Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

No snow here, but it still feels like Christmas.

Thanks again to LJB at Crankymonkeys for some new ornaments for the tree! Santa brought a couple of new ones too - the red and white baubles with writing on them.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

I like Crankymonkeys in London

LBJ at Crankymonkeys in London had a giveaway of some Christmas ornaments and I won! It made my day - thanks LBJ!

If you haven't visited her blog, check it out - she's an expat who grew up in Estonia and then the USA. She moved to Australia as an adult, but now lives in London with her husband and two children. I only found her blog fairly recently, but I've added it to my list of must-reads.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Stripping with the Stars

Colleagues at work are obsessed with TV programs like Dancing with the Stars and get into protracted conversations at lunchtime over who they think should be voted off the show next. Personally, I couldn't care less about shows like that. I found this spoof quite funny though:

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Kathryn at Marmite and Fluff tagged me.
The rules are:
1. Link to the person who tagged you.  Done.
2. Paste these rules on your blog post.  Done.
3. Respond to the following prompts (in bold).  Done.
4. Add a prompt of your own and answer it. Hmm - in the interest of getting this post completed this year, I'm going to skip this step.
5. Tag a few other bloggers at the bottom of the post. Done (kind of).
6. Leave "Tagged You" notices on their blog/Facebook. 
7. Let the person who tagged you know when you've written the post. Done

1) The best investment you ever made:
The time spent getting to know my husband when we were dating. Because of my work schedule, it was often difficult to get to see each other, but we spent a lot of time on the phone, chatting online and emailing each other. Next best investment - travelling as much as I could while I was young and single, even though the list of places I want to see is still very long.

2) If you could’ve written any book, directed any movie, and composed any song, which three would you pick:
Simply because of the money it generated and the change it made in JK Rowling's lifestyle, I wish I had written the Harry Potter series. From the impact his work has had over the generations, I wish I had written anything by Shakespeare. Which movie and song do I wish I had written? Hmm - that's harder as movies and songs are not as important in my life as books. Maybe Picnic at Hanging Rock, for a movie (though I haven't seen it in years and it may not be what I remember!) and something by the Beatles for a song.

3) Weirdest quirk:  
DH says that would be my . . . SQUIRREL!! . . . tendency to get easily distracted. I don't think that's weird - I know lots of people with ADD! I'm sure there are plenty of other people who would take 10 days or more to answer the questions in this meme!

4) One wish immediately granted:
Decent, affordable, health care coverage for everyone.

5) Most expensive hobby
Jewelry making or knitting. Jewelry making - obvious - even making your own jewelry is not cheap if you have expensive tastes. No silver-colored or gold-colored beads and findings thank you, I want the real thing! Yarn is stupidly expensive nowadays, though thanks to Ravelry and growing confidence in my own design abilities, I haven't had to buy any patterns in a while.

6) An inexhaustible gift card at which store
The Apple store or my local yarn store.

7) In another lifetime, you'd be:
More athletic.

8) The most famous/interesting member of your family tree:

No one particularly famous in our family tree that I know of, but my mother has some interesting stories about her great-grandmother, Hettie:
"her sons would bring their best clothes to my grandma’s house … if they left  them at home, Hettie took them to the pawn shop to get cash for drink.
On one occasion she was badly burnt when she tipped a pan of boiling  porridge on her lap… she was sitting by the fire brewing the stuff, when she tipped it down herself.  There was an implication that she was the worse for drink when it happened, because despite  extensive damage to lower abdomen and thighs, she was reported to feel no great  pain."
9) The most famous person you've ever met:
King Hussein of Jordan. He died too young.

If you're looking for blog fodder and feel like answering these questions, consider yourself tagged, but don't forget to let me know when your post is up!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Christmas shopping

I am one of those mothers who likes to take her kids to museums for fun and buy her kids educational toys. Fortunately, most of the time my kids seem to like this! Our trip to the UK this summer had a Roman theme - Bath, Chedworth Roman Villa, Roman tour of Chester, Wroxeter Roman city . . . So when I saw that the British Museum shop has a free shipping offer on right now - including to overseas addresses - I had to take a look. Oh dear! I could spent quite a lot of money there, and not just on the children! Well, I'm sure I could get some of those things here in the US, but some of the things I like  are British Museum exclusives. Hmm - may have to browse some more and put a wish list together!

By the way, if you click on my link to the shop and end up buying something there, you could help defray my expenses shopping there as I do get a commission on purchases made in the next ten days through my link.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sorry? What did you say?

English teachers in non-English-speaking countries face the dilemma of which English to teach. Often their school will have a preference for English English or American English, usually based on the textbooks they are using. I remember when I was at university in France one of the lecturers telling me that the way I pronounced 'bath' was wrong because I had a northern accent rather than the 'BBC accent' he wanted his students to learn. Equally, my lecturers back in the UK were a little taken aback when I returned from my year in France with a very strong southern French accent. Given that most people will retain something of a 'foreign' accent when they learn a second language, the most important thing to my mind is to be able to make yourself understood.

My accent has changed since I first came to the United States 25 years ago. It happened partly because as a language teacher I find myself naturally mimicking the accents of those around me. (That sometimes gets me into trouble as people think I'm taking the mickey!) Mostly though it has been a conscious choice to try to change my accent. I got thoroughly fed up of people asking me to repeat myself when I thought I was being perfectly clear. It was just faster and less frustrating to say it the American way. It also didn't hurt to sound more, rather than less, American when I was looking for employment as an English as a Second Language teacher here in the United States. My colleagues occasionally comment on my accent, and on rare occasions I  hear my students say something with an English accent (and I then 'correct' them!) One of my colleagues though has a strong accent from the south of the USA, which is just as alien to the northeast as my accent is - and I hear her students picking up her accent!

I suppose schools and universities in some countries may prefer Australian English. I can't think of any that would prefer Scottish English though ;-)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Fun with a sharp knife

Every Halloween we decorate our front step with carved pumpkins. When I say 'we', I really mean DH. I buy the pumpkins, but he's always the one that carves them. He does such a good job it has never occurred to me to help other than by helping to remove the guts from the pumpkins. I rarely even make suggestions about what the pumpkin face should look like, for fear of asking for something too difficult to execute.

Something got into me tonight though - guilt perhaps, that DH always does all the work carving the pumpkins? Or simply some enthusiasm for attacking something with a sharp knife? (It's been a long, busy, and stressful week!) DH was asking the children what kind of designs they would like on their pumpkins this year, and I decided to look for some inspiration online.  I found lots of pictures of spectacular pumpkins, but decided that for my first attempt at pumpkin carving perhaps I'd better stick to something simple.

After looking at some simpler designs though, I came to the conclusion that they were really rather boring. We have a neighbor across the street who puts out a dozen or so very nicely carved pumpkins every year, and I don't want to lower the standards in the neighborhood! Thinking I'd probably bitten off more than I could chew, I finally got started. DD gave me a felt pen, and I drew a rough outline of what I wanted. I'm really not a very artistic person, and I knew that the contours of the pumpkin were going to distort my image somewhat, so I really thought as I got started that the pumpkin was more likely to end up in the compost pile than back out on the front step.

After I got done, and went on to carve the design DD had drawn on her pumpkin, DH decided that the carving will be my job from now on. I'm thinking maybe we should have more pumpkins next year . . .

My owl

DD's spider

DH's ghost

DS's pumpkin

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Logical child

I let DS play some games on my iPod Touch one time when we were waiting at the doctor's office and ever since then he begs me on a regular basis to be allowed to borrow my iPod. After a playdate with a classmate, he told me that he wants Santa to bring him a Nintendo DS this year but then he started asking about their relative costs and changed his mind. Now his plan is to buy a Nintendo DS with his own money - presumably money he hopes to get as presents for birthday or Christmas, seeing as I don't give him regular pocket money. The reason why he'd rather buy one himself? Well, he found out that iPods are a lot more expensive, so he wants Santa to bring him an iPod instead! I'm very torn because the games he likes to play on the iPod are things like Numbl and Shift - games that make you think! However, given that I've already cracked the screen on my iPod, I think he's going to have to wait a while before he gets one of his own - and his thinking skills are clearly already well developed anyway, aren't they?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The geography of prejudice . . .

 . . . or the mapping of stereotypes, from visual artist, graphic designer and illustrator Yanko Tsvetkov's blog. (Go to his blog to see other maps he's created.)

Europe according to Britain

Europe according to the USA

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Disabled access

When we were at Chessington, I saw this sign at the top of a flight of stairs. I couldn't read it at first, so went a little closer.

Hmm - is it just me, or is it unusual to have handicapped access via a flight of stairs?

Actually, one of the things I was impressed by at Chessington was that in addition to specifying the minimum height required for each ride, there was information about the degree of mobility required. Although to get on many of the rides, you clearly needed to be able to walk or at least get yourself into your seat, for others there was simply a requirement that once seated you be able to hold yourself upright unaided. It's years since I've been to a theme park in the USA, but I would hope that the ADA laws would ensure the same kind of clarity over here.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

To feed or not to feed the ducks?

Blue Planet Aquarium was selling food for visitors to feed to the ducks.

But right next to the vending machine full of duck food was this sign:

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Poor kitties!

The children were so stunned by these signs at the side of the road in the UK that they took pictures of them.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


It was a strange feeling to be back in the UK after so long (over 4 years) away. It didn't exactly feel like home any more but it wasn't exactly foreign either. It was more like coming home to your own house to find that someone had redecorated and changed some of the furniture while you were away.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The holiday that nearly wasn't

Our vacation to the UK was almost over before it began. On the flight over, British Airways had assigned me a seat in a different row to DH and the children. We agreed that this was not a bad thing as I really needed to sleep because I would be the one driving when we got to the UK and would need to have my wits about me as it was so long since I 'd driven there.

Sadly, I got no sleep. The children were right behind me and VERY excited to be on a plane. The last time we flew to the UK it was via Reykjavik on IcelandAir and DS howled because he did not have the seatback TV his sister had promised him. This time they had the seatback TVs and what seemed like a gazillion choices of things to watch - not all of them appropriate for kids, but with no way to switch off the inappropriate stuff. I had told them there would be "a" kids' movie, but they had so much choice they decided to try to watch everything! So no sleeping children, lots of commenting on the movies, telling mommy to look out of the window, and a fair amount of kicking mommy's seat. Oh, and during the brief moment that DH actually got to nap, the flight attendant came by and gave my daughter coffee! Add to that, the fact that I was sitting next to two very nice, very chatty, Scottish girls who were determined to drink the plane dry (and stock up with wine bottles for their flight to Glasgow on which they knew the drinks would not be free) and I was knackered by the time we got to Heathrow.

The kids and I, with our British passports, breezed through UK immigration, but DH got stuck in a enormously long queue as several flights appeared to have arrived at the same time. He was not amused when, after half an hour, he finally got to the front of the queue to find out that he could have walked through with us! (He still has suspicions that if he had tried that, they would have sent him back to the foreigners' queue anyway!)

As we exited into the airport, we believed the signs that told us to head to the far end of Terminal 5 for car rental buses. Once we were outside the building we found we had to walk all the way back to the end of the building where we'd started. Grr.

We took the shuttle bus over to Avis car rental and it was here that things really started to go pear-shaped. I went in to deal with the paperwork, while DH stayed outside with the children. Over-tired children. Weasel children. Apparently deaf children because they listened to not a word their father said.

The staff inside the Avis office and their computer system were amazingly inefficient. It ended up taking over 45 minutes for me to get the paperwork sorted for a car that I had already booked and paid for. Admittedly, not all of the delay was their fault - the bloke in front of me spent twenty minutes going around and around with them over the fact that he wanted to pay cash for his rental and just couldn't fathom why they refused to let him leave with a car without giving them a credit card number. I don't know what planet he came from, but clearly no car rental company is going to let you leave without giving them a valid credit card number.

Fortunately, I had my receipt from British Airways because Avis claimed to have no record of the booking in their computer, and the staff member behind the desk commented that this 'always' happened with BA rentals! No record of the booking meant no record of my credit card, which meant they wanted the number again. I explained I had already paid, and although I understood that they needed to have the number on file, I did not expect them to charge my card. "Of course not", she said, and promptly asked if I would give her my card again as it "hadn't gone through" the first time!

When I've rented cars at Heathrow in the past (with another company, that my sister used to work for), they would get done with the paperwork and then tell me to go out and pick any car from a particular row. I don't think this was special treatment for a 'staff' rental. I suddenly realized when the Avis staff member disappeared for 5 minutes to go and look at the cars in the car park that this was not going to happen at Avis - she was about to assign me a specific car, so when she returned and asked if a BMW 1 series would be OK, I asked, "Is that going to have a boot big enough for all our luggage?" and "Can I have a diesel please?" (Diesel=better mpg) "I'll be right back" she said, and then disappeared off into the car park again. Why on earth did her computer system not have that information available? She returned and asked if a BMW 3 series would be OK. Suspicious that she was trying to upgrade me to a more expensive car, I said fine so long as it has a similar boot size to the Vectra, (which was the class of car I had booked), and isn't going to cost me any more money. I had no idea what a BMW 1 or BMW 3 series was, but 3 sounded more expensive than 1!

By the time I finally got the bay number for the car DH, had had it up to here with the children and demanded that the first place I drive should be Terminal 5 so he could figure out how to get a flight home again. We headed out and found the car she'd assigned us, children still being little weasels all the way. The bags fit in the boot. The kids' booster seats fit, sort of, on the back seat. I found where to put the key in, and decided to spend a minute familiarizing myself with the controls. I found the 'Start' button. Oh, no, a car designed by Microsoft - I bet the 'Start' button stops it too. (OK, it did say "Start/Stop".) But the Start button didn't seem to start the engine. With the children getting even more irritating (if that's at all possible) DH was still grumping about wanting to head for Terminal 5. I finally had to ask one of the Avis staff how to start the car. (Depress the clutch while pushing the Start button.) Fortunately, unlike Nappy Valley Mum and her husband, I had kept my ID in the car with me (American habit!) rather than in the boot , so we got out of the Avis car park OK. Well, we bunny-hopped out onto the main road - it was 4+ years since I'd had to change gear after all! Seeing as I was driving, I made the executive decision not to head for Terminal 5, but to go straight to my brother's house instead. (Actually, if only I could have persuaded DH to take the children with him, I might have dropped all 3 of them off at Terminal 5 by then!)

I breathed a sigh of relief once we got onto the empty-at-8-o'clock-on-a-Sunday-morning M25. Now the vacation would begin. Except I made the mistake once we got my brother's house of checking my email and found that Avis had charged my credit card $900 ($300 more than the cost of our rental!), not once but twice :-( Avis' slogan may be "We try harder" but in my experience all that means is "We try harder to piss you off!"

36 hour day

(Image from Matt Kursmark.)

My DH blogged over here about the 36 hour day that started our vacation in the UK. Apparently the madness of the first 36 hours worked as we all adapted relatively quickly, waking at a reasonable 7 a.m. most days.

As we left on vacation, DS was apparently unclear as to exactly where we were going and how. After we picked up the rental car to get to the airport, he looked at the cars on our driveway and asked which one we were going in! On seeing Boston he shouted in delight, "I can see New York!" He then wanted to know how we were going to get the rental car to the UK. As we got out of the car at the airport he squealed, "Look Momma, there's a plane!"

He liked the rental cars we had - a BMW 3 series in the UK, and a Cadillac on our return to the US to get back home - and compared my RAV 4 to them very unfavorably. I liked the BMW too, but given that a BMW 3 series vehicle could cost twice as much as my RAV 4, I won't be buying one any time soon.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What's wrong . . .

with this picture from my recent vacation?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Never mind the London buses . . .

. . . check out this ambulance!

I believe bikes are used in a few towns as rapid response vehicles because they can get through the traffic faster than a car.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bugs and meds

I didn't miss the US on our recent trip to the UK, except when we needed an open pharmacy at 8 on a Sunday evening when my son had a strong allergic reaction to the local biting insects and began to look very puffy. My mother was sure the 24 hour Tescos would be open, but '24 hours' means 10 a.m. till 4 p.m. on Sundays. Should you ever be in a similar situation, do not bother trying to find out which is the 'duty chemist' in town. They won't be open either, as their hours are likely to be something like 11 a.m. till 1 p.m. According to Late Night Chemist, Boots claims that they now have a 24 hour pharmacy within a thirty mile drive of most of the UK population, but we had a hospital much closer than that which was a better bet. We were lucky enough that we knew all we needed for DS was over-the-counter antihistamines. The hospital has a truly 24 hour pharmacy which sells OTC meds, and we got in and out fast enough that we weren't even charged the 2 pound parking fee and didn't have to deal with anyone asking us for either NHS cards or (worse) credit cards!

Make sure you know the generic name for any OTC meds you may need when travelling. We wanted Claritin - and found Clarityn was the same thing - loratadine. I would be wary however that similar brand names might not always mean similar products, and sometimes the names are so different that telling the pharmacist what you want will not immediately get you what you need.

Of course, we should have had some loratadine with us. I had my asthma inhaler and never needed it, though had I forgotten it I would have certainly needed it! I was glad I'd remembered the imodium when I was not well on our return flight - especially as we ended up sitting in the plane on the ground at Heathrow for 2 hours after our scheduled departure time! Although I've had a flight attendant offer me meds for an upset stomach in the past, I learned from that experience that the imodium pills are so tiny it's always worth having some with you when you travel. Loratadine now gets added to my packing list, but who knew that bug repellent with DEET would have been a good idea for a trip to the UK? Aiee - not that it would have done anything to ward off the wasps that were everywhere this year . . .

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Time warp?

We left the USA on July 31st for a 2 week vacation in the UK. We returned yesterday to find that it is apparently almost Halloween already as the supermarket had a whole aisle dedicated to Halloween candy and decorations and there was an aisle of pumpkin ales at the liquor store. Apparently we missed the whole 'back-to-school' season!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Great ad!

Another viral ad doing the rounds . . . Can you guess what it's for before it's over? (This is not a sponsored post.)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

He's making a list and checking it twice

We are going on vacation later this summer and DH, being the organized one in the family, is already planning. He's been making a list of things we need to make sure not to forget. I find it interesting that the very first list he wanted me to sit down and go over with him was the following:
  • cell phone
  • car charger for cell phone
  • iPod
  • car charger for iPod
  • USB charger for iPod
  • Battery-operated USB charger
  • Adaptor to charge iPod from wall outlet
  • cameras (x3)
  • wall charger for one camera
  • car charger for other cameras

Sense a theme here? So I was very surprised, given DH's obvious love of gadgets to hear him say a Luddite "No thanks!" to the offer of the loan of a satnav/GPS. His comment, "I hear people have driven into canals relying on those things! I can read a map just fine." OK, but you should see the size of the pile of maps we're planning on taking!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

This is really quite good

(Photo borrowed from Miss Chicago.)

When I was training as a language teacher we were told that, very often, students have more difficulty not with a feature of a language that is very different from their own but with one that is only a little different. The words that don't sound anything like English ones are easier to get right than the ones that sound somewhat like English but actually have a different meaning. English and American English are just different enough to cause problems in that way.

NFAH commented recently on the phrase "Every little helps" and how she feels it really should have the word "bit" added to the phrase - "Every little bit helps." After reading on another blog how the German phrase "jedes bisschen hilft" translates as "Every little helps", I wonder if this is a phrase that has lingered on in our language since the days of the Vikings. These kinds of phrases can stop you in your tracks a moment, but when push comes to shove they are still comprehensible.

Miss Chicago, on the other hand, just commented on British understatement, specifically in regard to Marks & Spencers Rich Tea Cream Fingers (whatever they are!) which are advertised as "Really rather good." No missing words here. However, the statement "really rather good" sounds far less enthusiastic to an American than to a Brit.

When I was applying to graduate school in the United States, I went back to my alma mater and asked my tutor if she would mind writing me a reference, (knowing full well that she would NEVER have written me a recommendation for a place on a Master's degree course in the UK.) I explained where I wanted to go and why, and she assured me that she would write me a good reference. In fact, she explained, she had learned through bitter experience exactly how to write references for American universities.

She had once been asked to write a reference for someone for a position at an Ivy League college. The candidate was over qualified for the position, but wanted the opportunity to work at an American university for a while, and particularly an Ivy League one. She not only did not get the post but discovered that the man who was hired had vastly inferior qualifications and experience. So she did the American thing and sued. She won her case and was awarded compensation, but not the job. It turned out that the American hiring committee had interpreted what would have been considered a glowing reference in the UK as somewhat cool and not very enthusiastic. So my tutor assured me that she knew exactly what to write to get me accepted, hinting that by her standards it would be not exactly a work of fiction but certainly one-sided.

There are people like Lynneguist who base their profession on the fact that English and American are not really the same language. Most of the time the differences are insignificant, or easily understood. Occasionally however, phrases like "Every little helps", remind me that even though I've been here 25 years and feel very American I did not grow up here

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Nothing that you write will be read?

I had to fill out (fill in) a form last night. When I got to the end I wondered why I'd bothered:

I do wonder though, how will they know to notify me if they are not going to read the form?

Thursday, July 08, 2010

A reason to live in the USA?

Forget wanting to live in the USA being about freedom and the pursuit of happiness - apparently it's all about the doughnuts!

I only found the blog BritishSpeak today - looks like it'll be one I go back to!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Wordless Wednesday

Monday, July 05, 2010

Independence Day Parade

As always on the 4th of July, we headed off to our local parade. There were all kinds of groups in the parade - police, firefighters, farmers, Scouts - and, as always, many antique cars. Can you spot what is 'wrong' about this picture though?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Football commentary

We are not a sports-loving family. We don't go out to play or watch team games of any sort, and although the kids occasionally watch (American) football on TV they don't really have much clue about it. So they don't have much experience watching sports on TV. As it was a rainy day, I turned the television on this afternoon so we could watch at least part of the World Cup game between England and the US because DD had asked at lunch "What's the World Cup for and when's it happening?" The commentary was hilarious, but we did have to alternate between watching the game and playing games on the wii because DS really wasn't interested in the game.

DD: What time is it in England now? (Umm - 5 hours ahead of here, but the game's not happening there - it's in South Africa.) Why is it happening in South Africa? (Because that's where FIFA decided to have the World Cup this year.) What's FIFA? (The organization that organizes the World Cup.) Why are they playing soccer at this time of year? (Because this is when FIFA decided the World Cup would be.)

DS: What team is the guy in the yellow shirt on? (That would be the referee.)

DD: The guy in the yellow shirt seems to be on the England team.
(Again, that would be the referee, and he wasn't on England's side!)

DS: Who's the guy in the orange shirt? (One of the goalies.)

DD: Why isn't the goalie staying in the goal?

DS: Why did they move the goal? (They changed the camera angle!)

DS: I think his chest is broken. Someone else is going to have to take his place. (He's probably just fine - they usually are.)

DS: I hope the England player gets another yellow card or a red one, then America will win.

DD: Why aren't there any girls playing? (They have their own teams.) Because the boys think they're better than girls?

DS: This is boring! (Repeated loudly every five minutes.)

DD: There's more tomorrow? I thought it was just today! Does it go on for days? (Yes, and no we won't be watching much more of it - probably just the highlights on the news!)

DH: What, they don't play until there's a winner?

DD: England would've won if Mia Hamm had been on their team!

Friday, June 11, 2010

The World Cup

This cartoon is by Dave Walker and is used with permission.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Chocolate delivery system

I wrote this post back in February and apparently I forgot to hit 'Post'!

I recently recommended that Kelly, in her search for the best cookies ever, try this recipe for chocolate cookies with chunks of Maya Gold chocolate in them. I hadn't actually tried the recipe myself, but it looked yummy. Kelly took the bait, made the cookies and wrote a wonderfully detailed post about the making of the cookies. She concluded that, good as they are, the Rolo cookie recipe we got from In the Left Lane is still better.

So I decided I should do my own comparison. I'd made the Rolo cookies for DS to take to school for his birthday and had THREE adults want the recipe, so you know they are good. DH had given me some Green & Black's Maya Gold for Valentine's Day but on looking more closely at the recipe I realized that one 3.5 ounce bar wasn't going to go very far when the recipe called for a POUND of chocolate! That's $12.50 worth of Maya Gold, when it's on sale. $15 when it's not. I was thinking these had better be some freakingly awesome cookies!

I decided I had to try them anyway. Kelly had warned that the dough got hard to mix at the end, and boy was she right! Getting the last of the flour incorporated took a lot of effort - and then I still had to mix in the chocolate chunks. I'd decided to go with four bars of the Maya gold and it turned out to be plenty. I wasn't sure that I had the right kind of chili powder so I only added 1/8 of a teaspoon.

For all the effort, they were worth it! The kids love them. I love them too, but can actually eat just one at a time. (I really didn't believe Kelly when she said one at a time was enough!) The kids were eating them for a treat this morning when we were out and someone walking by commented on how good the cookies smelled! And although the recipe said "makes 24 cookies", I made up the whole batch and got not 24 but 44 perfectly sized cookies. Again, I should have listened when Kelly said she put half the dough in the freezer, or perhaps the sheer quantity of ingredients should have clued me in!

Our conclusion - yes, they were great, but for 'everyday' cookies we liked the Rolo cookies better!

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Definitely not British!

I had to renew DD's British passport last week. When we went to get her photo taken they asked in the store if this was going to be her first passport. We both hesitated for a moment, and then we agreed that, no this was not going to be her first passport but her sixth. You'd have thought we had six heads the way they looked at us! They are, however, quite used in that particular store to people of various nationalities wanting photos for passports, and they didn't quite believe me when I said I just wanted "passport photos, just like for an American passport." They seemed convinced that the photos must need to be different in some way. When I renewed both of DS's passports we had one set of photos taken and I used the same photos for both passports, so I really don't think there are different requirements! (Though if you apply for a British passport in the UK, the background for your photo has to be cream or light grey, but when applying from overseas it can be white.)

The passport application still has that section where you have to find someone other than a working-class person who's known you for at least two years and get them to sign the application to vouch that you are who you say you are:

At least you don't have to find someone British to do it, or I'd be in trouble! I asked a neighbor if she'd be willing to do it. We chatted briefly about the luxury of having two passports and the implications for future employment possibilities. I commented that simply having British passports doesn't really make my kids British, and she responded that she doesn't think of me as being British either. A few years ago I'd have been quite taken aback by that. The reality is that for some time now, the US is where I've lived the longest, and I'm actually more surprised when someone comments on my accent and asks me where I'm from. My answer to that is usually , "Well, I've lived right here for most of my life . . ." which really throws them for a loop!

Later, chatting with DD we were talking about the fact that should anything ever 'happen' to DH and I, she and her brother would probably go and live with my sister in the UK. She was OK with that and said she knows that's why we keep her British passport current, but then asked, "But what if there's World War 3? Britain and America would be on opposite sides so we wouldn't be able to get there!" I started to say something about the US and Britain usually being on the same side in a war, and then I remembered what she's been studying in history class this month! She grinned when she realized what I'd forgotten, and then followed it up with "Britain should never have fought the Americans. They wanted to be free and Britain should have let them be free." No, despite the passport, she's definitely not British!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Where in the USA is . . .


More to the point, where in Massachusetts is Massachusetrts? You see, unlike in the UK, where we put the name of the county followed by a postcode that includes the abbreviation for the county (Cheshire, CH . . .), here in the US, there is no need to write the name of the state out in full. Assuming the zip code is correct (checks on Google, yes it is), the beer label should read "Ashland, MA 01721".

Actually, I am sure there are many, many, Americans, even in Massachusetts, who could not spell Massachusetts if their life depended on it. So I really shouldn't expect someone in the UK, where it is extremely unlikely to be included in the spell-checker, to get it right!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Remote control for kids

Available from Think Geek. If only they worked!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Spring pollen

pollen on the driveway

I remember my dad and brother getting really bad hayfever when I was a kid but I don't remember ever seeing as much pollen in the UK as I have done here. I specifically remember the first time I saw clouds of pollen blowing off some pine trees, the first spring that I was living in the US, and I know I hadn't seen anything like it before because the memory has stuck with me. After so many years here, it still surprises me when I go out in the morning and find the ground is yellow with pollen.

pollen on the driveway

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Things I've learned about gardening

When I first arrived in the US as a graduate student I didn't think about gardening in the USA. It never occurred to me that I was going to stay long enough to have a garden here. I spent my very first Christmas in the US with the family of one of my undergraduate students in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Her aunt and uncle had spent the previous Christmas in the UK as their daughter was studying abroad there. My conversations with them were the first that I'd had with Americans in the US who'd spent much time in the UK. I remember very specifically that they commented "And the grass stays green all winter in England." Having not yet lived through an entire winter in the US, I thought they were a little strange. Isn't that what grass does - stay green? Nope, not here. It goes brown in the winter, and then again in the summer if it doesn't get vast amounts of water!

My first garden in the United States was a rooftop one. Sounds posh, like I had a penthouse or something, but sadly not so. I was working at a boarding school, and the fire escape that led out through my apartment went out onto a flat porch roof, about 4 stories up. It wasn't quite as private as it felt, but it was my little oasis. As soon as I moved in I decided I wanted to have a garden. I bought a lot of large plastic pots and saucers, and lugged tons of bags of pebbles (for the bottom of the pots) and potting soil up to the roof. I did check first with the maintenance department if it was OK to put several hundred extra pounds of weight on the roof and they okayed it.

I learned very quickly that the wide, flattish, bowl-like, pots needed to be watered too often. Ditto the smaller pots. Once a day watering just didn't cut it in the summer heat, and twice a day became too much like work, given that I did also have to work. The best ones were the largest ones I'd been able to find, and which were just about too heavy for me to move once they were full. Second discovery - ignore what the planting guidelines said in terms of spacing. When you put plants in a pot, you want to cram as many in as possible. Over-stuffed pots look far more impressive than sparsely planted ones. This also helps ensure that you don't have to do any weeding!

Pots that have water reservoirs underneath are wonderful. We have four out on the front porch right now. Two have peas planted in them, one has lettuce, and the other has flowers. No tomatoes this year. I ignored all the warnings about the tomato blight last year and planted tomatoes anyway. I don't think we got to eat a single one. The plants were prolific, but every single tomato went rotten well before it was ready to be picked. Don't think your garden will be immune from local diseases and bugs just because you love it and look after it!

Since we've had a real garden and not just one in containers, I've learned a few more things.
  • The landscaping put in by the builder was intended to look good for the first 4 or 5 years. After that, most of what was put in grows too big for its location. We have some beautiful shrubs and trees that we will probably have to cut down because they were planted too close to the house or each other.
  • Deer eat tulips as though they're candy. It's worth paying attention to which plants at the garden center are labelled "deer-resistant."
  • Rabbits will eat all kinds of things, but they especially seem to love liatris shoots.
  • Pay attention to the hardiness zones for plants. Buy plants that are guaranteed hardy for your area, unless you want them to die over the winter. Some plants that are too sensitive for New England winters can be grown here if you dig them up and move them into the house every winter, but that's too much work as far as I'm concerned. (See the exception below.)
  • If you really like it, and it's not hardy in New England, it might be worth buying anyway because the south-facing flower bed at the front of the house is in a hardiness zone all of its own and stuff often survives there that you wouldn't expect. Last year we had dozens of wallflowers that had self-seeded there from the annuals I had planted the year before, and this year we had some pansies that survived the winter (only to get nibbled back to the ground by the rabbits!)
  • Sometimes plants will survive multiple winters and then succumb unpredictably. Too bad. Plants are only temporary! Buy more!
  • Sometimes it is worth digging plants up for the winter. I've overwintered geraniums in the basement for the last 2 winters, and it really wasn't difficult at all. Dig them out of the pot, wrap them in newspaper, put them in the basement and forget about them till March. The survival rate would be higher if I remembered to spray them with water occasionally over the winter, but that would mean remembering to do so and I have a hard enough time remembering to bring them out of storage in March in time to get them started growing again for the summer.
  • If the 'soil' in your garden is mostly sand, you will need a sprinkler system for anything to grow.
  • There is actually a point to the strip of mulch between the woods behind the house and the lawn, beyond separating the cultivated lawn from the wild plants in the woods - apparently it also helps reduce the number of ticks we might otherwise find in the lawn. Supposedly, they don't survive the trek from the woods across the strip of mulch to the lawn. Given that ticks can carry Lyme disease, anything that reduces our potential exposure to them is a good thing.
  • No matter how many plants I think I need, and how much money I spend each year, I never have enough. Clearly this garden is going to be a very long-term project!

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Another sign of spring

I've never actually eaten fiddleheads - fern sprouts. The season for them is very short - only three weeks or so. They do have them in the supermarket, but I've been told they're much better fresh. Fiddleheads aren't just any old ferns though and, just like with mushrooms, if you don't know what you're doing and pick the wrong kind you can make yourself sick. (Oh, and in case you're wondering - I don't think putting them on pizza is a common way to eat fiddleheads!)

Monday, April 19, 2010

All About Springtime

Karen tagged me what feels like weeks ago for a meme about springtime that originated here. I've finally got around to it, mostly because it involved asking DS (age 7) some questions, so he really did half the work on this post!

1. How does the world change in the Spring?

Well, 'cos in the spring there are like plants and in the winter there’s like nothing.

2. Lots of babies are born in the spring. Where do you think baby animals are born?

Wherever they live. Wherever their mother or father chooses. (The look on his face implied he thought this was a stupid question!)

3. What did mummy do before you were born?

I don’t know. You went to England before I came! (He's referring to the the fact that when I was 7 months pregnant with him I went to England for 3 weeks.)

4. Spring is a good time to play outside. If you and mummy could spend a whole day playing outside, doing anything you want, what would it be?

Badmitten. Badminton.(The Easter bunny just brought him badminton equipment.)

5. Did you know we moved the clocks forward? Why do you think we do this?

No. Don’t know. (At this point he clearly thought the questioning had gone on far too long and all he wanted to do was get back to the wii!)

6. How long is it until summer?

I don’t know. Like, a few months. (Final effort - he knew I wanted him to say more than "I don't know", so he tried to come up with something!)

Hmm - I'd never noticed before how often he says 'like'!

Friday, April 09, 2010

Visiting Michelle

My latest post is over here, at Michelle's blog, A Mid-Atlantic English. Go read that post and then come back!

In many ways, Michelle's my counterpart in the UK. She's been over there about as long as I've been over here, and we often seem to have similar opinions, issues and interests. (Before I ever visited her blog, I would sometimes refer to my accent as 'mid-Atlantic' - not entirely English, not entirely American. Of course that confused Americans who think mid-Atlantic refers to somewhere on the east coast of the US. Anyway, I was glad when I saw her blog to see that someone else describes their English the same way!) We're both having a bit of a think about gardening right now. Well, it's that time of year isn't it?

When I wrote my post, I didn't have any photos to send her of my wonderfully boring 'garden' as nothing is really growing yet. Here's what the perennial border looked like last week:

This flower bed contains hostas, daylilies and daisies, but as you can see, there's little sign of anything yet.

After a couple of days of 90˚F weather, there are finally some real signs of spring around:

This is a star magnolia. We have another magnolia but it's not due to bloom for another month. My parents bought us a gift certificate to the local garden center when they visited almost three years ago, and it took us until last September before DH and I could finally agree on exactly what kind of magnolias to buy, and more importantly where they would be planted so they wouldn't make his job of mowing the lawn more difficult (!)

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Las Malvinas

Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate at university in the UK, I dated an Argentinian for a short time. I remember him asking me about the Malvinas, which at the time I knew nothing about. He commented that was about what he expected. The Malvinas are also known as the Falkland Islands - and the British went to war in 1982, about a year after I had that conversation with Jorge, to keep the islands British rather than Argentinean. I was living in France at the time the war started, studying at a university there.

It's hard to believe nowadays, but there was just a single incoming phone in the hall of residence where I lived! I had given my parents the phone number in case of an emergency, but never expected to hear from them. So I was amazed one day when someone knocked on my door and told me I had a phone call. It was my mother calling to let me know that a friend of mine in the British Navy, someone I'd known since I was eleven years old, my first ever boyfriend, had been killed on his ship, the HMS Coventry, in the Falklands.

In those pre-internet days, and living in a place that had no TV, I hadn't really been keeping up with the news, so although I obviously knew the war was happening, I didn't really know that much about it. It was short as wars go, lasting only 74 days. I knew that sovereignty was the issue, but was gobsmacked to read this report on the BBC website today that reveals how incredibly easily the war could have been avoided. I have no doubt that many other conflicts over the centuries could have been avoided, but were entered into because they were seen as being politically advantageous.

My response to Jorge back in 1981 about the Malvinas , was that it seemed to me that it would make more sense in many ways for the islands to be allied with Argentina - BUT the islanders would have to see an advantage in becoming Argentinian. At the time, Argentina's human rights record was appalling, and had I been a Falkland Islander at the time, I certainly wouldn't have wanted to have anything to do with Argentina! If governments are correct in their belief that their system is wonderful, then surely their mere example will encourage others to join them. Unfortunately, all it takes is a single powerful person to pervert the course of democracy and all is ruined. Some claim that the Falklands War was a war that neither government wanted, but both the dictator Galtieri in Argentina and Maggie Thatcher in the UK certainly gained from it.

I like to think that if Ian had not died in the Falklands we would still be in touch, probably on Facebook by now, but sadly he's long gone. Rest in peace Ian.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


When I was in primary (elementary) school I had school dinner (lunch) every day. My mum counted on us having a good meal, to the point where our evening meal at home until I was at secondary school (6th grade) was a sandwich and a bag of crisps. I think we probably did have pretty good lunches, though I remember not liking the liver very much. I actually liked the flavour and the texture, but I didn't like the 'rubber bands' you had to cut out of it. I remember getting told off by the dinner ladies for 'playing' with our food when we stirred the dollop of jam into the semolina to make the semolina pink. I liked semolina, but we never had it at home. We sometimes had pink custard too, which I'd forgotten about completely until another blogger mentioned it recently.

School lunches definitely weren't so good once we got to secondary school. I remember being served battered and deep-fried spam fritters and loving them. I actually added more salt! One day I was at the very end of the line and they had literally run out of food. My lunch that day was white rice and chips. That was the day I discovered that plain white rice could be made more interesting with the addition of malt vinegar. By the time I was in the 6th form I was too lazy to walk to the other side of the school to get my lunch so I stopped having school lunches. In fact I think I stopped eating much of anything for lunch because I was too lazy to make a lunch to bring to school with me. I survived on coffee and Lipton's Cup-a-Soup because we had a water heater in the 6th form common room and everyone had their own jar of instant coffee and CoffeeMate. I had coffee when I arrived at school, one at mid-morning break, one at lunch after my Cup-a-Soup, and another if I had a study hall in the afternoon. A cup of tea when I got home from school, and a coffee after dinner, and it's a miracle I ever slept!

After I moved on to university, they changed to a cafeteria system at school so that instead of paying a set price for a (supposedly) balanced meal, kids could choose what they wanted. I have no doubt chips outsold everything else.

I was pleased when I heard of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's campaign to improve school meals in the UK, though I don't know how successful it was. Certainly, there were stories in the press of parents circumventing his plan for no junk food by delivering fish'n'chips to their poor children who couldn't stomach the thought of a healthy meal.

Jamie has now made a new series for American TV about food – how families eat, what kids get at school and why, like the UK, the diet of processed food and snacks is causing so many health and obesity problems. I choose to send my kids to school with a lunch from home, as I have not been impressed with the lunch menus. The series was filmed in Huntington, West Virginia and from what I've seen, the school lunches there seem very similar to school lunches here, several states away. I've watched the first two hours of the series and I have to say some of it seems to be a setup. One of the 'lunch ladies' (who seems confused by that title) seems convinced that nothing he does will succeed. Given that the entire series has probably been filmed already, I am guessing that she eventually will see the light and become one of his greatest supporters.

The first meal Jamie served was in competition with the 'regular' school meal, and of course most of the kids chose the meal they were familiar with. The next meal, all the kids were served Jamie's menu. The administrators complained that Jamie had not provided nutritional analyses of the meals, and had not provided two starches 'as required'. Why was he not told in advance his meals had to meet certain nutritional requirements? Well, it does make for more dramatic television . . .

He was 'allowed' to serve a third meal, which initially was no more successful than the first two. Part of the problem was that in order to eat his food, the kids needed a knife and fork. Why is that a problem you ask? American public schools (at least none that I've been in) do not provide knives for their students to use. Well, I can see their point - they use plastic cutlery, and a plastic knife is usually pretty useless. I did lunch duty in one school for two years, and there was one meal (some kind of meat patty served with gravy) that the kids really needed a knife for. Most kids would pick the patty up with the fork and then nibble around the patty, never taking it off the fork. Practical, but hardly good table manners. There were two of us on lunch duty and every time this meal was served, we would go into the kitchen and ask for real knives, and then would go around the room asking the kids if they wanted us to cut their lunch up for them.

Eventually, we managed to persuade the woman running the kitchen that for that one meal in the menu cycle the kids could be trusted with plastic knives. Yes, I said trusted. Her reasoning for not providing knives was the kids couldn't be trusted. Excuse me? Like they couldn't poke each other's eyes out equally effectively (if not more so) with a plastic fork? Actually, I think she was following policy set by higher ups, as she's really a very reasonable lady. Once the kids were given the plastic knives, I realized we had another problem. Most of the kids (and I kid you not) DID NOT KNOW HOW TO USE THEM! Now instead of going round the room cutting the kids' meals up for them, I had to go around the room teaching them how to use their knife and fork effectively.

Therefore, I was well aware before Jamie's new show that American kids as old as 10 years old may not actually know how to use a knife and fork. In the UK, on the other hand, I remember my mother saying that when she taught the reception class the parents were told that when their child started school at age 4 or 5 they needed to be able to use a knife and fork by themselves because the staff did not have time to help them. So I also understand why Jamie expected the kids in the US to be able to use a knife and fork, and his reaction when he found they couldn't. What completely threw me for a loop was the oppositional lunch lady's reaction when he said that in the UK kids as young as 4 and 5 are expected to be able to (and can) use a knife and fork. She said, in all seriousness, "Can you document that?" She honestly did not expect kids to be able to use a knife and fork!

Jamie asked if some of the kids could be made to stay at the lunch tables for a little longer and he started going around showing the kids how to use a knife and fork. The principal then started doing the same thing. Lo and behold, once the kids were EXPECTED to eat, and TAUGHT how to use a knife and fork so that they could eat the food, many more of them ate up and did in fact enjoy the food.

If we don’t expect our kids to be able to use a knife and fork, then they will never learn. If we don’t set expectations for our kids, they will have nothing to rise to. And quite frankly, I don’t think learning to use a knife and fork is a very high expectation, even for a kindergartner! Or is the US-UK cultural divide greater than I thought?

(Oh, and go read Expat Mum's post on this topic if you haven't already!)

Saturday, March 27, 2010


Our family traditions regarding Easter when I was growing up were simple - lamb for lunch and a large chocolate Easter egg each. One year for breakfast on Easter Sunday, my mother gave us eggs that looked like real eggs, but in fact they were made of some kind of hard candy with chocolate yolks. She gave them to us in egg cups as though they were soft-boiled. We spotted immediately that there was something 'not right' about them as they were cold. She tried to blame that on us having taken too long to get downstairs for breakfast. I think she finally had to tell us that they were a joke when we started banging them on the table - they were VERY hard! Those were the longest lasting Easter eggs we ever got - it took us weeks to lick our way through to the chocolate yolks! (We did get regular chocolate eggs that year too - I'm sure those disappeared very quickly!)

DH's family likes to decorate real hens' eggs, which usually means simply dipping them in some kind of dye to color them. This year, DS and I had the chance to take a class in creating pysanky - Ukranian Easter eggs. I wasn't sure if DS would have the dexterity to do a good job, but I needn't have worried. The teacher knew what she was doing when she said "first grade and up" and he was quite capable of handling the class, open flames and all! He realized immediately that the traditional pysanky were beyond his skills and simply created his own style. After some complaints as we got started, he really enjoyed himself. He not only asked if we can take the class again next year, but wanted to go out right away and buy the tools so that we can teach his sister next weekend.

We'd been warned to wear old clothes as the dye we used is a permanent one. I hadn't realized that the eggs we would be using would be regular, raw, eggs. I'd assumed they would have to be hard-boiled or blown, but apparently it is actually easier to work with raw eggs. In the end, although we both ended up with multi-colored hands, I was the one who dropped a couple of eggs, not DS, and neither of us ruined our clothes.

I think we've just found ourselves a new tradition :-)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Blame it on Mommy

DS came home from school today and tore his bed apart. Not literally - one of his classmates told him that the leprechauns left gold coins under his pillow last night, so DS figured he must have some too. DH explained to him that the leprechauns don't visit our house "Because Mommy's English." Why blame it on me? It's not like DH is Irish either! (Some of his ancestors did come to the US from Ireland - but they were French Huguenots who stopped off in Ireland for just a couple of generations in the late 17th century on their way to America.) Still, they do say "Everyone's Irish on St. Patrick's Day!" Except Mommy apparently :-)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The wearing of the green

Last weekend we went to visit friends for a St. Patrick's Day party. This is not a 'holiday' I have ever really celebrated before - though I did go to the St. Patrick's Day parade in South Boston the year that I was dating a bloke who grew up there. True to stereotype, there was much drinking involved before, during, and after the parade - to the point where I was the one who drove us home at the end of the day even though he had promised he would stay sober.

Americans love to decorate for the holidays and even people who have no ties to Ireland at all will often decorate their house for St. Patrick's Day. Our friends however, are of Irish descent so we were not surprised to find the house well and truly decorated. Many Americans don't realize that St Patrick's Day has long been a much bigger deal in the US than in Ireland itself. It was only in the 1990's that it began to be celebrated in Ireland the way it is here with parades and so on because the Irish realized it was a great tourist attraction. St Patrick's Day was of course originally a religious holiday and up until the 1970s, Irish laws mandated that pubs be closed on March 17th!

At our friends' house, there was a holiday wreath of leprechauns on the front door, and an Irish flag on the front of the house:

As we entered the house, everyone was given a "Kiss me, I'm Irish" necklace to wear:

I realized I had probably committed a major social faux-pas as I had neglected to wear anything green. Our host was wearing an Ireland rugby shirt - very appropriate as Ireland won on Saturday - and his children had really dressed for the occasion:

There were shamrocks and leprechauns all over the place:

There were even holiday-themed craft projects for the children to complete. There were green beads and safety pins to make brooches, and stickers to decorate these shamrock shapes. It might be difficult to see in this photo, but that's a pot of gold at the end of each rainbow.

The beer menu included Guinness and Harp, and there was Jamieson's Irish Whisky on hand too. Just about every stereotypically 'Irish' item you could think of for St Patrick's Day - with the exception (thankfully) of green beer! I'm looking forward to celebrating St Patrick's Day again next year!
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