Friday, August 30, 2013

A Tourist's Guide to Saltburn

Despite moving to the far Northern reaches of this land, we have had plenty of visitors this summer. Some people just won't take the hint, eh?

I actually think they couldn't quite believe we weren't having a miserable time all the way Up North so they came to see for themselves. One friend said, upon leaving, 'I feel I can go away satisfied that you're alright, after all.' I was glad we could set her mind at ease. We appreciate the concern - and have very much enjoyed showing off the delights of Saltburn to our guests.

Wherever we live, we've had a well-trodden path for guests. This is usually designed to take in places we think might not be completely obvious to visitors. Most people come to LA expecting to see Rodeo Drive, the Hollywood sign, and the Sunset Strip. We insisted that - as well as those sights - they also partook of a tuna burger at our favourite roadside seafood shack, and that they wandered around the Venice Canals. While visitors to New York had ideas about seeing Times Square, the Empire State Building and Central Park we used to nudge guests downtown for a burger at Smith and Mills, as well as taking them for a walk along the Hudson riverside.

Of course, no-one comes to Saltburn with any kind of sightseeing agenda. There is no guidebook to Saltburn - the 'tourists', such as they are, are day-trippers from Middlesbrough in the main. To the rest of the country I suppose it's just off the map. So our guests come here expecting to see nothing but us. And Londoners are usually just excited if they can pick up a 3G signal and order a proper cappuccino.

We get extra kicks from showing them the sights of our current home town. All guests are promenaded through the lovely Valley Gardens, where we can point out delights like the miniature railway, the Italian garden, and wholesome children fishing in the stream. We always walk along the seafront, and onto the pier to see the knitting and the excellent view back up to the town. A ride on the Victorian funicular Cliff Lift is a must.

A trip on the Cliff Lift is a must... is a walk on the pier...
...and a look at the knitting

It is a hidden gem of a town, and I think we've done as much to boost tourism here as those knitters and the Cliff Lift put together.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Transatlantic Nursery Rhymes

Oh, the nonsense we talk and the songs we sing in an attempt to delight, amuse, or distract our lovely Lady P.

I have a lengthy back catalogue of campfire songs, to which I know all the words, thanks to my time in the Guides. From birth I have serenaded Lady P with such delights as 'Land of the Silver Birch', and 'Now I lay me down to sleep.' As well as a few I suspect my mother made up, like 'Every morning at half past eight I say yoo-hoo-hoo to Georgie'. And I know every verse of the interminable 'Rise and Shine', which she now giggles at every morning while I warm her bottle. I'm pretty proud of my repertoire, I'll admit it.

Not having been in the Girl Guides for years, TLOML draws on his knowledge of American classics, including some of Simon and Garfunkel finest songs. 'America' is a particular favourite, although I'm not sure it's appropriate to sing to your daughter "Let us be lovers we'll marry our fortunes together" nor bang on about cigarettes. Mind you he detects some dodgy undertones in the Girl Guiding song 'We are red men', which should nowadays be 'We are Native Americans'. So, we'll agree to differ on the long songs. The house rule is - if you know the words to a song, go ahead and sing it.

More recently we've got into some more action oriented songs. Lady P loves 'The Grand Old Duke of York'. Who wouldn't, when it means a thrilling up and down motion?! There's nothing she likes more than being lifted a foot in the air - the crazy thrillseeker that she is. Seeing this, TLOML has tried to sing it too.
Ah, the sweet joy of 'up'
Sadly, his misspent American youth did not include British nursery songs. So he sings it to a crazy made-up tune, and has messed with the lyrics entirely. Instead of: 'The grand old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men, he marched them up to the top of the hill and he marched them down again.' He sings: 'The grand old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men, he marched them up and down the hill and up and down again.' Which is twice the number of 'ups', in case you didn't notice. Thrilling for Lady P but I can't maintain that kind of upper arm workout, and I don't want her to start to expect it.

I've suggested he sticks to American nursery rhymes. Unfortunately that means that these days Lady P mostly is hearing classics like 'If you say Carolina, say North CarolinaIf you say Carolina, say Heels!' .And 'I don't give a damn about Duke University, Duke University, Duke University, I don't give a damn about Duke University, I go to Carolina.'  Yes, they're rather non-traditional children's songs, but they please Lady P just the same.

Friday, August 23, 2013


When we moved back to London it was easy to choose a neighbourhood. I was fully committed to one already, it was just a matter of helping TLOML come to the realisation I was right about Gospel Oak.

Los Angeles is not so straightforward. It is, according to Dorothy Parker, is 72 suburbs in search of a city. She's right, it's a sprawling mass of 'burbs, with no obvious centre. So where should we start our next house hunt?

We left our hearts in Malibu, and in many ways it is the perfect place to live in LA. That's because it's not actually in LA. It's separated from LA by just a couple of miles of Pacific Coast Highway with clear ocean views on the west side and scrubby bluffs on the left. Those two miles are all you need to feel you can breathe more deeply, drive more sanely, and leave the nonsense of LA behind you. Of course that's an illusion, for Malibu is a slice of LA life replete with plastic surgery victims, flash cars, and all the rest - but it feels a little bit apart from the city. It's also outrageously beautiful. If you like scrub-covered, blue topped mountains and miles of beach, all bordered by the sparkling Pacific, you'd like it. There's a sweet little shopping centre with a playground and some useful shops (as well as some pricey boutiques), and a branch of Nobu. There's a farmers market, a dinky library, and the schools are good.
Our old 'street'
And yet it lacks one thing. Pavement. The stretch of Pacific Coast Highway we used to live on was entirely without a path for pedestrians to walk along. Much of it is like that. And it's so long and thin - '27 miles of scenic beauty' - that you do end up driving everywhere. Unless you can afford to live in the very smart Malibu Colony, which is right on the beach and an easy walk to the Ralph Lauren store.

Sadly, not being Hollywood hotshots, we can't. If we were really set on Malibu we could go up to Point Dume, a neighbourhood that bucks the Malibu trend by being both walkable and right on the beach. But it's right up at the other end of those miles of scenic beauty, an awfully long way from the airport and our friends in LA.

There are some lovely parts of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, where TLOML used to live when I first moved over. They have plenty of sidewalk and plenty of great shops, bars and restaurants to sidewalk to. But, this being LA, you drive everywhere, even places that are a ten minute walk. The drive also takes ten minutes, thanks to LA traffic, but at least you have the aircon on and you don't need to get the soles of your shoes all scuffed. Then, if you're going to drive everywhere you might as well head to Brentwood where the lots are large and the yards are green. But despite their appeal these areas all massively lack beach.

So we're considering the beachy LA suburbs which are more central than Malibu. Places where you can walk everywhere, including the beach. Venice is great for restaurants and for feeling like you're in an urban environment. But the schools are awful and we do need to future proof a little. Santa Monica is gorgeous, green and clean but awfully expensive and a lot of it feels rather far from the beach, to me.

We are becoming converts to an area known as the South Bay, just south of the airport. Towns like Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach have classic SoCal wide, sandy beaches complete with piers, volleyball courts and joggers. They have leafy, family-friendly streets, great schools and low crime. They aren't as well connected to Beverly Hills and Hollywood, and (possibly as a result) they do feel a little bit provincial. But in a kids-ride-their-bikes-to-school, white picket fence way way.

And although Lady P has yet to master bike riding, it feels like kids riding their bikes to school is a more important feature of our 'hood than the hipness of the eating and drinking scene. Bring on the playgrounds and the white picket fences.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Fine foods

Every now and again we get a little frustrated with the food shopping in Saltburn. We do have a brilliant butcher, a nice little grocer which sells the odd 'exotic' item, a great bakery, and a decent Sainsbury's.

But I've moaned before about the limited choice of fresh seafood. And, to give just one example, the only kind of hot peppers we can buy in Sainsbury's are these:

They make no distinction between, say, Scotch Bonnet, Habanero, Jalapeno, or any other kind of peppers. And TLOML, for what it's worth, is the kind of man who's fussy about his chillies. There's one kind for his homemade salsa, and another for the stir fry, and so on.

That kind of packaging is the sort of thing that makes TLOML shake his fist at the sky and cry 'this country!'.

So every now and again I like to remind him that we, too, have large supermarkets in this country. Even in North Yorkshire. We head to the big Morrisons a few miles away.

Check out their pepper section:
What's more, they have a fish counter three times the size of the little ice tray at Sainsbury's, with a good range of fish. All excited about the culinary opportunities opening up in front of us, we bought some oysters to have before dinner tonight. They also were unsatisfactorily labelled, being tagged as just 'oysters' - no variety or provenance. No matter, they'll be good. TLOML will shuck them and we'll eat them on the half shell.

We felt such a thrill going around the supermarket. TLOML said it was like being in America again - high praise indeed.

When we got home I noticed this advice on the oyster packaging:
'Do not eat raw'? Really? It reminded me that we are, actually, still in Yorkshire, in a town where eating raw shellfish is considered a form of madness, or the height of pretension. Or is this Americanisation creeping in? Health and safety gone mad, and so on?

Whatever the advice is informed by, we're going to ignore it I'm afraid. We're renegade grocery shoppers and fly-by-night eaters, TLOML and I. Which brings me to another question. When will Lady P be able to eat raw shellfish, sushi, carpaccio and steak tartare? She's on vegetables and rice cakes so far, but with TLOML as her father that kind of pedestrian diet surely won't satisfy her for long.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Fractional birthdays

Lady P is six months old. Half a year. Just fifty per cent of a one year old.

She is 100% of a lovely chubby chunk. And fully giggly. She is utterly in love with her own feet. Also, she is complete in her mastery of skills like sitting up, chewing, and sleeping. She's at least halfway to brilliance in most fields, we think.
One half of her perfect chubby little feet

And despite only being a partial one year old, she has fully transformed our lives. At dinner with friends we can't help but brag about her dexterity with the sippy cup. Before going to bed each night we go and 'check the baby', standing side by side cooing in silent wonder as Lady P snuffles in her sleep, her little bottom in the air, her thumb in her mouth. Then we get into bed and look at photos of her on our phones. Yes, we have completely become those people.

If half birthdays were a thing, I'd have baked her a cake. But they aren't, so I didn't. I at least have not become that person. At least, not completely.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Country Life

Any summer spent in Yorkshire must surely involve at least one trip to a country show. So yesterday we went to Danby Show. Danby is a picturesque village on the Moors, and their show includes all that you would expect: livestock and produce being judged, little girls on ponies, horse feed for sale, and lots of farmers milling about.

There were competitions for the best jams, curds, cakes and floral arrangements. Naturally there were prizes for the best (biggest?) onions, marrows, tomatoes, and so on. Walking sticks, eggs, tea cosies were also pretty competitive categories by the looks of things. And of course there were all the animals - we watched a selection of sheep being judged by a couple of elderly gents who were very seriously and closely examining their feet. They looked identical to me, which I suppose is why I'm not a judge at such events. The same goes for the ferrets. There must have been two dozen ferrets in the ferret tent, with prizes for the best 'working ferret' and the best family pet. Which begs a couple of questions (if not more): what does a working ferret actually do? And how does one judge a ferret? Probably a field best left unexplored.

For an urbanite like TLOML, it was quite an eye opener. This is a man who has lived in big cities all his life. Our spell in Saltburn is his first time not living in a city (unless you count Malibu, which I don't).  So to be surrounded by prize sheep and cows, to see shetland ponies and cart horses, and the aforementioned ponies, was almost overwhelming. He had worn his flat cap in order to fit in (it's a Yorkshire thing) but I'm afraid his constant exclamations and snapping of photos on the big SLR camera gave him away rather as a tourist.

And Lady P? Well she loved it too, of course. She loves most things, to be honest. Just being toted about in the sling with a lot of things to look at made her day. I think she enjoyed seeing people on horses, and seeing sheep lined up for judging, and little prize calves being led round a show ring by their proud owners. But her favourite exhibit of all was TLOML's face.
We left with a bag full of country fare (well, focaccia and cheddar) and big plans to make Danby Show a part of our summer every year from now on. And when she's older we're hoping Lady P can enter something. Hopefully it will be in the 'children's table piece' or painting category, and not the 'Ferret - family pet' division.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Clouds and silver linings

You may have detected a slight reluctance on my part to return to the US. It's true. I'd like to live in Britain (used to say London... weird...), near my family and with the NHS and the BBC - and Cbeebies - and Marmite forever and ever. But I can't. We can't, and we're a family now, so if we can't, that means I can't.

So it's time to get on with the business of moving, and do it in good spirit. Fortunately, for every reservation I have about our move, there's a good, solid mitigating factor. For every con, there is a pro. Or at least, a consolation.

The con: We will be a ten hour flight, and an 8 hour time difference on Skype, from family. Right now I see my sister and her family almost daily, and my mum at least once a week. My other sisters and their families are around quite frequently too. I'd love Lady P to have an 'everyday' sort of relationship with them.
The consolation: Well, we were never going to live in Saltburn forever anyway. And we plan to return for a few weeks every summer. I think a month of quality time with her English family will be enough to give Lady P familiarity with their ways and customs, and to build relationships that mean something. And although they live on the other side of the country, Lady P will see the American wing of her family more often than she would in the UK.

Guns! And the rest.
The con: I will be living - and raising my daughter - in a country where it is legal to carry a firearm, and where the religious right dominates politics. Weird, right? Mainstream American political culture can feel very very foreign to a liberal Brit.
The consolation: Mainstream politics will be about as relevant to our life in a middle class West Coast beach town as the craziness of BNP was to my life in leafy liberal North London. Just as here I know no-one who, say, votes UKIP, I'm pretty sure none of our LA friends are signed up NRA members.

Bad Television
The con: Ads on TV! So very many ads on TV! And Lady P is an impressionable young child. Apparently the average American child sees 16k ads a year. If we lived in Britain and she was raised on CBeebies, she'd never see a single commercial. (I'm going to ignore the dozens of ads in Fashion Police ad breaks that she's already seen whilst being fed. Her mind was on her milk, I'm sure).
The consolation: Technology. That is, TiVo, DVDs, and even a proxy IP that lets us hook up to BBC iPlayer so she won't feel left out when her cousins talk about In the Night Garden,

Health Care
The con: Lady P's birth and subsequent care would be very difficult to replicate in the US. A midwife assisted waterbirth - at no cost?! Not to mention the acupuncture and all those free scans.
The consolation: Actually this is still a bitter pill to swallow. But I suppose what makes it okay is that thanks to Big Corp I won't have to pay too much for health insurance. And I bet the waiting rooms have way better magazines than the NHS ones.

The con: We'll miss out on autumn mists, and cosy winter afternoons when the lamps are lit at 4pm and you can eat soup by the fire with woolly socks on.
The consolation: Year round sunshine, unless you count the 30 days of rain and the marine layer that descends in June to create a misty sort of gloom. T-shirt weather all year round - and socks, and snow, are for ski-trips.
I mean, if you like your beach with a side of blue skies and palm trees...

The con: We'll miss our dear friends in Britain very much.
The consolation: We'll get to see a whole lot more of our dear friends in SoCal.

So, you see, the return to LA isn't all bad news. And when I think about it rationally, like this, I find it easy not just to resign myself to the move, but actually to get quite excited about it. After all, we're returning to the land where lifestyle and convenience are paramount, to a sunshine state, and a city of beaches and outdoor living. How bad can it be?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

32 hours of freedom

I had the night off last weekend, and a day either side - amounting to a full 32 hours off parenting. Off singing The Grand Old Duke of York, or any other nonsense, and being rewarded with smiles and giggles. Off providing milk, and mushy puree, and being sprinkled with milky sick or smeared with regurgitated veg. Off bathing, reading stories, providing silly but enjoyable massages, and cuddling. Oh and off changing nappies.

What bliss! Yes, I'd miss the cuddles and smiles. But still, a couple of days and a night of pure selfish frivolity, what a treat!

My time off began with a long train ride, which I spent gazing at and sighing over Vogue. I headed Down South to spend the night with my Wondertwin, so called because of the terrifying sameness (according to TLOML) of our outlook on all shallow matters, from the best kind of bracelet, to clumpy black mascara, to nuts in bars. We also had the same idea about how to spend my night of freedom: setting the world to rights over a bottle of vino collapso and a fancy salad. It was brilliant.

The next day I returned home via London. Which meant a whirlwind pop-in at the home of North London's Outstanding Family (our former landlords), and a hastily consumed lunch with four old friends. Also all brilliant. Much gossip was exchanged and fun was had. London was looking especially lovely in the sunshine and I loved walking around my former 'hood.
Leafy Hampstead

Shops! People! Hustle and bustle!
Here's the bit where I'm supposed to say how much I missed Lady P, and how surprised I was by quite how very very sorely I felt being away from her. I hate to disappoint, but I confess I did not miss her. I love Lady P very much, but since every day with her is very much the same, and I know I'll be seeing her the next day for more of that lovely sameness, a day without her is not spent mourning her absence. (Though I did get thrilling butterflies on seeing her and TLOML again on my return, I will admit).

Now I've got that off my chest, here's another shocking revelation. London did not fill me with insatiable 'I love London' desire, the way it used to. For years before I moved to London I burned for it with an unquenchable fire. And for the twelve years that I did live there I hated to leave. Every time I returned - whether from a day trip, a weekend, or a long holiday - I was filled with a deep, calm sense of joy. After I moved to the States, I felt that same joy, that 'this is the place to be' feeling of rightness, every time I visited.

And now? I felt - whisper it - kinda 'been there, done that', about it. Yes, it was quite exciting seeing people wearing heels in the day time. You don't see much of that in Saltburn. (I could single-handedly fix that I suppose. Imagine the talk if I started tottering around Sainsburys in heels.) And I enjoyed that buzz, the jostle of languages and colours and crazy outfits that are just part of the backdrop of life in London. But I enjoyed it as a tourist might, as a spectacle with no personal relevance. I enjoyed it without wanting it for myself. It was as if London belonged to a different me. I loved seeing old friends, of course, and felt that familiar sadness that it doesn't happen more often - but that's just life, growing old, and moving around a lot, I suppose. I dealt with that one years ago. Yes, it was all very nice but just not for me anymore.

Shocking, I know. I always said they'd have to carry me out in a box, after all. But now I've been 'carried out' (in cars and planes, fortunately, still breathing), to Los Angeles, New York, and Saltburn, I seem to have lost my inner Londoner.

Perhaps Saltburn has made me soft. Reluctant to queue, take crowded public transport, wear heels in the day time etc. If so, it's a change that probably began in beachy old Malibu, and might explain why I didn't loved New York as much as I expected to. I've been ruined by a laidback coastal lifestyle.

Or it's just a little subconscious post-rationalisation. It cannot be mine - not for now anyway - so I don't want it anyway. Either way it's a feeling that's probably best left alone, without further examination. I'm running the risk of scaring and offending a lot of die-hard Londoners with this post, so let's leave it here (it's rather long already). Least said, soonest mended. And if we do get the chance to return to London, I hope to God my inner Londoner mends herself.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The American Weigh

I saw a friend this weekend who proudly told me he'd lost 3/4 of a stone. I lost about half a stone on my recent personal trainer kick. We compared notes on our fitness regimes and our goals for further firming up. And it struck me that TLOML was right again. He's been chipping away at the English 'stone' system for a while and I think he may be onto something.

His point is that a stone is a stupidly large unit to measure weight in. It's just so imprecise. 14 whole pounds go into a stone. On most people's frames a stone is a significant chunk of weight. And because it's so imprecise, we have to break it into fractions to make it meaningful. So we talk of losing (or gaining, but let's hope the talk is more of losing than gaining) a 1/4, 1/2 or 3/4 of a stone. Americans talk in pounds, which is much more sensible. So they'd talk of losing 5, or 10 or 20 lbs. I feel like I've got another 10lbs to lose, which is a lot more precise and manageable a concept than 2/3 of a stone.

The other problem with stone as a unit of measure is that it creates these big bands. My weight used to hover around 9 and a half stone, and I had 10 stone in my mind as a terrible boundary I must never cross. (Those really were the days). My weight could fluctuate by 7 or 10 lbs and I'd be perfectly comfortable, because it's really about the prefix: does the number start with a 9 or a 10? The smaller increments preferred by American give me a far narrower range within which I am comfortable, and I think that's a good thing.

For what it's worth I'm a good five pounds outside of that 'comfortable' range, and would dearly love to shed another ten if I can. (Though those unforgivingly tight jeans will be my ultimate measure). Which is far more manageable than the lumpen, unwieldy idea of trying to shed a third, or two thirds of a stone.

Given their ridiculous date system (you know, the month, then the day, then the year), and their baking units (ever tried to measure 'a cup' of butter?) it's surprising when our American cousins so clearly ace units of measure. On body weight, they have definitely done so.