French emergency

As I dropped Leo off this morning at the hallowed Chelsea training ground in Cobham I was more than usually relived. It is always a joy dropping him off at any sporting venue, but this was particularly poignant because only a few days ago he was lying in hospital with a gas mask on having a false toe-nail sewn on to his middle toe. And for two days after that he was hobbling about on crutches.
On our last evening in France he was racing around a beach-front restaurant when he caught his foot between some floorboards and his toenail came off. I immediately decided to take him home but a wise man at the dinner suggested I go to hospital with him. IMG_0135Turns out it was much the right thing to do. A toe-nail that has been ripped from its home will apparently not grow normally again unless treated. And actually seeing the damage in the hospital lights made me realise how serious it was. As always the French hospital experience (apart from my little boy suffering of course) was incredible. Say what you like about the French, the horrendous taxes and so on but I know where I’d rather lose a toenail. As Leo lay with a gas mask on telling me he loved me and giggling in between brief stabs of pain as the needle went in with the anaesthetic into his toe, one of the nurses asked me what I do. I told her I am a journalist and a writer.
“Oh we had a lovely lady in here on my first day,” she said. “She came in with her daughter and wrote a whole article about us in the Sunday Times.”
I asked her when it was. She told me it was in 2005.
“That was me!” I said. I had been in with Bea who had a very nasty splinter that looked like taking over her entire foot. At least I thinkĀ  that was incident. I have been there so many times with poor Bea it could have been that or the torch on the head incident or the dehydration episode etc etc.
As we left she said goodbye. “This is my last day,” she told us. “So you were here for my first day and my last.” She said she was going off to do “something else”.
I was of not happy to be there on either occasion but as far as hospital visits go, they were both as good as they get.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2013

I vow to thee my country…

It is a truth universally acknowledged that only a foreigner (like me) can have such a ridiculously romantic view of England. I am at my happiest when in England, especially now with Wimbledon in full swing, the sun shining and Pimm’s flowing. When I am away I yearn for her green fields, M and S and the Daily Telegraph. In Abu Dhabi I shop at a pale imitation of the real Waitrose even though it is at least twice as expensive as anywhere else because it makes me feel “at home”. IMG-20130608-00333
Despite being half Italian and half Swedish, home for me is England. The minute I land here I feel at ease. I remember when I first came here as a seven year old telling my mother how friendly everyone was. Amazingly I don’t think that has changed, even if a few other things have. The food for example, has got so much better. And pubs! I just LOVE pubs now. When I was growing up they were dark, dingy places full of people drinking lager and eating salt & vinegar crisps. Now they’re like wine bars only with Sky Sports.
When we decamped to France in the year 2000 my aunt told me I should be wary about leaving my culture behind. At the time I was more focused on moving from a small house opposite a car park to a glorious villa in the middle of nowhere with a swimming pool. But her words stayed at the back of my mind and although I don’t regret moving for a moment, we gave the children the very best start in life there, I knew there would come a time when we had to get back to our “culture”. You see unlike a lot of British expats, I really didn’t want my children growing up to be French and thinking Napoleon was a good bloke. I love hearing them speak French, they sound gorgeous, but actually before we left for Abu Dhabi (which of course has more in common with England than France) they were turning into little French people I was worried I would not be able to relate to.
Living in Abu Dhabi where English is spoken everywhere and most of our friends are English meant they got back in touch with their roots a little more. And then we took the monumental decision to send them back to England to school. Looking back on it, it was possibly slightly nutty. What would we have done if they had loathed it, called us up crying every five minutes and refused to learn anything at all?IMG-20130503-00252
Happily it could not have gone better. They are blissfully happy. Of course in my view they jolly well should be. I want to be at an English boarding school with its beautiful green acres, tennis courts and surrounding woods. They have already made really good friends, their reports vary from truly excellent to rather middling, but nothing disastrous.
The other day Rupert said jokingly to Leo; “Well, we may be able to afford the school fees next term, looks like your mother is going to do some work for once.” Leo did not find this amusing. His eyes filled with tears. “Can’t you pay the fees next term?”
They seem to have embraced the English way of life as only a foreigner can.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2013

The French role model (again)

Just after Christmas we went to a party at the home of a French family we are quite friendly with. Like us, they have three children aged between nine and 13. Unlike us, these children look and behave like they have leapt straight from the pages of a ‘how to bring up perfect children’ manual.
When we arrived, instead of cowering in the corner in their hoodies like any self-respecting English teenager the three of them stood in line to kiss us bonjour. They were dressed immaculately, in the kind of clothes that my girls would refuse to even try on if bribed, their hair was washed and nicely combed. They spent half the party handing food around to the guests and the other half performing a perfect recital. The little girl is already a Grade 4 pianist and she is only 11. My 13 year old is still struggling with Grade 1. Their son, aged nice, plays the flute perfectly and the oldest girl is a cellist.
I left the party deeply depressed. As if dealing with perfect French women isn’t enough, we now have to compete with their impeccable offspring too.
I remember when we lived in France being endlessly furious with our children who would run around restaurants like they were football pitches, while their French contemporaries sat at the table calmly eating their snails and probably discussing the benefits or otherwise of existentialism. There was one particularly bad occasion when Olivia was only about four and we were told by the neighbouring table that our daughter was clearly too young to be taken out to lunch. I think they felt the same way about her parents.
There is now a book out called something like ‘French children don’t throw food’ that purports to teach us all how to bring up perfect little people who will instinctively know how to tie a scarf and shrug in that Gallic manner. I do have it, but have not yet dared read it for fear that it is all too late. Maybe I was supposed to tie them to a chair with my scarf at an early age to get them used to sitting still?
Anyway they are all off to boarding school in a few weeks’ time, that marvellous British institution that will teach them, if nothing else, how to wield a lacrosse stick and not be a sneak.
Admirable qualities some other nations could do with a bit more of. Even if they can sit still at lunch.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2013

In search of a school……

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a middle-class mother in possession of daughters must be in want of a school. Or at least an expat middle-class mother who is utterly horrified at the level of education on offer where she lives. Next week the girls and I set off from Abu Dhabi to England for interviews and exams at various public schools.
Having been turned down out of hand by the school their half sister went to on the basis of an exam they took (I even told said school they would fail it), I figured the only way to get them in is for them to actually meet the people who make the decisions and hope they spot the potential in them.
I also need to show them the benefits of an English school, because they are less than convinced that it is the right move for them. Let’s face it, why would they want to go anywhere. Here they start school early (7.30) but by 2.30 they are finished for the day, and they rarely have homework. So instead of doing prep or careering across a frozen lacrosse pitch they are in their rooms, on their laptops. Which might seem like a nice thing to do, but will of course eventually turn their brains to mush and they will be no use to anyone.
I am also aware that being a teenager in a place where drinking and relations with the opposite sex are illegal may not be ideal. I was brought up in Sweden where both are practically obligatory.
When I was about 15 I had a male friend to stay. In the morning, my mother came into my bedroom to ask if I’d like a cup of tea. The boy had by then left.
“No thanks,” I said.
She was about to shut the door, then poked her head around again. “Did you lose your virginity?” she asked, as casually as if she were asking what time I was going to get up.
“NO!” I yelled, utterly horrified. I was an extremely conservative teenager, and my virginity was not even up for discussion, least of all with my mother.
“Oh,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “Why not?”
But the main reason I would like the girls to go to an English school is that I really don’t feel here they’re getting as much out of life here as they could be doing. They’re just not INTERESTED in anything. Nothing seems to have captured their imagination. Not art, nor drama, nor sport. OK so Bea is a fanatical Chelsea fan, which is commendable, but I would like it if they actually did something and excelled at it.
Of course some of that is down to them, but I also believe children need inspiring, and they need exciting role models to show them the way. I can tell them to read a book a thousand times, but coming from me, their natural instinct is to ignore it. The other day Rupert asked Bea what book she was reading. “Facebook,” she replied in all seriousness.
Time to move on girls…..

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2013

Lawyers, orphans and the pathetic Mr Putin

Several years ago,when I was still editing the magazine Central European (a must-read) I used to travel to Russia every few weeks to write a supplement we ran called Russiamoney. This was back in the early 1990s when Russia was just opening up, and there were fortunes to be made overnight. I remember meeting one future oligarch in a Moscow bar. After our chat, he was going off to buy a flat with three suitcases of cash. And today, as I read about the pathetic Mr Putin’s reaction to the law passed in the US banning visas for officials implicated in the hideous death of the whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky (pictured here), I am reminded of another encounter I had, this time on a plane from St Petersburg to London.
I had spotted the family at the airport. The attractive blond parents with their two daughters, kitted out entirely in Osh-Kosh. The kids running rings around them, the parents trying to remain calm.
“How spoilt,” was my silent reaction as I buried my nose in my book. These were the days before I had children, and I assumed that as a parent you would be able to control your offspring.
I was horrified to see when I sat down on the plane that they were behind me. I cursed my stupidity in forgetting my walkman (yes, it really was that long ago) and settled down grimly in preparation for a long flight.
The first thing the children did was repeatedly take the plane phone out of its cradle and shove it back in, bashing my seat every time they did it. And they argued, and fought and shouted and screamed and didn’t sit still for more than 30 seconds at a time.
After an hour I could take no more. I turned around and snapped at the ineffectual mother:
“Can you please control your children?”
“They’re pretty good…” she began
“No they’re not,” I interrupted.
“They’re pretty good,” she continued,” considering they left an orphanage this morning.”
Needless to say, this shut me up. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I had no idea.” She told me their story. They were daughters of a drug addict, prostitute mother. The reason they had been allowed to leave Russia to move to the US with their adoptive parents was due to medical reasons. The older girl sister had suffered 80 per cent burns on her body protecting the little ones from the flames that engulfed their home and killed their mother, who had fallen asleep holding a lit cigarette. The item they had been fighting over was a small wooden box filled with sweet wrappers.
“It’s their favourite toy,” their new mother told me. “In fact, it’s their only toy.”
She showed me some of the older girls’ scars, she must have been only seven or eight years old, they were horrific and covered her whole back, her neck and her arms. Her little sister was around four years old.
The couple already had two teenage children of their own; healthy, happy girls, and they felt very strongly they should do something to help those less fortunate. The mother was well aware of the potential problems that lay ahead, not least that the girls spoke no English, and they spoke no Russian. But they were willing to risk their stable, secure lives to bring in two girls who would otherwise have spent their lives in a dank orphanage and then possibly gone the same way as their mother. And these are the kinds of children Putin is punishing because he is angry that someone has pointed out that murdering innocent lawyers in jail is not the done thing if you want to be part of the civilised world? What a coward.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Angst, what angst?

I hated being a teenager. I was utterly angst-ridden. Not so much in the existentialist ‘why am I here?’ department, but just about everything else. I was too skinny, too foreign (at the time practically the only brown-haired, brown-eyed girl in the whole of Sweden) and too different (mad Italian father, divorced parents, strange surname).
Bea asked me yesterday if I always thought I would get married and have children (she is 12 now, so probably just about to embark on various angst-ridden phases). I had to think about her question, and couldn’t say with all honesty that I did. All I really know is that I decided very early on that if I ever did get married and have children, I would give them the kind of upbringing I wished I had; so two parents, no divorces, stability and routine. And definitely no psychos.
I remember my stepfather yelling at me when I was about 19 years old. “You’re so bloody middle class,” he shouted. “I can just see you in years to come, married to some bloke called Rupert, loving in Wiltshire waving off your kids to boarding school.”
“What’s wrong with that?” was my reaction (which of course I didn’t dare to voice). “Sounds ideal.”
I did marry someone called Rupert, and although we don’t live in Wiltshire (and yes I do wish we did sometimes), the children may soon be going to boarding school. Of course that is now a source of angst for me, because I can’t imagine what it will be like without them, but more on that another time.
I hope we have succeeded in providing the kind of stable background that at least reduces the horror of teenage angst. So far the girls seem balanced, happy and able to talk to me if anything is worrying them.
As for Leo, there really isn’t much existentialist angst there I’m happy to say. As Rupert put it the other day: “Why am I here? I am here to score goals for Chelsea.”
There can be no greater aim….

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Big children, big problems

When Olivia was about five, she came rushing into my office one evening.
“Mummy,” she said, gesticulating wildly. “There’s a big, big problem. I dropped the torch and Bea’s got blood.”
This was no normal torch. It was one of those massive American fire-fighter torches, and she had dropped it from the top bunk, on to Bea’s forehead. She was lying in the bottom bunk.
We rushed to the local hospital, where Bea was stitched up. She still bears the scar. I remember telling someone about it at the time about the accident. “Little children, little problems,” they told me. “Big children, big problems.” Great I thought, there’s something to look forward to.
I am beginning to see what they mean. Bea (with Harry Potter-style scar, pictured below) and her sister are now 11 and 13 respectively. Tomorrow they are going on a school trip to Singapore. Yes, I know, on my school trips we got to go to a mustard factory in rural Sweden (I am not joking). But these days, they get to go on a football tour of Singapore.
I know while they are away I will sleep uneasily. I always sleep uneasily when they are not in the house. And I dread that call from a teacher/hospital/policeman. I suppose this worrying never goes away. And with good reason.
We have just got back from Oman. Bea broke the news to me as I was lying on a sun-lounger at The Chedi ( a most heavenly place) that she had been in a car accident.
“I’m fine,” she told me. “The driver had a stroke and stopped and so the car behind went into us.” She also helpfully sent me a picture of the smashed-up car.
I knew the answer before I asked the question. “Were you wearing your seat-belt?”
Silence. “I was about to put it on.”
At least when she was little, I would have been there to put it on for her.
She is fine, a bit of whiplash, but fine. And I hope this has taught her that however boring I am about the seat-belt, I am right.
Maybe it will make her listen to me a bit more, and avoid other big problems in the future. Probably not, but as a perpetually worried parent, you live in hope….

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

What I did in my holidays

I remember when I was at school we used to have to write an essay at the beginning of term about our summer holidays. I could never really think about much to write, except of course for the summer when my mother and I escaped from her third husband in her purple Ford Cortina and drove from England to Italy to meet my real father.

This summer we did so much I don’t really know where to begin. We started in London and ended in London, but in between went to Paris, Sainte Cecile, (our house in the south of France) Yorkshire and Scotland. Miraculously I was able to work from everywhere and I can’t see a situation where I will be forced to spend the summer here again.

We played the ‘what was the best bit’ game on the way back to Abu Dhabi, and all of us found it impossible to pick one thing. But among the highlights were:

The Chelsea football school and winning player of the week (Leo)

Being at Sainte Cecile (Bea)

Eating duck in Chinatown (Olivia)

Playing golf at his club and lunch at le train bleu (Rupert, see below pic)

My highlights included; food shopping at Waitrose (yes, I am a boring middle- class woman whose idea of a good time is spotting a box of Bendick’s bittermints or full-fat Organic Devon milk), realising how much I love Sainte Cecile as a holiday home, seeing friends (best thing of all actually, even better than the Bendick’s), travelling on London buses just gazing out of the window at the shops and life on the street, playing tennis on the most beautiful grass court ever in the English summer sun in Yorkshire, two visits to Stamford Bridge to watch us win (as well as Frank Lampard warming up just in front of me).

I was in a total panic about coming back here, desperate for something to happen to make it possible for me to stay there. But now I’m here, I’m pleased to be home. The kids are pleased to be back too, although Bea was apparently the only child in her class who said so.

The children loved England, and they seemed totally at home roaming around London on the buses and tubes, going shopping and meeting friends. Next year the plan is to send them all to school there, which I’m really happy about. I want them to have strong links to Europe, not just because our friends and family are there, but because eventually they will live there.

But for the moment it is a place we go for our holidays, and I can’t wait for the next one.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Chelsea-Paris-Sainte Cecile-Bramham-Eaton Square

On Monday the children and I head off on our travels until August 31st. This will be the first time in four years that I will have been away for the summer. We arrived in August 2008 and since then, even if the girls have been able to escape for much of July and August thanks to my mother, we have been here. Poor Leo has had a very lonely birthday every year on July 20th with just us to celebrate with, along with maybe one other unfortunate friend who is not away.
Today is Friday, our weekend, and the children have only been outside to go to lunch or the mall. It is so hot you can’t walk anywhere, even once the sun goes down. Leo is going stir crazy, one day after school has ended. Yesterday afternoon he has his final football session, it was a bit like sauna soccer.
Hence the reason for escaping. We begin in London where we stay for a couple of weeks, then we go to Paris for two days followed by Sainte Cecile for a three-week stint. I always used to think Sainte Cecile in August was boiling hot, but it will probably seem quite temperate after here. After France the kids and I head up to my friends at Bramham while Rupert comes back to work, and then we all meet again at a lovely place we’ve rented in Eaton Square before flying back to Abu Dhabi and the start of school.
For those of you who remember the belle maison, the sad news is that we didn’t get it, so we won’t be heading there. I was heartbroken at the time, but have got over it, and it will be interesting to see how we all feel about our old home, which we were going to sell in order to buy it.
When we left Leo was only four, a tiny boy dressed in a Spiderman suit, and the girls were still very much children. They are coming back as different people. Olivia is thirteen, Bea almost twelve, young ladies really.
Bea is most excited about going to Sainte Cecile, while Olivia is desperate to go to London. Rupert is also looking forward to going home to France, and Leo is really excited about the Chelsea soccer school he is going to for the second week of July. I’m just looking forward to getting away from the heat, any of the above suits me. But it will be lovely to celebrate Leo’s birthday at home, surrounded by friends, fine wine, good food and maybe even a football match on the lawn.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Leo’s view of us all

I meant to post this ages ago. One night during dinner we asked Leo to describe in one word what he thought of us all. Here are the results:
Mormor (my mother) – never ageing
Nirosa (our housemaid) – kind
Olivia (sister) – trouble
Bea (sister) – capricious (long word for such a small boy)
Mamma (me) – beautiful
Granny (Rupert’s mother) – posh
Grandpa (Rupert’s father) – funny
Daddy – astonishing
Hugo (brother) – amusing
Julia (sister) – sweet
Uncle Tim (Rupert’s brother) – sensible
Uncle Si (Rupert’s other brother) – enthusiastic
Benedetto (my father) – a character
Norrie (family friend) – optimistic
Mary (Norrie’s wife) – calm
Leo – sexy!

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012