Monday, December 4, 2017

How to be accepted by Oxford

I don’t know if this is an Oxford phenomena or a British phenomena or a complete figment of my wishful imagination but I feel genuinely respected for my chosen occupation over here. I am a homeschooling mother. When I say that back at home I (almost) never fail to sense the rush of assumptions flying into the mind of my conversation partner. I feel the need to start qualifying what I mean by “homeschooling” almost immediately - trying to perceive which set of misconceptions that other person has. Homeschoolers are all as different from each other as we are from people on a more traditional educational path. The Why, How and What of our particular Homeschool widely varying from family to family. So, most assumptions will be inaccurate to some degree or other.
Here in England, I announce that my husband is writing a book while on sabbatical and I am home-educating my six kids and I always experience this sense of being reverenced, not simply respected. The first couple times it happened I was really surprised but it’s getting positively common now. They treat me like I’m a fascinating specimen from the future and the past simultaneously. They are immediately impressed and genuinely interested and curious. Then they start thanking me for my presence at their event - amazed that I would find the time and energy to attend and would deign to consider their event worthy of me. They give me a tremendous benefit of the doubt by assuming that I know what I’m doing and that my kids are better off for it. I’ve been told, “You homeschoolers really, really love your children.” A coach at my gym practically followed me around the gym in order to ask me questions because he’s so convinced that he will homeschool his own children (at the wise old age of what looked to be 16). And, I haven’t felt judged once.
I have a feeling that my foreignness is actually a help in this instance. The British have their own sets of assumptions about homeschooling because there are so few people here doing it that it’s really a choice to swim against the stream. British homeschoolers have an anti-establishment flavor for sure. But no one  assumes that about me because I’m from The States where homeschooling is so much more of a force. It’s like I’m from the land of the vanguard of a movement and they want to hear more from me. It seems that they think of me as an expert in my field.
Like all moms at home, I am not accustomed to receiving a lot of outside praise or acknowledgement and mostly, I’m OK with that. But, I have to admit - it’s kind of nice to be treated like an expert. Even though I know exactly what a bumbling mess I really am…perhaps most experts in their field question their own abilities? I’ve heard many, many, many a college professor share during their first few years at the University that they feel like frauds. Like someone is about find them out and expose the truth. The truth being…that they don’t know it all. 
Today was the first time I’ve been downtown when there were large numbers of gowned students and professors in their academic garb, hats and all. Gowns flowing and little clusters of students discussing heady things (I assume). You can tell how far along in their studies the students are by the length of their gowns. Oxford has 23,000 students and only 11,000 undergrads so most of these people are at the end of their academic pursuits and since they are here you can assume that they are pretty top-notch. At night the academic garb comes off and there are no end of groups of young people roaming about in gowns and tuxedos. I don’t know the why or wherefore of the continual black-tie dress but the atmosphere definitely feels rarified. These people are the cream of the crop from all over the world in dozens of different fields.
I think that’s why it’s so surprising and pleasant to feel genuinely respected by them. I am rubbing elbows with academics who are succeeding at the top university in the world and are likely to be leaders in their fields…and they are fascinated and admiring of me. Sincerely and genuinely! So, for all the moms of larger families everywhere who feel like their work is unnoticed, ignored, questioned and frowned upon…there’s a body of scholars over here who would be mouth agape at your accomplishments and would want to know more. 

Congratulations on your acceptance by Oxford.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Hypocritical Christmas Card Family Photo - or maybe not…

I take pictures for one overarching reason: I love memories. I love capturing people’s special moments but I love capturing their regular moments even more. This is why I’m so happy about the phone-camera phenomena - now I can photograph a mundane trip to the grocery store without looking like a stalker. I mean, I hear you on the excess. As The Great Jim Gaffigan says, “I have more pictures of my kids then my father ever looked at me!” 

But you know? I don’t care. Someday it won’t seems excessive to have thousands of captured moments from my past life - it will be all I can remember. My memory is not so great without pictures (blame it on mommy-brain or overuse of the iPhone, or genes: thanks mom!). For me, taking a picture is the easiest way to remember something. If it also looks beautiful or tells a story then, bully for that! I see my photography habit as sort of a photo-journalism project with my family and friends as the object. I’m capturing moments that hopefully paint a picture or tell the story of our lives. Narrative is always important. It’s all part of forming an identity, both for ourselves and for our kids. We are living a story and telling it as you go is important for all of us.

The kids look back at pictures and then they “remember” moments from the pictures. Sometimes the pictures tell a very different story then their internal experience of the event. Take, for example, the ubiquitous Christmas Card Family Photo. Everyone, EVERYONE, EVERYONE knows that getting those photos is the surest and shortest path to feeling like a hypocrite. We all know the stress of finding decent clothing, the never-ending brushing of long, tangled masses of young girl’s hair, aiming for decent light, the surly preteen, the threats to the tiny nose-pickers, and the holiday chaos and yelling that is behind everyone’s Christmas Card Photo. If you don’t know what I’m talking about then I don’t want to be your friend. I am tempted to have a stiff drink this year before trying to get a family photo because I get weirdly stressed about it. Like the Queen is coming to dinner.

Allow me to point out a few things: My oldest child is wearing the shorts he wore to soccer AND his soccer shin guards and cleats because he flat out refused to change more then his shirt. His arm is broken too but that's not because of surlyness. My youngest isn't picking her nose but she is sticking out her tongue. Thomas and Rosie were insane and made silly faces in 25/30 pictures I took to get this done. My sweater is all bunched up and crazy because the remote shutter I was using didn't have the range we needed (#largefamilyproblems) and so I had to run forward four steps and then back four steps everytime I took a picture. I was sweating and looked like I was running in most of the pictures.

It is tempting to look at your picture and think, “What a bunch of phonies.” So, we see our Christmas card photos, our vacation photos, our birthday photos as a “Highlights Reel” and begin to believe that the photos are not reflecting reality. Phony, phony, phony. And maybe they are partly phony. Maybe we should also start to take pictures of the nose-picking, the dirty dishes and the yelling but I think that there’s a better lesson here. I think that we often miss the REALITY of the beauty of our family’s life because we are so stuck in the subjective experience of living with said family. And it’s rarely as happy-feeling as it looks in pictures. However, in another way, those same idealized pictures are reflecting a reality that is MORE real then our negative feelings in a given moment about our family.

I don’t know about you, but my feelings are often a bunch of liars. I hope to someday have feelings that I don’t have to work so hard to align with reality (an ability or trait we can call maturity or holiness) but until that day comes I have to face the fact that my feelings only reflect a small part of reality. For example, my feeling of frustration with my children because they continue to wrestle loudly while I’m cooking dinner does not reflect that if anything happened to them it would shatter my world. That I would saw off my right arm to save them. That I have ordered my entire life around being their mom and that I live and die for them daily in small ways. My frustration with their loudness, while real in itself, is just a small, small slice of the reality of my love for them and yet…it often overwhelms my sense of the bigger picture.

So, the “phony” family picture is actually of great service to me. As my internal feelings during an event fade and take their proper place in the larger fabric of my life I have these pictures that reflect the reality of that moment: an imperfect family, feeling a lot of feelings (some right and real, some false and phony) together. Together in love. That is the realest reality. Thank you, Christmas Card Family Photo. 

Practical Point for Pics
I get a smattering of friends asking me for advice about cameras, lenses, editing and while I have very limited information and skills I have managed to cobble together a “system” in the last couple years that is working for me - both to capture moments, organize them and then print/share them. I figured I’d plop my system down here. The more you are like me then the more helpful this will be. By, “like me”, I mean: A busy person. Some downtime in the evenings a couple nights a week to watch Netflix or something. Not destitute but also not having loads of money to pour into a hobby. Some interest in gaining a skill and willing to set aside a few weeks of evening time to learn. Keep in mind…youtube is your BFF in the world of photography.

7 Steps to Drastically Improve Your Photography:
  1. Buy camera body and lens (my equipment is listed below but things change fast. Just know that whatever camera you get you will probably love it. Real cameras are so great these days).
  2. Watch youtube video on how to choose your particular camera’s focus point yourself and start doing that manually. This is dramatically increase your accuracy and your composition.
  3. Watch youtube videos on the exposure triangle and get your head around what it takes to get out of the automatic setting.
  4. Shoot in aperture priority for a while - focusing on controlling just your depth of field and letting you camera decide the ISO and shutterspeed. Stop here if you like. Your pictures will be wildly improved and you will probably be satisfied.
  5. If you want to shoot in manual it takes a lot of practice, a lot of mistakes but be guided by the light meter in your viewfinder. Google for more details.
  6. Start shooting in RAW if you are able to do any editing. If you aren’t able to do any editing then still shoot in RAW. You never know when you are going to want to edit something. Storage space is cheap these days. Don’t be afraid of the file size. External hard drives are the answer.
  7. Simultaneously to steps 1-6, buy Lightroom Classic CC (or try the new one…I know the classic and am still using it). Buy a course (I got one from Udemy) on how to use Lightroom. Spend some evenings learning how to use it. Your pictures and organization will never be the same (see below for details). I wouldn’t rely on youtube at the beginning for help with Lightroom - those worthy folks give slivers of information and what you need at first is a comprehensive overview - especially if you are “low-tech”, like I am. Youtube is good for specific troubleshooting once you understand the software foundations.

I’m assuming that, though the phone cameras continue to improve and make capturing daily life so much easier, you have decided you want a big kid camera too. I got a refurbished D7000 for about $400 on Amazon. Works great. The 7000 series is Nikon’s "in-between series". It’s not entry-level but it’s not professional either. It was an investment but one that I’ve found very much worth the step up from entry-level. The biggest seller is the higher ISO which makes lower light pictures possible (Christmas morning, birthday candles, dark churches, etc.) without the dreaded flash. But there are other nice features that you can check out if you’re interested (or ask me).

The lens I use the most is a 35mm 1.8 (refurbished on Amazon around $200). This is the equivalent of the “Nifty Fifty” on a crop-sensor camera (google Nifty Fifty for why you NEEEEEED this lens or it’s equivalent). The rooms in my house are small and I found that using the 50mm I could never get enough of the room or my people in the frame. There is no zoom on this lens but that’s what cropping after the fact is for.

Editing and Organizing:

This is key. Because of the “excess” of pictures that we are now taking. Organization is critical or we will drown. 13 years ago when I had my oldest I used to take a few hundred pictures a year. Now, with iPhones and digital cameras and a tribe of darling children to photograph, a light month is easily in the several hundreds of pictures range. And just forget about December or July (vacation months). I currently have about 52,164 pictures on my (external) hardrive. Organized by year and month from 1981-present. Do I sound proud of that? Because you BET I AM! Darn-tooting proud. 
For both organizing and editing I am using Lightroom Classic CC (an Adobe product). It costs $10/month (all hobbies have some cost but it still hurts a little. Truth is though, it is a STEAL of a deal when it comes down to it) but you also get photoshop with it and other things. If I ever stop paying for it monthly I only lose the ability to use the program for editing. Alllllllll the organizational tools will still be available to me and will never get erased (keywords, face recognition, categories, location mapping, metadata, etc.). So I don’t feel anxious about starting a system that will become obsolete soon. 

Editing with lightroom as been nothing short of photog-life changing.
*****I have my hands full.***** Everyone tells me all the time and you know, they are right. I do not really have time to “get it right the first time.” Good for all the photographers who have time to put the correct filter on for sunsets. “Rah-rah” for those who can get the shutter speed just right for that soccer game. “Booyah, baby!” to those who can switch lenses for that wide-angle shot in the cathedral. 
I will be next to you just sliding in here for two seconds between potty breaks, wiping sticky-finger-prints from my lens with a baby wipe and snapping an under-exposed shot of my kid mooning the whole world because she didn’t put underwear on this morning. 

I am not going to get it right the first time. I am shooting in manual mode (because it really is way better then auto), and still getting it wrong more often then not. With a decent set of editing software though I can save the picture. And most importantly, I fix it when the kids are down for the night. I have a glass of wine and some reruns of Parks and Rec on Netflix and I edit. I still caught the moment. It still looks better then it would if I’m been shooting on auto. As I mentioned above, shooting in RAW makes this editing process really really remarkable. Especially when moving in and out of sun and shade or inside and outside, you are bound to make a lot of exposure mistakes. Shooting in RAW allows me to recover so much of what I lose in those mistakes.

The name of the photography game for me is helping my family relive moments and see our happy reality in spite of our daily strife. To develop the narrative. So, to do that I need to actually be displaying our pictures somehow. I have two quick and easy solutions for busy moms who realize they have not printed any pictures in the last 5 years. Or maybe just for those couple of years with 4 under 5 that we refer to as, “The Lost Years.”

1. Digital Frame. Just plop a bunch of pics on an SD card and put it into a digital frame. You can update it frequently or not but the kids will LOVE it and they will get to see those pictures you’ve been taking and they’ll even be tricked into thinking that they are having some screen time. Better then more Curious George. 

2. For printing, Chatbooks is the name of the game for ease…not for quality. Try another service for real heirloom quality books. But for quick, cheap, reliable books there’s nothing like Chatbooks. I get my pictures from my real camera to my phone through Lightroom Mobile (comes with your Lightroom subscription) and then I “favorite” them on my phone and they show up in my mailbox, in a book, with no other work by me. The kids pour over them and carry them to church or the store and sometimes they get ripped and stained but it doesn’t matter because they are cheap and easy and my kids are getting that opportunity to remember and laugh and know that they are part of a family that loves them and values them.

I love my LowPro camera backpack for traveling and long outings. My back never hurts, even when I’ve been carrying around my camera all day. For less intense days out I just throw my camera into my purse.

Ever lean over to kiss a boo boo and then your camera swings in and gives the kid a black eye? This belt is the solution for hikes or ventures where you want your camera out and at the ready but don’t want it flapping all the heck over the place. It’s also super cheap, especially when compared to specialty straps.

Get one that has as long a range as you can afford. Otherwise you might find yourself running back and forth for the family portrait. Especially if you have a rather larger then average family.

Flashair SD Card
If your camera doesn’t have built in wifi then this card gives you it. You can send your pictures to your phone or computer from anywhere. I find this particularly helpful when I’m on a long drive from vacation. I can work on editing some pictures and post them to my family before I’m even home.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Bummers, Bonuses, and Bumuses

  • Castles (and history in general that is older then the Colonies). 
  • Palaces (not the same at all...I honestly hadn't really considered that before coming here)
  • Literature - so many of “our” classics are really “their” classics. It’s so amazing to see the places we’ve been reading about forever and see what the authors saw as they created their characters and worlds.
  • No American news outlets - only what shows up on my Facebook feed
  • Free museums
  • Train and bus systems are awesome
  • Good, fresh bread is super cheap
  • Indian food...and all the restaurants in general. If there's one thing that the Burg doesn't do spectacularly well at it's food (unless you want to live off of crab dip that is).
  • Biking is super easy and normal here. It’s fun to just hop on the bike to run errands
  • My new gym has way more classes available then my gym at home
  • Getting to go to Aquinas lectures at Blackfriars and hear Mass and sing Vespers with them
  • Tea and biscuits
  • Beautiful old buildings covered in ivy


  • Can’t find any decent salsa. The only ‘salsa-ish’ thing that I’ve found is a Mexican spiced cooking sauce and it was not good (at long last found some tortilla chips though - with hummus they are amazing).
  • Hardly any homeschoolers around and everyone is pretty well plugged into schools for community I guess because there’s not much for school aged kids going on otherwise.
  • The libraries here are…I don’t want to speak ill of my host country but…I don’t know where all those council tax dollars are going but they are not going into the libraries, that’s for sure. I was really counting on a rocking library system here to help with the schooling this year since getting books overseas was not easy. C’mon, Oxford! Get it together! The world expects more of you! Thank goodness for Amazon Kindle.
  • Shopping is such a chore. This bummer will gradually get better the longer we are here because they have almost everything that I want available in this country (unlike when we lived in Italy - don’t even get me started!) but I just can’t FIND it! I know that they sell say, an air mattress or peroxide for cleaning contacts or material for halloween costumes, etc, etc, etc. But I don’t know what kind of store would have it. Whenever I finally find something it makes sense but it always takes such work and googling and driving hither and yon and parking my giant vehicle to find the darn thing. The stores here just group things together slightly differently then we do. So we finally found air matresses at a bike/car store. It sort of makes sense to have a few camping things there but it’s not where I went first, or second or third. The grocery stores are the same way. They have everything, it’s just organized differently so…I find the whole thing exhausting and need to schedule a whole day if I need to pick up a few things. That will get better.
  • Aside from biking, it is really a pain in the puhtookas to get around here. We are 2 miles from Blackfriars and it’s a 20 minute drive without parking/walking. Parking is a beast, driving is a beast, a lot of the drivers are beasts. I do not think it is helping us that we have a French license plate since that’s where we rented the van from. On the other hand, John and I figure that when we make a driving mistake at least the French are getting the blame, not Americans. The French and English have been enemies much longer then we ever were so for them it’s really a lost cause anyway. If you just ignore that pesky War for Independence we really get on well with the Brits. May it always be so…Sorry French drivers. 
  • Everyone wants to ask you about Trump and guns. I just can’t even…

  • Our van. It’s super new and cool looking. It has awesome skylights and GPS and keyless start and great gas mileage. It’s huge for England (8 seats). BUT it has only eight seats. That means that if two people are fractious they can’t be separated. And let me tell you, there are always two people who are fractious. So, small for America and for us and we can’t wait to spread out again. Also, annoyingly it is small but has a really terrible turning radius and makes parking the darn thing a huge pain.
  • Our house. We LOVE our house. Skylights, great location, beautiful kitchen, woodburning stove, room for guests. It’s just perfect. But we have to move out in December, right before Christmas. Finding the next house is not impossible and we have a few leads but none of them are as great as this one. So, we are trying to enjoy it while we can and not think about moving.
  • Food. Some things are way cheaper and some things are more expensive. So we will be eating a lot more ground beef (minced beef) here then chicken breasts. A good thing since apparently the doctors thinks Anthony is anemic (?!). Sausages are cheap cheap cheap. I finally figured out that they put a lot of wheat in their sausages and so it’s less meat, I think. Hence the cheaper price. Anyhow, I LOVE them and am so happy that we can eat them all the time. 
  • The thing about Anthony reminds me about the National Health Service. On the one hand, thank goodness! Here we are and we can see doctors and dentists when we need to and unfortunately, we have needed to. On the other hand, the waits are long and they prescribe a LOT of antibiotics from my extremely limited anecdotal experience. Out of three doctors we've seen two of them did not do a thorough job checking out the problems/ordering up followup care/explaining the issues and the other one was perfect and I HEART her. She's my gal and she might regret being so trustworthy because I might be calling her a lot.  

The next Bumus deserves it’s own pro/con list because it is the biggest reality we face day to day. It’s only a Bumus because it is temporary, it would be a Major Bummer if it was a longterm lifestyle choice. At least for me. 

Almost No Community To Speak Of. 

Bonus part of no community- 
  • We have so much time together. I am able to watch movies and read books with the kids like we used to when they were little (too little to remember most of it) and really build a family culture instead of always running out to different (great!) activities.
  • We are able to enjoy each other and have all sorts of inside jokes. 
  • We can have routines that rarely get interupted. 
  • More time with dad around.
  • Less running around means better/healthier/more regular meals.
  • More time with online friends (well, IRL friends but communication via the internet) who we miss in our regular life.
  • Almost no inflexible outside obligations. We could disappear tomorrow for three weeks and no one local would know. Hmmm…don’t tell any murderers out there that I said that.
  • Slower pace of life. At home in the Burg we are a pretty typical American family. Running here and there, in separate directions sometimes (though we homeschool so we are still together for large parts of the day, at least the kids and I are). It’s nice to take a break from that and know that all the fun things will still be there when we get back (because ultimately I wouldn’t drastically change our lifestyle at home - just tweak it maybe). 
  • This is almost like going back to the earliest years of motherhood. When I was home all day long for the first time and I just had a little guy or a couple little guys and gals to keep me company. Any outings we chose to do out were purely optional. The difference is that I have all these bigger kids around and we can read and talk and cook and watch things together. It’s isolated but not really lonely this time around. 

Bummer part of no community-
  • We have so much time together. Time to get on each other’s nerves and learn everyone’s buttons perfectly.
  • We are both cooped up and also run ragged. It’s sort of a “feast or famine” in terms of activity. We only have a couple of regular outside things to break up the routines of homelife but we take these big-push day-trips to see incredible things. So, a lot of the time we either have cabin-fever or we are exhausted because of the degree of umph it takes us to get something awesome done. 
  • No opportunities to help people - to watch someone’s kid, to water the chickens when they are out of town, to pick up their kid from an activity, no making a meal for a family with a sick family member or new baby. True, these things “interrupt” my routines at home and I am enjoying have regularity of routine here - however - it is not good for me to have my life uninterrupted by the needs of those around me but outside my immediate family. It’s not natural. I really miss the tiny bit of helping I'm able to do when at home.
  • Other people are awesome. Friends truly make the world a much, much, much better place. Talking to a friend or running into someone in the grocery store can often banish the thundercloud that has been following me around all day at home. We miss our people. Friendship is a gift. And you can’t make old friends quick. Thank GOD this is temporary - I could never live like this longterm. I love my people! Maybe I'm more extroverted then I thought...

So, the moral of this story is that if my family and friends could come, start a Mexican restaurant, build some bigger roads, and bring a lot of books then we could make a utopia here. I don't think that's too much to ask.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Dining Room Table

Since venturing out into the wider world I have found much joy, and sometimes comfort, in sitting down together around the dinner table. After such a rough, rough entry period my two happiest moments that next day were buying groceries at Aldi (oh the comfort of the familiar!) and then serving my family dinner and sitting down at one table to feast on food prepared by our own hands. It seemed to put all things that had gone awry back to rights. 

I was SO happy to be able to buy groceries in an economical way that I got a little choked up. I'm pretty sure that John didn't know until then just how deeply runs my love of frugality. I'm still not really over those $45 Icelandic croissants. I have never felt richer then handing over those 35 Euros and taking out bags and bags of groceries. Rich as an Aldi queen!

The kitchen was about the correct size for our 3 year old. She washed dishes to her hearts content.

But before dinner we made sure to have wine and cheese and bread. We were in France, after all. 

Dinner and beauty can sooth much pain.

I mean, foundationally, there’s the simple ability to provide sustenance for your little people. It doesn’t get much more basic then that. It took me almost no time (a couple of days only) to start feeling the stress and sorrow at knowing I couldn’t do anything to fill hungry bellies those first three days on the road (chaos and rushing being the culprits, not money or availability). Obviously, I do not equate our bad travel experience with true poverty or any such thing - that would be outrageous. I just mean to say that, even though the experience was short lived and was never dangerous, it was still a tremendously fulfilling moment to place a plate of their favorite food, hot and ready in front of them and then sit down together and be a family around a shared meal.

Seats for everyone! Pasta! Smiles! Filled to the bursting!

Every house we stayed in, except one, had a big enough table to seat us all. And every time we sat down around it and ate something (even if that something was fish sticks and frozen peas) I gave such thanks, "Bless us oh Lord, and THESE, THY GIFTS...". It remained, has remained, one of my greatest takeaways from being so far from home. If we can sit down together at a table and share a meal, then we are rich. If we can sit down together at a table and share a meal, then we are at home. Even if that table will only be home for a day or for a week or for 90 days. 

In Krakow, Poland - made it into our 9th country at this point. Pierogi and kielbasa was on the menu. Luckily that meal  crossed the gap between old family favorite comfort food AND local cuisine.

In Bavaria, Germany we had two tables that seated all of us. Although this one was surprisingly tippy.

A feast of local desserts in Vienna while on the hunt for the famous Sacer Torte.

Also in Bavaria, Germany. This table was plenty big enough for us but the light was better in the morning as they trickled down from bed to have some morning cereal.

Dinnertime has become even more of an anchor in my life during this wild travel then it consciously was before. My memories of childhood and adolescence center greatly around the dinner table though, if I think about it. Did my mom ever leave the kitchen? 

I had a spy club. I kept notes in a notebook and kept track of comings and goings (some of which were very interesting in my drug-infested neighborhood in inner-city Detroit. If only the cops had my list of license plates they could have had a leg up on the crack-dealer’s main clientele. Had they been interested. Which they weren't). And I can assure you, spying on my mom was...predictable. 

She was in the tiny kitchen that was covered in white-painted pegboard and lined with pots, pans and spoons hanging from the hooks. Just like her father’s tools had hung in his shed when she was growing up. He had his tools and now she had hers. She would be washing dishes using her specific system of one bowl of soapy water and one bowl of rinsing water. In the morning she was making pancakes. Every day - no cereal in the Kresta home. They were half whole wheat and half white flour, an adjusted recipe from the More With Less Cookbook. A Quaker-compiled cookbook that several of my contemporaries are familiar with because of our Baby Boomer mothers. There was one day that she tried to pass off buckwheat pancakes on us as if it was an exciting new addition to our breakfast repertoire. When we acted horrified at the first bite she chuckled and shrugged like she’d known all along that wasn’t going to work but hey - nothing ventured, nothing gained. 

As for lunch, when I was somewhere in my early years of education I requested that she send me to school instead of being homeschooled. Knowing what I know now about the quality of the public schools in my neighborhood I’m sure that it wasn’t only high ideals that had inspired my mom to keep me home. When prodded a little further about my reasons for wanting to go to school down the street it was revealed that the driving force was my desire to have a lunch box and walk down the street. Since watching kids walk past the house with lunch boxes was the only first-hand experience I had of "school" I suppose it makes sense that I honed in on that as the thing I was missing out on by staying home. My mother obliged and packed me a sack lunch. I took my little brother’s hand and we walked around the block and returned home - brimming with purpose and importance.

Dinner time was, at least in my memory, sacrosanct. One of my first memories is playing on the floor of the kitchen, smelling meat sauce simmering on the stove, wondering why I suddenly felt SO hungry, and hearing the bong, bong, bong of NPR. Based on the house we lived in then I couldn’t have been more then 2, or a young 3. My best friend growing up recently told me that whenever she would be over to play for the day it seemed like there was no food anywhere (we were never ones to have snacks handy, whereas at her house there was a veritable bounty of Jello and crackers available on demand) but then at dinner time, out of thin air would appear a piping hot delicious meal. She always thought of my mom as a sort of magician (she wasn’t wrong). 

She made amazing things too. Pekora - an Indian dish was our favorite Family Game Night meal. Many Battleship Destroyers sank while us captains feasted above on Pekora. She made a Peanut Tofu dish that I chose several times for my birthday dinner. And no, I don’t like tofu any more then you do. She was always trying things from the Enchanted Broccoli Forest cookbook. I found this book recently in a second-hand shop and thought I’d pick it up for the sake of nostalgia. After flipping through it a bit I realized just how out of my league this book is. I’ll be sticking to Betty Crocker. 

I do not have any memories of running around in the evenings or eating out on a regular basis. Dinner was such a given. Mom would have dinner ready. To not have dinner ready or to scrounge around  or eat in front of a tv with something out of a freezer was such a strange idea that when I became a mom and talked to other moms about menu planning and cooking I had to ask them, “What do you mean you don’t cook every night? What do you eat if you don't cook?” Well, it turns out that I grew up in very rarified air - as regards the dinner table.

As I grew older and had more outside evening engagements of my own and eventually moved out of the house my parents had dinner guests almost every night (the how and why being a little too long and complicated for this post). This was perhaps the highpoint of the Kresta Family Dinner Table. [Although, when we are all home for Christmas or summer and the table is crowded with my nieces and nephews and my children I’d be hard pressed to think of anything as better.] The food was amazing (I DON’T know how she did it. I really don’t.) and the talk was even better. Joyful, rowdy, interesting, and always engaging. 

On the road (as we were) and far from home (as we are), the dinner table has been a place of refuge from the changing scenery. It’s where I most feel like we are still ourselves even though everything around us looks different day to day. It is my anchor. I am certain that this anchor was given to me through the service of my mother who laid the foundation with dinner after dinner after dinner. She set me up to recognize "home" in the gathering at table. May I give that same gift to my children.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Day 2 of Travail: The Crux of the matter

So, I woke up on Day 2 to a strange smell. Definitely some sort of asian flavored food. I turned over to peek out the window directly next to my rock bed and jerked back from the curtain with alarm. There was an older Asian couple sitting about 2 ft away from me in a screened in porch. They were loud. Really loud. That is probably why I was awake even though I was still dead tired. John was gone - having driven out to Oxford to pick up the Damnable Biometric ID Card. There was no coffee anywhere. There was no kitchen attached to our "apartment" and we were in the middle of a residential neighborhood in a London suburb. 

It is important for you to keep this fact in mind. No coffee. Much of the next several hours of travail take place coffee-less. Some of you will know what I mean. I will be sure to remind you periodically. [COFFEE-LESS]. That is what the reminders will look like.

I stumble around, trying to make as much noise as possible showering and getting dressed. I turn on the lights and start trying to rouse children. Nothing doing. No one twitches a muscle. It's MY job to get them up and the bags ready to go so we can go pick up our Damnable Biometric ID Cards. This is the Proposed Timetable:
9:00 John returns triumphant from Oxford and we leave to pick up Damnable Biometric ID Cards (leave older kids at apartment bc car is too small? Do I need them WITH me? Oops. Didn't think of that).
9:30 John loads up luggage from house and drive to airport to drop off rental car. I get our 7 Damnable Biometric ID Cards and then take taxi with kids to airport while John drives rental car. We meet at the airport train station.
10:00 Reconvened, we take the train to Paddington together from the airport.
10:20 Take the Underground to another London station, Kings Cross/St. Pancras, to catch the dlltrain to Dover port.
11:30 Catch Train to Dover
1:00 Get Taxi to Port
2:00 Ferry to Calais
4:00 Van picks us up (which we will have for 9 months)
5:00 Drive 3 hours to Normandy
8:00 Arrive in Normandy after a long day but it's all OK because we made it.

Somewhere in there I'm imagining breakfast and coffee and lunch and dinner will be obtained. I can't say that I've planned for bathroom time but hey…we are just “travelers” - there’s no time for bodily needs.

We start out strong. John is amazing and gets back near the appointed commencement time (with his card!) and me and the kids's bad news. Some of them are still asleep. We are all furious and exhausted and no one's dressed and the bags aren't ready. OK. Oh well.
I hop in the car with John, and the kids. ALL the kids. In a tiny, two door compact car. The babies are sitting on laps and the four others are stuffed in like Flopsy Bunnies in Mr. McGregor’s sack. I had spent the last part of my morning on the phone trying to get a taxi to come and pick us up but all of them were at least a half hour long wait and we didn't have that time. So - shove them in we did. 

It's amazing what a "say cheese!" can do for a brief moment in time...except for Thomas and Gloria. Their faces don't lie.

We drive to the Post Office for me to pick up our Damnable Biometric ID Cards and...Well, let's just pause here to give you an idea of what driving is like for John at this moment.
1. Most obviously, it's on the "wrong" side of the road. This means that people pass on the right. The round-abouts (of which there are a tremendous abundance and variety - some connecting to each other like the olympic rings) all move clock-wise instead of counter clockwise. It means that making a right turn is actually the same as an American left turn - where to look for oncoming traffic is just mind-boggling. Overall, an absolute myriad of ways to get confused.
2. It's LONDON. It's kind of like NYC driving (very aggressive but at least it’s fairly universal so you know what to expect) combined with DC driving (totally chaotic with no real system because no one is actually native there but people are always in a hurry and therefore angry). Plus, it’s tremendously congested.
3. It's a standard transmission. This is extra-specially confusing because you have to use your left hand to shift gears instead of your right. Also, the shifting is all flipped around like a mirror image. So, you are operating the gearshift completely opposite as what your instinct tells you - WITH your left hand. No. We did not see that one coming.
4. Your wife is freaking the heck out.
5. Your kids are jet-lagged, hungry and incredibly squashed.
6. This is all super illegal.

So, we are trying to get to this post office. Post offices here can apparently be anywhere. 

A convenience mart. A grocery store. A gas station. Anyone and anything can be a post office. So, finding the one we were looking for is nearly impossible. We get to the correct neighborhood but there's roadwork on the street that this mysterious postoffice is on and the street is completely shut down. So, John drops me off with the children. We start walking toward where I think the post office is and then I realize that I DON'T HAVE THE PASSPORTS. I chase John and hail down the car. We all pile back in to drive another harrowing drive to the apartment. We pull up in the driveway and I get out and...oh my gosh. I DID HAVE THE PASSPORTS. [COFFE-LESS] They were in a really special, safe place in my backpack. OK. (“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”) 

Back in the car. But not before we tell the Asian people that we are not going to be checking out in time (no idea if they understand us). And calling the train company to tell them that we will be missing our train. By paying a change fee we switch our train tickets to “flexible” tickets and hope that we can somehow still make it to the ferry on time even by a later train. THE RUSH IS ON. Another absolutely harrowing drive back to the postoffice neighborhood and John drops the kids and me off and speeds back to the house to load up the luggage and return the rental car to the airport. I have arranged with a cab company to pick me up in 30 minutes and take the rest of us to the airport. Because getting these Damnable Biometric ID Cards can’t take longer then a half hour. 

We file up the street. Me and my procession. We are looking for this post office. We file up the street. We file down the street. We file up the street. [COFFEE-LESS] There a McDonalds! There is FOOD at McDonalds (if you want to fact-check that statement, feel free. However, at this point, gum off the ground could have been considered food) and COFFEE!!! I made a mental note and planned on popping back after the postoffice. Some kind Indian immigrant must have recognized my bewildered Fievel Mousekewitz expression and showed me the post-office. There’s a bit of a line but whatevs, we made it! I’m a hero! Do you see me?! 

We creep up closer and closer. It’s probably about 15 minutes of waiting in line and, mercifully, the jet lag was working in my favor. The kids are slumping against any surface that will hold them up. Bleary-eyed and almost completely silent. The little ones fall asleep in their strollers. I’m hoping to get the young, friendly, efficient looking woman behind the counter. No such luck. I draw the surly, can’t-be-bothered, won’t-be-rushed older gentleman behind the bulletproof glass. Fine, whatever. I’m still a hero.

The kids clamber around me, sliding down the wall until they are all in a pile on the floor dozing. He takes his time. Each card in in a separate envelope. He is He scans. I sign things. He checks passports. I’m can feel sweat dripping down my back. My phone starts to ring…super weird since no one except John has my number. I answer the call and can’t understand a single word being spoken.  I’m thinking it’s a wrong number and then I decipher the word, “taxi”. Oh my gosh. It’s been at least 30 minutes at this point, although truth-be-told I’m trying to just “be in the moment” because the whole time-table thing is such a disaster that I can’t even go there. I explain that I’ll be out soon. 5 minutes, maybe 10. He is not amused. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. 

Ten more minutes go by. Mr. Surly has heard the entire call but doesn’t even flinch. He is in no hurry. Another call from the cabby. Another stream of frustrated sounds come out - none of which I can understand except “McDonalds”. OK, great - meet you there. I’m feeling like less of a hero now even though I have all of the Damnable Biometric ID Cards.

We file back out of the store that is also a postoffice. The kids are drowsy and asking for food but have really been amazing all morning. It’s been truly awful and I’m hella impressed. I find the annoyed cabby who is clearly not going to take it well if I bring up the possibility that I go and buy my children breakfast at this McDonalds so I silently say a sad farewell to the possibility of acquiring food and coffee at this time.

He drops us off at the airport where we are waiting for John to show up with the luggage after he drops off the car. It starts raining. We run inside of the terminal. I have a mild case of PTSD come upon me at the sounds of the airline announcements and the sight of luggage trolleys. Apparently the kids respond the same way because before John appears we have kids screaming, punches thrown, and bloody noses (that is not hyperbole).  Every single child is furious with every other child about something.  6 kids x 5 siblings = 30. That is 30 tension-filled relationships. Throw me in there too, for good measure, that brings us up to 42. I look out of the door and there’s John. Carrying ALLLLL the luggage. Four rolling suitcases, two camping beds, two boosters and his backpack. Everyone feels appropriately bad for him and rallies to help. It is beautiful what a little compassion can do to a fractious group of people. Never be afraid to be the weak one or the needy one because being the helper is often what other people need the most. We reconvene as a team.

Heading down to the catch the train the kids start begging for water. We have no water. They also need to go to the bathroom. There is no bathroom in the station - you have to go back to the airport. OH WELL. Not happening. Hold it, friends. We exit the train at Paddington Station. 

Head directly to the bathroom. Loooonnnngggg queue. Apparently the turnstile is broken and so people aren’t able to pay. Oh bloody, stinking heck. Pay toilets. I had momentarily forgotten. I haven’t had time to take pounds sterling out! After a fruitless search for another bathroom and/or ATM we remember the pounds that Becca gave us the night before we left! Glory, Hallelujah! YOU ARE THE BEST, BECCA! I say a prayer that at that moment someone blesses her with kindness. We head back down with the ziplock bag of coins. I have no idea which coin is which at this point and am clearly fumbling along with several small girls doing the unmistakeable dance of urgency and so someone in line tells me that kids go in free. Well! That’s great - just wish I’d known 20 minutes ago. 

After we are all relieved, we head back upstairs where John is waiting with…water! And…coffee! We drink deeply and gratefully.  

We have lost more time though, so the rush is back on. We get set in formation - each with a suitcase or stroller and our individual backpacks. John is the front and I’m the caboose and everyone else is in between. 

In formation!

We head into The Underground. It’s a mess from the beginning. We try to get through the turnstiles and get stuck. There are SO many platforms that have no elevator to them - only stairs. There are so many people that we are inconveniencing. We have several changes and we are all so sweaty and hot from lugging luggage and strollers up and down stairs by the end that I think I’m crying off and on, though I can’t be sure because I’ve mostly blocked it out. People were kind and helped when they could and only one employee looked at us and sneered with clear disdain, “Well, THIS isn’t ideal.” Really? Is it not? Because THIS is what I had in mind the whole time. This is my dream European adventure. 

This picture is a perfect example of why we call Cece's attitude, "The Power of Positive Ce." She can switch from miserable to joyful on a dime. Sometimes a very perfectly timed dime. She sometimes sustains me in my hour of need.

In spite of our rushing and huffing and puffing we have missed the train that would get us to the ferry on time. So it’s time for more phone calls. We change our ferry tickets to a later ferry. We call the van rental place and change our pickup time. We email the lady whose house we are renting in Normandy and tell her that instead of arriving at 8ish we are hoping to be there by 11. Money is just flowing through our fingers. And it’s raining. And, there’s been no food all day. We are out of water again. It’s now somewhere around 3:30. Well, they will probably have food on the train. Nope. That’s another 1.5 hours with no food and nothing I can do about it. 

Hurry up! And wait. Hurry up!!!! And....wait.

“Kids, I promise you food when we get the the ferry.” Well, no. We need to wait an hour before we get on the ferry in a building that has some vending machines but no ATM machine and we don’t have correct change for food from it. At least there’s a bathroom. These last bits of time where we are not moving but sitting and waiting (train and port) but have no food are the hardest mentally. I am feeling like such a schmo of a mom. I am not able to give them the most basic things.

Mush, mush! Up the longest corridor ever.

We finally get on the ferry and head directly to the cafeteria where there is what, in any other scenario, would be bland (at best), overpriced and greasy food but to us is an absolutely lavish banquet. We spent SO much money on that ferry and didn’t regret a single penny. 

Yes. That is a meat pie, mushy peas and fish and chips. "That's a right Bri-ish meal, right there, that is," according to the cafeteria worker.

I cried a bit. It felt so, so good to be able to provide my children with what they legitimately needed in that moment. It was dry, there was a bathroom, there were places to sit and mostly, there was water and food. We hadn't eaten more then a smattering of pretzels and croissants (and not much of those) in 54 hours. We were run ragged.

Dry! Sitting! Eating! Drinking! 

We even recovered enough to pull out our individualized travel guides/coloring books and mentally get excited!

It was an incredibly good two hour respite for all of us. I wish that I could say that everything after that went swimmingly but it didn’t. However, having been fed, watered, and dried out, we all coped much better with the rest of the night.

Getting the van took an hour and a half and by the time we were going to start our three hour drive to Normandy we realized that our landlady was going to meet us there at (if google maps was accurate) 2 A.M. 

This van represents freedom. We are so American. We are all about the open road.

No way, even if we could do the drive ourselves (and John claimed he could) we would never ask that of her. So, we made one last cancelation phone call and told her we would find a hotel. We tried one place but they were full. We tried another place but they never even came to the door. We tried another place, we couldn’t get them to open the gate to drive into the parking lot. We tried another place that was full. Eventually we came upon this place called, “F-1 Hotel”. It was cheap and had rooms! John managed to finagle the automatic sign up machine outside to give us two rooms - it was amazing! But, the gate wouldn’t open for us to get the van through. There are apparently no humans who work at these F1 Hotels at night (the place turned out to be a scant step up from a Hostel) and so we were just sort of stuck outside on the street, having paid for the rooms. I was trying to prepare to climb over the high fence after parking the car is some parking lot a ways off. The kids were, I think, unaware of just how difficult it was proving to find a hotel, which was good. They were still reveling in the novelty of being in “private transportation” after the stress of public transportation. 

This van was our home on wheels for 7 weeks. Now it's just our occasional use van.

Eventually another family opened the gate somehow and we drove in behind them, leaving the travail behind us.

I cranked up the volume on the stereo and blared at top notch, “Going the Distance” from Rocky. YES, I DID. We had done it. We had gone the distance. Welcome, to France. Welcome to your next seven weeks.