Brunching Out

There are two things at which New Yorkers excel: shopping and brunch. I can’t say I excel at the former but my performance at consuming the latter is outstanding.

Two weeks ago, in a pre-holiday realisation that I needed some new clothes for a warmer climate, I decided it was time to take a trip to Fifth Avenue. While many would head straight for the shops within a few days of arrival in New York, I like to do as few bricks-and-mortar shopping trips as possible, preferring instead to order online and then be disappointed that nothing fits me when it arrives in the post. Just thinking about looking at racks of clothes gets me hot and bothered, and if there’s a sale on, forget it; there is no way you will ever find me sifting through piles of items that have already been rejected by previous shoppers and are now being unattractively displayed in a tangle of confusion where size 20 is the smallest available. Give me pristinely-presented overpriced attire any day.

So, it was with some trepidation that I braved the stores. As soon as I had come out of the subway station the avoidance techniques were in full swing. An hour had gone by and the only places I had found myself visiting were two cosmetic stores and a bookshop. Suddenly the need to buy a present for somebody whose birthday is in June became a matter of urgency. Then I passed H&M, saw a top that I quite liked in the window, and the next two hours flew by. I went to four clothes stores and actually enjoyed myself. The shops were airy, the staff were delightful and I didn’t feel like punching somebody by the time I had finished. Even the changing rooms – usually the part I dread the most, as I attempt to try on thirteen items in a space smaller than our downstairs loo under lighting that makes me seriously start to consider Botox – were large and calming. Admittedly this was a Thursday, and I don’t yet have the courage to do the same thing on a Saturday, but I think clothes shopping might not be so bad after all.

As for brunch, there is no such need for mental preparation. The hardest part of brunch is choosing where to have it. I must have had a dozen variations on Eggs Benedict since we’ve lived here, and a glass (or three) of a Bellini or a Mimosa can have an amazing effect on parenting techniques. Whether those techniques are better or worse than without the glass of sparkling I am rarely in a fit state to judge. As for the pancakes and French toast – each an inch thick, with plenty of maple syrup, icing sugar and fresh fruit – they are like nowhere else on earth. No – welcoming as the clothes stores are here, I’ll never get hot and bothered about brunch, and it doesn’t even require getting changed. Unless I’ve been sitting next to my two year old, in which case I’m wearing his brunch by the end of the meal. Otherwise, the most I have to do is just loosen my belt by a notch or two.

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Growing Pains

Yes, an accurate way to describe my two sons on a bad day, but also the way I feel about them growing up on a good one. Despite regularly indulging in fantasies of all the things we will do once our children are ‘old enough’, often involving the purchase of a Tuscan farmhouse with lettings potential surrounded by its own vineyard, it pains me and my husband that they are growing. I take a lot of photos of them, but I also find myself constantly trying to freeze in my mind’s eye the way they look and talk now. With Bigger Boy becoming more contemplative by the day and Littler Boy adding dozens of words per week to his vocabulary, they don’t stay the same for long.

The boys don’t have such worries about growing up, of course. They are thirsty for new experiences and knowledge, and Bigger looks forward to ‘when I am bigger’ and the things he will be able to do then (mostly things he’s not allowed to do now but look attractive because Mummy and Daddy do it, like drinking wine and watching TV in the evening). He went through an interesting stage where he didn’t realise he was getting older, and thought he might even be getting younger. (‘When I am a baby, I will sleep in a cot.’) I found this slightly alarming, but it makes sense: he can’t remember being a baby, but other people do appear to be babies, so one day he will experience it and be aware of it. Then he went through a stage where he knew he would get older but he thought his younger brother would stay the age he was; he envisaged a teenage Bigger helping me with a baby Littler. (What kind of crime could condemn me to a lifetime of a child aged eighteen months? I didn’t question Bigger on this, as his philosophical ponderings are not yet sufficiently advanced.)

Now Bigger is starting to understand that not only will he get older, but there will also be another generation after him, and another after that. ‘When I am a Daddy, my children will read the books that I do and play with the toys I do.’ I suspect he means the very same toys and books, as he asked the other day if we would be keeping his bed for his children. The incredible amounts of storage space we will require aside, it is touching that he is aware of his future and his children’s. I did have to explain, though, that his children would not be people who currently exist; he had some of his friends in London earmarked as future offspring. Not wanting to enter into a discussion on the possibilities of reincarnation, I told him that his children would be new people, unique. ‘Ah…’ he said, ‘I see. I wonder who I will make?’

Littler Boy, meanwhile, did not have much to contribute to the discussion. He is living for the moment. ‘I’m little,’ he said.

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So This Is Christmas, And What Have You Done…?

…I flooded the bathroom, but had lots of fun…

But more of that later. The run-up to Christmas was the best part, as ever, and Mr. Applepip and I made sure it was strung out for as long as possible by buying our tree as soon as December started. It wasn’t hard to get into the Christmas spirit; no sooner have the Thanksgiving turkeys been gobbled up than our neighbours unearth their fairy lights and bring out their wreaths. ‘Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate’ is the mantra round here.

The downside of putting up a tree in the first weekend of December is that your children think Christmas is just around the corner. And for a three year old, three weeks is an eternity. Luckily Bigger Boy and Littler Boy loved their advent calendars so much that the excitement of opening a door each morning helped them forget that it still wasn’t Christmas Day. Nevertheless, the tension was palpable by Christmas Eve, and when Bigger saw that there were three presents placed prematurely under the tree on the 24th, he came down from bed in the morning and said, ‘Bust my Buffers, there are presents under the tree, it must be Christmas Day!’ (‘Bust my Buffers’ is a Thomas The Tank Engine term, oh blessed readers whose lives aren’t so rudely invaded on a daily basis by the irritating googly-eyed blue train). If we had known that for Bigger, three presents were such an overwhelming Christmas bounty, we would have told Father Christmas earlier that he needn’t bother stopping at our house. But the sleigh was in motion and there was no stopping him.

Talking of FC, we went to visit him at Macy’s this month. Before entering the grotto, Bigger asked the inevitable question: ‘Is this the real Father Christmas who brings presents to us on Christmas Eve?’ Well, I don’t know if we saw the real Father Christmas, because there were no fewer than EIGHT of them installed in their individual wood-panelled booths taking requests from wide-eyed children. They were all well hidden from each other and none of the children seemed to notice the other children emerging from their visit to a different Father Christmas than the one they had visited. When, on the way out, I asked one of the elves how many Santas were in there, he said in a sage tone, ‘just the one’.

Now back to the Christmas Day flood. All was going so smoothly until I decided to unblock the upstairs loo, which had had too much toilet paper put down it when I had hastily mopped up a spillage from around the basin. The plunger did not have its desired effect. Instead, it spewed water right over the edge of the toilet and into every corner of the bathroom floor. I was so stunned that my reaction was extremely delayed, and did not put down a towel quickly enough to soak it all up. I was shouting so loudly to Mr Applepip to come and help me that I didn’t hear his reply: ‘it’s coming through the kitchen ceiling!’ I went down to find shelves of crockery being rained upon and water bouncing off pan lids. We spent the next hour washing everything in our cupboards while trying to fend off Bigger, who wanted us to rebuild his prized marble run (thank you, Granny).

The next few hours were as Christmas should be. Plenty of food and wine for the grown-ups while six children rampaged the house and stripped the tree of every chocolate hanging from its branches. Shame about the port and Stilton gravy (bad idea, Nigella), but the beef was great and my lovely friends provided some fabulous canapes and Christmas pud. Several bottles of champagne and wine later, and we had had a very merry Christmas.

Happy Christmas and Happy New Year!

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Thanks for the Thanksgiving

As Britons in a foreign country, we feel most foreign when everyone around us is engaged in something we don’t do in the UK. This isn’t to say we feel excluded; it’s just that when Independence Day and Thanksgiving come around, we can feel slightly fraudulent for wanting to join in. We don’t have that personal history that fills such celebrations with meaning for us – our parents and teachers told us about them, but as they were not part of our heritage, the detail they went into was limited. Now we find ourselves in the midst of a culture that has grown up with them and what do we do? Like the good non-citizens we are, we throw ourselves into them.

There’s not a huge deal to say about what happens on Thanksgiving here, even though there is a huge deal to be said about why it is celebrated. Really it seems to be like Christmas but without the present-buying, stockings, terrible television re-runs and Christmas tree. Thanks to some wonderful friends we sat down to roast turkey with all the trimmings, although I think it might be at least another year before we can bring ourselves to include the traditional marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes on our Thanksgiving table. Ditto the pumpkin pie; it sounds very cosy and comforting in theory, but in reality most of the ones I’ve tried resemble a spicy version of the blancmange-textured creations redolent of British school dinners circa 1980 (and probably still today, despite Jamie Oliver’s best efforts). I do realise this is down to individual taste, but even our indiscriminate omnivorous two-year-old turned his nose up.

It felt like Christmas Day, in that there was a certain magic about drinking champagne and indulging in six hours’ constant eating on a weekday. Our children enjoyed playing together, doing treasure hunts and racing about like crazed dynamos (once the sugar from the chocolate cake had kicked in). At one point they had to be sedated with half an hour of Peppa Pig. But mainly I loved Thanksgiving for its very appealing central premise of a day for giving thanks. I love the way that the Americans devote one day, even if it is only once a year, to being thankful for what they have. Perhaps that’s what makes it an inclusive celebration, and why I felt very thankful for having the opportunity to be part of it.

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Toddler Talk

Before I had my first baby, I wondered why mothers talked so much about their craving for adult conversation. After ten years of working in a large company, I craved being with someone who couldn’t talk back to me. It only took about a month of motherhood before my other new-mum friends and I were spending hours together so that we could remember how to speak normally rather than in the sing-song three-pitches-higher-than-normal voice to which we were becoming accustomed. At the end of a day spent alone, I would regale my husband with astonishing tales of how the only person I had spoken to all day was the man behind the post office counter – if the grunt in response to a request for stamps can pass as ‘talking’.

Three and a half years on, and I can hardly hear my own thoughts for all the babbling that goes on in our house. To be fair to him, Bigger Boy is way beyond the point of babbling and making impressive inroads into subjects such as Why Bones Don’t Ever Decay (with particular reference to dinosaurs) and Why We Don’t Have Our Own Space Rocket (and therefore cannot visit the moon this weekend, and probably not next weekend either). Developing expertise in these areas does involve, however, hours of interrogation, with me being held prisoner until all questions have been answered to his satisfaction. His line of questioning is ruthless yet minimal, intimidating its subject in a way that any CIA official would admire. The other day on a twenty-minute walk home we started with the subject of ‘where did I come from?’ (they start early these days) and ended up working our way onto the composition of fingernails. The only word that Bigger uttered during the whole exchange, albeit approximately a hundred times, was ‘why?’

Littler Boy, in the meantime, is less exhausting. His current talking points are what he would and would not like. Under the short list ‘What I Would Like’, which consists entirely of food items, are chocolate, biscuits and sweets. Needless to say, we generally ignore him when he asks for anything. Not because we don’t want his teeth to rot, but because he can’t be heard over Bigger’s incessant jabbering. ‘Mummy, why isn’t it snowing today?’ (‘because it’s August’) and ‘are we going to Granny and Grandad’s house later?’ (‘no, they live in France’) come interspersed with a distant yet insistent call of ‘chocolate’ as we field the enquiries.

Littler Boy is going through an interesting phase where he answers all questions with ‘Saturday’. So as long as we ask him questions such as ‘what is the official day of rest in Israel?’ and ‘in folklore, which is the preferred day to hunt vampires?’, he is certain to get the answer right.

Who says that conversing with toddlers can drive you crazy?

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A Spooktacular New York Hallowe’en

Hallowe’en back in our Blighty life meant buying a pumpkin and then carving it. More pressing was the need to stock up on sweets (candy, American people) to get rid of the potential smattering of trick-or-treaters who would half-heartedly bowl up at the door. The general rule was that the more sweets we bought, the fewer the trick-or-treaters we were likely to encounter. If we bought the biggest possible mixed sweet pack on offer at Sainsbury’s and made sure we had several pound coins at the ready for today’s mercenary children, no trick-or-treater would come within a mile of our house. In New York it means so much more.

The build-up starts early. By the second week of September children are eagerly asking others what they are going to dress up as. The options are much more varied here than in Britain, as they are not limited to the spooky or the ghoulish. Yes, there are witches, wizards, skeletons and ghosts, but they are not nearly so common as the much less scary cowboys, cats, fairies, princesses, pirates, bumble bees and assortment of wild animals that children or their parents tend to choose here. Adults dress up too – there is a real family occasion about it all.

In contrast to the no-bounds costume possibilities, there is a more prescribed approach to house decoration. Stoops often boast more than one pumpkin, sometimes intricately carved, and frequently a collection of gourds; garish cobwebs are draped down walls and railings, giant spiders roam across giant webs, cloth ghosts hang from trees, orange pumpkin lanterns are strung across gates and skeletons keep a vigil from front doors. I have even seen life-size ‘corpses’, apparently bound with cobwebs, dangling down from upper floor windows.

In one case, a few streets from our house, Hallowe’en even served as an opportunity for political commentary.

The effort put in is equalled only by the appreciation (and on occasions, terror) engendered in my two young boys, whose appetite for the spooky is insatiable yet unsure of itself. Out trick-or-treating on Hallowe’en evening, my boys loved making their way through the streets, collecting sweets and chocolate from our neighbours standing outside their houses. For an unlimited supply of sweets, both of them could put up with the odd adult dressed up as something frightening. But Littler Boy drew the line at a man who, standing stock still in a front garden surrounded by macabre mannequins, pretended to be one of them but then every so often moved and made some sort of alarming noise. Littler, carrying his candy bucket over his arm, declared the man ‘too scary’ and swiftly moved on to the next house. Scarier still was the way Littler plunged both fists into the pots of sweets being handed out and deposited the bounty in his own bucket before nonchalantly moving on.

While outsiders might be amazed and even disapproving of the fuss made of Hallowe’en here, there is something admirable about how much effort is put in. It feeds off people’s sense of fun and community; instead of switching all the lights off and pretending they’re out when the trick-or-treaters turn up, many Americans seem to relish the opportunity to meet their neighbours and treat the children. There can’t be too much wrong with that.

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Is This The Real World, Is This Just Fantasy?

‘We’re switching the TV off’, I said to Bigger Boy a couple of days ago after a showing of Peppa Pig followed by 3rd and Bird. Dora The Explorer was threatening to rear her ugly head and I couldn’t take it. ‘We can’t watch too much television or your eyes will go square. They’ll turn into the shape of the TV.’ I couldn’t quite believe I was peddling this kind of nonsense, but it was the first thing that came out of my mouth. Bigger Boy looked into the distance and I could see the cogs whirring. ‘But in that case, Mummy, my eyes will turn rectangle.’

Yesterday I was starting to break up a cardboard box, then suddenly realised it wasn’t just a cardboard box. I saw the panic welling up in Bigger as he started skipping from foot to foot. ‘Mummy, leave that there! It’s the dinosaur’s nest!’ And anyone knows you shouldn’t mess with a dinosaur’s nest – or, more dangerously, a three year old’s imagination.

Three year olds are so entirely sensible one minute and fantastically imaginative the next. Bigger can be talking a stegosaurus through his meal as he feeds him from his plate, but then burst out laughing when I suggest that he might give lunch to some other inanimate pet of his as well. ‘But Mummy’, he patiently explains, ‘it’s not a real monkey/ladybird/rabbit, it can’t eat food!’ as if I’m the deluded one. If he is in a literal frame of mind he can be unsure which part of the nonsense to deal with first; the other day when I was listing what he could have on his toast and after the usual butter/jam/peanut butter options had been exhausted I began on the ‘worms and mud’-type possibilities, he said, ‘I can’t have worms and mud on toast! We haven’t got a garden!’

This to-ing and fro-ing between reality and fantasy remind me how the rules in his mind are completely different from mine. When I play along with his rules, he either welcomes me into it as a playmate, or finds it slightly unnerving that I should be looking at the world through his eyes. He wants to exercise his imagination, and involve me in it, yet he still looks to me as an anchor into the ‘real world’, relying on me to provide the voice of reason. I’m hoping he won’t still be investing such trust in me when he comes home with maths homework in ten years’ time.

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New York, New Year

October in New York. Here we are again.

We have watched trees turn from pale orange to burnt copper to crimson red, to leafless skeletons, lush green and pale orange once more. We have felt the days get cooler, colder, freezing, Arctic, freezing, vaguely warm, hot, searing, pleasantly warm and cooler again. We have been amazed by the enthusiasm and energy put into what is a relatively minor event in the UK (Hallowe’en), loved the monumental yet somehow intimate tradition of Thanksgiving, enjoyed the frequent and often baffling national holidays that Americans observe (we’re still not sure what most of them are but who are we to question a day off work?), somehow managed to be out of the country for Independence Day and then went out to buy some pumpkins for our stoop with a little less amazement than we felt twelve months ago at the enthusiasm and energy put into Hallowe’en.

People say that time passes more quickly the older you get. While I think that is generally true, I think it is most true if all your days resemble one another. The most astonishing thing about our first year in New York is just how many new experiences you can fit into a few months. The second most astonishing thing is how quickly you can get used to that new environment and culture. We have made what I hope to be lifelong friends, we have orientated ourselves in our local area, we have been here long enough to see some places shut down and others open, and we feel like we belong here. We have been absorbed into our surroundings and they have been absorbed into us. I no longer wince at the term ‘playdate’, the narrow-aisled supermarkets do not seem strange to me and my fridge, the size of the average London studio flat, now appears to be sensibly proportioned. I can even give directions to tourists if you catch me on a good day.

We came here with preconceptions, as any foreigner would, but did not truly know what awaited us when we boarded that flight from Heathrow twelve months ago (apart from a heart-sinkingly long queue at US Customs, of course). Skyscrapers, shopping and cocktails, Broadway shows and walks in Central Park were the associations we had taken away from breaks and business trips here, but we knew that these would not be the mainstay of our daily life here. (More’s the pity. I like a Margarita. Followed by a Caipirinha and a Mojito. But too many don’t mix with Mummydom, so maybe it’s just as well.) The truth is, our life here isn’t that different from our life in London. Parks, playing, reading, eating out and working are still the main features of our life, but doing all that somewhere new can be invigorating. The elements that are different here, like language, brands, the education system and the health system prompt us to question things we have grown used to as being ‘just the way they are’ in the UK. They have made us shift our perspectives and examine our values. If this sounds deep, it’s because it is. Having done it myself I would now say that everyone who can do so should live outside their home country at some point in their lives. You will find new ways of doing things; some are better than the way you are used to, and those that aren’t give you a new appreciation for what you had back home.

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I Smell Toddler Spirit

Yesterday Bigger Boy snatched some toy trains from Littler, chased him round the room with a toy lawnmower while Littler wept in panic, and threw his cutlery on the floor when he didn’t like what I’d given him for lunch. Littler, for his part, pulled his brother’s hair, knocked over the entire draining rack (complete with wine glasses) and ran around with food hanging out of his mouth when I had asked him to sit down.

The above snapshots could lead anyone to conclude that my sons are difficult. What I didn’t mention is that Bigger held Littler’s hand as he helped him down the stairs, willingly gave him some of his most treasured trains to play with, and asked Littler if he was ok after he had fallen over. Littler kissed my toe when I banged it on the cupboard, cuddled me countless times and sat eating his supper until it was all finished.

My boys, Bigger and Littler, are what many would call ‘spirited’ children. On the other hand, they are often calm and quiet, considerate and empathetic, loving and entertaining. They can be apprehensive when they are unsure of their surroundings; when they feel comfortable with where they are and who they are with, anything can happen. Chaos reigns and silliness abounds. They are loud, sometimes ear-piercingly so; they climb on tables and other things they shouldn’t; they take risks and delight in doing so, even if they know what might happen if they fall/slip/collide with someone else. They run around the room in circles then bump into the walls when they discover they are too dizzy to walk in a straight line. They jump on other children, snatch toys from them, put their faces too close to them because I do that to them all the time when I’m kissing and hugging them and they don’t realise other children might not want this.

For the past two weeks, my sister and her young daughter have been staying with us. My boys loved having their cousin with them for so long, and found a ten-month-old baby both a fascinating curiosity and an irresistible temptation. This led to several squashings from Littler, who thought she might play ‘horse’ with him the way I do; as she weighs half what he does, she was not impressed by her unwanted jockey. Littler also took the opportunity to do some cause-and-effect experiments, squeezing his cousin’s hand and clouting her on the head with plastic bricks to see how loudly she would squeal. He repeated the experiment several times, as any good anthropologist would do.

While Littler asserted his position in the household, ensuring I did not pay more attention to my niece than I did to him, Bigger’s caring side came out. He told me to pick my niece up when she was crying and he brought her water when she was inconsolable. He wanted her to be wherever he was, and constantly asked if he could hold her. At the same time, he embarked on a two-week showing-off extravaganza, screeching and pushing Littler over and running in circles round the room when I asked him to get dressed. It was like a bad theatre show that you don’t walk out of, hoping it will get better, and there were no refunds for dissatisfied members of the audience.

The thing is, much as they can exasperate me one minute and have me melting with pride the next, I try as hard as I can not to judge them. They are little people trying to work out how the big world works and what their place is within it. Come to think of it, most adults I know are still trying to do the same. I’m as guilty as the next person of labelling children as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but the little girl who I think of as a good little thing because she is sitting nicely doing colouring-in, will, in a few hours time, be yelling her head off because she doesn’t want to go to bed. Children are changeable, complex creatures and I have to remind myself daily that they can never possibly act as perfectly as I would like them to because they don’t understand what perfect behaviour is. The more mistakes they make, the more they learn, and while on occasion I have to discipline their spirit, I never want to dampen it.

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Things I Had Never Seen Before I Moved to New York (Part 1)

Anyone would be forgiven for thinking that a move to the US would just mean getting used to funny accents, funny words and seeing a good few more hamburgers around the place. All of which are correct assumptions, but it’s the littler, less expected things that remind you you’re in a foreign land.

Holes in the pavement, for example. Great big gaping hatches into the storage cellars under shops and restaurants. When their metal doors are open, they could swallow up a grown adult or three toddlers in one go. Perhaps they are put there as revenge on unsuspecting tourists who haven’t given enough of a tip. Sometimes the store owners put traffic cones next to them when they’re open, to warn passersby of the danger, but most of the time you just have to make sure you’re not looking up admiring buildings or too lost in conversation to notice the abyss you’re about to step into.

Then there are the film crews. I see them almost every week here. Trailer after trailer, prop van after prop van. I do glance at the notices they put up on the trees, stating which production is being filmed (Gossip Girl and A Person of Interest in the last week, TV buffs), but while some would be scanning the streets for celebrities, I am always struck by how nice the food and drink in the buffet tents looks.

Talking of drink on stands…lemonade stands. Run by six year olds. Not a summer’s day goes by without a small child creating his own handwritten sign and charging a pittance for (as far as my limited research has gone) rather nice lemonade. Why lemonade, in particular? I don’t know, but it’s sweet (in both senses) and I like the tradition.

Which reminds me…stoop sales. To all intents and purposes, these are garage sales, which I thought had died out in Britain, but a quick Google search has revealed that sadly they have not. Since most people don’t have garages in New York City, this shameless airing of one’s tat in public takes place on the stoop. To be fair, the tat is often of much better quality than people in Britain try to flog; indeed we made our first purchase a couple of weeks ago and Bigger Boy is now the proud owner of a squash racquet, a science kit and a live butterfly garden. Don’t let it be said that stoop sales only cater for impulse purchases.

People with padded coats on as soon as the temperature drops below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Ordinarily this outerwear is designed to withstand gale force winds and Siberian winters, but here they are put into use as soon as a slight breeze picks up. These people need to visit Yorkshire in the summer. They’d be horrified (and they would spend the entire summer with their coats on).

Cupcakes with more frosting than cake. Some people love these. I don’t. I just don’t want to feel like I’m going to vomit after having eaten something that’s meant to be pleasurable. Give me a hot buttered crumpet any day (and give some to those poor souls in padded coats – they’d be grateful for them).

The best thing of all though…blue skies. I really had never seen such consistently cloudless, dazzling blue skies before I moved to New York. They lift your spirits and they make you want to get out to discover other things you have never seen before.

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