Saturday, February 25, 2012

Back to San Francisco and Marin County

We spent a couple of days back in San Francisco and Marin County - dentist appointments and visiting Greg's sister Kelly ... I was surprised at the rush of happy familiarity I felt, especially being back in the downtown SF area. What an amazing city! And compared to the bland vapidity of our area of San Jose, San Francisco is so colorful and rich, full of character and life!!

The kids and I had some nice wandering-around time in Union Square, admiring the Hearts in San Francisco art installations and stopping to speak with some of the artists displaying their work in the square.

We then had a cousins' sleepover up in San Anselmo ... Marin County never failing to amaze me in its over-the-top bohemian bourgeois culture.... (if you didn't read David Brooks' book about the Bobos back in 2000, it's still relevant).

Today (Saturday) we had the treat of getting everyone out for a bike ride! PIctured: our family, plus Greg's sister Kelly, her husband Ziya, and their twin boys Tenzing and Kai. The twins are three-year-old darlings, and we love watching the different relationships they are forming with each of their cousins. (All-over-the-house swordfighting battles with Baz, snuggled up for story-reading with Ayla, fighting over who gets to sleep in bed with Isa). We picked up a terrific new bike for Ayla on Craigs List - both of my older kids now are riding 24" frames, which seem so big to me, yet work perfectly well for them. The little ones rode in child seats and a trailer. It was colder than I'd hoped - temps in the 50s, I think - but otherwise a great day. We are well on our way to being able to go for good long bike trips as a family. Greg has been especially driven this week, getting everyone's bikes fixed up, loaded on and off the car, and tooling around, exploring as much as possible in the bike-friendly Bay Area.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sunny San Jose! Our artificial neighborhood

Phew! We survived an 11-hour flight, crossing 8 time zones, to arrive in California this past Sunday. For the last three days we've been coping with the jet lag - some better than others! Greg and the girls adjusted most quickly; Baz and I seemed to have the hardest time. Another day or so and I think we'll be on top of it, but I have seen a lot of 3:00ams this week that I wish I hadn't.

The place we're living in San Jose is a bit different from anyplace we've been before. It's rather idyllic at first glance. The most wonderful thing about it is that everyone - all Totem's employees and families - are all in the same apartment complex. It's a complex of six different zones, called after trees like "The Cypress", "The Oaks". Each zone has its own swimming pool, fitness center, fountains and passageways. Then, the six zones are all surrounding a large open park space.

The charms of the place are many... palm trees, a few little on-site shops, and a robust level of outdoor activity - people throwing balls for their dogs, playing ultimate frisbee, walking babies in strollers, jogging. The people also have been quite warm and friendly - in three days here, at least three or four people have struck up conversation with me, asking if we just moved in, and offering helpful advice on the best places to shop, etc.

So it's like a little neighborhood. But I can't help feeling that it's an artificial one - everything carefully constructed by 21st-century planners to maximize comfort and convenience, in the bourgeois setting of Silicon Valley. Like this grass I took a picture of... it's the definition of a manicured lawn. I wouldn't be surprised if some poor immigrant landscapers trimmed it by hand. Surrounding our apartments are just corporate office complexes, one after another. And the ethnicities are somewhat surprising too - I wasn't kidding about the immigrant landscapers, of course there are tons of Spanish-speakers in California but they seem to be weighted towards labor- and service-types of jobs. The families here at the apartments are, by and large, white-collar workers, employees in the vast scientific and digital-technologies headquarters that surround us - and they are overwhelmingly Asian.

Inside the apartment it's comfortable and convenient, too... every need is considered in the kitchen, every appliance works efficiently, everything looks brand-new. We are enjoying it. Every speedy load of laundry, smooth-flowing drain, and properly-working electrical outlet brings us a huge sigh of relief.

I know I'm going to tire of it. Give me a little more time in sanitized, suburban America and I'll be craving the old-fashioned clutter of European cities. But for the short term, we are just drinking in the wide open spaces and the ease of doing everything.

Not to mention the sunlight!! It was 74 degrees today and I am rubbing my eyes to adjust to the brightness. Feels like coming out of a long hibernation. I ran today, in shorts and a T-shirt, and it felt glorious!

Friday, February 17, 2012

London exploring

In our last few weeks in London, we made many special memories.

The kids' big request for this year - the London Eye. The London Eye is a huge Ferris wheel on the Thames. It was originally built for the massive celebrations around the Millennium (it was originally called the Millennium Wheel), and they decided to keep it as a permanent part of the skyline. It rotates very slowly, so that you only go around once, but it takes about 30 minutes. Great views of the city, but they make you pay for it - this little outing cost us 58 pounds ($92).

Of course we had to make a trip back to Hamley's, London's massive 5-level toy store. Now that we're immersed in reading the Harry Potter series, the kids especially enjoyed the high-end collection of Harry Potter memorabilia. If you're wondering where to find a huge selection of magic wands, broomsticks, or scale models of Hogwarts, this is your place.

Although I never did manage to visit the interior of the Houses of Parliament, I continue to admire it from the outside. What an extraordinary building. Called "Perpendicular Gothic" in style, it is unbelievably intricate and beautiful. Apparently it was originally built in the Middle Ages, but several fires caused it to be destroyed and rebuilt, most recently in the mid-1800s. Big Ben (the clock tower) was also built during this time, truly a symbol of London.

Seeing Parliament in action remains on my wish list for a future visit.


Our last day at Royal Albert Hall, here are a couple of photos of the children. Besides Baz, Ayla, and Isa, you also have Petr, Alyona, Yahor and Ilya (all Russians). In the first picture they are in front of the Hall, and in the second they are at the Serpentine, the large pond in the middle of Hyde Park.

Hampton Court Palace was today's big excursion. It was the home of Henry VIII and his many wives, and it's a fascinating old castle. This is the ceiling of the Great Hall. It was especially interesting to me to visit this place after having recently been to Versailles. There were some similarities, especially in the "Georgian" part of the palace which dates to the 1700s. But much of the rest of it, especially the parts closely preserved from Henry VIII, date to the 1400s, and fit his taste - lots of dark wood, hunting trophies, and large-scale decor. There were 55 rooms of kitchens in Henry's day, with 200 people working in them!

We didn't get to see all of Hampton Court Palace - there was more to see and do there than I'd imagined, and the fickle moods of the kids made a really thorough visit impossible. So this one, too, I hope to visit again someday.

And one last day with our dear friends, the Veales - bittersweet only because we don't know how long it will be until we see them again! They have been wonderful for us here in London .... many days of easing my loneliness with playdates and adult conversation, keeping Greg laughing, and helping us with all manner of practical problems. Here we all are in the elegant gardens of Hampton Court - look at those amazing trees! - where we spent the afternoon today.

OK, now for the rundown of things I will miss, and not miss, about London.

I will not miss: This damned apartment. This luxury complex, in a stunning location, has terrible Internet, badly-functioning appliances, and particle board furniture. I will also not miss the London winter weather, the anti-community of the Royal Albert Hall, and the vague depression that settles on me in this city.

I will miss: our beautiful, posh, overpriced-everything neighborhood. I love my fancy gym, and the artisan bakeries, and looking in the windows of the haute-couture shops. I will miss running in Hyde Park, and becoming a regular at the three giant museums. I will miss British accents, jacket potatoes, and references everywhere to the Queen's this and the Queen's that. Oh, and having a daily housekeeping service.

So this is it, London - who knows when we will meet again? All that's left between us and the airplane is a harrowing Tube journey (6 big suitcases and 3 small children. here we go!)

London (signage)

Coming up, a full travelogue of photos from the last few weeks here in London. But first, international adventures wouldn't be complete without a collection of some favorite signs....







Thursday, February 16, 2012

Gratitude

This week was my birthday. Because it was on a Tuesday, and because we're trying to watch our finances, it was, outwardly, less-festive than some birthdays I've had. No presents to unwrap, balloons, fancy meals.

But the outpouring of loving messages I received on this day, I think, surpassed my wildest dreams. Cards, emails, Facebook posts. People took time to tell me how much they cared about me, what I'd meant to them in their lives. The children made me handmade cards. My group of Russian wives brought me flowers and chocolates, there were hugs and kisses and affirmations. It was really quite overwhelming, and beautiful, and all of this meant more to me than any packaged gifts could have.

Facebook deserves a lot of credit for this. I have 298 friends on Facebook. Most of them are not people I see regularly - many of them I haven't seen for years and years. And yet, with FB, I feel like they are part of the complex web of my life, still connected to me by threads of the past. Even better, I keep up-to-date on their lives and take the time to reach out, once in a while, with more personal messages. Birthdays produce a flood of greetings; they're an invaluable chance to remember all these people, and where they fit into my history.

Hearing from people at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts was especially touching. There are so many people there now who began as my students, and have gone on to become amazing artists in their own right, doing things I'd never even dreamed of! They tell me how circus has changed them, and immediately I'm brought back to my own feelings about Circomedia. Circomedia did that for me. It truly changed what I understood of my capabilities and my identity. And even now I think back to those first teachers - Bim, Jackie, Julie, Rod, Helen - with appreciation and even reverence. To think, now, that I am giving something of this experience to others!! It boggles the mind. It makes me think that I have already accomplished something immensely important in my life. I could die happy. And yet... there is still so much more to do! When I am back to my job there, and helping more and more people to achieve their dreams through circus arts, then I will really feel like I am doing my life's work.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Aircraft Circus at the Hangar

We had the immense pleasure today of visiting another circus school. This one is called Aircraft Circus, a limited-liability company housed in the nonprofit property of the Hangar Arts Trust. It was a bit of a hike to get there - it's in the outskirts of London, near Greenwich - but we were so glad we found it.

We were shown around by Alex Frith and Moira Campbell, two impressive circus coaches who make up half of the directorial team of the company. Though the exterior of the building is dreary industrial, inside is comfortable and homey, with lots of couches, a kitchen, toys for the kids to play with. They have four main studio spaces - this photo shows the largest, which can hold a full flying trapeze rig. Then there is Studio 2, another big space which includes a "wall-running" area; an upper studio of static aerial equipment (photo to the right) ... and a yoga studio, pictured below. They even have a sauna! (Alex said it was the first thing they built). It is a busy place - they have a 15-week full-time course, recreational programs, youth programs, performances.

Alex's entrepreneurial spirit was exciting to both me and Greg. It is wonderful for us to meet with business owners who are passionate about circus education like we are, and not afraid to get their hands dirty building a place from the ground up. We love talking shop, about rigging systems and materials and utility costs and staff management. We were also impressed at what a good relationship they have with Circus Space - many of the school's directors and teachers were students, coaches or guest artists there, and the ties are lasting. Compared to San Francisco, where the circus schools seem to just avoid each other, this climate of mutual appreciation was really nice to see.

Overall, a fun day, getting our circus-school fix, kick-starting our daydreams, and forming new connections.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Saturday

Another really excellent day.

It started out poorly - I had signed up to race a 10k in Finsbury Park, and they cancelled the race due to weather. It's been ridiculously cold here, and they thought the paths in Finsbury Park could be icy. I was disappointed... looking forward to the challenge, since I've been occasionally pushing myself to run in the cold here. So I decided to heck with it, I would do my own 10k run, in Hyde Park this morning.

I did the run .... it was hard and long and fairly lonely, but I did it. At least there are always a lot of people in Hyde Park. Runners, dog-walkers, bird-feeders, I even saw some slackliners out in the below-freezing temperatures today. I can't imagine how crowded this park must get in the summertime.

I took this photo to show the kids... the Serpentine freezes, but not completely, it seems. These swans have a little circle of water around them - though the gulls in the background are walking on the ice.

Hyde Park always has a lot to see. There's Kensington Palace, and the Albert Memorial, and the Diana Fountain, and the Peter Pan statue. There are paths that wind through sheltered gardens, and expansive fields, and little kiosks and restaurants. At the moment there are lumps of snow everywhere, where people made snowmen during last week's brief snowfall. I'm really glad I've had the chance to run regularly here this year, despite the cold.

This evening, Nastia came over with Yahor and Ilya. It's the second time we've done this, spontaneously - made dinner together, and managed the houseful of five overly-excited kids together for an evening. It's absolutely lovely. Tonight she brought wine, and we spread out a feast, including hot chocolate and candies for dessert, and just relaxed and talked. It's these times that I speak and understand the most Russian. Away from my notebooks and dictionaries, but sharing Nastia's world, it all begins to click.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Special Day

Today was great. Totem invited us family members to come to Royal Albert Hall for a tour, and then to watch the matinee show. (the poor show had sales of less than 50% ... it's amazing how empty a room can feel with 2500 people in it!!)

The tour itself was pretty standard, mostly the same spiel we heard last year.... we went inside the Queen's box, and saw the royal entrance and the royal receiving room, and heard about how the Queen danced with Nelson Mandela, the only time the no-dancing-in-the-royal-box rule was ever broken. Although I had heard it before, there's no denying that the history of Royal Albert Hall is fascinating. Things like the loggia boxes, all privately owned, and the light above the queen's box to signal to the conductor when she is arriving, and the mushrooms on the ceiling that fix the acoustics, and the wild diversity of events that have taken place there. (Marathon, sumo wrestling, car shows, dances...) It's a place of incredible stories.

But even more fun for me was when Nastia pulled me out of the back of the tour group line, and we persuaded a guard to show us where the kids' schoolrooms were. We popped in on Baz and Ayla, interrupting their math class and feeling like we'd infiltrated the secret hideout!

More treats were in store. We had seats in a loggia box, and five moms & five kids piled into it, making our own little party room. Photos are strictly forbidden in all parts of Royal Albert Hall, so I snagged this off the Internet to show you what it looks like from a box seat. So cool!

At intermission, our Tour Services staffers brought us down to the netherworld of RAH, for a snack in the kitchen. Apparently there are five levels underground, and this is where all the dressing rooms, offices, and loading docks are located. So at last I got a glimpse of some of these places! It was a little awkward, we felt like foreigners walking around with our guide, but it was still comforting to see all of our artists and support staff and technicians doing their usual things.

Speaking of technicians, Baz and Ayla had an exciting story today... in school they were brought up to the grid, for a talk with Nick, the head rigger! He showed them all different kinds of pulley systems, and talked to them about different kinds of ropes and their uses. This is why I brought my kids on tour with Cirque du Soleil :)

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Michael Jackson household

It took a great deal of lobbying, but Baz finally persuaded us to start giving him (and his sisters) a weekly allowance. We've started carefully tracking their household chores, and they have to earn a certain number of points each week. This is the 3rd week, and Baz was thrilled to be able to buy something himself, with his very own money that he earned. He has been coveting this hat since we arrived in London, and he pretty much glowed, all the way to the shop and back this morning.

It's his Michael Jackson hat, in case that wasn't obvious. Baz has had a passion for Michael Jackson ever since first grade, when his music teacher at Henry School put together a school-wide assembly of MJ music. So our household is a bit more wrapped up with the King of Pop than we'd necessarily prefer. Not a day goes by that we don't have Michael Jackson songs cycling through the iPod speakers, and mini-dance parties in the living room. It's reached the point that I am actually buying Baz new Michael Jackson songs on iTunes, because I can't stand hearing the same half-dozen songs over, and over, and over again.

I had to crack up when we put on a video of the Jackson 5 this evening and pointed out little Michael. Ayla said, "Wait a minute - he's black?" I didn't even bother trying to explain.

The hit of the evening though was this video, for "Black or White". The children were in rapture over it. If you, like me, hadn't seen this since the early `90s, it's worth watching... I had no memory of the fabulous goofiness of the whole thing. Is it just me, or did it seem really cutting-edge and bold and beautiful at the time??
Black or White

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Little rock-climbers

Here in London, the kids' physical education program is at a rock-climbing wall, in a gym just 1/2 block from the Royal Albert Hall. I didn't even know kids this young could do rock-climbing - much less set the ropes for each other - but they do, and they absolutely love it. In the vertical picture on the side, that is Baz climbing at the top, with Ayla down below.


It feels sometimes like the job of a parent is to expose our kids to as many things as we can. To give them a taste of what life has to offer, with the hopes that they'll find their own passions. But it's still surprising to me when their experiences are ones that I've never had! Rock-climbing falls into that category, along with karate, yo-yoing, learning mathematics in French, wearing glasses... I suppose the list goes on and on, and they are still very young!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Ayla's glasses


So, my little girl is wearing glasses.
This all came about over the past month. Arriving here in London, we suddenly began noticing that Ayla couldn't read signs at any distance. While she's had no trouble reading her books, everything seems to go blurry further away. She worried about it, we worried about it, and we set up doctor's appointments. First was a general pediatrician, and then an opthamologist. They measured her vision, before glasses, at about 20/200.

We were quite surprised by the doctor's offices here in Kensington. They are in the same types of elegant old townhomes as everything else here. This is one of the waiting rooms.

Greg and I feel a bit lost with this whole glasses-finding-and-buying experience. Neither of us has ever dealt with it before, nor did any of our siblings when we were growing up. The cost of glasses, the choices involved, worrying about losing and breaking them - it's just all new. It was hard, especially, when Ayla first found out she needed glasses - she was heartbroken over it. But now, just 1 day into wearing them, she has gotten used to them, and is enjoying her new perfect eyesight.