Saturday, May 30, 2009

Coming Home

I’m feeling much more optimistic than I did yesterday. I’m such an old fashioned wife - I get all depressed when I know I’m going to have to be apart from my husband for any time at all. It was really hard saying goodbye at San Francisco airport. I almost felt teary. Our son was completely bemused. He shook his head and said, “It’s only five days - buck up Mum”! We were lucky to be able to go along to San Francisco in any case, and we really did have a lovely time. But I am really looking forward to when my husband gets home on Thursday.

I was also feeling more optimistic when I arrived home to see the sunshine. It’s not often I arrive at Heathrow in the sunshine!! It was also really warm, in the mid-twenties Celsius, so not unlike the weather we had in the San Francisco area. England is so beautiful in the sunshine.

We had a bit of excitement when we were getting off the plane. My son and I were upstairs in business class and as we were coming down the stewardess suddenly realised they had not let the people in first class (who were on the main deck, walking towards us) off yet. Of course, first class and business are supposed to get off first, in that order. So she asked us to wait. I stopped on the steps, put my bag down, looked up and found myself staring straight at Sean Penn. It was one of those weird milliseconds when you think you know someone, but then you realise you just know of them. Of course I said nothing (no one wants to be recognised getting off the red-eye flight!) but it did make getting off the plane just a bit more interesting than normal!

And so we are home again. The time has just flown today, I cannot believe I have managed to stay up so late (it is nearly 11pm). I feel really refreshed and renewed actually, full of lots of ideas and energy. It’s amazing how much good a short break in the sunshine can do you!

Friday, May 29, 2009

I Don't Want to Go Home

Sadly it is Friday already, and the 21st Century Teenager and I have to head back to England today. I’ve really gotten a taste for life in Silicon Valley. I know better than anyone that places are always different when you holiday there rather than actually live there, but from what I have seen and the people I have spoken to, I think I could get used to this. Of course, a lot of my melancholy is because my husband is not returning home until Thursday lunchtime, and I find any separation from him very hard. I’m so grateful we were able to come out with him so that we could all be together as much as possible. He says he has enjoyed it as well, which makes me very happy.

I like Cupertino, with its mix of parks, shops, residences and businesses. You can see the hills in the distance and you are only about an hour from San Francisco - a place I love - and three from Los Angeles. I also really like Los Gatos, a picture postcard town not far from here, in the commuter belt but somehow apart from it. And then there is Santana Row, the amazing residential, shopping and restaurant complex about twenty minutes from here. They all offer a lifestyle that is undreamed of in the UK - and yet ironically is in many cases is much less costly than it is there!

I also have not seen one single drop of rain since I arrived, and yet the flowers and plants - including some incredible roses - are flourishing. The sun shines nearly every day, and the only thing that seems to hamper the good weather is the fogs that periodically roll in off the sea, bringing the temperature down a few degrees and hiding the sun - they are few and far between though.

I have to confess though that the only time I have ever felt this way about a place was when I wanted to immigrate to England - every time it came time to I leave I ached to stay - and that is the feeling I get every time we come to California.

There seems to be an optimism in the air that is so sadly lacking in the UK at the moment. Life has a quieter pace here - folks are up and at work very early, home in the early evening and by nine o’clock, most restaurants and bars are nearly empty. It’s definitely an early to bed, early to rise lifestyle, but it seems to work really well. Business is as frenetic as it is in the UK, if not more so, with everyone extremely motivated and driven, but in a more positive way. It doesn’t seem to be so much about working every hour God sends here. People actually take lunch breaks.

We’ve had a lovely time, just relaxing, sightseeing and shopping (unlike my poor husband who has been working like crazy, with meetings as early as 6am!). Ironically my son says he has managed to study more than if he had been at home. I have been incredibly disciplined about getting back to the hotel for 3 pm at the latest, and he has had a good solid three to four hours to just work uninterrupted, without any of the distractions of home. I feel sorry for him going back into the fray so quickly, with six exams next week starting at 10am Monday. I remember what that was like, although I do think the GCSE exams are so much harder than anything I did. I find it so upsetting hearing and reading all the things in the press about “too many A+ marks” and “the exams are way too easy”. And then there is the (in my opinion) incredibly unfair practice of Bell Curving the results if there are too many high marks to bring the marks down. It’s like we want our kids to struggle.

This is a controversial thing to say, but I believe that in the UK, the media, the government and even we ourselves are unconsciously setting the next generation up to fail. It’s all dooms glooms wherever you look and the future is anything but bright if you ask most people, particularly many of those who work with young people. Admittedly the UK seems to be imploding at the moment, with huge problems in the government, a high crime rate and terrible economic problems, but we really don’t even try to focus on the positive anymore.

For example, we have a friend here in California who lived in England when her daughter started school. From Kindergarten her British teachers shook their heads and tutted. She was told that her daughter might be dyslexic, she really was not academic and that it was all going to be a struggle. Needless to say her daughter did not feel very good about herself and hated school. Now they live in California and her daughter is thriving. She is a very clever girl, well spoken and mature for her age. It has been proven that she very definitely is not dyslexic and she is doing incredibly well academically. It is food for thought. If we tell our children they don’t measure up and it is all going to be a struggle, it is very likely it will be a long hard slog. If we tell them they are wonderful and they can accomplish anything, they have a much better chance of success.

However, whenever I mention that in England most people just dismiss it as “American” rather disdainfully. That really irritates me. No nation is perfect, but what is wrong with a little positivity? I think a dose of positive thinking and encouragement could go a long way towards motivating and inspiring the next generation in the UK. The UK has a lot of potential, and our young people do too. I have always stressed positive thinking and focussed on the good qualities of the young people in my life. It’s amazing how often folks will contradict me when I do it though, saying things like “we don’t want them to get big heads” or “life is not easy, and you can’t expect miracles”. Rubbish! I’ve seen miracles and I know they can happen. And I know for a fact that a child encouraged is a child motivated. If we don’t start to encourage and motivate our children in the UK, it isn’t going to be a very nice place to live very soon - for them or for us. The UK is a wonderful place and UK citizens are great people. We just don’t seem to believe in ourselves anymore.

I don’t think complaining accomplishes anything if it is not accompanied by action though, so I intend to work even harder on focussing on the positive. With that in mind, I will stop moaning about having to go home, and start to focus on how nice it will be when my husband gets home on Thursday (he has some time off for my birthday weekend immediately after he gets home.) I’m also going to be grateful that I will be traveling in comfort and that I have a nice home to go home to! I plan to try to incorporate some of the really cool things I have seen and learned this week in California into my home and my life. I got some great decorating tips and saw some wonderful things on my travels, which I will blog about in the coming days. I’m also going to try to work on incorporating the California lifestyle into mine, getting outside in the good weather, actually remembering to take a lunch break and being a lot more relaxed and laid back in my day to day life. Watch this space!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sightseeing in San Francisco

We headed into San Francisco again today. I drove as far as San Bruno, and from there we took the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) to Powell, which brings you out right in the centre of the shopping area, just down from Union Square.

After a bit of window shopping, we headed to the famous Sears Restaurant on Powell Street for lunch. Since 1938, Sears has been a landmark restaurant in San Francisco, and their silver dollar pancakes are famous. We always enjoy eating there - I love their traditional Reuben sandwich. It’s like stepping back in time to the lunch counters of the past. You can sit up at the counter itself, or at one of the tables scattered around the restaurant. The food which is served on old china plates is simple and delicious.

Suitably refreshed, we hopped on a cable car and purchased a day pass. It’s tempting to get on the cable cars at the Powell/Market turntable but you have to queue there. If you go a few streets up or over, it’s easier to just hop on. You can buy tickets actually on the trolley - although it can be quite a hairy experience trying to get your money out if you are standing on the running board as I was, hanging on for dear life. (Luckily the conductors are patient!) The view is better if you can stand up on the running board, but you need strong arms and a good sense of balance. It is a lot of fun though if you can manage it. We decided to see if we could find Coit Tower, which is supposed to be one of the best vantage points in San Francisco. One of the taxi drivers we met on Sunday said it was well worth a visit.

After a fun trolley ride and a very long climb up a seriously steep hill - and then more climbing up steps - we found it at the top of Telegraph Hill in Pioneer Park. Sadly the elevator and the steps to the top of the tower were closed today, but we still had a fabulous view from the park at the bottom of the tower. (And frankly after all that climbing I felt like I was high enough!) Coit Tower was built with a bequest left by one of San Francisco’s most colourful residents, Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who left funds to beautify the city she loved. It is a beautiful tower; the inside is painted with amazing murals and the outside is a lovely cream concrete. (You can see it in the photo above which was taken by my son.) The views all round are stunning - you can see right out to Alcatraz and all over the city.

Once again we had to get back early so my son could study for his GCSE’s, so we reluctantly descended and hopped back on another cable car, riding it right back down to the turntable. From there it was back on to the BART, and back to the hotel.

We have another nice meal planned tonight, at Alexander’s Steak House just down the road from us. Last night’s excursion to Benihana was really good fun, although I must admit I had serious indigestion afterwards. The food is delicious, and cooked freshly at the table in front of you, but there are some serious spices in some of it and I think they got me! It is a great experience though and we had a super time.

I’m absolutely dreading Friday arriving - I don’t want to go home. I’ have to count my blessings though, at least I don’t have to write exams when I get there!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Santana Row

We decided to spend fairly locally to Cupertino today so we went to the Valley Fair Mall in Santa Clara, which is just across from Santana Row, a wonderful boulevard of shops, hotels, residences and restaurants. We discovered them the last time we visited and were eager to return. The 21st Century Husband is at work, so we are looking forward to seeing him this evening. We did have breakfast all together this morning in the hotel restaurant, Park Place. The waiter recognized us from yesterday and the service was wonderful. I love it when restaurant staff take the time to remember you. He even remembered exactly what we ordered yesterday, although we disappointed him by just having the continental breakfast today. We promised to come back tomorrow for something from the à la carte menu. The breakfasts at the Park Place is really lovely, but we find we eat so much when we are in California, some days we just have to have a lighter breakfast (not to mention that we do have vouchers for the continental breakfast and we really ought to use some of them)!

After my husband headed off to work, my son and I set off on our shopping expedition. We had a very successful day. I even got a pair of my favourite Calvin Klein Jeans from Macy’s for $38. They would have cost me over £100 at home. The Valley Fair Mall is lovely and has shops like Macy’s, Nordstrum’s and lots of speciality shops including an Apple Store. We also had a wonderful lunch at The Cheesecake Factory in the Mall. We love The Cheesecake Factory. Their food is just wonderful. I had a chicken and cashew nut salad that was really yummy. I love salads in North America; people are so creative with them. This one had an Oriental citrus dressing with a gorgeous flavour. As you would expect, cheesecake at The Cheesecake Factory is also delicious too, although we do find that we have to share a piece between the two of us because it is just so rich. Today we tried their White Chocolate Caramel Macadamia Nut Cheesecake. How could it not taste good with a name like that? We’ve worked our way through a lot of their flavours over the years (it’s hard; they keep making new ones!) but we are pretty sure this is the best one we have had so far.

We wandered over to Santana Row afterwards. It really is a great neighbourhood, with some wonderful shops and restaurants. It’s very cosmopolitan and really reminds me of Europe. It would be a great place to live, except there isn’t very much parking!

My son has to study for his exams, so we made sure we were back at the hotel by 3 pm. When we went out to the car, it was absolutely baking hot. I could not even touch the steering wheel at first. This is our first hot sunny day in Cupertino and we are really enjoying it.

Tonight we are having dinner at Benihana, a Japanese restaurant, with some of my husband’s work colleagues. They cook the food right in front of you on huge hot plates. It’s very entertaining watching them as most of the cooks are real actors, and joke around a lot. The food is delicious too.

The time is still going by way too fast, but I’m definitely having fun!

Monday - Monterey, Memorial Day and Living in the Moment

Today we drove south down the California coast from Cupertino to Monterey. It was not a very warm day, nor was it sunny, but it was a pretty drive nonetheless.

Monterey is a very historic town. Founded by the Spanish in 1770, the first California constitution was signed here in 1849. John Steinbeck immortalized Monterey in his novel “Cannery Row” and in 1953 Monterey’s Ocean View Avenue was officially renamed to reflect the book’s title. It’s a pretty little place, with lots of shops and restaurants. The old sardine canning factories, which were closed in the 1960’s due to over-fishing, have been remodeled and turned into a thriving shopping and dining area. You can even attend wine tastings here. The views out over the sea are just lovely.

We arrived around lunchtime, so popped into Louie Linguini’s for a bite to eat. It was a very nice lunch and the view out to sea from the window (which we were lucky enough to sit by) was gorgeous. After lunch, we spent a pleasant hour or so wandering through the shops and attending a wine tasting at the Bargetto Winery Tasting Rooms. We purchased a couple of bottles of wine, including one to to the friends we were visiting this evening.

We then headed to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’ve been to a lot of aquariums in a lot of different countries and I must say I think this is the best I have been to so far. There are huge tanks full of fish of all kinds. You stand in front of them and it is almost as if you are in the tank with the fish. Some of the tanks have jellyfish in them, and I had no idea how beautiful these creatures could be, nor how many different kinds of jellyfish there actually are. I also enjoyed the tanks where you could touch various ocean creatures including rays, and also starfish, crabs and even sea cucumbers. It was an incredible experience, particularly for someone who had never touched a live starfish or sea cucumber before in her life. I felt like a little kid. There was also a special exhibit called ‘The Secret Lives of Seahorses’ which was just wonderful. I have never seen so many seahorses before. I knew they were amazing creatures but I had no idea just how amazing! I also really enjoyed the aviary. It is a fantastic place to visit, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you live too far away to visit though, there are lots of webcams available online for you to look at - check them out by clicking here.

By this time it was getting a bit late, and with the Memorial Day traffic to worry about, we thought we had better head off. We had been invited to our friends’ house for a barbeque and did not want to be late. (I find it an amazing coincidence that we are very lucky to know folks in lots of the places we visit, so it means we can usually catch up with old friends no matter where we go.) Luckily we managed to get there on time and we had a really fun evening with them.

We had a really lovely day together. I’m sad now as the 21st Century Husband will be working for the rest of our visit, although we will have the evenings together. I can’t believe it is Monday already - the 21st Century Teenager and I go back home this Friday and my husband does not return home until next Thursday. I hate it when he is away, and I’m really dreading Friday!! I wish we could stay longer but with GCSE exams looming, my son has to get back and I need to go with him. I’m working very hard to live in the moment so I don’t ruin the fun times we can have over the next couple of days by worrying about something that is days away, but it is a struggle. I really wish I could stay longer. Not only do I want to be with my husband, but I really enjoy being in California! Why does time always fly when you are having fun?

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Weekend in the Bay Area

The photograph above is of the waiter at the wonderful Consuelo Restaurant in Santana Row, San Jose, making fresh guacamole at our table. We had a wonderful meal here on Saturday evening.

Santana Row is a fantastic place, lots of tree lined avenues with hotels, restaurants and shops. Consuelo is one of several restaurants with a Mexican theme. It had loads of atmosphere and the food was delicious. We had to wait about an hour for a table, but we just wandered across the road to another restaurant with an outdoor bar and whiled away the time listening to music. I can understand why we had to wait for a table as once we were seated the food and service were fantastic. I think the guacamole was the highlight. The waiter brought over the tray full of the freshest ingredients you can imagine - bright red tomatoes, green chiles, lime halves and gorgeous green avocado. He made the dish to order, with the amount of spice we requested (first batch was medium, second batch was hot!). Served with fresh hot tortillas it was absolutely delicious.

Sunday we drove into San Francisco and did all the usual touristy things - riding on a tram up and down the incredible hills and eating clam chowder in sourdough bowls down by Fisherman’s Wharf. We also went to Union Square for some serious shopping at Macy’s. You see, it was very cold down by Fisherman’s Wharf on Sunday and my beige linen jacket was not enough to keep me warm. So, I purchased a very tasteful(!) red hoody with San Francisco written in big letters on the front of it and put it over my jacket. When I removed it, I discovered I was covered in red fluff. It was definitely a wardrobe emergency as we were booked into our favourite restaurant, Harris’ Steak House on Van Ness Avenue, that evening. I needed to buy something new to wear and fast. Guy and Alex took me to the Ralph Lauren department and found me a gorgeous sweater and black jacket which I changed into there and then. Problem solved! Then they found me another sweater and white jacket to mix and match with the other two. I was so pleased. We then headed off to the men’s department (in the Macy’s across the road) and spent a hour in the Ralph Lauren department there with a very helpful salesman finding things for Guy and Alex. We only just made it to the restaurant on time!

As usual the meal at Harris’ was wonderful. It’s a real taste of old San Francisco. Cars are valet parked for you, and walking through the door is like stepping back in time. Their speciality is steak, and they do it brilliantly. We did have a bit of a hiccup with the onion soup which my son and I had for an appetizer. He’s had it several times before but recommended it very highly so I decided to have it too. We were both a bit surprised to find it very over-peppered. When I questioned him about it, he said with a smile that “yes, it’s normally peppery, but it doesn’t normally make your eyes water”. That made me laugh as I did actually have tears in my eyes at that moment! Our steaks were wonderful though, and we had a super evening. All in all, a super start to our week in the Bay Area!

Friday, May 22, 2009

And We're Off Again

I’m sitting in the British Airways lounge again waiting for another flight. I do love travelling. It’s one of my favourite things to do.

This has been one of the least stressful departures we have had in some time. Finally, after years of practice, I’ve just about cracked the packing thing. I used to get all stressed about it, but I think I’ve finally got past that. Admittedly, packing for three can be a challenge. No, no one packs in our house except me. They pack their own carry-on bags, but in terms of major luggage, that is my job. I’m not quite sure why, but that is just how it is. To be honest, I have to admit that in some ways it is easier doing it myself.

I also planned things out better this time, booking a one-on-one yoga class yesterday afternoon. It was great because I ended up feeling both energised and relaxed at the same time, exactly what I needed.

And once again I have realised that how you look at something can fundamentally change your whole experience. Because I do find packing and getting ready to go on a trip stressful, it seems to rub off on the whole family so that by the time we go out the door we are all frazzled beyond belief. This always perplexed me because, as we travel so much, you would think we would all be very relaxed.

So this time I made a conscious decision to be more calm about the whole thing, and to stop letting the sight of three empty suitcases intimidate me. Well, not only did I get packed up more easily than ever before, but I managed to do a lot of housecleaning while I was doing it - defeating the ironing monster and totally conquering a basket full of un-matched socks that had been lurking in the laundry room for ages. Plus we left the house laughing as opposed to being grumpy with each other. It was wonderful!

It’s just a shame it took me twenty years to figure this one out - but I sure am glad I finally have!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Chelsea Flower Show

(For more pictures, and a more complete blog entry with links, please visit my website.)

Every year, the Chelsea Flower Show is held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, the retirement home of the Chelsea Pensioners. For 145 years, the Chelsea Flower Show has been the premier event of the gardening calendar, and indeed of the London Season, attended by everyone from royalty and celebrities to amateur and professional gardeners alike. My husband and I had a wonderful day out at Chelsea yesterday. It was such a treat to have a day with him, especially during the week.

The Chelsea Flower Show is a place where the only limit is the designers’ imaginations. Amazing show gardens sit side by side with equally intriguing “small gardens”. Sculptures, greenhouses, conservatories and garden follies abound. Among the amazing show gardens this year was one made entirely from plasticine. Although it was not eligible for any medals because it did not actually contain any live flowers, it really was quite something. One of my favourite show gardens was The Daily Telegraph Garden, but in terms of the smaller gardens I have to say for me The Children’s Society Garden was definitely the best, closely followed by the QVC Garden. I liked the Children’s Society Garden because it was so amazingly practical, and also beautiful. The QVC Garden really appealed to my romantic side. The florist of the year was amazing too - Neil Whittaker created the hat in the photograph on the top left. He lifted it off its stand for me to see the underneath part of it, and it was as beautiful as the top. I made sure to take one of his business cards!

Vendors compete to make their wares more appealing and offer special “show discounts”. In the Great Pavilion you can take an order form and walk round the incredible displays, ticking the boxes for the plants and bulbs you want to order. They are then delivered to you later in the year. I had some amazing tulips from last year’s show and have ordered more this year from the same company - Bloms Bulbs. I also bought some flower seeds. I am not notorious for my green thumb, but I’m hopeful to grow some very pretty flowers from them.

Outside, you can buy just about anything you can imagine for your garden. From gates, to sculptures and fountains, conservatories, garden follies and buildings, furniture, ironwork and even super modern revolving circular summer houses made of steel and glass. They range from the affordable to the ridiculous - I saw a water feature priced at £11,000 (which someone was actually buying!) and a conservatory that cost over £100,000 (which did not seem to have any takers at the time). There are also tiny shops with everything from paintings, arts and crafts, baskets, flowers and even Wellington Boots. It is incredible. There is almost too much to see in just one day.

The wonderful thing about The Chelsea Flower Show is that it is a fantastic place to see and be seen, and have a really fun day in the heart of fashionable Chelsea. We wandered through the gardens, shopped, celebrity-watched (the BBC film all day from the show and there is always a recognisable face about), listened to music at the bandstand and drank champagne at the Laurent Perrier Champagne Bar overlooking the show. It was fantastic, and we were so lucky with the weather, with not even a drop of rain.

We enjoyed it so much we are already planning next year’s visit, and today I have booked tickets to the Charity Gala Preview of the Hampton Court Flower Show in July. Now I just have to get on with designing my own garden!!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Monday Morning Blues

Like most people, I rely on weekends with my family to recharge me and fill me with energy for the challenges of the week ahead. Most of the time it works brilliantly, but every once in a while it isn’t quite as successful.

The weekend started off reasonably well though. The 21st Century Husband and I had a very nice meal out on Friday night - which gave us some much needed time together and that we really enjoyed. We were really looking forward to a planned trip to the theatre with our son on Saturday afternoon to see Waiting for Godot.

Now, I know that Waiting for Godot is a very “heavy” play, full of symbolism and metaphor - but we were all excited to see Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellan and Simon Callow performing. I figured that even if the play was a bit beyond me, I could watch actors like that perform just about anything and enjoy it.

Before I go on, I must say that the performance was brilliantly acted. However, Waiting for Godot was Not My Kind of Play At All. The story is not a happy one (and to be fair I did know this before we went), but I did not realise just how catastrophically depressing it could be when you were feeling a bit low to start with. (I was still feeling very sad about our friend L, and we had attended a funeral for our friend’s mum on Friday as well, so a play with death as one of its themes was just Not A Good Idea.) Seriously, it was such a dark story!! I did learn that no matter how brilliant the actors, there really are plays I can only just barely sit through. I ached to leave at the interval, and by mid-way through the second act was praying for the play to be over. I feel sad saying this because it is in no way a criticism of the actors, the fact the play was just not to my taste is hardly the fault of those involved in it.

In fact, we were all feeling so sad after the play that we really needed cheering up. So we decided to go shopping, and then to one of our favourite restaurants, Piccolino (in Heddon Street, just off Regent Street). Both the shopping and the meal cheered us all up immeasurably. There is something wonderful about sipping a glass of wine, eating a lovely meal in good company and knowing that in the bag on the chair opposite are new shoes from Russell and Bromley for everyone at the table. Yes, it is unbelievably shallow, but it is true.

For some reason even Sunday was a bit overshadowed by everything. Added to this we had A Lot To Get Done and the fact that the day hurtled by at the speed of sound did not help. Despite a very successful shopping trip in the morning, by late afternoon we were all feeling awfully grumpy and things got very stormy indeed before teatime. Although everything did settle down and we had a very nice evening in the end, it just was not one of those weekends that make me feel refreshed and ready to take on the world.

Then this morning the alarm did not go off (we have not yet got the hang of our new iPod/clock radio alarm), and it was a totally chaotic Monday morning.

It made me think about how I always go on about not putting all your eggs in one basket (in this case the weekend) and that really you should give yourself little boosts with things to look forward to every day. I should take my own advice more often. You see, by relying on the weekend to refresh me, the fact that it didn’t go quite as well as I had planned has left me with a really bad case of the Monday morning blues. In fact, I’m finding it very hard to get motivated this morning!

Thankfully I just have to remember to focus on the positive and the day should turn itself around. I think I’ll just go get a coffee...

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Small Pleasures, Life Plans and Being a Mum

I’m starting this morning with a steaming cup of cafe au lait. This is a huge treat for me as I am still trying to keep my caffeine intake down, although I have stopped being quite as strict with myself as I was earlier this year when I was consuming no caffeine at all. I really fancied a lovely cup of freshly brewed coffee with hot milk this morning, and the added benefit is that I can put the coffee grounds on the hosta plants I am desperately trying to grow in my garden. Last year they were completely devoured by slugs, but this year I found out that slugs hate coffee grounds. I’ve been putting them on the hostas whenever I make coffee and so far it seems to be helping. Although there are a few telltale bites out of the leaves here and there, the plants are actually growing. So there is a tip - put coffee grounds on and around your hostas to protect them from slugs. Actually, I must put the “hints and tips” page back up on the site - there is another one for the “to do” list!

Speaking of which, I’m still working on the schedule thing and my coffee this morning reminded me that it is important to factor in breaks and treats when formulating one. You can’t be working all the time - and that is something we housewives so often fall prey to. You need to take time out.

We are in the middle of exam season here in the 21st Century Household, which means a lot of pressure on my son - and more pressure on me than I had ever anticipated. Who knew how hard it would be to see him so stressed? Who knew how motivated you have to keep yourself to continue motivating someone under that much pressure? Almost everyone is telling him that if he doesn’t do well in these exams his life is ruined - and that he better have his life all planned out now or nothing he wants will ever come to be. What rubbish! Of course it would be much better if he could do well in these exams. There is no reason he should not, and if he does not it will only be because of the ridiculous amount of pressure being put on him. Young people are put under so much pressure these days, being told that they have to decide their whole lives right this minute. Nobody seems to remember that, actually, people do evolve over time, and you don’t have to have your whole life completely planned by age 16. Of course, you need to have a direction to set out in, but lives have a habit of evolving on their own. (And this is in no way a criticism of those young people who do know exactly what they want to do, be and have - although 16 seems a very young age to be making that kind of decision.) I personally know quite a few people who did not do very well on their exams who have gone on to be incredibly successful. Not to mention more famous examples including Winston Churchill, who apparently did poorly in school. Indeed, Churchill himself was quoted as saying, “My education was interrupted only by my schooling”. As for me, my life has been completely different (and so much better!) than anything I planned at 16. (I feel compelled to insert here that I worked very hard and did very well on my exams, graduating with honours, but still feel that had very little effect on the direction my life has taken.) Surely this is the case for some other people as well, although you would not know it from the career counsellors and advisors my son has met with. Although they have been incredibly helpful and very nice, they still maintain the plan needs to be in place now, and stuck to. Wow. Even at my age, I don’t consider I have a carved in stone plan. I have aspirations and a clear direction, but I have way too much experience to believe that carved in stone plans are even possible, let alone desirable.

So how to encourage someone to set goals and work towards them, without being constrained by them? It’s a tricky balance, because we all need goals - proceeding aimlessly through life is not something anyone should do as life is far too precious to be wasted. Yet if we constrain ourselves and pursue our goals in a narrow-minded fashion, it is very possible we will miss some incredible opportunities.

It’s times like these I realise there is so much more to being a mother than I ever anticipated. Equipping your child to fulfill their potential is a huge challenge and an incredibly important job. It is not about controlling or directing because it is their life, not yours. You can’t let your own ideas or aspirations for your child get in the way of theirs. You need to be there to inform, support and encourage, even if the direction they choose is not the one you would have chosen for them. Women have been doing this for centuries, shaping the destiny of the world (for good or bad) through how they support (or neglect) their children.

As for me, I think it is a huge responsibility and an incredible privilege. It’s the biggest ongoing learning experience I have ever had and one of the things in my life that has brought me the most challenges - along with an awful lot of joy. Oprah Winfrey is right when she says “being a mother is the hardest job on earth” but I also believe it is one of the best.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Schedule Thing

After two days of attempting to develop and work to a schedule, I must admit I am finding it a bit of a challenge. I’m not sure if it is because:-
a) I am one of those people who works better under pressure and prefers to hurtle from one task to the other, or
b) it is impossible to actually schedule a housewife’s life because it is utterly unpredictable.

I prefer to think it is the latter, but that is not going to make me give up. I plan to continue with the experiment and hopefully develop a schedule that works - for those who want one.

In the interim, I’ve been pipped to the organisation post by my son, who, encouraged by a rather untimely meltdown by the 21st Century Housewife, took it on himself to houseclean his bedroom and his study, all within a two day period.

His rooms really had been an absolute disaster area. I got very upset about it when I saw a spider rushing from one end of his bedroom to the other late last week, making a bit of a trail in some dust as he went, so I did have a bit of a rant about it. You see, when I was a young person (this was the point at which my son’s eyes began to roll, which did nothing for my state of mind) not only did I have only one room and no ensuite bathroom but my bedroom was a good deal smaller than the one he has. I feel that surely if my son is lucky enough to have not just one, but two rooms and an en-suite all to himself, he ought to keep them tidy. I shared this information with him during my rant - succinctly, if not calmly. I also shared the story of how I remember visiting the home of a girl I went to school with (she was not a friend, this was one of those school open-house things) and not only did she have a bedroom with an en-suite bathroom, it had stacks of beautiful fluffy towels sitting on shelves. The ten year old me thought this was the epitome of luxury and glamour, but that was before I saw her parent’s bedroom complete with fireplace. (Okay, I was being nosy, but my story - and I’m sticking to it - is that I got lost on the way to the bathroom. Hey, the house was huge!) It was my first nearly adult experience of coveting (frankly, I still find neatly stacked multi-coloured towels unbelievably appealing and dream of devoting lots of cupboards just to them). Anyway, back to the being pipped to the post thing.

Over the course of last weekend, my wonderful son cleaned both his rooms from floor to ceiling, even moving the furniture and clearing out most of the cupboards (results above). I was beside myself with joy.

I was, that is, until I realised that this did cast me in a very bad light indeed, as suddenly the rooms I am attempting to sort out, in particular our study downstairs (see blog entries from 11th February and 23rd April ) still look a bit of a disaster zone, despite several hours of work - and copious amounts of paper-shredding. So I’m frantically attempting to live up to the wonderful example I have been set - and hoping that within the next couple of days at least one of the rooms I am working on will look as good as the one above!

Wish me luck (and I’ll keep you posted on the schedule thing)!

Monday, May 11, 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's Schedule

Recently a lot of readers have been asking me about a housewife’s schedule. I have to confess I have never been a fan of scheduling anything except appointments, preferring to do thing around the house as and when I feel they need them. However, as someone who is a bit overwhelmed by her home at the moment I really can see the benefits of a schedule, provided it works as a tool and you do not become a slave to it.

So I have decided to explore the idea of scheduling over the next few weeks to see if it works and if so, what the best way to organise a housewife’s schedule might be in this 21st century. Having said that, I have always maintained my purpose is more to encourage and inspire housewives as opposed to instructing them how to do things around the house. However, hopefully I will be able to do some research and a bit of experimentation without departing from that premise. I’m intrigued as to what the results will be!

To start, I think one definitely has to be flexible. I’m not sure that the centuries old idea of “washing on Monday, ironing on Tuesday” would necessarily work in the 21st Century. We all have varying responsibilities and commitments, and these often change with very short notice, particularly for those of us who have children. Not to mention the fact that even if I spent all day Monday washing I would need to run the washing machine more than just once per week! I am very keen on scheduling things in terms of appointments though and if you can schedule important things well in advance it can be a real boon. For example, all of our hair appointments are scheduled up to December of this year already, as are most of our other important personal care appointments.

Obviously, in the first instance you will need some sort of calendar. I use iCal on my MacBook computer, and also on my iPhone, but you could use whatever suits you. You may like a traditional diary or you might even want to use one of those big wall calendars, although I have to admit I find them quite frustrating as I hate crossing things out if they change. At least with a computer you can change things without people realising! I also think the advantage to a calendar on computer that synchronises with another portable device is that your schedule is always with you, and in this day and age that is a very good thing indeed.

I think the next step would be to make a list of what you do around and outside of the home and to ensure your calendar is up to date with your own commitments and also those of your family - particularly those you need to be involved in in some way. For example if your husband is going on a business trip, you may need to pack for him. (I still do that, although I know many housewives do not. My husband prefers it and I really do not mind.) If your child is going on a school trip, you may need to drive them to the bus or pack for them, or perhaps if it is a day trip you may be going along as a volunteer chaperone. So for me as a start I need to factor in my personal training, Pilates and yoga appointments as well as scheduling in family visits to the gym. I also need to allow plenty of time for writing. And of course there are our social commitments and travel.

From there I will have to start to think about what I do around the house and garden and work things out from there, not forgetting to schedule in things like dealing with financial matters - which I have always generally just slotted in as and when they were needed. Of course, there are some things that just can’t be scheduled, like watching the stock market, but I’ll have to see how that goes.

I’ll try to mention how things are going in each blog entry and perhaps after a couple of weeks I might be able to work out some suggested guidelines for those of you who would like to run your homes to a schedule. I have my doubts that I will actually be able to stick to one, but watch this space!

Friday, May 08, 2009

Leaver's Day

I don’t remember my last day of secondary school. It’s funny, you would have thought a day like that would stick in my mind. Strangely, it’s lost in the mists of my memory. I remember Graduation of course - how could I forget? But the last day of school itself? Nothing.

I wonder if my son will remember his last day of school when he is my age? The last day of school comes early in England, at the end of Year 11, just before the very important GCSE exams begin. For young people in Year 11 this year, it is today. Today. Today, my son leaves school. I keep thinking that thought, rolling it round and round in my mind, as if somehow familiarity will make the words more tangible, more real.

It is hard to take it in though, as the whole day has an aura of unreality about it. Although it is “leaver’s day”, the young people will be going back to school over the next few weeks for classes and revision sessions, and for their exams. So although they are officially leaving, they are not actually leaving, things are just moving to another level. No matter how I couch it though, it is the last official day of school.

It seems like only yesterday it was the first day of school, my son’s tiny hand in mine, so excited about the future. And then more first days, every year a new beginning, every year an ending. I vividly remember my son’s “last first day” of infant school in Year Six. It was one of the first blog entries I wrote, lost back in the archive. Someday I’ll republish it, but not today.

Today is a day for celebrating. It’s the end of an era - the latter part of which has not been easy but which we all have come our of stronger, both individually and as a family. More importantly, and much more positively, it is the beginning of my son’s life as an adult - writing exams, moving forward into further education and making a life.

I hope that the celebrations are good ones. I feel a bit sad that if my son had stayed at his old school, it would have been a much bigger deal. On Leaver’s Day there, the kids arrive at school in limousines or fancy old cars. Most of them dress up in formal clothes and the celebrations are talked about for months afterwards. Nothing like that is happening at my son’s current school, but at least they are getting an assembly and apparently a bit of a celebration. I do hope it is memorable for all the right reasons.

It’s important to acknowledge today for many reasons, not the least of which is the pressure these young people are under to succeed in a world with its fair share of problems. But has it ever been any different? With some very rare exceptions, has there ever been a time in the last two centuries that anyone has left school in a world at peace with the economy totally sound? I don’t think so. Still, it is important to recognise the challenges our young people are facing, and encourage them to rise above them. Optimism, a quality that is sadly lacking in our society today, is vital in order to enable this next generation to fulfill their highest potential.

As for me as a mum, it is a day to acknowledge that for a while now, my role has been changing. Although my work as a mum is far from over (thank goodness!), “leaver’s day” does highlight the fact that for a while now I have been needed slightly less. This is giving me a new freedom, and a chance to look to myself again, to take the time to explore more of my own dreams and aspirations. It’s wonderful, but like all change, it’s just a tiny bit scary at the same time.

Most of all today, I’m very proud of my son, not just for what he has accomplished, but also for who he is. And although I can’t profess to be writing this dry-eyed, my emotions today are primarily happy ones. You see, one of the things I wrote in that blog entry all those years ago is something I feel equally strongly about today. I wrote,

“Our children never belong to us, and trying to hold onto something that is only being lent to us by God is selfish in the extreme.  My Mother never clung to me. She always encouraged me to move forward in my life, even if that meant moving away from her.”

My Mom was a fantastic example of what it meant to hold your children close while giving them wings. I hope that I can manage that amazing feat as well as she did.

To everyone leaving school today, Happy Leaver’s Day!

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Not The Brightest of Birds

We were awoken at 6.30 this morning by a huge thump somewhere beneath us. Actually, that is not quite true. My husband was awoken this morning by a huge thump somewhere beneath us. I had been awake for over an hour, laying there worrying about the things that you only worry about when you are laying awake in bed in the early hours of the morning wishing you could go back to sleep. If worrying was a competition, I could do it for England. But that is another story.

Anyway, back to the thump. Being awoken by that kind of noise is never good, but it was even worse for the thing that caused it. I have to admit I immediately suspected what the source of the noise was, but only because I have heard it so many times before. It seems that our house, newly built eighteen months ago, is on some ancient pigeon flight path. One of the first times I came to look at the house under construction I noticed a pigeon shaped mark on the dining room window. The builders no sooner cleaned it off that another one appeared. Since we moved in I have lost count of the number of pigeons I have watched hit the window and land on the ground, dazed and confused, only to stumble away with a puzzled look on their faces. I feel quite sorry for them actually.

The oddest thing about it is that although a lot of the back of our house is glass, it is only ever the dining room window that gets hit. Stranger still is the fact that in a window with three large panes of glass, it is always the same one that gets hit, in virtually the same place! And even stranger still, it is only ever the pigeons that hit it. It’s like the news on the bird grapevine of our house being built somehow escaped the pigeons. Or maybe they upset the other birds so no one told them about it. Whatever the cause, at least once a month (usually just after the window cleaner has been) a large, perfectly shaped pigeon print appears on the window. The strike this morning was actually a first in that this is the only time we have had two pigeon shaped marks on the windows at the same time. I had always left the marks there to hopefully warn other birds off, but I guess not only can they not see the window, they cannot see the pigeon marks either.

Luckily none of the pigeons has actually done themselves any real harm (except possibly one that was later run over in the road - I suspect he was so dazed he wandered out in front of a car). This is a big relief to me as I am not very good at all with birds, and dead or injured ones render me virtually helpless with fear. I’ve even been on the internet trying to find ways of stopping the collisions from happening - sadly without much success. One website (no I’m not joking, that really is the URL!) had all sorts of suggestions, but sadly they all involved putting stickers all over your windows or putting nets up outside. They even suggested whitewashing the windows - not something I am going to be doing anytime soon! (I do need to thank them for their photograph of a bird strike which I have borrowed for this post though as I could not manage to get a good photo of the one on our window. )

According to, unless you almost totally cover or obscure your window, there is a pretty good chance birds will hit it. Sadly, this does not bode at all well for our local pigeon population as I’m certainly not bird lover enough to go to those lengths. So if you see a load of pigeons wandering round looking like they have really bad headaches, chances are you are not very far from my house - which is clearly right in the middle of one of Berkshire’s premier pigeon flight paths!

Monday, May 04, 2009

"Was Jerusalem Builded Here?"

We spent last weekend with our friends in the Buckinghamshire countryside. It was wonderful having the chance to walk in such beautiful surroundings. One of the places our friends took us was Stowe Gardens and it was amazing. There are miles of walks, beautiful trees, plants and flowers, a gorgeous lake and follies everywhere. From stunning bridges, to miniature temples and statue gardens, this place was clearly a playground for its owners and their guests.

I was reminded by this how very beautiful England is. Despite the relentless march of progress, parts of the “green and pleasant land” William Blake referred to in his short poem prefacing his epic “Milton: a poem” still exists today. That short poem was the basis for “Jerusalem” the iconic hymn by Sir Hubert Parry.

There is a story that sits alongside, but is not a part of, acknowledged scripture. In this story, Joseph of Arimathea is more than the man who gave his own tomb for the burial of Jesus after he was crucified, he is Jesus’ uncle. It is said in this story that when he was a boy Jesus travelled with him to what is now England. The poem Blake wrote implies that if Jesus visited here, a second Jerusalem (like the “New Jerusalem” referred to in the Book of Revelations) must briefly have been created, a foretaste of paradise. This was a stark contrast to the “dark satanic mills” (factories where people worked in horrid and dangerous conditions during the industrial revolution) that scarred the landscape in Blake’s time.

However unlikely the idea of Jesus visiting England centuries ago is - England was a very long walk indeed from the Holy Land - ironically, today Jerusalem is a more appropriate hymn for this country than ever. Although we may no longer have the worst of the “dark satanic mills” of the industrial revolution , today we have metaphorical ones. They are the cracks appearing in our society - the terrible things we hear about on the news, the loss of part of a generation to crime and drugs and the disintegration of family values - England is threatened on many sides.

However, visiting places like we did last weekend reminds me that the best of the England of the past - the beauty, indomitable spirit and old fashioned values - still exists in places. It is not just in the the beautiful countryside either. It’s in the hearts and minds of those who remember it, in the spirits of those who have gone before us, and it definitely lives in those of us who are determined that, despite some of the setbacks we have had, one day Britain will be Great again.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Not Quite The Real Thing, But Pretty Close!

I’m not know for my skills at bargain hunting; in fact it is usually quite the opposite. I’m a fantastic shopper, but I’m the one who can never find anything in the sale racks and almost always ends up paying retail.

Bearing all that in mind, I found a very clever imitation of the absolutely gorgeous Swarovski candle holder (in the top photograph) in the home department of the UK retailer Next (in the second photograph). I was amazed at how similar in appearance their version was. The photograph does not really do it justice - sitting on my dining room table it really does look like the real thing.

Now this is where I do have to point out that there is nothing like Swarovski. Their beautiful crystal is something I love to collect, and I’m lucky to have a number of their pieces. Their candle holders are still very much on my list of things I would be very happy to add to my collection. Also, I have held the Swarovski version of these candleholders and of course there is a weight to them that lets you know they are the real thing. But just for the moment, the ones from Next are looking very beautiful on my dining room table and, provided no one picks them up, it is unlikely the fact they are an homage to the Swarovski version would be apparent. (Except for the fact that I am now admitting it here!)

It just shows that you really can decorate beautifully on a budget. The Swarovski version above come in at £122 each (about $182 US at today’s exchange rate) and the Next version cost £7 (about $10US). So - and this is something I can rarely say after a shopping trip - buying a pair I saved over two hundred pounds (nearly $300US)!

The other thing I find interesting is that I had put a photograph of the Swarovski candle holders on my vision board, and suddenly I found the ones at Next. Okay, they are not “the real thing” but for the moment I’m very happy with the “next” best thing. (You’ll have to forgive me that one, it’s my first pun in ages!)

I think a pair of these would make a beautiful addition to any dining room - or a lovely house warming gift for that matter.