Thursday, 15 July 2010

Back on the road

Tomorrow morning we depart for Latitude, a music festival two hours or so northeast of London that's supposed to be family friendly. We will be taking the caravan, and camping there for the weekend.
I've been on deadline this week and Daniel's been looking after the girls, so we are not really prepared to go. We'll have to clean the caravan when we get there.
Somewhere on its trip from Galveston, Texas to Southampton, England, the Airstream seems to have lost the tent, table and amazing Coleman chairs we had packed in it. It seems that customs couldn't figure out the latching system on one of the closets, because the door got bashed in. Maybe they wanted some camping equipment as well?
Daniel's bought a generator, two water tanks (one for clean water and one for grey), plus a watertight bucket so we can use the toilets.
Glamorous this is not going to be. But hopefully we'll have some fun.
Stay tuned, we'll post some thoughts and photos on Monday.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

A medium-sized plan

We actually have a sort of Big Plan for the trailer. Well, maybe it's more accurate to call it a medium-sized plan.

We're hoping to rent it out as a prop/location thing, assuming that movie/ad/TV/fashion people will pay us a little bit of money for the privilege of photographing and filming it.
My friend Andrea thinks he can knock up a website powered by the blog, and maybe someone nice can take some photos.

Funnily enough, there is Another Airstream in the area. It's a big huge Airstream bus, rather than a trailer. It's all pimped out on the inside, so the owners are able to rent it out to PR and fashion people. Ours probably won't get that fancy. But it sure is cute.

Here's the money shot from our trip.

The Airstream has landed

We've gotten it back. The Airstream is once again ours for real, it's jumped back out of the blog and re-entered our lives.

Sophia asked if she could scream for joy, and we said yes. So she let out a few of her trademark screams, which were quickly echoed by Lulu.

Darren at ARC Airstreams gave us a quick rundown of how all the new parts worked, and then explained that he had gotten the electricity and gas to work (yippee!).

Two funny things happened on the trip back from Taunton to London:

- we saw Daniel's brother Tim on the highway. Have you EVER seen someone you know on the highway?! And if it does happen, is it a sibling who just happens to be going the same way at the same time, halfway across the country? Of course, Tim being Tim, he just smiled, waved and kept driving - as though that were a totally normal situation. It's good to know he's finally seen the trailer, the star of so many of our stories.

- during our one stop, at a rest area, a guy asked Daniel if he could buy the trailer from us. He and his lady friend had been staring at the thing when Daniel came back to the car, so they got chatting. Daniel said we didn't know how committed we really were, so the guy said "Great, I'll buy it from you at the end of the summer".

Amazingly, we (meaning Daniel) managed to back it into his workshop parking lot, and then into a single parking space. The UK hitch includes a small wheel, which allows a person to pull/push the trailer into an ideal position. This came in very handy tonight, with Daniel using that method in between two separate car-hitch manoeuvres.

So we missed the second half of the World Cup final, which Spain ended up winning 1-0 in extra time. Yey, España! (We wanted you to win). But we parked the Airstream, which is also a major feat.

Are we crazy? We suspect that we might be. But it's pretty cool to have our Airstream back. And it does look mighty nice with our new, used Nissan Pathfinder (check out that grille).

Friday, 9 July 2010

Off to Taunton

Can that sense of the American open road be exported to England? Will our Airstream even fit on the roads over here? Is there space for an (offensive) SUV + 1966 Caravel at gas stations? Where are we going to park the darn thing?

These questions and so many more will soon be answered: we are finally picking up our beloved shiny silver trailer this weekend.

Having picked up our Airstream from the port after its voyage across the Atlantic, Kathy and Darren at ARC Airstreams have refitted it to UK standards, with new axles, brakes and suchlike.

Unfortunately, the toilet - and other water systems - sound like they are not transferable from the US to the UK.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Home again, home again, jiggety-jig

Finally, on the afternoon of April 24th, we got our lovely house back. Having lurked around the neighborhood for the best part of a week, we were relieved to become full-blown residents once again.

Sophia ran straight up the stairs and into her room, just to check it was still there, before inspecting the rest of the house. The letters spelling out her name were still intact on her bed.

Daniel wandered around, admiring all of the handiwork – curtains, doorknobs, painting, doors, yet more storage space – he had completed before we moved out. He felt like a king in a (bijou) castle many times the size of an Airstream Caravel.

I marvelled at the thought of No Stuff. Even vastly reduced, Stuff had been the main impediment to life on the road. Our clean and tidy house still boasted the furniture, kitchen stuff, TV, etc, that we had left behind, and we had learned to live with (comparatively) few things. Why ruin this, when we could lead an uncomplicated life of minimalism?

Lulu, for her part, having left this house at the age of six weeks, seemed to perceive that at last we were home. That night, for the first time ever, she slept the whole night through.

Picaresque London

So recently returned to London, we had forgotten about all the petty crime. At high noon on our first full day back, we intercepted a mobile phone theft.
“Help, this guy’s trying to steal my phone. Call the police!”, a passerby entreated us. So, naively, we walked over and asked what was going on. A local thug on a bike had asked to see the man’s phone, and then tried to walk away with it. So, reaching for my ancient Nokia – and realizing I didn’t remember what the number in England was - I took a photo instead. Or pretended to – I had also forgotten how to use the camera function. The perpetrator got mad, telling Daniel to make me deleted it. Daniel said no. Sophia asked what was going on, and Lulu rubbed snot onto my top. The guy eventually let up his fight, issued a threat for the future and then cycled off.
Later that day, two kids tried to break into our car.
The following afternoon, a neighbor across the street told Sophia that the thumbtack she had retrieved from his windowsill had been dipped in rat poison. Angrily, he said that the hundreds of other such rat poisoned tacks were there to prevent pedestrians from sitting or leaning on his windowsill. Challenged as to why that was a good idea – on a thoroughfare frequented by children – he retorted that youngsters were the worst offenders. I asked whether erecting a sign to warn parents of the danger might be a good idea, even offering to make one myself, he said that was beside the point.
So, I called the police. They sent the neighborhood safety patrol around, and nary a tack has since been seen on Columbia Road.

From his studio in Cornwall, Daniel presents some new work

Last year, Barbara made good on her dream to build a room of her own, atop her home in Saltash. It's a fantastic space, with views out to the Brunel Bridge and the River Tamar, with light that lasts the whole day.
There, Daniel set up a studio in which he painted and painted.
Here is a sample...

Thursday, 29 April 2010


The first week of homelessness was spent at Barbara’s in Saltash, Cornwall. Not a bad place to be, especially at the start of springtime.
It was also a pretty good place for Lulu to be struck down with a weeklong bout of gastroenteritis, since we were able to go to Barbara’s doctor. Poor Lulu lost loads of weight – thankfully, she had plenty of meat on those bones to start with.
We were invited to lots of dinners, where we caught up with friends and family.
We even had an afternoon of croquet - my first ever – with what I think were Real Aristocracy as well as Actual Rabbit Holes, at Daniel’s sister Emma’s new place in the Devon countryside. It was just like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ in 3D, but without the Lord of the Rings-esque extended battle scene.

Here are some photos:

1. Lulu at motorway rest stop somewhere between Cornwall and London
2. Sophia with random kids at playground in Saltash
3. Daniel’s brother Tim with his lovely wife Fiona
4. Lulu, Rufus and Sophia at Tim and Fiona’s
5. Sophia and cousin Rufus at the beach in Cornwall
6. Daniel and his school friend Mark Rich
7. The Den, planned at night, built at dawn
8. Sophia (and) Spring
9. Barbara with Bundt cake (thanks, Julia!)
10. Sophia’s beehive


Arriving in London on April 9, we were to spend the next fifteen days homeless. Cecile and David, our tenants had found another house in the neighborhood, but not until April 25.
Having originally planned to sleep at the workshop, we later found the prospect of setting up a home there too daunting. We didn’t even have a sofa-bed. Also, our friend Laura, who’s been renting it since we’ve been away, had all her installation art there, ready for exhibition.

So, we became vagrants, sleeping at EIGHT different places:
1. The Holiday Inn, Heathrow (pictured) – we got an amazing $36 deal on from the US

2. Emma & Beni’s – and what a warm welcome we had there. Sophia and Rocco didn’t fight at all!

3. Barbara’s in Cornwall – two rooms of our own, delicious food, perfect weather and amazing views of the Royal Albert and Tamar Bridges connecting Devon and Cornwall

4. Mark & Karen’s in Plymouth – Daniel’s school friend, his wife and their supersweet kids, who entertained Sophia all evening and then again all morning

5. Tim & Fiona’s at Lostwithiel – visits to the beach, a monkey sanctuary and, possibly most excitingly, the opportunity to sleep in a genuine Daniel Spring bed (yippee, once you try one, you’ll never go back)

6. Holiday Inn Express, Docklands – a stop-gap the night before school started

7. Liz & Marie’s – They got stuck in Canada due to the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, so we got to borrow their house, right around the corner from ours. ALMOST HOME! Sophia could not for the life of her understand why we kept walking past our own house but not sleeping in it.

8. Gary & Carole’s in Stoke Newington – they took us in at the last minute, fed us and provided us with boutique hotel-y accommodations

THANK YOU to everyone for giving shelter to a weary family of four.


And there we were, back in London.

And we are off…

Suddenly it was time to go back to London.

Having sold our car, we were able to buy plane tickets for April 9, the last day before fares went up.

To get back in time for Sophia’s first day at her new nursery school, we ended up having to miss our last swimming, art and writing classes.

But it is hard to complain after a nine-month holiday.
So we had extra playtime with cousins and Pei, a farewell dinner with my parents and Annie’s family and a final piano-accompanied Forest Avenue performance (a hybrid of Hawaiian and hip-hop) by Sophia and Patrick.

Then, eleven items of luggage in hand (and many, many things left at my ever-patient parents’ for future pick-up – sorry), we headed before the crack of dawn to JFK for the flight back. We lucked out and got FOUR bulkhead seats, and some surprisingly un-disgusting food. Thank you, American Airlines.

Goodbye, America, we love you.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Stay tuned...

There are a few more posts coming this way, so please do stay tuned. We are not quite finished with this story!

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Easter egg hunt!

Happy Birthday!

March is a big month for birthdays in our family. My sister Annie on the 6th, my mother Sara on the 19th and Daniel on the 25th.
How fun to be able to celebrate them all at home.

Bye-bye, firetruck!

We sold our (mostly) trusty GMC Yukon for $4900, $100 less than we paid for it. Too bad we spent about five grand on repairs. Still, considering that we did 18,500 miles in the thing, we can’t complain.

Two guys came to see it, and both ended up wanting to take it. Ken, of Fort Lee, New Jersey (pictured here), got there first. A Gaza native who sends his kids to American school in Egypt, he wants a vehicle to tow his boat with for their summer visits.

Sophia was inconsolable when she found out that her idea to build a ship with a parking lot so we could take the car back to London wasn’t a viable option. (Promising her a toy version stopped the crying, so we have a mini GMC Yukon on the way from Diecast Models Wholesale).

It is fair to say that we all shared her sadness. First of all, selling the car meant that our Big Adventure was well and truly over, and that the return to Real Life was now inevitable. Secondly, all our repairs had made for a really good car.

Happily, though, the first car repair guy to rip us off – when the Yukon broke down a day before our planned set-off date – ended up writing us a check for $540. That was after months and months of phone calls and visits to ask why the fuel pump he had supposedly replaced had been neither new nor correctly installed.

He decided not to mess with us, because we had all the time in the world to harass him.

A return to routine

Lest we turn into total layabouts, we had to find ourselves some activities.

We started with classes: art classes and swimming lessons for Sophia, a portrait painting class for Daniel and a writing class for me.

All poor Lulu got was sleep training. But I am proud to say that she now sleeps through the night (and two full naps) in her very own bed. Thank you, Jana, for recommending Kim West’s great book ‘Good Night, Sleep Tight’. It’s a gentle method for getting your kid out of your bed without just shutting the door and letting them scream. It also has good tips for teeny babies as well as older kids.

Daniel and I started jogging most mornings, until we all a really nasty cold/flu. This means that our post-roadtrip physiques will not be ready for a little while. But we counted our blessings, feeling very lucky not to have gotten sick on the road.

Daniel’s been painting like crazy, having set up a studio in my parents’ sunroom. He’s done a series of portraits plus some still lifes. The plan is for him to give painting a proper go once we get back to London…go Daniel!

For me, being a suburban mom in the place I grew up has been weirdly fun. Mothers at playgrounds, the pool and the shops have all been really nice, I’m sure it would be great to be friends with some of them.

Sophia’s had loads of time with her cousins Patrick and Keira, as well as friends like Pei and Brecken. She is going to miss her little life here a lot.

Since we got back, Lulu has blossomed. We don’t know whether it’s her age (11 months on Thursday!!!!!), so much sleep or all the stability, but she is now supersocial and ready to take on the world. She is standing all the time, and walking while holding onto things. We can’t believe that the ittie-bittie infant we arrived with is almost a toddler.

I’d better sign off before things get too teary.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Full circle

So, 18,500 miles and just over six months after we started our adventure, we arrived back at my parents’ house in New Rochelle. Man, was it nice to know we were going to stay in one place for a little while.

Obama’s house

Ever since we started out on our road trip, Sophia has been obsessed with Barack Obama. We’ve listened to a lot of NPR to stay up to date with news and culture, and some Christian radio so that we can learn what exactly the Tea Party is all about. Plus, unsurprisingly, the healthcare debate came up a lot in conversations with people we met along the way. So of course she has heard quite a bit about Obama.

Her most frequent questions: Why is he so important? Where does he live? Can I see his house?

What better place to conclude a cross-country trip but Our Nation’s Capital?

The visit started out very well indeed, since we stayed at an awesome hotel. A-loft, the diffusion range of the upmarket W hotel group, has nice design, great beds, fantastic customer service and fun things like a pool, coffee bar, flat screen TVs, cordless phones, a gym and repetitive dance music at the cocktail bar. This was a major departure from our usual motel fare, which had gotten really depressing, and was well worth the trade-off of staying not only outside the center, but in Virginia.

But back to culture.

Check out our best parking spot ever, right outside the Capitol building. We tried to go on a tour of the building, but a last minute visiting (unspecified) world leader put paid to that plan. Tourists had to wait in long lines, as snipers, secret servicemen and sniffer dogs positioned themselves for the big arrival.

So we went to the National Museum of the Native American, for lunch. We had been there before, and knew the food was great. The cafeteria is divided into sections based on geographies and tribes. We ordered traditional food from across these geographies: cornbread, salmon, wild rice, buffalo burger, cranberry crumble, nopal cactus, succotash, etc.

Then, having enjoyed the ground floor’s exuberant costume displays and a live drumming performance, we headed out and decided to split up.

Daniel and Sophia went to the National Gallery of Art to check out European paintings, while Lulu and I hit the Newseum, a museum dedicated to journalism.

Because it’s not part of the Smithsonian, the Newseum has a hefty entry fee ($20, but there’s a small discount for journalists) but it’s well worth it. My favorite exhibits included satire as news (Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, The Onion, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, the Colbert Report, etc); the decline of old media/rise of digital media and blogging; a comparison of press freedoms around the world; and a more somber one on all the journalists who have been killed in the line of duty.

There was also a fun interactive part where you can pretend you’re a broadcast reporter. I chose to do the weather report, speaking into a microphone and using a teleprompter while Lulu slept strapped to me in the baby carrier. I can confirm that I am not photogenic and should stick to print.

Having reconvened after the museums, it was off to Obama’s house, at the height of the evening rush hour. We drove all around the White House, getting great views from the front and back, but failing to get a good photo since there was nowhere to stop. Sophia and I jumped out of the car at one point, running across a park to take a picture in time to get back in the car so Daniel wouldn’t hold up traffic. But no luck.

We finished the evening by meeting up with Thomas, an Irish friend from London who relocated to Washington to work for the Marshall Fund. We had pints and some seafood snacks along the Georgetown waterfront, catching up on the last year, life in Washington and life on the road.

He insisted that we join him at an ideas-n-drinks party at Slate magazine, having OK’d this with the event organizers beforehand. So, banishing our doubts, into the venue we headed, tired kids in tow. Disheveled in appearance and brainpower, we attempted to make conversation with people who had Real Jobs. Thomas, ever the skilled and delightful host, introduced us to a selection of his many accomplished friends. They were very nice to Daniel and me, and chatted to the girls. Thomas and Sophia made canapé smiley faces (great way to get kids to eat vegetables!). But with the girls heading quickly towards Meltdown, we made our excuses and left.

The next day, we departed for New York.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Doing the Charleston

The Charleston dance started out with African Americans in the South, before making its way up to Harlem and then going global with the flappers.
Here’s an old how-to video we found on Youtube.

We didn’t do any dancing in Charleston, South Carolina. Rather, we ate. And walked. It’s a great town for both.

Hyman’s Seafood was the venue for today’s Southern eat-a-thon, which we had learned to schedule for the afternoon in order to give us at least seven hours to digest.

This place served us one of the best meals we had on our entire trip. We had boiled peanuts, hush puppies, shrimp on buttered grits, coleslaw, fried green tomatoes, grilled fish, fried fish, french fries, sweet potato.

Eli Hyman, one of the family-owned restaurant’s current heads, stopped by our table not once but twice to check that everything was OK. So many famous people make the pilgrimage to Hyman’s that each table has at least one brass plaque bearing the name of a celebrity who ate at that very table. We ate where Neil Armstrong had been.

This place does shameless but amazing marketing. In exchange for wearing a sticker that says something like ‘I love Hymans’ around town, customers get entered in a contest to win a free meal (they apparently have staff in all corners of Charleston, waiting to discover winners). We were happy to oblige, but didn’t win. Sophia’s fish-n-chips came on a special Hyman’s Frisbee. I bought Hyman’s grits to make at home from the adjoining gift shop.

We then stumbled outside, where we spent an hour or two wandering around yet another Southern port town.

Set on a peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper rivers, Charleston was founded by the English in 1670 and soon was a shipping center for deerskin, cotton and indigo.

It features huge, beautiful houses whose narrow side faces the street. Many boast elaborate side porches stretching up each of their three, four or five stories. Most porches face southeast, to allow optimum shade and breeze during the city’s famously hot summers. This was important, since people often had to sleep outside to stay cool.

Some 100 miles apart, Charleston and Savannah make an easy Southern historic city pairing. Both claim various things, like having the oldest Jewish temple, or having been the South’s most tolerant town. Either way, they sure are a study in Southern beauty and grace.

Southern Gothic

Savannah, Georgia is as graceful and mysterious a city as you can imagine. Flannery O’Connor was from there, as was the founder of the Girl Scouts, Juliet Lowe.
The city’s center, most of it a national landmark, is constructed on a grid system containing 22 squares. Everywhere, there are Spanish moss draped trees, beautiful wrought ironwork and proud Savannahians. The best part, for us, was being treated to an early dose of Spring.
Because we only had one afternoon, we took a guided bus tour. Our driver, who rang her bell to emphasize more interesting historical points, was a fountain of knowledge. She also had a dark sense of humor, a loathing of men, Washington and the outcome of the Civil War, and a clear desire to run over pedestrians. We made sure to leave a tip. Then she dropped us off on the other side of town, at her preferred restaurant, the Pirate’s House, an old inn dating from 1753 along the Savannah River. It is supposed to be haunted, and features on the city’s haunted tour. If anyone’s interested in the southern ghosts, New Orleans, Savannah and Charleston all have haunted tours.
We had nothing to fear but the number of calories entering our stomachs by way of the buffet- macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, corn bread, collard greens, creamed broccoli, mashed potatoes, etc. Then, we had dessert.
What is definitely fearsome is the historical society, which is apparently loved and hated in equal measures, for its commitment to ensuring that all squares and houses are kept in tip-top condition.
We were lucky to see the inside of one such house. A man, tending his garden, gave us directions and then invited us to see his home, which dated from the 1700s.
He and his wife, both Chicago natives, had moved to Savannah at the beginning of the 1980s, after spending three years at sea in a houseboat. Kindred spirits.