Sunday, 10 June 2012

Back to the Blog

SO... after a prolonged sabbatical, time to bring back our quaint narrative of Howell life in Britain. I cannot claim that this comeback is due to "popular demand"... as our readership, never enormous at its height, has probably by now mostly forgotten about this blog.

But nevertheless, even if this little record is mostly for internal consumption, here goes. It has been a busy spring of 2012 for the HowellinginLondon set. We've visited France (Brittany), France again (Loire valley), Greece (Crete) and Northern England (Lake District). Plus short weekend trips to Liverpool and (for me & Karen) Straford-on-Avon. We have had some great visits (my parents and Jessica/Peter/Jasper/Josie; cousin Addie from Nashville; Karen's ex-future-parents-in-law Frank and Linda and their son Dan). Too much to recount it all... but fortunately Karen has put the highlights in a quick video. 

A few more words on the main trips:
 - Brittany, France: a fun week visiting Aunt Martine and (briefly) Bernard at her lovely abode in Quimper, lots of exploring of this historic and gorgeous region of France, joined by my mom (who was en route to South Africa: highlights: great food, neolithic megaliths. Lowlight: a little chilly, although the weather help up much better than suggested! 
 - Loire Valley: long weekend visit to Jennifer, Andreas & Theo at their beautiful and relaxing country house south of Tours.  
 - Crete: a week staying in my friend Sergey's condo in village on the north coast of Crete. Wonderful spot, wonderful people, wonderful food. Really a great place to visit and the kids were superbly well behaved throughout, we all really enjoyed this. Highlights: carriage ride in historic Venitian town of Hana, hiking in Lambros gorge, quiet Panormo beach, water park.  Lowlight: Knossos Palace. Historic but not kid friendly. 
 - Lake District: for Jubilee weekend we headed north and had a nice few days staying in a Mongolian yurt and exploring this striking part of Britain. Highlights: Muncaster castle, their owl collection and gardens. Lowlight: almost perished driving on the country's steepest road (by accident) but took in some striking views.

And then a few words on life in London, which has been, generally speaking, pretty good. We are now feeling at home on Eton Avenue, and life is much less stressful and tumultuous as it was in year one. Kids are healthy and reaching the point where they are more independent and occasionally even cooperative. Sadie is 4, reading 3-letter words, obsessed with Wizard of Oz and pronouncing "party" (but not "banana") with a posh British accent. Parker is approaching 3, weighs about as much as Sadie, loves BMWs, euro coins (I told him not to get too attached!) and the song Yellow Submarine. Neither of them remembers much about life before London. Karen has been studying medicine and getting to know more folks here. I have been enjoying work, traveling quite a lot and becoming "#1 rated". 

And now time for a few complaints (which will be typically British of me): in case anyone reading this is unaware: the weather here stinks! It was a quintessentially cold, wet spring (although for some inexplicable reason we are considered to be in a drought and on those rare warm days they don't turn on the fountains), much worse than last year. And although the kids have been pretty healthy, neither Karen nor I can really say the same. I've battled colds for much of that chilly spring, while Karen has had digestive issues that seem to be associated with London-specific food intolerances. Both of us tend to feel miraculously better within a couple of days of leaving London. And life here does come with frustrations: poorly functioning transport (God knows how they will get through the Olympics) and some very expensive aspects of living here.

In all, though, it's good. We're still figuring out for sure how much longer we'll be here, but the most likely scenario is about one more year. Regardless, we're determined to continue to make the most of it...

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Blog? What blog?

How is it even possible that neither of us has written a word since September? I swear our lives are not THAT boring. In fact quite a lot happens. OK, so perhaps that's the reason we haven't been blogging. We're just too darn busy having fun.
Well, some fun anyway.
Major events: Sadie started a new school in September of 2011 - she loves it. Parker will start there in September of 2012. And thankfully, Sadie can continue to attend the same school for an additional year. It's the Oxford of nursery schools (with a price tag to match, unfortunate
ly) and I expect that by the time we return to the states the kids will be able to name every English monarch ever to sit on the throne. (With a cute little accent, of course).
Andrew has been traveling a lot in 2012. If I can recall correctly, he's been to Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Georgia (the country), NY, Washington, Chicago, Des Moines....I'm sure I'm missing a few. He's grounded for now and soon we'll start traveling more as a family. We have springtime trips booked to France (two separate times), Crete, the Lake District...stay tuned for pictures of these adventures.
And me: Now that the sun has decided to reveal itself, my seasonal fog has lifted and I'm enjoying life. I still sing with the Belsize Community Choir, I've finished the Biomedicine course, am still plugging away at the Naturopathic Studies course, and I've started taking ukelele lessons.
Oh, and our cargo bike arrived in January!

It's quite a lousy picture of it, but you get the idea...

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Catching up (at last) on the summer

SO much to write about, so little time to do it. (In fact, I started this post 2 weeks ago.) Andrew is the superior writer and better suited to the task of catching up on the blog, but he's sworn that he'd not write another word until I get things rolling again.
Off I go -
Our summer trip back to the states far exceeded our expectations in almost every respect. Certainly I expected that it'd be wonderful to be "home" again, but in fact it was MORE than wonderful. The ocean-spanning plane trips were uneventful, thanks in large part to the fact that both kids will actually watch TV now; our accommodations were comfortable - even in those places where we all slept in the same room; and the weather was gloriously sunny and hot - VERY hot.
Our first stop on the fun-filled American Adventure was Maplewood, NJ where Martin and Jen, the parents of Sadie's good friend Zellie, graciously opened their beautiful South Orange home to our overtired and jet-lagged selves. It is no small task taking on a family of four for five days, particularly when 2 of those are toddlers content to wake up at 2:30 am ready to start the day. Sadie and Parker truly enjoyed their time there, wreaking havoc on little Zellie's toy room, and reacquainting themselves with the suburban life. By the end of our time there Sadie had (almost) gotten over her fear of squirrels and dirt, though she still harbors a deep suspicion of cats, dogs, bees, sheep, and inexplicably, waves. Andrew worked from NY and Boston while we were in the NY area and I spent our time dragging the kids all over NJ catching up with good friends and former (and future) neighbors.
Despite my fear that Sadie's newly acquired car-sickness would "dampen" our experience traveling down the NJ turnpike, we nonetheless rented a car to get to Andrew's parents' house in DC. Owing once again to the power of Mickey Mouse and the iPad, the drive was without incident. Again, the weather was blazingly hot and sunny and we spent our days at the playground, the Building Museum, the Cleveland Park Pool and the best community pool ever - that in Peter and Jes's neighborhood Mt. Rainier. It was so great to be amongst
the warmth of family and the kids were in heaven with Meme, Pepe, Aunt Jes, Uncle Peter (for a very brief half-day) but especially with their cousins, Jasper and Josie.
One highlight of our trip back home was a four-day jaunt to the beautiful, scenic, private community at Scientist Cliffs, MD. Jessica somehow managed to secure a rustic 3-bedroom cabin on the cliffside of the Chesapeake Bay, with stunning views and a precipitous drop off to the beach below. Between the five adults and Jasper, who we paid 25 cents for every 15 minutes of "Parker duty", we managed to keep Parker alive, with only a few bloody incidents. And for the first time, Sadie and Josie really played together, (unfortunately to the exclusion of Parker and Jasper), so much so that I barely had any contact with Sadie for the four days that we were there. Well, except for the time she locked herself in one of the bedrooms and Andrew had to scale the side of the house to rescue her.
We've never been the type of people to stay in one place for very long. Next stop: Buffalo!
My Dad picked us up at the airport and (after a quick dinner at that great American standard, Cracker Barrel) took us back to his own little corner of paradise in Lewiston, NY; which as far as I'm concerned is basically in Canada. I refer to it as paradise with no tongue in my cheek, it has all the attributes for a relaxing vacation. Big spacious rooms, comfortable beds, jacuzzi tub, in-house chef (Dad), free babysitting services(Dad and Diana), heated outdoor swimming pool, a playroom stocked with generations of toys, and Sadie's favorite part: Dora the Explorer DVDs. The day after our arrival we hosted the Fifth Annual Blersch Wingfest - a gluttonous affair with copious amounts Buffalo wings (as the name implies), beer, and pizza.
Our week in Buffalo/Niagara Falls included a trip to my Aunt and Uncle's farm to "ride" the horses, (oh yeah, Sadie and Parker are terrified of horses too); the Carousel Museum (not afraid of those horses, thankfully); Olcott Beach -- a wonderful toddler-friendly amusement park; Niagara Falls; Fort Niagara; lots of time spent with Dave, Stacey, cousin Emma and the newest addition to the Blersch clan, Audrey; and visits with the family matriarch, GiGi (my 91 year old Grandmother).
I am SO thankful to have had this time back home. It is as if I harvested all the love and support from my friends and family to renew my energy for another year (or two!) in London. But more so than that, we realised that WE MADE IT through 2 of the most difficult years possible with young kids. Sadie and Parker were so well-behaved and incredibly fun to travel with: so much so that when we made it back to London, after one failed attempt to leave Buffalo which sent us back to Dad's for two extra days, we took off again for a family vacation, just the four of us, up to Derbyshire, England.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Winding down on Year One

We are headed back to the US for a bit (a week each in NJ, DC and Buffalo) as we approach the one year anniversary of our move accross the pond. We're excited to see everyone, and to experience a bit of "real" summer (perhaps a little too real, it's been well over 100 degrees in NY the last few days).

We've been in a decent groove the past few weeks... activities have included our first garden party (which was a total rain-out but was good fun anyway), Sadie's 'graduation' from school, my (low-key) birthday,  a few excursions out of town such as to Hatfield House (pictured, below, with Henry Moore statue and human imiatator), some cultural activites such as the First Prom concert and War Horse, and plenty of the usual trips to playgrounds, ballet, etc.

One highlight has been Sadie's reaching of the age of 3 and the nearly simultaneous lifting of her terrible two-ness... both Karen and I have noticed a dramatic decrease in tantrums and increase in helpfulness and aggreability! Just as Parker has shown signs of a move int he reverse direction, although he's just too good natured a kid (so far at least) to really be called a terrible anything.

For me, work has been good but busy... and frankly I'm ready for a break.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Comings and goings

It's been a whirlwind couple of weeks, with 42 Eton Avenue being quite the crossroads lately. After returning from Kazakhstan for the weekend I turned around and hit the road again for a few days in Europe. Before I had made it back, my mom had arrived for a 5-day visit; Karen had hopped a flight back to to Buffalo (via Toronto) for a long weekend with her nieces (one of whom is shiny and new); and our friend Martin from South Orange had spend the night on our sofa. Around the time I got back, my dad also arrived. In an apparently unrelated development, Andrea the nanny fell ill. Chaos! The only constants throughout were Sadie & Parker, who took most of the changes in stride, although they were a little more clingy towards me than usual. It was tough for them to be away from Karen for so long... whenever I mentioned her name, Parker would start howling.

But they were happy to spend time with Meme and Pepe, and we were blessed with a warm summery weekend, which meant a long walk around Hampstead Heath, a trip to the Parliament Hill paddling pool and picnic with Adam & Lucy, visiting Gillian from Boston. And thanks to the grandparents I even got some welcome pub time with Adam down at The Washington, the neighborhood watering hole. 

Parents flew to Athens this morning, and Karen flew in this afternoon (after what sounds like a great trip but miserable return journey)... and life is slowly returning to normal, at least for a few weeks. 

Sunday, 19 June 2011

On the road: Kazakhstan

I'm writing this on a long flight from Astana back to London (via Moscow) so this one is a little long, read on at your own risk....

Although Borat helped to make Kazkahstan a household word, the movie didn't do much for knowledge about the actual country... as such, not many people have much of idea where the place is (although it's not hard to find on a map, the country is very large), much less anything about what is there. But that's forgivable: Kaz is landlocked, far from any population centers, bordered by tall mountains and politically unstable/repressive countries. And flying over it for a couple of hours now, I can say that there is not a whole lot there. Lots of flat, arid, open plain (steppe). I can see a few dots down there, maybe they're camels.

This is not an easy country to get to from London. Only one airline flies there direct (BMI), and only three times a week, using a small plane that needs to stop in Moscow to refuel. On Monday afternoon I boarded this flight and touched down in the capital of Almaty in the early hours on Tuesday morning (8 hours travel plus 6 hours time difference). As we approached, the first rosy touches of dawn were appearing over the massive, snow-peaked Tian Shan mountains overlooking Almaty. A beautiful sight.

This was my first visit to Kazakhstan in over 15 years, and it felt like a sort of homecoming... this was where I had my first "real" job, in 1993. Having gone to Moscow as an English teacher after I finished college in late 1992, I managed to get hired by Deloitte & Touche Moscow as a "management consultant". I write this in quotes because as a comparative literature major I didn't know th first thing about management, or consulting, or business, although I did speak Russian reasonably well. But my employer wasn't too concerned about what I knew or didn't know: they paid me a local Russian salary ($300/month) and imediately charged me out as an expat specialist ($1000/day). By the time anyone figured out I was clueless they'd have made a lot of money off of me. At that time, all the consulting firms were swamped with projects from the World Bank and USAID to help the post-Soviet countries set up market economies. Two days after I started, with not much explanation I was sent down to join a project in Kazakhstan to help the government sell off small state-owned businesses to the private sector.

I remember my first arrival into Almaty well, because the managing partner in Moscow had given me $10,000 in cash to bring down to the project manager in Almaty (at the time bank transfers didn't really work). I was scared stiff that someone would steal this money from me, which would mean the failure of my first assignment and the demise of my budding career. For some reason, the Aeroflot flight I took that day didn't go directly to Almaty as it was supposed to, but instead made an unscheduled stop in another small city (Karaganda). The plane landed, slowed to a halt and everyone was asked to get out of the plane on the tarmac without further explanation. People got out and milled around on the runway, smoking and chatting casually. It was a mixed crowd of Kazakhs, mostly older men with leathery skin, and a few Russians; needless to say no foreigners. The old Tupelev just sat there on the runway; it was the only plane in sight, the airport was deserted. No one seemed particulalry surprised or concerned about the delay, but I was very anxious that someone would walk up to me, grab my briefcase and walk away. No one seemed to be paying attention to me, but I could not help feeling that my bag was glowing red and flashing "this American has lots of cash". After about an hour we filed back into the plane, which took off and arrived in Almaty a few hours later. At that point, I was able to relax: a driver was waiting for me on arrival with my name on a panel, making me feel quite important. I arrived at the office and dutifully delivered the stack of cash to my manager.

That delivery of cash was probably my most important contribution to Kazakhstan's privatization program. Over the next 6 months I travelled to a number of cities accross Kazakhstan (as I mentioned, it's a big country), did a lot of interpreting for visiting consultants from various countries, helped set up regional offices, spent time getting to know staff and local government workers, took hours of leisurely lunches and dinners, drank quite a bit of vodka, and was introduced to Kazakh culture and customs. But at no time was it clear to me, nor I think to my bosses, what we were suposed to be doing there. The idea was that we were to help facilitate the sale of various businesses -- barber shops and grocery stores -- to local entrepreneurs. The problem was that, after 80 years of communism, there weren't any local entrepreneurs, and anyone looking to become one was unlikely to have money or expertise. In any case, the local political elite (all former community party leaders), who seemed to find our presence amusing if slighly annoying, had long ago decided to lay claim to the assets for themselves and their friends.

Not that any of that mattered for me, it was all good fun. Over that time, I saw some remarkable scenery, from jagged snowy mountaintops to windswept steppe to the sandy beaches of the Caspian. I improved my Russian, learned a little Kazakh, and made some great friends, both expats -- such as Dennis, my friend now in Sedona, Arizona -- and locals. My best Kazakh buddy from that period was Beibit, who also worked as a consultant for Deloitte and like me was just starting his career. Like many Kazakhs, Beibit was quiet and softspoken guy, but he was indispensable for us: he spoke reasonable English and knew the lay of the land. Of our team of five (1 Kazakh, 3 Russians and me) the expat bosses treated me as the authority figure as I was an American, but over time it became clear that it was Beibit who got anything done that needed to be done.

I had dinner with Beibit on Wednesday night, seeing him for the first time in all these years. In brief, he's done well for himself, and is something of a poster child for the path to success in post-Soviet Kazakhstan. After I left in 1994, he stayed with Deloitte and Touch and eventually made partner, then moved to a big local bank where he is now in top management. He's involved in a dizzying array of business ventures across Central Asia (including his own citrus plantation and juice company) and is even investing in Florida real estate.

Like Beibit, Kazakhstan is doing pretty well these days. They've got a lot of oil (a lot) plus heaps of gold, uranium and other natural resources. Almaty is far more prosperous than I remember it (fancy boutiques abound) but is still a charming, relatively low key city with lots of trees and great views of the mountains. After a couple of days I flew to Astana, the 15-year-old capital built in the middle of the steppe, which is a remarkable, crazy place: a smaller, Central Asian version of Dubai, mixed with a dose of Las Vegas. This is where the serious oil money is being spent. All kinds of wild audacious new architecture and over-the-top shopping malls (including one with an indoor beach). Fascinating, beautiful country... but a serious trek.

OK, running low on battery power... looking forward to getting home!

before and after...

Monday, 6 June 2011


OK I'm no rocker, but I've been to a few good shows in my time. U2, the Joshua Tree. Sting, Dream of the Blue Turtles. David Bowie, the Glass Spider (what was that??). To that must now be added, topping the list, Wiggles: 20th anniversary tour. The Hammersmith Apollo rocked and rocked... although it's amazing to me, now that I don't get out as much, just how young kids look at concerts these days...

Sunday, 29 May 2011


Our Sedona Rose turned 3 last week. Although this event may not have been met with the fanfare she had hoped for (party with all her friends; clowns; gifts including a cat and/or a goldfish), this was made up for by the trans-Atlantic visit of her grandmother Meme, as well large quantities of sugar-dosed cupcakes made by her mom.

We all celebrated this event with gusto. The past year has brought many fantastic moments with Sadie: who is, to her father's completely unbiased eye, an incredibly bright, interesting, funny, verbal and charming little girl, not to mention a (mostly) caring and attentive sister to her little brother. But Sadie is also a handful, and we have had our fare share of "terrible two"-ness this year. It's a tough age for most kids, I know (thus the term)... but I think the combination of having a brother before reaching age 2 and then moving to a new country/environment before reaching age 3 has made this all a tougher phase for her. There is something about the transition from fully dependent baby to more independent child that is a real struggle for Sadie. Karen's theory, which makes sense to me, is that the birth of Parker forced her to grow up faster than she was willing to do, and many of her emotional struggles seem to revolve around her fighting a rearguard battle to claim back her lost baby-ness... resulting in lots of tears along the way. (If that sounds rather psychoanalytical, chalk it up to our living a few blocks from the Freud's London home.) In any case, we're hoping that this year brings a bit of emotional settling for her.

My mom's other reason for coming to London was a "granny nanny" visit (her term) to allow Karen and me to take a weekend trip to France for my business school reunion in Fontainebleau, France.  We took the Eurostar and drove a further hour south to spend a decadent weekend of fine dining, sleeping in a real live chateau/hotel, a black tie ball in a mega chateau (Chateau de Fontainebleau) and a morning in Paris before hopping the train back on Sunday afternoon. It was a delightful weekend. I was a bit disappointed that not more of my better friends from INSEAD actually made it to the reunion, but Karen & I certainly enjoyed getting decked out for a serious night of Euro-glamour.