Archive for September, 2008

We’ll all be worse off

September 30th, 2008

It appears that a fair number of my online penpals is cheering the failure of the bailout plan in Congress. I’ve been making rounds recording my disagreement with their point of view – and at some point, I realized that I need to state my opinion in my space as well.

The objections to the plan run mostly along the lines of “how can we spend so much of taxpayers’ money to let those who caused the whole mess off the hook?” I happen to think that that point of view is terribly misguided.

You know who is going to suffer the most if the current financial crisis keeps spiraling downwards? The middle class. Not the rich – they will simply become less rich, but stay rich nonetheless. Not the poor – please forgive me my inadvertent snobbery, but the poor have little to lose, by definition. The middle class, conversely, will lose a lot when the corporations and consumers tighten their belts and spend less and less. A florist will not be able to sell her stock of roses, a waiter will earn fewer tips, a fledgling online business will see fewer orders. Thousands of corporate soldiers will be out of jobs. Many will lose their houses. Some of them may deserve it, on account of buying houses they could never afford. The vast majority will be innocent bystanders.

The Great Depression destroyed a few financiers. It destroyed a lot more of Average Joes. The unemployment rate hit 25% then, and the number of mortgages in default swelled to 40%. We are nowhere near those numbers right now (6% and 4%, respectively), but we are sliding towards that. Shouldn’t we be trying to take some action?

The recovery in 1933 arguably jump-started with federal cash infusions via the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation. In early nineties, the Resolution Trust Corporation dealt with S&L failures of the previous decade. Those were admittedly created years after the crises hit. But they provide a reasonably successful template. One that can be used now.

The plan would effectively transfer the burden of owning “troubled assets” from shareholders to taxpayers, and in the process deepen the budget deficit to somewhere above 6% of GDP. Yes, that is not fair to taxpayers, on the surface of it. But there is a fair chance that some of that money will be repaid (RTC did turn a modest profit even, didn’t it?). And what’s more important, the cost of after-the-fact unwinding of financial crises around the world in the last 30 years averaged 16% of GDP. Going with the Bernanke/Paulson proposal, in effect, should cost considerably less than sitting on our asses waiting for the natural bottom to hit in a few years. We do nothing – and we all suffer, some of us possibly losing everything in the process. We follow this plan – and there is a fair chance of stabilizing the economy to the point where other harsh decisions, regarding how to prevent this from happening again, can be made.

Update: And you know what, all of you who cite economists signing letters criticising the bailout? It’s all about whom you’d rather trust. Quoting Harward economist Greg Mankiw (emphasis mine),

Ben [Bernanke] is at least as smart as any of the economists who signed that letter or are complaining on blogs or editorial pages about the proposed policy. Moreover, Ben is far better informed than the critics. The Fed staff includes some of the best policy economists around. In his capacity as Fed chair, Ben understands the situation, as well as the pros, cons, and feasibility of the alternative policy options, better than any professor sitting alone in his office possibly could.

If I were a member of Congress, I would sit down with Ben, privately, to get his candid view. If he thinks this is the right thing to do, I would put my qualms aside and follow his advice.

P.S. Yes, I lost huge sums of money on the stock market in the last year-plus, even though I’m well-diversified with investments in what I would describe as “solid” companies. The bailout would benefit me in a very direct way. I’m mentioning this so no one doubts my motives.


Yay for hot water!

September 30th, 2008

The hot water is back. It seems that the “immersion” heater was wired improperly and lacked a rather essential fuse. The effing thing never ever worked before!!! And nobody – not the landlord, not his agent, certainly not the repair guys – knew about it.

Anyway, the slightly harassed repairmen made their third visit to our house in as many days – this time with a clear directive not to leave until they are sure that there is hot water in the house. They spend a good hour re-wiring the immersion heater, but they accomplished the objective splendidly.

Now we are waiting for the official date and time of the main heater repairs.


YouTube’d memories: Lambada

September 29th, 2008
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The other day we went with friends for a dinner to a trendy place in Mayfair. The meal itself was exceptional, the company was extraordinary, and live entertainment – first a virtuoso keyboardist and then a belly dancer – made the evening all the more fun.

Among the songs played (and danced to) there was Lambada. The song was incredibly popular in Russia when it first came out, even though few could dance it properly. But the requisite pelvic grinding was certainly a big attraction – as were the flashes of skin in the great music video.

I am not a skillful – or even willing – dancer, but I can dance lambada. Hence, the memories. We’ll leave it at that.


Cold and unwashed

September 28th, 2008

No hot water in the house and – although we are not yet in dire need of it – no heating. The heating unit has lost its ability to pump hot water, instead filling the house with loud banging in the pipes. It had to be turned off. There is a backup electric water heater, but it is not operational either, for unknown reasons.

And this is what makes the situation worse: The repairmen already came to the house twice in the last couple of days. On a weekend, no less. Yet all they can do is sympathetically explain what they think the problem is, but they cannot even attempt to fix it until the landlord provides his dispensation to spend a large sum of money on the repairs. The landlord lives in Japan, the house management agency that needs to deal with him is enjoying the weekend, so we may not get anything fixed until several days from now.

I knew there was a reason why I prefer owning a house to renting!

At least the study can be used as a warm refuge, what with two computers running in a fairly small room…


Can’t we all be friends!?

September 27th, 2008

My father-in-law who arrived for a visit last night brought me the t-shirt that you can see in the picture on the right. As an American citizen of Russian birth and British residence, I find the sentiment very appropriate.

Click to enlarge.

For my non-Russian audience, the best translation of what’s printed on the t-shirt is “Guys, can’t we all be friends!?”. A tagline from a well-loved animated shorts series about a good-natured cat by name of Leopold who is frequently harassed by mischievous mice, it has long become what we call a “winged phrase”.


A swim at lunchtime

September 26th, 2008

About a year ago, I started going to the gym. And a few months later, I stopped (an event not expressly commemorated on this blog).

Part of that was certainly that I lack mental make-up to enjoy the tedious process of exercising. To put it more bluntly, I hate it. With a proper video entertainment on hand I might be able to stay patient for a reasonable workout, but in a public gym, you get limited choice of that.

And the music they blasted over the speakers in that gym was simply atrocious!

My other excuse was the schedule. Early mornings are out because I’m not a morning person. The “greater lunch” starts around 11am, and the not too spacious gym gets overcrowded for a couple of hours. The best time to go there is right around 2pm, when the lunch crowd already left and the “after-work” crowd not yet arrived.

But when I moved on to my current US-centric role, 2pm became the time when I needed to be at my best multi-communicating on email, IM and phone, as the various people whom I needed to reach arrived in their New York office. And having only 4-5 hours a day to fit in all of the transatlantic meetings that you need to hold, tends to make you awfully unwilling to spend an hour in the middle of that on such trifles as exercising.

On the other hand, I can work from home considerably more often now than in times past when my physical presence in office was often necessary to make my regional business partners feel loved. And if I want to go to a local gym at lunchtime, I can find it fairly empty in the middle of any given weekday…

Not that I’d really go to a gym – the boredom hurdle is still there. But Natasha has lately been scouting local “health & leisure” centers for good swimming pool deals – have I mentioned anywhere that over our summer holidays she got into a habit of doing a couple of dozen laps every day? – and she insisted that I should join her once in a while.

Which is what I did today, for a nice half-hour swim at one of the new community centers in our area. Only £3 a pop – and we actually did not pay anything today, on pretenses of checking the place out before making our decision to join. Good facilities, few people at that time of the day. Natasha bought herself a multi-visit discount card, with an intent to go a couple of times a week. I might be keeping her company occasionally. Although I’ll be in trouble trying to keep up – I barely managed 10 laps by the time she finished her twentieth.


Re-visiting education (Q&A, part 2)

September 25th, 2008

Continuing our Q&A exercise, in which I successfully engaged one single person to ask me questions, let’s address another one of Jeri’s queries. (Part 1 is here.)

I’m assuming your children are in British schools – what are the advantages and disadvantages of American vs. British school systems?

I did, in fact, produce a rambling essay on this very subject more than a year ago. It is worth to briefly restate it here.

Becky attends an independent – British equivalent for private; in other words, fee-paying – girls-only school that is reportedly one of the top schools in the country. Kimmy goes to a regular co-ed state school, one that is rated as “good” – but not exceptional – by the Ofsted.

After close to two years of experience with British schooling, I firmly hold that, if taught right, British approach to school education is both wider in its range and deeper in its substance than American schooling approach. The simplest example of greater depth is the fact that pupils actually learn how to prove mathematical theorems as opposed to just checking them off as “facts”; the former trains the mind, while the latter is pretty useless on its own merits, in my humble opinion.

The greater width is best characterized by the existence of more diverse subjects, as well as the social sciences curriculum that is balanced enough to teach children about the world, not just the country that they live in.

If taught right is a very important qualifier, though. The quality of schooling varies from area to area and, as you might experience in the US as well, tends to be worse in urban areas and better in more affluent suburban ones. Moreover, state schools are unflinchingly egalitarian, in that children with different abilities and attitudes are taught in the same classroom; the pressure on even the best teachers to dumb down the instruction to the lowest common denominator is too great – the student mix becomes a dominant factor in the level of schooling that your children obtain.

Having said all that, I have no doubt that, all other things being equal, my kids will end up more well-rounded and open-minded individuals than their American peers because of the years they will have spent in British schools.


YouTube’s memories: Under the Paris Skies

September 24th, 2008
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Many thanks, Michelle, for your postcard with a magnificent view of the Teton Range in the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. As I never tire of repeating, sights like that help feeding my wanderlust.

I actually have been re-living some of our recent travels by converting travel diaries into proper Travelog entries. As I went to make small modifications to my Paris entry, I realized that a song popped into my head. I can’t claim any degree of originality here – Sous le Ciel de Paris is probably the most frequently used melody associated with Paris. But in that, it has a simple power over me: Paris, after all, is one of my most beloved places in the world, and anything that prompts me to think about it is welcome.

I prefer Yves Montand’s version to that of Edith Piaf. Unfortunately, the best instance of that found on YouTube happens to be set to shots of the Coco Chanel commercial. For views of the City of Lights, a good instrumental-only version is an alternative.


Interaction with Brits and Americans (Q&A, part 1)

September 23rd, 2008

Jeri was the only person to accept my solicitation for questions thus far, and because customer service is what we take great pride in here at, I am addressing it right away. See what the rest of you all are missing?

Of course, Jeri posed three questions at once and I’d have to be out of my mind if I did not use that as a pretext for three separate posts on three separate dates. So, here is one of them, and the rest will follow soon. Thank you, Jeri!

Have you mingled a great deal with your British colleagues and neighbors, or has your primary interaction been within the expat community?

The short answer is neither, really.

In the first few months, I went out a lot with my British co-workers, participated in events such as quizzes and golf charity days, and become close enough with a couple of people to actually make visits to their houses. With one of the people who used to work for me, we even went to the classical music program at Royal Albert Hall two years in a row.

But I am not really spending much time with my colleagues outside of office – and after-office drinking – hours. And I never really did even in the States.

We tried getting to know our neighbors, but that quickly fizzled out for reasons that I cannot pinpoint. Natasha has occasional outings with other Moms from Becky’s school. The parents of one of Becky’s best friends once stayed at our place for tea, when picking up their daughter after a play-date. And that’s the extent of our interaction with the natives. (The kids, of course, are a totally different matter).

Of course, I am not counting the “service industry” interactions; after all, we shop at English stores, ride English public transport, go to English doctors, etc.

I keep online correspondence with a number of American expats, and most of our closest friends here share our background. But due to quirks of geography and pressures of schedules, we don’t get to interact even with our closest friends as much as we want. I am certainly looking to the American expat community for new friends, not to my local community. Maybe, that’s the best answer to your question, Jeri.

That's England

Questions, anyone?

September 22nd, 2008

It occurred to me a while after writing the previous post that there may be topics of interest to my readers that do not cross my mind on their own. Therefore, here’s an open solicitation for all manner of questions that people may want to hear answers to on my blog. Feel free to leave your question in comments thread or send me an email. Thanks!

Website Bulletins

State of the Blog address at 2 years

September 22nd, 2008

Exactly two years ago I posted this brief welcome message and embarked on the exciting adventure of being a blogger. The purported thrills turned out to be less than thrilling and whatever illusions I had been harboring about my writing aptitude have been long dispelled. But look at the bright side! Which is… well… erm… ok, how about this: Whatever illusions I had been harboring about my writing aptitude have been lo-o-o-ong dispelled.

In case anyone was having misconceptions about it, the blog was intended as nothing more than an occasional journal chronicling our family expat adventures. It was created, if you will, as an excuse to avoid writing multiple email responses to various friends’ and relatives’ inquiries of “How is it going in England?” nature. From Day 1, I could just point an interested party to my very simple URL and worry not about providing an on-demand recount of our doings and goings.

While things were new and curious – from a “foreigner in a strange land” point of view – things were going swimmingly, even though I limited myself with no more than a couple of posts a week. But as we gradually settled into more or less standard routine, I kept finding fewer and fewer topics to write about. And at some point not very long ago, spurred on by the realization that my devoted audience was altogether too small, I changed tack a bit and started to post more often in general but considerably less frequently about what was the original purpose of the blog.

Which helps explain why of the 424 articles that I produced to date, only 23 are on what I’d term expat topics, only 32 are on things that characterize England, and only 50 relate to things to do in London and its environs. That’s almost exactly only a quarter of my output.

The posts chronicling our life overlap with the above categories a lot, so despite the fact that I count 170 of them, the overall number of posts having directly to do with “What do Burlaki do on the Thames?” likely does not exceed two hundred much. That is partially mitigated by further 36 posts describing our travels.

The rest is inconsequential musings, internet quizzes, YouTube videos, etc. You know, your run-of-the-mill cop-outs for days when I have nothing to talk about but want to maintain my “post [almost] daily” record. Like this very post, for instance.1

I can only promise more of the same.

I know of a few expatriates, both current and prospective, who found things of value in my posts. And I actually made a number of friends through my blog. That’s the main thing that keeps me motivated to continue blogging. Through over 700 comments – ok, half of them are by my Mom, but it is still a respectable number, – I know that a surprising number of people check out my little corner of the blogosphere at least periodically.2 I thank you all wholeheartedly and hope that I can provide enough entertainment to make you smile (most of the time), roll your eyes (way too frequently) or reflect on something (definitely not often enough – and I’ll most likely keep it that way). And I swear that I will not stop blogging as long as I have you as my faithful audience.

So, basically, you know what to do if you cannot suffer me any more 😉

1 Ok, this post celebrates a momentous occasion, and I actually initially planned to talk about my “couch potato” Sunday capped with шашлыки at our friends Valera and Zhanna’s house. So, no, not a good example!

2 I check my overall stats regularly, but I have no patience to dig out specific details about who reads what on my site. When it comes to other people’s blogs, I am mostly a lurker rather than a commenter, so I realize quite well that the number of comments is in no way a gauge of the size of the audience. That should not prevent me from beseeching my own lurkers – very presumptious of me to think that I have any, don’t you think? – to out themselves and say hello. I promise to hello right back at you.


A trip to Legoland

September 21st, 2008

Taking advantage of what might be the last – and first – nice-weather weekend in September, on Saturday we took the kids for a long-promised visit to Legoland.

Of course, half of London had the same idea as us…

The amusement park, located near Windsor, failed to make a great impression on us. It wasn’t just hordes of people and interminable waits for rides. It was mostly the fact that the rides were underwhelming and fairly short.

We collectively tried around a dozen, of which only Vikings’ River Splash (a river rapids ride), Spinning Spider (like the Teacup Party in Disneyland) and Wave Surfer (a fast watercraft circular ride) received top marks from those who went on them. The roller-coasters, The Dragon and Jungle Coaster, were short on thrills, although the former started with a fun “tour” of a castle full of various Lego statues. The water log ride, Pirate Falls, also went for a tour, that of a pirate island, but it had only one single lift-and-drop, which made it ultimately disappointing. The big rotating gondola swing, Longboat Invader was ok.

Kimmy went on a bunch of smaller rides, of which she especially liked Boating School, and that only because she got to drive the boat herself around the water course. The speed is much too slow to make this appealing to anyone older than 8 years of age. Chairoplane (circular swing ride) and a little Ferris Wheel were mildly amusing for her, and Rat Trap (a tree-house playground) provided an opportunity for some climbing and sliding exercises.

Miniland, a collection of models of buildings from around the Britain, the rest of Europe and the US, was a nice non-ride attraction.

In short, smaller kids might find things of interest to do at Legoland, but teenagers will likely get bored, and the adults will have to contend themselves with being happy for the kids (as opposed to maybe finding attractions of their own liking).

We availed ourselves to the Q-bot technology, thereby reducing our potential levels of wait-queue aggravation. Q-bot is a small wireless gadget that allows you to “reserve” your place in the queue for the next ride that you want to get on. It is not a “fast pass”; rather, it gives you an appointment for the approximate time that you’d be able to get on the ride if you were to join the queue at the moment of making your reservation. The upside, of course, is that you do not have to physically spend time in line; you can explore other attractions in the meantime, or even get on another ride; the gadget only allows one reservation at a time, though. The largely acceptable downside is that renting the Q-bot costs £10 per person (which is an introductory rate; in 2009, the price will double). And your “reservation” will always be for exactly the number of people that you rented the Q-bot for (so, if there are four of you and you only rent a Q-bot for three, you will always have to leave someone off; conversely, if you rent a Q-bot for all four of you, but never get on any ride all together, you simply waste money). Plus, some rides cannot be reserved via a Q-bot, which is quite annoying.

No matter, not standing in queues beats the alternative any busy weekend day.

At any rate, we liked being out of the house and we had as much fun as we could squeeze out of Legoland, aided in large part by the fact that we met with our friends Mila and Andrey and their kids at the park. Towards the end of the day, we all retired to their place and spent the evening catching-up around the dinner table. We should do that more often!

Chronicles, London Album

Food for thought (quite literally)

September 19th, 2008

You realize that you truly became a cosmopolitan individual when you sit in your house in London, and your lunch consists of gazpacho accompanied by garlic naan and then spaghetti ai pollo con funghi. With a glass of chardonnay.

Just saying.

Travel Miscellany

Pictures from Riviera

September 19th, 2008
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The gallery from the second leg of our summer holidays is here, accessible either via the links on the navigation bar or directly here.

Website Bulletins

YouTube’d memories: Susanna

September 18th, 2008

Back to more obscure stuff for the American-born audience, here is a guy who enjoyed a cult status when I was growing up. Aside from being a pretty good crooner – and he could move, too, – Adriano Celentano starred in several French and Italian movies that were tremendously popular in Russia.

Susanna is not my favorite song by Celentano, but it does evoke the strongest memories of one of the summer camp trips in early 80’s. There was a boy in my “force” who resembled a well-known Russian comedian with the last name that perfectly rhymed with “Susanna” (Хазанов). From the very first day in camp, the poor kid not only acquired that for his nickname, but was also regularly serenaded with an appropriately adjusted version of the song.

I was at a prepubescent stage of my life where I already discovered that the opposite gender captivated my interest above anything else, and I have very pleasant memories of that summer. Hearing Susanna never fails to take me back.


A social butterfly

September 17th, 2008

I find the label funny, but I think the description matches how I perceive myself (which is not to say that my friends must perceive me the same way – but I hope they do, except that “fake” stuff).

Your result for The Social Proficiency Test…


You scored a total of 38 out of 43!

You know how to work your circle of friends and are always polite and intensely interested in what they have to say. You aren’t driven by personal gain but instead by a genuine interest in people. However, sometimes your overt friendliness can make you seem a little on the fake side, but that is VERY rare.

Take The Social Proficiency Test at HelloQuizzy

Via Jason.

Idle Amusements

Separated by common language, part II

September 17th, 2008

It’s been close to a year since I posted a brief sampler of the linguistic differences between British and American English language variants. I had a clear intent to parlay that article into a potentially fun series. But in the intervening time, I suppose, I lost my ear when it comes to noticing divergences in everyday vocabularies. As a result, off the top of my head I could not think of many additions to my initial list.

That may be partly due to the self-imposed scope. I wanted to include only the terms that are used frequently or, at least, define objects that have a common place in everyday life. I also wanted to look for instances where an American word would be likely misunderstood if used, either because it has a different meaning in British English or is entirely uncommon on this side of the pond.

A beauty like knackered (suggested by the fellow expat Geo) does not exactly fit into these boundaries. It is a word that you’d never hear in the States, but it is considered a slang in England, never replacing exhausted in polite circles. A fun little titchy, which Becky increasingly uses in her teen-speak, is similarly too much of a colloquialism – my preferred American translation of it would be teeny-tiny – to qualify as part of formal vocabulary. And terms such as boot fair, hen night or stag party are too situational to be frequently used.

Well, I’m guessing Posh frock! could be a frequent exclamation in families with girls on shopping sprees, but in this era, girls rarely don dresses, no matter how nice.

Long story short, I realized that the best I can do is mention here the handful of words that were omitted from the original list. The short register has been lying on my desk for months. Maybe, as soon as I post it, new examples will spring to mind, giving me an excuse for another post on the topic.

The most inexplicable omission from the list was the word mate. In the States, I primarily associate this word with the process of procreation, and “I’m meeting my mates tonight” would sound rather risque to an average ear. In England, the plural mates almost exclusively replaces friends – even Becky rarely uses the latter anymore. What’s more, the singular mate is used everywhere as a form of address between men who are otherwise not acquainted with one another but need to engage in a brief transaction, be it over a counter of a sandwich shop (“Do you want a gherkin on that, mate?”) or on a packed train (“Sorry, mate, I’m trying to get off”). When I manage to insert that in my own speech, I’ll know I’ve become anglicized. (Insidentally, a gherkin is what we Americans know as a pickle.)

In schools, what we are used to call grades (as in “My daughter is in 8th grade”) are called Years. A group of students that takes most of the classes together is called a form, whereas I think in the States they would still be termed a class. A principal is branded a head teacher.

The cars in England each possess a bonnet and a boot, rather than hoods and trunks. We were almost detained on our first trip via Eurotunnel, when the customs officer politely asked me to “lift the bonnet” and met an expression of utter incomprehension in return.

And one of the favorites of a couple of my American friends here is pissed, which means wasted as in drunk. Believe me, in England, it’s a commonly used part of everyday vocabulary.

That's England

Of sleeping habits

September 16th, 2008

I count myself firmly amongst owls when it comes to sleeping habits. I am not exactly a nocturnal creature – I value having eight hours of sleep every night too much for that. But I can stay up late into the night fairly effortlessly. And I am so not a morning person!

Yet, a few years ago, I started noticing that I can no longer sleep beyond 7:30 or so in the morning, even on weekends. I theorized that forcing my unwilling organism to get up around 7 every weekday “trained” it to get awake around that time no matter how late I went to bed the previous night.

It was either that or creeping old age…

Having relocated to London, for most of the first two years, I had a wake up call at around 6:50 to drive Becky to school. Coupled with rarely getting to bed before midnight, as every week progressed, I kept falling more and more back on my required minimal amount of sleep. And catching up on weekends did not work – my eyes would pop open on a Saturday around 7:15 to the serene sounds of the rest of the family still floating inside their dreams. Which would quickly turn to scorn at being rudely awakened as I tried – that’s the key word here, tried – to quietly transport myself into the study and plop down in front of the PC.

And then a few things happened. Becky concluded that she had enough of dealing with her gruff parent in the mornings and decisively changed to taking public transportation to school – which shaved an hour off my effective morning commute. A change in responsibilities at work meant that I’d have to regularly stay in office a couple of extra hours a day to accommodate my US-based staff – but, conversely, that there was little-to-none requiring my presence in office in the early hours of the day. And, let’s not forget, a great leisurely vacation left me intoxicated with large quantities of fresh air.

The first two of those events combined to allow me to sleep until around 8:15 every weekday morning; with my short morning routine and a 40-minute commute, I now get to office around 9:20 – still much too early to attend to any of my job functions beyond catching up on email and perusing various spreadsheets and presentations, but not too late to maintain a pretense of “regular” business hours. But it must be the recent big holiday that infused me with what I thought was a long-lost ability.

Which is, to sleep in late on a weekend day. I do not physically need it at present. But, boy, do I enjoy being able to sleep until 10 am on Saturday, especially when we have no specific plans for the day. And then, repeating that on Sunday!

Becky, when you don’t wake her up, can sleep literally through noon and beyond, no matter how early she goes to bed. My newfound ability to compete with her in this makes me feel positively young again!

Er… yeah, I seem to find a lot of joy in small places lately…

Burlaki trivia

Sunday with friends

September 15th, 2008

We went to a child’s birthday party on Sunday. Lyuba and Pasha are among our closest friends, so even though little Tim, at 4, is a bit younger than my children, our family presence at his celebration was a given.

The rest of the guests had kids right around Tim’s age. My two girls were the oldest by a margin, although we discovered at some point a presence of a 14-year-old boy, who looked barely 10, glued to his mobile phone and indifferent to the proceedings. Becky rejected the idea of making acquaintances, preferring instead to insinuate herself into adult conversations. Kimmy, as she often does, found things to occupy herself with, first on her own and later entertaining two-year-old Ben, Anya’s and Ari’s son, with whom she has a mutual adoration thing going.

A dozen little kids, running around, fighting over toys, screaming and throwing stuff, and basically behaving in the only way little kids know, gave me a headache to rival those I get from loud restaurant parties. Several glasses of wine helped very little, so a number of musically-inclined adults sequestered ourselves inside the house for a bit of guitar-aided singing and idle banter, while the little kids continued running amok in the garden. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Becky and Kimmy chose the adult company, and Ben, of course, followed Kimmy wherever she went.

A thought struck me: I am now so used to having comparatively grown children, mostly self-sufficient and no longer requiring to be constantly looked after, that I’m growing positively allergic to being exposed to little kids in large quantities.

Although, truth be told, when Kimmy has a bunch of her friends over at our house, as happened the other day, – and certainly when Becky has her friends for a sleep-over – I tend to lock myself in my study and even ask for my meals to be delivered there. So, this allergy has got to be not so much age-related, as it is quantity-based…

Anyway, my health soon improved, and we spent the rest of the day catching up with friends on a leisurely walk around St John’s Wood and at dinner. A great day, on balance!


A good playground makes us happy

September 13th, 2008
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In my city-vs-suburbia post, I made a mention of the fact that there is nary a good playground in the vicinity of our rented place in Mottingham. My family recently discovered that one of Becky’s friends lives by a very good one in Falconwood, some 15 minutes away from us by car. The day was nice, and I agreed to interrupt my feverish typing of the summer trip diary to take Kimmy for an outing.

Well, all I can say is there are playgrounds and there are playgrounds. This one is a Cadillac of them all, spacious and well-maintained, with tons of fun implements beyond the common swings and slides, and distinct age-appropriate “zones”. The ground under all of the climbing, swinging, sliding, crawling, hanging, etc, equipment is padded for soft landings. A full-size basketball court, doubling as a small-size football field, is part of the complex.

Not surprisingly, we saw children of all ages, or at least 1 to 50, enjoying themselves on that playground. And it did not feel crowded because of the overall space. There were even groups of teenagers, not exactly playing, but hanging around, – and behaving rather properly, not like delinquents that I often observe in our vicinity.

Kimmy had a blast, even though she was largely on her own or with her two parents (Becky went to the movies with a friend instead). She tried every single apparatus several times, made me push her on a dozen different swings and go-arounds. Us – we were happy to get out of the house in the sun for a change. And to have learned that there are tranquil and nice neighborhoods not far from where we live.