Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

October, 2011

October, 2011
Chess in Lausanne, Switzerland

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Off to Italy!

Quick update to say Merry Merry to all! We're off to Italy for Christmas in Venice, no complaints there. (Provided we get out of London...British Airways' potential strike caused me pause. Thankfully worry didn't consume much of me; I realized we were ticketed w/ BA the day before the strike talks finalized. Benefits of travel agent buffer and ignoring pertinent documents until the 11th hour.)

Past strike issues, the weather did manage to mangle Eurostar and has grounded several families we know. White Christmas is lovely when indoors w/ lit tree, fire crackling, eggnog in hand, etc. Outward bound? Not so much.

We've had a lovely Christmas prep week with Claire wrapping up school Friday (short day followed by lunch w/ friends and a send off to a lovely family we'll dearly miss).

And we celebrated Claire's birthday at school on Thursday -- nice to celebrate her big day before, during and after the holidays, as has become our routine.

Our weekend was lovely, catching up w/ friends for dinner, shopping, sleeping in. And Monday found us having lunch w/ Joe, a rarity given school/work schedules. In the evening Claire and I trudged through our 2 inches of snow (yes, really, but that really wet sloppy kind that ties traffic up in knots) to attend the Olympia Horse Show.

It's a fabulous must-see event (the horse show, not the snow), even for those of us non horse lovers. (I don't dislike horses but given the choice I'd hop on a bicyle or something w/ a motor.) BUT Claire is all about horses, dogs, etc. so this event was WAY up her alley -- horse competitions/horse entertainment plus dog agility competitions. It was the grand finale event so the horsemanship was truly amazing, 15 tight -- and high -- jumps in short timeframe w/ the world's best riders. Olympic medalists, the whole bit.

In addition we were entertained by the London Metropolitan horse police patrol; they are fabulous horsemen and women, putting on a great show through dozens of obstacles, rings of fire, taking off their spurs and saddles while riding around the arena, etc.

And last, Santa made his appearance, pulled in on a carriage by white horses, naturally.

Lovely event and we made our way back home through slush at midnight.

Today we whistled stuff into suitcases, cleaned out the fridge (well let's get real, the freezer -- I abhor coming home to rotten food!) and zipped off w/ friends to Santa's Christmas Cracker at Prince Albert Hall. It was a gorgeous Christmas concert featuring fabulous singing and orchestra talent, plus a very family-friendly, funny Santa as emcee. The entire crowd was pulled into dancing, singing, even manufacturing jingle bell sounds vis a vis keys and coins. The kids seemed to very much enjoy it, as did I.

And now we prepare to change up the scenery for Christmas Italian style.

However you celebrate, enjoy and more to come in 2010!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Blog recovery

I’m going to attempt a blog recovery. It’s only been a month, after all (yipes a lot can happen in a month).

We are in the throes of Christmas and I’m very behind but really, Christmas will come whether I get presents or not, whether I make or buy Christmas pudding (getting into the English thing – anything dripping in aged brandy must be good, right?) or whether the house gets decorated.

Naturally I have my priorities: eggnog lattes, enjoying the lights, toasting the season w/ friends.

Since November 15 we’ve been busy, as Mom and Dad were here until Dec. 4. They seemed to enjoy London and some of its surrounding environs. A few highlights…
The first week of their visit I took them to Kensington Palace on a lovely, breezy fall day. We wandered through the museum and Lady Di dress exhibits, then through the apartments open to the public. And then on to the grounds for a bit; Kensington has the loveliest gardens and pond so it’s always a nice excursion.

From Kensington we hit Whole Foods (yes, I know, it’s HQ is in the U.S.; I have fond memories of the flagship store in Austin). But since Whole Foods 1) isn’t in Montana and 2) has fabulous soup (among other things) we caught a bite of lunch, then perused the store a bit before heading home.

Also that week I got to chaperone Claire’s class to the Central London Mosque, the largest Mosque in the UK, which is within a 10-minute walk from our house.

Lovely building with a gorgeous dome, the building can accommodate thousands (and thousands do come on special prayer days, according to our guide). Despite him apologizing all over himself again and again for the time limits of our visit, he was very good with the kids, encouraging them to throw any and all questions his way – the best way, he felt, of sharing information about the Muslim faith, the building and prayer rituals.

We got to watch people in prayer at the end of our tour; the kids got into it and were standing, kneeling, prostrating themselves…

Apparently the Mosque has two prayer halls, one for women, the other for men. We saw only the latter.

Also the Mosque has a library, as do most, according to our guide. He explained the building and its parts as a place of community for people of the Islamic faith, where they can share their sorrows and joys, expand knowledge and pray.

(In addition to having the Mosque in our neighborhood there are a number of synagogues and churches, so we’ve got the faith avenues covered. The second graders, because they’re studying faith this term, were able to visit all three.)

Mom and Dad, meanwhile, went to the British Museum. It’s an overwhelming place, but they found their way to the Native American exhibit. No doubt to make sure the Brits got the North American experience down correctly…

Another of their excursions early in their visit was an overview of London via a double decker bus. Midway through they hopped off at Westminster Abbey and got steeped in history and tradition and took a break for fish and chips at a local pub.

Impressively, they found themselves back to St. Johns Wood after the bus left them at an alternative location than their start. (They navigated the city bus network home, something I’m still sorting…)

On the Friday before Thanksgiving I took Mom and Dad down to Borough Market to enjoy the foodie experience. Great place to be this time of year – all kinds of holiday food and drink about. We checked it all out, then settled for sausage sandwiches and mulled wine at a little café.

That evening Joe and I got away to celebrate our anniversary at a local hotel (the fine Crowne Plaza – given we lived there for 4 months in India we’re big fans). We had a lovely dinner out and a nice, easy escape while kids got spoiled in safe hands!

After a splendid massage Sat. a.m., I wandered home and headed down to the Household Cavalry Museum with Mom, Dad and kids. We all enjoyed the changing of the guard (with spirited horse attempting to unseat one regally dressed young man) and the museum. Then we wandered down to Trafalgar Square, which was beginning to look festive for the holidays. There we stopped into St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a lovely church that features free concerts regularly. A group was rehearsing carols, so we listened a bit, then had tea in the Crypt Café. (Such an odd setting for a coffee bar, but inviting all the same.)

St Martin-in-the-Fields is a landmark church in the heart of London and is well known for its welcoming atmosphere, award-winning Café, popular classical and jazz concerts and historic James Gibbs architecture. It aims to be the "Church of the Ever Open Door" and has at its heart a practical and hospitable Christianity that seeks to "comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable". It holds regular church services in English, Cantonese and Mandarin and offers social care services to London's Chinese community and homeless people.

The Renewal of St Martin-in-the-Fields has created modern facilities to replace what was once a series of Victorian burial vaults, which have inadequately housed many of St Martin's services for decades. The aim of the Renewal Project is to enable St Martin's to better serve those in greatest need and to enrich people's lives through worship, social care and internationally renowned musical performances in spaces fit for the purpose.

On Sunday Joe went to his first rugby match here with friends from work. He enjoyed it, I think, though was told he’d need to attend another that was a bit livelier. Dad had a low key day; Claire elected to stay home w/ him while Mom, Ava and I hit Oxford Street for a little shopping. The lights were up for Christmas, big bright umbrellas and all kinds of colorful store lighting, giving the streets a lovely festive feeling.

On Monday, Nov. 23 Mom and Dad took an early morning bus tour to Stonehenge and Bath. It was a blustery day, so a good one to sit on a bus and be chauffeured into the countryside. They seemed to enjoy the experience and rolled in late in the evening.

Somewhere in that week Ava was up most of the night w/ an ear infection, so we had our first NHS (National Health Service) experience. And it was a good one, I must say. I called early in the day, 3 hours later Ava and I were there, waiting to be seen. After 5 minutes of waiting and no paperwork we were with a doctor who did the usual for ear pain complaints. He found one ear infected, so we left w/ a prescription for an antibiotic, had it filled 10 minutes later and were home before we knew it.

Happily, with Tylenol and amoxicillin, she trooped through the rest of the week without missing any more school. (The big Christmas concert was approaching, with her making an appearance as Dancer the reindeer, so it wouldn’t be prudent to miss practice.)

She and I escorted Mom and Dad to the Wallace Collection for a quick perusal of some of its exhibits and a light lunch (they do a lovely tea, too, I’m told. One of these days I’ll have to do that).

Mom and Dad did some shopping and cake eating we collected Claire, then met up with them again at Marks and Spencer for some food shopping. The place was a bit of a zoo; I’ll stick w/ my Waitrose.

Claire had Nov. 25 off from school, so we got to take her with us to tour the Kings Troop Barracks.

The King's Troop, Royal Horse Artillery is a ceremonial unit of the British Army. It was named The King's Troop, Royal Horse Artillery in 1947 when King George VI decided that, following the mechanization of the last batteries of horse drawn artillery, a troop of horse artillery should be kept to take part in the great ceremonies of state. So, he declared that the Riding Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery would be known as 'His Troop' or 'The King's Troop'. The King enacted his proclamation by amending the page on the visitors book of the Troop in manuscript, striking out the word "Riding" and inserting "King's". On her accession, Queen Elizabeth II declared that the name 'King's Troop' would remain in honor of her father.

The King's Troop forms part of the Household Troops and, when on parade with its guns, takes precedence over all other regiments in the regular forces of the British Army. The 13-pounder guns, named for the weight of shot, were used in World War I and are still in use today ceremonially.

Although the King's Troop is primarily a ceremonial unit, with responsibility for firing gun salutes on state occasions, it has an operational role as part of the territorial defense of the United Kingdom. The unit is most often seen providing gun salutes on state occasions in Hyde Park, and Green Park. They also mount the Queen's Life Guard at Horse Guards when the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment go away for their summer training.

We’d lived just down the road from the barracks when we first moved here and had been interested in touring the place, which we’d been told is available to the
public by appointment vis a vis letter writing.

So a few months ago I’d posted a tour request, sent an email and personally handed a letter to the guard at the front.

Some nine or 10 weeks later, after nearly giving up on the opportunity, I got a call that we could join one of three tours, all of which were to occur while my parents were in town. Thus Nov. 25 found us at the Kings Troop Barracks! And it was a great tour, with a captain showing us around, telling us about the history of the troop and how it got its name, the barracks’ origin, the guns used in processions, the harness room (featuring the special harnesses used in special processions), a museum with photos, newspaper clippings, saddles, awards, hats and other riding garb and memorabilia from the troop over the ages.

Then we got to see the horses in their stables. Many were being washed/groomed, stalls being cleaned, etc. as we wandered through. Most of the men and women working with the horses or engaged in other aspects of troop detail live on campus, so the place is larger than one would think.

The horses are organized by color (dark to light) and the largest are the officers’ horses. Each animal comes from Ireland, specially reared for the troop. On site is a horse riding school, where horses and new recruits alike receive training.
From the stables we walked through the farrier workshop, where a few horses were having shoes replaced. They go through many shoes given the amount of time they’re on pavement, we were told. (Each morning the horses are exercised early in the day – we’ve often seem them out and about around St. Johns Wood. Though this will cease and desist in 2012, when the troop moves to a new locale…)

The barracks will be replaced with housing, most of it demolished for new structures, though the riding school building must remain because it is a protected historical structure (I think it will house a pool/recreational facility in the future).

The King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery, which performs at state occasions and transported Princess Diana's casket on a gun carriage from Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey in 1997, will be moved 15 miles to Woolwich.
The troop is to be housed in the former barracks of the Royal Artillery, which will be converted to accommodate more than 100 horses.

(Apparently the troop’s future new home was vacated by the Royal Artillery in July last year.)

The tour was wonderful, and afterward we went to Carluccio’s, one of our favorite family food spots.

For Claire it was a double horse day; she had her lesson in the afternoon. Meanwhile Mom worked on some great pie crusts and an apple pie for Thanksgiving.

On Thanksgiving Day Dad, Claire and I meandered down to St. Paul’s Cathedral for a special American Thanksgiving service. It was a lovely ceremony with a big crowd. Unknowingly, we met the pastor who gave the homily before the service; he didn’t let on so we were surprised when John stepped up for the most important part of the ceremony.

After our church experience we had a decadent treat at Paul’s bakery (appropriate name, right?) across the cobblestone street from the cathedral. I really think they melt a chocolate candy bar for their hot chocolate. Not sure I’ll ever bother w/ Swiss Miss again.

Thanksgiving at the Sloan house was fabulous (friends who live in Primrose Hill). We brought our pecan and apple pies, along with sweet potatoes (per Claire’s request) over to join a lovely turkey feast. It was nice to visit with the Sloans and another American couple – the only thing missing: the football lineup.
Appropriately stuffed, we collapsed after a late night.

On Friday Claire and I went with Mom and Dad to the John Sloan Museum, described as: Former residence of Sir John Soane, architect of the Bank of England. Over 20,000 architectural drawings, antiquities and works by Hogarth, Turner, Canaletto and Piranesi. Two sets of paintings by William Hogarth and the Egyptian Sarcophagus of Seti I.

It’s a unique museum in a gorgeous house (actually more than one house so the rooms ramble and are connected in haphazard ways with lovely skylights and courtyards throughout, great staircases and other architecturally interesting aspects). There are so many things to look at it’s hard to take it all in! We did our best – I was struck by the amount of pottery and paintings, as well as furnishings throughout. Apparently recently reacquired as part of the collection is a ring w/ a lock of Napoleon’s hair in it, so we got to see that.

From Sloane we stopped at a Pret (my favorite fast food joint here – essentially a place that sells a wide array of very good deli sandwiches for takeout or eat-in) for lunch. Then Claire and I returned to SJW to collect Ava from school while Mom and Dad wandered a bit around Holburn.

In the evening they opted to stay in while Joe and I hit the Engineer (a gastropub) with, again, the Sloans. Great food for the 2nd time we’ve hit that establishment.
On Saturday Mom and I went to “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” for a matinee performance. A very well done play with an awe-inspiring cast (including James Earl Jones and the mom from the Cosby Show), it wasn’t a happy one (though did have plenty of humor throughout) but was captivating.

Mom remembered the movie w/ Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman so I suspect that added an interesting dimension.

We then met up w/ Dad and Joe (who’d been down at Covent Garden) after our 3+ hour theatre experience (long one!) at the Warrington, the old English style pub/restaurant down the hill from us. Good food, lovely environment.

The week after Thanksgiving…

One morning the folks headed off, early, on another bus tour to the Cotswolds, Oxford and Stratford. They came home late and seemed even more impressed with this tour. We’ve only been to Oxford so will have to make it to the Cotswolds and Stratford in coming months.

I, meanwhile, had a hot date w/ the builder and fridge repairman. Another deluge had hit and water was coming into the house left right and center.

I am to be plagued by plastic bags, it appears (one stuck in my car in NC led to a new engine, but that's another story) in this case a drain was clogged by a plastic bag, leading to all this water seepage (and water damage). The bag is now gone, the walls and ceiling will need to dry and eventually they’ll be repaired.

The fridge, on the other hand, appears to be a lemon; the mother board in back died to the tune of another 200 pounds…the owner and I are of the same opinion that it makes sense to buy a new one. On to the wonderful world of appliance shopping in a foreign land (where is Sears when you need one?).

With Mom and Dad’s final days in London, they were able to spend some time at the Tower of London, they did some shopping and we had a lovely tea at Fortnum and Mason, which, since 1707, “has been the quintessential English store, situated in the heart of London's Piccadilly.”

The place is a store with several floors and a few restaurants, one of which is well known for its tea. And it was every bit as lovely as the Ritz with (dare I say?) better food. And I quite liked the setting, on the 4th or 5th floor, lovely couches and comfy chairs, nice views out the windows and a quiet, elegant ambience. HUGE tea menu was nicely paired with a very knowledgeable, helpful waiter.

Fortnum & Mason is in such a nice part of town; we got to walk by the Ritz and see all the holiday décor, enjoy the ambience of Christmas exuding from restaurants, hotels and shops in the area.

Mom and Dad also got to be part of the audience at Ava’s school concert, where she did a beautiful job singing and sharing her lines as Dancer. All the kids did well, and the music was particularly good.

With that – what I view as a fitting – end to their trip, mom and dad headed to Heathrow to begin the long journey home early on Friday the 4th of December. They returned to frigid temps and were probably happy to be behind the wheel again.
Meanwhile, I threw myself into catching up at home (does anyone every really catch up in December?).

I started w/ cookie baking gathering, wherein the highlight was the potluck lunch. Some great food and company! (And I was inspired to make cookies over the weekend w/ my girls, something we haven’t done in over a year!)

Joe and I ended the week with drinks and dinner w/ friends from the UK – she’s Welsh, he’s English and their daughter is at Abercorn with Ava. We tried a different restaurant, again just over the hill, The Dining Room, which is connected to a lovely old British pub. Again, great food.

Over the weekend we relaxed a bit, the kids put more touches on the tree, which we’d snapped up the prior Sunday at our nearby home store. Artificial all the way…less likely to be a fire hazard, we’re hoping!

We also spent a little time enjoying the lights and market at Covent Garden. So many people out and about, shopping and relaxing.

On the 8th I had a holiday luncheon with the St. Johns Wood Women’s Group, a lovely event at the Dorchester Hotel. (Apparently Hugh Grant was on site earlier in the day…I missed it!)

At the Dorchester, I had my first encounter with Xmas crackers, which you see everywhere here. One crosses arms, positions one end of the cracker in one hand, the other in your seatmate’s and you pull. The items inside (which appear to be cheap trinkets, a paper hat and oftentimes a bad joke, I’m told) spew out. And of course you don the hat, which we all did as we consumed turkey or eggplant dinners. (I opted for the latter because turkey holds T’giving appeal to me, but too much of it and all I can think is the word bland.) For entertainment, in addition to our Xmas crackers, a lovely choir from ASL performed.

On that same theme, the kids and I tromped off to the London Zoo last week for member caroling event (yes, I am intent on maximizing that membership!). It was nicely done, with a few animals milling about (properly chaperoned, of course) and a lovely concert in the pavilion. The songs were all in the “Away in a Manger” category, which was nice, but I agree with Ava, we needed a few along the lines of Rudolph, Jingle Bells, We Wish You a Merry Christmas, for greater audience participation.

Ava’s last day of school was the 10th, so she enjoyed her Abercorn Xmas party on the 9th, came home loaded with gifts and chocolate. Santa’d make his appearance in her classroom; sounds like a good day had by all.

She and I had lunch at Harry’s (Jewish diner in St. Johns Wood) to celebrate the end of term on Thurs., as she was released at 11:00. Later in the day we met up w/ Claire at a friend’s for playtime and champagne. (The holidays should be appropriately celebrated!)

In the evening I joined a group of friends for a good-bye dinner as the first of our close friends is moving back to the U.S. later in the month. We’ll miss her and her kids. The meal, in addition to the company, was delicious, a lovely butternut squash soup (though it didn’t rival my friend and neighbor Amanda’s – her butternut squash soup will long live in my memory), a goat cheese pie entrée (who doesn’t love a good pastry stuffed w/ melty, yummy cheese) and capped off with my first English Christmas pudding (think very good, very rich fruit cake but not like the fruit cake we know and love to hate) that has taken a long, luxurious bath in brandy).

On Friday the 11th I joined a book group discussion of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Painful read. We enjoyed sharing insights; neat group of women. And great food, if I do say so myself (I got to help w/ food prep as my champagne-drinking friend was host; we’d cooked while the kids played the previous evening).

In the evening Joe and I went to Avenue Q, which we both enjoyed. It’s a delightful theatre production using puppets (not a kid friendly show – adult themes/humor). It is laugh-out-loud funny...and relevant.

On Saturday Claire wrapped up her first term of 1st Holy Communion prep class. We parents were invited to listen to a short re-enactment of the nativity story and carols with the class.

And on the same day the girls received invitations from Father Christmas to visit Lapland UK to help the elves prepare for Christmas!

So on Sunday morning we headed off to the train station for our journey to Kent. Tube, train and cab rides later, we found ourselves entering the forest at Lapland, escorted by elves with names like Willow and Eco (for Ecofriendly). Putting the finishing touches on rocking horses, decorating gingerbread men, posting letters to Father Christmas and enjoying a Christmas lunch were all on the agenda…the big event being, of course, a visit with Father Christmas.

For this we were escorted by an elf through a maze of paths to Father Christmas’ house, where the girls got to visit with him. He asked about things that interested them (horses, favorite colors, ballet, friends’ names, etc.), then presented them with gifts (white huskies) and us with a storybook. After our photo with Father Christmas we hit the ice-skating rink, where both girls skated for the first time.

And then on to see the reindeer (real live ones munching hay in a pen) and to listen to a story told by a little old lady housed in a big tepee with a fake campfire.
Satisfied with a magical Lapland day experience, we made our way back to London to start the week.

So far the highlights have included a great readers’ theatre presentation by the 2nd grade, which Joe, Ava and I attended yesterday morning. Claire did a nice job as narrator for her group’s script about the “willies.”

Ava and I continued to be audience members, as we had tickets to “The Gruffalo” at a theatre downtown. Great experience; we read the book en route so we were prepared! Beautiful costuming, humor, music and movement. Ideal for the 4 year old crowd (babies not so much, but that said, there were plenty of those in the audience – we heard them!).

Today the agenda includes dentist (how exciting, you say) and horseback riding. We’ll be shivering, no doubt; it’s definitely winter temps here!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Guests, Modeling and Plenty of Art

November 15, 2009

It’s Sunday evening and the smell of pop corn is in the air as my husband happily tunes into an American football game.

Really we could be home…

My parents arrived yesterday, tired and relieved to have been spit out at the arrivals area after squeezing through the airline/immigration/luggage process.
Apparently they left a frigid Montana (think icy roads, below zero temps and a dead deer on the road) to arrive in rainy, windy (but relatively warm) London.

Ava and I made our way out to Heathrow via the tube (spending our time playing two truths and a dare en route, I might add) and whisked them home in a cab.

We then took a walk through our neighborhood, had coffee at my favorite French café and hightailed it home when it got dark (which is now at 4:30).

Today they (the visitors) elected to have a low key morning, then headed off to the Winston Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms with Joe while I delivered our eldest to a birthday party.

Incidentally, the birthday guest has decided we need to take Joe to the party spot – a paint your-own-pottery place (again, we could be in the U.S. doing that too) – for his birthday. No doubt he’ll enjoy spending his big day painting Christmas ornaments.

While Claire painted and ate cake, Ava and I wandered through West Hampstead (which has a lovely café scene; we’d ended up there accidentally once…too ambitious a walk on my part). This time we’d arrived by bus, then wandered a bit until we found the right café: nice buzz but not too loud, a table with bench perched overlooking most other customers in the place and, the most important thing, a three scoop ice cream dessert for A.

So that was our weekend in a nutshell. But let me rewind.

Since Halloween the highlights have included:

A talk by Khris Nedam, who led her 6th grade class to start a school in Afghanistan. She was delightful to listen to as she shared insights on the country’s war-torn history, life in typical villages, education, the school that she was instrumental in developing, etc.

Here’s the scoop on her school:

In 1998, a group of 6th graders in Northville, MI founded Kids 4 Afghan Kids, a Michigan-based non-profit organization. Its goal is to re-establish educational facilities for boys and girls in Afghanistan and to address the desperate health conditions in which the children and their families live. In three years, these students raised enough money under the guidance of their teacher and witnessed -- via videotapes, internet and cell phones -- the construction of a six-room school, a medical clinic, an orphanage, a bakery / kitchen, a guest house and community well for the residents of Wonkhai Valley, a mountainous area three hours southwest of Kabul.

I was able to attend a speech she made at a friend’s home, and later in the week she spent some time at the American School, speaking with students and to parents about her efforts. A book sale will be held at ASL later in the school year to raise money for her efforts.

On Nov. 3 I got to attend Claire’s presentation of a book about hummingbirds. Each 2nd grader wrote and produced a book complete with cover, table of contents, pictures, captions, etc. And each was about a type of bird. Very well done!

I also got to watch as Alan, the handyman for our property, painted parts of our walls damaged by water (voracious rainstorm). I mention this because the same walls are once again in a state of disrepair from this past week’s deluge…

Somewhere in early November I was in heaven (a.k.a. Whole Foods’ fresh soup department on an empty stomach). Their potato/leek soup is out of this world.

On Nov. 5 I met up w/ the Jane Austen ladies and we discussed Persuasion, which is my current Austen favorite. In another 10 years it will be Sense and Sensibility or Emma, no doubt. Austen novels seem to morph in how they’re enjoyed and interpreted as we move through time. (The world according to yours truly.)

That same evening I had my first opportunity to visit the Courtauld, which is SO fabulous.

The Courtauld Gallery is one of the finest small museums in the world. Its collection stretches from the early Renaissance into the 20th century and is particularly renowned for the unrivalled collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings.

A group from ASL was invited to a reception there, so we met at the school and were bused to the place, wandered around looking at great art w/ champagne in our hands, then were turned over to 2 curators for in-depth discussions of permanent and visiting exhibits. Great art, great space, great presentations by both gentlemen.

On the 6th I had a lovely lunch w/ a friend at Soffra, a middle eastern restaurant in St. Johns Wood. All flavors were fabulous.

And that evening I managed, after more than an hour of waiting, tube hopping and walking, to meet up w/ a friend in town on business from Charlotte. Both victims of screwy Jubilee line transportation challenges, we eventually met up at the Tate Modern, the national gallery of international modern art. Located in London, it is one of the family of four Tate galleries which display selections from the Tate Collection. The Collection comprises the national collection of British art from the year 1500 to the present day, and of international modern art.

After wandering around there getting another art fix (some great stuff, every once in a while some really weird, twisted stuff too), we headed up to the 7th floor for a great dinner overlooking the River Thames at a great table. So nice to catch up in such a memorable, pleasant environment.

On Nov. 7 Ava and I enjoyed her school’s Halloween party (seems so wrong to be doing Halloween in November, but whatever). The kids all seemed to have a great time with Mr. Lolly in charge of entertainment (think DJ, magician, lollipop purveyor, child entertainer used by Kate Moss etc.).

Sugared up, Ava left happy, scooting home dressed in pink ballerina costume and wings.

Later in the day our American friends (same in town on business types) joined us for dinner here, then we headed off with them to see “We Will Rock You” again. I think I enjoyed it even more the 2nd time.

And Sunday I had the pleasure of going to my favorite clothing store to try on clothes for a fashion show!!!

I got (happily) sucked into being a model by the shop owner, who knows me well enough (to Joe’s delight of course).

So I spent an hour or so with her, putting together various looks – casual to dressy – with fun hats, tall boots, cool belts, etc. – to model on Tuesday.

And Tuesday was great fun; I got to the site of the show in time to help unload bag after bag of outfits/accessories, put racks together, and settle us into our dressing room -- the library of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue.

With one small mirror for five women, we donned our first outfits and sashayed around the hall as shop owner Christian talked about the clothes. After two walks up, down and around the catwalk, we stepped off for the next model and made for that Jewish library like the place was on fire to change into the next outfit. Scrambles for necklaces, hats, the right bag, etc. “Any tags sticking out? Is the hat at the right angle? More lipstick?” What fun to be with a group of frantically happy women prepping for the stage…

The only downside to this whole deal (well there are two): I wanted all the clothes I showed off (and most of what the store has that I didn’t model) and now every woman I see on a regular basis knows where I shop.

I did chuckle at many of the comments generated by my appearance there, which included: “I had no idea you were a professional model.” (Somewhere I missed a calling…clearly they were being polite but I’ll take it. Though I must admit I’m too old and not bony enough for that job.)

"I didn’t know models ate cookies." (well hello, do I look like someone who’s going to pass by dessert just because I made a one off appearance on a make shift catwalk?!?)

What fun what fun!

The following day I had a lovely coffee w/ a friend who’d been in France for a couple of weeks; we tried a new coffee shop where the hot chocolate is like liquid brownie.

I also zipped off to an Italian lunch wherein a food writer presented various vinegars and olive oils (we had great fun taste testing).

And then, in a bittersweet way, our grand finale Austen class ended with a bus trip to Bath. There we spent some time at the Jane Austen Center, had a great pub lunch, then were shown around town by a Jane Austen guide. (Jane lived in Bath for several years, and many of her novels have references to Bath). Our guide was fabulous. A lovely city, a lovely day out.

Friday I scrambled to a book group meeting to discuss The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (good book, quick read, written in letter format so it was unique). The hostess made a lovely sweet potato quiche to parallel the book title.
In the evening our neighbors came over for drinks, then joined us for dinner at a neighborhood Thai restaurant. Nice way to end the week.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween Well Celebrated in London

I'm beaming in to inform all interested parties that Halloween here for the Webers was great fun. Without Target, it did involve fewer costume and candy choices (think witches and goblins of all sizes, Mars and Milky Way galore).

Had I jumped on the Americana bandwagon and joined Costco no doubt we'd have been swimming in Halloween-ness. However, since we seem to operating just fine without whatever American food items we've been without for a year we'll continue on without them.

And on that note, can you believe it's been a year since we left Charlotte? It's been a great year of new experiences, and I like to think we've taken full advantage of our opportunity to live internationally. May we continue to enjoy the adventure!

Now back to Halloween...we got a jump on pumpkin carving so unfortunately by the time the big day rolled around ours had collapsed on themselves, looking moldy around the eyes and oozing whatever it is decomposing vegetables ooze.

HOWEVER, because the signal of Halloween participation here is a pumpkin, the kids insisted we leave ours out on the front porch. Clearly we win the grotesque house award. (Especially now that one is nearly flattened from some poor unfortunate kid sticking his foot in it.)

Claire and Ava both opted to be fairies this year because neither wanted to be a witch (at Sainsbury I sorted through all the ghoul and goblin outfits to find fairy props). So with plenty of pink, wings, wands, tiaras and sparkly shoes, they were costumed and ready to canvas the neighborhood in search of candy.

Joe took the kids out this time while I answered the door with, you guessed it, Mars and Milky Way in hand. (by the way, the mars don't have nuts in them; is that sacrilege or what?)

You cold tell the difference between the American and British trick or treaters; the former marched boldly up the stops with plastic pumpkin in hand, firmly called out trick or treat and, once treat secured, dashed off to the next house. The British kids came forward a bit more gingerly, many carrying plastic grocery bags for their candy, and most had to be prompted by parents to say "trick or treat." They seemed not to know what to do after they'd scored their candy.

Our kids and Joe came back an hour or so later with big smiles and plenty of candy. Apparently a few blocks over it was a Halloween fest, lines to get to doors and the whole bit. There's a larger concentration of Americans on some of those streets and in fact one British parent said his family drives over every year to trick or treat on that street because of the level of Halloween participation.

All of our Halloween visitors were on the young side, no egging or flour bombs or anything off color in our neck of the woods. (I'd been told and have been reading in the paper about pranks being problematic. Apparently not on our cozy little street, thankfully.)

In other Halloween goings-on this week, Claire's school had their Halloween costume parade Friday, which Ava and I attended. We also stopped in at the class party afterward. Ava, along with Claire and her classmaters, scored on a bag of treats, cupcakes and the like.

Halloween festivities will continue for Ava next week, as her school's Halloween party is November 7 (now that would clearly be a stretch in the U.S., though it's always good to get as much use out of the costume as possible).

She and I have a good fall break together. On Wed. we went to the British Museum for dead week activities. The place had some great crafts, so we hung out with friends and made all kinds of altar decor items (flours, skeletons, clay skulls, etc.). Sounds grotesque but they were all colorful and not terribly off-putting.

Claire got to hit the stables two days back to back last week, on Wed. for her lesson, Thurs. for pony day. Because she had the day off for parent/teacher conferences, she got to immerse herself in feeding, watering, washing, grooming, riding, shoveling manure, making straw beds, etc.

She and her friends were there from 10 to 4:30 and were happily exhausted -- and very smelly -- by the time we got home.

Meanwhile, I attended my Jane Austen class and Joe and I received a very good report regarding Claire's 2nd grade progress up to this point.

Ava got to spend some time at the park and ride her scooter with our lovely babysitter (who Ava's decided worries ALL the time). This would be because poor Miss Ewa is doing her best to keep her charge from falling into harm. Or falling period.

Yesterday Ava and I traipsed down to a slow food market near the Thames, sampled our way through (decadent truffles and incredible Polish salami among the highlights) and brought home some items for a chicken cacciatore dish.

Today...who knows what's on the agenda...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Blog Catch Up

Ok it’s 10:44 on Tuesday, Ava’s still in her nightie, just finished a tea party with her stuffed animals and is now working on a bead project.

I am patiently (well ok maybe patient isn’t the best word to describe me) waiting for my fine friend the refrigerator guy, who is supposed to be coming sometime between 9 and 1 to fix the infamous appliance which is downstairs dripping.

After a long discussion last week about whose fault it was that my Fri. fridge appt. was cancelled, I was apparently put in the books for 11-3 today…but then yesterday when I placed my 33rd call (yes it seems like that many) I was informed the engineer would come between 9 and 1 today.

Ai yai yai.

Now regarding the machine, (which I must reiterate hates me) in addition to not cooling, has been beeping at odd intervals for the past several weeks. And this past week a voracious hum has been emanating from it. Clearly it wants to die.

At the moment all is silent because I was told to defrost again before service call…thus the dripping downstairs. Let’s hope the guy shows up.

As for food preservation of late, I’ve relied on the freezer, which has been in an increasingly sad state, some shelves still freezing, some hitting fridge temps, ice maker gone to pot.

This exercise has really been a foray into what is relatively shelf stable (isn’t cheese all bacteria anyway…). I have been tempted to put things outside at night but I did spot a fox slinking through the neighborhood last week, and Lord knows cats stop into our patio enough as it is (ask Joe how much he enjoys seeing them come and go).

Enough on the domestic scene.

Since mid-October Claire’s enjoyed a few more horse riding lessons, Ava got to go to the cinema (Cindermouse) with her class and I’ve been steeped in Jane Austen.

Our Austen group met to listen to a speaker share information about women’s roles during the Victorian age (essentially it was critical they marry money). We also watched video clips about Jane Austen and her books, choice of characters, settings, etc.

On the 22nd we tripped off to see her home in Chawton, a cottage given to her and her mother and sister by her brother, who came into wealth via distant relatives who raised him.

It was here, at this cottage, that Jane spent the last eight years of her life and did the majority of her “mature writing.” (I apparently am still in my immature writing phase.)

The house is a lovely red brick building across the street from a dainty little tea shop with cups decorating the walls and hanging from the ceiling. There we had tea/coffee, then walked down the lane to the “big” house (that of Jane’s brother) to admire the gardens.

Prior to Jane’s death, she had been involved with the family’s project of taking the existing gardens and landscaping them, moving the earth to create vistas and whatnot. The result is a lovely expanse of green with gravel walkways (not a result of the Austen’s ambitions), scenic viewing spots and gorgeous trees.

Back down to the cottage we then went for a tour of Jane’s home, where we wandered through bedrooms and living areas, saw the tiny desk at which she wrote, along with other furnishings.

We then adjourned to lunch at a nearby pub (lovely goat cheese tart) and onto Chawton House (now known as Chawton House Library). The House (of which we got a partial tour) is over 400 years old, and the recorded history of the land on which it stands stretches even further back.

About Chawton House…

During the 13th century there were frequent visits to Chawton by King Henry III and then his son, King Edward I, the manor having become an important staging post for royal journeys between London and Winchester.

In April 1551 the land was sold for £180 to John Knight, whose family had been tenant farmers in Chawton since the thirteenth century and who had prospered sufficiently to acquire a large estate.

The freehold has remained in the Knight family since the sixteenth century, though on many occasions the ownership passed laterally and sometimes by female descent, requiring several heirs to change their surnames to Knight.

In 1781, Thomas Knight II inherited and adopted a son of the Reverend George Austen, who was a cousin of Thomas Knight's. The Austens had six sons and two daughters, and the Knights adopted the third eldest son, Edward.

Edward Austen Knight eventually took over management of the estates at Godmersham and Chawton in 1797, living mostly at Godmersham and letting the Great House at Chawton to gentlemen tenants.

In 1809 he offered a house in the village to his mother and two sisters Cassandra and Jane, and it was there that Jane Austen began the most prolific period of her writing life. Her career as a novelist took off with the publication of Sense and Sensibility in 1811, and she went on to publish a further three of her novels while at Chawton (two more followed shortly after her death). She lived in Chawton almost until her death in 1817, only moving to Winchester near the end of her life to be nearer medical care.

Today Chawton House is a library with a mission “to promote study and research in early English women's writing; to protect and preserve Chawton House, an English manor house dating from the Elizabethan period; and to maintain a rural English working manor farm of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, for the benefit of everyone.”

Chawton House Library is a recent charity founded by the American entrepreneur and philanthropist, Sandy Lerner, via the charitable foundation established by her and her husband Leonard Bosack, the Leonard X. Bosack and Bette M. Kruger Foundation. The Library’s collection of books, which focuses on women's writing in English from 1600 to 1830, is available to the public for use.

(The House is leased to the charity and remains in the Knight family.)

We got to see some of the very old books in the collection, several open to specific passages and pictures having to do with Austen’s books. Wonderful stuff.
The house is very grand from the outside, much wood and many nooks and crannies, window seats and lovely views of the grounds within.

Back at the bus, we resumed our Austen fest, this time watching Persuasion on the return trip. (We watched Northanger Abbey en route.)

I could get used to these Jane Austen outings.

Also recently, I attended the Frieze Art Fair, which is a HUGE event in Regents Park (in tents, some sculptures outdoors).

I went w/ a group that organized a tour so as to get a better handle on the fair given its enormity. (More than 150 contemporary art galleries exhibit, and special projects, talks and educational events are part of the affair, as well.)

It’s a great event, I’m very glad I went, very glad I took a tour and very glad we went early as by mid afternoon it was overwhelming (crowd + exhibits = overload).
After perusing the sculptures in great, sunny weather, I made my way back to the peace and quiet of home before school let out.

On Monday, Oct. 19, I headed off to the railway station to meet up with a group of women for a hike in the woods (really a chatty walk). It was so nice to get out of London and enjoy fresh air, good conversation and quite pleasant weather – not cold and a slight drizzle for maybe 45 minutes.

In the middle of our 8 mile walk we stopped at a pub for a leisurely lunch, then continued on through Seven Oaks & Idle Hill…here is the description:

This walk explores a very rural area of Kent and passes through a pattern of small woods and fields to reach Ide Hill, the only village on the route. Ide Hill is charming as well as being, at 800 feet, the highest village in the county. Henry VIII used to go hunting hereabouts when he was courting Anne Boleyn.

No doubt Anne has less romantic notions about the area now.

On Oct. 21st I met up w/ a friend for one of the infamous London Walks (walks of various parts of town, museums, etc., led by tour guides – generally 2 hours of insight). The one we chose was “Legal and Illegal London.”

This tour took us to the Inns of Court, a “warren of cloisters, courtyards and passageways set amongst some of the best gardens in London.”

We wandered through the four inns, peeking in gardens (some public, some restricted access), then into the Royal Court building, which is gorgeous. We caught glimpses of barristers in their wigs and gowns and learned a bit about the legal system.
Frankly I’m still a bit mystified…enjoyable outing nonetheless.

And that brings me to the end of last week (gee I’m doing pretty good here given it’s only Tuesday…am I (gulp) caught up on this blog for the time being???). We ended the week with dinner and drinks with friends at a local Italian restaurant we’ve enjoyed a few times.

Over the weekend Claire and I, together with two of her friends and another mom, went down to the British Museum for a group “backpack” activity(essentially a bag filled with various activities based on age/theme).

We opted for the Ancient Greeks, so our activities led us through various parts of the museum, where the girls put on costumes the Ancient Greeks would have worn, then struck poses like those in many of the statues, played knuckle bones (games played with the ankle bones of sheep and goats), put puzzles together based on architectural exhibits, discerned stories on pots and matched up depictions of modern day Olympic events with those of old.

It was a great outing and we’ll definitely seek out backpack activities at area museums again! (I’m thinking they should do the same for adults...)

On Sunday the time changed so we had a more leisurely morning (so how was it we walked into Mass late?!?). We then hit the Marylebone market for relatively shelf stable food and had lunch at a café in the area.

Yesterday was Ava’s first day of fall break so off we went to see Up. It’s a great children’s movie that everyone should see.

With errands, lunch at McDonald’s, library stop and Claire retrieval, it was a busy day out, and today has been a lazy one in.

As I wrap up this diatribe, I’m knocking on wood that the fridge is indeed up and running (the engineer visited a couple hours ago). I haven’t yet heard any beeps or buzzes from below…who knows if that’s good or bad at this point.

Cheers and may all your appliances be cooperating!

Friday, October 23, 2009

October and Germany

My Jane Austen class kicked off in early October; I slogged through Emma (preferred her other novels) but had a great discussion and a lovely day out at Box Hill, site of an important passage in the novel.

About Box Hill: it is a well known beauty spot in the North Downs of Surrey, England, close to the southern outskirts of London, overlooking Dorking to the south-west.

The hill is named after box trees which can be found on its steep southern and western flanks, notably around the "Whites", chalk cliffs cut by the River Mole.

It truly is a gorgeous place, especially on a sunny autumn day, like Oct. 8. We took a bus there, hiked around with a guide who shared a bit of information about the area's history, had a glass of champagne at the top of the hill overlooking the valley (why not toast Jane and her novel characters), then hiked down and had lunch at a lovely little restaurant in town (The Dining Room in Reigate). Then back to London with Clueless (updated LA version of Emma story) for entertainment.

Ava, too, had a field trip – hers to the Horniman Museum to check out masks, among other things. She also got to see CinderMouse at a puppet theatre in Hamstead. Outside of school, Ava’s enchanted with her ballet class, and she’s had some playdates with classmates.

For Claire’s class I am the art parent liaison. I’ve yet to determine what that means, but it sounds good to me (provided I don’t need to produce some fabulous work of art).

School is keeping her busy, and happy – she’s made some cool projects, including a rudimentary flashlight, in her Creative Construction class. She’s also enjoying her First Holy Communion prep class on Saturdays. I actually got sucked into church school Oct. 3; my big plan was to drop her off and hole up in a nearby coffee shop to read but alas was pulled into a Mom’s religion class at the same time as Claire’s. It was interesting, led by a woman w/ a doctorate in theology. The material paralleled what Claire is learning and referenced art throughout the ages, which I quite liked.

Later the same day we caught up with our neighbors, Tim and Richard, in their top floor flat. Over coffee they shared some insights on the neighborhood, as they’ve lived on our street for several years.

Early October also kicked off the International Cultural Committee’s cuisine club, with a British tea. Great event with 50+ people attending. We watched a demonstration of scone-making and sampled same, plus little sandwiches and tea cakes, all served, naturally, alongside tea.

A witty British woman gave us a historical account of the adaptation of tea drinking, and tea as a meal, in Britain.

Did you know that…
- it was not until the mid 17th century that tea first appeared in England.
- Portuguese and Dutch traders first imported tea to Europe, w/ regular shipments by 1610 (so England was a latecomer to the tea trade!)
- London coffee houses were responsible for introducing tea to England.
- One of the first coffee house merchants to offer tea was Thomas Garway, who owned an establishment in Exchange Alley. He sold both liquid and dry tea to the public as early as 1657. Three years later he issued a broadsheet advertising tea at £6 and £10 per pound (ouch!), touting its virtues at "making the body active and lusty", and "preserving perfect health until extreme old age".
- By 1700 over 500 coffee houses sold tea, which distressed tavern owners as their sales of ale and gin were cut, and it was bad news for the government, which depended upon a steady stream of revenue from taxes on liquor sales.
- By 1750 tea had become the favored drink of Britain's lower classes.
- Afternoon tea is a light meal typically eaten between 3 pm and 5 pm. The custom of drinking tea originated in England when Catherine of Braganza married Charles II in 1661 and brought the practice of drinking tea in the afternoon with her from Portugal. Nowadays, due to changes in social customs and working hours, most Britons only take afternoon tea on special or formal occasions, instead having a slice of cake, biscuits or some chocolate at teatime.
- Traditionally, loose tea is brewed in a teapot and served in teacups with milk and sugar. It is accompanied by various sandwiches (customarily cucumber, egg and cress, fish paste, ham and smoked salmon), scones (with butter, clotted cream and jam) and usually cakes and pastries (such as Battenberg, fruit cake or Victoria sponge).
- Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford (3 September 1783 – 3 July 1857) is credited as the first person to have transformed afternoon tea in England into a late afternoon meal rather than a simple refreshment. A lifelong friend of Queen Victoria, the Duchess found a light meal of tea and cakes or sandwiches helped fill the midday gap between breakfast and dinner. Isabella Beeton describes afternoon teas of various kinds: the old-fashioned tea, the at-home tea, the family tea and the high tea .
- The term “high tea” refers to an early evening meal (aka meat tea) that has been largely replaced by today’s dinner. It was served in a dining area as opposed to “low tea,” which is served at a coffee table mid-afternoon and was preferred by higher classes.

There. You're now up to speed on tea drinking. Fancy a cup?

On October 5 I hoisted my umbrella and joined a group of women at the University Women’s Club for a talk by a fabulous British speaker, who gave us insight on the club culture, its advent and importance in Britain. We then took a tour of the Club, which is in a lovely building in the Mayfair area of London.
- The University Women's Club was founded in 1883 when Miss Gertrude E M Jackson of Girton College, Cambridge, called a meeting at her Portman Square home, attended by 60 people, to discuss the idea of a club for University Women.
At that first historic meeting, it was agreed that the entrance fee be one guinea (£1.05) and the annual subscription be the same.

A number of meetings were subsequently held and in January 1887 the University Club for Ladies, as it was then called, opened premises at 31 New Bond Street with a drawing room, dining room, library and dressing room. The club moved and expanded over time, eventually ending up at 2 Audley Square, the premises we toured, in 1921

At the same time it adopted the name The University Women's Club.

Today, The University Women's Club is the only women's club in the UK to be wholly owned and managed by its Members. It remains true to the aspirations of its founders by providing a welcoming environment and pleasant accommodation in Central London for Graduate, Professional and Business women.

With 1,000 members, the Club offers “first class cuisine, social events and a place to relax away from the hubbub of the busy city.”

Great place to drink that tea noted in my prior diatribe.

Incidentally, Gentlemen’s clubs were the precursor of women’s clubs like the University Women's Club. They offered rooms for men to stay, some used for extended periods of time. A number of them still exist in London and have lengthy waiting lists, many with elite members on their rosters.

After our tour we had lunch in the dining room – very good food – before again braving the rain.

In the same week I met up with friends to attend the preview reception for one of London’s art fairs. After champagne, cheese and salami, we perused the art, an interesting collection of largely modern works, none of which I felt inclined to take home.

Amidst all these outings, my calls to the fridge people continued...because the fridge again ceased cooling. Eventually an engineer again showed up at the house to tell me it needed a part that of course must be ordered, but should be in within a week. Hmmm…

While waiting from 9 to 1 (which then became 9 to 2:30) for the engineer to come, I managed to sneak out and attend Ava’s book fair with her. She conned me into purchasing 3 books, 2 for her, one for Claire. We also perused her classroom bulletin board, as she was Star of the Week. (As such we'd pulled together a number of photos, created captions and delivered them to school for posting.
Ava also got to select a special book to read with her class, and she sported a star pin all week.)

Late that same week, I caught up w/ a friend for lunch on Marylebone High Street (great café/food area), then got ready for a short flight to Germany and a 4 day visit!


This time we tubed it to Heathrow (frankly faster than a cab in rush hour traffic and cheaper too, but more physical w/ steps, suitcases, tired four-year-old and crowded trains). It worked out fine and of course it’s hurry up and wait…the nature of airplane travel. Our flight was delayed getting out so we got into Stuttgart late, grabbed our little Mercedes rental and headed north to Landau-Godramstein, where Martin and Gabbi live. (Travel made easier with the calm voice of an English-speaking woman on our navigation system.)

En route we phoned to say we’d be late, but not a problem for Martin…he was planning to be up til 1:00 a.m. pressing grapes.

He and Gabbi settled us into Frau Metzger’s apartment, a few blocks from the Schweikart residence, and we crashed after a snack of nutella and toast. The kitchen was nicely stocked with breakfast goodies, plus Gabbi brought over grape juice, wine and water.


We woke up to rain but braved the weather for some exercise – it was nice to be back here after 15 years. This area is gorgeous and hilly with vineyards surrounding picturesque little towns, windy roads here and there throughout. The fall colors were lovely.

Joe picked up rolls at the backerie I’d stopped at a few times after jogging years ago – they taste just as good as I remember, particularly the pretzel ones. We had them for breakfast, mine with swiss cheese, nutella of course for the kids.
Then we headed over to Martin and Gabbi’s for a chat and tour of the wine-making operation. We parted company with them to seek out lunch in a neighboring village, winding up at a pizzeria that served pasta. It had a lovely view of the green valley and vineyards below.

Back at Martin’s at 2:00 we hopped into his car, a new (used) black Porsche that he recently attained and is clearly pampering. I scrunched into the back as it’s clearly a two-person ride at best. Ava and Claire stayed with Charlotte, Martin and Gabbi’s elder daughter (Karina was in the US for a two week trip.)

Off we went to Baden Baden for some gambling at the casino there. It’s well known and has been a favorite of wealthy Russians for years, according to Martin.
Joe and I tried our hands at roulette – he did better than me so we left with pretty much what we brought to the table.

The casino is a lovely, huge place that was filling up as the afternoon went along. We also took a spin around town – very quaint with nice shops, lovely trees, parks, etc.

On the way back Martin had us going 240 km/hour. A very bold rainbow and lovely sunset over the Palatine made for great scenery as we hoped he didn’t swerve in the rain.

Our evening meal was pumpkin soup followed by onion torte and new wine, traditional combination and very tasty.


After rousing Claire and Ava we headed to Martin’s for breakfast – a friend of theirs was in from the middle Rheine wine-growing region so we breakfasted with him, Martin and Gabbi. Delicious cheese, meats, breads, eggs, nutella, coffee. Then we drove around a bit, found a flea market to wander through – flea markets seem the same everywhere – old books, lots of tea cups, dated lamps, old dolls, linens…nothing worth taking home (though Ava definitely wanted to buy SOMETHING!).

At 1:00 we headed to Gabbi’s and piled into her car along with Charlotte and her friend Esther. Off we went to Neustadt for a new wine festival parade. Naturally the most challenging aspect of this event was finding parking. After ditching the car in a somewhat precarious spot we hauled a bench to a corner and set up camp with a tall glass and some new wine to pass around. (Not to worry -- water and juice for the kids.)

The parade had some 136 entries so we were there for three hours! Bands, dancers, floats, wine princesses (and 2 queens – 1 for Palatine, 1 for Germany), decorated tractors, teams of horses, an airplane with princess atop, some entries even sporting Halloween décor. The kids scored on candy and our glass was filled with new wine as pitchers were rolled out here and there from passing floats.

The rain never materialized so it was a great outing; we got back to Gabbi’s at 6:00 and threw together a meal of bread, cheese, meat and tomato salad, cake to finish.
At 7:00 Joe, Claire and I flew out the door with Martin, hopped on the back of his grape trailer and went to meet the harvestor in the vineyard as he had seven rows scheduled for harvesting at 7:30. Ava stayed at the house.

Joe and Claire rode on top first, Claire in the cab with Hans the driver. She looked precious perched way up there. Joe and I traded mid-way through (sat next to the cab atop).


Today we slept in, Joe and I taking turns walking through he vineyards and enjoying the views. As we left it started to sprinkle so we headed off to Speyer. We hit the Cathedral first. Speyer Cathedral -- officially the Imperial Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption and St Stephen (and apparently generally referred to as the Imperial Cathedral of Speyer) – is the seat of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Speyer and is within the Archdiocese of Bamberg.

Since 1925 it has been a minor basilica.

Construction began on this largest of Romanesque churches in 1030, with it serving as the burial site for Salian, Staufer and Habsburg emperors and kings, thus making it a symbol of imperial power.

Per wikipedia, the cathedral is considered to be “a turning point in European architecture," one of the most important architectural monuments of its time and one of the finest Romanesque monuments.

Into the 1100’s the cathedral was modified and expanded, becoming one of the largest buildings of its time in 1106. (Meanwhile the village of Speyer had only 500 inhabitants…apparently the enlargement of the building had become a political issue: provocation for the papacy.)

The last ruler was buried in Speyer Cathedral in 1308; all told eight emperors and kinds and several of their wives are laid to rest there.

In the 1600’s wartime ravages destroyed some parts of the cathedral, with some reconstruction occurring in the 1700’s. During the Napoleonic Wars (1803 to 1815) the cathedral was used as a stable and storage facility for fodder and other material.

In 1806 the French considered tearing the building down and using it as a quarry, which was prevented by the bishop of Mainz, Joseph Ludwig Colmar.

The cathedral is immense, lovely sandstone and simply adorned inside, with crypt and graves of emperors and their family members downstairs. The outside seemed a bit more disjointed to me, with some features clearly looking as though they weren't part of the original plan.

From the cathedral we wandered into the city centre’s pedestrian area, were wooed by a window full of scrumptious cakes to lunch at a buzzing little restaurant. After a hearty German lunch we tracked down dessert at a little café up the street (great tiramisu with liqueur drizzled over just before serving) then headed off to Speyer’s history museum, which had a great exhibit for kids centered around witches and witchcraft. Much of it was interactive, and the kids spent most of their time in a play area with a little house, slide, treehouse and small trampolines.

We then headed back to Godramstein, with a stop at a grocery store beforehand because it’s always critical to check out the grocery store, in my mind. Plus we needed a chocolate fix. (I know, the tiramisu should have been enough.)

We went out to dinner w/ Gabbi and Martin at a restaurant they hit occasionally – one of the few open on a Monday. We started the meal with vinegar tasting. Apparently a local guy, trained as a vintner (but not good at that, according to Martin) has made his fortune as a world famous vinegar maker.

Martin ordered us four samples, which were served in very cool glasses that we rotated around the table for tasting. They definitely made a taste bud statement.
For dinner I had the local Palatinate specialty, a meat and potato concoction served with sauerkraut. And to end the meal we had schnapps, again passing 4 glasses around for sips. Strong stuff; I didn’t get much past a small taste of each.


After walking through town and stopping at the Backerie for chocolate pastries – our finale vacation treat – we said our good-byes at Martin’s and headed off to check out Burg Landek. It’s a 13th century castle overlooking the Palatinate valley. With great views, it’s a lovely landmark for wandering around, with walls and stairways intact. We climbed up the highest point and enjoyed the view.

From there we made our way to the airport, driving along the Weinstrasse part of the way. En route to Stuttgart we stopped for lunch at a backerie/café for pretzel sandwiches, cakes and German style doughnuts. The kids were thrilled; they got to feed a customer’s dog their excess lunch meat inside the backerei. Pets in cafes…hmmm.

After ditching our rental we headed back home, retracing our steps from bus to airplane, airplane to tube, tube to St. Johns Wood…

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Wrapping up September

No I haven’t given up blogging, just took a long break. Let me see if I can start to catch up…

Since I last wrote, we’ve been busy w/ school, school friends, fun mom stuff (though Ava is convinced I spend all my non-kid time shopping) and fighting w/ the refrigerator (it hates me, I’ve decided).

On September 17 I was lucky enough to take a tour of Clarence House, the official residence of Prince Charles, Camilla (the Duchess of Cornwall) and Princes William and Henry.

Built between 1825 and 1827 – and designed by John Nash – it was commissioned by William IV, who was known as the Duke of Clarence, before he inherited the throne in 1830. He preferred it to nearby St. James’ Palace, which apparently he felt was too cramped. It was then passed to his sister Princess Augusta Sophia, then to Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (say that three times fast). She was the mother of Queen Victoria.

In 1866 it became the home of Queen Victoria’s sons at different times. Then it was used by the Red Cross and St. John Ambulance Brigade during WWII.

And finally then to Princess Elizabeth and hubby. After George VI died the Queen Mother and Princess Anne moved in. (Anne later moved to Kensington.)

In 2003 Charles moved in after a “massive refurbishment” following the death of the Queen Mother.

Clarence House has four stories, is pale stucco and lovely. The rooms we saw – a handful and none of the private quarters of the family – were warm and felt lived in.

Our guide, who was a delightful English chap, regaled us with stories of how the Queen Mother (when in residence) fed her dogs at 4:00 every day. She served tea to heads of state throughout the world in her library, and we got to take a peak at the fancy sofa where her pooches rested regularly. (Charles had it re-upholstered when he moved in.)

After our tour we had a glass of champagne as we meandered around the gift shop.

Friday evening Joe and I caught up w/ friends from his Dell days, which was great fun. They live in London now – and have for the past several years (after a stint in Ireland and then in France).

Odds and ends

Claire started her First Holy Communion preparation course, which she seemed to enjoy.

I snuck in a quick visit to the V&A’s fashion exhibit (the V&A is immense, and free, and one of those places I hope to return to numerous times throughout our stay here).

I also caught up w/ friends over coffee at my favorite café, Maison Blanc in St. Johns Wood (best pastries and hot chocolate this side of France).

And we had dinner w/ a friend from our subdivision in North Carolina, who was in town on business. Great fun to catch up w/ her.

Margaret's visit

On Sept. 24 our friend Margaret showed up on our doorstep, having mastered the Gatwick Express and tube. She and I made our way to Harrods, then on to Buckingham Palace, where she explored for a couple of hours.

The kids and I took her to St. Johns Wood and our favorite kid-friendly spot (Carluccio’s) for dinner. (It has pasta on the menu, need I say more?)

Friday found Margaret and me on one of the famed “London Walks,” wherein a tour guide takes you around parts of the city and provides insight.

We did the Westminster Walk (Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the Changing of the Guard, Royal Park, 500-year-old St. James's Palace, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, Admiralty Arch…). And we had the perfect day for it – sunny and warm – with a great tour guide who let us meander our way through, stopping here and there to enjoy the views and hear anecdotes about London’s history, royalty, shops, etc.

From there we tubed it to the Borough Market, wandered through and picked up a small bottle of champagne to eat with grilled sausages (who wouldn’t pair those together).

Margaret headed off to the Tower of London for some Henry VIII insight and a look at the Crown Jewels, and we re-convened later, after playdates and ballet, to get ready for dinner. We met Joe at the National Portrait Gallery restaurant, which is on the rooftop and affords a lovely view of London. Good food, too!

Margaret and I continued our evening out at the Clifton Pub (and can you believe we shut the place down – and it was only 11:15). What’s wrong w/ these Londoners?
On Saturday she and I headed off to Notting Hill’s Portobello market, which seemed quite flea market-ish. Quite popular too; the crowd just kept growing and we kept wondering what we were missing?!?

From there we stopped at the British Museum for a wander around, then off to watch War Horse at a theatre on Drury Lane. I enjoyed my second time watching it as much as the first; this time I was intent on watching more of the puppetry involved in the horses’ movements. Quite complex.

From the play we headed home for dinner, then went to the Warrington for after dinner drinks. Very cool old English style pub.

And on Sunday Margaret went to St. Paul’s for services while we made it to Mass. We made our way to St. Pauls as her service was letting out, then wandered across the Thames for lunch at a pub. It was such a gorgeous day we sat outside, drank beers, ate sausages and fish and chips and enjoyed a quartet singing on one side of us, views of the Thames on the other.

From there Claire, Margaret and I caught a ferry to Greenwich while Joe and Ava headed home.

Greenwich is delightful, a lovely little village with charming shops and café and cool artsy market. We tooled around for a bit, then caught a bus back to Canary Wharf. Or at least the driver tried to take us to Canary but apparently had it all wrong and was soon corrected by an Australian passenger. (Australian? How did he know his way around?!?).

Anyway, after going in a big circle, we headed in supposedly the right direction, then the poor shmuck took another wrong turn, and was loudly informed he was in the wrong. At this point two men in the back got in a heated discussion. VERY heated. I would have hated to be the woman in between them.

Eventually, with a loud round of applause, we did get to Canary Wharf, then caught the DLR to the tube to home. Bit of a long winded journey.

Hopefully Margaret had fun; we certainly packed in as much as we could in 4 days!

Other news:

Late September found us checking out Westway Stables, which was recommended to us by a friend whose daughter has experienced Hyde Park stables and other riding resources in the area. They’ve been impressed with the one-on-one attention and value for money at Westway, which is bizarrely located under a busy motorway, behind a sport complex and near a trailerpark.

It clearly isn’t what you imagine when you think London English riding stable.
However, I was impressed with the lesson we observed – Mason, the instructor, was patient and thorough and appeared to have a nice rapport with Bouncer (short white child friendly horse) and pupil alike.

The stable owner, a woman, apparently has 44 horses and an office full of ribbons from equestrian events.

We signed up and Claire has enjoyed two lessons, will embark on her third Wed.

Also as Sept. ended I was able to snag a few minutes at the Wallace Collection, a national museum which displays works of art collected in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, the son of the 4th Marquess. It was bequeathed to the British nation by Sir Richard's widow, Lady Wallace, in 1897.

I then met up w/ a friend for a lovely quiche lunch in the courtyard of the Wallace. (Doesn’t quiche just scream lady’s lunch?)

And for fun I took the kids to Selfridges’ Icecreamists, the “ultimate ice cream boutique, which offers a wide array of unique-flavoured ice cream, fresh frozen yogurt and sorbettos.” The ice cream was fabulous, décor of the room great fun – black and hot pink w/ a cool old car parked inside, big silver throne chairs here and there.

Selfridges schedules bands, catwalk, other entertainment periodically at the Icecreamists, which closes sometime in November. If we have another urge for ice cream we’ll head that way again, though it’s getting rather chilly here so hot chocolate sounds a bit more inviting.

Next post...October stuff!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Blog revisited

I’ve fallen off the blog wagon, I guess.

The last two weeks have flown, all good – Ava is into the swing of things at Abercorn. I had to laugh; ASL kindergarteners ease into things w/ very short days week 1, then short days week 2, then finally regular days (still getting out earlier than all the big kids).

No so at Abercorn. She started last Monday, went full days everyday and swam on day one. (Well, she was supposed to swim on day 1 but since she made a fuss and several other kids didn’t get in the pool for one reason or another they let her off the hook. Week 2 swim seemed to go fine, though.)

We did have world war III over tights the other day. I don’t think my children have made the mental transition from warm climate clothing to London’s cooler fall/winter/spring weather. (May as well throw in summer while we’re at it.)

Regarding school, Ava’s happy with her teacher, is one of four girls in the class and seems to enjoy her new circle of friends. Plus she gets to see her pre-reception buddies plenty, as the classes interact throughout the day.

As for extracurricular activity, ballet started Friday; she woke up looking forward to it and was very focused and beaming throughout class. Claire and I got to watch and play cards.

Speaking of Claire, she’s definitely enjoying second grade, her friends and her teacher. She’s had several play dates and been to Canon’s Park twice already. (This is a facility the school uses to teach about nature and the environment. Yesterday they went for a demonstration by the Bird Man, which kicks off their unit on birds. Later they’ll dissect owl pellets. And they need 10 parents to volunteer for that project…as gross as it sounds, I’m told it’s very cool as you look for skeletons, skulls, etc. from unlucky owl prey).

On my end, I had a number of meetings last week – school stuff and women’s groups kicking off activities for fall.

I also got to hit the Serpentine Gallery with a group of ladies for a tour of paintings and sculptures from Jeff Koons’ Popeye series. An American artist, apparently he has “explored notions of consumerism, taste, banality, childhood and sexuality. He is known for his meticulously fabricated works that draw on a variety of objects and images from American and consumer culture.”

The exhibit we saw incorporates surreal combinations of everyday objects, cartoon imagery, art-historical references and children’s toys.

The latter Koons casts in aluminum but you’d swear they are the soft, squishy plastic we buy yearly for our kids. It’s one of those exhibits you want SO badly to touch. (So badly, in fact, there is a guard at every sculpture to prevent any handling.)

The “inflatables” are juxtaposed with everyday objects – chainlink fence, chairs, etc. The result: unusual, colorful and contrasting sculptures.

Paintings in the exhibit are also inviting to touch – they look textured and are extremely colorful, pulling in aspects of the sculptures displayed in the room. In several paintings, Popeye and Olive Oil are central figures (FYI Popeye turns 80 this year.) Our tour guide noted that Popeye, developed during the Great Depression as a character that could address hardship and injustice, is fitting in today’s period of economic recession.

Other information about the artist per the Serpentine Web site:

Koons was born in York, Pennsylvania, in 1955. He lives and works in New York, and his work has been widely exhibited internationally. Recent solo exhibitions include presentations at the Château de Versailles, France; Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, all in 2008.

I did very much enjoy going to the exhibit, though the art isn’t something I identify strongly with. The gallery is in a delightful spot, in the middle of Kensington Gardens. We had a lovely day to walk through the park to and fro, and getting some insight into Koons’ work and motivations through our guide was worthwhile.

Also on the cultural calendar…Friday evening Joe and I met at the theatre for Billy Elliott, which was fabulous.

Here is the gist and if you have a change to see it, do!

Billy Elliot the Musical is an inspirational story of one boy’s dream to realise his ambitions against the odds. Set in the North East of England against the background of the historic 1984/85 miners' strike, Billy pursues his passion for dance in secret to avoid disapproval of his struggling family.

On Saturday, which dawned bright, sunny and warm, we headed down to the Thames Festival, which takes place annually along the river. Bands, a market, food and beer stands, kids’ activities, book sale and more were in full force, and plenty of people were out and about. Nice way to spend a few hours.

We also enjoyed a little patio time, which I’m sure will be spare between now and spring, so I fired up the grill (ok flipped the switch).

And Sunday was my market day – the Marylebone High Street market is my favorite so far, with a number of farmers selling fresh meats, fruit, veggies, eggs, etc. And there are a few bakers, someone with flowers, a fishmonger…always something yummy and fresh.

On Monday I went with a group to Althorp, the family home of the Spencers (Diana’s family). Her brother, the current Earl Spencer, lives there with his family. We had brunch in one of the dining rooms, then toured the grounds and house.

Diana is buried in an unmarked grave on a small island on the grounds, a lovely, tranquil setting. Thousands upon thousands of people came to visit and mourn her death the first two years after she passed, and many still come, according to our guide.

About Althorp:

The Althorp Estate covers 14,000 acres of beautiful countryside in Northamptonshire, Warwickshire and Norfolk. It encompasses cottages, farms, woodlands and villages, which combine to give a rich mix of landscapes, habitats and activities.

The house, built in 1508, has been home to the Spencer family for nearly 500 years. Among other things, inside are 400+ paintings, according to our guide, among them works by Rubens, Van Dyck, Reynolds and Gainsborough, to name a few great artists.
John Spencer acquired a 300-acre estate around Althorp in 1508; and his grandson, another Sir John, made Althorp the principal Spencer home by the time of his death in 1586.

The house first erected at Althorp consisted of an enclosed courtyard with projecting wings on the south side. It is presumed to have been unaltered until Dorothy, long-widowed wife of the First Earl of Sunderland, roofed in the courtyard and installed the grand staircase across the central axis in 1660-62.

Then, the house was of red brick but the Second Earl of Sunderland wanted a more classic façade so Weldon stone Corinthian and Composite columns were added, and a balustrade placed on the elevation.

In the upstairs west wing he transformed the great hall - the ubiquitous living space common to Elizabethan houses - into a long gallery. The next additions were carried out by the Fifth Earl of Sunderland around 1730, when he decorated the hall. A Palladian design was drawn up by Colin Campbell.

However, he died in 1729, and it was left to Roger Morris to carry out the work. In 1772, part of the roof fell in. Years of benign neglect were compounded by the First Earl Spencer's prior interest in the construction of his London mansion, Spencer House. Only after his son's accession was an overhaul considered.

The architect taken on was Henry Holland. The external treatment given to Althorp reflected both the Earl's finances and fashionable imperatives. Rather than cover the existing walls in white brick, Holland substituted 'mathematical' or rebate tiles, so-called because of their precision fit, flush-mounted to look like brick.

Holland also added simple pediments to the north and south fronts, corridors to the projecting wings, and new dressings in the Roche Abbey stone from Yorkshire, and pilasters in local Kingsthorpe stone for the front entrance. The roof was lowered, the chimneys constructed anew. On the outside, the house is much today as Holland decreed, characterised by conscious restraint and a lack of ornament.

He relocated the state rooms to the west wing of the ground floor (in a reversion to pre-Palladian practice). The Long Library was extended and the gallery painted.

The then Lady Spencer praised the scheme as 'the image of comfort - so convenient, so cheerful, so neat, so roomy, yet so compact .' How deliberately the Holland alterations responded to family directives on this score is not clear.

Holland's last act was to extend the house to the east with offices screened by shrubbery.

His plans for the house were generally untouched for a hundred years. Two libraries on the north-east corner came - and went - according to the demands of book-buying Earls.

The present gardens, including the oval pond, were laid out in the 1860s by W.M. Teulon. In 1877 the Fifth Earl had J. MacVicar Anderson add the State Dining-Room, removing the anomaly of cooking and eating in opposite wings. He also enlarged the Saloon and opened up the west and north ranges more or less into the continuous reception suite seen today.

While at Althorp we were able to visit an exhibit commemorating the life and work of Diana. Six rooms feature audiovisual displays and exhibits containing her Bridal Gown, childhood letters, school reports and details of her work for charity.

The tour was excellent, and the property is gorgeous, surrounded by green pastures filled with cows and sheep. (Apparently the Spencers made their fortune with sheep hundreds of years ago, so I guess it’s fitting that they roam the estate today.)

Otherwise on the Weber front...

- leaky house due to a DELUGE of rain
- fridge misbehaving
- back to school night for ASL

Could someone send over the maytag man (or frigidaire guy, in this case).

and some very sad news --

We learned of a friend’s death on Sunday. She was 31 years old, a lovely, bright, talented young mother whose presence will be missed by many. Why her, why now, one wonders.

Her passing should serve as a reminder to all of us to make the most of the time we have and don’t put off what is important. Spend time with people we enjoy. Wear the good clothes. Use the china. Book the trip. Go! Do! See! Live! I’m doing my best to follow the mantra and hope you do the same.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

School, Fall (already?), Oxford

Our little girl started second grade last week! And seemed to thoroughly enjoy it, aside from getting up at 7 (earliest they’re risen since coming back from the U.S. was 9:30. Parents’ dream).

Besides getting ready for that big event, we’ve played some catch-up since our trip – got the suitcases unloaded, toiletries stashed and all those doll clothes hanged up (hung up? I’m too lazy to research that one).

We also caught up w/ some friends for play dates. (I’ve decided they’re best held at a park or someone else’s house; I’m a play date hater – oh my gosh it’s out now -- no one will ever come to our house again...I take solace in the fact that another ASL mom confided same dislike recently. Much prefer the kids gathering spontaneously in our NC neighborhood. But I suppose that’s not the norm these days…)

Back to the last week of August!

Ava and I got our hair cut. Can I just say I really enjoy the new hair regime I’ve started since arriving here? Cheap cuts – to the tune of 9 quid (4 for Ava’s “fringe” trim) every 3 weeks, walk in and wait.

Generally that’s a 10-20 minute experience so I catch up on some glamour mag, get a quick cut by someone from Australia, Kosovo, Poland, Asia. So far I like all of them. Last week’s guy was from Kosovo, said he goes back yearly in August, along w/ all the other Kosovo-ans who’ve relocated. Apparently entire villages have transplanted themselves to various cities around the world so it’s a big meet and greet/photo swap when they all swarm in to visit.

Ava, by the way, loves getting her hair cut. She gets to admire her beauty in the mirror as she’s perched on a big cushion.

Last Friday we caught up w/ Ewa, our Polish babysitter who looked in on our house while we were out of the country. She held down the fort while Joe and I escaped for dinner and a movie.

Our plans for a pub meal were cut off by a sudden heavy rainstorm, which struck as we were a few yards from an appealing little Italian restaurant…so we ducked in there for a drink. They brought us towels for drying off, olives to whet our appetite so we opted to stay for dinner. Very nice meal a stone’s throw from the house so will have to stop in there again. Our movie pick: Funny People. (Sophomoric humor, but entertaining.)

On Saturday, a day that dawned sunny and gorgeous, we whisked Joe off to the zoo (well ok we stumbled out of the house at noon after peeling our children off the beds at 11). The animals were in fine form, we enjoyed ice cream, the animal show, merry-go-round, you name it. And we finished our day grilling pork chops from our local butcher. Not bad.

Sunday we got out the door a bit earlier and made our way to the train station for a trip to Oxford. Great day out and an easy train ride from London. Our first stop was at the doubledecker tourist bus office, train station. We hopped on a bus and had a great audio tour/overview of the city before getting off at the city centre, grabbing a quick bite to eat (Joe and I had warm chicken and steak pies, respectively), and heading to Christ Church to check it out. (Featured in Harry Potter, BTW.)

Oxford is a lovely city, winding streets in many areas, cobblestones, gorgeous architecture and old city walls and medieval buildings here and there. Beautiful green spaces, river running through the center – on a sunny day it must be heavenly. (It was gray and chilly when we visited; no one said England was known for lovely weather.)

Re: Harry P. Apparently many of the movies’ scenes were shot around Christ Church and in fact, the Great Hall was replicated in film studios to create Hogwart’s Hall.
We did visit the Great Hall with its lovely vaulted ceiling and its windows that feature Alice and other characters from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s a lovely, stately room with long wooden tables and chairs for student dining.

We then wandered through the cloisters in Christ Church, which were first built 1000 years ago. (Apparently monks left the Cloisters 500 years ago.)

About Christ Church Cathedral, which serves as the College Chapel for the College and the cathedral church for the Diocese of Oxford:

- It stands on the site of an ancient Saxon Church, founded in the 8th century by Saint Frideswide, the Patron Saint of Oxford. Nothing remains of the church now but a Saxon cemetery lies under the cathedral cloister, discovered in 1985.

- The present building was constructed in the last quarter of the 12th century as the monastery church for a community of Augustinian Canons.

- The monastery was called St Frideswide’s Priory; inside the church stood an ornate shrine on which were kept the relics of the saint. Pilgrims visited the shrine throughout the Middle Ages, including Catherine of Aragon, who, in 1518, came to pray for the birth of a son.

- In 1524, just prior to the General Dissolution of the Monasteries, Cardinal Wolsey gained permission from the Pope to close down St Frideswide’s Priory to build a vast new college for the university. He planned to include a new chapel for his ‘Cardinal’s College’ but died before the building was completed so the old monastery church was retained.

- When, in 1546, Henry VIII moved the first Bishop of Oxford into the church, he created a unique institution, ‘Christ Church’, for its chapel is also the Cathedral for the Diocese of Oxford.

The Cathedral is lovely, with various nooks and crannies, lovely architecture and stained glass windows. The kids, who were given a scavenger hunt upon entering, had fun looking for various icons and images throughout the place.

From Christ Church we wandered the city a bit, then had our fine DB bus drop us at the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Oxford University Museum Natural History. Both are great collections, Pitt has a ton of stuff in various dim cases – hard to take it all in.

And then we again doubledeckered it to the train station and headed home. Can I just say I much prefer train travel to airplanes? It’s more relaxing, easier in/out and great place to read the paper.

In other news of last week…it was a Banker’s holiday on Monday so we all slept in, did a little shopping, nothing major. Rather nice, actually.

Tuesday was Claire’s orientation, Wed. I escaped to the British Library, catching the Henry VIII exhibit before it leaves on Sunday. Great exhibit, chockfull of so much information. Beautiful, ceremonial documents rich with history. Maps, naval intelligence, documentation supporting Henry’s break from the church, portraits of his family and six wives…busy guy for having died in his 50’s.

On Thursday Ava and I hit Gandophi’s (dancewear place) for another ballet outfit (since she wears hers all the time we need a 2nd option as class starts next week), ballet shoes and ballet socks.

And of course for the shopping trip she dressed in her current ballet costume, complete with poufy skirt and bowties.(Our drycleaner oohed and aahed appropriately at her attire when he saw us on our way out shopping (he was ironing and watching the cooking show. I’m all about the latter, not so much the former).)

Then she proceeded to try on every costume in her size. Let’s just say we were at Gandophi’s for quite some time. She spent the evening modeling and twirling.
After securing a couple items for the uniform collection, we seem to have Ava ready to start her Reception year at Abercorn…and much to the kids’ chagrin, they’ll start swimming lessons on Wednesday.

Over the weekend Joe and I got together with some friends for dinner, and as a family we took advantage of great weather for a picnic and playtime in the park, ice cream at a neighborhood shake and malt place.

(Must take full advantage of sunny, warm days – since our return the weather has definitely been cooler – breezier, gray and I did see orange leaves rustling in the wind last week…I’m in mourning. Send some of that sunny Montana warmth for a few more weeks!!!)

Thursday, August 27, 2009


As we made our way down the landing strip at the fine Bozeman airport, our plane passed Air Force I. Apparently Obama and family were enjoying some time in Yellowstone after one of his healthcare meetings.

At the rental car counter I was informed we got a free upgrade; I had to laugh when I got to the car: it was the size of a cooper. I wonder what they had us in before? A motorbike? Rickshaw?

Our time in Montana was good – we again stayed in the Meine cabin, where Carl Meini lived alone on and off for several years. Then it did not have running water or electricity. Today the amenities are quite nice, same solid wood timbers, covered porch and view (think Zane Grey’s avid descriptions of purple sage, rolling hills, craggy rocks, mountains and canyons, jack fence running here and there). Off to our right are Randy’s horses (close enough to hear the occasional whinny, far enough away to avoid odors and flies), to the left Kim and Randy’s home and a guest house.

The first couple days here were cool but remainder sunny and warm (you should have heard the complaints about the heat). As for me, I soaked it up. Sun sun sun.

The kids had a ball with Grace, who is now 12, tall and lovely and looking beyond her years already. When did pre-teens start looking like 17-year-olds?

They also had lots of fun visiting the horses, playing w/ Grandma’s kittens, the rabbit and Romeo’s dog, who loves to catch -- and chew up -- Frisbees.

We made use of our time and the local Y for swim lessons, pulling Abbey’s daughter, Ivy, into the fold. Given swimming instruction jerked to a halt last fall with our move, I’m taking whatever opportunity I can to re-engage the kids on pool skills.

Bonus on this Y business: I got to work out with weight machines for the first time since February! (Must say, it felt great. Well not so great a day or so later.)

In addition to catching up w/ Mom, Dad, David, Romeo and Grace, we had a nice evening w/ Abbey and Ivy, some picture-sharing and coffee with Kim and a good visit with Aunt Bonnie. The kids were in heaven at her house; Aunt Bonnie has continued to collect American Girl clothes and a few dolls as well. She passed one on to Ava, who is in seventh heaven.

The doll has already had her hair beautifully brushed several dozen times. She’s been changed regularly into all her fancy costumes – sun dresses, ball gowns, day dresses, a nightie, etc. Aunt Bonnie has accrued accessories for many of the outfits, so it’s a child’s (and adult’s) delight.

I loved hearing how Aunt Bonnie pops her laptop on her lap in the evenings and checks out e-bay for doll clothes and takes care of her new webkinz, among other things. I marvel at how ranch women like her and Mom have embraced the computer. I shouldn’t be surprised, given they’ve also driven tractors and taken on all kinds of technological advances in other aspects of their lives.

We also caught up with Marilyn and Aunt Estelle, who both seem to be doing well.

Other highlights:

- lunch at Wheat, Montana's fabulous deli. Bread that rivals even France's!

- 3 hours at Elkhorn hot springs, where cool water (and chlorine) have not been allowed into the water for some years now due to Forest Service or other government regulation. No doubt the person making that decision hasn’t been swimming in moss. Still, the water feels great and since we’ve been going to Elkhorn for as long as I can remember, it would be a shame to let a little lichen grind it to a halt. (Plus let’s face it; it’s cleaner than Wisconsin lake water any day of the week.)

- Dinner at the ski hill – great burger.

- Annual visit to Dillon’s bookstore – that woman runs a great independent book shop. We all left with something to enjoy.

- Likewise, annual visit to Patagonia Outlet. Great stuff, especially if you’re a trekker, mountain biker, skier, etc. Given I’m the London city chick, I didn’t find much I’d actually wear, other than a black coat that doesn’t scream sport. It just screams warm. Therein I’m now the proud owner. Great price, too.

- While we’re on the shopping topic, I did also make a stop at Walmart. I must say, Butte’s Walmart is the nicest Walmart I’ve ever been in. Clean, wide aisles, no long lines (at least not the day Claire and I whistled through). Our mission: toiletries we can’t find in the UK. (Reality is, we can find most things, but there are a few items sold here that I prefer – vitamins, Viactiv, children’s Tylenol, etc.)

30 minutes (can you believe I got out of Walmart that fast?!!) and several grocery bags later, we were done and on to Herberger’s (think Dillards), where we got a few things for the kids for fall. Now how about traveling w/ all this stuff?!?

- Coffee on the porch of our little cabin. It doesn’t get any better. Well, yes it does: kids sleeping in so I can enjoy coffee on the porch!

- A couple hours spent in the hay field not working but enjoying the view and watching the action as Romeo, David and Uncle Jules wrapped things up. I had a nice chat w/ Uncle Jules, and later in the evening we met up with he and Aunt Bonnie for a celebratory dinner at the Lion’s Den. It isn’t a visit to Dillon without one of their fillets.

- Plenty of my mother’s fabulous cooking – red meat fest!

- A great visit w/ Julie and her daughters at Crystal Park, where we picnicked (roasted hot dogs followed by s’mores are hard to beat) and dug for crystals. Kids had fun finding treasure.

- Another great, albeit too short, visit with Jeanette, Carson and Sean. As we flew out of Idaho Falls, we took the opportunity to stop in at her home in Chester, Idaho, where the kids got to play and she and I got to catch up a bit.

- Putting 1,100 miles on our little red rental...there is no better place to drive than out west. 80 mph on vacant interstates with views beyond belief.

And then we were headed home! Three flights and many hours later we landed at Heathrow. Now, at 10 a.m., the kids are still sleeping…

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi
Largest mosque in India