Sunday, 19 February 2017

February half term - when the highlight is a dead woodlouse

About as thrilling as it gets over February half term
February half term is the holiday that really tests your mettle as a parent. Unless you have enough money to go skiing, or to fly everyone far enough away to find some genuine sunshine, there is absolutely nothing interesting that you can do as a family in the UK. Everywhere is just too cold. Anything that is really good - like, say the Moomin exhibition at the South Bank, has been fully booked up by more organised parents about eight months ago. Anything reasonably exciting, such as Madame Tussaud’s or the Eden Project or Legoland or even the local soft play centre, will be hideously crowded.

Neither my husband nor I can cope very well with parenting in crowds, so we tend to go in search of what we call “low-octane fun” - slightly tedious attractions just interesting enough to pass for a “day out” but not so popular that we would struggle to find a space in the car park. This is why the British invented the National Trust.

The National Trust - for those who may not know - is a charity that since 1895 has been restoring and maintaining old houses, stretches of coastline and gardens, turning them into places for the general public to visit for a modest fee.

Actually, I think the main reason they invented the National Trust was to give old middle class people something to do after they retire. They are all there, either as volunteers, or eating overpriced Eccles cakes in the cafe. But a happy side benefit is that it also gives parents with young school age children somewhere to take their offspring on a bitterly cold February half term.

I may, however, be suffering National Trust fatigue. The first couple of visits are magical. You walk around some stately home, in your own Downton Abbey fantasy, cooing over the ornate drawing room, laughing at the old fashioned bathrooms and wondering at the system of bells and pulleys that once summoned the servants in the downstairs servants hall. All this history. All these knowledgeable volunteers ready to tell you the history of this tapestry or that marble-inlaid table-top.

Then after a while, they all start to look the same. I have seen so many old houses now in the UK, the whole country feels like a museum at times. You can have too many mullioned windows, too many gardens designed by Capability Brown.

Every National Trust site will feature some of the same things. If it is an outdoorsy place, there will be a “mini beast” quest for the children. A “mini beast” is what in my childhood used to be called a “bug” but which has now been rebranded by the British school system for reasons I can’t quite understand. The “quest” will involve a couple of earnest volunteers encouraging your children to look under a log to see if they can find a woodlouse.

Once, at a National Trust gardens in Suffolk, both the children and the elderly volunteers were becoming  so distressed by the failure to find any mini beasts, that I resorted to secretly placing a dead beetle I had spotted earlier under a rock for them to discover.

Me: “Amazing! Kids, look at what you have found!”
Younger daughter: “Why is it not moving mummy?”
Me: “It’s sleeping. Please can we go have a cup of tea now?”
Younger daughter: “Wakey wakey beetle. Mummy, it's not waking up.”
Husband: “Honestly. A worm and a dead beetle. The kids see more bugs on an average day digging in our own garden.”
Me: “Shhh. You’re going to hurt those two volunteer ladies’ feelings. Maybe these things are designed for city children who don’t have gardens.”

If it is in a stately home, there will be a box of slightly musty, old-fashioned outfits for the children to dress up in. Nice idea, but by the time you get to the end of half term these are pretty well shredded and the headgear screams out “nit hazard”.  

Then there is a treasure hunt, where the children are given a series of things to find as they walk around the house. Great idea to stop them from getting bored. My eight-year-old ultra competitive son takes them very seriously. Meanwhile, the pre-teen daughter is outgrowing all of this and keeps telling us how dull it all is.

This is how our average stately home visit goes:

Me, brightly: “Look at this huge copper pot kids, have you seen one this size before?”
Pre-teen daughter: “Boring. Who wants to look at a big pot?”
Me, reading the information plaque: “Look it’s from 1775! It says here they used it for-
Pre-teen: “Read it already. Boring.”
Me, to younger daughter: “Don’t climb in the pot sweetie. Remember what I said, looking, not touching.”
Son, consulting treasure hunt sheet: “I need to find a diamond pattern. It says you have to find a diamond pattern in this room.”
Me to younger daughter: “Come out of the pot right now. I told you not to go in it.”
Pre-teen: “Can we go now?”
Son: “I need to find the diamond pattern so I can tick this room off.”
Me to younger daughter: “Please don’t touch any more things. Come on, hold mummy’s hand while we go to the next room.”
Son: “I’m not going. I need to find the DIAMOND pattern and tick it off!”
Pre-teen: “How much longer are we going to be here?”
Husband, grimly upbeat: “I think the next room is the housekeeper’s study. Shall we go see what’s in there?”
Son: “Where is the diamond pattern? I need to tick this room off!”
Younger daughter: “I need a wee-wee.”
Me: “But you’ve just been for one.”
Younger daughter: “Might be a poo.”
Me to husband: “I’m not taking her again. It’s your turn. I’ll help him hunt that diamond thing.”

And so on, until taking refuge in the cafe and paying £3.50 each for a slightly dry slice of cake starts to feel quite attractive and reasonable.

I have the greatest respect and affection for the National Trust. But sometimes I read the Tripadvisor reviews of these places and feel like weeping.

“A great day out with the kids. We got a friendly welcome at the ticket desk and enjoyed a hot cup of tea in the cafe. The toilets were clean.”

Essentially:  you were not snarled at when you paid £60 for the family ticket. You were served a hot beverage. And the toilet floor was not covered in excrement. This constitutes a “great day out”. I recognise that poverty of expectation so well. And that is what makes me want to weep.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

What to watch for in the Nativity

The year four class are acting out a skit about the parts of the digestive system and my son has been chosen to be the anus. He told me this very proudly. It is a key role, he says.

My first reaction was to laugh so hard that I snorted tea all the way up into my left eye socket. The second was to ask, tentatively, if he was going to need a costume. The mind boggles. My husband suggested - actually, I am not going to go into what he suggested but lets just say it involved a flesh-coloured draw string hoodie and brown face paint...

It is probably not so much stranger than the show I remember being in in year three, which was about teeth. I was a lactobacillus acidofilus, aka a "tooth bug", which involved dressing all in black with a set of cardboard antennae on my head. Dentist friends have subsequently told me that this may not be an entirely accurate representation of dental bacteria, but I can't stop imagining them as giant, charred grasshoppers.

I love primary school plays and now is the peak season for them as the infant nativity approaches. The nativity is, of course, a complete pain in many ways, staged as it is at two o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon, requiring you to enter tense negotiations with your employer about time off, and performed in an over-crowded, over-heated hall with a tinny sound system that can barely be heard above the bawling babies in the audience. But it is always worth going, for many reasons.

It is always interesting to see how the school pads out the play to give all the children a part. The nativity, strictly speaking, has only about 15 roles - Mary, Joseph, three wise men, a couple of shepherds, handful of sheep, an inn-keeper or two and the angel Gabriel. The infant school has, however, at least 90 children to involve, so the inn-keepers all have wives, children and mothers-in-law, there are legions of soldiers, herds of camels, a heavenly host of angels, and any number of animals that didn't originally feature in the Christmas story, including chickens, pigs, cats, dogs, rabbits and mice. Last year they made all of the reception class play snowflakes, creating a blizzard over Bethlehem.

Discovering exactly what role your child has is trickier than you might think. My friend's daughter was so disgusted by the mass casting as a snowflake that she simply told her mother she was an angel. An angel costume was bought and assembled, and all was going pretty well with this plan until the dress rehearsal, after which panic ensued.

The other fun thing is to watch Mary and Joseph. Joseph doesn't want to be there. It is a boring role, with no lines to say, and involves him sitting on stage next to a girl, effectively playing dollies in front of everyone. It is a grim prospect for a six-year-old boy. Mary, on the other hand, looks smug. She's got the role every girl in the class wanted and now she gets to sit in front of everyone in a blue dress and tea-towel, playing families with Joseph. She'll soon discover it is a boring role with no lines and her just left holding the baby. There is a parable there about motherhood if you want to fish it out...

Then there are the kids struck almost catatonic by the stage lights and the audience. They sing the songs about how excited they are about the birth of Jesus without a single change of expression. In contrast, there is always that one kid who thinks he is in the West End, and hoofs it way too much. He's always fun to watch - and could possibly take out a sheep or two with flailing arms.

Watch carefully as the Angel Gabriel lobs the baby Jesus to Mary like a football - extra points if Mary fails to catch him and Jesus ends up bouncing off the ground on his way to the manger.

One narrator will be completely inaudible. Another will sound as if she is addressing Parliament. The chickens will wriggle, the donkeys will plod and the reception year snowflakes will wander around the stage with realistic randomness during their musical number. At least one of those children on stage will have wet themselves.

And then they will sing Little Donkey and I will cry. Those traditional Christmas songs are like pepper spray - they floor me entirely. This is the truly magical moment about Christmas. I am not into the religious side of it at all, but there is something about this collective exercise, this group of adults perched on tiny, bum-numbing plastic seats, smiling benevolently at each other's children, from the chicken picking its nose to the angel who has tucked her heavenly raiment into her knickers, willing the stuttering Gabriel to get to the end of the sentence. The goodwill in that room is so palpable that even a hard-hearted old Christmas cynic like me can feel it. It gets me every time.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Travels with children

“Why can’t you just bring  Moominland here?” moaned the youngest one. “I don’t want to get on a bus.”

We were in a hotel room in Turku and the children were sprawled over the big double bed playing Minecraft on their tablets. There might be once-in-a-lifetime experiences with life-size Moomin characters to be had a short, 20-minute bus ride away. But they didn’t really want to leave the hotel WiFi connection. Welcome to travelling with children.

In a delirious moment I thought it might be nice - finding myself with a long holiday this summer - to take the children with me to Finland on my own. We would visit family. We would immerse ourselves in their second culture. We would travel and see the country. At least a bit.

A few years ago I wouldn’t have taken the kids much further than the corner shop on my own. But at 10, 8 and 6 they are at an age where it is feasible. They can walk by themselves (at least short distances), can tolerate more varieties of food, and most importantly, drag along their own pull-along suitcases. Nothing stopping us hitting the open road.

It has been...interesting. Here are some of the things I have learned:

  1. Kids don’t really like to travel. They like BEING in places like amusement parks and beaches, but they don’t really want to TRAVEL there. When they are very young, of course, they get excited by being on a train or a bus, but by age 6 that seems to have faded. They would like to be teleported, if possible. The tedious business of getting on a bus or even in a car - and then, heaven forbid, walking from the car park to the entrance - is not for them.
  2. City breaks are particularly challenging. Kids can run for six hours non-stop in a playground, but ask them to walk three blocks in a city and they will moan. They will claim their legs ache, that they have blisters, are developing foot rot. I am told Pokemon Go is great for this inspiring them to walk long distances in the quest for creatures and hatching eggs. We didn’t have Pokemon Go. I got some mileage (or more like a few hundred metres) out of giving them a map and asking them to plot our route - but this was not foolproof.
  3. Getting kids to be interested in old castles and churches is easier than it used to be, thanks to the Harry Potter books. JK Rowling, thank you for this unexpected bonus. Last summer my husband and I were worried the kids would be bored visiting Mont St Michel in France, but as soon as it came into view they shouted in unison: “Hogwarts!”. They were particularly charmed because the small, medieval streets surrounding the cathedral were just like Diagon Alley.  Anything castle-shaped or mullion-windowed, I’ve found, can be “Hogwarts” - from St Pancras Station to a French chateau.
  4. Travelling is educational in unexpected ways. I was hoping the children would learn some new Finnish vocabulary during our holiday.  Not necessarily the words written on the small town bus shelter wall, but there you go. It was an education in both linguistics AND anatomy so I can’t really complain.  
  5. On trips, kids will not eat anything green. Restaurant salads generally “have too many bits in” and few places will serve them the cucumber and carrot sticks they love. We subsisted on pizza and chicken nuggets and I just hoped they would get enough vitamins from orange juice and tomato sauce to stave off scurvy.
  6. A tip for a cheap breakfast - buy some cereal, milk, paper bowls and plastic spoons and have a DIY meal in the hotel room. The first morning in Turku I took the children out to a fancy brunch place. Out of all the buffet choices they mainly ate cereal, and then moaned they were bored. Total cost: 45 euros.  The next morning I bought milk and cereal and we ate it in bed at the hotel while watching cartoons. They thought this was the best breakfast ever. Total cost: 7 euros.
  7. Pack light.
  8. Keep them fed
  9. Make everyone go to the toilet every time you see one.
  10. Take wet-wipes
  11. Take a sick bag. Make sure the sick bag doesn’t have holes in it. You can probably imagine how I know this.
  12. Always pack a spare set of clothes for yourself. Otherwise you may end up like my friend L who had to disembark from the 13-hour flight to Auckland wearing just the Air New Zealand blanket wrapped around her like a sarong.
  13. The difficulty of travelling with children is relative. When we had just our first child, my husband and I used to think travelling with a baby was difficult. We agonised over packing enough clothes, we took all the equipment, from bottle steriliser to bathtub whenever we went anywhere. The one time I travelled alone with the third baby, just me and her, I took hardly anything - not even a pushchair. I had her in a sling and had a single bag, containing mainly nappies and tiny baby grows - and a single change of clothes for myself - over my shoulder. It was bliss.  I had time to read a magazine and drink a cup of tea at the airport while the baby slept in the sling.  People kept coming up to me asking if I needed help and telling me I was very brave travelling on my own with a baby. I didn’t quite know how to tell them - especially the kind couple about to take a three-year-old on the plane - that this was the easiest it would ever be.

We did make it to Moominland in the end. The six-year-old - whose birthday treat this was- was terrified of the Moomins and hid behind my legs every time one of them came near us. Then, just as we were leaving, five hours later, she whispered that she might, just, be persuaded to hug a Moomin. But only if it was the Snork Maiden. We found the Snork Maiden. They hugged and - it was like a drug. Hugging Moomins is clearly addictive for six-year-olds. We then had to hug all of them. We ran through the theme park hunting them down to hug. The eight-year-old, who likes a tick list, wanted to make sure we got all of them, systematically. The ten-year-old commandeered my camera phone and went full Japanese tourist, photographing every item in the theme park. We have about 600 pictures showing things like Moomin Papa’s chair and Moomin Mama’s rolling pin. Fancy coming over to see the slide show? Are you sure I can't persuade you?

“That was the best day ever. I just want to hug Moomins all the time,” said the six-year-old, sleepy in the hotel bed later that night. “Can’t you just bring Moominland here?”