Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Empire of the School Run

Two days before school started: a different world
The summer holidays seemed to end all to abruptly this year. One minute we were surfing in the waves in Anglesey, the next we were back on the school run on September 1st.

I think it must be a feature of the boys getting older, but this year I was reluctant for them to go back to school. In years gone by, I would have been champing at the bit by September, ready to breathe a huge sigh of relief at no longer having to entertain them/find things for them to do while I work/ provide an endless stream of drinks and meals all day with them at home. But now, they are really so easy, so entertaining and such good company, that their holidays are thoroughly enjoyable, whether or not we're away.

It's just that glorious feeling of waking up and not having to make sure they've packed the right bags for school, checking on activities. Nor do I have to put them to bed "on time" despite their grumbles, so they can stay up watching the Olympics, or the Great British Bake Off*, like the rest of us. (*Yes, it's still a surprising favourite in this household of boys. In fact, Littleboy 2 ran into my study shouting "Mummy, Mummy" in horror yesterday. I thought something awful had happened. "Mel and Sue are leaving Bake Off!" he informed me with a stricken face, having seen the news on their iPad.)

I felt really relaxed at the end of the holidays. So it was something of a baptism of fire to be back in the routine. Suddenly, my diary was peppered with school events -- parent information evenings, house football matches, music performances -- and both boys decided to sign up for multiple activites, all of which require even more sports kit/musical intruments on different days, that I fear I will never get to grips of who needs what on which day, never mind what time to pick them up.

All in all, I felt as if (on top of a busy work schedule) I was running a small business empire last week: replying to school emails, putting events in diaries and having to sort out last minute babysitting to ensure everyone's attendance at crucial meetings. Not to mention making sure everyone was doing their homework/music practice/reading, after the lull of the chilled-out laid-back summer. My regime is, by necessity, a military one: the washing machine now goes on the minute they get home from school, because someone is bound to need that dirty top again tomorrow - no saving it for the next morning, not any more! -- and the bags are laid out by the front door the night before, or someone, somewhere, will suffer.

I know I'm not alone, and some have it far worse. At least my kids are same gender and same school. A friend with three children at three different schools showed me her email inbox last week, and it was just one school email after another. Another friend was grinding her teeth because her child had signed up for cross country running club at 6am every Monday -- the one club she had told him NOT to do.

I see this week that pushy parents/ "tiger moms" have come in for some bashing again - apparently, they (the parents) are among the least contented people, and goodness knows what that does for their children. Now I am not, nor would ever claim to be, a Tiger Mom, yet I feel that there's an element of this in all middle-class parenting these days. Because if you aren't on the ball and just a little bit pushy, it will be a big fat fail from the school, and you'll be letting your child down.

Where will it all end, I ask? Oh, I wish I knew but I don't have time to answer that now - you see, I've got to pick one up from gymnastics club, and then hang around before one auditions for the school play. Then cook them dinner and run out to a parent information evening, hoping The Doctor will be home in time. Oh well, if all else feels I can leave them in front of The Great British Bake Off...

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Corfu Replay

Sunset in Corfu
Back in 1991, I visited Corfu as part of a month Inter-Railing with J, my friend from school. In those days the Inter-Rail ticket included the ferry crossing from Brindisi to Kerkyra, so it was quite a destination for backpackers.

We all piled onto the ferry and sat out on deck on the overnight crossing. There were hundreds of us, not just Brits but many Scandinavians, Dutch, Germans, Irish - you name it. I remember trying in vain to lie down and sleep, as J (who was into heavy metal at the time) found some fellow Guns and Roses fans with a bottle of Jack Daniels and proceeded to have a wild party. In the morning when we docked in Corfu, I was frantically searching for her, and eventually discovered her feeling very sorry for herself in the ferry toilets.

Having teamed up (I can't remember how) with some fellow Brits, we found ourselves a dormitory-style room on the roof of a very low budget hotel in Corfu town. It was pretty squalid - I seem to recall you had to troop down several floors to a bathroom - but it was a base from which to explore the island, and on the second day, we started hearing about a place called Pelekas.

Pelekas was a bit like the mysterious island in Alex Garland's "The Beach," in that backpackers in Corfu Town talked about it in mythical terms - Pelekas was where the party was. We heard tales of campfires on the beach every night, beautiful surf and what's more, plenty of cheap places to stay. With two of our new friends, we rented some scooters and headed up there and it was indeed magical. There was a beautiful unspoilt beach, accessed by walking down a long winding road from the pretty hill village above, which seemed entirely populated by backpackers, and was buzzing with bars and restaurants in the evening. The next morning, we piled our bags into a taxi and headed for the hills.

We immediately found a local woman offering us a cheap, clean and very pleasant room off the main square with a gorgeous view, and spent the next few days on the beach, often returning late at night after a session round the campfire with various backpackers playing guitars. It was blissful.

Corfu's West Coast
I'd always wanted to go back to Corfu, and last week I finally achieved it. This time was just a little different - a villa with a pool, rather than a ramshackle dormitory, a hire car rather than scooters, renting our own motor boat for the day rather than riding behind a speedboat in rubber rings. But there is still something very magical about the island; the turquoise water, the ring of cicadas, the lush olive groves and the winding hills.

If you've been to other Greek islands, Corfu is a little different: it's  greener than other Greek islands such as the Cyclades, and there's a definite Italian influence on the architecture and also the food. It's rich with olive, lemon and fig trees and there is teeming wildlife - as chronicled by Gerald Durrell in "My Family and Other Animals." The huge green cicadas at our villa were so loud the Doctor even complained that he couldn't concentrate on reading; here's a photo of one landing on my silk culottes, to which it seemed extremely attracted.

This cicada liked my culottes


The northeast coast of the island, near where we stayed, is apparently sometimes called "Kensington on sea" because it's full of posh English. I reckon this comparison is outdated - unlike today's Kensington, it's not ritzy or full of European playboys. It's probably more like Dulwich-on-sea -- there were quite a few middle class Brits around, but they were enjoying themselves in quite a low key way, splashing in the sea and having nice lunches in tavernas rather than cavorting on yachts.

Views from the water
We ourselves were based in Loutses, a hillside village with the most incredible views out to the Albanian coast and beyond, with a fantastic sunset vista. We spent our days lazing by the pool, exploring beaches and coves, boating and eating far too much delicious taverna food, or alternatively BBQ-ing at the villa.

Oh, and one day we paid a visit to the West of Corfu - to my old haunt of Pelekas. First, we swam at the beach - still beautiful, but much more developed, with a huge hotel complex down one end, plentiful beach bars and now two winding roads down there, with several car parks charging 4 euros a pop to park. The boys loved the surf there, and it's still a great beach -- but it was not quite the idyllic spot I remembered.

View from Pelekas village today
Then,  we drove up to the village for an ice-cream. Pelekas today is not too different physically, but much, much quieter. Where were the backpackers and bars? There were several rather shut-up looking travel agencies and very old "Rooms to let" signs on what looked like abandoned buildings. We wandered into the old part of the village, to try and locate the house where I stayed. The winding alleys and white-painted houses looked familiar, but I wasn't sure. Then, a woman came down from a balcony and spoke to us. She was a Finnish expat, living there for the summer. I told her I was last there 25 years ago, and she said her house used to be owned by a Greek woman who rented out her upstairs room to backpackers. I'm not sure, but it could well have been there.

Was Pelekas still a haven for backpackers? I asked. No, no longer. "They don't come to Corfu now. With flights being cheaper they go to Goa and Thailand," she explained. "When we moved here, we heard about Pelekas's party heyday in the 80s, and we couldn't quite believe it. There were people renting space on balconies and sleeping on the beach."

So that made me feel quite old, and nostalgic, but also grateful. I had experienced a bit of history, and now that was over, and a new crowd (retired expats) were moving in. Who knows - maybe one day I'll be retiring up to the hills of Corfu too?




Wednesday, 29 June 2016

What a week....

"Mummy, " said Littleboy 2 this morning at breakfast. "Why are you and Daddy STILL talking about the Referendum?"

He must be wondering what's happened. We've gone from a house where the TV was never on in the morning before school to one where it's seemingly on 24/7. The disciplined leaving for school on time thing has gone out of the window. Both parents seem to be in permanent rant mode. Even when we had guests round for Sunday lunch, they all just ranted too.

I reassured him that we were not mad, and that it was quite likely all his friends' parents were having the same conversations. In fact I know they are: I've spent a lot of time down at the school this week for various parents' open days, and it is all anyone can talk about. It's like that everywhere in London (although I know outside the capital it isn't, necessarily.)

I went to Shoreditch on Monday and young people seemed to be hugging each other everywhere. I went into my local bookshop earlier and an older man was having a rant about what a huge mistake Brexit is. Meanwhile, Facebook has gone from being a place where friends shared pictures of their kids and cat videos to being a place of rampant political activism - petitions, invitations to join marches, people saying how depressed they feel (I would not be at all surprised if Brexit did not result in a rise in mental health issues.) I have other friends who say they aren't talking to friends or relations who voted differently to them.

Frankly, it's exhausting. Brexhausting, as one friend puts it -- she admits to letting childcare, cleaning and cooking go out of the window since last Friday. On top of that as a journalist I've also been writing about Brexit for work, focusing on the failures and success of the two communications campaigns, so all in all I feel like I'm living and breathing Referendum.

We are living in a new reality, and no wonder our kids cannot grasp the enormity of it. I wonder if they will grow up more politically aware as a result?




Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Why bats don't back Brexit

There was a "bat walk" in our local park last Friday night at dusk, and I took Littleboy 2 along. As we stood there in the smudgy twilight, we saw lots of whirling creatures and listened to an fascinating talk from a volunteer from the London Wildlife Trust about bats.

There were several things I didn't know about bats -- like, they feed off mosquitoes and midges (so they're actually happy when humans are around, because we attract them), and it's only certain species that sleep upside down. But one thing I particularly noted was that the bats in our park are protected by EU Legislation.

That kind of sums up the Brexit argument for me. So many of the EU laws that people complain about are just common sense -- from having safe child seats for kids, to protecting bats, to protecting jobs. Giving women the right to ask for flexible working hours. Protecting doctors from working too many hours, like they used to in the early 90s before the EU brought the working time directive in. Personally, I feel protected by the fact that we're doing the same as lots of other countries, many of which are more progessive and less conservative than our own.  And who is going to come up with our laws and regulations in future if we leave? Boris Johnson? No, thanks.

I'm not going into all the other arguments for and against on here, and of course readers are free to make up their own minds.  But I'm crossing my fingers for next Thursday that people see sense and choose "Remain." Because quite frankly it would be "bats" to leave.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Birds, Beasts and Southeast London

Caught in the act
I've really been enjoying ITV's The Durrells, an adaptation of Gerald Durrell's books set on Corfu, including My Family and Other Animals, and Birds, Beasts and Relatives, which I read when much younger. It's very well done, with the excellent Keeley Hawes playing the put-upon Mrs. Durrell, and beautifully filmed on Corfu. (What's more, we're going there this summer -- and I'd already booked our holiday before I knew about the series, so I'm feeling rather smug.)

Anyway, we have been experiencing our own birds and beasts here in Crystal Palace. Honestly, you wouldn't think a Southeast London suburban home, close enough to central London that you can see the Shard from up the road, would be a haven for wildlife. But since we moved here we have had the following animal experiences:

1. Pigeons in our attic. They'd even made nests up there and laid eggs. When we eventually realised, we had to get our roof fixed, which involved lots of scaffolding (it's a tall house) and expensive builders. It also led us to change our water tank system, as the previous system was an open tank in the attic into which pigeon skeletons may well have fallen.

2.  Foxes eating the boys' football goal. The phrase "back of the net" doesn't apply to this goal (Littleboy 1's birthday present last year) any more. Because the back of the net has been chewed away. I wondered at first if some unfortunate animal had got tied up in the netting, and that's why it had been destroyed. Maybe a cat had got its claws caught. But this morning I caught one of our many resident foxes in the act - jaws in the net, looking balefully up at me in defiance as I shooed it away. I'm quite fond of foxes (although they also keep us awake with their shagging noises) but honestly, this is Not On.

3. A ladybird infestation. Seriously, there are hundreds in our house. I don't quite know what to do about it  - they're rather pretty, and not really pests, but we do wonder if they bite (a few of us have had mysterious insect bites). Any advice?

4. Slugs in the hallway. How do they get in? How?

5. Pigeon in the bathroom. Unable to get in the attic any more through their holes, the pigeons have now taken up residence on the bathroom window sill, which is now covered in bird poo and feathers. During the hot weather this weekend, the bathroom window was left open -- and a bird flew in and shat all over the shower.

Any more for any more? I'm thinking of setting up a small zoo.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Sur le Airbnb d'Avignon

Le Pont d'Avignon and the Rhone
I am becoming a huge fan of Airbnb.

Just a few years ago, if you'd wanted to stay in the centre of a medieval walled city such as Avignon, you'd have had to pay through the nose, either for a very poncey luxury hotel or a really quite basic business one. You'd only have a hotel room, so you'd have had to buy all your meals, and when you'd tired of walking around all day there would have been nowhere to sit and relax in your room.

But now, you can stay in a large, beautiful apartment, right in the centre of such as a city, with all mod cons and a comfortable bed, for less than a hundred pounds a night (with free parking nearby). You can pop out to the neighbourhood boulangerie in the morning to buy your baguettes, and keep a bottle of wine chilling in the fridge for when you fancy a 6pm aperitif. (What is more, your kids could be playing cards in a completely different room while you have this. ) If you are lucky, your apartment's owner will recommend you a nice local restaurant to boot. It's a win-win situation and the hotels must be seething.

Anyway that's enough about Airbnb (this is not a sponsored post) and here's something about Avignon. We drove there from the Alps, but it's a destination that you could easily get to from the UK, as there's a direct Eurostar train nowadays in the summer. The city is famous for two things: the Palais des Papes or Popes' Palace, where nine popes resided in the Middle Ages, and the Pont d'Avignon, a bridge made famous by the children's song.

Both are worth a visit: the medieval Bridge, although only a tiny segment remains, affords a very romantic view of the Rhone even though your visit may only take 10 minutes. But you can buy a combined ticket to see both this and the Popes' Palace, which is both an impressively huge building and a history lesson (I spent most of our visit trying to explain the Pope's role to the boys, and realising I really am hugely ignorant on the matter).

Above the Palace and Bridge is the very pretty Rocher des Doms park, where you can look out over the river, the surrounding rolling countryside with vineyards (Chateauneuf du Pape is nearby) and Provencal roofs of the beautiful old city. After that, you can have a drink and watch the world go by in the courtyard square below the Popes' Palace. Or you could visit the tiny Musee Angladon, which houses a collection of Impressionist paintings by the likes of Picasso, Degas, Manet and Sisley.

But what I enjoyed most about Avignon was walking around the old town, exploring its winding cobbled streets lined with cafes, restaurants and shops. I'm not a huge shopper but the shopping there was fabulous -- not just souvenirs like lavender, Provencal pottery and tablecloths but interesting fashion, unusual toiletries, trendy kitchen stores and more. Avignon is small, and immensely walkable -- but every time you venture out you'll find a new little corner to explore.

We ate two extremely good meals: one at Kote Kour, a trendy little tucked-away bistro near our apartment. Although we felt as if we (apart from the Littleboys) were the oldest people there, it had delicious and unusual food, and an off-menu chicken and chips for the boys.

At a slightly more pretentious restaurant, we struggled slightly when they didn't have their advertised kids' menu, but eventually the boys shared a steak and pronounced it delicious. And my asparagus, egg and hollandaise starter was one of the culinary highights of the whole trip.

So I would definitely recommend Avignon en famille, if you have a couple of days to spare or fancy a weekend trip. Just forget the hotels and check out Airbnb first.



Tuesday, 5 April 2016

And....breathe

Exploring a national park on skis
I have never been so glad as I was to escape to the Alps this Easter.

Let me sum up the fortnight before we went.

1. First, the Doctor and I came down with awful colds. Well, possibly worse than a cold -- I was unable to do much for about three whole days, except blow my nose, take paracetamol and sweat profusely. I haven't felt so rough in years, and there WAS swine flu doing the rounds of the local schools, so I think that may have been it....

2. We had a terrible night during which we were both extremely hot and sweaty. During the course of said night, the Doctor managed to scratch an insect bite (I know - in March, in England?) and somehow infect it. Within two days, his entire leg was red and swollen around a horrible pussy mess. I drove him to A&E, who diagnosed an abscess and put him on intravenous antibiotics (luckily he didn't have to stay in).

3. The leg did not clear up quickly - it got worse, and he ended up having to have it drained. He had to have an MRI to check it hadn't penetrated the bone (luckily, not) and missed an entire week of work -- something I've never known him do, even when he had Lyme disease a few years ago. One doctor told him ominously that there was no way he would be able to ski - this was about a week before we were due to leave. Two days later, although it wasn't much better, another doctor thought ski-ing would be fine. However, this guy, naturally, was himself a keen skier, so we had to take that with a pinch of salt. I was left facing the possibility that I would have to drive all the way to the Alps myself, and ski with the boys on my own for two weeks - or, that we would have to cancel.

4. We decided to go anyway, and thought we would only ski for a week, then maybe to to Paris. Things were looking slightly more positive. Then, the day before we left, I was just getting the boys ready for school when, standing in our kitchen, I felt a drip on my head. There was water dripping through our ceiling from the floor above!

5. The Doctor managed to isolate the leak, but that meant we had no water in our bathroom - and the plumber couldn't come before we left for France.

6. Around the same time, we decided that one of our front car tyres was looking decidedly dodgy. On the morning we left, The Doctor took it to the garage to get it checked. Lucky he did, because apparently both front tyres had completely had it. Not ideal before a thousand-mile drive.

At this point, I was actually thinking it would be a miracle if we ever made it to France and we might as well abandon the whole trip.

However, we didn't. And, when we finally made it, it was a wonderful break, one of the best ski holidays we've had as a family. The snow was excellent, the weather beautiful. The Doctor found he WAS able to ski, despite the still oozing leg. The boys improved immeasurably, and were soon outpacing me. They could follow us everywhere, which meant we were able to make trips to other resorts en famille. One day we met friends, another we explored a national park on skis. We ate and drank far too well.

After 10 days skiing (which was plenty for everyone), we spent a couple of nights in Avignon, Provence (I'll write about that one separately.) Then we came home via a night in Champagne. Everything went smoothly - even passing through Eurotunnel on a busy weekend.

Who can say if the hellish fortnight preceeding the holiday made the fortnight away even better by way of relief. But, anyway, thank goodness for getting away.