Return to routine

September has to be a contender for my favourite month of the year. Especially on days like this when the golden sunshine highlights the leaves which are just beginning to change colour, and there’s that hint of crispness in the air. September is a month of anticipation; I guess a hangover from childhood when you had that thrilling triumvirate of Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night and Christmas to look forward to. And as I was a fairly geeky and Hermione like child, I’m not at all sure that I didn’t enjoy the return to school, complete with shiny shoes and a lavishly stocked pencil case, more than breaking up for the summer in the first place.

We have had a very enjoyable summer. We’ve paddled and built sandcastles and walked on cliff tops. We’ve made good use of our National Trust membership with visits to Plas Newydd, St Michael’s Mount and Speke Hall. We’ve spent time with friends and family, we’ve been to the zoo, we’ve eaten a lot of ice cream. We’ve had busy days, and days where no-one moved very far from the sofa. We’ve played frisbee in the park and visited innumerable playgrounds.

We’ve baked, and cooked, and swum, and crafted. We’ve kept the sticker book industry in business on various lengthy train journeys. I’ve read a million stories, and also made good use of the wonder that is CBeebies. And though I might feel like I’m the only person in East London not now sporting a Tuscan or Provencal tan, we did make the most of the changeable British weather. But now, I’m ready to get back into our normal routine, and I think the children are too.

I love my daughters more than I can say, and I know I am extremely lucky to have spent the last seven weeks with them. However, I think I may love and appreciate them just a little bit more when I have some time to myself. The windows of time  when Sophia is in pre-school and Anna is at school, and I get to write, or catch up on chores, or go to the toilet by myself, are so precious and they fill me with renewed energy and enthusiasm for spending time with my girls when I pick them up.

I also love September for the feeling of (generally unjustified) optimism at how organised and efficient and productive I am going to be in the coming school year. How my children will gobble up the delicious and perfectly nutritionally balanced meals and snacks I have prepared for them. How our mornings will be be calm and smooth, ending in both children dropped at school with a loving kiss and no cross words exchanged. How our after-school activities will be fun and active and creative and hardly ever involve Peppa Pig. How I will hit the sweet spot of time management which will enable me to utilise my 10 hours a week of childcare to write, to exercise, to relax and to do boring but necessary household tasks. Obviously this is all very unlikely to happen, and in a fortnight’s time I will be, as a friend put it this week, ‘crying into my gin in the corner’ after we make it to the school gates after an hour of ceaseless nagging with only 20 seconds to spare, and both children reject anything which bears even passing resemblance to a vegetable in their lovingly prepared dinner, and I realise that I just spent an entire 2.5 hour pre-school session staring blankly at Facebook whilst eating a family sized bar of Dairy Milk because Sophia has a cold and I was up with her four times in the night. But just for this next week or two I can plan, and I can hope, and I can buy a lovely new notebook to make lists in, and I can enjoy the smugly serene conviction that this is the year I will nail it.

 

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The ups and downs of summer

Well, we’re one week into the summer holidays I was ever-so-slightly dreading. Is it proving as difficult as I expected? Well, that’s a hard one to answer.

In some ways, no, definitely not. It is lovely to be more relaxed in the mornings. A couple of days ago I looked up from stacking the dishwasher after breakfast to find both girls contentedly snuggled up on the sofa, still in pyjamas, reading five year old Peppa Pig annuals. On a school morning I would immediately have had to switch into sergeant-major mode, and start organising them into a state where they could leave the house, but in the holidays I can just leave them to it.

reading peppa

We’ve already had some nice summer treats as well. On the day school broke up, the mums of a couple of Anna’s schoolfriends and I took the children to a local ice-cream parlour for some ludicrously over-sized sundaes, followed by a trip to our local playground (somewhere I feel I have spent more than enough time in the least week!). We met up with more friends there, and I truly love the ‘school’s out for the summer’ atmosphere that prevails in our local park at the end of term, with both parents and children giddy with relief and slightly high on sugar.

We’ve had one of Anna’s friends round for tea, and spent a lovely day with two of my NCT friends and their kids. We don’t live particularly near, and the demands of school and work mean that we don’t get to see each other very often, but it was really special to catch up, and to see these 8.5 year olds, who have known each other since they were a few weeks old, figure out a way of getting along now, and of involving their young siblings as well.

I also made a window of time when husband was at home to take Anna out to Pizza Express for a mummy and daughter lunch, which was very lovely and civilised. We have been to the library to register for the summer reading challenge – which my little bookworm then completed in 24 hours flat.

The reason she managed to read 6 books in 24 hours brings me onto one of the less good bits of the last week. Sophia developed some kind of virus which meant she wasn’t well enough to go anywhere except an emergency 7pm visit to the local out-of-hours doctor when her temperature spiked to nearly 40 degrees, and she refused to eat, drink or take calpol and became all limp and floppy. That was fun. Luckily husband was off work – we’d planned a family day trip, but he wasn’t very well either, and Sophia certainly wasn’t well enough, so the silver lining was that we all hung out at home together in a way which is quite rare and was very nice and relaxing. Anna read a lot of books, and we did some cooking and baking together. A fair amount of telly was watched, and there were lots of sleepy sofa cuddles, and some fun play in the garden once Sophia was feeling a bit brighter.

co-operation

The thing I find hardest is the lack of a moment to myself, and I really need those moments to keep sane and calm. Both children are chatterboxes, and don’t always (ever) respect the other’s right to finish what they were saying before launching in with their own anecdote. Sometimes they get on very well, and Anna is incredibly patient and loving with her little sister, but inevitably the moment comes when Anna’s patience is pushed too far, or one of them gets a bump, and then everyone is crying for mummy. I dispense cuddles, kisses and reprimands as necessary, and calm is restored…until next time. On a repeat cycle for 12 hours straight it gets a little bit wearing.

We’re off on holiday with my parents tomorrow, which is eagerly anticipated by both children. Sophia has been telling everyone who will listen that she is going to the seaside with Nanna and Grandad to build sandcastles. Unfortunately husband can no longer join us as planned, as he has hd unavoidable work commitments come up, and so I am having to pack extremely light as I have to manage both children, the buggy and all the luggage on a train by myself. There’s also the little matter of entertaining the ferociously energetic 2 year old all the way to North Wales. I’m armed with sticker books galore, and am about to go and pack an enormous array of snacks, which will range from the downright virtuous (cucumber sticks, cherry tomatoes, raisins) to the moderately acceptable (dry cheerios, crackers, plain biscuits) and then by Chester I fully expect to be doling out chocolate buttons with gay abandon.

Packing has had its own challenges, as Sophia is determined to help. Unfortunately her definition of ‘help’ (trying on everyone’s sunglasses, putting on swim nappies over her clothes and scattering round the house the objects I had just carefully assembled) doesn’t totally correspond with mine. Anna is now round at her friend’s house for the afternoon, and Sophia is having her nap, so I should be making the most of my free time to finish the packing, get the snacks ready, make a batch of soup to give everyone a healthy tea tonight and use up all the odds and ends of vegetables languishing in the fridge, and tidy the house, which currently looks like a bomb has hit it. However, I am ignoring all those things in favour of a sanity-saving hour writing my blog, and scoffing a chocolate muffin.

choc muffins

 

Twenty-third Day of Advent: Holidays

We’re nearly there, folks! My blogathon (that’s a thing, yes?) is almost complete, and my cookathon is about to begin. Tomorrow I will peel and prep veg, ice the Christmas cake, make mince pies and a Yule Log, fish pie and sage and onion stuffing and, most crucially, I will compose the Christmas Day Timetable, by which I stand or fail. I’m a bit nervous about it all, as this is the first year I have cooked Christmas dinner without my dad here to help me. However, I’ve hopefully  made my life easier by scheduling lunch for 4pm. My plans to get ahead of the game by making things and freezing them hasn’t gone that well. I do have a a container of frozen cranberry sauce, and cinnamon buns for breakfast on Christmas morning, but the rest is still to do. Perhaps with all this going on it isn’t a coincidence that I felt inspired to write about holidays today.

I love holidays and travel, whether near or far. Whenever I listen to Moon River and hear the line “two drifters, off to see the world; there’s such a lot of world to see” I feel a thrill. There is such a lot of world, and I do so want to see as much of it as possible! One of the great things about holidays is the chance to explore somewhere new, try new food, learn a few words of a new language, see how different things can be, even between neighbouring countries.

rye castleI also relish how much easier I find it to focus on what really matters; just being with and enjoying husband and children, when we’re away from home. We had a mini-holiday today. Or day-trip, if you want to be pedantic. We went to Rye, which is a real favourite of ours. It’s one of the old cinque ports; a gorgeous little town of half-timbered houses on streets which wind around and tumble steeply down to the reclaimed marshland. At the top of the town is the sweetest little castle you’ll ever see. I love the contrast between the bleak expanses of sky and estuary and the cosy little pubs and teashops with log fires galore.

If I’d been at home today I would have filled the time with jobs. I would have cleaned and vacuumed, changed beds, washed floors, hung Christmas cards and goodness knows what else. As it was I cuddled Sophia and chatted with Anna and joked with my husband. I also ate an amazing lunch at the fabulous George in Rye. Oh, and became proud co-owner of a life-sized plush penguin. I don’t quite know how that happened. I can’t honestly say it was down to either of the children. Perhaps something to do with me having a glass of very nice Sauvignon Blanc and my husband having a pint of beer with lunch? Or Christmas spirit? I don’t know, but we were walking past a little toy shop and saw the most adorable penguins in the window. Husbandpetrarch noticed them first – he absolutely adores penguins – and it was a little bit like love at first sight for all of us. Before we knew where we were Petrarch, as he was subsequently christened, had joined the family. You see, holidays make you so much more receptive to new experiences.

And maybe all those jobs still need doing, but I can just be a little busier tomorrow, or even (shock horror) leave some of them until after Christmas. Holidays, even incredibly short ones, are very good at restoring perspective.

Sophia was a brilliant travelling companion at three months old when we took her on a two week journey across Europe by train. She is now slightly more challenging as sitting still, even when accompanied by a penguin the same size as her, isn’t really her forte. That being the case, I’m not quite sure how holidays will pan out this year, so it’s encouraging to discover that I can feel totally refreshed by just one day out an hour’s train journey from London. And then, of course, there’s also that elusive spa break to look forward to…in the meantime, I’m going to continue ignoring the housework and go and watch Love Actually.

School’s (almost) out for the summer!

In just under an hour I’ll be collecting Anna from school for her six week holiday, and I Just. Can’t. Wait. This has been such a long half-term, at the end of the year which has seen the biggest change in her life, and she is exhausted. Absolutely on her knees. I’m longing to have her at home to cosset and cuddle and just hang out with. Six whole weeks when I don’t have to spend the first ninety minutes of the day barking instructions – “Eat your porridge, finish your milk, clear your dishes, clean your teeth, wash your face, get dressed, find your sunhat/bag/water bottle/hoodie/gloves/bookbag/homework folder, put your shoes on.” And, above all “Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up!”.

I’m quite proud of myself, though. A whole school year during which I have been at various points, heavily pregnant, recovering from a c-section, recovering from a broken foot and looking after a newborn baby, and Anna has only collected one late mark (caused by a last minute poonami from her sister which required a full change of clothes for me and her. Don’t ask.) The rest of the time, come hell or high water, we have screeched through the school gates at 8.50am. Other than the days when my parents have been here. “I don’t have to run the last bit when Grandad takes me to school, Mummy”, Anna informed me the other morning.

After our adventures last summer and at Easter we’re keeping things fairly low-key this summer. A trip up to Liverpool to stay with my parents next week, a week at my mother-in-law’s flat in Penzance later on in the summer, and then a couple of days in North Wales with my mum and dad again at the end of the summer. This is partly because my husband has a busy autumn coming up at work and so can’t take much time off, and partly because Sophia is seven months, eating solids and desperate to crawl, and therefore not a particularly rewarding travelling companion at present. I think it also works out really well for Anna, though, as she needs some time to just be.

No doubt a lot of her time is going to be spent reading. About two months ago, she suddenly ‘got’ it, and went almost over night from painstakingly sounding out the fascinating (ahem) adventures of Chip, Kipper and Biff in the school reading books to devouring chapter books as quickly as she can get her hands on them. Roald Dahl, Francesca Simon’s ‘Horrid Henry’ books, the Worst Witch, My Naughty Little Sister, Enid Blyton – her tastes are pleasingly eclectic, and, like mother like daughter, she is more often than not to be found with her head in a book. I’m loving re-visting my own childhood favourites with her. At the moment we’re reading the Ramona books, by American author Beverley Cleary, together, and I think I might almost be enjoying them more as an adult than I did as a child.

Anna journalWriting is still more of a challenge for Anna, although she is making good progress. We were chatting to her teacher about how we could encourage her to keep writing in a fun and enjoyable way over the summer so that she doesn’t lose her mojo, and she suggested we got her to keep a diary. Next thing I know, yesterday morning Miss M handed me a beautifully wrapped parcel. When Anna opened it, inside was a personalised decoupaged journal for her to use over the summer. Anna is so thrilled and excited, and I am incredibly touched and impressed. One of my closest friends is a teacher, and I know from her how difficult and stressful and exhausting the summer term is for teachers. Yet in the midst of organising school trips and sports days, and writing reports, she has found the time to do this because she wants to encourage Anna to keep up with her newly developing skill. Teachers are amazing.

I’m not sure how much time I’ll get to blog over the next few weeks, but hopefully I’ll have my girl’s diary to look back on as a record of our summer.

La Dolce Vita

lake comoIt started small. Let’s go on holiday at Easter, we said – there’s a two week school holiday, Sophia will still be exclusively breast-fed, so there’s no messing around with purees or finger food, and she’ll be small enough to carry easily in the sling. The idea of some pre-summer sun was appealing too, so we started to look at Spain and Italy.

Then we had a home exchange offer from a family in Switzerland. Our imaginations were instantly captured by the idea of Swiss mountain railway journeys, snow-capped mountains and carpets of wild flowers. Not to mention generous helpings of cheese and chocolate. Unfortunately that home exchange turned out to be totally unsuitable for non-drivers, but it had got us thinking. And when I say ‘us’, I really mean my husband, as holiday planning is very much his forte. Then we had a home exchange offer for Milan. We last visited Milan during an inter-rail trip ten years ago, and were only there for an afternoon prior to catching a sleeper-train to Barcelona, but we saw enough to make us want to go back one day.

My vision of snowy Alps was instantly replaced by one of myself sitting at a chic little pavement cafe, sipping Prosecco, wearing high heels and a slinky wrap dress (two stone of baby-weight having been miraculously left at the airport). Not quite sure how breastfeeding a baby and entertaining a six-year-old fitted into this vision, but hey, a daydream’s a daydream.

The only problem was how to choose between these two options. Or so I thought. My husband is made of sterner and more creative stuff. Which is how our mini-break to catch a few rays of spring sunshine ended up an eleven day epic tour of Northern Italy and Switzerland, comprising over 32 hours of train travel and taking in nine different towns/cities. I know that compared to trekking in the Himalayas or backpacking in Kerala it might not seem that ambitious, but given that we have two children, one of whom was only three months old at the start of the trip, and that Anna was two and a half before we ventured abroad at all, and that trip consisted of taking the Eurostar to Paris, it felt pretty adventurous to us.

It was an incredible experience. Our daughters were amazing. Anna absolutely loved it, and was indefatigable in pulling her little Paddington suitcase along and trying to remember whether, at any given moment, she should be saying please and thank you in Italian, German or French. We didn’t make her learn them in Romansch. Partly because neither of us speak a single word of it. One of the things I love most about Anna is her deep interest in the world and the things she sees, and the thought-provoking questions she asks. Travelling with her is a particular pleasure because it enables us to feed that interest and curiosity. And Sophia was sweet-tempered and placid, putting up uncomplainingly with a string of different travel cots, and having her nappy changed everywhere from a seat on the ultra-glamorous Swiss dining train, The Glacier Express, to the ancient rubble of a medieval campanile. The Swiss and Italians clearly love children, and travelling with our two gorgeous girls got us free drinks, biscuits perfume samples and sweets and lollipops galore.

There were, of course, elements of it which were harder work. Packing for four people for eleven days of train travel is a bit of a logistical nightmare, especially when one of the party is a baby who requires a rucksack full of bits and pieces just for a trip to the shops. Anna had her tiny Paddington suitcase, Husband and I shared a medium wheelie suitcase, and Sophia had her own cabin-bag sized pull along. Which my husband generously pulled along for her whilst she slumbered peacefully, strapped to my chest in her sling.

My vision of sipping Prosecco did come partially true, and it was on the terrace of a bar overlooking the stunningly beautiful cathedral in Milan, no less. What I hadn’t envisioned was that I would be red-faced and sweaty in my inappropriate clothing (I didn’t know when I packed that the whole of Europe was going to enjoy an unseasonable heatwave) and trying simultaneously to persuade Sophia to feed when actually she was much more interested in pulling off and exposing me to the whole bar so that she could have a good look round, to persuade Anna that arancini was just rice with bolognese sauce in the middle and as such was a perfectly acceptable evening meal for her, and to persuade myself that it didn’t matter that I was the only woman in the place who was a) bigger than a size 8 and b) not wearing head-to-toe black Prada.

But for every slightly fraught moment there were several magical ones. Eating pizza in a sun-drenched medieval piazza, watching Anna play for hours on the pebbly beaches on the edge of Lake Como, flexing bedtime slightly so that we could have supper together on the roof terrace of the flat we were staying in as we watched the sun set over the mountains, feeling I’d stepped into an Agatha Christie novel (minus the murder) as we tucked into a delicious three-course lunch, served at our seats as we sped along at 2500 ft above sea level on the Glacier Express.

And, you never know, maybe next time I go to Milan I’ll manage to pull-off the stick-thin, designer-clad fashionista look.