. Do every one of these people hop in their big cars and drive to the mall to get a loaf of bread? Really?

We did see people walking, but where were they walking to? Was there a mystery destination we were yet to find? If there was, we never did find it.

So we drove around confused, simultaneously drooling over the size and marvellousness of the houses, but not quite getting it either. It all just felt a little bit Stepford Wives. There were some suburbs that were particularly gorgeous, with tiny roads winding down to the edge of the lake.  I decided that if we were to move there, then it would be one of those houses I would want and covet. But I'd have to sell several of my internal organs to afford one.

After a lot of driving we finally headed back into Bellevue to check out the mall (cool with good shops) and meet a friend for drinks. She had very kindly arranged for several of her friends to join us so that we could pick their brains as to what it is like to live there. There was me (South African), my friend (South African), my husband (British), an Irishman, an Australian and an American who had mostly lived abroad. And there were two local Americans. All there to give us their perspective.

In general the ex-pats seemed to love it, but had a hard time saying why. In short, they said that living in the US was like falling onto a squishy pillow. It's soft and easy and comforting, but not very edgy. They said life was ridiculously easy and incredibly cheap in comparison to the UK (yes, we noticed that when we filled the car and it cost just $30 as opposed to the £70 it normally costs us). And the tax rate was much lower, so financially you're far better off. And there is plenty to do in the area, like skiing and hiking and sailing. All good.

The Americans took their job, of informing us about the place, very seriously. They were lovely and very kind to give us their time and I couldn't fault them. Except that they weren't like the ex-pats. There was less swearing. Fewer hilarious jokes. Just a little more earnestness in general. Which in itself told us a lot. It is a nation of people like these that we'd be moving to.  Would we fit in?

Luckily the ex-pats told us that there are a ludicrous number of ex-pats in Seattle thanks to companies like Microsoft and Google. They even play rugby and tend to hang out and tell rude jokes, saying words like twat which apparently Americans equate to the the C word over here. Not that I'd want to move all the way to the far side of the US, just to hang out with a bunch of ex-pats. When in Rome, be Roman and all that. But it was comforting to know that we could get our fix of Britain should we need it.

In all by the end of the night, I was feeling more optimistic. They seemed a very nice bunch - all of them - and they all had good things to say about living there, despite the weather.

There was only one thing I found a bit odd about the evening. The bar we were in had the five girls in our party and possibly another 5 women in the entire place. The rest of the people there were men. Where were the women? All at home being Stepford Wives, getting the casseroles out of the cooker in readiness for the return of the man? Perhaps it was simply the location of the bar being near hotels where business men are likely to be, but it was odd nonetheless.

So by the end of a very, very tiring first day, our conclusion was: net neutral. Not for or against. Just completely undecided. If anything, more in the against column but the evening's banter had pulled it back towards neutral ground.

What followed was a sleepness night in Seattle, a few hours of coma-esque sleep followed by a jet-lag induced 3am wake up call with a waterfall of thoughts cascading through my brain. I was hoping that day 2 would give me more clarity. Because the one place I didn't want to be was sitting on a picket fence....

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Sleepless in Seattle - part 2

We spent the first part of our first day walking around downtown Seattle. As we walked from our apartment to the centre of town, I didn't feel massively excited by what I saw. It was a strange place - a beautiful waterfront blotted out by a double decker freeway. Some really fab looking restaurants followed by run down buildings with strange looking people lurking around outside. I'd read on the in flight magazine on the way over that Seattle was a city of misfits and our first impressions certainly bore this description out.

The Seattle uniform is a cross between grunge, punk and hobo in the young people. For the middle and older generations the look comprised flat shoes (moccasins or trainers) with straight-legged jeans or straighter legged trousers, with tucked in shirt and a parka. Usually made of fleece, with a waterproof outer. Seattle-ites don't carry umbrellas, despite the near constant rain. It's not cool apparently. If I had to sum up the general Seattle population with a very broad brush stroke, I'd say it's Geeky. But then again, it's the home of Microsoft, so go figure.

We found a coffee shop and instantly discovered three marvellous things. 1. Coffee that tasted amazing. I mean seriously amazing. I am not one of those people who likes coffee that's strip-the-plaque-off-your-teeth strong. I am happy with a cup of instant. Honest. But this coffee was just right.

2. As I sat down on the squishy sofa enjoying this wonderful beverage and starting to feel less like a jet-lagged zombie, I fired up my ipad. And yip, instant connection to the free wifi. No 'please pay £5 to enjoy this wifi'. Just turn on and start surfing.  3. Finally, having drunk our coffee and surfed maps of Seattle online, we headed out. But we obeyed the sign that said: 'Please bus your own table.' Now that's not a saying you hear much in the UK. We discovered that there were multiple bins so that everything could be recycled. Well there you go, Seattle is a green city - apparently the second greenest in the USA. That went into the pros column.

We ambled further downtown and started remembering what it was like to live in a city, where you can stroll under high rise buildings, nip into cavernous bookstores and grab a cab whenever you like. And all the shop staff were like the TV presenters, perky and friendly, only less irritating.

Our spirits were definitely on the up. This place was pretty cool.

We got into our hire car and fired up the Hertz NeverLost, the delightful satnav system which we quickly renamed Hertz Never F*ingOn or alternately, Hertz Never Shuts Up.  It was temperamental.

We headed over to a posh suburb - Madison Park - we'd been advised to take a look at. The houses were old (as in turn of the century as opposed to the 300 year old cottage we currently live in) and much smaller than the ones I'd seen on the internet, but they had character. And best of all, they all had basketball hoops facing outwards onto the street. I could just picture neighbourhood kids shooting hoops on a quiet cul de sac. It was lovely.

Making our way from there, we stumbled - literally - into one of the top private schools we'd been advised to see. We hadn't managed to get an appointment, but popped in all the same. We were met with more perky friendliness and handed a stack of information including the fees schedule. Weep.

So we left and found the 'village centre' of Madison Park. It was nice. But didn't exactly rock our world. There wasn't much there and it felt slightly lacking in some way that we couldn't quite put our finger on. Nevertheless, we pulled into a Starbucks for another coffee and more free wifi, before deciding to head out across the 520 bridge spanning Lake Washington and into Bellevue, our potential new home.

We were finally going to see the places I'd been studying on Redfin for months, for real. Google streetview and reality were about to collide. This was the big reveal....

Thursday 17 February 2011

Sleepless in Seattle - part 1

Right, where to begin. The weekend before last my husband and I abandoned the children to one of the lovely people who I sailed across the ocean with (thanks Blue) and headed off on a plane to Seattle. This was not a holiday. This was a reconnaissance mission to answer the big questions: Could we live there? Could we leave behind all of our friends and the limited family we have here? Could we raise American children? Could we start from scratch all over again?

With these not insignificant questions weighing heavily on our minds, we set off. Luckily we managed to get upgraded to premium economy and then again to business class. So at least we arrived relatively well rested.

A friend of mine had arranged for us to stay at a work colleague's apartment for the duration of our stay as he was out of town. His apartment was right in down town Seattle, two blocks from the famous Space Needle, so it was a great base.

After a restless night - both of us wide awake at 3am - we began our day. This involved turning the TV on. Except it wasn't a TV. It was a media centre and required a PhD in electronics to figure it out. But we got there in the end. And bam! There it was. American TV. Worse than that. Local American news. Let me explain how that works:

The hosts (perfectly coiffed, none of that hardly done UK-style hair) obviously had Starbucks loyalty cards and were on their tenth grande latte of the day. Because they were perky. Very. And crap. Now admittedly it was the day after Superbowl Sunday, so that subject was going to dominate a fair share of the news. But the 'news' stories ran as follows:
- the actual Superbowl result and game
- deep analysis of which superbowl ads were best
- a bit more about which of the ads were best
- a bit about which of the ads were worst
- further deep analysis of which merchandise at the superbowl sold best
- commentary from fans about the superbowl
- commentary from the players/coaches about the superbowl
- the earnings made as a result of the superbowl
- speculation about what next year's superbowl will be like
- a repeat of all of the above
- the fact the US teens are snorting a new drug - bath salts - two mentions
- the funeral of a female police officer who had been shot - brief mention

Now please understand that none of these stories ran consecutively. There would be one of the above items, followed by the weather lady who had obviously had even more caffeine than the hosts. She managed to tell the same day's weather in at least 12 different ways. I particularly liked the way she said that a band of rain was 'scooching its way over the city'. Can you imagine the BBC's Carol Kirkwood saying: 'Well folks, you all are gonna want pack a rain fleece today as we've got a cold front scooching in over Wales.' Probably not.

After manic weather lady, we had even more manic traffic guy who had a very handy dandy map which showed which roads were moving well vs being jammed to a halt. The man spoke about a billion words a minute and felt quite passionate about jams, pleading with the cars in that area to 'sort their stuff out'.

While all of this was going on, there was the normal news ticker running across the bottom only with the addition of a big fat logo (Pepperidge Farm I think it was). Nice. Branded news. The mugs the presenters drank out of were branded too. And if that wasn't enough branding for you, they interrupted the news every 3 minutes for 5 minutes of ads.

Suffice to say that by the time we headed out doors in search of a coffee of our own (and in Seattle you are always sure to find one within three steps), I already had my reservations. It was going to be a long four days....

Monday 14 February 2011

How to hold a Harry Potter party

I will update you on Seattle shortly, but first there are more pressing things to do. Yesterday we held a Harry Potter party for our son who turned 7. When he said he wanted a Harry Potter party, I did loads of internet research. The stuff you can find online is amazing and thanks to a bunch of enterprising mums out there, I got all the inspiration I needed. I mentally promised that I would add to this collective pool of knowledge to help out any other mums who are tasked with this same job.

So here is a guide on how to throw a Harry Potter party:

I made this on my PC - a simple letter with the Hogwarts logo on top (google hogwarts images and you'll find loads). This was the wording:

Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry

Headmaster: Albus Dumbledore (Order of Merlin, First Class, Grand Sorc., Chf. Warlock, Supreme Mugwump, International Confed. Of Wizards)


We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and wizardry. Please join Harry Potter (also known as X X) in celebrating his 7th birthday on the first day of the school term.

You’ll find the magical school entrance at the XXX Village Hall. Term begins Sunday 13 February at 3.30pm sharp (the Sorting Hat won’t like latecomers). You may leave by broomstick with your parents at 5.30pm. Don’t worry about coming in uniform or bringing wands. They will be provided.

We await your owl by no later than 25 January. If your parents are muggles and don’t have an owl, they can email xxx or call xxx.

Yours sincerely
Professor M. McGonagall
I printed out the Hogwarts logo and stuck it on the back of the envelope and printed a small pic of an owl and stuck it where the stamp would go. They looked like the real deal. The RSVPs I got back from parents were hilarious. They all got into the swing of it. You can download the invitation here.

Location and decor
We used our local village hall as it was cheap and gave us the space we needed. To create ambience, we shut the curtains, turned the lights off and strung up fairy lights all over the place (we borrowed extra from friends). I printed off Hogwarts logos and stuck them onto pieces of cardboard and stuck them on the door and walls. We also made signs for Madam Malkins Robes, Ollivanders Wands, Potions Class, Care of Magical Creatures and Honeydukes. The kids made these with me - so it was a fun arts and crafts thing leading up to it. Cost us nothing too. We downloaded some of the Harry Potter theme tunes from iTunes and played them on an ipod.

What we did
My husband for his sins got to be Professor Snape. We re-styled an old hippie wig we had in the dress up box and smeared it with hair gel to give it a greasy look. He looked more like Wendolene from Wallace & Gromit, but whatever. He also wore a long black morning coat, shirt and flouncy tie to look the part. I was Professor McGonagall. I paired an old green bridesmaid skirt with a black PJ top, black wrap and medallion style necklace and did my hair in a bun. I also wore a witches hat which became the sorting hat. The birthday boy wore his Harry Potter outfit. So most of this stuff we had without having to spend anything.

Kids arrived and were sent straight to Madam Malkins to get their robes. The robes were black bin bags (the kind with handles) that we cut in half lengthwise, which they could then tie around their shoulders. They could then decorate them with sticky stars (you get a pack of 250 stars from Sainsburys for about £2.)

Once they had their robe, they went to Ollivanders Wand Emporium to select their wands. The wands were sticks that we'd found on walks. I spent one Sunday afternoon whittling the sticks and sanding them down till they were smooth but you could skip this step if you're not fussed. We had a tub of white glue and tubs of different coloured glitter on the table. The kids could dip their chosen wand into the glue then the glitter to make the tip sparkle and become a bit magical. Be warned: the glitter/glue combo will make a mess as the kids instantly start waving their wands around. So take a scrubbing brush to clean up afterwards.

Sorting hat
I had an old witches hat in our dress up box. I printed off the house logos (I found some handy dandy ones ready made by another mum which I copied but you can again just google the houses and see the logos online). You can download the logos I used here. I then printed off the logos, stuck them on card and made little badges by sellotaping safety pins to the back of them. All of these were then put into the hat. The kids then took turns to put their hand into the hat to choose a house - Slytherin, Griffindor, Ravenclaw and Huffelpuff. Lots excitement about who was going to be in evil Slytherin.

Care of magical creatures class
We got a company in called Aquasplash Reptiles. They are based in Berkshire UK, but there are plenty of other companies that offer reptile handling parties. What I liked about this company was that they were happy to just come for an hour and cost £100. Most of the others wanted to charge a heck of a lot more and would put on a complete 2 hour show. I told them it was a Harry Potter party but the guy assigned on the day (Chris) hadn't got that message. Which was sad because he is the world's BIGGEST Harry Potter fan and has been to the filming locations etc. He said he would have come dressed up completely had he known.

Anyway, he and his assistant spent 30 minutes showing the kids snakes, lizards, toads, giant beetles, tarantulas and any other number of creatures. Chris was great and told the kids how each of the animals could be used in potion making and what their magical qualities were. They all got to hold the creatures, with lots of screaming and brave faces. Chris also awarded points to the house who was bravest or cleverest, which we kept note of.

Potions class
Once they'd all had a turn to hold the creatures, they moved over to the other side of the hall where we had set up potions class, run by Professor Snape. This is the most time consuming bit of this party preparation-wise but we had a ball doing it. And I've saved you time as you can simply use the potions we created by downloading them here. You can tell we were aiming our potions class at little boys who think poo, farting and snot are hilariously funny.

We bought a job lot of plastic cauldrons on ebay. Here's the link. They cost £4 for five. I also bought plastic spoons and a job lot of plastic tubs - go to the picnic section of your supermarket and get the cheapest there.

Before the party starts, ensure that you measure out the ingredients for each potion. We had 12 kids at the party - 3 in each house. So each house was given three cauldrons and we had three potions to make, which they all worked on together. They LOVED IT!! Especially when the bicarb reacted with the vinegar and you got green liquid bubbling over the top of the cauldron. Be warned: you will need kitchen roll to wipe up the mess! You will need to buy a job lot of food colouring, bicarb of soda, vinegar and cornflour too.

Professor Snape then awarded points to each house based on their success, with an obvious bias towards Slytherin...

While we tidied away the potions and washed out the cauldrons, the kids duelled with their wands. No need to try and synchronise this. They will naturally team up into their houses and shout 'Expelliarmus!' and 'Stupify!' at anyone else. Just warn them in advance not to get too carried away and actually hit anyone with their wands.

Once they had all cast spells on each other, they sat on the floor for a picnic. I bought these plain party boxes in red, blue, yellow and green and stuck the house logos on the respective coloured boxes. Food was bog standard party fare - there's loads you could do by calling things butterbeer or pumpkin pasties, but in my experience kids just shove the food in and then lose interest pretty fast. So we kept it simple and as it was all prepared in advance, was very easy to do.

Interhouse Sports Day
After they'd eaten, we put them into their houses for the sports day. We started with 'Quidditch' or broomstick races. I bought four of these broomsticks online but you could use regular ones. The kids had to race on their broomsticks from one side of the room to the other and back, before passing the broom to the next team member. The winning team had all of it's members home first. We did this race a few times as they loved it. Lots of house points awarded.

We then moved onto 'Pass the mandrake'. It was going to be pass the pumpkin but it's not pumpkin season, so I bought a celeriac instead. These root vegetables look remarkably like Mandrakes (for those of you who have seen Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets). The game was to pass the mandrake and if the music stopped and you were holding it, you were out. The last person left was the winner. Another very successful game, and another chance to award house points.

We had two additional games up our sleeve which we didn't do because we ran out of time. Musical Spells (when you shout 'Immobulus' or 'Petrify' and stop the music, they have to freeze) and Find the Philosopher's Stone (we wrapped a stone in tin foil and hid it outside for the kids to find).

The party finale and a massive hit. We created Honeydukes sweet shop. We bought (mostly from Sainsburys):
Sherbert lemons
Strawberry liquorice (Liquorice wands)
Chocolate frogs (buy them online here)
Flying saucers (fizzing whizbees)
Chocolate cornflakes clusters (Chocolate Cockroaches)
Jelly Beans (Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans)
Gummy fangs sweets (Fangs & kisses)
Jelly snakes
We put all the sweets into jam jars and made colourful labels for them (another crafts project the kids did). The kids then got to put the sweets into their now washed out cauldrons, which became their party bag.

I made a Hogwarts Castle cake. I used this video as inspiration but adapted it so mine was blue and had Harry Potter lego figurines on it. The kids got a slice of this put in their cauldrons.

We announced in reverse order the house points. Each team got to come up and choose a little prize (I got a job lot of party favours from the supermarket but went with ones that could be magical - like a magical whistle, magical looking glass, monster finger puppet etc). The winning house got to keep the broomsticks and they got to hold up the Triwizard Cup - an old kids beaker wrapped in foil.

Then they all went home and I went and drank a bottle of wine. Hope that helps out any other parents whose child desperately wants a Harry Potter party. I wish I could post more pics of the party but my camera died halfway through. So take note: make sure you have a working camera on the day!

Friday 4 February 2011

Off to the USA

I haven't blogged for a while or commented on many people's blogs (sorry about that). Just been a little frenetic trying cram in work while organising this trip to the USA. We're off on Sunday to browse Seattle. Like window shopping, only for a new country to live in. Weird.

We have 3 dinner dates, 1 drinks party, 1 lunch date and 3 school appointments lined up. I would have liked more school appointments but they're all really busy at this time of year with their applications for the next school year. I have a map of the different areas. I have memorised top schools by district.  I know the average house price by area. We've had one call with a local mum/business person and one call with an estate agent. I feel sure I should have done more but not sure what.

I have written the List of All Things for the person looking after our children. I almost very nearly organised. Yet I feel sick with the stress of it all.

I am really hoping that we get there and that I either LOVE it or LOATHE it. Anywhere in the middle ground will not help this decision making process.

So here goes nothing. I will report back....