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.