Archive for July 2009


When I was a junior in college, I spent a year studying at Oxford University. I read (and read, and read), produced two twenty-page essays every week which I then read aloud to my tutors, attended lectures, drank pints of Pimms, ate quantities of curry, rowed on my college crew team, and spent hours around the kitchen table with my four housemates, taste-testing the various grocery store brands of wheatmeal biscuits and chocolate hazelnut spreads.

When we decided to meet Libby and her family during their first week of her summer teaching program in Oxford, I tried to think about what I knew of Oxford which might suit the kids. Biscuits and chocolate: yes. River (though not in a four-person scull): certainly. But the libraries and the lectures and the curry and the Pimms not so much. Googling “Oxford + kids” led me to a link for a multimedia show called the Oxford Experience, which sounded pretty awful. So Tony bought a map (a 3-D pop-up map that Ben popped up and down so often before we arrived that it was starting to get too creased to read) and I figured we’d have a nice, four-day country idyll, punting on the river and wandering the gardens with family before heading home.

Except it was so hot, we hardly wanted to leave our air conditioned apartment. And for the first time on our trip we had downstairs neighbors we needed to be mindful of and suddenly all the boys wanted to do is run, hard, up and down the hall. And wandering around lovely gardens is not really the boys’ cup of tea; for instance they chose to picnic here:

instead of here:

And were understandably more than a little put off by how many and how much of the gardens are just for looking:

Still, the boys loved Oxford because of the glittery linoleum floor in our bathroom (“Treasure!” said Eli); our apartment was equipped with a big kitchen (complete with china tea set!); some of the taxis illustrated the Periodic Table of the Elements (Ben’s new interest):

But most of all, they loved Oxford because they were reunited with their cousin Mariah, who lived with us through the winter and spring:
And despite the heat, an ice cream cone tragedy, the general whininess and travel-weariness, we enjoyed the river:

And a terrific playground:

And the amazing Pitt-Rivers Museum:

which is full of rocks and bones and other cool things, many of which the kids could touch:

And on the last night, I even got my Pimms.


Some people go to Windsor to visit the castle, but when you have a boy who loves Lego and knows how to use Google Maps, you might just find yourself promising a day at Legoland. And it’s a fine place to spend a day, although I have to wonder why, when every ride has a wait of at least fifteen minutes, and you can set out big long Lego tables so that the kids can play while waiting on one of the lines, you wouldn’t put them at all of the lines? Just wondering.

We still rode a lot of rides, and we played mini-golf (where I nearly expired of heat exhaustion), and then — fortified with slushies and lots of cold (but not ice; we were in England, remember) water — we wandered around Mini Land, and that was my favorite part.

Mini Land is definitely pretty random; London is well represented, of course, plus we found the Montmarte neighborhood of Paris (which is where we stayed), Sweden (where one of Ben’s friends is spending the summer), and (most random of all) the NASA shuttle launch pad and astronaut training center. We even got to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, Lego-style, complete with tinny recorded music, which is good because we were not going to wait in line to see it for real:

Tate Modern + London Transport Museum = A Day without Whining!

Maybe it was the Tube ride, the first since we arrived in London three days ago (why did we wait so long?!). Or maybe after almost two weeks away from home we’ve all finally figured out the rhythm of outing-downtime-outing. In many ways, our day didn’t seem any more or less ambitious, any more or less scheduled than any other day, but this is the one day that kept everybody happy all day long: no whining, no sniping, no dragging.

First stop, the Tate Modern, which offers kids’ activities on Sundays. We went straight to the Family Desk and loaded up on activity books and a big sheet of heavyweight paper for the boys to take into the gallery and draw what inspired them. Tony and I took turns, alternating supervising the kids and wandering the fabulous galleries. Ben was delighted to find a gallery in which he could identify every artist (Rothko, Monet, Picasso, Kandinsky, Pollock). The boys explored, drew, and folded their big paper into funny hats.

Next stop, lunch:

Why yes, we are feeling peckish, thank you, and the cafe did very well by us. Not having planned in advance to get reservations anywhere interesting (oh, River Cafe! we’ll see you another time), not to mention the fact that the boys are beyond restaurant-weary by now, this is the most delicious meal Tony and I eat in London (orecchiette with summer squash and broad bean pesto for him, grilled vegetables on ciabatta with a good, vinegary caponata for me). Meanwhile, the boys eat their most elegant monochromatic meal of the trip: plain penne, chips, olives (some color there), and a vanilla/honey smoothie. Tony and I drink a glass of wine, the boys color happily, we watch a big rainstorm blow past.

Next stop, the London Transport Museum, with its fabulous interactive collection of exhibits on all aspects of London bus, boat and tube travel. There are vehicles to board and drive, passports to stamp, light-up, interactive maps and displays. It’s the only London museum at which we paid an admission fee (one more reason to love London: free art!), and it’s worth every penny.

We walk home through Covent Garden, eating ice cream on the way, the boys looking forward to leftover rice for dinner, and feeling happy about our two-museum day.

Greenwich Mean (Whine and Complain) Time

You can get to know a place by climbing a tall thing (or riding one) and looking down, by visiting the grocery store, or by taking a boat ride. In Paris, we rode the Batobus; in London, we rode a boat down the river to Greenwich to visit the Royal Observatory. The boys sat a table drawing elaborate diagrams of imaginary subway systems, while Tony and I enjoyed the ride and took some pictures of sights we’ll visit another time:

There’s no way to capture how beautiful Greenwich was on this day — one camera isn’t big enough to embrace the wide, wide lawns sweeping up from the river to the Royal Observatory, the fragrant, blooming chestnut trees, the blue blue sky, the delicate gardens of lavender and roses winding around iron fences. Also, there’s no way to convey — in words or pictures — how distracted I was by the supreme whining of travel-weary Eli, who by this point is subsisting (not well, clearly) on peanuts and ice cream, and flagging whenever a walk exceeds one block. We jolly him along with scavenger hunts and games of I Spy, or take turns carrying him. I joke at one point that as soon as we start to walk anywhere, he seems to get out his complaint book and page through it, looking for the appropriate grievance. He tells me he has lost his happy book, and I’m dejected, second-guessing this entire ambitious journey, but then he continues that he has a happy book, a laughter book, a silly book, a crying book, a screaming book, a whimpering book… And as the list gets longer and sillier, we both start to laugh and the moment is redeemed.

The walk and the whining have made us miss Greenwich’s big daily event–the big red ball that drops down a short spire on the roof of the Royal Observatory to mark 1 PM–but we take a picture of it anyway:

We order lunch at a cafe at the top of the hill, and laugh about the most polite Keep Off the Grass sign we’ve ever seen:

Then we enter the observatory to look at the Prime Meridian of the World:

and take the obligatory picture of the boys straddling the meridian line:

The building is full of clocks and sextants and telescopes and other navigational equipment which is a little bit over the boys’ heads (it’s frankly over my head) but it’s cool to look at, and maybe we can come back in a few years and it will all make more sense to us.

We stop briefly in the Queen’s House, simply because I want to see the Tulip Stairs. I’m not allowed to take a picture, but others have:

Isn’t it pretty?

And then we go to the National Maritime Museum, which has just enough good, hands-on activities (like a ship’s radio and a boat simulator) to keep everybody happy for well over an hour.

Our walk to the train station is interrupted by a huge thunderstorm — the kind where the thunder is so close and loud it makes you jump; the kind my children have never encountered in San Francisco — and we take shelter in the lobby of a drugstore, buy a few packs of HobNobs, and pass the time, feeling grateful that we hadn’t planned to take the boat back to London. The shop owner eventually, apologetically, asks us to leave (it’s closing time) but not before giving us a cast-off umbrella from the back. We accept it gratefully and make our way to the train station.

Back in our hotel, the boys and I settle in for the evening while Tony scouts Gerrard Street’s dozens of Chinese restaurants to find us some take-out for dinner; it takes him a while to find one that doesn’t scatter pork bits in everything, and the boys don’t love it (we wind up rinsing all the sauce off the broccoli and green beans), but the meal comes with about five pounds of rice, so not even the pickiest child goes hungry at the end of our long day.

Book Review: Real Life & Liars

We interrupt this vacation blogging again to address what I read on my vacation, which started with the fabulous Real Life & Liars, the first novel by Literary Mama’s fiction co-editor, Kristina Riggle.

I’m in the happy position now that a good portion of my bookshelf is filled with books written by women I know and like. I suppose there could be some anxiety in this — what if I don’t like the book as much as the writer? — but so far I haven’t been disappointed. Still, many of those books developed out of columns I’d been following for a while, or grew in my writing group. In Kristina’s case, I’d only read one short story of hers, What Kind of Mother (published on Literary Mama), and although we correspond regularly and were lucky enough to meet last winter at a conference, I had no idea what her writer’s voice, her fiction voice, might be like until she read a portion of the book at an event during that conference and I was mesmerized. The mother of two young kids that I’d been talking to over dinner before the reading disappeared into a pot-smoking, raspy-voiced mother of three grown children, grudgingly submitting to an anniversary party thrown by her eldest daughter, a polished suburban mother completely different from herself. I knew then not to worry about the rest of the book.

And I adored it.

The book takes place over the weekend of Max and Mirabelle Zielinski’s anniversary party, a family reunion at which a number of family secrets and lies are revealed. Riggle narrates the story from the perspectives of Mira and her three children: Katya, a suburban mother of three who, as Mira puts it, “drags [her younger siblings] along under the wheels of her train”; Ivan, a struggling songwriter who can’t see the love that’s right in front of him; and Irina, who is accidentally (reluctantly) pregnant and married to a man who isn’t going to let her screw it up.

Mira sees her children like she’s got a magnifying glass on them, and Riggle emphasizes Mira’s maternal perspective subtly by granting her the only first-person narration of the book; her three children’s stories are all told in the 3rd person. Meanwhile, Mira’s husband Max, a successful novelist, doesn’t get a turn at telling the story, which nicely underlines his position in the family: in it, certainly, but always maintaining a bit of distracted distance. As his son, Ivan, puts it of Max, in one of my favorite lines of the book: he “always seems to be writing his novels on the opposite wall of whatever room he’s in…” It’s a tricky thing to handle the shifting perspectives so fluidly, but Riggle pulls it off without a hitch.

I won’t give the story away by telling what happens, but instead, and in the spirit of this sharply funny and concise novel, I’ll just share a few of my favorite passages:

Here’s Katya: “A mosquito lands on her linen pants and stabs through to suck at her. What’s one more parasite, Katya thinks. Go ahead, suck me dry along with everyone else. The reflexive shame kicks in at thinking of her family this way.”

Here’s Ivan: “For a time, Van had a poster of his hero taped on his apartment wall. Bob Dylan stared down at him every night and every morning, heavy-lidded, cigarette drooping.

“Then Van got drunk on whiskey and self-pity one night and ripped it down, and in the blazing light of morning, through his hangover fog, he’d noticed that the paint had faded all around where it was taped, so he’d been left with his imprint. It was like a chalk outline around the corpse of his ambition.”

And Irina: “She always seemed to zoom back toward home base after every relationship went up in flames, brushing ashes out of her hair.”

But my favorite character is Mira, knowing but flawed Mira, who muses, “We all have the best-laid plans for our children, and they go and ruin it all by growing up any way they want to. What the hell was it all for, then?” Mira’s children don’t need her like they used to, her marriage has settled into something more comfortable than passionate, and her job, teaching college, may be coming to an end as well. She’s faced with some things that are making her reflect on her choices, but she knows she’s got a lot to be grateful for; she did a lot right. And although I’m at a very different stage in my life than Mirabelle Zielinski is, I loved her voice, and felt like I was in very good company reading her story. She and her family are characters that are going to stay with me a good long while.

For more about Kristina Riggle, visit her website, her blog over at The Debutante Ball, or just go buy the book.

Mama at the Movies; Away We Go

We interrupt this vacation blogging to announce that the latest Mama at the Movies column is now up at Literary Mama:

In the grand tradition of summer buddy movies, Sam Mendes’ new movie Away We Go presents a couple who take to the road. They’re not running from the law like Thelma and Louise or Manny & Lo, nor simply exploring, like the guys in Sideways; like road trippers from Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz to Bree and Toby in Transamerica, Verona and Burt are trying to get home. The difference here is that they don’t know where home might be. Verona is six months pregnant, and the couple reminds me of Mr. and Mrs. Mallard in Make Way for Ducklings: they’re looking for a good place to raise their baby.

Please click on over to Literary Mama to read the rest!


The London Eye may be a huge tourist trap, but when you visit an unfamiliar city, there are two ways to get to know it: visit the grocery store, and then get up as high as you can: the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Empire State Building in New York. (In San Francisco you only need a good hill, though we walk our house guests over to the de Young museum’s tower). Here in London, we sail up high and back down again; the boys adore the ride. Our hotel room has a view of Big Ben, so the boys say good night and good morning to it every day, counting up the low-flying airplanes, jetting in and out of Heathrow, as they sit by the window.

The Last Day of Paris

I get Ben to choke down some Tylenol — he’s feverish and sore-throated, but he doesn’t want to rest in the apartment any more than I do. We forge ahead to L’Orangerie to visit Monet’s enormous water lily paintings, hung in their own two oval rooms. Oval skylights, covered with a linen shade to diffuse the sun, light the room; the effect is watery and beautiful.

Walking through the Tuileries gardens after we leave the museum makes La Villette make more sense — the huge scale, the geometry — La Villette’s designers were clearly referencing this space. Even though La Villette has grass, the Tuileries’ stone buildings and dusty pebbled paths feel warmer and more accomodating than all of La Villette’s concrete and sharp edges. I may not like it any better now, but I’m happy to understand it better.

the boys with Henry Moore

a view of tall things

There’s a carousel, so we buy the boys a ride, and then as we continue down the path we notice — hurray! — a small pond with a man renting sailboats. It’s wonderful serendipity to make up for the lack of sailboats at the Jardin du Luxembourg earlier in the week. Plus, these boats are gorgeous, true works of art with hand-quilted sails, all different colors and textures of fabric. We rent boats for each of the boys, and then the man drops a third in to the water — “Just for fun” he comments — and then a fourth, and then he gives us a third stick to push them all around.

Then, another lucky break: an easy time at the Louvre. We sail right in via the Porte de Lions entrance, walk down the long (long) hallway to the Mona Lisa, pay our respects and leave. Eli has no particular interest in the museum, but he’s delighted to do a naked baby scavenger hunt: naked babies with wings! naked babies with arrows! He’s never seen so many cherubs in his life.

And then our happy luck runs out. We’re close to Angelina’s, famous for its hot chocolate, and decide to get the kids a treat. Except we’re not really close enough (they’re exhausted by the time we walk there); it’s too hot for hot chocolate; we really just need lunch. There’s nothing on the menu the boys want, and I don’t want to risk spending 20 euros on a meal they won’t eat, anyway. We should really just cut our losses and leave, but we’ve come all this way… So, we order ice creams for the kids and a salad and omelette for Tony and me to share. The food takes ages to come and we’ve left the boys’ coloring materials at home so they’re cranky and bored. We couldn’t be luckier, sitting in a beautiful cafe, surrounded by gorgeous food, but nobody’s happy. We eat quickly and head back to the apartment.

While the boys get their downtime, I get one last outing, visiting a friend who lives in the Belleville neighborhood. We walk in a park that reminds me of San Francisco’s Buena Vista park — a beautiful, overgrown hill rising out of a transitional, arty neighborhood.

It’s good to see another side of Paris — less touristy, less polished. Last year we stayed in Paris’ Union Square, this year we’re in Paris’ Noe Valley; maybe another time we’ll stay here.

One Perfect Day

Our friends’ son slept over the night before our trip to Giverny, and I wake to the sound of the three boys, still in their beds, chatting about their stuffies’ eating habits. It’s a pleasant way to start the day. Eventually we rise and eat and make our way to the train station, meet up with our friends, and set off for Giverny.

This stop has been on Ben’s to-do list since last fall, when he first started to learn about Monet and the Impressionists. He painted many pictures of the Japanese footbridge in Monet’s garden:

Meanwhile, we’d been visiting Monet paintings wherever we could find them in San Francisco.

Giverny is fabulous. The gardens are in full flower — roses, sweet peas, cornflower, daisies, and a whole red field of poppies. The boys can run in the big field or amble along the paths; we give Eli the camera and he shoots and shoots like he’s on a photo safari. “Do you like this flower, Mama?” he asks; “I’ll picture it for you!”

The house is rambling and beautiful, every room painted a different bright Easter egg color. I wish I could have photographed the kitchen, which has walls of robin’s egg blue, blue and white tile, and is hung with a series of copper pots.

We head home and meet up with another family — friends from San Francisco — and linger in the courtyard of our rental apartment with glasses of wine and salty snacks while the boys toss a frisbee. A boy who lives in the building comes into the courtyard with a ball, and after kicking it toward us a few times, we get the hint and start up a bit of a soccer game with him. Eventually, people need dinner and we go to the bistro next door, filling it. There’s not much on the menu that Ben and Eli are interested in eating, but they sit and color and nibble on some sweet potato fries (of all things) before ordering big bowls of chocolate ice cream for dessert and then heading back home to bed.

I’m sure there was some whining somewhere along the line, there was some stress about the train tickets and the boys didn’t much like the picnic lunch we brought to Giverny (ignore the guidebooks that say you cannot picnic there; you are only forbidden from picnicking within the garden, but that leaves an entire field plus paths dotted with plenty of benches), but that all fades pretty quickly and what remains are the remembered scent of all the flowers and the image of one happy boy, grinning on the Japanese footbridge.

Middle Days: Up and Down

Nobody is sleeping well, the adrenaline excitement which had powered us through the early jetlag days now having worn off. Ben and I both have sore throats, and he also complains of a stomach ache. He’s draggy, not his usual self. But we’re in Paris! We want to see things! So these are days of old and new, up and down.

First, we aim to return to places we enjoyed last year. We start here:

The appeal for the boys is the funicular train ride up the hill. Last year, we didn’t even go inside, but this year I want them to understand it’s a church. We walk a lap around the nave; there’s a service in progress, and we pause to listen a moment before heading, blinking, back out into the sun.

We make sure not to miss a ride here:

Then we take the metro to the Luxembourg Gardens, where we’d had so much fun last year. But this year, the carousel is closed and the man renting sailboats is nowhere to be seen. The zipline, which wasn’t even so easy last year, is crowded with kids jostling roughly for their turns. We go to the playground together:

Before getting back on the metro to meet our friends at a park, by which point the boys are ready to just hang out like this:

And like this:

It’s a lovely park, with a fun-looking playground, and we’ll explore it more another time, I hope. Soon enough, we head back to the apartment, cook a little pasta, toss together a salad, and call it a day.

The next day we head off to La Villette, which sounds amazing: a hands-on science museum, a music museum, a submarine, and a variety of different, themed playgrounds, including one with a giant dragon slide. We don’t have reservations for the science museum, though, so we can’t go in; we have a good time at the submarine, but when we are about to leave, a guard shouts at me for trying to take Eli to the bathroom via the exit door, rather than the entry. The dragon slide is closed as are all the playgrounds; we walk past them, past what feels like miles of chain link fencing. It’s like a museum of playgrounds, all carefully guarded by security. Maybe if the playgrounds were open and full of children, the whole place would warm up for me, but it feels cold; every angle is too sharp, the precise green lawn too strangled by the miles of concrete. Later, I read that the park is on the site of the former Paris slaughterhouses, and was designed in consultation with Jacques Derrida. Maybe that’s why I don’t like it. The whole place makes me cranky about Paris and all its arbitrary rules. We don’t take any pictures.

So it doesn’t make any sense, after that, to sign up for a metro ride clear across town to stand on line for the Eiffel Tower, but we do, and it is perfect. Last year, we spent a long time planning our ascent; this time we just go for it and this works, too.

We ride up, we snap pictures (especially Eli, whose interest in a place can always be rekindled by looking at it through a camera), we eat ice cream, and at the bottom, for good measure, ride the carousel.