Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Cumbrian Christmas

It's that time of year again. Christmas! Or rather, Advent. I love the build-up to Christmas; I love the decorating, the baking, the buying of presents, and all the events that we have for school and church. Christmas concerts and nativity plays (this year at the primary school it is 'Christmas with the Aliens') and mince pies and mulled wine.

Here at the Vicarage we have a few of our own special events. The Thursday before Christmas we host the village's weekly 'pop-in' at our house; basically, it is a morning with coffee, cake, and chatting, finished off with some Christmas carols. I enjoy having people over and it also helps me get the house clean for Christmas, the kind of kick in the pants this reluctant housekeeper needs. We also have the Youth Group Christmas party next week, which involves a Yankee Swap (also known, I think, as a white elephant??) and lots of iced sugar cookies.

Next week there is a carol service at the Lifeboat Station down at the beach, and on Saturday my daughter is playing Christmas carols with the school band at the local castle (can castles be considered local? Well, we have one and it's twenty minutes away.)

So much busy-ness and fun, but amidst all that I try to find a moment or at least a second or two to be quiet. This December I am reading The Greatest Gift  by Anna Voskamp, who is the author of the bestselling book 1,000 Gifts. I'm enjoying a chance to reflect on the meaning of Advent and Christmas amidst the chaos of our household--the latest concerns/arguments being who gets to put the star on top of the tree (every year we put a note in the box of decorations saying whose turn it is, and every year the note mysteriously disappears) and who gets to eat the first chocolate in the Advent calendar. It's December 3rd and no chocolates have been eaten because this issue has not yet been resolved.

Do you look forward to the Christmas season? What do you like in particular? To celebrate I will give away one copy of my novella A Yorkshire Christmas (Kindle only, I'm afraid!) to someone who comments or sends me an email telling me something they like (or don't like!) about Christmas.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Beauty of The Bath

I once wrote a short story about the different bathrooms, and mainly bathtubs, that a couple had through their married life, and how each bathroom/tub represented a different stage of life. I was inspired by my own life, because in some ways I can track our marriage (and family life) through our bathtubs.

Take the first bathtub we had, in a flat in Cambridge, England. We lived in the top floor of a nineteenth-century vicarage near Newnham College, and the bathtub was a lovely, long, claw-footed masterpiece that invited deep, long, bubbly soaks. Unfortunately, there was only enough hot water to fill it to about two inches. My husband was a theology student, we were ridiculously poor, and this tub pretty much summed up our life. When I became pregnant that year, my husband very kindly would boil kettles of water and pour them into the tub so I could have a bath--one of the only things that helped with my morning sickness. I have memories of sitting in the tub, naked and shivering, in two inches of hot water while my husband hurried to boil kettle after kettle, dear man.

We moved to a college flat the next year, in the top of a bell tower, and this time we had a deep tub and unlimited hot water. Bliss! Plus the bathroom was on a floor above our flat, having to go up eleven twisting, turret stairs, and you couldn't hear a baby crying from it, which was also bliss. My husband would take our squally newborn for an hour while I would lie in the tub and wonder just what we'd taken on. Sometimes I still wonder that.

Next tub was the house of my husband's first curacy. Tiny, olive-green, in a semidetached house in Hull. We had two children and very few baths.

Moving on to America: a decent tub but not extraordinary by any means. Three children, and the bathtub usually saw them all squeezed in there together, water slopping over the sides.

And then New York: no bathtub, but two marble showers. Which sounds far more luxurious than the 1950s box-like apartment was, but at least the kids liked it and one of the showers was a two-person one which meant you could bung them all in there together for a quick evening bath, or rather, shower time.

And finally here, the bathtub in a two hundred year old vicarage. Six feet long, nice and deep, and an immersion heater to make sure you have all the hot water you could ever need. And, quite importantly, a fan in the bathroom that keeps you from hearing the often-incessant knocking on the door, the requests to play a game, mediate an argument, find hockey kit, and/or free up the bathroom for the other six people in the house.

I've been taking a lot of baths here. In winter, I take one almost every night. And no, I don't have a compulsion to be clean. You could say I have a compulsion to sink into deep, hot, bubbly water, sip a glass of wine, and read my book. After a long day working, writing, cooking, cleaning, and managing the lives of five children, a half-hour or so in the bath brings me back to a good and peaceful place. And, as a bonus, it keeps me warm! Even with new windows our house can be a bit draughty (but that's a whole other post) and I love going to bed with my skin still lightly steaming.

You could say my bath is my guilty pleasure, but I don't feel remotely guilty about it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Just What Is Bonfire Night?

On Monday night we went to the village's annual fireworks for Bonfire Night, otherwise known as Guy Fawkes Day (Or Night? I'm not sure). This is one of those villagey events that warms the heart and makes me glad I live in a small place where everyone knows everyone else, or just about. We congregate in the sports hall of the private school, where parents serve drinks and my children beg for toffee apples. (Has anyone, I wonder, ever finished a toffee apple? When I have relented and bought one, my child takes maybe two bites and then hands me the sticky mess. They look delicious, but they're not. They're apples on sticks with a little bit of covering.)

I recognize most of the people there, and usually manage to chat to quite a few, although this year I was chasing my fearless toddler, who thinks nothing of zigzagging through the crowds at full tilt, in search of the door to the outside and freedom. Then there are the fireworks, which are quite spectacular for a village our size.

This is a photo I took on the night; sorry it's blurry. But there is a sense of solidarity, standing outside in the cold and the dark, watching something together. It makes you feel part of a community. Which is why it's easy to forget the origin of Guy Fawkes Day, which is remembering a man who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605. Apparently people lit bonfires in thanksgiving for the king's life being spared, and Guy Fawkes was tortured, hung, and then quartered, with the parts of his body being sent to the four corners of the kingdom. Try explaining that to your six-year-old.

In many parts of the country people still burn a 'Guy' or a straw man on the bonfire, although this custom did not actually start until the mid 1800s, due to a high anti-Catholic sentiment at the time. There are few effigies burned in West Cumbria,  as it has a large number of Catholics, for which I'm thankful, because I don't think I'd like to explain that element to my children.

However, its grisly beginnings aside, I do enjoy Bonfire Night, or Fireworks Night, as we call it here, since there is no bonfire. And it seems appropriate to have fireworks to celebrate some fireworks that didn't happen. 

I included Bonfire Night in my upcoming book Rainy Day Sisters, and offered an American's perspective on some of the more gruesome aspects--having Guy Fawkes Day explained to me as a new ex-pat was, I remember, a bit unsettling. One good thing about having the country's annual fireworks day in November, at least, is that you don't have to wait until nine o'clock for it to be dark enough to set them off, as you do in America with the Fourth of July. We watched the fireworks and were home by eight o'clock. Excellent.

My eldest daughter was born (in England) on November 3, and the sound of fireworks can still bring me back to the days after her rather difficult birth, when I was cradling her and listening to the hiss and booms of fireworks going off in the distance. She turned sixteen on Monday and came to the Fireworks Night with me. And so time passes.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Budget Update

I was doing well with my weekly grocery budget of £125 until my dear husband decided to take a trip to Aldi by himself and stock up on all his 'essentials'--clearly I need to add a category to the weekly budget for 'Husband's Discretionary Fund'.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

On Traveling with Toddlers

I'm not sure I even need to write this post. Anyone who has traveled with toddlers will know it all already. And yet if you don't, or if you've forgotten [or more likely blanked it out for sanity's sake], then here goes.

My husband and I decided to take a trip to Newcastle for half-term.
We thought we were being sensible; the demands of his job as vicar mean he doesn't really relax unless he is out of the village. We knew a long trip would be tiring and expensive, so we booked two nights in a hotel in the centre of Newcastle within walking distance of Pizza Express--very important. We had two family rooms, with our older children in one and our younger children and us in the other. We planned to do a family-friendly attraction the next day, either the Life Centre or the Beamish Museum. The following day we would do some shopping, since there aren't many shopping options in West Cumbria.

Doesn't that all sound sensible and good? On paper, yes. In reality... Toddler Girl is in the stage of life where if she is unrestrained she is all over the place. She is running down a busy city street. She is trying to take some stranger's drink from their table at a restaurant. She has no sense of danger, of cars, of strangers, of cracks in the pavement that will send her sprawling. And if she is restrained, sensibly, in a stroller? She is straining at the straps as if we had wrestled her into a straitjacket. She is screaming at the top of her lungs. Unless we give her juice or bananas or, in desperation, lollipops. I brought many lollipops with us to Newcastle. They are all gone.

And then there are the sleeping arrangements. Family rooms at a budget hotel are small. The bathroom was barely big enough to stand up in, and the door was made of barely-frosted glass, with the toilet directly in front of it. Try sitting on the toilet with three people a few feet away, able to watch your every movement, and two of them quite interested in your every movement, as it happens. TMI? That was the nature of the whole trip.

Toddler went to bed at 8pm, at which point the three of us remaining in the room had to be completely silent in the dark. We didn't even breathe loudly. Eventually I gave up reading my Kindle and went to bed around 9pm. And then in the middle of the night... Toddler Girl's every movement had me tensing in bed, wide-eyed and awake. At 3am she, in her sleep, shouted 'MOM!' several times. I jumped out of bed, wild-eyed, my heart pounding. At 4am I thought it was morning until I checked the time and realised I had two or three more hours of this unbearable is-she-about-to-wake-up tension. Finally she did wake up, and then the chasing her around city streets began. At 1pm we called it a day and I took her home.

The upside to all this is that I appreciate the comforts of home so much more. I closed the door to our house and watched Toddler Girl toddle off with a huge sigh of relief. I didn't have to chase her! There were no zooming cars or menacing strangers to worry about. We have unlimited Peppa Pig. She slept in a separate room. And our village is so quiet and peaceful and clean. [Despite the troubles with dog poo, which is another post entirely.] While we walked around the centre of Newcastle trash blew into our toddler's face. Drunks staggered from doorways when we walked home from dinner. Not exactly what you're looking for in a holiday getaway.

So we have decided no more city breaks with children until the youngest child is at least 3, maybe 4. I haven't even got into the other stress of our trip, which is having a 16-year-old and a 1-year-old on the same holiday is a recipe for someone to be unhappy, probably several someones. It is impossible to please the kind of age range we have in our family right now. And the attractions we had chosen were so expensive we would have spent upward of £100 to get everyone in. So no more holidays, ever! That's what I'm thinking right now, although of course we are all home today and everyone is complaining about being bored. You just can't win sometimes.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


This post doesn't necessarily have to do with village life, but my life, and as my life is a village life I think it relates. It relates to a lot of people, I suspect, in these trying times, and so I thought I'd post about my aspiration to budget for groceries.

I have budgeted for groceries--ie, set an amount for food shopping each week--every year of my married life. I've never quite managed to keep to it for very long, although I have been, for the most part, a thrifty spender. I think it's because my goals have been unrealistic, mainly because we didn't have a lot of money! Now I've decided to try, instead of one lump sum for food for the week, breaking it down into groups.

To clarify: I feed eight people, five of them eating adult-sized portions. All eight people have dinner; all eight people have a cooked breakfast. Three to four of us have lunch everyday. And on the weekends all eight of us have lunch, plus we have, on average, people over for a meal once a week. I also try to bake around twice a week, either a cake or cookies. So! Here is my budget, in pounds, for food per week:

Meat: £25
Dairy (yogurt, milk, cheese, butter, eggs): £20
Produce: £15
Dry goods, including bread: £10
Diapers: £5
Frozen: £5
Juice: £3
Household: (toilet paper, laundry detergent, etc) £10
Baking (flour, sugar, etc): £5

The above totals to £98. I shop at Aldi except for bagels and cereal, which I get from another supermarket, so I'll add another £8 for those items, which brings me to £106. Adding another £19 for unexpected items/wiggle room, and I've reached my hoped-for budget of £125 a week.

Do you think this is reasonable? It means no readymade meals, no extra treats unless they fit into the above set amounts, and no extras like soda or snacks. I'm going to shop on Monday. I'll let you know how it goes.

Apparently I live in the best place in England...

To raise a family! My village came number one in the top of a survey conducted by The Family Hotspots Report. You can see the article here: here

The low crime rate, higher median salary, good exam results and 'unique local traditions' all contributed to its number one position, according to the article. The fact that Rowan Atkinson, aka Mr Bean, went to school here also seemed noteworthy, as it was mentioned in the header.

When reading the article, I noticed that a nearby village that I think is one of the worst places in England to live--charmless former miner's cottages huddled on a single street, each with a huge satellite dish and the only shop being a dingy off license--made the top ten does cast the report into a rather different light. Since the report is based on finances, St Bees' unique position (never mind local traditions) as a remote village with a lucrative, well-paid industry (nuclear) nearby means the house prices and crime rates are low but the salaries are high. So it does well in these surveys, and while I do think it is a lovely place to live, it does have some detractions that the article doesn't take into consideration: distance to cities/culture/medical care/things that are interesting.

But I do like living here; I love the freedom my children have; I love the sense of community; I'm getting used to the weather. You can't have everything, after all.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On Wind

I braved a walk down to the beach on Saturday, when the wind was kicking up tremendously. It's always surprising to me how tiring it is to walk against the wind, and it really shouldn't be surprising because it happens often enough! And even a strong wind at your back can be unsettling; it feels like a giant hand propelling you forward, the way an unruly child might be frogmarched by a teacher to the headmaster's office.

But there is also something glorious and powerful about the wind--to watch it turning the oft-placid sea into wild whitecaps; to see the trees bent over like old women; to feel it practically lift you from your feet. Nature is awe-inspiring as well as occasionally uncomfortable.

And after twenty minutes at the beach, I was ready to come home and have a cup of tea. But here is the rather unattractive evidence of my windy adventures; as far as selfless go, it's not all that flattering, but you can see how my hair is flying about.

Here are some other photos from the day. Thankfully no one was blown over, although they came close!

Friday, October 17, 2014

My Love Affair with the Aga

I'm not sure when I started fantasising about having an Aga. For those of you who have not seen one before, an Aga is a cooking range that looks like this:

I won't go into the technology behind the Aga, because I don't really know it. What I know is this: it runs all the time, so it is always warm and your kitchen is always warm. There are, on the large Aga as pictured above, four different ovens, each one at a different temperature--one for baking, one for roasting, one for warming and one for simmering. The hotplates also have different temperatures on different area of the hotplate--hotter in the centre and cooler on the outside.

The other thing I know about Agas is they are very expensive. A large new one cost in the region of £12,000 ($20,000) which is frankly a ridiculous amount of money to pay for a cooker. A refurbished one is £5000-£7000. So I pretty much understood an Aga was and would always be out of our price range. Even if we could afford it, I would have trouble justifying spending that amount of money on an appliance.

So imagine my stunned delight when I found out the Vicarage came with a Rayburn, which is like an Aga except slightly different (don't ask me how, they look the same!). I couldn't believe I was actually going to move into a 200 year old house with an AGA, or at least an Aga-like Rayburn.

Here is ours, with the prerequisite puppy in front of it. (She is now 3 years old.)

I soon discovered that cooking on a Rayburn was tricky, and running it all the time when it is fuelled by oil is disastrously expensive. We had a little digital meter in our kitchen that counted down the amount of oil in the tank outside from 9 to 1, when it started blinking a red light. Every morning I came into the kitchen and glanced at that meter in trepidation, willing it not to have gone down a number. In the coldest part of winter it went down once a week, which was extremely stress-inducing.

We ended up having to turn the Rayburn off unless we were using it which meant a.) The kitchen is not all warm and cozy b.) It took 20-30 minutes for the oven or hotplate to become remotely warm. So spontaneous baking or cooking was not in the cards.

However, I still loved it. Because there is just something so cozy and welcoming about a Rayburn or Aga, even when they're off and stone-cold. It doesn't make sense, and some people hate them, but...! I was insistent on keeping ours.

Until it broke. And broke again. And kept breaking, with the only Rayburn repairman in the entire country living an hour and a half away and leaving the kitchen covered in soot and oil when he fixed it. [Repairmen don't seem to feel a need to clean up after themselves here, I've noticed]. And then the Rayburn broke at 10 pm on Christmas Eve, and my love for our cooker was sorely tested. We ended up cooking for three months on a portable stove that was kept in the pantry. And then we ended up getting rid of the Rayburn, because fixing it was going to cost thousands of pounds and it just wasn't worth it, no matter how much I loved the idea of them.

So now we have the best possible alternative: an electric oven/gas stove that LOOKS like an Aga. Sort of. And it cooks quickly and has four ovens and eight burners, and well, I'm happy, even if I still hanker after the real thing.

So instead of cooking on an Aga, I write about them. Every book I've written that takes place in Cumbria has an Aga in it, and Rainy Day Sisters (see post below) even has one on its cover. Because I still love them. I just don't want one anymore. At least, not much.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

My cover for Rainy Day Sisters!

I'm very excited about this book, which is set in a fictional village similar to my own. It's called Rainy Day Sisters and it is being published by Penguin/NAL in July 2015. Here is the cover:

The characters in this book are pure fiction, but lots of little details and anecdotes from my life made it into the story. I can't wait to share it with readers.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Thoughts on Bob the Builder and Postman Pat

I read with dismay this morning that Bob the Builder is getting a reboot. The new CGI Bob no longer lives in the quaint village of Fixham but has moved to Spring City, where he will use a computer to aid in his work. What is happening to the world, I ask you?

It happened to Fireman Sam and Postman Pat. Even Angelina Ballerina did not escape the trend of children's TV characters moving to CGI forms and more 'relevant' lifestyles. They've taken them out of the villages and into the wider world of cities and computers and even mobile phones as they battle far greater elements and evils than Postman Pat's hole in the road.

While I understand the motivation for this exodus, it also saddens me, because there is something frankly wonderful about a thirty-minute television program for children that focuses on nothing more than a thievish magpie or a leaky water pipe. I have a deep affection for Sam's mobile shop that provides oranges and bananas to the farms of Greendale,  or the thatched roof cottages of Angelina Ballerina's Chipping Cheddar. Now Postman Pat has a special delivery service which takes him to Pencaster, and he has the use of a Jeep and even a helicopter. Angelina Ballerina has moved to the larger, more urban Camembert Academy. Even Fireman Sam's village, Pontpandy, has changed to a new location. Tragedies all.

The beauty of village life is, in part at least, its lack of high drama (although there is some, I grant you!) and the ensuing pleasure in small things. In an average week I leave our village maybe once, for the supermarket. But this means that going to the library, the post office shop, and gasp, the pub, become major anticipatory events. The beach café has a new ice-cream flavour, stop press! The post office shop has extended its hours, amazing! And sitting down in the pub with friends on a Friday night, to share a bottle of wine? It's not fancy. It's not exciting. But it is gives me a deep pleasure.

I'm glad to see that Peppa Pig still retains its focus on small adventures rather than high octane action. (Was Postman Pat, I ask you, ever meant to be exciting? I think not.) My toddler has become riveted by Peppa Pig lately, and even my older children stop and watch when it is on the TV. Peppa's trip to Italy with the missing teddy and the carabinieri who deliver it to her house is, while obviously unrealistic, also sweetly charming. And perhaps not as unrealistic as all that.

In the first year we moved here, I lost forty pounds (or about $60) on the high street. I foolishly put it in my back pocket, went to pick up the children from school, and when I came back it was gone. The next morning the Head Teacher at the primary school asked at assembly if anyone had lost any money. My son promptly put up his hand. 'My mother did,' he said, upon which he was asked the amount. 'Forty pounds,' was the prompt reply, and with that confirmed the school secretary called to inform me they'd found my forty pounds. That morning a parent had seen forty pounds lying on the lane up to the school (where it had languished for a good eighteen hours), picked it up, and brought it to the school office. And from there it was restored to me.

So forget CGI and all the gadgetry that Postman Pat and Bob the Builder have been given. Bring back the old days of stop-motion animation, charming villages, and their residents' tiny yet fascinating problems. That's what I want to watch. It's what I live.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Joys of Living in a Small Place

The other day I went to our little village library to sheepishly return several books that were--cough, cough--two months overdue. In New York, when I once returned a book that had been lost under a child's bed, I was told by a stony-faced librarian that I owed over forty dollars in fines. And even if I bought the book, I *still* had to pay the fines. That, I tell you, was a racket. (Confession time: I returned the book, said I would pay the fines on my next visit, and never went back. At that point I knew I was moving to England.)

Another time, in Connecticut, I saw a sign that said, for one day only, if you donated canned goods for the food bank your library fines would be wiped clean. I approached the desk with some trepidation--the librarians in Connecticut were a fearsome bunch--and presented my box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese as well as some tinned tomatoes. The librarian looked up my account on her computer and with her eyes narrowing and her mouth going tight, she informed me that I owed over fifty dollars in fines. "But the food drive..." I began in hesitant hope, and she had no choice but to wipe the fines clean. She clearly was not happy about it.

In my little village here, my experience was a bit different. I approached the desk with my three overdue books, resigned to paying the 20p a day fine times three, times sixty days... a fairly significant amount of money, but I recognised it was my fault and I was ready to pay. The librarian looked up my account, frowning. "Did you know your books were overdue?" she asked and I hung my head. "Yes, I did," I said. Her frown deepened and then she said, "Oh, but there have been building works going on all summer, haven't there? And you with your little baby... you must have had trouble getting around to the library." I admitted, hesitantly, uncertainly, that I had. She smiled and said, "Well, I'll take those fines off your account then. You've nothing to worry about, Mrs. Swartz." And then she started chatting to my five-year-old daughter about her books.

I walked out of the library thinking how much I loved living somewhere where, to evoke the television show Cheers, everyone knows your name--and your situation.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Truth About Cozy Autumn Suppers

Last night it was cold and wet and windy--what a surprise--but after our glorious summer that stretched right into September, it did feel like a change. And so I decided to make something cozy and warm and autumnal for dinner; I relished the thought of tucking into nourishing warm food made by my loving hands, my family seated around the tables, smiles on their faces...

I settled on pork medallions with maple glaze, butternut squash risotto, green beans and apple sauce. And while it felt very cheering and nurturing to stir the risotto on top of the stove, the wind battering everything to pieces outside, the lovely, fragrant smell of the risotto wafting through the air,

(This is not my kitchen, by the way--if only I had an Aga!!) the truth is none of my children actually like risotto. I keep insisting they try the different kinds I make, and each time they take a forkful and make a face. So for all my nurturing attempts at a cheering, autumnal supper on a cold, wet night, my five children ate platefuls of green beans and apple sauce (which were made with Bramleys a neighbour gave me from the tree in his garden, so that's something at least). Maybe I'll try again next week, or pick a different cozy, autumnal dish. Suggestions, please...

Friday, October 3, 2014

Wet and wind

Most of the photos I post are of Cumbria on sunny days--the few that we have. And although we have had a very good stretch of nice weather lately, the truth is that the Lake District is usually windy and wet. The forecast for the next 24 hours is a month's worth of rain in a single day. Sadly, this is not unusual. So even though I pretend it's always like this:

It's actually usually like this:

Or even like this:

Coping with the weather has been a big struggle for me, especially the first year we lived here. The first day of school was 50 degrees with 70mph winds. I sent the children off in their winter coats. After eight years back in the US, I'd got used to expecting sunshine. I'd enjoyed the full range of the seasons: hot, humid summers; glorious, balmy autumns; cold, snowy winters; and lovely, warm springs. Each one had its delights and challenges, but at least it was varied. And yet within that variation rainy days were infrequent enough that you could actually enjoy the novelty of carrying an umbrella or watching the downpour from your window, a mug of tea in hand.

Things are a little different here. Rain is, sadly, the norm. Only recently I read that Cumbria is the wettest county in England, a fact which shouldn't have surprised me but still did. The funny thing is, because the weather is so bad, we talk about it all the time. I have become British in that I am obsessed with the weather. I check it constantly and compare it to New York--something I really shouldn't do, because it so rarely is in my favour. And even though the weather is usually wet and windy (and cold, the average high in July is a scorching 67 degrees), every school run involves conversations such as this:

Neighbor: You all right? (Cumbrian for how are you?)
Me: Yes, fine, glorious today, isn't it!
Neighbor: Isn't it red hot! (It might be hovering around 60 degrees)
Me: Oh, yes.


Neighbor: You all right?
Me: Yes, terrible weather though.
Neighbor: Isn't it dreadful! Raining buckets.
Me: Yes, but at least we did have some sunny weather.
Neighbor: That's right, we can't complain!

And a thousand variations thereof.

I could tell you that living in a place where the weather is generally awful has its advantages but the truth is, it doesn't. It's more about making the best of a bad situation. I've learned to enjoy (and even revel, deliriously) in the beautiful days. And Cumbria, on a sunny day, is rather jaw-droppingly glorious. As for the bad days? Sometimes you can enjoy the sound of the wind outside which can be astonishingly loud--rattling windowpanes, soughing through trees, and generally making a lot of noise. We have six working fireplaces in our vicarage and it can be very cozy to sit by the fire with a cup of tea and be glad you're not outside in the driving downpour. Of course, eventually you have to go out--to pick up kids from school is the usual reason. Driving a car to school is not a possibility unless the weather is truly torrential because the parking on the narrow high street is so difficult (and trust me, having to reverse into a parking space in my 7-seater car on a very narrow street while driving on what I still consider to be the wrong side of the road is just about my worst nightmare). So on comes the wet weather gear: Wellies, waterproof jacket, umbrella, and sometimes even waterproof pants, or as we would say in England, waterproof trousers (waterproof pants giving the sense more of a diaper, or should I say, nappy). And out I go into the driving rain, the relentless wind, and smile cheerfully to my neighbour as we shake our heads at the weather that still seems like a surprise, even when it really shouldn't.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Reflections on the School Run

When we lived in New York, our school run looked like this:

(This is actually a photo of our moving truck outside our apartment, the day we left). While in New York we had to wake the children by 6:30 am, and they had to be out of the house by 7:20 to make the school bus three long avenue blocks away. No matter how much I prepared: making their lunches the night before, setting out bowls and cups and cereal boxes, having their uniforms all laid out... we were always late! The morning would start out slow and sleepy and then by 7:22 we were all rushing [ie panicking], shouting, children begging to take a cab to school, us saying absolutely not [although sometimes we caved and spent $20 on a cab--oh, New York life!) before my husband hustled everyone out the door on his way to work and they sprinted from Madison Avenue and 91st Street to Third Avenue and 90th. (Which doesn't sound that far, but trust me, it is.)

Now my school run looks like this:

It's a seven minute walk down the high street of my village, past sheep fields and a little post office shop, and then up a little lane to the school. I'ts very pleasant, and my children don't have to be at school until the luxuriously late hour of 9 am.

And yet. You know what's coming, don't you? We're still late. We still rush, panic, shout, scream. Children don't demand a cab, but rather the car--which I always say no to, because parking is horrendous. But every day as I chivvy them up the street, huffing and puffing as I push the stroller, realising my five-year-old has not brushed her hair and my ten-year-old has not brushed his teeth, and I forgot to sign a note/bring gym uniform/pack a snack/all of the above, I think: how can this be? How can the school run be an hour and a half later than in New York, and much shorter, and yet I am still rushing?

I've come to this rather obvious conclusion: It's either the nature of school runs or the nature of me.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Crab Fair

In my upcoming book, Rainy Day Sisters, one of the main character goes to the Egremont Crab Fair. That's crab apples, not crustaceans, but I must confess when I wrote about the Crab Fair, I hadn't actually been to one. My children had, and I asked my friend who goes every year for details, but when the Crab Fair rolled around this year and my son asked (begged) if we could go, I said yes. I wanted to experience this for myself!

Sadly, we missed the Parade of the Apple Cart and the Queen of the Crab Fair, but we did see some races (and took part in the wheelbarrow race, which is racing someone in an actual wheelbarrow rather than having to walk on your hands while someone holds your legs!)

and had some delightful Crab Fair food (i.e., hot, sugary donuts--who doesn't love those?!) And my son got separated from me, which is par for the course at these events. Fortunately I found him again.
Overall, it was a fun afternoon and definitely something I'd do again, if just to enjoy the beautiful view (and sugary donuts).

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Beach Life

I've never actually been much of a beach person. I don't like all the sand and salt in my hair and on my skin, and the closest beach to where I grew up, the one everyone went to, was the Jersey Shore. Enough said.

So living close to the beach wasn't actually a huge draw for me when we moved to the Cumbrian coast. But in the three years I've lived here, I've come to appreciate the many and sometimes subtle delights of the English northern seaside. Here, a hundred miles north of Blackpool, there are no boardwalks or fun fairs.

The beach where we live is its own attraction--at low tide, a quarter mile of smooth, wet sand and another quarter mile of water that doesn't go past your knees. There are tide pools that warm up in the sun and provide some good wading for small children (and crabbing opportunities for older children)

And most importantly, there is a café that sells some very good ice cream.

Something I love about British beaches--and British beachgoers--is that the weather is not a consideration. Of course, everyone flocks to the beach when it is a sunny, warm day like today, but I've seen children building sandcastles in February, or taking an early spring dip on a chilly day in May. My own children have done it, although not always willingly!

I love our beach on a sunny, still day, but in the rain and wind it still has its own admittedly chilly beauty. Living here has certainly taught me the importance of dressing appropriately for the weather.

So, yes, we are far from ferris wheels and boardwalks, but in living here I have become a bit more of a beach person.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


What's a one-time New Yorker doing in a tiny village on the remote Cumbrian coast?

There are time when I wonder how on earth I ended up here, and other times when I feel like I've finally found my home.

Three years ago my husband accepted a position as school chaplain and vicar to the village church, and we, with our four children, left our life on Manhattan's Upper East Side to live in a 200-year-old vicarage in a village with a population of 1,800 on the edge of the Lake District in Cumbria, one of England's least populated counties. We moved from this:

to this:

We now have five children between the ages of 1 and 16 as well as a Golden Retriever and while we're  still considered 'off comers' (i.e., non-natives) and most likely will be for another 30 years, we are learning to live a village life: a life of community and support, of smallness and joy, of being unsettled when someone you don't know stops you on the street to say they heard you had a bad night with the baby, and of being immensely thankful when you develop pneumonia and people you don't know drop meals off at your house. Of living in a place where a seven-year-old can walk home from school by himself, and the school run involves walking through sheep fields. Of being part of a community that is so tight-knit it can feel exclusive, and other times you feel like you're right in the middle of things. There are days when I wonder why I'm here, and yet deep down I know I wouldn't rather be anywhere else.

Welcome to A Village Life!