Our Englishwoman finally moves in to her new home, and sets about exploring and decorating...
It was strange but a joy to sleep in our own beds and indeed an absolute pleasure to clutch our own mugs and drink tea brewed in a pot. The house embraced our belongings and they in turn looked as though they had been hand-picked for this new space. We were momentarily on a high. It may well have been the smell of the fresh paint but we were delirious to be in a house after too long lodging in a hotel. Our son was so happy peddling his tricycle and doing the slalom around the packing cases piled high throughout the house. Unpacking our belongings I had a new appreciation for all that we owned and delighted in placing things and hanging our paintings. Yet there was much work to be done, windows to be dressed and with our extra acreage of floor space a dining table to be found and even an additional sofa.
Moving to our house was wonderful but also found me at my most lonely. Now I was even without the hotel concierge and the people on reception giving me a smile of recognition for what it was worth (and that was a lot with hindsight). With the removal boxes only half emptied my husband was soon off on his business travels again. What I had not considered before our move were the distances travel in the U.S. entailed. Whereas from London he could visit a client in Birmingham or even Manchester and be back the same day, here, a visit to Manchester, Vermont let alone Birmingham, Alabama would be an overnight trip.
The house came with new sounds that affected me most on my nights as a sole parent. The creaks of the parquet floor and the squeaking caused by the steam passing up the risers from the giant outdated oil furnace in the basement would prick my ears. The furnace is ancient, in fact I rather feel that those who conceived of this house found a furnace and then built the house around it. The house was built around 1907 in the Mission (Arts and Crafts) style. There are very few of these purpose built duplex houses in the neighbourhood but they make for a superb living space and are most gracious and grand yet remain cosy. I felt quite at home nestled amongst our familiar possessions, or so I thought until I stepped outside.
It was March and still pretty cold. Strangely (but thankfully when I hear stories of frozen friends) our section of the house has the thermostat and we therefore control the heat for our upstairs neighbours. Each morning we attended a children's music sing-along in a local caf where I hoped we might make some friends. To no avail it was fun for my son and did get us out of the house but we remained friendless. The other attendees were for the most part babysitters, or mothers with very tiny babies making the best of their 12 weeks maternity leave and maybe hoping that this early exposure to live music might enhance a so far hidden talent in their offspring. It is this very brief maternity leave, medieval in its cruelty, which made my meeting other mothers a challenge.
That first week, my husband away, and not having got to grips with local food shopping or having any internet access to order a grocery delivery I decided we would eat out in the plethora of local restaurants and cafs. This was a great decision not necessarily for my taste buds but for the good fortune of striking up a conversation with two separate families who would become essential in showing us the local ropes. One, an English lady, would become my greatest of friends here.
It was not at all the case that I sought out friends from the UK. But on reflection the majority of our acquaintances seem to have a recent European connection either having lived abroad or having a foreign parent or spouse. Being an expatriate in New York does not grant you a specific lifestyle as it may in the Far East or the Arab States. The fact being that New York is brimming with expatriates whether they are life-long ones or just there for the short term. There is no club to join you just jump wide-eyed into the pot and hope to meet someone like-minded or at least interesting.
As the spring brought more clement days we would find ourselves daily in the local park two blocks up to the East. Our street stretches from the fabulous, sprawling Prospect Park, which was designed as was Central Park by Olmsted and Vaux. Amidst the wonderful landscaping are a boating lake, a zoo, a carousel, tennis courts, playgrounds and plenty more. If you were to roll down our street to the West you end up in the docks at Red Hook. When the Queen Mary II is in town her red and black funnel can be seen from our street rising above the flyover of the BQE (Brooklyn-Queens Expressway). I have this fabulous notion of jumping on the B63 bus from outside our house and riding to the Cruise Terminal from where the Queen Mary would take me on one of her Atlantic voyages. When I glimpse that funnel, home seems so much closer and tangible.
Settling back into real life meant not only preening our house. We were all in need of a good haircut. Being a very child-orientated neighbourhood there was of course an obvious choice for my boy. At the children's hairdresser-come-toy shop I lifted him into a fire engine seat contraption and was asked which DVD he would like to watch. Aged two and a bit he really did not have much of a notion and the fire engine complete with bell was more than enough to hold him in place. The hairdresser started chopping off chunks of hair in a random fashion after my brief of short back and sides and hopeful quips that he would not be joining the military any time soon. The result could have been worse (he was not going to be mistaken for Christopher Robin in the next two months) and while my child was happy still playing in the fire engine and watching Disney for the first time, I asked the hairdresser to cut one inch off my hair to tide me over. We paid our dues and left forever.
My eyes were now peeled looking at passing haircuts, especially those of small boys. After a few weeks I spotted a mother with a fabulously cut bob together with her son who had a proper boy's cut. Her hairdresser was in the East Village of lower Manhattan. Although I am an advocate of using local amenities one more look at our ravaged heads had me clutching my Metrocard. I was more than willing to brave the subway, struggle with the buggy and wend my way to this master cutter. To see a straight bob hair cut is a rarity here. Longer tousled, layered hair is more de rigueur, whether this is by choice or merely what is on offer. For men it seems even harder. At a regular hairdresser or even a barber unless you want one inch of hair remaining on your scalp you risk being sent home with a mullet.
Back at the house, I did not need to look so long or far to find a recommendation for someone to make blinds: our immediate neighbour, whose friendly wave from her kitchen window was flanked by pristine and well fitted caf curtains and a roller blind. She is a great source of local knowledge. I called by the workshop she had recommended and arranged a site visit to measure up our four upstairs windows. His was a dusty old space in a more neglected part of the neighbourhood, but once I had adjusted to calling blinds shades the owner and I seemed to be speaking the same language.
One of the essential things which I promptly realised I had neglected to pack was blackout lining. Our son was used to sleeping in a darkened room so this was vital to our wellbeing. The blind maker would back the fabric I supplied from my hoard, accumulated from years spent in the decorating world, with blackout. The installation time would be at least a couple of weeks, as he was being kept busy in Manhattan and Long Island. I heard that Target might possibly be an answer to my needs. Target is a sort of everything-and-nothing shop. That is, it sells almost everything but nothing that you would particularly want in your home (on occasion they work with more intriguing brand, Liberty of London or John Derian for example, but these articles sell out in moments). I had a vague look around the curtain section but eventually had to ask, as I could not find anything that resembled blackout. Explaining to an assistant what I was looking for she just looked baffled and suggested that if I didn't want light coming in why didn't I just board up the windows. On that note I left dreaming of John Lewis. To this day if I could transport one thing over here it would be a branch of John Lewis. I did eventually track down some blackout in the fabric district in the Lower East Side of Manhattan after another tip off.
I was lucky to find simple off white painted wooden curtain poles on sale at Pottery Barn. I ordered metal brackets and white wooden rings from England, all of which I spray-painted to match the pole. I rearranged my curtains from England to fit the windows marvelously. Our house now looked quite splendid both from the inside and from the street.
Park Slope was hailed last year to be the number one neighbourhood to live in by New York magazine. Housing is pricey but it cannot be said that you wander along and notice the beauty of the interiors nor the elegance of the window treatments. This is an expensive neighbourhood but strangely lacks the pride of one. The pavements are littered and the trees are unkempt and straggly. There is a snobbery about living here, but it does not seem to penetrate the keyhole.
Most families I know here are renting and put up with badly finished paintwork or skirting boards that don't meet the floorboards. Our house is no exception one is too bowled over by the other occupations to notice the minutiae. I was fortunate to spend a night (with my husband) at The Carlyle in Manhattan while my mother visited from England. What I was most taken with was the beauty of the paintwork and I can recall lying on the bed admiring the smooth surface of the wooden trims. The walls in the bar painted by Ludwig Bemelmans did not escape my notice and admiration, but the obvious use of sandpaper and fine workmanship around the building stirred me more on this occasion.
I was so happy to be back in charge of our laundry. The washing machine, a giant top-loading clothes churn, is located in our basement-come-engine room. At last I imagined having wonderfully clean clothes and would, as time went by, invest in a new properly fitting wardrobe of clothes. There was plenty of space to line dry the washing so I would never put anything through the ordeal suffered in Manhattan. None of the detergent brands meant any meaning to me so I plumped for a mid priced one and hoped for the best. As the cycle on the machine was only 20 minutes I am not sure whether the detergent was at fault or not but clothes were still not as wonderfully clean and soft as they were from my Bosch back in England. I did at some point splash out on some Bold Automatic I bought at the British butcher in Manhattan to experiment with. This did make a considerable difference but at a huge cost and shopping detour.
Chatting to someone at my first (and come to think of it, last) Super Bowl party about the length of our wash cycle (I was really incapable of enthusing about the game) she was astonished when I said mine was 20 minutes. Happily agreeing with her I was rather taken aback when she proclaimed how awful for me, as hers was just 16 minutes with the option for a 12-minute cycle too. In the biggest rejection of our washing facilities, my mother and sister always bring sufficient clothing to last their stay, however long.
Our internet connection was now up and running with some thanks to Time Warner Cable who in the installation process drilled through a wall and straight into the cased-in waste pipe. This situation was resolved by the (what felt like) resident builders, who were in the basement doing some structural work and knocking my laundry right off schedule.
I scoured the internet looking at furniture specifically for a dining table and a child-friendly sofa (so our existing coil-sprung, horsehair-stuffed one could be spared the bouncing). The choice of furniture was vast but the common thread was the style or rather the lack of it. Furniture tends to be brown, hefty, crass looking and lacking any subtlety or refinement. After much investigation it seemed the very best and only place to find something suitable was second hand at auction. Both Christie's and Doyle auction houses in Manhattan offer regular modestly estimated house sales. We were in time successful on bidding on a table. By contrast the sofa eventually came from Ikea and the delivery cost more than the sofa. I imagined it might last our three years here and so far it is adjusting better to our elongated stay than I am. That said, I am poised to order a new slip cover for it as the current one has been ravaged by our churning machine. If only a new overcoat would help me through the next however many years!
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