Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Trailer envy

Our 1966 Airstream Caravel is really cool. A compact silver bubble, it’s space-y and cute. Seventeen feet long, it features a dinette that turns into a double bed, a “gaucho” - an Airstream term for a fold-out sofa - a kitchen with three burners, a stove, sink, fridge/freezer and furnace, and a bathroom complete with a shower. It’s all more or less in one room, with the girls sleeping at the front end (Daniel built a box-like structure that keeps Lulu from falling out) and us on the side, with a bathroom at the back end.

That doesn’t mean we don’t get occasional bouts of trailer envy, Daniel especially.
There are all kinds of recreational vehicles (RVs) available: trailers such as pop-ups (which are kind of like an expandable tent on a trailer base), fifth wheels (they attach onto pick-ups), truck campers (which slide to fit on top of pick-ups) and even something called a Toy Hauler (not sure yet what exactly that is); converted vans (the Dodge Ram is popular); and of course monster mobile homes such as the Winnebago. Here are some photos and proper definitions, if anyone’s interested:

We’ve seen RVs of all vintages and sizes at various institutions, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan the Elkhart RV Museum in Indiana and the Winnebago factory in Forest City, Iowa. Unfortunately, we were not able to make it to the Airstream factory in Jackson Center, Ohio. And of course, we’ve seen many an RV on the road and at campsites.

When camping, it seems that peeking into other people’s RVs is fairly commonplace. Once you get talking to someone, you can ask to have a look at their vehicle. One advantage of owning a vintage Airstream is that lots of people want to look inside, so it’s a bit of I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours. Or, you can hover outside a vehicle – pretending to be on a walk around the campsite – until you get an invitation. Or just stumble in drunk, which one very friendly couple did to us at Custer State Park in South Dakota’s Black Hills.

The pop-up is probably the most sensible and lightweight option although they provide less defense against inclement weather, while the truck camper, for its part, is also great use of space. The vans look great but might be a bit difficult for our trip, since it might be difficult to carry a lot of stuff – and we have tons of baby and kid paraphernalia.

The mobile homes, some of which are as large as an intra-city coach bus, are pretty amazing – they tend to have an enclosed master bedroom, shag carpeting, separate bathrooms, microwaves, TVs, space for dogs, magazine racks, etc. We’re not so sure about the décor, though. And going for side trips would be cumbersome and expensive given the low mileage per gallon these things get. Lots of these people hitch a car onto the back of their vehicles.

That brings us on to the other Airstreams we’ve seen. The most luxe one was a 2008 model, which had white leather sofas. We saw the outside of a 30-foot 2005 trailer belonging to Rich Luhr, the editor and publisher of ‘Airstream Life’ magazine ( His has a master bedroom as well as a second room with a double bed and optional bunk bed, where his nine-year old daughter Emma sleeps. There was also an Argosy, part of a short-lived range of painted Airstreams that sometimes draws scorn from the hard-core Airstreamers. We’ve also seen a longer vintage Airstream, probably from the 1970s that we liked the look of – it had loads of awnings.

Our dream Airstream would have an awning – which would give us a front porch – separate master bedroom and bunk beds for the girls. And probably be a couple of feet longer.

However, there are advantages to being short and sweet: it’s light to tow and will conform to UK road regulations – and perhaps most importantly, Daniel can light the kettle from bed in the morning.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Three cheers for socialism

Sure, we have some gripes about the UK’s socialism – high taxes, long waits for doctors, incentives for not working, etc.
But being in the US, we are really grateful for some of the benefits we get from the system.

This morning at the Super 8 Motel in Murdo, South Dakota (yes, we succumbed again to the joys and comforts of motels – this time staying at the $64-with-tax king of motels, which boasts laundry, WiFi, cable, make-your-own waffles for breakfast and a coffee maker in the room), I was talking to the girl on the desk.

With a baby just a few weeks older than Lulu, she went back to work four weeks after the birth. I couldn’t even walk after four weeks.
It’s not that extreme for most people, who seem to get about three months – fully paid - off by saving up sick leave and invoking something called disability. My question is: does this imply that having kids means you’re sick and disabled?

In contrast, under UK law, I get nine months’ maternity leave and my job is protected for a full year. It’s thanks to that provision that we can make this trip.

If your company, like mine, does not offer anything over the government minimum, you get six weeks’ pay at 90% and then 120 pounds per week for the duration of the nine months, with the last three months unpaid.

Now on to healthcare, which is obviously a huge topic here, with President Barack Obama (vainly?) trying to convince Congress and the country to approve some type of universal coverage.

In the UK, a small percentage of each paycheck goes towards the National Health Service (NHS), and everyone is covered – whether they work or not. The system is slow and uneven, but usually, if something goes wrong, you can get it fixed.

One direct benefit to us is that Daniel, who has his own business, is covered without costly insurance payments. If we wanted to move here, we’d have to hope that my job gave our whole family coverage.

We don’t really get the opposition to universal health coverage – isn’t it in everyone’s interest to have a healthy populace?

The problem seems to be that Obama is spending all his airtime – we saw him on TV before a joint session of Congress two weeks ago and again last night on talk show Dave Letterman - extolling the good of his idea, rather than explaining exactly how it would work and how it would be paid for.

He’s got his work cut out for him. We’ve been listening to a lot of Christian radio in the car here – just to learn firsthand what exactly the conservative groups are thinking and saying – and they allege that universal health coverage is going against God’s will.

I don’t have that religious a background, but Jesus always struck me as a bit of a socialist, working on behalf of the poor, the sick and those gone astray. But these guys, who seem to have quite a following, say it goes against Freedom.


Marian’s house

My American grandmother, Marian, was always a bit of a mystery. Maybe because by the time I was old enough to have more grown-up conversations, she was quite old herself.
Or maybe it was because she was always overshadowed by the legend of my grandfather, Irv.

What I do know is that Marian grew up in the northwest Iowan town of Paullina, in a very strict Calvinist Scottish family where drinking, dancing and other forms of fun were banned.
A teaching job eventually took her to Meservey, in north-central Iowa. It was there that she met Irv, an atheist, gambling, master dancer.
Well into their thirties, they got married and quickly produced three daughters and a son. The first two daughters were born into a one-room house, with the youngest sleeping precariously suspended over the eldest’s cradle.
With the long years of the Great Depression eventually easing up, they managed to acquire their own farm, where my grandfather raised tens of thousands of turkeys.

My memories of Marian revolve around summer trips to the library, her extremely long and angular brown Plymouth, her reading chair tucked away in the corner of the living room and her recipes.

Marian was famous for her cooking, producing amazing white and brown bread every day, at least one dessert at every meal, and of course, countless turkey dishes.
Whenever my mother makes one of Marian’s recipes – such as cheese soufflé and Swiss roll – she inevitably says “it’s not as good as Marian’s”.

So, on our way to South Dakota, we took a detour off Route 18 to Paullina, to get a sense of Marian’s earlier years. It’s a tiny town, welcoming visitors with a sign reading ‘Paullina, the best of small town America’.

My aunt Jean had given us a description of how to find Marian’s house: a two or three-story square shaped former farmhouse – older than all the neighboring ranch-style properties - on the south side of town.

We followed her suggestion of asking an older member of the community which home had belonged to R.C. Brown. The first person we saw, a lady tending the gardens of the Lutheran church, was able to show us the white, shingled house adorned with red, purple and pink hanging plants.

Seeing the house made it a bit easier to imagine Marian as a young girl, a daughter of a prominent family in the small town. There remain some of the features that were probably around in that day: the post office, dinette type place, grain elevator and water tower seen in all Iowa towns and the lake just outside of town.

We had lunch at that lake, part of Mill Creek State Park, on a Saturday afternoon blessed by the lingering Indian summer (everyone says the Midwest didn’t get a summer this year, but we were lucky enough to enjoy it once it did finally start at the end of August). There were a few RVs parked, a couple of families sitting by the lake watching their kids swim, and a father and son fishing in the water.

We swam, christened our red camping chairs (Coleman, and very comfortable!), had sandwiches prepared in the Airstream and just enjoyed the quiet afternoon.

Perhaps Marian and her family used to come to this lake.

We liked Paullina.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Please become a follower!!

Hi, if you are reading this blog, would you mind becoming a follower?
There's a little button reading 'Follow' under a heading named 'Followers'.
It would be interesting for us to get an idea of who's tuning in.
Also, if you have any comments, suggestions, etc, please do write to us on the blog.
We'd love to hear from you.
Claire, Daniel, Sophia & Lulu

That’s more like it

Our second night of camping was to be far more successful.

We pulled into the Lewis & Clark Recreation Area in Yankton, South Dakota at around 6, well before nightfall. Thankfully, we managed to get one of the last available RV slots alongside the swollen Missouri River.

Almost immediately, a man in the group parked opposite us leapt up from his camping chair to give directions on how best to reverse into our paved spot.

Reversing a car and trailer together is pretty hard. I have yet to drive the two together, and Daniel said that the only secret is practice.

As soon as we disembarked, Sophia went straight over to the man’s group, baby doll, three Barbies and Kiki, her much loved black and white stuffed cat, in hand. Having introduced herself and her brood, she waved us over. Shortly after that, we had an invitation to join them for dinner at 7:30.

Barb Nielsen and her extended family – who all live in and around Yankton - then plied us with food, prepared by three brothers using three different outdoor preparation methods (barbeque, Dutch oven and one other thing we can’t remember). They took Sophia to the bathroom and then held Lulu so Daniel and I could eat. They asked about our trip, told us about their family and livelihoods and gave us lots of tips on what to see in South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming – complete with directions.

We even got some recipes, both for the Dutch oven

Beer Bread:
3 cups self-raising flour
3 tablespoons sugar
can of warm beer

Mix and put in Dutch oven at equivalent of 350 degrees until it gets a nice crust on top

(Another version used in the family is: 6 cups self-raising flour, stick of butter, can of warm beer)

Peach Cobbler
Box of cake mix
Can of peaches
Large can of pineapple chunks
Stick of butter

You don’t even have to mix this one. Stick it in the oven at equivalent of 350 degrees and remove when it gets a nice crust. Tastes great with peach frozen yoghurt.

Both of these were delicious…we got yet another recipe for Beer Pancakes (add can of warm beer – instead of milk and eggs - to pancake mix) in the morning, when once again we were treated to food.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

False start

At last, the day came when we were ready to set off on the pioneering section of our Big Road Trip, having finally finished packing and stocking the Airstream.
A couple of hours (well, about five) after we meant to set off towards Sioux City, a city on the Iowa-Nebraska-South Dakota border, we left my aunt Jean’s farm.
About an hour later, having driven 40.3 miles, evening start to set in.
So we stopped in Algona, Iowa, where according to our trusty atlas, there was a state park.

A friendly Harley Davidson rider led us to the park’s campsite, taking us down winding roads into a deep forest whose trees soon obscured the setting sun.
With a wave and a smile, he left us near a sign that said ‘Campsite’. But we couldn’t see the campsite – until we realized that we were indeed already in it, and that we were the only visitors.
It took us about 10 minutes to decode the little wooden box that read ‘Deposit’, eventually understanding that the lid held park registration forms that were to be deposited along with a check for $9 for parties of six or fewer.

We don’t have a checkbook.

Deciding to embrace camping with a smile, we backed into electricity enabled site number 4, unpacked the trailer, turned on the lights and the pilot lights, settled the girls and started making preparations for dinner. Throughout this process, a surprising number of cars passed by the campsite. All of them contained kids in their teens or early twenties, who craned their necks to stare at us – New York license plates, vintage Airstream, family hellbent on outdoor domesticity.

Friday night at an unstaffed campsite. Of course. Maybe we were ruining their party.

The second time a car drove into the campsite itself, unloading a passenger into the bathroom facilities Daniel had deemed unusable, we decided to investigate. The two guys in the roofless Jeep were friendly enough, informing us that our destination was a favorite for weed-smoking teenyboppers and that we might want to check out a clean, safe, staffed campsite near a lake a bit to the north.

So were these kids nice stoners, or mean ones?

Dinner was almost ready, so we decided to go ahead with it. So we ate our pasta with sauce Daniel had prepared with Jean’s tomatoes, listening to the rising volume of kids who had parked their cars outside the campsite but still very nearby.

Explaining to Sophia that actually, our plan was to have dinner in one place and sleep in another, we packed up and left the forest.

We slept in the fabulous Burr Oaks Motel alongside route 196, it’s run by a Gujarati and is this weekend hosting Algona’s high school reunion attendees.
It is by far the cleanest and most comfortable motel of the four or so we’ve stayed in on this trip. We spent the rest of the evening watching cable TV and using the free WiFi, sipping a beer we never managed to enjoy over dinner.

Will we ever make it as campers? Fingers crossed we manage it today.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Dear Jean and Richard

Dear Jean & Richard,
Thanks so much for letting us stay on your farm this week, it was especially kind since you weren’t here for most of it.
Sorry we kept getting delayed by vehicle issues, we did know you had to go to Peoria to help look after your newest granddaughter, Zhi Yu, who was adopted from China. She had cleft palate surgery last week, and needed full-time care to recover.
Well, we’ve had a great time on the farm. Doing the chores you left us – feeding the cats, dog, sheep, horse and fish (hope we didn’t leave any out) and walking down the lane to the roadside mailbox – was fun and allowed us to be pretend-farmers. Thanks for asking someone else to do the pigs!!
Sophia fed Gus about 25 dog treats per day, so he’ll probably be pretty spoiled by the time you get back.
It’s great to see her enjoying all the things I used to love doing here as a child. She has really embraced farm life and particularly loves taming this year’s crop of cats.
Daniel spent most of his childhood in the countryside, so he is loving spending so much time outdoors and observing nature.
For me, it’s the quiet things that have been best: being back in same home you’ve always lived in, watching dust clouds rise up from the gravel roads from the rearview mirror, looking across endless fields of corn and soybeans towards a horizon miles and miles away, listening to the chorus of crickets at night, admiring pink and purple fried-egg sunsets in the evening and then skies powdered with stars and planets by night, and sleeping deep slumbers brought on by full days in the fresh air. And, it’s the first time I’ve gotten to see the crops yellowing and browning towards harvest-ability.
From the garden, we picked fat, juicy tomatoes, dug crisp potatoes, plucked tiny lima beans and selected a few choice yellow and orange marigolds to display on the table.
As instructed, we helped ourselves to all that you left in the fridge:
- The homemade things: pickles (kosher dill, bread-and-butter, cinnamon ones), grape jelly, strawberry jam (like sticking your nose into a just-picked super-ripe strawberry),
- More garden things: chunked kohlrabi, unpeeled baby carrots, cucumbers, the onions Sophia told you we like to eat whole and raw
- The leftovers: creamed corn, slow-cooked beef, ham, the green beans (yum!) and the Jello salad
- The things you bought for us: lettuce, peaches, apples, bananas, black olives, peanut butter, beer
- And your special hot chocolate mix! I remember using that recipe when I was growing up, and want to make it again here so we can take it on our trip – very helpful, since we’re struggling to get Sophia to drink milk
As far as how we’ve occupied ourselves, we’ve explored many small towns in this rural part of northern Iowa – Klemme, where you live, Thornton, where you and my mother grew up, the resort town Clear Lake, prosperous Garner, local metropolis Mason City, and Forest City, the home of Winnebago.
We went to your mechanics in Forest City, Danny at Lichtsinn Motors for the truck, and Ken at Ken’s RVs for the Airstream, and were pleased with both the level of service and price (and the bags of popcorn offered at Lichtsinn’s). To keep us busy while the vehicles were being looked at, we did the Winnebago factory tour, visited the hardware store (we are really looking forward to trying out the hand-powered mini-mixer), bought a few things for the trailer at the going-out-of-business antique shop and twice had coffee at the Cabin Coffee, which is friendly and seems to have big hopes of expanding throughout the Midwest.
Eldridge and Gladys, your cousins who live a few farms over, hosted us one afternoon and showed us the family book they had compiled – amazing to hear about relatives born in 1875.
It’s been fun talking to you on the phone each day and telling you about what we’ve been up to in your absence.
Sorry we’ll miss you by just a day, and my parents by two.
And thanks for having enough love, space and generosity for so many people.
Claire, Daniel, Sophia & Lulu

Ps. Enclosed is a photo of the watercolor Daniel did of your house and the farmyard. He’s experimenting with a new style of painting for our American trip.

Bug City

We bought a top of the range tent, with the intention of luring visitors with deluxe guest accommodation. It is tall enough that Daniel, who’s 6’3, can stand comfortably in either of its two rooms. In fact, the tent may even be larger than the Airstream trailer.
It boasts bay windows, screen doors, stowage areas and cupholders.
I don’t know what it is about cupholders in America, but they seem to be very important and are prominently mentioned as key features of many products such as camp chairs and cars – my sister Annie says her car has 16 of them. Sophia loves the two that fold out of her new booster seat and likes to put all kinds of things in them. We use the two we’ve got, both in the front seat, for coffee and tea when we buy them on the road. What we notice is that cupholders make it harder to throw cups away.
Anyway, here’s the tent:
We ourselves also plan to use the tent, despite the fact that I’ve only slept in one on a handful of Girl Scout trips and then again on the Inca Trail, while Daniel says camping makes him feel sick. Sophia, though, has been asking if we can start sleeping in the tent ever since it arrived in the mail.
Daniel managed to follow the included instruction pack and set up the tent at my aunt Jean’s farm in Iowa, with help from my cousin Vince, his wife Amy and two of their three kids, Leah and Daniel.
Vince, who’s always taken his role as Eldest Cousin very seriously, drove everyone down from their home in Mankato, Minnesota, especially to see us. He greeted us with his trademark bear hug, made sure we were all happy and healthy, charmed Lulu when she screamed, and then took us on a ride in the huge John Deere tractor he uses when helping my uncle, Richard, out with the farming.
Minutes after the tent went up, Daniel ran over in a panic: “There are millions of bugs in the tent, it’s Bug City!”, he cried, searching all our faces for an explanation. There was none.
Does anyone know whether tents are supposed to attract bugs? There was no mention of this phenomenon in the many customer reviews on Amazon.
A few hours later, there was carnage in the tent, where all the bugs had met their end. Ladybugs, gnats, flies, sweatbugs (they look like small bees, but don’t sting), strewn all over the tent floor, in between the mesh screens and zip-up windows and lining the seams. To say say they numbered in the thousands and were measured in half-inches is not an exaggeration.
So the tent remained erect from Sunday afternoon until Thursday evening, when Sophia and I went in with a Shop Vac, trying not to hoover up the couple dozen or so daddy long-legs feasting on the carcasses.
Of course, then a bunch more bugs flew in. And then the poles for the bay windows got bent out of shape.
We have to call Columbia and figure out the tent thing.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Baby Who Came to Tea

Sophia has a great kids’ book called ‘The tiger who came to tea’, about an unexpected visitor joining a little girl named Sophie and her mother for teatime. Offered some afternoon treats including buns and tea, the eponymous tiger is so hungry and thirsty that he proceeds to eat them out of house and home.
My friend Ceara, whose parents gave us the book, has a theory that the tiger’s existence is concocted by a mother anxious to conceal her afternoon drinking habit from her husband.
Anyway, I was reminded of the story the other evening when Lulu had her first proper meal.
Owing to Lulu’s extreme hunger and my inability to satisfy her, we had to ignore the UK National Health Service’s recommendation that solids not be introduced before six months.
And man, did she eat: the girl needed no instruction on how to swallow, and managed to pack away two helpings of rice cereal followed by one of sweet potatoes. Each time we paused, she banged her arm on the highchair tray, demanding more.
And she would have kept going if we had let her.
I swear she’s changed since that food went in, gaining weight and becoming even more alert.
Only problem is, her loving gaze, once reserved for me, has shifted to whatever I’m eating.

Rockford, Illinois – run for your life

Note to anyone planning to take Business Route 20 from Illinois towards the Iowa border: avoid the west side of Rockford!
Around the tenth time we cursed ourselves for missing the Route 20 ring road, a lady and her daughter pulled up beside us.
“You look like you’re lost – you are on the wrong side of town. Keep driving and don’t stop for anyone”. Kindly, she mentioned which gas stations she did not use for fear of safety, but said it was all right to stop for police officers.
Having thanked her for looking out for us, we drove off, aware that towing an Airstream with a giant bright red truck is anything but inconspicuous.
It was then that we had a good look around us, noticing the falling-down houses and firearms shops.
So off we sped, into the Friday sunset.

American Gothic

Chicago was a flying visit, just 36 hours to spend in an incredibly fun, friendly and clean city, the gateway to the West.
The first night we spent with my cousin Lisa, her husband Francisco and their sons Sebastian and Amadeo. Upon arrival, we realized it was Amadeo’s first birthday, but we did not have a gift (sorry). We did enjoy some birthday cake, though. We also enjoyed Francisco’s mom’s homemade salsa – a properly hot one, a yummy tomato sauce that involved very special treatment of tomatoes and best of all, their ‘house drink’.
Served in a large martini glass, the house drink is composed of gin, Pernod Ricard(?), lemon, lime and rosemary. And something else. It was refreshing, and not fussy-tasting at all.
Must post the recipe.
The next morning, four kids plus my very unpunctual self made leaving the house take something like six hours.
By 3:45pm, 1.25 hours before closing, we had arrived at the Art Institute of Chicago. Daniel immersed himself in the collection of drawings, while I concentrated on the American art from 1850 onwards.
‘American Gothic’, the painting by Grant Wood depicting an Iowa farmer and his wife, was especially emotive because of my family ties to that state, and farming.
After rushing back to the north side of Chicago, where we emerged breathless from a cab that had carried four kids and four adults at 71 miles an hour up an expressway in rush hour, we zoomed back downtown to spend two precious hours with Trista, one of the first two friends I made at the University of Michigan, and her husband Anish catching up on the events of the last three years. So into the night we sat, reminiscing about drag queens, criminals and other happy college memories.

Fast Times in Saugatuck, Michigan

The best way to catch up with long-lost friends is to attend a costume party. Well, for me, anyway.

My university friends Veronica Beckman and Tim Baker have been hosting an annual 1980s party every Labor Day Weekend for the last nine years in Saugatuck, Michigan, where Veronica’s extended family own summer homes.

To mark the American close of summer, all the cool people in Chicago decamp to this resort town on the shores of Lake Michigan for a serious party. And serious costumes, the best of which wins a prize – and the chance to have one’s name engraved on a Rubiks Cube-shaped trophy.

It seems like Tim or this guy Jason take the prize most years.

This year did not disappoint. Tim, who gets top DJ billing, and a friend of his went as the Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd characters in ‘Trading Places’, a 1983 movie about the accidental changing of luck for a conman and trader. So Tim made his entrance as conman posing as disabled homeless man, while the other guy was in a suit. By the end of the party, Tim was in the suit and the other guy was in a Santa costume.

Other top costumes: Jason, as a Rubiks Cube that actually turned, a literal interpretation of ‘99 Red Balloons’ and my girl Tia (Breakin’, complete with boombox and Jheri curl!!). Veronica, for her part, is the only mother I know who can pull off a purple dress borrowed from a friend’s former swinging aunt.

I wanted to go as Cyndi Lauper but couldn’t find colored hairspray anywhere, so ended up as a Molly Ringwald-esque 80s girl dressed in pink, pink and more pink. Thanks, Ingrid for the backcomb and amazing metallic make-up!

Daniel, extremely kindly, stayed home with the girls so I could go to the party – THANK YOU - despite having his own amazing costume ready to go. Luckily, he can save it for Halloween.

Please see my profile on Facebook for a full range of hilarious photos…


My uncle Tom gave us a very fancy GPS device, since his new car comes with its own tracking system. We’re not sure whether or not to employ it – is GPS in the spirit of the trip?
So, we have it all charged up and ready to go, just in case we lose our way in the not-fun kind of way. After all, sometimes you discover new things by getting lost, while other times, all you get is more intractably lost.
Either way, Tom and my aunt Gretchen did give us direction.
Twice we stayed with them in Perrysburg, Ohio, a suburb of Toledo, at their palatial home on the banks of the shimmering Maumee River – once on the way from my parents’ in New York, and another time after we looped back from Chicago and were about to set off to visit another aunt, Jean, in Iowa. So they were the middle sister-to-sister point.
Two times they watched our kids as we packed up the car, attempting to improve upon previous hurried efforts. And twice Gretchen made everyone individualized breakfasts, and packed food for lunch on the road. I think she also had to change the sheets twice, since our second visit was slightly unexpected.
Both times we departed calmer, more rested and more organized than we had arrived.

In the photo is the view from their driveway. There's also a lovely photo of Sophia and Lulu with Gretchen, but I had to promise not to post any images of her...

Monday, 14 September 2009

Breakfast in Jackson

Having spent too much time visiting the Henry Ford Museum in the large Detroit suburb of Dearborn, and then too much time in Ann Arbor looking at the town, getting lost and then stocking up on second-hand gear at vintage emporium Value Village, we were unable to get to my university friend Veronica’s summer home in Saugatuck in time for bed.
So we stayed at Motel 6, a budget motel chain about which I am sure we will write more over the course of these months, in Jackson, Michigan.
Despite having attended university nearby, my only knowledge of Jackson was that it was the home of Philip and Dave, or ‘Big Girl’ and ‘Little Dave’, as we knew them in Ann Arbor.
The night attendant communicated by grunting and was missing a few teeth, but kindly acquiesced when we asked to change to a less stinky room than the one we had been assigned.
Since we hit the road, Starbucks, a place I normally disdain, is now something I keenly seek out for its distinctly above average coffee. Yes, when it comes to coffee, I am a yuppie. Sorry.
Anyway, Sophia, Lulu and I were heading over to the Starbucks next to Motel 6 when a little boy all dressed up in his Sunday best poked his head out of the neighboring room’s door to stare at Sophia. Each time she tried to make contact, he jumped behind the door, too shy to chat.
When a group of finery-clad ladies emerged from the room, I greeted them and asked whether they were off to a wedding.
Big mistake.
“No honey, we’re off to church”. One of the boy’s female relatives then told me the name, address and pastor of that church and suggested we join them, stopping to check that I knew Jackson well.
When I admitted it was my first time in Jackson, she popped the question: “Are you a believer?”
“Um, I’m um, kind of agnostic”, I mumbled, aware that I was trapped.
Trapped, and tired. Who was this woman trying to convert me before I had even had coffee?
Weakly, I attempted to ward off a vague effort to convince me of my sins before participating in a very unwelcome series of hugs, handshakes, pleas to come home to God and mispronunciations of my name.
Sophia never managed to say hi to that boy, who silently waved at us from the car as they finally pulled away.
Pictured is our breakfast, which we eventually enjoyed right outside our room.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Our shiny new home

Breakdown and blast-off

The day before our planned departure on September 1st, our newly beloved Yukon broke down. After a brief trip to get Lulu’s vaccinations and buy new shoes (red Pumas for Sophia and silver Birkenstocks for me)., the car just wouldn’t start. Fears of pointless hours and days of planning crossed our minds, and we joked about an even more extended stay with my parents. But we couldn’t even really think about that. We had to get it fixed ASAP.
We were lucky for three reasons: there was a mechanic a block away, my father was able to jump in the car and rescue us and we gained an extra day to pack. Thank goodness it happened so close to home.

Sadly, it did mean that we had to cut Niagara Falls and Toronto from our itinerary. But we’ll go another time.

So, on the morning of September 2, we departed New Rochelle with a packed-to-the-gills red truck.


New York neighborhoods

Our time in New York ended up being just short of six weeks, almost double what we had initially planned. Lucky for us, my parents were gracious hosts who basically let us squat in their house in New Rochelle, a suburb north of New York City in Westchester County. There, our family of four usurped not only their beautiful residence, but also their phone, internet connection and car (and possibly sanity).
Above is a watercolor Daniel did of their home.
Meanwhile, they also looked after Sophia and Lulu while Daniel and I spent inordinate amounts of time researching cars and trailers. The girls love their grandparents.
THANK YOU, Mommy and Daddy.

But New Rochelle was not to be our only abode.
Friends and extended in-laws also threw open their doors to us.

We had several sleepovers at Stephanie and Scott’s grand brownstone in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene, one with our hosts and two without them. Fort Greene is a happy mishmash of cultures, where the prevalence of multiracial children reflects a real coexistence I had only really ever seen in northeastern Brazil.
The place looks like Sesame Street, and is filled with beautiful people – many of whom seem to work locally. Minutes after I joked to Stephanie about the area’s resemblance to a photo shoot, we stumbled upon…a photo shoot.

Our second city home-from-home was cat-sitting for our friends Elisa and Eric, who live in the most picturesque pocket of the West Village. This is a block where windows offer the passerby views of rooms large enough to hold chandeliers, tall bookshelves and people who most definitely employ staff. Where gym-honed mothers at the local playground dress in Marc Jacobs, and where six-packs of American beer cost $16. We are not the only ones who appreciate its location…being diagonally opposite the fancy cupcake producing Magnolia Bakery, which featured on Sex in the City, the place is regularly taken over by tour buses and gawking, squawking crowds who take the now defunct show’s storyline very seriously indeed.

Our final Manhattan bolt-hole was a fancy company apartment at the flashy Jade Jagger-designed building called ‘Jade’ in the Flatiron District. The modular studio space gave us plenty of room to sleep, eat and even host a mini-pizza party. (Thanks, Stephie).

And we haven’t even gotten to the kindness shown us by my sister’s husband Steve’s extended family. One aunt-in-law included us on the invite list to a pool party at her and her husband’s mansion in New Canaan, Connecticut. We arrived via taxi from the local train station, to which we returned in a car driven by their butler (yeah, really!). Despite their wealth, they are super down-to-earth people. They even sent us home with a doggy bag (we had to leave early).

An aunt-in-law on the other side of Steve’s family actually loaned my sister, me, Daniel and the kids a house on the North Shore of Long Island. We jumped into the calm waters on the private beach, before retiring to a barbeque overlooking the Long Island Sound and beyond that, Connecticut.

Awesome, all of it.

Lulu update

Baby Lulu is still the calmest infant ever, and we never forget to appreciate her disposition. If she’s hungry, she’ll just suck her thumb. If Sophia’s love gets too rough, she’ll just give me a quiet look that says “Please help me, if you have time”. And when diaper situations turn dire, she’ll just sit there until someone notices.
Today, as she turns four months old, she weighs about 16.5 pounds and her bottom left tooth has poked its way through her poor gums. Apart from growing like crazy, she’s also rolling over and grabbing stuff. So no more leaving her on beds.

My aunt describes her as a baby dropped down from heaven, so calm is she.
That’s not to say that she’s a pushover though…when the girl wants something, she lets us know with high-pitched shrieks that *nearly* rival her sister’s.

She has racked up more gigs than Sophia, though. She’s been to two so far. The first was Scott Hardkiss’ mini launch party for his new album, ‘Technicolor Dreamer’, which by the way is fantastic. So’s the artwork.
Have a look:
It’s sold in Best Buy and on iTunes.
She got passed around, then passed out from over-stimulation, then woke up when things got really loud – that’s when we had to go.
The whole family went to the second gig, an outdoor concert featuring Animal Collective in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The kids both enjoyed the lights and music until it went all crazy techno – then we had to go.
She’s been christened ‘Rock-n-roll baby’.

Sophia’s part-Americanization

My sister Annie and her kids, Patrick and Keira, came over most days to play during our time in New York. Together, the kids sang the alphabet song, splashed around naked in the paddling pool and chased my parents’ cats. From her cousins, Sophia learned the joys of American food like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, goldfish, Cheerios and hot dogs. The main thing they learned from her was how to misbehave.
Annie, a special education teacher, has taught us how to incentivize good behavior with a chart - circles to be filled with stickers as reward for doing or not doing certain things, with a grand prize of an ice pop or other small treat once the chart is complete.
Perhaps we could all do well with charts.
Sophia's British accent has started to dull a bit – it started with the words “half” and “tomato”, with American intonation gradually creeping in. After spending the day with her little friend Brecken, whose parents are from Michigan, she started pronouncing some words – like “water” and “four” in a way that actually sounds MORE American than how I speak. Crazy.
The funny thing is she seems to know what’s going on, and often gives me a crafty glance when she’s about to give a word the US treatment.
But then, to ingratiate herself with Daniel, she’ll go back the old way of saying things, tossing him a “harf” or a “bin” to keep him sweet.
That said, she is still a London girl at heart, and misses her mates Rocco and Oriel, and her godfather Chris terribly.

Inhaling culture

Being in New York, we obviously had a lot of Culture to appreciate. We did a good run of museums – The Metropolitan, the whole of which would be very difficult to see; the Natural History Museum, whose dinosaurs and blue whale never cease to amaze (though I do have one question: why does the blue whale look so much smaller once you become an adult?? I swear it used to be three times bigger); the MOMA, which has free entry on Friday afternoons (hooray!) and the Guggenheim, which was unfortunately mainly closed due to the installation of a Kandinsky exhibit.
We also spent a lot of time at Bronx cultural institutions, visiting the Zoo, the Botanical Garden and a Yankees game.
This is the Yankees’ first year in their new stadium, which is across the street from the old one. There seems to be a lot of controversy around the team’s new home – like how is the neighborhood benefiting and why is everything so expensive.
My friend Mike Gartland, a high school classmate who’s now an investigative journalist, is actually examining these questions and others in his documentary ‘In the Shadow of the Stadium’.
I don’t know much about the situation, but I did notice that the people inside the stadium resembled the people living outside it, that beer cost $11 and that sushi was on sale alongside the hot dogs.
Still, baseball – with its songs, camaraderie amongst the crowd and easy-to-learn rules - is a great representation of everything that’s good about America.

The leaf

Daniel’s birthday present from my parents last March was a weeklong botanical drawing art class at the New York Botanical Garden.
Unfortunately for him, though, when he went to register for the class, he was told that all students had to start with the basic level before moving on to intermediate and advanced courses. Being the mild mannered Englishman that he is, he acquiesced and was probably the only person in the class with an MA from an internationally recognized art school – one the teacher, in fact, had not managed to get into.
She was flexible, though, and let him work on a separate project: a leaf. An amazingly intricate pencil-drawn leaf that was to take over Daniel’s life for that week and beyond. My entire family was obsessed, and each day we waited for him to return from the Bronx with a leaf that had undergone another five hours of detailed artistry.
He gave the original leaf back to the teacher, but kept the drawing for himself. It will reside at my parents for the duration of our roadtrip. (That said, he did try to pack it in the car).