Friday, October 29, 2010

Happy Halloween

How America handles Halloween is very different to the Irish way. 
Actually, I can only speak for the New Englanders because it may well be different again in the Mid West or over in California.  I know for example that they just don’t do Halloween in the south of Spain.  We went down to Marbella this time three years ago only to discover that it was just another day.  The children still haven’t forgiven us. There was no fancy dress party, no trick or treating, no half-deranged adults dishing out mucho candy.  Well, if we goofed (or got incredibly lucky) that year, we are definitely making up for it now.
Here in the USA, Halloween is taken to a whole new level.  The house decorating starts at the beginning of the month because you need to get an early start to get everything done.  Entire gardens are transformed into graveyards, enormous spiders hang from all conceivable hooks and gallows and every third or fourth garden has a good old fashioned hanging (of a pretend variety obviously!).  The primary component for most homes is oceans of white (or bright green) artificial spider’s web.  It spreads easily over bushes and trees.  I’ve even seen one home where they covered the entire fa├žade of the two story house in webbing.  The result – well the neighbourhood looks a bit like a Hollywood set but its great fun and the kids really love it.  (And we are doing this for the kids – right?)
The trick or Treating is also a bit crazy.  Last year the girls came back with what would equate to two shopping bags of candy.  I went out with the younger two and we just did a few neighbourhood houses but I saw something last year that I had never seen before - ‘honesty baskets’.  This is used when the residents of the house you’re visiting have gone out too (presumably trick and treating) and so they leave a large basket of sweets on their porch.  You’re meant to take one or two bars and move on… Now, is it me?  Do I just have a bad streak, because the urge to take the whole bloody basket and run was almost too strong to resist.  I probably would have swiped the lot only my kids would have told on me.  So we just took a few bits and continued on our trek.  It was lovely to meet all the neighbours and ridiculously warm.  Have I told you that Boston is on the same latitude as Rome and so far this autumn has been glorious?   It’s 24C/76F as I write.   (To my US readers – that would be a heatwave in Ireland!)
We also have an extremely popular neighbour, more popular than any sports celebrity or movie star (well, the movie stars all live in California anyway).  He’s the guy who started Tootsie Rolls.  I don’t think we actually have them in Ireland so I’ll tell you they are to the US what Tayto Crisps is to Ireland – part of the fabric of the society.  It’s a bit like living a few doors down from Santa.  Anyway this guy has taken a view on Halloween and he gives out tons and tons of candy that night.  He literally brings a Tootsie Roll truck home for the weekend.  The thing is, word has got out.  Last year two cop cars and a passing zombie were commissioned to coordinate traffic, pedestrians and marauding werewolves.  It was utterly mad and enormous fun.
So needless to say by the first of November last year, I was a bit worried about the volume of candy in the house and thats when I heard about a new tradition.  He’s called ‘The Changeling’ and he visits your house a few nights after Halloween.  The idea is that the child leaves all the candy they still have left (and the parents haven’t consumed) in a large bag out on the porch.  With it, they leave a note telling The Changeling what they will take in exchange for the candy.  It could be a new set of roller skates or a play station – anything but candy.  That’s the theory.   This way your darling little angel doesn’t actually have to consume all the sugar he or she got on Halloween night.  My first reaction was who is taking who for a ride here?  I mean Santa seems to have gone utterly mad in the last two decades with his generosity.  I gather Chanukah is just as ‘good’ to the kids and now the Easter Bunny (who wasn’t even born when I was a kid) is in on the act and here comes a new guy - the changeling.  I’m thinking of writing him a note and saying - thanks but no thanks unless of course he would take the candy and change it for a nice new handbag….Happy Halloween!   

Love Suzanne
PS.  One Halloween tradition that the great ol’ US of A doesn’t have and I really miss is Barn Brack.  What I would give for a bite right now with some real Irish butter.  Have a slice for me!

Monday, October 25, 2010

I’m just a tourist here.........

One of my darkest moments moving to America was when I discovered that Massachusetts would not accept my Irish driving licence and I would have to resit the test.  In the past twenty five years, I have traded my Irish licence in for an UK one, I’ve had an international driving licence - can’t remember why and I’ve certainly driven all over Europe and the USA on my old and trusted Irish Licence.  That said, Massachusetts is very firm on this.  If you want to live here, you have to have a Mass drivers licence.  It’s odd because in Florida you just swap your Irish one for their local one and then I could have brought a Floridian licence up here and exchanged that for a Mass licence but that would have involved moving to Florida – which I did actually consider at one point. I was that scared of sitting the test.  Was this the first example I saw of a genuine, bona fide scam?  I think so and it gets better!

There are two parts of the test.  The theory was pretty easy because it was geared at eighteen year olds.  One of the questions for example was; if you drink a large amount of alcohol and then take some mind altering drugs a) does one negate the other, b) do they have no affect on your driving C) should you avoid driving?  I kid you not.  OK those ones I could zip through - but how many points do you get on your licence if you’re driving after curfew?  What’s a curfew?  Thankfully they were multiple choice and you only had to get fifteen right out of twenty two questions, God knows why.  Does this mean I only need to pay due care and drive well fifteen out of twenty two days?  The one rule that really knocked me sideways when I got here was that you were aloud to text and drive.  I can’t even walk in a straight line and text so the notion of moving at seventy miles an hour in three tons of metal and texting is really comical (but you’d be amazed at how reasonable it seems after a few months of living here.)  Anyway, that’s old news because they have since outlawed it.  You can still phone somebody and chat away on a hand held phone while driving.  I like that!
So back to the test.  I passed the theory using my cunning and guesswork and avoided all questions about curfews.  Then there was the practical test to worry about.  My husband got me a lesson before the test just to be sure I knew what I was meant to be doing as opposed to what I actually did when driving.  The poor instructor got an awful shock when he saw how old I was.  He was only twenty three years old which meant I had passed my test before he was even born.
He seemed pretty happy with the way I could drive and so the test date was set.  I had to take my driving instructor to the exam because you must have a qualified Mass driver in the car with you when you’re sitting the test, not counting the actual tester who I assume is a qualified Mass driver (go figure) but it’s another hundred bucks gone. I also had to rent the driving instructor’s car because mine had a foot break and not a hand break (heh?) another hundred bucks.  Somebody somewhere in Massachusetts is making a fortune out of testing fully qualified drivers.
And so the test began, the instructor in the back seat, the tester on my right and me - driving the instructor’s car.  He told me to go up to the first set of lights and take a right and I would have; only my light was red.  The tester told me to continue but I didn’t.  Then he said ‘go on,” again and I suddenly remembered the American rule you can turn right on a red on condition there isn’t a sign to say otherwise.  (It’s more sensible than it sounds.)
“Oops,” I muttered and crashed my first red light while being tested - a weird experience.  He got me to do the ever-reliable three point turn, to parallel park (mercifully in a fifty foot gap so there was lenty of room even for me) and then I had to pull out into traffic but as luck would have it there was no traffic.
The pressure was mounting, I was a nervous wreck and so I blurted out that I had been driving in Ireland for twenty five years, I had five kids and I had never had an accident but Massachusetts insisted that I resit the test.  Then to my horror my eyes glassed up.  I could sense the instructor in the back seat panicking. (At twenty five guys have no clue how to handle girls who cry, not to mention old ladies in tears) The tester wasn’t any too happy either.  He directed me back to the testing centre and opened his door to get out.  Just as he was leaving he handed me a little slip of paper and said, “Well done, you’ve passed.” I would have kissed him if he was anywhere near me but then I realised that was why he had jumped out so sprightly.  That is exactly what he was scared of!  Doubtless he had seen my kind before but for me it was a really big deal.  That said, after all the trauma and unnecessary cost there is a silver lining.
Now when I go home to Dublin, I’ll be in a rental and I can drive in the bus lanes.  If a cop catches me I’ll just produce the US drivers licence and my broadest Mid West accent and say, “Sorry Officer, I had no idea.  Ye’ see I’m just a tourist here.”

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Babysitting in the USA

Babysitting is a right of passage on this side of the Atlantic, much as it is in Ireland.  Any girl with a bit of cop-on and maturity will find herself baby-sitting for half the neighbourhood in no time.  Such is the case with my first born.  Needless to say, like all things American, they take it to a whole new level over here.  The kids all do CPR training in their final year of Middle school, around thirteen years old.   It’s amazing to think she could execute a perfect Heimlich manoeuvre when I still don’t trust her with the kettle.  She can also save a choking infant,  resuscitate an octogenarian having a heart attack and err, coordinate a full emergency police and fire evacuation from a smoking building.  That last bit wasn’t exactly on the syllabus but it was how she spent last weekend.

It all started out innocently enough when a friend asked me if she was available to mind three boys.  The baby was three and the other two were ten.  My daughter was not only available but delighted to do it.  She entertained them as requested and bedded the little one at the required time, teeth clean and bed time story done.  The two bigger boys had been given permission play a new Halloween game.  It’s called Ghosting.  The concept is lovely.  The kids leave a bag of candy on a friend’s door step with a note saying “You’ve been Ghosted!” Then they hide in the garden and watch their friend’s delighted reaction.  Said friend gets a lovely bag of sweets and must pass on the good luck by Ghosting somebody else in the neighbourhood.  This new Halloween tradition ran very smoothly in these parts last year but this year it has morphed slightly.  The kids (ten year old boys in particular) have discovered that it’s much more fun to Toast a neighbour than to Ghost one…
My daughter OK’d the making of the toast.  She even reservedly OK’d the re-toasting of the bread when it wasn’t cooked enough but that’s when it all well wrong.  The first thing to howl was the fire alarm.  She had never heard anything so loud – squawking - waoh, waoh throughout the house.  Her first instinct was to get to the baby who would by now be doing a fair bit of squawking himself.  She remembered her training.  Regardless of what caused the fire alarm to go off; when it happens, it’s one out - all out and then reassess.  As she scooped up the screaming baby and swept out of the building with the two truculent ten year olds she also managed to grab the handheld phone which was ringing anyway at this stage.  Outside she answered the phone and was relieved to speak with the fire emergency department.  “What is your fire code number, madam?” the lady repeated at my daughter a second and third time after the poor girl said she had no idea.  The noise only got louder as two police cars arrived on the scene - Miami Vice style - lights flashing, sirens adding to the symphony.  They ushered everybody clear of from the house to make way for the Fire truck which arrived within seconds - its sirens adding an extra dimension to the now ear-splitting chaos. 
Neighbours gathered and my daughter although mortified to be in the middle of the emergency was fantastically impressed with the manliness of the EIGHT fire fighters, as they bravely tore into the house and opened every window there was.  Two men, dressed in full fire-battle dress, gingerly manoeuvred the smoking toaster out of the kitchen and into a cordoned off area of the garden.  Only at this point was my daughter able to phone the mother of the house and retrieve the fire code number.  Eventually the fire brigade alarms were switched off, the police sirens were put on pause and the house fire alarm was shut down too.  At this point another high pitch whine entered into the drama.  It was the burglar alarm informing her that “security had been breached,” in other words a window (or ten) had been opened.  The phone began to ring again and so, naturally she answered it.  “This is Intruder Alert security, Madam.  Please give me your four digit Intruder clearance code,” they asked. 
“Would you settle for the fire code?” my daughter tried but the operator wasn’t impressed. “I’m sorry, madam but without that code, I’ll have to send a couple of police cars over to you.”
“All right,” she sighed, looking at the street full of flashing red and blue lights.  “If I could just get back into the house, I’d make tea for everybody but I’m afraid there won’t be any toast.”

Monday, October 11, 2010

Back to school

One of the main reasons we chose to live in Wellesley is because the schools have a reputation for a very high standard of education and I have to admit that they have superseded my expectations.  Elementary School here is what we know as Primary school in Ireland. Then there is Middle and a High school.  Kids spend three and four years in each of these respectively.  I think the thing that has shocked me most is the incredible positivity.  Nothing is a problem.  There are only challenges of varying sizes that we need to take on daily.  This ‘can do’ mentality is weaved into the children’s psyche and they really believe that they can do and make anything of themselves.  It is humbling to witness first hand.
Bates is the elementary that my younger children attend. It was founded by a lady named Catherine Lee Bates who also pencilled the words to the famous ‘America the beautiful’ so - yes I know I’m in pretty rarefied air here.  They have a school nurse on duty all the time, a fitness instructor, a librarian.  There are kids with special needs in almost all the classes.  These kids have the extra attendants that they need and most importantly for me, they get to live as close to a normal life as is possible.  Also the other kids are perfectly happy living and working alongside these kids.  It in no way slows down the learning experience of the ‘regular’ kids but in my view it does enhance their school environment and interpersonal skills as they get to interact with children of varied ability.  It leads to a much healthier, more balanced life outside of school as well as within.  Speaking of health, in one of my daughter’s class the teacher has an indoors trampoline so if any of the kids are feeling frazzled or have too much energy, she just lets them jump for a few minutes… it really works.  She also has several giant gym balls so the kids can sit on them instead of chairs as they read.  It doesn’t stop them reading but they’re using all their core muscles while they work.  Don’t get me wrong, this teacher is street smart and wouldn’t let the children mess but she does recognise their need to burn more calories during the day than we adults do.

In the Middle school, they have a back to school night for the parents.  This is where we get do what our kids do in a typical day.  Instead of having fifty-five minute classes however, we have thirteen minutes and that way, we can get through eight hours of school in two.  We get to see the classrooms and hear a little presentation from each teacher.  We can sit in our child’s seat and see the parents of the kid who sits next to them.  It’s a brilliant idea and one I would suggest trying out in Ireland.  They had a similar night in the High School too.  A new High School is being built at the moment.  In order to make it all work they simply decided to build it in the car park and then when it’s done, they’ll knock down the old school and turn that into a new parking lot.  How simple and clever is that!  The cost?  One hundred and thirty million dollars – they take education very seriously.

All the schools are mixed – boys and girls and there is no uniform.  In Ireland I spent about a thousand euro a child on uniforms each year.  There is no book list at the beginning of the year here.  The school lends them a hard back copy of any books they need which they must take home and take great care of.  On the inside front page there is a list of the previous owners – usually going back four or five years.  It is quite normal to see a friend’s big brother or sister had the book before you!  If the book is damaged during the year there is a fine but so far, we haven’t damaged any books.  In Ireland we buy the books new every year – cost? About the same as the uniforms!   In so many areas, Wellesley has managed to provide a healthy, loving, cheaper, better schooling system by just using common sense.  I know this makes for a better environment both for the students and the teachers.  Did I mention that the class sizes are much smaller here too?

I think my twelve year old daughter put her finger on it when we were talking about the real differences between Irish Schools and American schools. She said in Ireland if she made a smart comment in class, the teacher would turn around and say, “I suppose you think that’s funny, do you? Well it’s not.  Now sit down and work.”  In doing so they would get her back under control but knock her at the same time.  Here the teacher is more likely to say, “Yeah, yeah, very funny now back to work,” thereby getting the nose back to the grindstone but validating the kid at the same time.
Food for thought.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Crime doesn’t Pay

OK, I think this is the beginning of what they call “culture shock.”  I knew the statistics on crime in Boston and in particular our town, Wellesley and those of Dublin before we moved.  One of the reasons we actually chose this part of the world is because it’s so safe but to know it and to actually live it are two totally different things. 
When we discovered, for example that we had no house alarm I instantly began to factor in the chore of having one installed.  There was no way I was going to live in a house with no alarm – not in crime ridden America, where they had guns.  I knew my husband would be away a lot too because of business, yet another reason to have one.  Then we had the incident of the estate agent leaving the keys in the house and the house wide open when we arrived late on our first day here.  The truth is there is just no crime here.  I think it is the fact that there is a zero tolerance for it.  The cops are perfectly lovely and will help you get your car out of a tight parking spot but if they meet a baddy, they turn into the cops you see on TV.  I once saw them pin a guy down on the bonnet of his car.  (It was just like on the telly – very exciting!) He had been speeding and gave them chase so they cuffed him and I assume brought him ‘down town.’  Do you remember The Incredible Hulk?  They’re a bit like that.  The police force is perfectly lovely but if a situation gets dodgy, they turn nasty in an instant.

Kids here get a half day on Wednesday (but before you get jealous - they start much much earlier too) so one day I was in the central shopping square when a swarm of kids arrived, looking for sandwiches and doubtless a bit of craic (fun).  It was sunny and they were just hanging around but there were quite a lot of them, maybe fifty.  By the time I had come out of the supermarket, a few minutes later, two cop cars had arrived, lights flashing (like on CSI Miami) and one of the men had a loud speaker (bull horn) telling the kids to “Dissipate or you will be arrested.  Leave the locality now or you will be arrested.” There was absolutely no messing with them.  There wasn’t a kid on the scene within five minutes.  Even I scarpered.

The biggest shock for me however was the day my eldest daughter and I went into a restaurant bathroom (restroom) together.  An elderly lady had been checking her reflection in the mirror and then turned to go into a toilet cubicle.  In doing so she left her handbag (purse) beside the sink, outside the cubicle.  Reacting quickly, my daughter stoped her politely and reminded her that she had forgotten her purse.
“Oh, that’s OK, honey.  I’ll get it when I come out,” she smiled indulgently at my little girl.  “Not enough room in here,” she whispered as if that explained it.  Then the older woman happily went into the toilet cubicle and locked the door, leaving her large handbag unguarded beside the sink in the ladies!
My daughter and I looked at each other incredulously.  Even I felt tempted to steal it.  How could anywhere on the planet still be so innocent, honest and upright?
A year on, I’ve decided not to bother with the house alarm J

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Shopping - an endurance sport?

Arriving in Boston from Dublin means you are seriously jet lagged for a few days.  Naturally we were all tired the night we arrived but I hoped - after all the excitement of such a big house move, that everybody would sleep in until a civilised hour on the first morning.  We managed to stay in bed until four am L (that’s nine o clock back in Dublin so it wasn’t as bad as it sounds.) Because we were all on camping beds with sleeping bags, my husband had the rather lovely notion that we should all sleep in the same room.  It was a nice idea but it did mean one up = all up the next morning and so everybody was showered and dressed by five am on our first day in our new home.
I know usually the early bird catches the worm but there were no worms in our house, no bread, no milk, and no cereal and even if there was we had no plates, glasses or cutlery to eat with.  Clearly we had a lot of shopping to do and so we headed into town to see if we could get something to eat.  Gladly Wellesley, like everywhere else in New England opens early, real early.  We were able to get the kids fed and watered before six am.
The rest of the day was a shopping extravaganza.  Now, I know we women are famed for loving to shop but this wasn’t like that.  We headed first to the appliance store and bought an enormous washing machine and a separate dryer.  Funny I never used one in Ireland.  From a young age I had the notion that dryers eat electricity and ruin clothes – both good reasons for not wanting to use one but here I knew it would be essential.  With four months of snow outside, drying the old-fashioned way simply isn’t an option.   One thing that I did find remarkable is the size of the machines.  They are simply huge.  I knew that everybody says everything in America is bigger but this dryer could carry one of my older kids and the washer could double up as a kennel for Hogan our (big) golden Retriever.  So both machines were purchased and due to be delivered within a day or two.

Then we headed to the furniture shop.  The beds, I had bought on line and were to arrive later in the afternoon but that still left the necessity for four sofas, five arm chairs, a kitchen table, dining room table and eight seats for each, four study/writing desks, five chairs to go with them.  We needed eight occasional tables, 12 bedside/reading lamps, three free standing ones,  a complete suite for the basement/den, two large flat screen TVs and suitable stands for them, eight chests of drawers, seven bedside lockers and some other small bits and pieces.  Here’s were I remind you of the power of local knowledge.  My cousin’s wife told me about Bob’s discount Store.  I don’t even know if it’s just local to Massachusetts or it’s all over the States but I kid you not, we furnished a large family home almost completely for less than fifteen thousand dollars.  To move all our gear from Ireland would have cost more than buying everything new here.  We had been dreading the day in the store but the first nice surprise is the sales assistants are openly begging to do business with you.  They are clearly on massive commission and so they will do anything, literally anything to help you get what you want.  The real icing on the cake though, was that a quarter of the store is given over to a FREE candy store with a large flat screen showing kids’ movies.  Customers are encouraged to let their children watch a limitless amount of movies and eat as much candy as they want while the parents browse.  It works a treat.  On the few occasions I’ve had to go back to Bob’s over the last year, the kids are always very happy to oblige.  There’s limitless coffee and cookies for the adults too.  I think that’s where the kids had lunch on our first day; living in America – at an all you can eat sweet shop!

By mid afternoon we had the house furniture and white goods done and then we decided it was time to do a quick food shop before calling it a day.  The supermarkets definitely deserve a separate story but for now I’ll just tell you that we went to our local medium sized store.  While the kids threw anything that looked familiar into the shopping cart, I went off in search of customer information.  There was a lovely middle aged woman with a broad smile waiting for my enquiry.
“Hi, I’m just wondering where your wine department is,” I smiled politely, acutely aware of how strong my Irish accent is.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” Suspicion as opposed to misunderstanding shadowed her face.
“Your wine department, you know to get a bottle of wine,” I tried again.
She looked visibly affronted.  “We don’t sell wine or any alcohol in these premises.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I stuttered, not quite sure what I was apologising for.  “Can you tell me where the nearest place that I can purchase alcohol is?”
She shook her head.  “Wellesley is a dry town.  You can’t buy alcohol here or anywhere near here.”
I didn’t even know what that meant.  I remembered studying the American prohibition in a very boring history class but that went out with the dinosaur, surely.  What did a dry town even mean?  I knew that I had drunk wine when I was in holidays in Florida, New York and Colorado so what kind of town was this I wondered as a mild sense of panic began to settle in the pit of my stomach.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Luggage Logistics

A house move of a few hundred miles is stressful enough but the main problem with a trans Atlantic one is that all the things that don’t fit in your suit case;  lamps, sofas, winter clothes, bednobs and broomsticks – your entire life… it all has to come with international freight carriers – another headache which I admit I hadn’t factored into my ‘new easier life,’ plan. 
First there’s the cost.  (It definitely would have been cheaper to just take a holiday in the sun.)  Then there’s the slightly messier problem of the length of time it takes.  The furniture was meant to take four to six weeks to make the journey.  It took eight!  Two months.  To make things slightly easier we were renting out our Dublin home fully furnished so I wasn’t actually taking a full house of furniture to the States.  I shudder to think what that would have cost – far more than the cost of most of the furniture.  I just wanted a few sentimental pieces, all my pictures, naturally all our clothes and most of what was in the kitchen.  If you do decide to move from Europe to the US, don’t bother taking anything electrical.  The different type of plugs is the bane of my life.  The girls are constantly looking for adaptors to use hairdryers and stereos from home.  Just leave them in Europe and buy new ones out here – trust me. 
So on the plane each child had a case full of their summer clothes – which would have to last them EIGHT weeks.  They also each had an inflatable camping bed because the house we were coming to was UNFURNISHED.  We tried hard to rent a furnished one but the Americans don’t seem to do that.  For this reason a week before we flew, I went on line and bought six beds from a shop I had never seen, in a city suburb I had never been to.  What choice did I have?  They even had a delivery roster posted on their web site so I pencilled us in for the morning after we arrived.  That meant we would have one night with no beds.  We would sell it to the kids as an err - camping adventure.
We did have a terrific cousin who lived near by and offered to put all of us up but he has two cats and I didn’t think they would appreciate a jet lagged golden retriever using their kitty litter.
My cousin did do us a huge favour on the day of our arrival, though.  He and his wife met us at the airport.  By then we were pretty shattered and the dog was really at the end of his tether.  We were very happy to load up their two cars and our long term rental with our motley crew and head for our new home.
The first inkling I got that I was in a not at home was when my husband phoned the estate agent.  We were over an hour late and she was to meet us at the house to hand over the keys and show us how some of the appliances worked. Although my husband was stressed about it, she didn’t seem bothered.  She explained that she would just leave the back door unlocked and put all the house keys in the top drawer nearest the sink.  The idea of leaving a house unlocked was utterly alien to us.  
 “If you leave the alarm off, surely it could be robbed before we get there,” he suggested.
“What alarm?” she asked.