You are speed. Relax.

On our first full day in Paris, I really wanted to give the kids a great impression of the city. Our oldest (T) had been there before, but this was the girls’ first trip to Europe. We arrived on a Tuesday afternoon and I was spending Thursday and Friday cooking at our friends’ apartment (for our Thanksgiving dinner on Friday evening). I suspected that Manly Guy would not push the kids hard on my cooking days to see lots of sights,so Wednesday needed to count.

My plan was to first visit Notre Dame, not far from where we were staying (in the Marais). Then we would walk along the Seine to the Eiffel Tower. Okay, it’s a long walk (more than two miles in one direction), but they would get a nice overview of Paris. And the walking would be good for us after a long day of travel the day before. I hoped that we would get to Tour Eiffel in the afternoon so that we could climb the stairs and watch the sunset from the top.

Getting the crew moving that morning was challenging. Red-eye flights are tough on everyone and no one wanted to get out of bed. It was a case of “herding cats” and we did not even exit the apartment until 1 PM, much later that I had wanted. But at least we were finally walking somewhere. We were at Notre Dame within half an hour.

The twins’ reaction to Notre Dame was so funny. S (our impatient one) raced through from one end of the church to the other in a few minutes and desperately wanted to just go outside and wait. (“No, honey, you can’t go outside and wait by yourself. We are in a foreign country.”) She sat by the entrance and sulked. On the other hand, J (our artistic one) wanted to move through the place very slowly and see every little corner. Manly Guy kept her company while I moved back and forth between sulking S, T (who had been there before) and V, who was neither enthralled nor incredibly bored. We ended up spending about two hours at Notre Dame, mostly accommodating J’s desire to see it all.

By now, everyone was hungry and tired. We grabbed some food at an overpriced, highly mediocre kabob place and finally started to move in the direction of  the Eiffel Tower. The sun was setting already. “Damn! I really wanted to see the sunset from the top!” was going through my head, but I kept it all on the inside, prodding the kids with cheerful banter to keep them moving. “C’mon, let’s keep up the pace so that we can get there!” I chirped at them. The sun set and the sky was darkening as we finally stood beneath the structure. At this point, I was still pushing them all to keep up, to get through Security, we needed to get our tickets, etc.

And here is where I encounter the Security guard. I was marching in the direction of the ticket booth, trying to get the kids to keep up and he looks at me, amused. “You are speed. Relax.” Joe smiled at this, probably wanting to express this sentiment all day.

No, I didn’t relax. I still pushed us to get our tickets and get marching up the Tour Eiffel. But the comment made me chuckle.

Interestingly, J and T were so tired from all the walking that they decided to wait at the bottom. But S, who had been so bored at Notre Dame, loved climbing up all those stairs to the second platform and insisted that we get tickets to the very top. The four of us (Manly Guy, S, V and me) spend quite a while at the top, taking lots of photos. It was lovely at night, more beautiful than I had expected. When we finally were at the bottom again, 1.5 hours later, we found J and T and headed off to find some dinner. It was a wonderful first day in Paris.

 

 

 

Black Friday without Thanksgiving

We returned to NYC this week after a family vacation to Paris for the week of Thanksgiving. It was the first time that our girls had ever been to Europe. Manly Guy and our son, T (who is now in high school) couldn’t be gone more than a week, but the girls and I also spent five nights in Ireland in addition to the six nights in Paris. Needless to say, J, S and V loved the trip.

Of course, when you’re in a foreign country, what often strikes you as odd are the little things. Living in Paris or Dublin isn’t THAT different from living in NYC, really. But the way that a stove works, or the layout of an apartment, or needing to push a button to get out the front door- these all present small reminders that one is in a new place.

I cooked for two days in my friends’ Paris apartment preparing food for Thanksgiving, while Manly Guy took the kids out to see the sights. During much of my time in the kitchen, I listened to French radio, recognizing the occasional French word (I am not fluent at all), and enjoying pop music. Every break, there were radio ads for Black Friday, which I found very amusing. They have managed to import our biggest shopping day of the year (Black Friday) without the associated holiday (Thanksgiving). Black Friday without Thanksgiving seems so wrong!

On the other hand, it was really nice to be able to enjoy holiday lights while we were strolling through the streets of Paris, Dublin and Cork. I know that it is the Christmas spending that drives the decoration. So I shouldn’t judge them for importing Black Friday . . .

Waiting Six Hours at Cadman Plaza Post Office

I did not expect that it was possible to spend six hours at a post office on a Saturday, just to turn in passport applications for the kids. Who knew?! At other locations, they make appointments. Not at Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn, though. Of course, after our ordeal, we heard that they take passport applications at the Main Library in Brooklyn on Saturdays, which we will try next time. In 4.5 years.

Last Saturday, the whole family trudged to Cadman Plaza, as the kids’ passports expire in June. These days, you need to have at least six months on your passport for many countries to allow you in, and since we want to travel later this year, I thought that we should jump on it. Funny, if you wait until the point that you are leaving within two weeks, you can go to the Passport Agency in Manhattan, which is supposed to be pretty efficient and quick. However, if you are the type to plan ahead, you are punished by having to deal with your local post office. And you are severely punished if you happen to be in Brooklyn.

Had it been our local post office in Santa Rosa, CA, it would have taken us an hour. We would have made an appointment, we would have shown up, waited a few minutes, and been done. I miss that post office! The people that work there are so pleasant. I didn’t mind going there. If there was a line, the employees worked hard to process people through quickly.

The Cadman Plaza post office is a very different experience, and not in a good way. Why they don’t make appointments is beyond me. We got there a little before 10 AM and were nearly the last people to get a number, even though their advertised hours are 9 AM until 4 PM. There was one person after us before they stopped giving out numbers. They had three windows that were technically open, but for most of the day only one or two was active. Each employee took more than an hour for lunch and at least one long break. Seriously?! In six hours? From 1-2 PM there was only one window open and a roomful of people waiting. And waiting.

During the many hours of standing, I noticed a lighted display that scrolled various messages next to one of the windows. It took a while, but I finally grokked that the lighted display was actually in demo mode . . . from 1998! So someone installed the lighted display 18 years ago and no one in the post office ever bothered to program the date, the time, or turn on the built-in Trivia function. They could not be bothered. Meanwhile, the thing has been ON for 18 years, saying absolutely nothing.  Which says a lot about the employees’ pride in their work. Or lack thereof.

 

Apology to Tourists That I Misdirected

Dear Unfortunate Tourists,

I am so sorry to send you in the wrong direction on the C train last Thursday! You probably thought I did it on purpose, but I was just turned around, standing on the wrong platform. You didn’t know that, of course. And since I told you with absolute conviction to “Get on that train now!” you followed my advice immediately. As soon as the train left, I looked up at the sign and realized what happened. I was horrified. A mother and son, trying to get to the Museum of Natural History and a pair of women, trying to go Uptown– all four of them headed into Brooklyn.  I hope it didn’t take you too long to figure it out!

My sense of direction is crappy, always has been. And normally I would pause to make sure that I am correct. If it is any consolation, you got on the train that I was supposed to be on but missed. Since Fulton St. Station is one that I had been in many times before, it didn’t even occur to me that I could be wrong until it was too late.

Our nanny pointed out to me that I’ve given you a story, at least. “Why did that lady who seemed so nice send us into Brooklyn? Those mean New Yorkers!” I can hear your story now. You will say how long it took to figure it out, how long it took you out of your way. And you will be baffled by my behavior.

Later that evening on the train back from Manhattan, I bumped into a couple of parents that I know. After relating to them what had happened and how awful I felt, I burst into a fit of laughing. One of them teased sarcastically, “You’re clearly broken up about it.” I really DID (and still do) feel badly about sending you in the wrong direction. But when one makes a mistake, one has to laugh or cry about it, and I choose laughter. Sometimes you have to shout out to others, “Look at this stupid thing I did!” and giggle at yourself. But I will definitely double-check my location before giving directions next time I’m asked.

Sincerely,

Heather

Josh Brody and The Invisible Hand- back cover

Can Josh Brody help save mankind?

Josh and his twin sister must leave California to live with their father, whom they have never known. After flying halfway around the world to India, they meet Andrew Brody, an expat workaholic who seems to have little interest in them.

Strange things start to happen from the first day in Bangalore. Josh wonders if someone is trying to kill him. When a freak accident tears the family apart, Josh blames himself. Little does he know that warring factions of a shadowy organization are trying to influence him, with high stakes on both sides.

As he navigates settling into a new school, trying to make friends, and adjusting to living in a foreign country with his father, Josh faces a series of tests meant to destroy him. Will he live to find out what his mission on Earth is?

It Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This.

Hearing the sound of the kids laughing in the back yard, playing together in the snow. Enjoying a perfectly seared filet mignon with Manly Guy at a lower Manhattan steak house. Sitting at my desk working while our daughter S makes carnitas tacos for a family dinner with minimal help. Greeting the kids as they enter our apartment after T walks his sisters home from school.

I was able to enjoy each of these special moments this week and it was glorious. We are encouraging the kids to be a bit more independent and they each seem to be rising to the occasion. I am acutely aware of how good life is right now and I’m trying to take note, to be conscious of it.  Life doesn’t get any better than this. Time is flying faster than ever and I regularly remind myself to be present, to be here now.

I’m not saying that life is absolutely perfect, although in the big picture, it is really. One can always think of ways to improve what one has. It is the human condition to want more. I believe that I’m content. I feel that I’m grateful for our NYC life. And yet . . . sometimes I get frustrated because there is *always* too much to do. (I can hear Manly Guy interjecting now: “And whose fault is that?” teasing me with a smile.) I occasionally chafe at the lack of space in our Brooklyn apartment. And unlike three of our four kids, I don’t love winter weather.

I find it amusing that I can know in my bones how good I have it and still yearn for improvements.  And when the next (inevitable) challenge arises, I will look back to this week, this month, and wish then that my life would be just like it is now.

Living in Northern CA Versus NYC: So Many Differences

The kids and I spent nearly all of August on the West Coast.  It was good to get a break from the heat and humidity (and the pace) of NYC and I feel like I returned with fresh eyes and spirit.  It’s funny– I love both places, and I’m grateful that we get to live in NYC and visit CA twice per year– but I’m struck by the differences in lifestyle.  Our life in California was so different from our day-to-day experience in Brooklyn.  Here are just a few examples:

  1. The weather.  This one is obvious.  There are four seasons in NY and only two in California (warm and sunny; mostly warm and occasionally wet).  Whereas in CA one tends to take all that lovely sunshine for granted and complain when the temperature is outside of one’s personal 15-degree comfort zone (usually set around 65-80 degrees), I find that I am absolutely reveling in this week’s perfect early fall weather in NYC.  Not too hot, not too cold, sunny with just a hint of chill.  I love it!  And I know that I must appreciate it now, for it won’t last.
  2. Four seasons of clothing.  Of course, this partners with weather.  In CA, I had two wardrobes (sort of), but much of one’s clothing is year-round when you live in such a mild climate.  In NY, I am currently transitioning the whole family from warm weather clothing to cool weather clothing, hauling boxes of summer apparel to storage and returning with boxes of lightweight warmer things to home.  Of course, it is too early to bring winter stuff to the apartment– where would we put it?  It is a big job to manage clothing for six people, particularly when four of them are growing quickly.  Donating/giving away pieces that are about to be outgrown and purchasing items that we will need soon add to the complexity.
  3. People dress more formally on the East Coast.  We had to purchase an entire new work wardrobe for Manly Guy when he took a job on Wall Street.  His former work attire was shorts and work boots (unless he was meeting with a client, when he would wear nice business casual clothing).  Now he wears a suit and tie every work day.  On the West Coast, people in technical jobs rarely (if ever) wear a suit, even at most high-level jobs.  When I visit Manly Guy at the office, I always ensure that I dress the part of an executive’s wife.  If I showed up in my workout attire, I am certain that I would get stink-eye.
  4. People in CA drive.  People in NYC don’t.  I guess if we lived further out in suburbs we would drive, but we do not even have a car here.  We walk or take the subway (or Uber) everywhere.  I walk many miles each week, often with my granny cart in tow, and I love the fact that all that mileage is just built into my days.  When we arrived back to CA this summer, it felt so strange to get behind the wheel of a car.  It took me a few days to get used to it.  And it felt like such a luxury to drive up to a store (like Target) and BUY AS MUCH AS YOU NEED, load it into the car and drive home. With a granny cart, as soon as it is full, it’s time to walk home, no matter how far down my list I’ve gotten.  Of course, I took advantage of the car in CA and did much of my back-to-school shopping while we were there and shipped it back to NY.  It would have been silly to NOT shop while it was easier than usual.  But I’m still glad that I’m the Granny Cart Queen of Carroll Gardens.
  5. People on the West Coast are mellow.  New Yorkers are not.  I found myself feeling a bit fidgety in CA, missing the buzz in the air that I sense when I walk down the streets in NYC.  While crossing the road in Santa Rosa with my kids, I screamed at a car to stop and the car’s passenger responded like I was insane. (Three cars had blown threw the crosswalk while we were in it and I was determined that the next car would stop.)  People in CA aren’t used to others raising their voices; in NYC one hears interesting (and sometimes heated) exchanges constantly.
  6. Californians say “hello” to everyone but don’t really talk to people that they don’t know.  New Yorkers talk a lot to strangers, but you have to let them initiate the conversation.  While living in California, I was in the habit of greeting other runners on the trail and they would usually respond in kind.  I tried that during one of my first runs in Prospect Park and the runners that I greeted just shot me a dirty look.  How dare I talk to them!  However, I’ve overheard conversations between strangers in NY much more frequently than I would in Northern California.  On the subway, in the street, at a restaurant– people who don’t know each other often jump into conversations.  It’s amusing to witness.

November 1 is the one-year anniversary of our move to New York.  It’s hard to believe that we have been living in Brooklyn for almost a year.  Last year we had arrived just before the holidays, so celebrations were a bit rushed and underwhelming. This holiday season should be easier and more fun.  Once again, I’m feeling very blessed and grateful.

Lapsus Linguae at a Paris Dinner

My son and I got back a week ago from a hectic, two-week trip to Europe. It was a wonderful trip overall- very busy, with lots of sightseeing, particularly of historical places. Our son T (who turned 13 this spring) loves history, so visiting London, Paris and Cambridge seemed like a perfect itinerary. I am hopeful that I can do something similar with each of our kids, treating them to a special adventure during the summer after they become teenagers.

In reviewing the trip mentally, one avoidable slip-of-the-tongue stands out as a “I should have NOT made that mistake!” moment. If only I could go back and correct myself . . .

In Paris, we stayed with a dear friend whom I’ve known since my college days. Back then, she and I worked together in the cosmetics section of a now-defunct department store; a few years later we would both be living in LA, where we became closer friends. We have stayed in touch all this time, and I’m grateful for the friendship. While it is always great to meet new people, new friends simply can’t know us the way that old friends do.

When my friend found out when we would be visiting, she and her husband delayed a holiday break by two days so that they could spend some time with us. Then they allowed us to stay in their flat after they had gone away. They even arranged for T and I to attend a dinner out on Bastille Day with their friends and their friends’ friends, including two Americans visiting Paris. It seemed a perfect plan.

Earlier in the day, T and I attended the Bastille Day military parade along the Champs-Elysees. To launch the festivities, the French President rode in an open car, surrounded by troops on horseback. As we watched the President go past, I noticed that he didn’t turn to the left or to the right or wave at all, but sat stiffly in his vehicle as he went by.

The group at dinner that night (there were ten of us) was a mixture of French, Swiss and American citizens, all sitting at a long table at what turned out to be a fabulous meal. We chatted in English and French, drinking wine, laughing, talking. It was a lively group. We were having fun. And I was doing well. I had read enough news about the Eurozone crisis with Greece to have some opinions about the situation. (I knew that it was less important to agree with others than it was to be prepared to defend those views.) I had seen the occasional news article on the French President to know that he had been caught meeting a mistress, traveling to her place on a scooter.

My lapsus linguae occurred during the discussion about the morning’s parade. I observed that the President was very stiff as he went past the crowds. (What was his name? I thought to myself. “Mitterand” popped into my head.) “Mitterand looked very stiff as he rode by,” I blurted out. At that moment, I watched the man across from me and I could see his demeanor change. I knew immediately that his opinion of me worsened, it was clear (although I didn’t discover my error until the next day). I had become the Uninformed American. He continued to be polite, but I could tell that our conversation was different now.

Speaking with my old friend on the phone the next morning, I found out my mistake. “Heather, the President of France is Hollande!” she said with a touch of exasperation in her voice. Doh! I knew that at one point. Just not the night before. Time to feel like an idiot, particularly since Mitterrand ended his presidency twenty years ago. Oh, well. I guess I gave that group something to chuckle about later.

South Brooklyn is Having a Moment

We didn’t choose to live in South Brooklyn because it is trendy, but South Brooklyn is definitely having a moment right now. Just last week I saw this headline: “EXCLUSIVE: $15.5M Cobble Hill townhouse sets the record for the most expensive home ever sold in Brooklyn.” (In the NY Daily News.) Recent real estate articles now claim that in some neighborhoods of Brooklyn (particularly Dumbo and Vinegar Hill), home prices and rents equal or surpass those in many sections of Manhattan, but Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill (they are adjacent to and sit just south of Brooklyn Heights) are also considered “hot” neighborhoods. Of course, Brooklyn is just generally “hip” currently. Last fall, Brooklyn was voted the hippest part of NYC, even by Manhattanites. And in the latest Avengers movie, Captain America admits that he still hadn’t found an apartment in Brooklyn, although he is looking.

As I understand it, our corner of Brooklyn was a pretty scary place twenty years ago. Old mafia neighborhood, so women were safer than some other areas (or, so I’ve heard), but Brooklyn was generally pretty rough then. Lots of crime, lots of social problems. You see little evidence of that now. It isn’t zero, of course, as we *do* live in NYC, but generally if you are sensible and smart, the local streets are reasonably safe. There are still some areas to avoid, but I’ve heard that they are not nearly as problematic as they used to be.

We chose our location for the local school, which happens to have a French Dual-Language Program (DLP) through 5th grade. I had researched schools in NYC and I learned that there were only three schools in the NYC public school system that had the French DLP through 5th grade (there were three other programs, but they were more recently started, so only went up to 1st or 3rd grade). Our other two options were Upper West Side and Harlem, and Brooklyn seemed to have the most promise for finding a larger apartment (for six people) with a yard. Of course, there are plenty of private schools in NYC that offer French, but the cost of tuition ($30-40K per child) isn’t doable with four kids unless you are seriously rich.

One thing that I really like about our neighborhood is the *scale*. The buildings are not the towering apartment buildings of Manhattan, but mostly old brownstones between 3 and 4 stories high. It is a much more “human” scale than much of Manhattan. Don’t get me wrong– I really enjoy Manhattan– but if we had moved there, we would only have been able to afford a place in one of the soulless high-rises, a nondescript elevator building standing next to a bunch of similar nondescript elevator buildings. In NYC, particularly in Manhattan, charm is expensive. We have plenty of charm in our area of Brooklyn, and Manly Guy has a very easy commute to lower Manhattan for work (only six subway stops). We can easily enjoy the cultural attractions in Manhattan and still have a more livable lifestyle.

I’m grateful to be here. Living in NYC is pretty awesome, particularly in South Brooklyn.

New Year, New Life

I realized this week that I haven’t written a blog post for half a year. Wow! Time has flown. 2014 was a big year of change for us, particularly in the last quarter. It hasn’t been because I have had nothing to write about, but because I’ve had no time to write my blog. Now Manly Guy is working on Wall Street, we are living in New York City, and I’m writing my first Young Adult novel.

Last summer we were living in Northern California wine country and had been in the same house for nearly five years. In the spring I had encouraged Manly Guy to look at making a change with his career– I could tell that he had lost his enthusiasm for his work. I actively lobbied for the Northeast; I believe that it is good for children to experience both coasts, and I felt that there would likely be more opportunity for him if we were willing to head East. When he started poking around, he got very lucky with timing and a perfect position surfaced in NYC. He started working in Manhattan at the end of September. The kids and I followed in early November.

Now our life feels so different from the life we had six months ago. We used to be in a house with two garages and a yard– now we are in an apartment in Brooklyn. I used to drive every day– now I walk everywhere. (Last week my mileage was 42 miles. I ran 14 miles and walked 28.) We used to live in the Land of Perfect Weather– now we definitely have four seasons! The kids are different, too. We were already at the threshold, but we’ve now made the jump from young kids to older kids. T will be thirteen in less than two weeks; he now takes the subway on his own into Manhattan for his fencing classes. All three girls are less interested in toys and dolls and more into games, activities and pop culture.

Living in New York feels like living in a different country, and I’m not sure that I will ever feel like a real New Yorker. New York is terribly unforgiving, but if you are willing to work hard, there seems to be lots of opportunity (and tons of interesting people) here. I am so impressed with the immigrants who come to NYC, work hard and kick ass. People from all over the world come to The City in the hope of doing well.

Our neighborhood is great, with very much a village feel. T described it well when he said, “Like Disneyland, but edgier.” The brownstones are generally 2-3 stories (a much more human scale than Manhattan neighborhoods), with the two main retail streets running parallel a block apart, and it is very walkable. It has a colorful history, as well. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was very much an Irish working class neighborhood. The park monument to the local boys who lost their lives in the Great War is filled with Irish names. Then the Italians came, and it was a big mafia spot for decades. The church where Al Capone got married is two blocks from our building. There is still one men’s social club on the main strip, but I’ve been told that there used to be one on every block. Now that Brooklyn has become trendy, there are many transplanted Manhattanites and Europeans living here, and the long-time locals bemoan the fact (never mind that their property values have gone through the roof).

Little by little, NYC has altered us all, if only a bit. T knows the subway system better than I do. I noticed yesterday that S said “Awesome!” like a kid from Brooklyn. V is even less shy than she was in CA (if that is even possible). Of the girls, J misses CA the most, but she has matured so much since we arrived five months ago. They are all quickly becoming City Kids. Manly Guy fit in immediately upon arrival (in CA people often asked him if he was from NY; he was born here but left as a baby). Even I have changed, the third generation native California Girl. Five days ago I was crossing the street when a driver blew through the light a few feet from me. Before I knew it, my hands flew in the air and I screamed at the top of my lungs, “Yo! Idiot!” I was shocked to hear it come out of my mouth. I heard a little kid a few paces behind me repeat what I said, which made me chuckle.

I’m grateful to be on this big adventure. The next few years should be interesting!