Monday, 29 July 2013

An American Diner in Richmond?

Dear Urban Diner,

We tried, we really tried. We wanted to love you, make you a new favourite - a place of indulgent treats from home arriving in our neck of the London woods. We wanted to believe the reviews we'd read were misguided, mean spirited... or that you'd at least learned something from them. Plus we figured we'd try for breakfast -- how hard could that be?

But much is the distance between hope and reality in this case, I'm sorry to say.

So in the spirit of helpfulness -- here are a few tips if you truly want to become a real American diner:

1. Coffee. Have coffee on the menu. Not cappucinos, lattes, americanos (though those are nice as well), but coffee. Poured from a pot, and as often as your customer wants it. Extra points if you also have decaf brewing, in a separate pot with an orange rim.

2. Pancakes. If you open at 9, please don't tell a customer who tries to order at 9:30 that "the pancakes aren't ready -- they should be about 30 minutes."  I don't know what kind of pancakes you're making... but I can prep, cook, eat, and clean up from my recipe in 30 minutes -- so something needs adjusting there.

3. Pancakes part 2. When your chef relents and makes a 'special order' of just one serving "that's all he can do, I told him a little girl really wanted pancakes"... make them taste like pancakes, and unless you call them 'silver dollar', make them larger than 5 inches across. (yeah, inches -- it's an American pancake you're making after all).

4. Pancakes part 3. "Maple syrup sauce"? What is that?

5. Pancakes part 4. No lumberjack special? No 2x2x2? Everyone knows pancakes are exponentially better with eggs and/or bacon alongside!

5. Hashbrowns. Only in McDonald's or your local grocery frozen foods aisle do hashbrowns come in a little triangle. I'm just sayin'.

6. Details. Erm...I'm sure this was just our bad luck and not a regular occurrence -- but in case not, please try to remember to remove the plastic before serving up the "smoked salmon bene". I can only assume it was overlooked in the rush of cooking for the one other occupied table in the place, as well as of course dealing with that special pancake order.

In the end, shiny red booths and a few US license plates and retro 5 cent Coca-Cola ads do not a diner make. A true diner experience is simple: decent-to-great classic foods, served up quickly; smile optional.

Get the food right (swiss cheese on a Philly cheese steak???), and you've got a ready market... I would love for you to succeed --  just hope it's not too late!

Urban Diner on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Little (boy) Kickers

So, there's an organisation in the UK called 'Little Kickers', which teaches football (soccer) skills to children age 18 months - 7 years. It's less about bootcamp and creating mini-Beckhams, and more geared towards using football "as a fun forum to instil our growing squad with a little extra confidence, co-ordination, control and sense of camaraderie; which we feel will stand them in very good stead for the future."

Paige is pretty active, and certainly loves kicking the football around -- so this seemed like a great opportunity to let her burn off some energy in a fun and friendly environment. And with the sessions conveniently timed on a Saturday morning, do a little Daddy-Paigey bonding while Mommy sleeps in (or, more likely, cleans the bathroom...)

Anyway, we took her for her first class yesterday, and she seemed to really enjoy it -- following the leader's instructions intently, running around the cones, kicking the ball, and generally having a great time. And she asked to go again -- so a success, right?

Well, for now. Because I was disappointed to see that she was the ONLY girl in the class of about 10 children. And at under 3 years, that doesn't bother her... but it will do soon. And it's a shame. It's a shame that in this country from what I can tell, girls are barely encouraged to participate in sports, which becomes a vicious cycle of no girls in sports, so no girls wanting to join, and so on. 

And from what I can tell, it's a parental thing -- because again, at the age of 3, I don't think children really care what's a 'girls' activity' (dance) or a 'boys' activity' (sports) -- they just want to have fun. So clearly, it's the parents -- like one mother I know who said 'oh, I wouldn't want to send my [3-year-old] daughter to Little Kickers. She likes to run around, but I don't want her to be the only girl!"  Well, she wouldn't be the only girl if more parents were a bit more open minded.  This is definitely one area where the US is light-years ahead!

Now, I'm not fixated on football (or even sports) -- but I do think getting involved early, when they really are just for fun, and making physical activity just a regular part of life, can only be a good thing for boys *and* girls alike. And sure, we'll take her to dance classes as well, and check out the V&A art packs, add to her Monkey Music sing-alongs, to let her experience as wide a variety of activities and make her own mind up.   I just hope it's Paige making the decision for herself -- not the narrow attitudes of other parents doing it for her.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

An afternoon with an editor

If you know me, you know I love magazines. So I was thrilled to be able to hear the “grande dame from Derbyshire”, Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Glenda Bailey, speak at the V&A today, to an audience of 100-or-so about her 10 years at the magazine. Held as part of London Fashion Week and in conjunction with a new exhibition and book, Harper's Bazaar: Greatest Hits, it was less a structured lecture and more chatty slide show, with Bailey giving behind-the-scenes commentary on some of the publication’s most striking images from the past decade, all in her lilting Derbyshire-meets-Manhattan accent (with a touch of California in her upward inflection at the end of many sentences).

Looking suitably fashion-editor-esque, in a black shift dress with bold single flower print and (possibly – it was hard to tell from my distance) long leather sleeves, with bright red lipstick (natch), she told amusing stories of how some of the photos came about (Kate Winslet looking like she was hanging off high rise scaffolding... but only three feet off the ground), interspersed with industry tidbits (such as British editors priding themselves on ‘selling on the newstand’ – making them experts at the coverline).

In addition to highlighting a several collaborations with filmmakers and designers (Tim Burton, Pedro Almodovar for example), she spoke of her sometimes outrageous visions – one year Alexander McQueen’s animal prints led her to see Demi Moore in ‘something out of Dali... a spiral staircase on a beach, a giraffe...’ with of course the legendary armadillo shoes.

She also answered questions from the audience – not surprisingly a few touched on the emergence of digital and especially social media, and how monthly fashion magazines can compete in the rapid online world where runway shows hit the blogs in near real time. As to be expected from someone who’s turned around not one but two fashion mags (she was at US Marie Claire before Harper’s), she still has great faith in print (well, what else could she say), speaking of its greater ‘intimacy’ through its tactile nature, and how she would always love to curl up with a great magazine. At the same time, though, she was ‘thrilled’ about the rise of online media, with its immediacy and ability to provide her with feedback and dialogue with readers, as well as the fact it ‘pushes you to create things in the magazine you can’t produce online’ – putting even more positive creative pressure on the magazine to be original, and to make readers feel that it’s a ‘vital’ part of their life – that they don’t want to miss an issue and ‘miss something fun.’

More than the individual stories, however, what struck – and inspired – me most was her clear passion and excitement and flat out enjoyment for what she’s doing. She didn’t seem to be ‘ooh- scary fashion editor’-type (but hey, I don’t have to work for her, who knows?!), but rather someone having a great time, as she said, ‘create[ing] a party everyone is invited to’, able to maintain not only creative flair and drive for excellence (I think 'tenacity' was a word used to describe her) but also a sense of humour throughout.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Vermont Diary - Part 1 - Enter Irene

This year’s Vermont vacation at Camp Nana (and Poppy) started off uneventfully enough... flight ok (Paige even managed to sleep), manageable jetlag (if you don’t include Paige waking up at 2 a.m. the first morning, me thinking it was 5, and getting up with her for an hour or so until we realised it was going to be a long-haul ‘til sunrise and eventually getting back to sleep), and general relaxation in the August sunshine. Oh, and a cycling fall on Ashley’s part necessitating a trip to Dartmouth Medical Center (thanks for the drive, Dad), where the diagnosis was sprain, resulting in a support wrap + no driving or cycling for a while.
Relaxing on the deck

Enjoying Farmer's Diner breakfast

Bubble time
 But still and all, relatively chilled first couple of days’ holiday – punctuated, however, by incessant shots on the 24-hour news channels of reporters predicting how, when, and where Hurricane Irene would hit, and how hard she would do it. Breathless stories told of Lower Manhattan buildings being evacuated and subways shut, suburban Boston shops being stripped of supplies, New Jersey shores being washed away, FEMA standing by. But not much about Vermont. How could a hurricane hitting the coast really bother inland Vermont?

High rise water - already receding

A little wind damage
 Hmm... guess no one considered the rain. And more rain. And then some more. I think it rained steadily from Saturday evening through to the early hours of Monday morning, flooding rivers and destroying homes and businesses throughout the state, including in little harder-than-we-expected-to-be-hit Woodstock.

Fortunately for our family, CN(AP) is at the top of a hill and then some, so all we suffered was a day stuck inside, trying to keep a near-three-year-old entertained. Many in the area weren’t so lucky, however. According to Sustainable Woodstock, up to 150 homes were ‘severely compromised’, with 20 – 25 being completely uninhabitable. And statistics like these were brought home a few days later, walking through the harder-hit riverside parts of the town. At one home, sadly representative of many, we passed piles of mud-covered appliances on top of soggy carpeting and unrecognisable household artefacts, while volunteers painstakingly separated and towelled off stacks of old photographs and books, laying out pictures and paintings to dry in the sun to the soundtrack of heavy duty generators powering fans and pumps in an effort to get things back to normal.

The still near overflowing Ottauquechee, days later

Woodstock businesses were similarly hard hit – in particular by power and water outages, meaning several shops were forced to close for a number of critical tourist-filled days in that last week of summer. For nearly a week walking down Main Street was like being on a movie set or ghost town, eerily quiet especially for that time of year.

Definitely puts the annoying-but-manageable power cuts we suffered through the week in perspective...

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Royal Wedding Fever

I'm trying to be cynical, but I can't, I just can't. Why should I care that there will be oak trees brought in to Westminster Abbey (in honour of the Middleton family's new crest), or that William's asked for a special McVitie's chocolate digestives cake, or that maid-of-honour Pippa's trying to hang disco balls in Buckingham Palace for the after-after party. (or should that be after-after reception?). How does the marriage of a couple of over-priveleged toffs -- one famous due to parentage (and their parents, and so on) only, the other for snagging the eye of prince with a see-through dress -- affect me in the slightest? And don't even get me started on the whole 'commoner' thing; she's not *exactly* from the wrong side of the tracks! 

But  no, I'm lapping it up... I've smiled along with the T-Mobile ad, read the many many many gossip and news articles, got the t-shirt (well, commemorative mug, at least) and will be front and centre (of the TV, that is) for as much as I can on the big day.

I did consider heading into central London to be part of the atmosphere, but decided against for many reasons:
  • It's supposed to rain -- I'm a fair-weather celebration-watcher, for sure
  • Crowds + 2-year-old = misery
  • There's no way I'd get in front of the people camping out already -- so would still only see the TV coverage (projected on giant screens in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere), but without any sound
I did, however, take advantage of the good weather and day off yesterday to take Paige into town to see how things were progressing... we didn't make it as far as the church, but did get a little taste of the media circus already assembled outside Buckingham Palace, where it seemed every other person we passed was wearing a press-pass or carrying major video equipment. I think we may have even been on Japanese television at one point, as we passed behind one reporting quintet... ah - our moment of fame...

Fox and CNN amongst the news crews taking up 22,000 square meters in Green Park

Did Paige and I make it on Japanese TV? We'll never know!

St James Park media complex - Left of BuckPalace

And... Green Park media complex on the right

Of course, to Paige, it was all about the playground (note news copter soundtrack in the video below) -- though in years to come, I will be sure to tell her she was (almost) there...

Saturday, 23 April 2011

New York state of mind...

Seems a bit surreal that only three weeks ago I was still in New York – just shows how quickly holiday effects can wear off and you can settle back into your regular routine...

Before it becomes a hazy memory, however – I thought I’d record it here for the whole wide web world to see. Or at least the two to three readers I occasionally get, who probably don’t even visit any more considering I update this even less frequently than I mop the kitchen floor. (And for anyone who knows how much I hat mopping, you get the picture...)

So, anyhoos....

Thursday 31st March – and the New York weather forecast was for overcast, rainy and grey. Which of course made perfect sense, as I was about to leave uncharacteristically sunny London for four days in that very city. No matter – given my years in the north west, I know a little rain can’t hurt!

What can hurt --- or at least annoy -- is a two hour flight delay. Yawn. And a lengthy journey from JFK into Manhattan. (Why is it that whenever I take SuperShuttle, I’m *always* the last one off??) So instead of arriving with a full afternoon as expected, I finally arrived chez Kim about 5pm, already jetlagged, but determined to stay awake and quickly acclimate myself so I could make the most of my short stay. Fortunately lively conversation, a little walk around Kim’s neighbourhood, and yummy dinner at nearby Meme helped, and finally exhausted at 11pm I fell asleep on an amazingly comfortable inflatable mattress.

Friday Kim and I hit the ground running. Or at least she did, heading off to the gym, while I started my day in a slightly less healthy way, indulging in one of my favourite New York treats – a diner breakfast. Thanks to the Good Stuff Diner and their Lumberjack Special, my arteries are just that little bit cloggier, and my jeans just that little bit tighter. Mmm mmm good.

Following that, we proceeded to pack as much of the NYC experience into a single day as possible – starting with manicures (natch), a little shopping (thanks Kim for your fashion guidance, not sure I would’ve gone through with the orange skirt purchase without it), subway hopping (uptown, downtown and repeat), museum hopping (Museum of Arts and Design, with free entry thanks to my V&A volunteering status!), then off to the theatuh, as you do. I’d been quite eager to see Driving Miss Daisy, which was entering its last weeks – and fortunately we were able to get tickets (from the half-price booth, ticking another NYC must-see). James Earl Jones was fantastic, and well worth the effort required to keep my drooping eyes open. (and Vanessa Redgrave's understudy was pretty great as well, didn't mind only one of the icons being available... may have felt otherwise if it was JEJ off that night!)  Note to self: comfy chair in darkened theatre is perhaps not the best place to combat jet lag, no matter how commanding the thesp on stage... Fortunately the show itself was only about 90 minutes, and I managed to stay awake throughout to enjoy the show, followed up by some classic dinner Tex-Mexicana, including pleasantly strong margarita, at Dos Caminos. (Where I discovered that instead of actually being in Jerusalem, my brother-in-law has been living a double life as a maitre d’ in Manhattan. Either that or he has an identical twin, separated at birth... must ask BiL’s mother about that...)

Saturday I enjoyed a luxurious morning actually reading the New York Times, in bed, cover-to-cover, sans Dora or Spongebob or ‘Mommy! Where my juicey?!’ soundtracks (as pleasant as those sounds are, of course). (And by cover-to-cover, I don’t mean literally reading every article – who has time for that? I did, at least, skim every section, and read the articles that caught my interest, which is more than I can say for most weekends...)

The day continued at a leisurely pace, as I headed over to Brooklyn to meet up with a former housemate from my DC days, who I hadn’t seen in I think 14 years (thanks, Facebook, for putting us back in touch; thanks, Dad for a unique enough last name that people who try can easily fine me on said site). I will confess to being a teeny bit (perhaps 12%) apprehensive before setting out – I mean, it could’ve been all emms and errs and awkward pauses – 14 years is a long time. Fortunately my 88% intuition came true, and the day flew by in brunchy catch-up conversation mode, and it was a shame that I had to eventually tear myself away from the sunny playground where we chatted while keeping an eye on her adorable almost-three-year-old. I already can’t wait for a return trip to introduce Paige...

Saturday night brought more fabulosity to my weekend – after dinner in, delivery of course (does that count as another New York classic? Or would we have had to have eaten directly out of Chinese takeout boxes to get full credit?) a few of the girls came round to Kim’s for drinks before heading out on the town. What made the evening even more special was that one of the ‘girls’ was my bestiest of besties: my li’l sis. Thanks to SuperSitters (aka, Nana & Poppy), she got a night off in the big city, and was able to join me and Kim in singing our lungs out at Marie’s Crisis, the oddly named, miniscule basement piano bar where the pianist plays classic show tunes and the crowd of regulars and randoms (we’d be in the latter group) joins in. Fiddler, Chicago, Sound of Music, West Side Story, Hair, Oklahoma... we were 
there until almost 2am, my jet lag well and truly over. SO much fun to have a singalong with my much more musically able and aware sister...

Later that same Sunday morning, our driver (aka Poppy – he’s multi-talented) arrived to pick us up, bleary eyed, Starbucks-filled, and slightly hoarse, for the journey back to the White Plains and FAMILY DAY. All the Carl Jr Wulfestieg-lets in one place – a rare occurrence, so thank goodness Mom has photographic evidence. And we did what we do best... just kinda hang around, chat, and eat... ah, sibling hood! Only shame was that it was such a short visit – Brian and family were back off to Chicago that afternoon. And after a night sharing a room with my niece (thanks for the upper bunk, Toby), and brunch with Mom & Dad, it was airport time for me as well (via Manhattan to grab a blow-out, pedicure, and some last minute shopping on the way)

And now it’s back in London, with a weekend of happy memories – that would have only been made better by the inclusion of my lovely husband and (usually) sweet daughter. As great as it was to have some time on my own, I would’ve loved to have shared it with them (well... at least a portion of it – I’ll keep the mani-pedi and a little girlie shopping time for myself...)

Saturday, 8 January 2011

2010 in review

locomotion by laundry
When I started to think back over the past year, what struck me first was that fact that only one short year ago, Paige was not yet walking. Close, sure – but when midnight struck, hurling us from 2009 into 2010, our little Paigey was still lurching from sofa to chair and back again, or using the upturned laundry basket for support*.

And now? Nothing stopping her, as our no-longer-a-baby-most-definitely-a-toddler goes “wunnin’ wunnin’” through the Gardens to feed the ducks, or marching through the snow, or even waddle-waddling across the kitchen floor in imitation of mommy’s favourite penguins.

wunnin' wunnin' on South Bank
So 2010 was another year of firsts in the life of Miss Paige Roberta Agar – perhaps not surprisingly at this stage of the game.

After taking those first tentative steps in mid-January, Paige’s next accomplishment was talking. I can’t remember when the first one properly popped out, but do know it was one of her favourite summer entertainments: bubble.

And for the longest time, bubble was about it. Bubbles in the bath, blowing bubbles in the park, bubbles from the teacher at Monkey Music. At first, every new word was cause for excitement – “yes, that was definitely ‘Daddy’” and “I think she just said ‘milk’”. And then somehow it wasn’t. Although we continue to be surprised when she says something completely new, we seem to have taken the fact of her talking as ordinary already, which just shows how easy we become accustomed to actually quite remarkable activities.

That’s why a yearly look back can be ‘a good thing’ – it reminds you to marvel again at what we can so quickly take for granted. (Although I’d marvel a bit more if the introduction of talking didn’t also include the key phrases ‘that’s mine’ and ‘want chocolate’, but hey, you can’t have it all...)

Something else we take for granted is the engineering feats that come together to provide long-haul travel – which allowed us a number of very welcome and enjoyable visits with family and friends, despite our residing across the globe. (Well, on different sides of the Atlantic)

Beth's birthday in Miami
January saw Ashley take on the Mr Mom role for a long weekend, as I played a surprise visit to Miami to celebrate my friend Beth’s 40th with a girly getaway. While Ashley bonded with Paige and battled the sudden snow, I bonded with Beth and co-conspirator Lisa, along with a few glasses of bubbly and some pampering sessions. And despite the fact it was the coldest January in like ages, man, I was not going all the way to Miami without a dip in the pool!

Enjoying the Fete
Other jetsetters included Nana and Poppy, who visited Planet Wulfagar in June, perfectly timing their trip to coincide with the first Kew Midsummer Fete – enabling them to see Paige on her first merry go round ride... whee!!

August brought us new guests, with the Olson gang flying in en route to Jerusalem. Our front room became Camp Wulfagar with Kara, Jess, Toby, and Beruria all bunking down in, on, and around the sofas and tv. A bit crowded – but we loved having them visit, and wish it could’ve been longer. I especially loved to see Paige and her cousins running around and giggling – aww...

Swinging with her NY cousins

As soon as the Olsons took off eastward, it was our turn to head west – off to summer hols at Camp Nana. A couple of weeks of rest, relaxation, and New England sunshine... Every day was a great balance of activity and slothfulness, with visits to the lake, science museum, national parks and the ‘Path of Life’, plus local shopping and of course diners, diners, diners. Ashley & I even got the opportunity for a night away in the former mill town of Claremont New Hampshire. Ashley found the one nice hotel (our room even had an outdoor patio with hot tub!), and we had a great time wandering the town and imagining how it might have been in its heyday! We also had a lucky coincidence that my oldest friend Stephanie, er, I mean friend of longest standing had planned a visit to
Chillin' with Poppy at the Woodstock Farmers' Market
Boston at the same time – so she and her family became Camp Nana campers for a weekend. It was fabulous to get even that short weekend together – I think we managed to pack a week of talking into the less than 48 hours!

Camp Nana Campers
We arrived back from that fantastic vacation to the news that our landlord was planning extensive renovations of her other flat... the kind that meant she could no longer live in it, and instead would be moving into ours. So, after 6 years (!!) on Kew Green, it was time to move on, and before 2011 was out, we were ensconced in Kew flat #2, a mere half mile away, cutting Ashley's commute from a dreadful 12 minutes each way to the much more manageable 1/3 of that. What *will* he do with those extra 16 minutes each day?

Cocktails with the girls for 40th
2010 also saw me hit 40 – eek! In addition to a weekend of parties (girls, cocktails and movies on Friday, brilliant and truly surprising surprise party thrown by my sweet husband on the Saturday) I celebrated by running 100 (and a bit) miles in the 100 days leading up to the big day, and thanks to my generous friends and family raised $1200 for the worthy charity Quilts for Kids. Although the regular running led to personal bests in both a 5k and 10k that summer, it still didn’t *quite* translate into a lifelong running habit as I’d hoped, but there’s always next year! And ailing children in need received handmade warming quilts, which is more important!

Movember madness
Ashley got in on the charitable efforts this year as well, joining the Movember Movement, which meant growing a moustache throughout the month of November in support of prostate cancer research. His efforts were quite dapper, if scratchy, so I for one didn't mind when the calendar page turned to December and he was able to shave once more... Will he put his upper lip forward again next November? Watch this space...

Just as November led to December, December led to January and now we're one week into 2011, and already looking forward to another visit from Nana and Poppy in only a couple of weeks... and who knows what other adventures are in store!?

*Technically at midnight she was -- to our appreciation -- asleep, but you know what I mean