Friday, December 30, 2011

New Year's Eve ... somewhere in the UK?

For anyone not familiar with this annual ritual, here's the scoop. Greg and I have celebrated New Year's Eve together every year since 1994. (it's the only holiday we can say that for). This will be Year 18. And the best part? Each year, we have been in a different city at midnight.

In the past, there have been some spectacular years and some not-so-spectacular ones. Some years, one, or both of us, was onstage performing. (although never too busy for a midnight kiss). Occasionally, a gig would put us in the same city for a successive year, which necessitated driving at high speeds out of the city to a nearby suburb before the clock struck twelve. Silly? Sure. But nice to have such a tradition? Absolutely.

This year is presenting greater challenges than most. We have been assigned (by Totem) to be in London for the second year in a row, and Greg has to work till 9pm. We have no car. And finding a babysitter was like leaping through hoops of fire. But an agency sitter has finally been booked, the Underground maps have been carefully analyzed, and I am determined for success this year as well.

I just realized that my list of all of the cities we've been to is being kept exclusively in the back of a dog-eared, beaten-up old journal, and I'd better replicate it before the darn thing gets lost or destroyed in our travels. Here is the full list:

1994 Las Vegas, NV
1995 Portland, ME
1996 NYC / Garfield, NJ
1997 Boston, MA
1998 Berwyn / Paoli, PA
1999 Williamsburg, VA
2000 Doylestown, PA
2001 Providence, RI
2002 Caribbean (on a cruise ship, at sea)
2003 St. Louis, MO
2004 Binghamton, NY
2005 Johnston City, NY
2006 Vestal, NY
2007 Atlantic City, NJ
2008 Garden City, NY
2009 Bethlehem, PA
2010 London, England

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

South Kensington, London

Maybe it's the travel exhaustion talking ... but I've been a serious nervous wreck since arriving here in London early this morning. I suppose I am normally pretty scattered - every time we arrive in a new apartment, there is so much to figure out. But today this was combined with 5 people's jet-lag and sleep-deprivation, meaning we're all on edge. And to add to that, I'm living just 1/2 mile from my old apartment near Kensington Gardens ... which I could have chosen, and probably should have chosen ... it was really quite an excellent place, and familiar. I knew everything about the apartment, the neighborhood, the distances to things, the local shops, the public transit. Instead, I chose to stay somewhere new, thinking there was a chance it would be even better than Prince of Wales Terrace, and it would be closer to the good grocery store, the museums, and the Underground (all these proximities are true).

Our new place, a 1/2 block from the Natural History Museum, is in a beautiful location, but it is honestly one of the oddest and least-well-appointed apartments we've stayed at.'s not that it's grungy. In fact is has some strangely-chosen luxuries, like radiant-floor heating in one of the bathrooms. But the list of "things missing from this apartment", which I make in every city, seems much longer in this one. How can a fully-furnished apartment not have a single large knife, a washcloth, a potholder? Why do parts of it, like the particle-board dressers and the stained, ratty carpeting, look like they're from a cheap motel? (this is a "penthouse" level, top-floor, 3-bedroom 2-bathroom apartment in one of the poshest neighborhoods in London). Why do the kids rooms have no dresser drawers, but gigantic wardrobes instead? And for Christ's sake why, again, is there not a single place to hang a coat in here? No coat rack. No hooks. Not even a closet.

On the bright side - this is the first place we've stayed that will have basic housekeeping service every day. woo-hoo! I may not even have to make the beds or wash the dishes.

I am getting ahead of myself. I first wanted to mention that our flight over here went smoothly. Everything went according to plan with the shuttle and the airport, and the kids even slept a few hours on the plane. (more than I can say for me and Greg). It was so funny when we arrived in London, I guess our flight was early because they put us in a holding pattern. This is what it looked like on the screen in front of us (note Heathrow far to the left):

I took Ayla and Isa out for a walk this afternoon. I was hoping we would bump into some kind of kids' playground. It was distressing to discover that in South Kensington, green spaces are heavily gated and locked, open only to private owners. We ran into several of these. I guess they are determined to keep out the vagabonds... and truthfully I haven't seen any homeless or disturbed-looking people wandering around this part of town at all. But what about the children who want to play outside?

Our entertainment here simply will have to take other forms. The girls and I walked over to the Brompton Oratory and explored inside the beautiful old church. Then we wandered into the V & A Museum to admire sculptures, miniature paintings and jewelry. All of these kinds of things are free.

OK, sleep deprivation is hitting hard and I might fall asleep on my keyboard. Signing off, from London!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

It's the first time my Mom and Dad, in 30 + years, have not gone to Plattsburgh on Christmas morning. Since Grandma is no longer there, traditions are changing. I was happy to be here with them to spend the whole day in Natick! Of course with the children there was much excitement (beginning around 5:45am). Here were the top Santa presents this year...

Remote control car. It is a frighteningly powerful little machine; and it has to charge for 4 hours in order to drive around for 15 minutes. But when it drives, watch out! It is a total off-road vehicle, able to flip over and keep driving upside-down.

I have been insistently referring to the first American Girl to enter our family as Aylenka ("little Ayla" in Russian diminutive form) but Ayla is having none of it. This is Little Ayla ("she's not Russian, Mom"), her heart's desire. And my mother added to the joy by unearthing a bag of handmade Cabbage Patch Kid clothes from my childhood, many of which fit Little Ayla wonderfully.

Isa is at the age when happiness = bouncing. (it seems to last several years, actually). Hence, the Hopper. Her favorite Santa gift is a toss-up, though, between the Hopper and her Furreal puppy, which barks, and walks.

Phew. It's been a very busy and festive few days - cousins, aunts, uncles, friends; running around doing last-minute shopping and wrapping. But I think overall, we are going to remember this as a relaxing Christmas holiday, with sugar cookies, a gingerbread house, a turkey dinner, carols, and watching the Nutcracker (Bolshoi Ballet version on DVR). We loved our online London Advent Calendar; we mourned the lack of snow; we went out for walks and admired the neighbors' Christmas lights. We played chess. I finished knitting myself a hat. Greg and Baz read Choose Your Own Adventure books together. It has been about as cozy a day as I can possibly imagine.

So, truly, Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

Monday, December 19, 2011


Arrived tonight in my hometown of Natick, Massachusetts.

The day was a travel blur, getting the kids out the door early in the morning, and spending most of the day cooped up on an airplane. (here's a picture of them eating some last San Francisco sourdough bread on the flight). When we got here, it was a rush of settling in, getting everyone dinner and pajamas and hauling all of our suitcases upstairs. I barely had time to look around, until I got the kids tucked into bed and then stepped outside into the night air.

A cold, clear night. Still, quiet, in that non-city way. Stars. Christmas lights decorating the houses. And I breathed in the familiarity of this place. My hometown - it's like a part of my skin, so ingrained that I don't think about it, the curves of the sidewalks, the streetlights, the shapes of the trees. This, despite the fact that 2012 will mean I have spent as many years living away from here, as I did living here.

It doesn't matter - the first 18 years of life here shaped my identity, and in the following 18 years I have always come back. Mom and Dad are still here, in the same house I grew up in. They've made some changes to the house, of course, and my perception of it has shifted over the years - but it is still truly the place of my roots.

Being here at Christmastime is especially special. My mother loves to decorate, and this year she has gone all out with snowmen and holly and musical-toys and Christmas tableware. The children are thrilled. For me, it's all quite familiar - but she points out that this is only the second time we've been here on Christmas morning with our kids. Every other year we've divided our time between Greg's family and our Plattsburgh family. I think it just feels so familiar because this is where I spent all of my first Christmases, in this routine of home.

It will be a busy week - we are also taking two days to go see Greg's parents in New Jersey, and then filling the rest of the days with cookie-baking, long walks, get-togethers with other family members, and exploring Mom and Dad's brand-new camper!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Morning Run


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Totem holiday festivities

December 14 was our big day on site, with Totem's Christmas celebrations. The other Moms and I were all there on site at 10:30am, prepping for the final Nutcracker rehearsal, accomplishing vital tasks such as decorating helium balloons to look like mice.

The real events began later that afternoon, starting with the arrival of Santa Claus:


It was awesome, to see Santa rappelling from the top of the circus tent!!! He came down to lots of cheers and excitement, and the kids all ushered him inside the Tapis Rouge tent, for the performance of the Nutcracker.

The Nutcracker (Щелкунчик) was actually a 30-minute show (including a 5-minute segment in the middle where the kids just sit and watch the film) ... it was based on the story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, which was made into a 1973 animated movie. Apparently all Russian / Ukrainian children grow up watching this movie (I imagine it's something like How The Grinch Stole Christmas or A Charlie Brown Christmas, in popularity). Our children's task was to act out the film.

We were so proud of them! Here is a link to the video - it's too large a file to post on Blogger, so I put it on Vimeo instead.

After the show, Santa had presents to give out to the children, and kids got to sit with him for photos. We were so happy that Kelly, Kai, and Tenzing came to see the kids' show! And here is a photo of my kids with Santa and their cousin Kai (Tenzing was having none of this).

Afterwards, in the kitchen, there were cupcakes and candy canes and happy children and exhausted parents... !

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Bay Area circus schools

San Francisco must have the highest concentration of circus schools in the world. I visited FIVE of them. There is at least one more significant one, and numerous smaller programs (trapezes rigged in people's apartments, etc.) It's really quite astonishing. When I asked whether there is much interaction / communication between the schools, the answer was generally no. How does this whole system function, then? I was told that there are simply enough interested circus students in the region to support all of these different organizations.

We'll start with the big one: Circus Center. Certainly the most well-known and prestigious school in San Francisco, Circus Center has also probably seen the most tumultuous times of any of these schools, including having to shut down this past winter and completely re-organize their staff and financial systems. However, we had a very warm reception there from both the new Executive Director and the General Manager, both of whom are feeling very optimistic about the school's future. The school is a non-profit, and has been in existence for approximately 20 years.

They have the somewhat complicated gift of this incredible building. For $1 rent from the city of San Francisco, they reside in the old Polytechnic High School Boys' Gym. (the Girls Gym is the home of AcroSports, see pix below). It is a sprawling old space, with the big gymnasium in the first picture, plus numerous other smaller studio spaces, offices, and locker rooms. It has enabled them to draw the top performing artists in the region to train and coach here, and to develop professional track programs in aerial arts, acrobatics and clowning. (currently only the aerial program is running).

To take an Aerial class at Circus Center (90 mins), the Drop-In Rate is $35, and the Session is $360 for 10 weeks.

Next - AcroSports. It seems extraordinarily weird to have this alternative circus school a half-block down from Circus Center, in an almost-identical looking building from the outside. Look at the photos below - on the left is AcroSports, on the right is Circus Center.

On the inside, there are some similarities, especially in the main, big space. But the downstairs of AcroSports is a kids zone, to accommodate the dozens of children's classes that run there every week. AcroSports prides itself on youth programs and "urban" circus arts, which include parkour and breakdancing. They have an entirely separate program called City Circus, which is a "professional circus ensemble and training program of Urban Circus Arts". AcroSports has been in existence, as a non-profit, since 1993.

To take an Aerial class at AcroSports (90 mins), it is $38 for a drop-in class, or $396 for an 11-week session.

Today we drove over to Oakland, to explore the smaller, eclectic circus training facilities in the East Bay. Our first stop was the Athletic Playground, in Emeryville. Tucked into a corner of an industrial building, the space opens up into three nicely-appointed studios. Greg and I admired the exposed wooden beams and floors, and the wall murals.

They seem to focus on Conditioning classes (specialty - Monkey Conditioning!), Acrobatics, and Yoga, with a handful of aerial classes offered, and space offered for artists' training. There seems to be a lot of playfulness and creativity bouncing off the walls in here. The ceilings are not tremendously high for aerial work. But apparently the space is home to quite a few serious circus artists - in our few minutes there we bumped into Sam Luckey, and narrowly missed seeing Cohdi Harrell. Most of their programs are for adults, but they have recently begun offering kids' classes as well. As far as I can tell it is not a non-profit, and it opened 3 years ago.

To take an Aerial class at the Athletic Playground (60 mins), it is $20 for a drop-in class. They don't offer sessions - instead there are 1-month memberships, with unlimited classes, for $155. (there are only 1 or 2 aerial classes on the schedule each day).

Our next stop was only about a block away, the Head Over Heels Athletics Arts facility. Though the entrance is a bit hard to find, this is a mega gymnastics space, and the school itself has been around since 1977! With circus classes offered for about the last 10 years. My kids were dazzled with loads of pint-sized gymnastics equipment, and the space definitely had all the trappings of a long-established serious gym. (trophies, gymwear shop, teenaged staff, etc.) The circus equipment is stationed in the middle of the room, just a handful of silks, ropes, and static trapezes. They certainly have the height for it - Greg estimated about 30 feet. So, while you get the sense that circus is just a secondary program here, it's nice to see it so well-integrated and accepted into a mainstream gym. HOH is (to my surprise!) a non-profit organization.

To take an Aerial class at HOH, you have to sign up for a full session, which is a 90-minute class, $270 for 10 weeks.

Last stop on our tour: Kinetic Arts Center in Oakland. This LLC seems to be the newest school in the East Bay, it opened in November 2009. The exterior of the building is disturbingly ugly, corrugated-steel-industrial-yellow-no-windows. But inside it's warm and bright. There is a main class area, and a smaller studio in the back. They have a fairly comprehensive curriculum of aerials and acro, and a healthy number of kids classes and oddities like "Pre-Parkour" and "Contortion".
They have the well-known Helene Turcotte as an aerial instructor. Jaron Hollander is the owner and head coach of the school ... though I've never met him, his biography indicates that he trained at Circus Center, Make A Circus, Dell Arte and Circo Arts.

To take an Aerial class at Kinetic Arts Center (85 mins), it is $32 to drop in, or $255 for a 10-class package.

Phew. It was quite overwhelming seeing so many circus facilities at once; I'm not sure I've fully processed all of it, or figured out what a growing circus movement might look like in other parts of the country. But in the meantime, I've recorded these glimpses. All of it will help us envision the possibilities, as we keep moving forwards with the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Family Times

Today's numbers:

9 miles run - 4 loads of laundry - 3 meals - 5 suitcases half-packed - 10 bead necklaces made - 1 playdate - 1 cultural event

The cultural event was a production of Nutcracker Sweets, just across the street at the Creativity Museum, which we attended with my sister-in-law Kelly and my two adorable nephews, Kai and Tenzing. Everyone really enjoyed the show. It was a modified Nutcracker story, simplified for very young children. It still had the main characters and dances, and the gist of the plot, but everything was just a bit more colorful, and in shorter segments. The whole thing was 50 minutes long. I'd highly recommend it for people with little children who want to get a taste of this holiday classic. Personally, it made me crave the full ballet. And my only real complaint about the production was the music. They had a nine-piece orchestra - which is substantial, and expensive, and certainly must have contributed to the too-high ticket prices ($25 each for mid-level seats). But a nine-piece orchestra simply can't do justice to Tchaikovsky, so the music just sounded kind of thin and shabby. And they didn't even stick to the Tchaikovsky score, they kept sprinkling it with other things. I would have much preferred recorded music in this case.

Baz, Ayla, and Isa had a great time with Kai and Tenzing this afternoon, building forts and playing firemen around the apartment. The boys are three years old - still babes next to my big kids, but certainly old enough to be active players. I'm so glad they're having time together.

I am continually impressed by my kids' creativity and resourcefulness when left to their own devices. So often, especially at the Cirque site, I watch them with no toys whatsoever, thrilled to be with the other kids, completely able to make up their own games and arrange their own kingdoms. Though I sometimes feel like a lax parent, preferring to pick up a book rather than join them in games at the playground, I can see that my kids often learn the most when I simply step out of their way.

The kids on site are all like this when it comes to language and communication, as well. I have always been in awe of their ability to play with each other, with no common words. There is no awkwardness or defensiveness. They simply engage each other, and find some way of interacting. Often times it looks like clowning, or charades. They can just act out silly things and get each other laughing.

Despite all the goodness of today, by the time Greg came home at 8 I had been with the kids for 10.5 hours, and just asked him to take over so I could retire to my room. They are such good kids - so full of laughter and imagination and life - but I still need to turn off Mom after a certain amount of time.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Christmas season blur

The days are becoming exhaustingly busy. The kids' Nutcracker production may be the death of all of us, it's hard to tell at this point ... most of us Moms are bleary-eyed from long hours of sewing costumes and running rehearsals. I'm also trying to tackle Christmas shopping, start packing (only 9 days left!) work on some pressing issues at the circus school, and maintain all the regular stuff - exercise, language classes, kids' activities, doctor's appointments.

It is good to be busy, although difficult to find balance. I feel I've tipped just over the "too-busy" line this week. (no real complaints, I'm usually desperate to fill my time!!)

In the meantime, the Totem cast is dragging a bit. This always seems to be the case at the end of a long city with 10-show weeks. Everyone is tired and more prone to problems. One result of this is that there are a surprising number of changes in the show this week - acts that are out, and replacement "second" acts. It's interesting and fun for us to watch our artist friends stepping into new roles, and to see the show continually evolve (no pun intended).

The school kids have had a squabbling kind of week. The problem is this - Ayla and Sophia decided they wanted to learn sign language. Partly just for the fun of doing it, but partly because then they could have a secret language! The boys took immediate offense to this and professed that they, too, would learn sign language, prompting some other kind of escalation from the girls, and to some written secret-code creating, and eventually starting in on "well, you two speak Russian together, that's like a secret language!". I was quite amused by Yahor's conclusion after all this, which was "OK, maybe no one should be allowed to speak any language that not everyone can understand." Yeah, right, that'll work. Fortunately, today at school they'll have Talking Circle, their weekly opportunity to air concerns / grievances. It's like a family meeting, and here's hoping the teachers can get everyone settled down.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

49 square miles surrounded by reality

As I expected, our final weeks in San Francisco are flying by with a sense of "Wait! We haven't seen / done everything yet!!" But there are only so many hours in the day, and we are really quite busy here. The kids are immersed in rehearsals for Щелкунчик, a Russian adaptation of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Rehearsals are 3x / week for about 2 hours each time, so it has definitely impacted our schedule. All of our regular Russian and English classes are still running, Marina and I have re-started our morning meetings, and and we are pretty continually cycling around to the library, playground (Yerba Buena) and Children's Creativity Museum. We've even managed some more ice-skating.

My dear friends Rebecca and Andre Dhondt came to visit for a long weekend. This is one impressive couple - they left their 3 kids (ages 10, 8, 6) in the hands of a highly-choreographed network of family and friends, used credit-card reward miles for their flights and a new camera, and spent four days making the absolute most of their getaway adventure. They went to Muir Woods and Alcatraz and Chinatown, tried out recommended restaurants and spent an afternoon with newly-acquainted friends fishing for crabs on a boat. And at night they went out dancing till the wee hours! They even made time to spend quality time with me and my kids - one night they watched the little ones so Greg and I could get out for dinner; Andre and I went running; Rebecca and I went out for breakfast and thrift-shopping. Overall they were delightful houseguests and filled my apartment with tulips....

This past Monday we spent the whole afternoon at Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf. (Monday is a much less crowded time to be there, thank goodness!) Greg and the kids explored the Mirror Maze, which Baz claims is his favorite thing in San Francisco. We shopped, watched street performers, got free chocolate at Ghirardelli's, and explored the Hyde Street Pier, with its beautiful old ships. We had lunch at Boudin's - including taking a tour of the bakery and learning about the fascinating history of the place. It claims to be "San Francisco's oldest continually operating business", started by the Boudins of France, who were among the first to settle in the San Francisco Bay area in 1849. They claim that the original mother dough starter yeast has been in every loaf of bread for over 150 years. Along with the history of the Boudins is the history of San Francisco itself, including the Earthquake / Fires of 1906, the Depression, and the hippie culture of the 60s and 70s. ...after all this learning, we all thoroughly enjoyed our lunch in the cafe, pizzas and soup breadbowls made of delicious fresh sourdough.

With the arrival of December, we all officially click into Christmas mode, with some 99-cent window lights from Goodwill, an online Advent calendar, and some till-now-forbidden Christmas carols on iTunes. Somehow it feels weird this year to be getting ready for Christmas with such mild weather outside. But, the excitement cannot be contained. Letters have been sent to Santa, and the kids are counting the days till they can bake Christmas cookies with their Grandma Terry. Every day, it seems there is something festive. One evening we were watching window-decorators. Isa and I went to a Holiday Sing-Along at the library. This evening we splurged on a pedicab ride home. Now, if I could get my shopping done, that would be a really good thing...