Thursday, May 26, 2005

We are the Champions!

Nothing is going to get me down today. The sun is shining, the sky is blue and Liverpool are European Champions. I watched the match with Scrappino. He isn't exactly football mad. At one point, AC Milan had a throw in and Scrappino shouted "HAND BALL". He must have heard it from his friends. But despite it being a case of the blind leading the blind, we enjoyed watching it together. Scrappino was happy to be given an excuse for a late night. And I must have been having a good time because I missed Desperate Housewives. And it's the final episode next week - double bill - so hopefully some kind soul will fill me in on what happened before next wednesday.

Luckily, I have a group of friends who watch it religiously. Until recently I went to a discussion group on a Wednesday evening. It was a "By Women For Women" thing. I stopped going because I've decided to limit my nights out to events where I am in with a reasonable chance of meeting a bloke. So the Feminist love-in had to go. But it did make me smile that every week, without fail, these women would passionately discuss the leading feminist issues of the day, arguing about female empowerment and our identities as independent women. Then, at quarter to ten on the dot, they would get up and leave so that they'd be home in time for Desperate Housewives.

The powers that be were obviously doing their best to test my good mood. It took me two hours to get to work today. The Jubilee, Metropolitan and Northern lines were all down. The replacement buses were sent to the wrong station. And the overland train was running a Saturday service. So, I waited 25 minutes for my train. Then sat on a tube going nowhere for twenty minutes. Then stood for half an hour in a queue for a bus that never came. The pavement was more packed than the stadium last night in Turkey. In the end I gave up and got back on the first train to try another route. But despite the coming and going, pushing and shoving, I'm still smiling. I felt like shouting out, "Let me through. I'm a scouser". I bet they would have done.

When I finally got on the train I called work to let my boss know that I was going to be late. He's an Arsenal fan and begrudgingly wished me Congratulations. I tried to assure him that I really was stuck in traffic. "I know it looks suspicious. Being a scouser - you probably think I'm hungover. But I really am on my way". After I ended the call the (very nice looking) chap next to me leaned over and asked "Are you from Liverpool?". I told him I was. He put out his hand to shake mine. "I am from Milan" he said, and smiled.

We are the Champions, my friends.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Nil points

So, another year, another Eurovision. I don't know why I watch it. I wince the whole way through. And I tell myself every year that this time, I'm not going to bother. But then May comes around and I'm glued.

Of course, since the Iron Curtain came down, there are 39 countries competing, so the competition is not the same as it was in the glory days of Dana and Jonny Logan. The Communists should have warned us back in the late 90's that when the Soviet empire collapsed there would be an outpouring of high-pitched euro-pop music, set to synthetically programmed jungle drums, swarming into the West. Maybe we wouldn't have been so keen to see the spread of democracy. But it's too late now. Eurovision has gone Balkan.

Of course, it was never 100% a Western European competition. What IS Israel doing in Eurovision?? There has to be more to it than providing Jewish primary schools with new Hebrew songs for their choirs to sing each year. (Do you remember the acute embarrassment of singing "Abanibi" and "Kan Noladati" in front of our parents every year?) And where would we be, as a community, without "Hallelujah" and, my personal favourite, "Oleh Oleh"?

Actually, I shouldn't complain too much about Israel's place in the contest. Firstly, it puts paid to the myth that Jewish girls are a bit plain. (Let's face it, she won 4th place on Saturday because she looked stunning). And it gives me an extra country to support. Which is just as well, given the past two year's UK entries. (Just don't tell Norman Tebbit. Dual loyalties, and all that). I'm not the only one to hedge my bets this way. LB called me before he went out (toasting the Arsenal, of course) and asked me to text an extra vote for Israel for him. Before he'd even heard the song. (What do you mean Jewish conspiracy?) It's our little way of waving the blue and white flag without having to stick our necks out too much. And I love watching the fallout in the Israeli press when Israel wins. All that squabbling among the religious lobby as they try to ban the evil secularists from using public buildings to stage the contest.

Crucially though, backing Israel as well as the UK immediately doubles your chances of backing the winner. Thinking about it logically, now that Eurovision is completely pan-European we should make more of our geographical heritage. On the basis that my great-grandparents were, between the eight of them, from Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Romania and Latvia I'm in with a massive chance of backing the winner. And we're only talking three generations. Okay, it has to be said that there are now no remaining links with any of those countries. And my family didn't exactly part company on positive terms. But maybe that's all the more reason to back them now. They owe us. And the music is frighteningly familiar. Was is just me, or was the Croatian entry this year bizarrely similar to Yom Zeh Mechubad. The one you sing in a round?

In the end though, the bookies favourite won. So despite my national/religious/familial links with eight participating countries, I can't claim any connection with the winning country. Although, I think my Dad might well have an A level in Ancient Greek. Does that count?

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Eight year's old today

The world has gone Su Doku mad. I tell you - where I lead, millions follow. But this is frankly ridiculous. It's been discussed on Newsnight, the Today programme (Humphreys is not a fan - even more reason to give it a go, I'd have thought), Radio 4's Womans Hour, everywhere. And now it's published in every broadsheet and red top you can buy. It'll peter out eventually. All crazes do. But I'm determined to stay loyal, despite the hype.

As a general rule, if I beat the crowds to something that later becomes a craze I tend to lose interest. I first saw Damien Rice play live at the Borderline in October 2000 when he was a virtual unknown. There were only about 40 of us in the audience. In the five years since then he's played sell out tours across the UK, had his music used for blockbuster movies and been described as the greatest singer/songwriter Ireland's ever produced. He's even dated Rene Zellweger. (He had her after 'top of the morning to yer', no doubt). And though I still love his music ('O' is a masterpiece) I'm a little sad that the secret is out. Maybe I just don't like to share. But I think I liked him better, before the hype and the bandwagon-jumping, when he was a singer and not a superstar.

Meanwhile, hype or no hype, the real superstar of the day is Scrappino, who is eight years old today. He has been counting the days to his birthday, as have I, for the past four weeks. And finally the day has arrived. I sent him off to school today, happy as larry, dressed in his own clothes (a birthday treat) and with a bag of biscuits to share with this classmates. When he gets home from school he will open the growing pile of presents that's waiting for him. We'll have a special birthday tea and, as a treat (for me just as much as for him), we're going out for dinner. I let Scrappino choose the restaurant and he's opted for our local Tandoori. He loves Indian food. And because it's his birthday I've told him he can have as many drinks as he likes. Usually, it's one pineapple juice and then water for the rest of the evening. But since it's his birthday I thought we could splash out and go for three pineapple juices. When you're eight, that's pretty darn exciting.

Luckily, I don't have to arrange a party today because that is safely done and dusted. After much thought regarding the party theme (the days of pass-the-parcel and jelly are over) and a process of elimination (Scrappino doesn't like football or swimming, and Arts and Crafts is too "girlish") we decided that he should invite his closest friends for a sleepover. So, on Saturday night I realised a fantasy and spent the night with 6 young men. Unfortunately, they were all 8 years old. I will spare you the more gruesome details of six boys, in sleeping bags, playing burping games in the middle of the night and bundling on top of each other whenever one of them farted. Suffice to say, despite putting 'sleepover' on the party invitation, there was not a huge amount of sleeping going on. But the boys seemed to have a great time. And Scrappino enjoyed being the centre of attention.

I thought that the boys would be homesick and miss their mums. But as it happens, all but one of them were absolutely fine. Just one little boy cried so much that, despite my best attempts and gentle persuasion, he refused to go to sleep and demanded that I call his dad (at 12.45!) to collect him. Scrappino was suprised to wake up in the morning and find that his friend wasn't there. But as I explained to him, sometimes you think a young man is going to stay all night, but in the early hours, when the fun's over, he changes him mind and goes home. Welcome to my world, Scrappino. And Happy Birthday too.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Su Doku - bringing people together

Some mornings, London is a bloody horrible place to live. The sky is grey, the air is polluted, the train is filthy and the streets are overcrowded. And that's just the journey into the work.

But, once in a while, a lovely 'London Moment' comes along and brightens your day. Well, they used to be 'London Moments'. They are swiftly becoming 'Blog Moments'.

So I'm on the tube this morning - Jubilee line from West Hampstead to Waterloo - and I'm doing the Su Doku (what else?). It's Friday, so it's Fiendish. I've filled in a couple of the obvious squares and I'm doing the mental calculations to complete the rest of the grid. Then, I sense someone looking over my shoulder. I turn to the chap sitting next to me who smiles and points to one of the squares. "I think that's a 6" he says. I ask him how he worked it out and he explains, a bit too quickly for me to quite get it (I told you, I'm rubbish at the Fiendish ones) and smiles again.

He has a cracking smile. He also has bright ginger hair. Properly ginger. Not strawberry blonde or summer auburn. But in-yer-face, the-sun'll-come-out-tomorrow-Annie ginger. Now, I've nothing against ginger hair. Some of my nearest and dearest relatives are ginger. Family legend has it that I was ginger myself when I was born. So I felt like we already knew each other. This was helped by the fact that, ginger hair notwithstanding, he was clearly a Jewish boy. Don't ask me how I know. Sometimes, you just know. I resisted the urge to raise the cossack-rape theory of genetics. Neither the time nor the place.

So, the Jewish-ginger chap and I get talking. About Su Doku. Well, you have to start somewhere. I tell him that I find the fiendish puzzle on Friday a little tricky. He tells me he doesn't do The Times Su Doku. He does it in "the other paper". I ask him which paper he means and he replies "The Telegraph". You have to admit, that's a nice touch. To a Telegraph reader, chatting up someone holding The Times, there really is only one other paper. It's like telling someone you went to "The Other University".

So we chat about Su Doku and newspapers and eventually the tube pulls into Waterloo. And I leave the train and walk the rest of the way to work with a spring in my step. I didn't ask his name (he didn't tell me his). I didn't give him my phone number (he didn't ask for it). So I mentally put it down as entry #85 in the List of Missed Opportunities. But I did think how nice it is to chat to strangers on the tube. When was the last time you did that? Sober?

As a footnote, it transpires (after telling this story to C) that The Times and The Telegraph are not the only papers to publish Su Doku. Apparantly, where I lead millions follow and it's now published in the Guardian and the Independent. You can buy books of Su Doku puzzles too. And even have a daily Su Doku sent to your mobile phone. But it's not quite the same as solving it on the tube with a handsome stranger on a grey morning in London, is it?

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Many Happy Returns - almost

Apologies for the long(ish) silence. I have been shopping. Don’t roll your eyes and wonder ‘what for THIS time?’ It is Scrappino’s birthday next week and since he was out all day on Sunday (with you-know-who) I thought I’d take advantage of the freedom to get him some birthday presents. So first thing on Sunday I was parking my Skoda in the Brent Cross car-park (again!) for a fun day’s shopping.

Firstly, what the HELL has happened at Brent Cross?? I counted 9 stores that had their metal shutters tightly locked, with big posters on the doors “This store is closed until further notice.” I’m not sure what’s going on, but something is happening. I will have to check the Hendon Times on Thursday to read all about it. There is always an article about Brent Cross in the Hendon Times. It’s in their regulations. Every week there has to be 3 articles about pensioners being mugged, 2 stories about charity fundraising at local schools, a story about a driver being unfairly clamped and something about Brent Cross. I’ll let you know what the scoop is on Thursday.

Despite the big close-down at Brent Cross I managed to get some presents for Scrappino’s big day. He’s going to be eight and I had the idea of buying him eight little presents rather than one big one. Partly because I think unwrapping a pile of pressies is more exciting than receiving just one parcel, no matter how terrific the gift itself might be. And also because, to be honest, I’ve no idea what he wants. The obvious solution would be to ask Scrappino himself. But, as luck would have it, he’s as clueless as I am as to what he wants. So I took a gamble and bought him a few things I think he’ll love.

The gift list is as follows:
1. DK encyclopedia of archaeology – well, he’s into the Romans, loves history and is glued to Time Team every Sunday at 5.00.
2. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – he’s been blissfully unaware of the Potter hype for years. But over Pesach he caught the Hogwarts bug and read books 1-4 in a week. So book five is waiting for him.
3. Magnetix – it’s like Meccano (remember that?), Lego and Knex all rolled into one.
4. Trivial Pursuit: Kids – I know, a bit spoddy. But he loves Trivia games. And since it’s a Kids version I should beat him hands down. Learning to lose gracefully - it’s an important part of growing up, I think. (Though I admit, celebrating when I beat a seven year old at Monopoly is a little worrying.)
5. Cluedo: Simpsons version. Scrappino loves Cluedo. But he always rushes to guess Whodunnit before he’s eliminated enough options. And then promises that he’s forgotten who was in the envelope anyway so we should carry on playing. He has many fine talents. But Poirot he ain’t. I think the Bart and Homer angle might help things along.
6. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Playstation 2 game – see #2. Oh, and bear in mind that I love playing on the Playstation as well. Always good to take an interest in your kid’s hobby, isn’t it? Even if it does mean he doesn’t get a look in because I’m hogging the controls and I end up going to bed at 3.30 am after spending 6 hours trying to get Scooby Doo out of the House of Hidden Horrors. But I digress.
7. Dangermouse DVD – remember Dangermouse? Pure TV magic. Forget Darling Buds, Fools & Horses and Frost. Dangermouse is without doubt David Jason’s finest hour. It’s probably one of the few things that Scrappino and I both genuinely love in equal measure. If you’ve never seen it, you’re life is poorer for that.
8. A picture. Well, more of a cartoon really. I drew it myself. That sounds silly, doesn’t it? But I thought I should add a personal touch and decided to get creative. I won’t divulge what it says. You’ll take the pish.

So, that’s the list of birthday presents. Laid out in a list it looks a bit extravagant. But I think he deserves it. He’s had a tricky year, for one reason or another. Well, one. And I wanted to spoil him for a change. Do you blame me?

The only problem now is where to hide the boxes. Scrappino and I live in a fairly small flat and there are no out-of-bounds areas. He comes and goes in and out of my bedroom all the time. And since his room is too small for a bed AND a wardrobe, all his clothes are in my closet. So he quite happily opens up my cupboards and drawers to find his own stuff. So under the bed, in my wardrobe or in the chest of drawers are all out.

I spent more time trying to find a secure hiding place for the presents than I did buying them. As I searched the flat for a fool-proof (well, Scrappino-proof) hiding place, I was reminded of an old friend of mine who once admitted that he had a fairly extensive collection of porn on DVD that he had to hide from his wife. The only place he could think of to hide it, where he could be sure she’d never discover it, was in his tallit bag. Brilliant. He only goes to shul three times a year (twice on Rosh Hashannah and once on Yom Kipppur) so it seemed a safe decision. But I do sometimes have visions of him turning up at shul and the security guard asking him to open his tallit bag only to discover his porn stash. Can you imagine the CST annual meeting to debrief the community on synagogue security? “Yes, we turned away three suspicious men in Edgware, discovered a couple of dodgy looking mobile phones in Stanmore and a copy of 'Look Who’s Porking' in a tallit bag in Hendon". Sadly, my friend tells me that he never gets a chance to watch the DVDs anyway. How humiliating is that? To be a three-times-a-year shul goer, and still get more use out of your tallit than your porn collection?

Anyway, thoughts of porn aside, I had to find a secret hideaway for Scrappino’s pressies. In the end, I stuffed them into his old pram which is still lying in the corner of my bedroom. I have no idea why I’ve still got it. It’s one of those massive Silver Cross things. Ridiculously impractical. Even if I had a baby (or was in a position to realistically plan for one) I doubt I’d use that pram. But I can’t bring myself to sling it out. And I can’t be arsed taking it to a car boot sale. So there it is in the corner of my bedroom gathering dust. Although at the moment, it is snugly concealing eight colourfully wrapped gifts for one very excited seven (soon to be eight) year old boy.

Six days to go and counting. Yes, you’ve guessed it. I’m as excited as he is….

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Back in Blighty

I am now back in Blighty after 10 wonderful days spent in Jerusalem. I toyed with the idea of updating the blog every day. A kind of Holy Land travelogue. But to be honest, that was far too much like hard work. And I was on holiday.

In retrospect, a daily update might have been a better idea than trying to cram a fortnight's worth of sights, smells, aggravations (there are always aggravations on a trip to Jerusalem) into a single post. But there we are.

The first thing I noticed - almost immediately - was the lack of mangy cats. Not a complete lack. There are still stray cats wandering around most streets. But far far fewer than there were when I spent a year in Jerusalem in 1991-2. Back then, the cats would jump out at you from every corner and spring out of the public dustbins when you walked past. They would even curl round your legs in outdoor cafe's. Mind you, for obvious reasons, the outdoor cafe's have largely disappeared too. I'm not sure where the cats have gone. I hadn't heard about any feline extermination plan. Maybe they've been frightened by the heightened security risk. Or maybe the women's fashions have scared them away.

Israeli women, or more correctly, religious Israeli women, have taken the latest gypsy look to a whole new level. Here in the UK, the ethnic/gypsy/can't-find-the-iron look is the trend of the summer. Celebrities are spending millions trying to look like they dress at Oxfam. But in Jerusalem, the fashion trend has reached epic proportions. It's difficult to properly convey the sight of hundreds of women wearing eight layers of clothing all at once. Kaftans over short skirts over long skirts, with their heads covered in colourful, knotted scarves. At times, I felt like I'd wandered onto the set of Moses the Lawgiver. During the holiday, I took Scrappino to a hands-on museum, on the site of an original Roman settlement. The children were able to weave carpets, make mosaics, press grapes, paint frescoes etc, all according to the original Roman methods. To make the experience even more authentic, actors wandered around the site, dressed in 1st Century AD/Jesus style clothing. The only problem was that all the women visitors were also dressed in this bizarre flowing-robe craze and I couldn't tell who was an out of work actor (paying off their student debts to the Israeli equivalent of RADA, no doubt) and who was a ridiculously gullible fashion victim. I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and stood out like a sore thumb.

A trip to Jerusalem wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Western Wall. I will spare you my more radical views on the Western Wall, but they touch on my fears that the Wall feeds religious superstitions, is actually little more than a pile of old rocks and has been hijacked by a misogynistic orthodox establishment. Apologies if that offends. But I'm not the first to feel that way. Superstitions notwithstanding, I did want Scrappino to see the Wall. (Hypocritical? Moi?) The security was tight. Very tight. We were frisked, electronically and physically, on the way in and scrutinised by policemen in shades on the way out. But the Wall itself is an incredible sight and Scrappino was suitably impressed. He asked me why the lower stones were so much bigger than the higher ones and I explained that the bottom of the Wall was built by Herod 2000 years ago while the top of the wall was added by the Crusaders. Or was it the Ottomans? Either way, they added much smaller bricks than the original Temple era stones and the addition is not at all in keeping with the original style. It's the kind of building extension that would never have been passed by Barnet Council Planning Department.

Of course, you can't visit Israel without considering the security situation. Especially when traveling with children. For the most part, I felt safe and secure at all times. But the holiday was not without incident. Walking down the road towards my sister's flat one afternoon I heard gunshots. Have you ever heard actual gunfire? It's a lot louder and scarier than you think. And as you get nearer you can almost feel the reverberations. Scrappino and I stopped still and waited to see what was happening. A policeman came over and told us that someone had thrown out an old suitcase and a passer-by had worried that it was a suspicious package (for which, read bomb) and had called out the bomb squad. They closed off the street and sent in a little robot on wheels that's programmed to shoot at the suspicious article. That was the gunfire that we heard. A small yellow robot shooting at an abandoned Antler hold-all. It's not exactly the Wild West. But it did unnerve me. On the way back I wondered if I'd done the right thing bringing Scrappino to Jerusalem after all. Then, two hours later, reading the BBC website, I found out that a man had been shot dead in the back of his car on Hale Lane. Literally, yards away from where I live. On the same road as Scrappino's school. Maybe Jerusalem isn't so different from NW7 after all.

Being away during the election campaign was an added bonus. It was wonderful to escape all that childish bickering and point scoring. When I was at university I went to a couple of Union Society Debates. It struck me that they were little more than an excuse for public school boys (and the odd public school girl) to argue banal points of irrelevant crap (which they referred to as 'tosh') and laugh hilariously every time one of them makes a quip (which we referred to as 'bollocks'). The houses of parliament - and the BBC news studios - are just an extension of that. In some cases, it's the same public school boys and girls, still bickering over nonsense after twenty odd years. But this morning, there was the obligatory embargo on political debate. Fabulous. Did you notice how interesting the news was this morning? Listening to the Today programme was a real pleasure, which makes for a welcome change. No squirming politicians avoiding questions and giving answers that only just touch on the truth. No interviewers with egos the size of Argentina interrupting every fourth word. Just the news. From all over the world. Marvellous.

It's good to be back.