Friday, April 7, 2017

In Case You Get to Be an Expat

At Trafalgar Square-- a great place to visit! There are fountains, giant lions*, and the National Art Gallery--which is free and has very clean bathrooms. 

A friend is getting the amazing opportunity to live in the UK for a time and thinking about this great adventure that her family is taking is bringing back memories from our long ago adventure in the UK. 

When the youngest was just under six months and the oldest four, Jim got a job opportunity with his company in the London area. We lived there for two years and then spent two more years in Aberdeen, Scotland. It was a great time for our family and we would do it again in a heartbeat! 

That being said, there are some challenges that we were not entirely prepared for. Going to an English speaking country seemed like an easy thing at the time. How different could it be, right? Well, though not a complete culture shock, it was more shocking than we expected. 

So here I have decided to write down what I would say to myself, so someone else, taking a brood of little ones to the UK to live for a time. 

Cars: The first shock was car size. We were picked up at the airport in a "people mover" or minivan that barely contained our stuff and our kids (only three of them, mind you). In fact, I ended up holding the baby to save space. I had to reach through various items in order to put my hand on the other two kids, or hand over a snack. That was the first clue that cars were going to be an issue. Our next rental was so tiny it barely fit the three car seats in the back--the door banged against them when it shut. We pretty much had mini-minivans the whole time (it was a long term rental, financed by the company, but the rental agency would trade them out every 6 months or so). Most of them did not have sliding doors. This was especially a problem since parking spots were typically very small, and the mini-minivan filled them up pretty well.

Food: Some foods taste different and some names are different and some things just don't exist there. One example of different tastes, for us, was ground beef. I did not like the taste so I would use ground turkey in most of my recipes. I struggled to find ground sausage, so I made my own (not sausages, but loose ground sausage). Taco seasoning was different---it seemed cumin heavy. So I made my own. Salsa was just not the same, until we found Costco.

You will find that some veggies have different names. Also, the produce departments of most grocery stores are not as aesthetically pleasing as your typical U.S. store. Basically there are just boxes of veggies placed on shelves and on the floor---right off the truck it would seem.

People don't seem to bake as much so that aisle is a little anemic. Also the selection of ice cream always seemed paltry to me. Most stores are closed on Sundays as well.

On a good note--we discovered Kerrygold butter in the UK. Best. Butter. Ever.

Oh, and cream for coffee. No such thing as half and half. There is single or double cream. Single is closest to half and half and double is close to whipping cream. Never found flavored creamers, but I made my own.

Finally, you bag your own groceries. This actually went from a negative to a positive as I learned how much pre-organization I could do by bagging my own. Now I wish I could do it here.

Going to the doctor: The local clinic is called the Surgery. You can just show up/call at your local "surgery" and get an appointment, no special NHS card needed or anything. Depending on your neighborhood this might be a same day thing or you may need to wait. Some doctors accept private insurance in which case you usually get in faster. Our experience in the London area was different from Aberdeen. In London it was easy to find doctors that took private insurance, even in various specialties, like ENT and OBGYN. In Aberdeen that was much harder. In fact there were no private OBGYN's and only one maternity hospital. Often the local surgery is located in some old house, and still looks a lot like an old house.

Doctor's offices are often much less clinical. You will take your kid into the doctors actual office--there is an old desk and a book case and a doctor's table. He/she may not wear a white coat, and they won't routinely weigh, measure, etc. For kids (or adults) afraid of doctors, this makes it a lot easier.

Going to the grocery store:
Many of the stores we went to had paid parking lots. There was also a charge for the use of a cart (buggy) but you get that back when you return the cart. You can also use a token. I had one that was attached to my key chain, but then my keys were hanging from the cart unless I unhooked it.

Also, the carts are four wheel drive. All four wheels turn--which is great when you want to move to the side in an aisle, or turn a sharp corner. However, when you have a cart loaded with food and kids it can get really heavy and therefore hard to control. My hips and thighs got a work out and my back was sometimes sore from maneuvering the cart.

You will find that many products which have various brand choices in this country, are limited to store brands there. The one that comes most to mind is plastic baggies and stuff like that. I could not get Ziplock brand at the grocery store. The store brand reclosable bags are usually not as good. But, if you can find a Costco, you can get your Ziplocks.

Homeschooling: Though legal in the UK (at least it was when we were there) it is mostly unheard of. People will give you blank looks and you feel a little crazy. However, as American expats you are pretty much left alone. There are homeschoolers there, but they seem to stay way under the radar. Even among the American expats it was rare, mostly because many of them are getting a free ride at the local American Academy which is often really high end education, low teacher to student ratio and a locus for community life.

Also, we found that the local surgery did not know how to deal with my school age (age 3 or 4 and above) kids when it came to check ups and vaccinations. That is all done at school so they didn't even have forms to write it down on. If you are going for a short time (less than 2 years), you can probably just keep with the US schedule for vaccinations and catch up when you return.

Houses are usually a lot smaller than typical American houses. If it is an old house chances are there are no closets. Often you will find wardrobes (as in "The Lion, The Witch And...") but they really aren't great for kids clothes. We ended up filling them with plastic storage bins and drawers. We also had a "wardrobe room" in a couple of houses--it was a very small room stuffed with wardrobes that held everyone's clothes. Then the bedroom was just beds.

So, think simple wardrobe. There are a few sources for cheap-ish (by UK standards) clothes for kids--Asda and Primark are two that I can remember. I also found that both carried basic school uniforms which were especially cheap, and came in handy for heading off curious questions from folks while out with the kids on a weekday. They look like they go to school, kinda.

Appliances: Most of your appliances will not work over there. Anything with a motor or heating element will eventually die...if not immediately. You can get those transformers (big thing that looks like a car battery), but it is a pain. My suggestion is don't bother bringing them. You can get connected to an American Expat Women's group and often get those things used because some other family is repatriating and needs to get rid of perfectly good stuff that won't work at home. At the time they had email groups and message boards to find this stuff, probably now it is Facebook.

Refrigerators are smaller and when a rental lists an "American sized fridge", it is usually something we would consider normal size. Sometimes freezer are small, or separate, or non existent. Washing machines are also smaller and sometimes located in the kitchen. In fact, it is not unusual to find a wash/dryer in one in smaller houses and apartments (flats). These take ALL DAY LONG and do VERY SMALL LOADS. This is another reason to avoid having too many clothes. Simple wardrobes are best.

Getting about London or other major cities: Can you say light weight stroller? If you are going to be on foot in London with small ones you may be carrying strollers and stuff up and down long stairs to get in and out of the Tube--not to mention getting on with everyone in tow. We used strollers and back pack carriers a lot.

You will learn fast to simplify, get kids to carry all their own stuff as young as possible and locate eating establishments with bathrooms. We frequented McD's, and learned about other great locations for bathrooms. Like the National Gallery---free, and fairly clean bathrooms. Also the building near the London Eye had clean plentiful bathrooms. Trips were planned by these locations. We also found nice bathrooms with changing nursing stations in department stores.

This is in Scotland. Notice the rain cover on the light weight stroller. It came in very handy!
Other stuff: There are lots of little things like different words for various items and quirky things about houses and you can familiarize yourselves with this stuff on youtube. There is a channel called Anglophenia that has some good information in a fun format. Some, maybe many, of the videos are not exactly kid friendly so be aware of that. There is one in which they compare a UK home to an American home and it is very helpful and true to our experience.

I am sure I will think of more, but this is a good start, I think!

* In case you love this Trafalgar lions and you love picture books, you need to read the Katie books. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A "Meet Me in St. Louis" Party

Meet me in St. Louis, Louis, meet me at the fair!

Did you know that the second "Louis" isn't just repeating the name of the city for musicality sake, it is the name of a guy, who comes home from a hard day at work to find that his wife has packed her bags and left a note to meet her at the World's Fair in St. Louis. 
It't not clear how happy he was about this, so the song leaves you a little sad. 
But the movie is just all fun!

M is a long time fan, but recently she has become newly enamored, especially of the music. 
So this was a natural theme. It was just hard to figure out how to decorate. 
I originally thought of trying to make a trolley car cake out of pound cake, but that would not have met the Kennedy Family Minimum Requirements for Birthday Cakes: chocolate cake with chocolate icing. So I ended up with the cheap trick of printing out pictures from the movie and placing them in the cake. 

And again you are served up blurry pictures. Sorry. 

Then I attempted to make the window in our breakfast room look like the front of an old fashioned trolley car. Use your imagination...c'mon, I know you can do it!

The picture taped on the window in the middle section is this: 

So the red streamers on top are the trim on top in the picture, and the blue streamers are the railings, then there is a little sign above the words trolley that says "St. Louis Municipal Railway". 

Again, the highlight of the day is the "treasure hunt" for gifts. The folder below contained the lyrics to her favorite songs from the movie and an answer sheet. 

The clues, which are strewn around the house, are based on the lyrics. Like this:

Tootie sings: 
“and every morning, he would be
down underneath a __________”

Esther sings: 
“down in the _________ lived a maid
of royal blood though dusky shade”

Rose sings: 
“my darlin'
flies in the ___________,
shoo, shoo, shoo
flies in the ___________,”
Where do you find it?

The answer to the clue led her to a particular room and in the room was another clue. It is hard to see, but the first clue above led to a bamboo tree. We just happen to have a fake bamboo tree so it worked out great. 

The blurry sign says "bamboo tree" and the envelope below is the next clue. 

Flys in the buttermilk, shoo fly shoo!

And, of course, the last clue led her to the Dance Hall at the World's Fair, or as Tootie calls it in the movie, The Louisiana Purchase Exposition. She didn't have to dance the hoochy-koochy, but her gifts were there. 

Naturally, we had to watch the movie too!

All in all, it was a fun day! 

Happy 15th Birthday to the sweetest, funniest, wisest girl in the world!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Nature Girl Party

Our A recently turned eleven! It is hard to believe that the baby of the family is that old. But here she is: 
(Sorry for the blurry photos. It is not you or your computer, it is my bad photography skills!)

We have a tradition of choosing themes for the kid's birthdays and then decorating accordingly. In the last few years I have taken over the choosing almost completely and it is usually a surprise to the birthday kid. This year A hinted heavily that she wanted a nature theme and I went with it. 

Fortunately for me we have collection of artificial trees around the house 
(picked up during various stages of selling various houses...why does it seem like you have to have artificial trees in your home to sell it?), 
So it was really easy to decorate this time. A also has a wide collection of stuffed animals who appeared among the bushes. 

 And here is the very amateurish cake. Since we have back to back birthdays we try to make the cakes smaller, especially when Lent is upon us! This cake consisted of the Kennedy-traditional chocolate cake (Pioneer woman's Texas sheet cake recipe) with chocolate icing. Then there was green icing on top to represent plants and white icing sprinkled with blue sugar as a little river, which cascades down the front of the cake. ("cascade" makes it sound so professional, doesn't it?) There were also a little squirrel and a little turtle (from the fairy house section of Hobby Lobby--it came with a snail, but Nature Girl doesn't do bugs!).

And then, what has become the highlight of the day: the treasure hunt. I usually come up with some sort of hunt using clues related to the theme. 
I am so frustrated with these blurry photos! I don't know what went wrong!!!
A has a bunch of nature guides which she loves (she got two more for this birthday) and D used those to come up with clues related to some of the animals. Once she figured out which animal it was she looked at a map of the house (in the folder, along with the list of possible animals) and found which room was named after that animal. 

The last one was where her gifts were. 

Happy Birthday A! 

We love to celebrate God's gift of you to our lives! 
When He gave you to us He gave us sweetness, energy, a spirit of justice and truth, and a talented story teller too!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Does Your Mother Exist?

If the neighbor kid says to your son "Who cares what your mother says, most people don't even believe she exists?"; what would he do?

If some high school science instructor challenged your existence in the presence of your daughter, what would she do?

If a college professor presents proof after proof in your son's philosophy course that you are just a figment of his imagination and that he has invented you out of a need for comfort in the face of uncertainty, what would he think? ₁

Chances are that your kids would laugh in the face of these challenges.

Even kids whose mother is absent from their lives would be unlikely to believe she didn't exist. There is at least some evidence in their world that she, in fact, existed, if only a birth certificate, or the fact that people they know have talked about their mother. Not to mention the fact that virtually everyone else acknowledges the existence of a mother.

The assertion is ridiculous on the face of it because we know and have a personal relationship with our own mothers. And virtually everyone else with whom we have contact also knows and has a relationship with a mother.

Yet, when a child's belief in God is challenged, many (if not most) children and young adults these days begin to waiver. Even those that have some intellectual underpinning to their faith may not stand up to the constant barrage of challenges to the tenets of the Catholic Faith and the Church's moral teachings, let alone the existence of God and His importance in their lives.

However, once a person knows, with certainty, that God exists and begins to develop a regular interaction with Him, then the challenges to faith, and the doubt of friends, and even family, are much less of a threat.

And, even a young child is capable of this certainty and this regular interaction with God.

The problem is that neither of those things can be given by schools, parish catechists, or even the Sacraments.₂

For a child, a real and personal relationship with God can only be nurtured in the home by loving parents who also regularly interact with God and to Whom they entrust their lives.

This is what we call Evangelization.

Catechesis is the unpacking and explaining of what God has revealed about Himself and His plan. It is crucially important, but it is not primary.

Moms and Dads...only YOU can evangelize your child. And you MUST do it if you have any hope that your child will grow into an adult of faith.

As a former teacher, catechist and trainer of catechists, I find it quite easy to talk about the Faith, and to teach my kids what the Church teaches about God. But rarely do lessons about the Catholic Faith turn into actual experiences of God for my children.

I am continually humbled by how often those glimpses of personal faith appear in the mundane moments of life. I see it in the midst of an argument with a sibling, a minor illness, or in the conversation that comes when the child asks one of those "Where does wind come from?" sort of questions.

Sometimes I see it during Mass, or while praying with them before bed, but most of the time it is in the rather ordinary moments. Grace moves in a child in mysterious ways and it takes the attention of a loving mother or father to help that child respond to those graces.

No religion curriculum, no matter how orthodox, or attractive, or intellecually challenging can make that happen.

No teacher, catechist or youth leader can make that happen.

Heck, parents don't even MAKE that happen. The Holy Spirit makes it happen. And parents are just there to shepherd the kid through the moments.

A parent's special knowledge of their child's heart, coupled with the grace of the sacrament of marriage make them perfectly suited to that shepherding of their children through the grace-filled moments whenever they come.

The good news is that even the most unprepared parent can begin to nurture faith in their child. Step one is regularly interact with God yourself--He is watching and waiting for you to simply turn your attention to Him. Step two is to share that interaction with your child. Step three is to watch and listen to your child and help them to see God in their lives.

If you are doing these things then wherever they get their Catechesis--whether at home, school, or the parish religious education program--knowledge of Who God is and what He wants from us will make sense to them.

1-These questions and the line of logic in this blog post was inspired by this Greg Popcak article
2-The Sacraments are REAL, but they are not magic. In other words, they impart actual grace which depends upon our active response. This is why Sacramental Preparation is so important and why it is CRUCIAL that parents are the primary source of that preparation. We are best suited, by design, to help a child respond fully to Sacramental grace. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Third Annual Oor Wullie Day

This is a re-post in honor of today's Kennedy Family Holiday:

In honor of all invented holidays with little to no real meaning, I present to you 
OOR WULLIE DAY, December 31, 2014!

Imagine a 1940's, Scottish Bart Simpson/Dennis the Menace. That is Oor Wullie. With his spikey hair and dungarees he gets into, and often neatly out of, messes and then philosophizes about them from his seat on his trademark upturned bucket.

Jim grew up getting Oor Wullie Annuals every year from his Aunt in Scotland, and now our kids read Oor Wullie. I learned early on that they can't be read least not be this non-Scottish Mama. I'm raising Scotsmen but I don't speak it.

Here is D's Oor Wullie imitation. And you can see the books all over the floor. 

See how hard it is to read? "It's a sait fiche" means literally "It's a sore fight" but figuratively "It's a hard life". 

"Oor Wullie Day" began in 2012 when the kids got an Oor Wullie comic book for Christmas and they got so absorbed in it that, several days later we had to put it away. That was when we decided that a once a year Oor Wullie marathon would be a good way to balance it out.

So, New Years Eve 2014 was the first actual Oor Wullie day. The kids had a ball pretending like Oor Wullie was going to come down the chimney and leave them food, or books or something. They made a sign and left him cookies. In the morning all the collected Oor Wullie and The Broons (a sort of companion comic strip) annuals were set out on the hearth and they had a few new ones.
This is from Oor Wullie Day 2014.
Then the fun begins:

Hour 1

Hour 3

Hour 5

Seriously. They read pretty much all day. D was the most absorbed, reaching his goal of reading every Oor Wullie Annual we own. He decided that next year he would read all the Oor Wullie and two of The Broons. M is a Broons fan and A just likes to find funny pictures to show everyone. 

It was the most peaceful, relaxing day we have had all year. Jim and I wanted to try and bottle it can we set aside some special things and keep them from becoming old and boring, or obsessions? How can we better foster a love of reading, or other non-screen activities that we can do as a family? We will be pondering these questions in the new year. 

Happy New Year! 
And remember, only 364 more days until Oor Wulle Day!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

'Tis the Season for "Making Memories"

Have you ever heard the story of St. Therese and her Christmas moment? She and her father and sisters had just returned from Midnight Mass and she was looking forward to checking out all the gifts left in her shoes by the hearth. As she went upstairs to put her hat away she overheard her father say, in an annoyed voice, "Well, fortunately, this will be the last year!" 

He was tired. He was weary of keeping up the little childish traditions.  

(Whenever I use an annoyed voice with my sweet kids I try to remember that Therese's father is a canonized saint!)

Needless to say, Therese was hurt, and felt tears come to her eyes. But she received a special grace that night that allowed her to put aside her own selfish feelings and turn them into joy and gratitude for her gifts. (The story, in her words is at the end of this post.)

What does that have to with Making Memories? 

First of all, it is interesting to note that the memory her father made about Christmas--one that stands out in her mind so much that it was written in the story of her life--is the night he complained about "making memories". 

I can so relate to this man sometimes. At this time of year it is so easy for me to get all caught up in the wonderful things other people do at Christmas time. It is on the blogs, and smeared all over Pinterest. It is in the commercials, the Christmas movies, even my own photos from previous years. 

And now that my kids are getting pretty big, I hear an idea for little kids and wish I had done that. There was a great one about revealing the truth about Santa Claus and I found myself wishing we had done Santa Claus so I could have had this great moment with my kids. I am sure they would be better people today if I had. Don't you think?

Suddenly, I am tired and cranky. And I begin to turn a little green, with yellowish eyes, and a weird hair thing going on on top. Like this......

Then he growled, with his Grinch fingers nervously drumming,

"I must find some way to keep Christmas from coming!

For, tomorrow, I know all the Who girls and boys
Will wake bright and early. They'll rush for their toys!

And then! Oh, the noise! Oh, the noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!
There's one thing I hate! All the NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!

Okay, maybe I am not that bad. I really love Christmas and would never wish it didn't come. And, for the most part, I enjoy every little thing that we do--our little family traditions. 

But sometimes I worry that I am Therese's father, speaking with annoyance, and making the wrong memory for my child. 

Yet, on closer wasn't his complaint that made the memory stick in Therese's mind, but the Grace of God that filled her heart. She remembers it as a moment of conversion. I am sure there were many Christmas's that her parents felt were beautifully done, picture perfect, and an amazing memory for her childhood. But this one makes it to the book.  

It was Almighty God, the perfect Father, who took her father's weakness and made into this great moment. Therese was prepared for the moment by the nurturing of her faith, bit by bit, through every day of her childhood. It was the things they always did that laid the groundwork. The everyday stuff. Prayer, Mass, striving for holiness, repentance and forgiveness, work, talking about God, reading about Him. 

Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store.

Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more!

And what happened then? Well, in Whoville they say
That the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day!

Maybe, if I stop and think about the whole concept of "making memories", I can remind myself that when we live life in a way that orients us towards the Source of all happiness, and with an eye to the place in which memories do not need to be made, the place where all that is good will be present to us and nothing will be fleeting, no joy will escape our grasp into yesterday---in this way we let God make the memories.  

It seems to me that, after all, the memories that matter are not the ones that begin "Remember that time we....", but really those ones that begin "Remember when we always used to....". Those are formative. They make us who we are. 

My friend Susannah makes a good point in her post, sometimes all we need to do to "make memories" is to name the thing that we always do. Declare it the tradition. 
If you usually begin to decorate on Thanksgiving weekend, say that "It's Our Tradition to decorate on Thanksgiving weekend."  They will look forward to it and it will suddenly become even more wonderful.  If you typically have pancakes on Christmas morning, call them "The Christmas Pancakes" and voila!  Instant tradition. 
And then let those things we always do be the build up to the memory that God wants to create. Make it the soil into which he plants the seeds that beautify the soul, like little Therese. 

A Christmas Memory from St. Therese:
It was December 25, 1886, that I received the grace of leaving my childhood, in a word, the grace of my complete conversion. We had come back from Midnight Mass where I had the happiness of receiving the strong and powerful God. Upon arriving at Les Buissonnets, I used to love to take my shoes from the chimney corner and examine the presents in them; this old custom had given us so much joy in our youth that Céline wanted to continue treating me as a baby since I was the youngest in the family. Papa had always loved to see my happiness and listen to my cries of delight as I drew each surprise from the magic shoes, and my dear King’s gaiety increased my own happiness very much. However, Jesus desired to show me that I was to give up the defects of my childhood and so He withdrew its innocent pleasures. He permitted Papa, tired out after the Midnight Mass, to experience annoyance when seeing my shoes at the fireplace, and that he speak those words which pierced my heart: “Well, fortunately, this will be the last year!” I was going upstairs, at the time, to remove my hat, and Céline, knowing how sensitive I was and seeing the tears already glistening in my eyes, wanted to cry too, for she loved me very much and understood my grief. She said, “Oh, Thérèse, don’t go downstairs; it would cause you too much grief to look at your slippers right now!” But Thérèse was no longer the same; Jesus had changed her heart! Forcing back my tears, I descended the stairs rapidly; controlling the poundings of my heart, I took my slippers and placed them in front of Papa, and withdrew all the objects joyfully. I had the happy appearance of a Queen. Having regained his own cheerfulness, Papa was laughing; Céline believed it was all a dream! Fortunately, it was a sweet reality; Thérèse had discovered once again the strength of soul which she had lost at the age of four and a half, and she was to preserve it forever!

Friday, December 2, 2016

Stop Saying "This is What Christmas Is All About" ...unless it is

I've got a seasonal gripe. It might make me sound Grinchy, but I can't help it. 

I keep seeing Facebook posts with a dubious claim. Sometimes it is a touching story of generosity, sometimes a pretty song. Or maybe it is just a beautiful holiday scene. Whatever it is, it starts or ends with:

This is what Christmas is all about!

Sorry. No, it isn't.

It is all over TV this time of year. I watch way too many Hallmark movies, as I said before. And the main characters of these sappy holiday TV-movies are constantly coming to the brilliant realization that baking cookies with kids is what Christmas is all about. Or that old fashioned decorations is what its all about. Or having coffee with your estranged mother, brother, father, boyfriend. Sometimes it is working with the poor, or gathering with the community to save an historical building, or saving a dog from...whatever. 

Now, I am not personally against baking cookies (proof is in my freezer), nor am I against having coffee with anyone, estranged or not. And, of course, I am not against caring for the poor, or saving historical buildings. And I like dogs. Really, I do. Don't own one, but, you know, dogs are fine pets. I don't want anyone to think I am anti-dog.

However....none of these things are "what Christmas is all about". 

So now, forget all those other TV characters and listen to Linus. 

Actually, I think there is another TV star who said it even better. Venerable Fulton J Sheen tells us what Christmas is all about in his book Life of Christ

No worldly mind would ever have suspected 
would one day have need of an ox and an ass to warm Him with their breath; 
would have His birthplace dictated by an imperial census; 
would Himself be naked; 
would one day have tiny arms that were not long enough to touch the huge heads of the cattle;
would one day be too weak to walk; 
that Omnipotence would be wrapped in swaddling clothes; 
would lie in a manger; 
would be hatched therein—
no one would have ever suspected 
would ever be so helpless. 

And that is precisely why so many miss Him.