Sunday, June 26, 2005

Water Water Everywhere

It has been a very sobering weekend. Not literally, obviously. You know I like a cold beer on a Sunday afternoon. But it’s been a humbling couple of days. Quite fittingly, I feel, just a week before the G8 summit I have been made rudely aware of how crucial a regular supply of clean water is to normal living. And how, without it, life can be incredibly uncomfortable.

For reasons best known to themselves, Barnet Highways Agency – or some such group – saw fit to re-surface our road during the hottest week in June since the infamous summer of 1976. So all last week there were boiling hot oildrums of bubbling tar on the pavement while the road surface was dug up and relaid. You can picture the scene, rubble everywhere and semi clad workmen walking up and down the street with flasks. The sunburnt British workman, wearing nothing but hard hat, sleeveless orange jacket and shorts is not a pretty sight first thing in the morning. Or indeed any time of the day.

Apparently, a letter was sent out to all residents to let us know of the impending work and to ask us to move our cars off the road by 8 am. I’m not sure if there actually was such a letter because I didn’t receive it myself. But I luckily saw them starting work on Thursday morning before I took Scrappino to school and moved the Skoda just in time.

I knew something wasn’t quite right on Friday morning because when I went to take my shower there was only cold water – no hot water at all. The taps were turning but nothing at all was coming out. I figured it was due to the road work and had a cold shower. It was 30 degrees out side so I didn’t really mind.

But on Friday evening, when I was getting ready to go out to dinner with friends there was no water at all. No hot and no cold. The only water in the entire flat was a couple of bottles of Evian and the contents of the loo. Which I was too scared to flush in case it didn’t re-fill. It turns out that the workmen were so busy drinking their tea and working on their suntans that they had forgotten to turn the water back on. They’d had to turn it off to lay the road. Don’t ask me why they had to turn off the mains to lay down tar, but they did.

One of the neighbours called the council on Saturday morning to ask them to sort it out. They were told that a representative from Three Valleys Water would call round to explain the situation. He wouldn’t be able to switch the water back on. But he would be able to explain why we’d have to spend all weekend pishing in a bucket and washing our bits with baby wipes.

Living for 48 hours without running water is incredibly unpleasant. I had to pop over to a friend to take a shower. And I ran out of juice after a couple of hours and had to do an emergency shop for some bottled water and a crate of coke. Before I did any cooking I had to work out what I could cook without using any water. The plates are still standing in the sink ready to be washed up. And Scrappino’s school uniform is in the laundry basket, unwashed.

It was a horrible annoying uncomfortable experience. But in reality, I didn’t really suffer too much. If I’m honest, I was inconvenienced a little. But I wasn’t in any real danger. And I’m confident that by tomorrow morning normal service will be resumed and the toilet, washing machine, shower, bath and kitchen sink will all be back to normal. In some ways, it was a very sobering experience. And, if only for two days, gave me a small insight into what it must be like to live somewhere where you cannot rely on there being water available when you need it. How do they manage? Day after day, week after week?

To make matters worse, when the workmen had turned off the mains they had set up a stand pipe in the road. But the handle wouldn’t turn and it also had a massive leak, so all weekend (while we’ve been popping over to friends’ houses to shower and brush our teeth) gallons of water have been pouring out of the pipe and running down the drain.

Which is where the G8 summit comes in. I’m not one to get cross about world politics. It does no good. And we have Bob Geldof to do that for us. But it made me so annoyed to think that millions are marching to prevent poverty in Africa caused, in no small measure, by the lack of a clean reliable water supply. And yet here we are in suburban London with literally gallons of the stuff running down the street unused. I won’t try to make a gag out of this. It doesn’t hurt to have a serious posting once in a while. And if you want a funny reaction to drought in Africa and waste in the West you can always watch Comic Relief. They have dancing newsreaders and singing weather girls.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

How hot??

It’s hot. Too damn hot. I recall writing a post not so long ago about light dustings of snow disrupting the trains and closing the school down. And now the sun is cracking the flags and there isn’t a woman in London who isn’t wearing a vest top for work. Where does the time go? If this was a musical blog, I’d be inclined to break into a rendition of ‘Is this the little girl I carried’.

Actually, I don’t mind the sun. Or the vest tops. The only summer fashion I really can’t stand are the flip-flops. When did flip-flops become everyday wear? When I was young (get me! how grumpy-old-man do I sound? I blame the heat) but when I was young, flip flops were for the beach. Now, you see women (and the odd fella – Australians, probably) on their way to work wearing linen power suits and flip-flops. My office is full of women wearing them. Am I the only one that thinks this is inappropriate dress for the work place? Not only do they make the slimmest ankle look fat (check out this week’s Heat magazine. Kate Moss – size 8 – looks like she’s been struck down with elephantitis) but they make the most irritating click-clacking noise with every step. If you close your eyes, it sounds like someone chewing gum, very loudly, right into your ear. My desk at work is on route the kitchen and all day my colleagues walk past on their way to make cups of tea. And I sit by my computer with the click-clacking tip-tapping going by all day. How am I supposed to concentrate on surfing the net with that racket going on?

Maybe it’s the heat that’s making me grumpy. I doubt anyone in London has slept properly since the temperature soared. Scrappino finds it unbearable. He’s taken to walking round the flat wearing nothing but his pants. Typical man. The trouble is, his pants are bright red and running around the flat dressed like that he looks like a blonde Mowgli out of the Jungle Book. I expect him to start singing and doing that ‘oobi doo – I wanna be like you-oo-oo’ dance.

Of course, I should have known there would be a heat wave this week, as it’s Scrappino’s first week back at school after half term. Most schools were off a couple of week’s back, but as Passover was late this year all his school holidays were postponed. Passover wasn’t really late. It’s the same date every year. But you know what I mean. And whatever the reason, Scrappino’s now back at school and to ease him and his friends gently back into his final term, the powers that be decided to send a 30 degree heat wave. Lovely. As if going back to school after a holiday isn’t torture enough.

Scrappino doesn’t exactly make it easy for himself. I try to teach him basic skills in forward planning, but he hasn’t quite mastered it yet. After a whole week off, he remembered at 9.30 on Sunday night that he had some spellings to learn. So I put the TV on mute, turned on the subtitles and tested him on his list of compound-nouns while I watched Big Brother Update with one eye on the screen. After making sure he knew them well enough to pass the test I sent him back to bed. Half an hour later, he’s up again. He forgot to write his holiday diary. The teacher had asked the children to write two sentences every day about what they were doing on holiday. Two sentences every 24 hours sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Fourteen sentences, hastily scribbled at ten past ten on a Sunday night is slightly more difficult. We tried to keep it accurate, but Scrappino couldn’t quite remember what he’d done. In the end we just made it up. But the teacher will think I’m a great mother. It turns out that during half-term Scrappino went on two museum trips, made paper mache models of trains, updated his stamp album, read three Biggles books from cover to cover and wrote a postcard to a pen-pal in France. This year’s Parent of the Year award goes to…

I have to admit that Scrappino’s ability to plan ahead is pretty much matched by my own. Monday morning we both woke up late. The heat. Obviously. Scrappino tries to find his uniform and I remember that I’d washed it the previous night but forgot to hang it out to dry. So he has to make do with a slightly damp uniform for his first day back. Well, it’ll help him to keep cool, I tell him. I then go to make his lunch and discover that his lunch box has not been emptied. And it was last used before the half term holiday. Lovely. Have you ever wondered what a 10-day old peanut butter sandwich looks like? Or a spilled Scooby Doo yogurt, left to fester in a hot plastic container? Not the best way to ease yourself into the week. It was a revolting mess, but somebody had to clean it. And that lucky somebody was P’s cleaner, who’s still covering at my flat while P is away. As I said recently, worth every penny. Finally, we leave the flat, lunch in a plastic bag, school trousers nearly dry, homework completed (if dishonestly) and walk to school. Half way there Scrappino suddenly screams out “Swimming Kit!” and we have to head back again to find a towel (laundry basket), trunks (ditto) and goggles. Maybe that Parent of the Year award was a little premature?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The feast of weeks

So, I'm back at work today after two days Shavuot. I know. Who am I kidding? Close friends will know full well that I've been at work all week. But my family occasionally read this blog and I don't want to intentionally offend. It's all part of the on-going pretence. They don't ask me what I did on Friday night, and I kid myself that they have no idea. Everyone is happy. And I do feel that I've partially celebrated the festival. I even nipped out at lunchtime yesterday and bought a slice of Fruits of the Forest Cheesecake from Marks & Spencer. That's practically haimish.

For those who don't know, here's a brief explanation. Shavuot (afore-mentioned festival) commemorates the moment that the Children of Israel received the Ten Commandments from Moses at Mount Sinai. There is a custom to eat cheesecake and other dairy foods on Shavuot. The reason is rather convoluted and involves various myths and legends surrounding the law to separate milk and meat. I won't go into any further detail here. It's not really necessary. There is a Rabbinically-sanctioned custom to eat cheesecake for two days. Who needs a reason??

As well as cheesecake, some people celebrate by eating blintzes. These are thin pancakes filled with sweet cream-cheese and topped with a thick pouring sour-cream called smetna. I'm not 100% sure what smetna is. Is it a Yiddish word? Or does everyone eat smetna? It's one of those grey-area foods that you're never quite sure are Jewish or not. Like Mrs Elswood's cucumbers. And Langley Farm cottage cheese? I mean, is it just us, or what? Either way, smetna is one of those instant taste-bud triggers that whisk you back to childhood. It also reminds me of the time in primary school (and this is 100% true) that we were told to write 100 words about smetna. I waxed lyrical about blintzes, pancakes and Shavuot. Only to discover the following day that we had actually been asked to write about Smetana, the Czech composer, in preparation for a visit from a touring production of the Bartered Bride by The Childrens Opera Company. An acutely embarrassing moment. Although not quite as humiliating as when I was asked, by the same teacher, to name a moveable feast. I suggested Meals on Wheels. Well, how was I to know??

Less enticing than a guilt-free sweet cheese danish, is the custom to stay up all night studying Torah. It's called Tikkun Leyl, and it's the quid-pro-quo of all that wanton cheese consumption. The Rabbis are happy for us to laud it over the lactose-intolerant for two days. But there is a price to pay. And you have to pay it at 3 in the morning, desperately trying not to fall asleep while you pore over a badly photocopied sheet of small Hebrew writing. It is very difficult to make astute points of logical deduction when you are tired, cold and stuffed full of cheese pastries. It takes all your powers of concentration to stay awake and hold the photocopied sheet in your hands. Luckily, since Shavuot is so late this year the sun rises in time for morning prayers by 4 am. And watching the sunrise is always moving. Probably the last significant movement I'll enjoy for days. There are gastrointestinal consequences of eating nothing but cheese for two days. The Rabbis don't warn you about that though, do they?

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Cleaning up

My good friend P is still away, traveling across North America. She occasionally stops by the blog to catch up on my news, so you'll forgive me if I take this opportunity to say how much I miss her. Much more than I thought I would. But I can't begrudge her a single day away. And by all accounts she's having a wonderful time. I know this because I am following her progress on her travel-blog. So she's reading my news and I'm reading hers - both courtesy of blogspot. We need never meet face to face again.

While she is away, her cleaner has been working for me at my flat. It seemed the obvious solution. P retains her cleaner while she's gone, the cleaner keeps earning without having to find a new job and I get the use of a cleaner for three months. Everyone's a winner.

Having a cleaner is a new experience for me. And I don't mind admitting that I am loving it. It always struck me as a bit extravagant. An unnecessary luxury for someone who lives in a small flat and works part time. But I'm only sorry now that I didn't get one sooner. It's marvellous. Every Monday I come home from work and it's like a little angel has visited the flat. The carpets are hoovered, the bath is spotless, the furniture is polished, the laundry is ironed.

It does take a little getting used to. On the morning after her first visit I wanted to wear a pair of brown linen trousers that I had worn a few days previously and had left hanging over the back of a chair. I searched everywhere for them. They weren't in the laundry box, they weren't hanging on the clothes horse, they weren't in the pile of clothes lying on the floor. They were nowhere to be found. I wondered for a moment if the cleaner had taken them home. Well, you do hear stories. Finally, I gave up and decided to wear something else and so opened the wardrobe for something clean. And there were my brown linen trousers. The cleaner had (quite rightly) hung them up in the wardrobe. But the wardrobe was the last place I thought of to look. Wardrobes are for clean clothes. Once something has been worn it is flung over a chair or folded at the end of the bed and then just sort of stays there til it needs washing.

It's been the same with my post. The post arrives while the cleaner is still in the flat. I tend to leave the post scattered randomly around the flat, (opening letters and putting them down wherever I happen to be at the time). But the cleaner put all the letters in a single pile on the dresser. Perfectly sensible. But far too organized for me. So I didn't even notice they were there. As a result, I failed to open bills sent by BT, Orange, British Gas, Three Valleys Water and Powergen. By the time I received the red reminders I had missed the deadline and was starting to panic.

So last night I sat down and paid up for various utilities and services. (No take-aways for me til pay day.) Luckily I was able to pay most of the bills over the phone. Except for the BT bill (How ridiculous is that? The only utility you can't pay for over the phone is BT?) So, utterly skint but (thankfully) now out of debt I then got a call from the Polish builder. He has prepared a quote for the bathroom. (Just the bathroom. He's going to quote me for the kitchen separately.) He should have asked me sit down before giving me the quote. I won't give you the exact figure but let me put it this way. It had four digits, and the first digit was a 7! What kind of madness is that? Seven grand for a bathroom that's so small you can't brush your teeth in front of the mirror without closing the door and moving the towel rack out of the way. So it looks like I'm going to have to find a plan B for the kitchen/bathroom redesign. I could try to save up by economizing. Get rid of unnecessary expenses and luxuries. Maybe I should get rid of the cleaner? No, that would be madness.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Old friends

I had a really lovely day yesterday - for all the wrong reasons. CJD, and his wife FD [nee FM] (that really doesn't work in abbreviations, does it?) were in town. You remember them. I went to Texas a couple of months back for their wedding. I don't normally mention real people by recognisable abbreviations on the blog (that way libels lie). But, for CJD I feel I can make an exception. Firstly, despite constant reminders, prods and hints he has STILL not actually read this. So the chances are that he'll never know what I say here. Secondly, we are both notoriously bad at staying in touch. We can easily go for months without a single phone call or email. So I figure, if he does ever get round to reading this, at least I will have told him my news without having to remember to contact him directly.

I must admit that the reminders and prods to read the blog seem to have done the trick. He even jotted down the address yesterday. When I say 'jotted down' I actually mean that he inputed the data on his blackberry. All very hi-tech. He is the epitome of PDA-man. While I have become PTA-woman. But that's a whole other story. The point is that CJD might well be reading this right now. Which is oddly heartwarming. Friends in far-off places, and all that.

He was in town due to a death in his family. I was delighted to see him, of course, but it was difficult to be too effusively happy, given the circumstances. I mumbled all the right things, I think. Happy to see you, but sorry it's because of such a sad occasion. That kind of thing. I managed to avoid saying "Only at simchas". It's SO Maureen Lipman. And reminds me of my uncle who once explained that what people really mean by "only at Simchas" is, "We can't stand each other. So let's not keep in touch voluntarily. If we have to see each other, so be it. But only at Simchas!"

Meeting an old friend that you don't see very often is all very well. But it's not so easy to do in a shiva house. There should be a book about acceptable behaviour in a shiva. I mean, is it inappropriate to scream "Oh My God!" across the room (in front of the mourners), fling your arms round someone's neck and tell them they look amazing? I thought so too. So I played it cool and hoped that CJD and FD knew how pleased I was to see them.

I managed to avoid any obvious Shiva-house faux-pas. Unlike my friend C who, at a recent shiva we both attended (which, admittedly, was very crowded and very hot) rushed passed the mourner (wife of deceased) and shouted "Let me out of here. I'm gonna die".

Luckily I popped round during the afternoon, rather than in the evening so I avoided the Prayers. (Have you noticed that people never refer to the Evening Service at a Shiva. It's always Prayers). I find the prayers so awkward. You never know where to stand. You try to stand at the back of the room because it's so embarrassing being at the front. But people who arrive later than you try to slip in behind you. So the crowd gets further and further away from the chap leading the service. Or worse, you think you're at the back, but then the Rabbi arrives and says "East is this way" and everybody turns round and you're at the front again. And if that's not bad enough you spend the whole service trying to think of something appropriate to say to the mourners. "I wish you long life" is so cliched. "I'm so sorry" is frankly bizarre - it's not your fault. In the end I either avoid talking to the mourners completely, which is hardly comforting. Or I just give them that Shiva-house smile. The one that looks like Miss Elly from Dallas. I use it when I want to convey "I know how you feel. Even though of course I don't really know how you feel. But I'm terribly sorry. Even though obviously this isn't my fault. Is there anything I can do? If I was less awkward I'd put all this into words. Is this at all comforting to you? I'll just leave now". You know the kind of look.

But, thankfully, no prayers for me yesterday. I was there for an hour or so in the afternoon, with a huge crowd of people. Standing room only. And relatives walked round the room handing out cups of tea and finger food. In fact, it was pretty much exactly the same as CJD's engagement party. 100 or so family and friends, standing up in their best clothes, making small talk with people they don't know and eating chopped-herring bridge rolls and fish balls.

It's the circle of life, I guess.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Changing Rooms

My life used to resemble a soap opera. I used to enjoy love-life ups and downs to match Kat Slater. Now I have settled down into a middle class cliché that makes me feel more Charlie. I’ve become less Eastenders and distinctly more Archers. And, as if to prove a point, I spent much of the bank-holiday weekend in MFI. How settled-down, suburban clichéd is that?

The reason for the trip to MFI is that I am on the lookout for a new kitchen and bathroom. I’ve been in my flat for nearly five years and, apart from the lime green anaglypta wall paper, which frankly just HAD to go, I have not decorated at all. But I feel that the time has now come to do some serious DIY. Well, not so much do it myself as getting a man in and paying him to do it himself.

I have collected quotes from various plumbers and builders, all Polish, of course and now just have to decide how much I’m prepared to pay for all this interior re-design. I’ve realised that I can really only afford to push the boat on either the kitchen or the bathroom, but not both. I’m going to have to settle for something fairly ordinary in one room so that I can buy something fabulous in the other. After much thought, I think I’m going to splash out on the bathroom. No pun intended. My logic being that if cooking in a fairly ordinary kitchen gets me down I can cheer myself up by soaking in my fabulous state-of-the-art bathroom. It doesn’t work the other way round. After taking a dip in a very basic Homebase tub I’m not going to feel any better by cooking an omelette in an Aga.

I mentioned to my dad that I’m buying a new kitchen. He kindly offered to help me pay for it on the condition that I keep it Kosher. I told him if he gets me a Poggenpohl I’ll go Glatt. He didn’t take the bait. But it’s a very kind offer. I wonder if the same applies to the bathroom. I must try to find some kind of mikve angle. Anyway, the Polish plumber promises to start work in August, which gives me just 3 months left to eat kid-goats cooked in their mother’s milk.

Wasting no time at all, Scrappino and I went to McDonalds at Brent Cross on Sunday. I know I know. But it could be worse. We could have gone on Saturday. Although that might have been preferable. Had we been there on Saturday we wouldn’t have bumped into the Rabbi’s wife on the way out of the restaurant. She tried not to look too disapproving as she saw us holding take-away bags. I mumbled something about looking after it for a friend, but I don’t think she believed us.

So when I’m not avoiding the moral majority at McDonalds, I seem to be spending every waking moment eating, sleeping and breathing new kitchens and bathrooms. I have virtually memorised the MFI catalogue by heart. I can tell you the width of every kitchen cupboard, the depth of every toilet, the pressure of every shower. I’ve memorised the prices too. I saw a jacket in Brent Cross that cost £45. I immediately worked out that was worth two chrome bath taps. Or a carousel pan drawer. Not that I’m getting obsessed or anything. I am assured that all the worrying and decision making, not to mention the upheaval, will be worth it in the end. It had better be. I’ll need something to make up for giving up the burgers.