Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

October, 2011

October, 2011
Chess in Lausanne, Switzerland

Monday, March 30, 2009

We Will Rock You, Italian Food and Barack Obama -- how's that for a mix?

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How did it become the last day of March already?!?

Joe and I had a nice night out Saturday – caught a quick bite and a beer at a pub in the theatre district prior to attending “We Will Rock You,” a theatre production based on Queen’s music. It totally rocked and I would see it again. And again. I was dancing in my seat!

Leading up to the theatre, though, was a bit of a laugh – I’d gotten hooked up w/ the evening’s babysitter via a mom in Ava’s class. She has twins and has had a nanny (Carmen) from the start. Carmen came highly recommended, responded immediately to my request, etc.

But late last week I got a text message from her saying she’d had to leave town for Bolivia. Bolivia?!?

Not to worry, though, she was going to send her mom.

I talked with her mom, who said her daughter Heidi (who will now be a nanny for the mom of twins in Ava’s class) would babysit.

Low and behold, 5:30 rolled around on Friday and no Carmen, no Carmen’s mom, no Heidi. They’d sent another relative, Ivonne, who was standing in front of the wrong house #30. (She called Heidi, who’d called her mom to notify me.) After working through the phone tree, Ivonne did appear at our door and did take very good care of the kids. I shall keep the contact info on the Bolivian network.

(BTW, Julie – mother of twins –said Carmen gave a day’s notice before leaving to marry her boyfriend. No, she’s not 19 – 31.)

A little tighter for time after getting the babysitting thing coordinated (too tight for proper sit down meal, which really was quite fine as we were in the mood for bar food), we took the underground to our destination, which spilled us out in front of the Dominion Theatre. We then canvassed the nearby blocks for a bar that beckoned, landed at a huge place with two bars, tons of tables upstairs and down. Humming with activity, they were on their last food legs. I convinced the bar tender to hook us up w/ 2 chicken pies and mash.

Sated, we headed off to be rocked, only to find 2 people in our seats! (I’d gotten our tickets at a discount outlet earlier in the day. I did ask the people in line if they’d purchased at said outlet in the past; the answer was yes, good experience, great seats/value….).

Our friendly usher disappeared to address the problem, came back to tell us our money would be refunded to our card no later than Monday, leaving us…with no show to watch?!? Unless of course we wanted to pay full face value.

Thankfully we were in front of the box office and the woman selling tix graciously sold us house seats at half price – better discount than I’d gotten at the ticket outlet earlier in the day. And maybe nine rows back in the center of a fabulous theatre.

At intermission we were provided a letter of proof just in case we need it to ensure our double-booked tickets are refunded.

So great service at the Dominion – very professional – and may I say again, a GREAT show – the music, the costuming, the humor, the farfetched, fun story. Must own CD!

On Sunday we tripped off to an Italian cultural festival. It was more like a trade show, with tons of well organized booths set up inside a big convention center. We ate our way through – fabulous roasted pork, homemade noodles (we watched the woman making them), gelato, and then of course sampled olive oils, breads, salamis and prosciuttos, olives, cheeses…food mecca.

Cooking and wine demos were arranged as well. I caught one on everyday Italian wines, which was good, but best were the little booths with people showing where different wines are produced in Italy’s microclimates.

Naturally we walked away with goodies (I told Joe for the prices next time we should just cut to the chase and buy the villa in the Italian countryside; Lord knows there were plenty of people selling real estate). Our “souvenirs”: wine, salami, buffalo mozzarella (incredibly good w/ crusty bread and prosciutto – that’s what we had for dinner).

Today Barack Obama will be at Claire’s school – hope she’ll be able to see him. He’s scheduled for an event at the school late in the day.

And I’m off to the ballet with the ladies this evening, which I’m quite excited about.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Tightie Whities (got your attendtion, didn't I?)

Friday, March 27

Temperatures are dipping here in Londontown; yesterday alternated between light rain, voracious wind, sunny, blue skies and threatening gray clouds. At one point Ava, who was home with me (ear pain resulting from congestion/ a cold), asked why the electricity kept going off. Nothing as exciting as power loss, just the sun turning it on and off.

Speaking of power, one of those things you don’t think about until it goes out (or your bill is astronomical), it’s been nice to be someplace where power is consistent. We’d gotten used to finding ourselves (temporary) in the dark regularly in India. (That said, we were lucky to be in facilities where generators kicked in, unlike so many areas throughout the country.)

Despite ear pain, it doesn’t look like A has an ear infection at this point; the nurse at Claire’s school checked her out yesterday – the kid prolifically produces ear wax, though, so we left w/ info on dropping a bit of olive oil in them , which helps clear out the extra gunk. Who knew? And who knew that you would come to this blog and read about exciting topics such as ear wax? Parent-share syndrome.

I caught up with the ladies (moms) at Ava’s school last night over dinner. Very nice group, and a mix – working, stay at home, British, transplants, ex-pats. All with children except Ms. Hill, Ava’s teacher, who will get married in July. She’s a delightful woman who is wonderful with kids and seems to love her job. She and her fiancé are off to Africa for a 3 week honeymoon, which per some of the other ladies is the norm, even a bit short. Obviously we Americans work too much or think we need to work too much. No doubt we bring it on ourselves.

I sat next to a woman whose family is from Pakistan. She grew up in London but has extended family there and visits less now, as she has a baby and four-year-old and navigating the environment and its lack of infrastructure, political issues, etc. are a bit of a deterrent (how’s that for understatement).

She talked about how much more progressive India is with regard to said infrastructure. This I found startling, as so much of what we take for granted -- power, as noted, good roads, clean water, etc. -- are not the norm in India. Pakistan, then, must really be a reality check. She also said it’s so “have and have not,” which we saw in India, though the middle class has clearly been growing in recent years as India’s economy has gained ground. Apparently her grandfather died recently and was in what was Pakistan’s “best” hospital…with cats running freely throughout and care she referred to as “a joke.” She and her husband had brought medicine from the U.S., where they lived for a bit, to help him.

Crazy world we live in.

Today I’ll be looking at furniture – it’s great to travel light, but we do need beds in our new home, which we expect to move into in mid-April. And I have a morning coffee on my calendar with the Abercorn staff and parents. I must say I drink plenty of coffee and hot chocolate here. Keeping the economy going in Brazil.

Saturday

I so enjoyed coffee with some of the Abercorn parents and staff yesterday – again, a nice mix of people – an Italian woman married to someone from India, a lady from New Zealand, a British woman who grew up in New York…

The kids and I had a London “moment” after school, after departing John Lewis (nice department store) on Oxford Street, where we’d gone in search of a birthday gift. As we meandered back to the tube, Ava curled up in a ball in the stroller needing a good snack (she claimed she ate all of her fish cake at school, and waxed poetic about how spinach would make her strong like “Papaya” – I believe that would be Pop-eye – but I do wonder how much she actually eats for lunch. Probably too busy/or choosy to dig in properly, since she eats a full meal as soon as she gets home every day).

Anyway, the stroller was also laden w/ backpacks and I had a bag of goodies from the food section at John Lewis, so I was doing my best to weave in and out of foot traffic, keep track of Claire and not get run over -- while balancing all this crap and not breaking anything (I need a pack mule, perhaps?)-- when I heard some very LOUD, very upbeat music blaring from Debonshams (sp? - another department store).

A crowd was gathering around a stage set directly in front of one of the store entrances, where two muscular men were wearing tightie whities and black boots. And that’s all. Jockey. Dancing. What a hoot.

Uninspired to drop in and buy underwear (or anything else for that matter) we continued on to the Bond Street tube station to get Ava home and pump her with cheese and crackers.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

We started the week off right, tripping down to the Marylebone Farmers’ Market (foodie delight), after Mass. (BTW we think we’ve found the church for us – nice feel to it, mix of families and otherwise, religious ed for the kids, etc.) And, currently, at least, no major construction projects! Built in the 1960’s, it isn’t your typical old world European church. It’s circular, brick, very modern stained glass windows on one side. Walking distance from where we’ll most likely reside and Claire will be able to make her First Holy Communion the same year she would in the U.S.

Regarding the market, great place to spend a couple of hours – lots of organic and natural meats. (What, pray tell, is unnaturally raised meat? Something comprised in a beaker with 80 different chemicals?)

Anyway, we snagged some lamb steaks (which were fabulous, had them tonight for dinner), hand made sausages (also delicious), two different kinds of cheeses (half of which Ava polished off before we left), some homemade bread and brownies that Claire picked out and some cheap, incredibly fresh veggies. Word to the wise: do not go to the market hungry.

We also had sandwiches while we wandered. The salt marsh lamb people, who raise sheep on salt marsh areas in the English countryside were grilling and selling their meat on ciabatta rolls with fresh greens and various chutneys. DELICIOUS. (Salt marsh diet -- sounds appetizing, doesn't it? -- gives the lamb a different flavor and makes it more tender, we were told.)

This particular market is a subway stop from us, located in a car park near all kinds of great cafes, a cheese shop to die for and renowned butcher shop. Suffice it to say it’s definitely on my radar.

On Monday I zipped down to the Saatchi Gallery, which opened 20 years ago to “provide an innovative forum for contemporary art, presenting work by largely unseen young artists or by international artists whose work has been rarely or never exhibited in the UK.”

My interest in checking it out stemmed from reading about what’s currently on exhibit there -- Unveiled: New Art From the Middle East. The exhibit, with artists from Cairo, Tehran, Beirut, Jordan, Dubai, etc., was laid out throughout the entire three floors of the building, a lovely, modern facility with an airy feel to it.

The works were thought-provoking, some disturbing, many intense and political in nature. A somber experience, at least for me, it was enlightening and well worth seeing. And an ideal solo trip (not kid friendly material, plus let’s face it, my children are museum-ed out. Unless it’s the chocolate museum, which I mentioned the other day as we discussed our upcoming Easter trip to Belgium).

Re: our spring break plans...originally we were thinking Paris but frankly Brussels sounds like a better short getaway, less costly than gay Paris in springtime and fewer sites so I won’t feel like a rat on crack trying to see everything.

As for school, we're settling into a nice routine, I think. Though I’m still puzzling over Ava’s Abercorn days. For example, today I asked about lunch (she is fed at the cafeteria, where a chef whips out lunch for all the kids daily), wherein I was told the cafeteria is closed and "they bussed us to McDonalds." Previously I was told the menu for today included pasta, hot dogs, apples, peas, bread, potatoes, rice, chicken...

And you wouldn't believe what they pack in each day there: gymnastics, ballet, numbers, letters, library, French, art all day long, PE everywhere, etc. Good thing the kid has a schedule so I do have a sense of what happens there! What an imagination.

Today I had great fun with 24 other women from the International Committee at the American School; we got together to watch a demonstration on Mexican food and eat some incredibly great homemade salsa, queso, tortillas, fajitas, guacamole, tamales. Naturally sampled with margaritas.

From there I marched off to the grocery store and have since decided margaritas before shopping might not be the most prudent move. For example, I’ve yet to figure out where the chicken broth is in that store. I’m sure they devote half an aisle to the stuff…canned, boxed, organic, free range, bullion cubes, low salt bullion cubes, organic bullion cubes, broth mix, you get the picture… it’s no doubt the tequila’s fault that I missed them all.

It’s also responsible for all the heavy stuff that found its way into my cart (it’s all fun and games to purchase a bunch of food but then there is the transportation of said food when one is car-less).

I do exaggerate a bit; I got nearly everything I needed with a few extras (who doesn’t like ben and jerry’s ice cream, esp. when it’s on sale). Next thing you know I’ll be writing about taking a bus to Wendy’s for frosties.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

School Days and Kensington Palace

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The rest of our week culminated with Ava feeling a bit under the weather, directly related, no doubt, to the weather changing as spring seems to be in the air (I’m cautiously optimistic). It’s been lovely and sunny all week; this city is gorgeous when the sun shines.

Despite a bit of a cold, Ava didn’t miss much school at Abercorn and seems thrilled to be a self-proclaimed Abercorn girl. I’m uncertain sometimes exactly what she does at school, given every day seems to be filled with ballet, gymnastics, library, games, etc. (She’s a bit of an embellisher.)

Claire also had a great week; Friday her class spent the day at Canons Park, which the school has access to for playing fields, outdoor projects (i.e. gardening), games etc. We ended the week at ASL (Amer. School London) with a PTO sponsored party/fundraiser (auctions and lottery, most important for kids: cupcakes, games and hair accessories in the gym. Claire is sporting a bright green braid).

I checked out Primrose Hill for a nice lunch/book store break – lovely, quaint little neighborhood adjacent to a big hill (Primrose, naturally). A nearby green space where I’ve enjoyed several morning walks, the Hill offers a superb view of London coming alive, the sun rising amid pink streaks over the Eye of London, church spires, cityscape.

I also had the opportunity to spend some time with a parent whose family will leave London this summer and travel for a year, spending a month in India, the rest of the time RV’ing around the U.S. How cool is that?!? They intend to home school their two sons, thus largely the topic of our conversation.

Claire got to see the King’s horses and riders practicing their form and formations for the upcoming Queen’s birthday celebrations. Sometime in June, I believe, though in April a birthday related event for her is also taking place. (Woman after my own heart: may as well celebrate the birthday as frequently as possible.)

Friday evening Joe and I had a date – this time to a restaurant in Maida Vale, also known as Little Venice for its canals. After a bit of wandering and some help from a friendly cab driver, we ended up at the Boathouse, a lovely little French restaurant set on one of the canals. While it was dark and thus harder to appreciate the canal experience, we enjoyed the food and ambience, stopping at a neighborhood bar on the way home to close the evening.

Yesterday the four of us set off for Kensington Palace, home of Lady Di after her split with Prince Charles.

It was a GORGEOUS day, bright, sunny and warm, and I think all of London was enjoying Kensington Gardens, a huge open green space with the Diana, Princess of Wales' Memorial Playground, pond, cafes, paths and park benches, etc. Joggers, families, walkers, picnickers and plenty of dogs, as the kids like to point out.

About the Gardens:

William III bought what was originally part of Hyde Park in 1689 to create Kensington Gardens. He also had Sir Christopher Wren design the redbrick building that is Kensington Palace. Later Queen Anne enlarged the Palace Gardens by 'transferring' 30 acres from Hyde Park.

At Kensington Palace, which is larger than I would have thought from the outside, we took an audio tour of various rooms and wandered through The Last Debutantes exhibit (learned about “coming out” in London’s high society, etiquette do’s and don’ts, events, expectations, dances, posture, clothing, costs, calendar of events and more).

The Diana, fashion and style exhibition was fun to wander through, as was the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection. (Did you know that the famous ink blue silk velvet – designed by Victor Edelstein and worn by Diana when she danced with John Travolta at the White House in 1985 -- went for $225,000 at a charity auction at Christie’s in New York in 1997? It broke Christie’s previous record of $145,000 for a garment.)

A highlight of our visit was the “tour” we caught with “Queen Victoria,” who was born at Kensington Palace and became Queen at 18. A theatrical young woman dressed in period costume acted the part beautifully, sharing her frustration with her mother’s “controlling” personality and posturing.

Her reign, the longest in British history, lasted 63 years. It was she, in 1898, who initiated restoration of the state apartments at Kensington Palace, which had been “sadly neglected” in the 1800’s. They were, obviously, eventually opened up to the public.

Claire interacted with the “Queen” a bit, visiting about dolls (Claire told her she owns an American girl doll, the queen humorously quipped that since Americans like to import everything, it was probably made in England).

To wrap up our visit the kids did some royal crafts and we watched as the Queen had a “photo” taken – her reign predated photography but a machine was used to produce an image of her, which was then traced with tracing paper and could be used for portraiture development, thus letting the Queen off the hook for all those sitting sessions.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ava Starts School

Day three at Abercorn and Ava's settled in like she owns the place (exception being swim class -- apparently there she lasted 10 minutes, dressed in her cheery red bathing suit and black bathing cap). The latter kills me; picture a troop of four-year-olds in their little trunks and one-piecers with speedo swim caps. Olympics here we come (or they can join the little old ladies at the Y doing their water aerobics, capped). (I can say this since I'm sure I'll segue to pool exercise at some point in my life. As one fellow spinner once stated: first I was a runner, now I'm a biker, in another 10 years I'll be a swimmer...)

Today Ava wore her kilt, red cardigan, blazer, red tights and black shoes. Too cute. (On P.E. days she wears her red sweat suit.)

Claire's 2nd week of school is going great too -- she's started some after school activities (puppet making and jewelry). We'll be entertained and she'll be well accessorized.

As for me, I have delighted in being alone (no, not lonely, alone. It's fabulous). Actually, yesterday I had coffee with two lovely ladies, parents of kids in Claire's class, at a little French cafe near the school.

Afterward I tromped off to the Victoria and Albert Museum for the Magnificence of the Tsars exhibit, which leaves London at the end of March.

The place is HUGE (not the tsars, the museum). The clothing in the exhibit did look like it would fit a skinny 14-year-old kid. Some of them were actually worn by a royal who died at 14 on his wedding day. Scarlet Fever or some such disease.

The jist of the exhibit is to "illustrate Russia’s relationship with her past and with Europe through two centuries of men’s court dress." The collection includes the dress and regalia worn by the emperors and the Russian court from the 1720s to 1917. Particularly auspicious was the coronation dress of the emperor. Some of these pieces were incredibly opulent, weighing 15+ kilos (embedded with jewels, sewn with gold thread, incredibly rich and luxurious fabrics).

Not a big exhibit, but very well staged and very interesting. I enjoyed perusing it, then had a delicious open-faced torte at the museum cafe (salami and brie on a buttery, flaky crust...). I then wandered through the photography exhibit before returning to St. John's Wood for the more mundane grocery shopping.

I must say I really do enjoy perusing food, so the grocery shopping is not an ominous task, and thanks to my wonderful River Run lady friends, my brown and white cart serves me well for these grocery errands.

Other London moments so far this week:

Ava and I came around the corner yesterday to find 50+ of the King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery out for a walk. Some were led, harnessed next to a horse and rider in pairs pulling carriages, others were ridden separately. In front and in back were pairs of men managing traffic as the group pranced through the streets of St. John's Wood in crisp, neat order. All the horses were brown or black -- lovely animals and a lovely site at the start of a bright, sunny day.

I had such an English lunch the other day: a warm beef and potato pasty. The only thing missing was the tea or ale, I suppose.

I'm fascinated by the dryer here (small things in life, right?). Both it and the washer seem to take FOREVER to run a cycle (as long as they work I really don't care, it's just fascinating that it takes as long as it does. Clothes come out quite clean, so all that agitation is doing the right thing, I guess.). The dryer has a container that must be emptied regularly because it fills up with water from the clothes. Obviously the machine sucks the water from the wet clothing and puts it in this tank. Good thing; line drying here would take a long time.

As for what's coming up, we're narrowing in on houses, I've signed up for an adult class (Ancient Britian) so I too can go to school, the moms at Abercorn have put me on the ladies night out list for next Thursday and I've found some babysitting resources for London style dates with my husband.

So far so good! Oh and we've got paperwork in the system for a bank account (I'm cautiously optimistic that the process won't be as painful as ex-pat banking in India)...

Now if only this incredibly beautiful, sunny, warm weather would continue for the next year or so I'd be in heaven.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

St. Patrick's Day festival

Our weekend was spent celebrating: first Ava's birthday (we partied twice, once on Thursday -- THE birthday, then on Saturday, when all four of us could burst into birthday song all day long). Yesterday we celebrated St. Patrick's Day with thousands of people at Trafalgar Square. It was great fun with parade, plenty of beer, street food and Irish bands.

The master of ceremonies -- a quirky Irishman who had plenty of one liners in his repertoire -- noted that God really is Irish as the weather was spectacular yesterday. (I do mean spectacular, sunny and warm; even I shed a layer or two.)

We also hit Mass at a different church as we're shopping around for the right one (yes, staying w/ the Catholic thing, just making sure we choose the one that best fits).

Yesterday's most convenient Mass time brought with it Latin verses. Not a bad once in a while experience, but not really up the 7 and 4 year old alley. Pretty church, built in the 1800's and currently under restoration. (Every one of the parishes we've landed in the last few years have been under massive fund raising efforts for serious construction; this time around we'll try to find one that's just painting or sprucing up the pews.)

Over the weekend we learned that 110 horses live down the street from us. One block away is the King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery, a gated compound with machine gun carrying guard out front. The horses are used for ceremonial state occasions, according to yesterday's guard, a friendly young woman who looked about 20. A small person weilding a very big gun, she gave us the download on the place. Apparently the horses and riders stroll out daily around 7 a.m., returning at half past eight. We'll have to be on the lookout.

Imagine the value of those animals...

This week our big 4-year-old starts school, Claire is off and running with week 2 at ASL, Joe will be immersed in BOA and I will do my best to marvel in some freedom to explore London a bit on my own! (Ava's advice as to what I should do with my free time: grocery shop. Claire's advice: be the mystery reader at school. No more advice needed, thankyouverymuch.)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

House hunting, rabbit fur and pub grub

Our week flew, quite successfully, too! Claire had a great first five days at ASL and is hoping to add an after school activity to her schedule. Ava and I found the right school for her; she will start Monday as a pre-reception student at a lovely little school housed in an old mansion.

The building has a ton of character but more importantly is full of children's art, fun decor (a huge stuffed bear, stuffed centipede, stuffed snake, etc.) and warm, friendly people. Ava had a ball touring it, asking tons of questions and having a lovely conversation with our tour guide. She's VERY excited to go to school and will be there all day five days a week. They break in two weeks and resume late April, getting out in July. Downside is schedule doesn't match Claire's, but one can't hope for perfection in moving and settling into the right school environments (this one is within minutes of Claire's school, drop off and pick up schedules jive and both places seem to fit w/ the kids' personalities). So I'm a happy camper!

Ava and I then spent some time getting parts and pieces of a uniform pulled together to get her started. Three days a week she'll wear a bright red track suit, she has a red swim suit for Tuesday swim class, and other days she'll wear a smart gray blazer, red cardigan and checked kilt. Quite cute and will no doubt curb all early morning dress-related arguments!

For some basics - white turtlenecks, socks, tights - we shopped on High Street in St. John's Wood yesterday. It's a lovely street lined with high end shops and cafes...and a Gap Kids. So we scored a couple of items, continued seeking others but were waylaid by a going-out-of-business sale at a lovely boutique.

One has a responsibility to check out such sales, naturally...I've been in search of a discount winter coat (can you tell I've been cold since stepping off the plane).

Unfortunately everything I've seen -- live or on line -- either would fit a very petite woman or someone considerably larger. Lovely prices, though.

So I asked the sales lady at this boutique if they had any coats and low and behold, she pulled out 2 rabbit fur garments. Absolutely beautiful, soft, warm, luscious. And so not on my radar.

BUT one of them fit and enveloped me, convincing me that it really needed to be mine.

Well actually the price really helped convince me -- DIRT CHEAP (1/5 of original price). So yes, hello PETA I am a target. I told Joe to steer clear of me if he sees someone shaking a can of spray paint. (Disclaimer here: I'm not generally the fur type but rabbits do proliferate quickly and heavily, so I guess a few sacrificed in the name of luxurious warmth doesn't really stick in my conscience. Bear in mind I am a ranch girl; I believe in supporting the rabbit farmer.)

After that little shopping spontaneity we continued on our quest for basic black shoes for little A, swung back over to meet a delightful mom/ballet teacher/uniform queen at Abercorn (Ava's school)for other parts and pieces to tide her over until I make it to the uniform store.

Ava has been modeling the summer hat, a wide brimmed red one -- so sweet and cute.

She's pleased as punch to tell everyone she's four and we'll celebrate all day today (minor celebration on her birthday as we couldn't all be together all day). We'll also look at 4 properties, which rose to the top in my house hunting adventures earlier this week. We'll then see where we net out with the home search. We could do the urban flat experience -- loved one near the school -- or the more traditional house route. I did view a few of the latter that "fit" our family size and needs a bit better (some we saw last week were huge -- what's the point when our focus is living like we're leaving?!?).

Last night Joe and I had a date; we went to a traditional London pub not too far away, great old building with colorful interior, humming with a variety of people -- men in pony tails sporting heavy tattoos and earrings, people dressed in business clothes, others in heavy sweaters with cool, crisp 'do's (love love love the styling hair here -- breath of fresh air from all that long black hair in India -- which is nice but let's face it, variety is a good thing). (While there, I was asked several times -- in puzzlement -- if all American women had short hair. And if all American women traveled without their husbands.)

Anyway, we enjoyed a glass of wine in the pub (I know I know beer really is the right drink for this environment but red wine sounded warm -- I'm a bit hung up on the warmth thing, aren't I?), then moved upstairs to the dining room, less colorful but elegant and comfortable, for dinner. I had chicken pot pie (so English, don't you think?) and Joe had haddock/salmon cakes. Cooked carrots on the side. Good, warm and inexpensive (I probably won't say that terribly often here).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Claire Starts School

Claire's first two days of school have been great; she's at the American School London, which is comprised mainly (surprise surprise) of Americans -- about 2/3.

Ava and I got the grand tour of the school on Monday; Ava liked the fish, rabbit and legos. I'm pleased with the resources offered, Ms. Jo (Claire's teacher) seems top notch and most important, Claire is thrilled with the place. She likes the kids and yesterday, as I was visiting with the room parents, I looked around to introduce her -- she'd vanished to the playground -- good sign, I think.

Now what to do with Ava...we'll meet with schools later this week that may have space for her.

She and I got a tour of the area yesterday -- we're within walking distance of some very cool neighborhoods -- Primrose and Hamstead, the Camden market, Oxford Street...now I just need a stroller and we'll be set! Quite a contrast from India -- the only stroller I ever saw there was the one our Australian friends wheeled around the hotel for their baby (most Indians simply carry their babies; sidewalks or lack thereof make buggies hard to navigate -- that and sheer numbers of people/chaos).

Here we'll definitely get in the habit of carrying umbrellas, it rained on and off yesterday with breaks of lovely sunshine and warmth.

Yesterday's tour took us to Waitrose, another grocery store (I love grocery stores). Very nice meat and produce. Frankly I have a tough time getting past the cheese counter...must be cheese withdrawal. We also stopped at a culinary store as I'm in danger of losing a digit if I keep attempting to use the crappy knives furnished by our temp housing people.

Each day I've been picking up the newspaper; the economy is top billing here, as I'm sure is the same at home. They're printing money here in hopes of spurring things. (The economy was also a hot topic in India's papers, too, along with honor killings, anti-Valentine's Day protests, anti-"pub culture" and other moral "policing." Nice to get away from that kind of news.)

We are now library card holders; the kids are in heaven (as am I -- I'm all for building a home library but buying a book everytime we hit the Gurgaon mall was a bit much).

Cheers -- must get moving as our schedule has markedly change from vacation mode: Claire must be at school at 7:50 (in India they hadn't even rolled out until 8:30 or 9)...

Sunday, March 8, 2009

House hunting and checking out London

This weekend found us house hunting in St. John's Wood, where we'd like to continue living -- nice area, nice home options. We were whisked in and out of several good options so will narrow things down as we land a school spot for Ava.

Speaking of, Ava scoffed at any house that didn't have beds. After all, how can we live there if her and Claire's room don't have beds?

Sat. morning we ran errands -- such normal living after 4 months of hotel staff taking care of us. Drycleaning, found a great butcher (I actually ran across him early last week when I was out walking, before shops opened -- he was unloading lamb quarters, cuts the meat on site. Based on that I decided his shop was worth a try.) Thus we purchased lamb steaks (excellent, I might add), some red wine and a few fruits and veggies, hit the post, etc.

Yesterday we caught a double decker bus; our tube was down so we took a bus to a different tube, ended up in Trafalgar Square and allowed the "Original" double decker bus to show us around. Much better than walking in chilly weather. (Though I really don't think Londoners found it chilly -- everyone was out and about, Hyde Park was teeming with horseback riders, joggers, walkers, tourists, you name it.)

We got a great overview of the city and all the sites we'll want to explore or re-explore -- nice walk down memory lane, too, as Joe and I were here for a week 12 years ago, falling in love.

At St. Paul's Cathedral we dissed the bus, tracked down some good Italian food and made our way back to St. John's Wood amidst sprinkles (Claire, who'd heard the weather report for the day, chastised me for not packing the umbrellas...call me an optimist -- it was sunny when we left).

Friday, March 6, 2009

Toy Museum

After a lazy morning yesterday, we headed out to find London's toy museum per Claire's request, as it's her last free day before returning to a school schedule.

What a lovely sunny (but chilly) day, too! We navigated the tube without a hitch; kids like to ride it, Ava beelines it to any open seat, settling in with her black, sparkled boots, pink leggings, pink dress, purple coat. Colorful in a sea of dark colors.

It's fun to see a wide array of hairstyles again; India's women virtually all have long hair. It's also fun to see a wide array of clothing styles. At McDonald's on Thursday I noticed how beautifully dressed in an eclectic way some lovely women near us were...then I glanced out the window to find the London School of Fashion across the street. Maybe I'll enroll and get a new wardrobe. (Testing to see if my husband is reading this.)

Back to toys...we were at a loss to find the little street upon which the toy museum rests and asked someone on the street. They were from France but pulled out a map and oriented us and voila, a few minutes later we were wandering through a narrow old house with five floors of old toys, some dating back to the 1800's. Coolest, in our opinion, were the doll houses, many of them furnished down to the tiniest ladles and irons.

Some of the toys had black and white photos of little boys and girls who'd owned them, others had tags telling about the kids who made them or knitted doll dresses, etc. What a wonderful way to share information from the past.

Naturally we hit the toy shop, Ava's sole motivation for climbing all those stairs. We came home with marbles and a toy farm set.

On the way home we stopped for pizza making items and a bottle of wine...have discovered olives wrapped in anchovies. I'm in heaven. And a great cheese selection. (India doesn't do cheese the way Europeans do.)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Day 2 in London!

So far we're liking this St. Johns Woods area -- it's quaint, easy walking distance to everything we need: post, a wide array of cafes/restaurants/coffee shops, tube stops, even a Mosque (not sure if I'll need one of those anytime soon but it does make for a diverse living area), the zoo, shops, etc.

This morning we relaxed around the house; haven't had one to lay around for a while so it was quite nice. Then took off for our first ride on the underground, as Claire and Harry Potter refer to it. I'm now the owner of an oyster card, which allows me to travel on the tube/trams/buses around the city by just touching a sensor with the card. I can load more money onto it at Oyster card outlets or online. Kids under 11 travel free -- yea! (I think freebies will be rare here; everything is more expensive than home).

Someone from Belgium told me they'd met friends from Switzerland and somewhere else for a weekend here. The non-Swiss couples opted to eat at McDonald's their last night to save money while the Swiss opted for fine dining since it was cheaper than in Switzerland...it's all relative, I guess.

Once back up on ground, we headed off in search of lunch boxes and a backpack for Ava, who is in her High School Musical craze. Busy Oxford street was great fun, had a busy downtown Chicago feel to it with so many people out and about. And another sunny day, pleasantly warm. We scored on the items we were after, had chocolate soup at a cafe in one of the department stores (it was gooey, rich and a very large portion -- just the way chocolate was meant).

I'm still amazed at how orderly and clean everything is. Poor old Gurgaon trees even looked dusty.

The power has yet to go off here -- small thing but nice. I'd gotten used to it dropping and coming back on a minute later, powering off the TV, CD player etc.

It's been so nice to be able to walk here there and everywhere, though must get some wheels for Ava. Her little legs get worn out.

We have arrived in Londontown!

After many good-byes and well wishes Tuesday morning, Ram took us on our final drive in India – to Indira Ghandi airport. We had a long, uneventful flight to London, a quick trip through customs, snapped up our luggage and were met by a driver upon exiting. Therein we spent way too much time in traffic, and of course we were greeted with rain.

In fact, it rained on and off all night, and since I was up for a large part of the night, I did enjoy the sound. Jet lag and stomach cramps got me – ironically, after evading any kind of sickness during our time in India, I spent my last two days suffering from food borne illness or a virus. Whatever it was, my poor tummy was not a happy camper.

Our first real day in London donned with sunshine! We wandered out late morning to walk by the American School, where Claire will start on Monday. Then down to the shopping area near us (our neighborhood for the time being is St. John’s Wood), where we found a local library and spent an hour reading.

Then on to lunch at Harry’s delicatessen. Skipped the kidney and liver, borscht, etc. – all three of us had very good chicken noodle soup. I had to laugh; the sun brought everyone out of doors. People were sitting outside having coffee, lunch, a glass of beer, etc. I on the other hand was cold and asked for a table at the back, well away from the door, then ordered hot chocolate and soup. Must lose the wimpiness with regard to the weather. Either that or bone up on winter underwear.

Our last days in Gurgaon

Friday morning we spent supervising packing of our air shipment (crew of 6 to pack up our hotel, two men just stood around and watched). Joe was there for most of the experience as he was packing to catch an early afternoon flight to London.

Despite his presence – and after I’d downloaded all forms sent our way to approve shipment…and filled them out with Joe’s signature, the idiot in charge pulled out yet another form after Joe’d left for the airport. You should have seen his face when I told him I would sign since Joe was at the airport (wherein idiot asked if he could come back to sign it).

Sure enough, Joe was asked for his signature from London so the shipment could leave India. I will so not miss the processes here – making everything more complicated than it needs to be.

Kids and I picked up our passports with our new UK visas Friday evening; that was a 6 hour experience. Two hours to get there, 15 minutes to pick them up, 1 ½ hours to have dinner at Oh! Calcutta (very good, I might add), 2 ¼ hours to get back home. (No, it’s not that far; rush hour traffic starts around 6, lasts ‘til 10:30).

Saturday we hit a market in Delhi for a last hurrah, and Sunday we spent the afternoon at Miss Margie’s. She taught me how to make chicken masala, which was lots of fun and tasted incredibly good. Base for all masalas is the same: ginger, onion, garlic, tomatoes sautéed in a little oil, add meat, fish, shrimp chick peas, eggplant, kidney beans or whatever else you’re having, salt it, add cumin and masala spices, cook for necessary amount of time. Serve with rice.

Monday we tackled the bank…I so dreaded that one (closing the PITA Citibank account). Shock of all shocks, it only took 20 minutes, I had no trouble draining the account and left with paperwork for both of us to sign to end our Citibank India misery.

I did feel even more conspicuous than usual at the bank, which is always busy and for the few times I’ve been forced to go inside, we’re generally been the entertainment for everyone in line, along with everyone who works there.

This day was no different; Ava was riding the line ropes like a horse, Claire was sitting on the floor reading (not exactly the norm at the bank) and I was being given a few thousand dollars worth of rupees.

These were stuffed into a brown paper bag and of course the entire place knew I was sashaying out with a huge wad of cash. I promptly turned it over for our airplane tickets – the guy who processed them wanted me to fork over my credit card so he could take it to Delhi (a 45-minute trip one way) and run it, then bring it back. I don’t think so…

Cashing it up with him was a better solution than turning the dough over to pounds in India, where I was told there are limits on how much can be changed over, you have to have documentation for the money, etc. (No, the bank couldn’t give me English currency; I asked.) On the UK side, the rate for rupees isn’t good, plus not many places convert them.

Monday evening I spent getting a hair cut, picking up the last of my tailored items and getting pampered as spa mentioned above. Not a bad way to end the India adventure!

Winding it down in India

February 28, 2009

Well I can hardly believe we’ve been here 4 months – I’m sure time can’t pass that quickly.

We are now getting ready to leave sunny, messy, people-filled India for dreary – but cool, hip, trendy cosmopolitan -- London. I’m sad to leave. I’ve so enjoyed the people here, their generosity and sense of humor, the “lost in translation” moments (and of course those times when absolutely nothing gets translated), the masses of people who all seem to get across the street in one piece despite cars buses motorcycles rickshaws bicycles weaving honking swerving flying around them.
I’ll miss seeing the occasional bony horse plodding placidly along in the midst of rush hour traffic that makes Charlotte’s busiest day seem like a sleeper.

I’ll miss seeing those auto rickshaws stuffed so full of people I wonder how the engine can go half a block, let alone a few kilometers. I’ll miss seeing 8 uniformed kids with backpacks being pedaled home in a bicycle rickshaw by a bony peddler. (Believe me, there’s no extra weight on anyone in India who does manual labor.) I’ll miss seeing people sitting on top of buses and hanging off the sides on their way to and from work. (I will not miss sitting in traffic, attempting to traverse 20 kilometers in less than 2 hours…thankfully we avoided most of these situations, but not always).

I’ll miss our driver, who is a nice, quiet, unassuming man…yet of course has a wealth of information at his fingertips through the pervasive driver network. (Never mind his own story – who knows what that might entail.) Only recently did I learn he’s a smoker. I will cherish the moment I caught him w/ a pack of cigarettes and teased him about it. Yes, Indians do blush under that dark skin.

And yesterday I found out he has two children – a baby and a 4 year old. You think you know someone…

I shall miss our hotel. Frankly, hotel living has been delightful. Great coffee every morning, made well by someone else. I’ve so enjoyed my early morning trips down to the first floor where very personable hotel staffers are quietly awaiting breakfast eaters and I get to enjoy my cup and a chat.

The hotel has also enabled us to enjoy India in an easier fashion; we didn’t have to spend time and energy setting up house (I’ve heard horror stories about setting up services, getting and keeping staff (staff is critical here; I scoffed before I came – I now understand – just keeping a house relatively clean is a daily scrub job, you could spend all your time trying to track down the items you need for one meal, running 3 errands takes an entire day…).

So yes, the hotel has allowed us to see the best of India from a cocoon – safe food, built in security and staff, short commute for Joe. Thus we didn’t get “immersed” in the culture but enjoyed it from the fringes. Pros and cons, no doubt.

All the good-byes and welcome home greetings we’ve received coming and going from the hotel I’ll miss – yet it will be nice to have a bit of anonymity back. Breakfast in a robe sounds good, too. And I hope I’ll remember to be grateful that I won’t have to go through security checkpoints every time I return home. I appreciate the Crowne’s diligence in helping to ensure guests’ safety and it’s a shame terrorists have encroached on our freedom in such a way.

Happy hours at the club have been a great way to end the day and meet other travelers. Along the way we’ve chatted with people from various parts of the world and made some good friends, plus the club staff has been particularly personable.

Rocky and Prerna are favorites of the kids; Ava got plenty of tours of the kitchen with both of them, and Claire had a ready audience for her computer games.

I’ll miss the workout facility – nice to wrap up coffee and head in to sweat, greeted by several happy faces, a bottle of water and a towel. The gym equipment isn’t bad by hotel standards, but what really shines are the steam room and sauna.

I’ve decided when I’m old I’ll get a sauna. (What am I saying? The only thing I’m waiting to do when I’m old is watch TV; by then I’m hoping there will be more options.)

Anyway, the steam room and sauna are fabulous. Simply fabulous. Except when that nude woman is in there doing scissor kicks. Well, also that other nude woman with boobs bigger than Ava who is a chatty Cathy…

While I’m on the hotel roll, relaxing by the pool will be one of my many good memories. With the lovely background music, sun shimmering off the blue water and the comfy chairs w/ red/white towels covering them, it’s been a lovely oasis from the chaos outside the hotel.

Note: Much as I’ve enjoyed India, sometimes one needs a complete break from the overt poverty (small children working the busiest streets for money, hovels just down the street where people build fires at night for warmth and use canvas, boxes, bricks, whatever makeshift shelters they can create to live in), men peeing anywhere and everywhere, many not even turning their backs – and these are men of all socioeconomic levels – I keep wanted to yell: be discreet -- go behind a tree if you don't have an option (realizing many of these people are without access to plumbing).

The dirt and dust (no sidewalks, smells of urine in the most public of places, rampant construction throughout Gurgaon, every sidewalk crammed full of people, stray dogs here there and everywhere, cows poring through trash (I wonder what they’re looking for? Candy bar wrappers? Cigarette butts? Soda cans? What part of a trash dump could possibly be enticing to a bovine?), the unpredictability of bathrooms – will they have TP? Will the floor be sopping wet from the hose Indians use to clean up? Will there be a toilet w/ a seat? chaos on the road at all times, incessant stares because of our skin color, my short hair, the kids (Indian people seem to love children and dote on them, touch them, get way up close and personal, sometimes scare the hell out of them…), my western clothing…

To that end, I’ll also miss the brightly colored clothing that abounds here. It’s delightful to see so many beautiful hues on the lovely women here. While I can’t say the somewhat shapeless style of saris appeals to me (I like feeling like I have a waist, though I guess the sari is ideal for pregnancy, right?), these women carry them off gracefully, casually tossing cloth over their shoulders and gliding along with all those folds swaying gently.

I must say, I’ve also seen some great sari fashion statements – one woman I spied recently had on a lovely sari, baseball cap and ponytail. Every once in a while I see someone all decked out in fabric, heavy jewelry and big Nike tennis shoes.
No doubt they comment on my t-shirts and jeans too; I’ve certainly received plenty of looks. I’m quite excited to live where I can resurface my tank tops and not have anyone bat an eyelash.

What I hope I’ll always remember is how so many people of different religions and walks of life co-exist – not perfectly – but in some kind of symmetry that works for India. It’s fascinating to walk down a busy street and see visible signs of various faiths: Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, every once in a while a Buddhist or Christian (harder to tell w/ the latter). It makes for a rich and interesting culture.

The food here has been delightful: rich, spicy and varied. Veg is as varied as non-veg, and either choice is respected. No food wars! I do have to laugh at the automatic assumption that since you’re white you won’t enjoy spicy food.

While the food is to die for – pass on the wine. If you come here, seek imported (and hope they store it properly).

Another aspect of life in India that I did my best to take full advantage of is the inexpensive access to spa services. My feet have never felt better; pedicures here last at least 45 minutes and involve all kinds of scrubs, massage, lotions, etc. Head rubs are a misnomer – you get your back, arms, neck and head rubbed. Fabulous. And of course the full body massages I’ve had have been delightful.

I'll not miss having to fight for a place in line (what line? Most people just push their way in). That and not having strangers way up close and personal. I like a bit of breathing room. Plus sometimes all those layers of clothes and the heat don’t make for aroma therapy. In particular, the airport line cutting got on my nerves. Hello, we all have planes to catch…

I do have a new found respect for patience – people here have more of it than anywhere I’ve seen, as I think they’re used to navigating amidst a burgeoning population in a hit and miss infrastructure. Road travel, for example – in discussing going to see the Taj Mahal, Ram's suggestion was to leaving at 4:00 in the morning without batting an eyelash. Leaving then would put you in front of the Taj at 10 a.m. Six hours to go 200 kilometers blows my mind. Someone else recommended we go by train to Amritsar (“a nice ride – only six hours” –one way. Only?).

One sees the patience thing on the road for the most part. There are the occasional skirmishes following fender benders, of which we saw plenty, but generally people weave in and out, seek a spot to merge into aggressively but when beat to the punch, don’t get perturbed, just use their horn for the next opportunity. (Non-stop horn noise.)

Shopping here, once I got the hang of bargaining, has been great fun. I’m still amazed at what these little shack like shops pack away, and how the shopkeepers (actually their lackeys) can lay their hands on items in no time, often from some upstairs corner.

I have also gotten used to being waited on by men; most women’s shops are full of men, many very young. Some of them are very good at judging sizes – quite helpful. All store seem overstaffed, each person with a different role (folder, hanger, security guy, cashier, sales people, floor cleaner, mirror cleaner, you get the idea…). Some days you get 4 people helping you with a single simple request, thus making the interaction four times as complicated.

Many men also work in spas; I’d received a salon gift certificate for approximately $20 so my last evening in Gurgaon I headed there for a pedicure, manicure and head massage (yes, total was $20). Most of the service providers there are young men, who did a great job, I might add. At one point during my pampering three men were working on me at one time -- one massaging my feet, another my hands, another removing the oil from my hair with a towel. Rough life.

I will so miss the sense of humor I’ve encountered with most Indian people, made even better by the delayed reaction as a joke gets translated.

What else?!? So much to absorb in 4 short months. It’s been a great experience; I hope to dive into London in a similar fashion.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Post-Taj -- Feb 12 onward

After the big day in Agra, we relaxed a bit – cranked away at some homeschooling. Claire has been accepted at the American School in London to complete first grade. I am quite thrilled to retire from teaching, though it’s been a great way to continue her education without the confines of a typical school schedule.

Plus it’s given me great insight into the learning process and a deeper appreciation for the wonderful teachers she’s had so far.

(Ava, too, has been following a curriculum and is eager to start at a preschool in London. Naturally it’s more difficult to get a kid into said institution than to get her into college.)

Back to life at the Crowne...I’ve embarked on having some clothes made by my 20 year old tailor, so made a couple visits to the shop he works out of. He’s affiliated with the woman at the lingerie shop, but he comes and goes, so I would come to the shop, the woman who runs it would track him down via mobile (the cell phone, like the car horn, is indispensable here – even some of these people living in slums have them).

Therein we communicated through her about my tailoring needs, and I brought a picture or two of what I was envisioning. For one item – a long black skirt – another woman, much like the shop owner, was there, so both of these down to earth, take charge ladies, plus the tailor and a couple of customers all weighed in on what material would be best, should the skirt have a slit, etc. I may as well not have been there. One of the most entertaining exchanges I’ve enjoyed here!

(Must say, often it’s decision or assistance by committee in India – everyone likes to share their opinion.) The 12 year old boy and young woman who assist in the shop stood off to the side, as always, and took in the scene.

I was sent off to find the fabric the name of which no one could remember (after all that discussing) while the tailor went on his way to make a couple of shirts. (I actually brought a shirt for him to use as a reference point, as most women’s clothing here is made tunic style, and I much prefer something with some darts and whatnot to provide shape.)

For Valentine’s Day Joe and I went to dinner and to see Slumdog Millionaire. Enjoyed both very much – I highly recommend the book as well, given they were very different. We’d been told to get gold star seats at the theatre – not sure how they differ from regular? Seemed quite like home, except they threw in a very short intermission (and Slumdog isn’t a lengthy movie). So as people were starting their break, the movie resumed. Not sure what value that intermission added?

Week of February 16
We made it to the Mughal Gardens this week. Each year for a month or so the President’s Gardens are open to the public, so we left all items in the car (you can’t carry anything with you – probably like visiting the White House these days) and wandered forever to enter the gardens. Once there we wandered forever to see all the gardens – they’re huge(13 acres)!

The first one we came to had many spices and medicinal plants, labeled with their uses. Others included the Musical Garden, Spiritual Garden and Biodiversity Park. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the gardens are a blend of the formal Mughal and British styles.

The roses alone were spectacular in this place – hundreds of them of all different shapes, sizes and colors. Paths wove here and there in the herb garden so we could zigzag our way through. Another garden was round, so we skirted the outside, looking down into layers of color. The one closest to the house was biggest, on a rectangular plot, with beautiful walkways throughout, fountains, canals and terraces adding to the beauty. The last one featured many trees and shrubs, some for practical uses, others for décor or traditional to various areas of India. On the edges of the gardens were huge banyan trees which made a lovely boundary.

While the Gardens were busy when we were there, we didn’t have to stand in line and crowds weren’t overwhelming (though a couple of school groups came through – they’re very noisy and run from place to place, but since they do their sightseeing at record speed, the size of their groups haven’t had an impact on our viewing experience– at least this has been in the case in our travels so far.)

(I actually just read that a record 95,537 people visited the Mughal Gardens last Sunday! Glad we didn’t pick that day to visit.)

Following the garden tour, wherein I carried Ava much of the way (and really realized how big and removed from the parking area these flowers are – there were first aid and water stations along the way, marathon style!), we went to Khan Market for lunch. After milkshakes, lasagna and noodles at the Big Chill (great to eat something other than a curry), we made one final stop at the Craft Museum, a delightful place to shop. We struck out on skirts (Claire was on a mission to get another knitted one) but got a lovely journal for her and ornaments for Ava (must have decorated tree in London – we sort of skipped over that business this year).

Later in the week I arranged for a guide to show us a few sites we hadn’t yet seen in Old Delhi/Delhi. Ram took us down to Raj Ghat, which marks the spot where he was cremated after his assassination in 1948. It’s a lovely, serene place with simple black marble marker and eternal flame surrounded by green space. We walked around it, then went upstairs to the overlook for a lovely view of the Raj Ghat and the surrounding area.

From there our guide took us to Old Delhi, where we stopped at the Red Fort (not to be confused with the Red Fort at Agra). Delhi’s Red Fort is much smaller, built by the same ruler in the same style from same material -- red sandstone.

After a photo opp we hopped on a rickshaw for a ride through Old Delhi. It’s a bit of a surreal experience to ride on the back of one of these wobbly cycle carts in heavy traffic with much larger cars trucks you name it weaving in and out. Images of the daily paper with its list of gruesome pedestrian/cyclist fatalities did cross my mind. Obviously not a big enough worry as we sat back and let the poor cyclist navigate crossing the street with us in tow.

One does see a little of everything in Old Delhi – it’s jam-packed full of people at all times (at least in my experience). Narrow streets weave in, out and around, one can lose oneself in the small alleys that spiral off from Chandni Chowk and other larger streets.

A large concentration of Muslims live here, as Jamal Masjid, the country’s largest Mosque, can be found in Old Delhi. I’ve been told there’s very little crime in the community, as people are closely knit and watch out for each other.

The buildings here are old, some crumbling – apparently the government tried unsuccessfully a few years ago to tear them down and re-build new ones, but the people protested, as most of these homes have been in families for generations – and this is, truly, Old Delhi.

Ram met us at the end of our rickshaw ride and we drove around a bit more, saw a woman taking a potty break in the road, a very busy one at that (the road, that is). Just when you think you’ve become accustomed to the unusual…

What if she’d gotten hit by a car? Although let’s face it, for many people here life is lived almost, if not in, the street (that said, using the actual street as a bathroom is a bit extreme, especially for a woman – typically there’s more discretion involved – she may not have been 100% -- now isn’t that the understatement of the year).

From Old Delhi we stopped at the India Gate and President’s House for a stroll around. Lovely day, so many people were out and about – the grounds around India Gate are very popular for recreation – picnicking, kite flying, a little pond is available for paddle boating.

Next stop: lunch at a delicious restaurant teeming with locals and tourists – such a busy place – our guide said it’s always packed. He and I shared butter chicken, which was the best I’ve had since arrival. (May I interject here that who doesn’t like I dish with a name that begins with “butter?”)

Back in the car, our guide told us we were going to see a special temple, wherein Ava, who was sitting straight up in her seat, wearing her current favorite bright pink dress with her hair framing her face in the quintessential child-doll haircut (there is nothing as cute as a small round face framed by bangs, I’m convinced) stated, politely:

“I hate temples.”

I nearly laughed out loud and crossed my fingers the man hadn’t understood her. He didn’t appear to, telling her we were going to see pretty goddesses like herself (let’s be frank, no Hindu goddess I’ve seen so far measure up to my children, but then I am biased).

Despite the lack of enthusiasm for the temple, the kids hopped out of the car and we walked through the Birla Mandir, which is made of white marble and sandstone and was inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi. We’d actually visited once before but it was nice to return – to me this temple seems very peaceful and elegant, clean and quiet.

From the temple we stopped at a fabric shop as I was on a mission to find skirt material, then back to the Crowne. Long day but a good one. Later, Joe and I met up with our friends Joe and Christina for drinks at a new cricket-themed brewery – great fun to connect and catch up on travels/life in Gurgaon. They’ll be here until April, then moving to Chicago.

Friday the kids and I picked up lovely Miss Margie, who we’ll dearly miss, to run a few errands as she was preparing for her dad’s birthday party on Sat. She’s still in a cast so we tried to help a bit – India’s a tough place to navigate for a handicapped person, I think – lack of sidewalks, holes here there and everywhere, not many ramps…

She took us to a very nice butcher shop (not that I’m whipping up many meat dishes
these days), and we paid a visit to her favorite flower guy, ordered cakes, etc.

That evening we picked up Joe at his office, got to see his digs (nice corner space with great view of Gurgaon – actually not a bad scene, either – around here you have to take what you can get in terms of scenery with all the city’s construction, shanty towns and trash. We all set off for the British Consulate to pick up his passport w/ new visa. The trip was LONG as traffic was miserable, and it took us nearly as long to get to a nearby restaurant (Tonino’s) afterward. Lovely ambience, though, and good food.

Saturday we ran a few errands, tried desperately to get Joe’s passport notarized to no avail, and enjoyed the party at Miss Margie’s home, which is under construction. Out back she’d set up a temporary grill so our Aussie friend Ian became grillmaster and we enjoyed grilled chicken and lamb burgers, along with cole slaw, salsa, potato salad and all kinds of things that taste so “home-y.”

On Sunday we had a lovely brunch with friends Vipul and Kashmira, who are Indians but live in Africa, she originally hailed from London, where they also have a home, but with their global rice business they travel frequently. Here, like us, they’ve been hotel dwellers.

We enjoyed their delightful company and the Hyatt’s excellent food, particularly the thin crust pizza. And the endless champagne…

On Monday the kids and I schlepped again to the British Consulate, as we had our appointment for visa processing since our documents had arrived from the U.S.

In the evening we very much enjoyed a going away party for Joe, held at DLF Country Club in Gurgaon. The place is a gorgeous oasis from the Gurgaon I described earlier. Lovely people who I think will truly miss Joe and his talents.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Taj Mahal!

Week of February 9

Monday we picked Miss Margie up for lunch al fresco at Drift, a restaurant at the Epicentre. The chef used his special sauce for a shrimp pasta dish per Margie’s request.
On Tuesday we had big plans to hit the President’s Rose Garden, a Moghal garden that is only open a few weeks each year. It actually rained here, though – not a lot but enough to cool everything down, so we passed on the roses and hit the Museum of Modern Art. Beautiful lay out and some very nice pieces – I really enjoyed work by artist Nandalal Bose. He’s done a wide array of painting – murals, landscape, epics, poster art for Gandhi, etc.

Then we had to stop at Margie’s to see the two labs she and her father are adopting – yellow dwarfs. Nice but high energy. (Will I ever be able to manage a dog?!?)

On Wed. we took off to see the Taj Mahal!!! Yes, saving it for the tail end of our experience here, I guess. We got up extra early to catch the 6:15 train from New Delhi to Agra – it takes 2+ hours by train, 6 by car. Plus no carsickness. Poor Claire has suffered enough.

The Delhi train station experience wasn’t as bad as I expected – or we caught it on a slow morning (ok “slow morning” is a bit of a misnomer here). (Or, as Joe says, I'm becoming desensitized.)

We stepped around many bodies covered with blankets, feet sticking out, on our way to the platform. Our train was ready and waiting, someone pointed us to our coach, seats were easy to find and we shared two. Next time will get three.

Breakfast was provided – a gray omelet (tasted surprisingly good, though) served with peas. Bread had a bit of a petroleum taste. Maybe they stored it too close to the engine? And thank heavens for Nescafe.

In Agra we were met, literally, as a rep from our tour group helped Ava and Claire down from the train. He took us to our driver, who then took us to pick up our guide, Anu, a very nice woman who also has two daughters.

First stop: The Taj!

You can’t park close as efforts have been put in place to protect and preserve it from pollution, so we got to choose our mode of transport to the gate. Claire opted for a horse cart, which was great fun – a skinny dark brown horse (I’ve yet to see a fat one here) pulled a smart white “carriage” (cart may be a more apt description).

The horse hustled us to the east gate (there are 4, with the North Gate being the big auspicious entry leading into the Taj). All are red sandstone.

Once in the gate we were surrounded by green space. The big gate itself is auspicious – red and white sandstone, Moghal architecture. According to our guide, the gate is likened to that of a veil of a beautiful woman – a way of announcing or preparing for something very important/beautiful. Symmetry is extremely important in Persian architecture (the roots of Moghals). The Taj and its “campus” (Taj and campus – don’t they jive?) are very symmetrical and heavily detailed, from practicality (i.e. hollow dome for heightened air flow – better a/c) to beauty in the tiniest detail.

Only superior quality materials were used – the best marble (white) from 300 miles away, which has an opaque quality that enables light to shine through. Hence the Taj can be captured “reflecting” different colors at different times of day.

When we were there it looked bright white, pristine and clean. The original structure had much gold on it, along with 28 different semi-precious and precious stones. Much of the gold was removed during British rule, but the inlaid stones couldn’t be removed so they remain today, in a myriad of colors and designs, to decorate the gorgeous tomb.

The inlaying is a work intensive process: first patterns are carved into the marble, then jewels/gems are cut to fit into the patterns. A special glue (secret recipe which has been handed down generation to generation by the craftspeople who do this special inlay work) is used to hold the gems in place.

One of the gems used to decorate the Taj is iridescent – orange/red – so that when light is shined on it it lights up. (Our guide demonstrated using a guard’s flashlight.)

Outside, writings from the Koran appear on the structure (inlaid onyx). Writings at the top are larger than script at eye level so that all can be read from below. They seem to be the same size (optical illusion).

Another optical illusion we experienced was upon entering the North Gate (the veil), through which we caught our first glimpse of the Taj. As we moved forward, it appeared to be moving away from us, when we stepped backward it appeared to be moving toward us!

About the Taj:

Shah Jahan built the tomb in honor of his third and favorite wife, Arjumand Bano Begum (who he called Mumtaz, which means the chosen one), after she died in childbirth (having her 14th child). I’d die too.
Construction on the monument began in 1631, was completed in 1653, with 20,000 workers and 1,000+ elephants completing the task.

Various parts of the Taj:
• Darwaza (The main gateway)
• Bageecha (The gardens)
• Masjid (The mosque)
• Naqqar Khana (The rest house)
• Rauza (The main mausoleum)


Today the mosque is still used, so the Taj is closed to the public each Friday. The mosque flanks the Taj on the left, and the rest house, identical to the mosque, flanks it on the right.

This is yet another example of how everything about the Taj is in perfect symmetry…except that Shah Jahan ended up buried there, next to Mumtaz. Not in the original plan, it is the devoted husband’s grave that mars his symmetrical plans.

We did attempt to have a photo taken by one of the Taj photographers with kids pointing at top of the Taj from a bench but he never did surface with our photos.

The river view from the taj was fine – the water is low this time of year. I can imagine that in the 1600’s the views were more spectacular…less pollution, trash, more trees/forest.

After our Taj tour we took the horse cart back to the car. Hawkers and beggars were all over us, more invasive than anywhere we’ve been in India. Anu told us tourism is the number one industry in Agra as it has three world Heritage sites. Following the Mumbai terrorist attack, and with the shrinking economy, Agra is really suffering, clearly heightening the desperation of hawkers and beggars.

She said typically this time of year between 10,000 and 15,000 people visit the Taj each day. This season it’s been more like 5,000 per day (no complaints – we didn’t stand in line anywhere, there weren’t any crowds, etc.).

Next stop after the Taj: a big, recently built store with workshops and a theatre. In the workshops etching is done, the same technique, glue, etc., used to decorate the Taj Mahal. We watched as one man made “grooves” or designs in the marble, another cut precious/semi precious stones in shapes to fit the grooves, another melting and applying glue, someone else putting the stones in…

Anu said some of the craftsmen actually lose their fingerprints on their 4th fingers from the repetition/pressure used in carving the intricate designs into the marble.
She said this work is becoming a lost art in India as fewer young people have the interest in carrying on a family tradition of inlay work.

Anu also said a more recent art has grown in Agra – leatherwork.

We got a sales spiel for the marble table tops – lovely but nothing I’m desperate to shlep to London or Davidson, for that matter. We hit another shop “cheapest and best quality” – where have I heard that before? Nothing terribly new and different so we headed to lunch. Good mutton dish, chicken for the kids, then we caught an impromptu puppet show outside (father worked the puppets, son played the drums).

Then off we went to the Red Fort. We only saw 10 percent of it and that 10 percent was huge! It is described as a “walled palatial city” and the most important fort in India.

India was was governed from the fort for many years, and great Mughals Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jehangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb lived there. At one time it contained the largest state treasury and mint and was visited by foreign ambassadors and dignitaries who helped shape India’s history.

Here, also, Shah Jahan was imprisoned fort by his son, Aurangzeb, and said to have died in Muasamman Burj, a tower with an excellent view of the Taj Mahal.

The red fort is also site of one of the battles during the Indian rebellion of 1857, leading to a century of direct rule by Britain. Some of the fort was destroyed during this battle, other parts torn down to make way for barracks.

Still other parts of it are under restoration. It’s a gorgeous place, made of sandstone (hence the red) and fun to wander. Not a heritage museum so lots of open space, moghal gardens, varying architectural styles as rulers added on/changed the fort over time. The Mosque inside the fort stopped being used after it served as a hospital – apparently in the Muslim view it is soiled and cannot be used again for prayer.

The fort, 2 ½ km from the Taj Mahal, offers great views of the tomb.

On the way out we spotted a monkey sitting on a motorbike, looked like he was trying to take the seat apart or go for a drive…or both.

From the fort we had our driver take us to a local market as Ava wanted henna on her hands. Both kids had designs done by street artists – all boys. They look like they’re 15 and competed against each other in the bargaining. I think we ended up paying 20 R per child.

We then wandered a bit, giving the henna some time to dry. One of the shops we wandered into sold shawls. I’d been cold all day (our chilliest day in India due to earlier rain). Anu said this is the typical winter weather here; it’s been abnormally warm this year (no complaints by me).

At the shawl shop I asked to see the biggest, warmest one they had. It was more like a blanket so I passed on that but found something in a more appropriate size, made of wool, all of 350 R. I left quite happy and warm – and a nice shopping experience. (I try to avoid purchasing anything at the overly pushy places, would rather spend my money in the family owned businesses where I feel like people are a bit more honest, willing to bargain, etc.)

Then we took a rickshaw ride – not something we’d planned to do, but a practically toothless, skinny bicycle rickshaw driver asked us several times, so politely, if we wanted a ride. (Must note: all rickshaw drivers are very skinny and no doubt old before their time. Seems a bit funny to pay someone to pull us around when we’re perfectly capable of strolling a few blocks, but then I guess if no one employs poor skinny rickshaw driver he makes no money...)

So for 20 rupees we took a jaunt around the market, kids loved it.

From there we went to a theatrical presentation based on the Shah and Muntaz’s love story and the ensuing creation of the Taj Mahal. It started out a bit cheesy and melodramatic with a woman narrator getting into starcrossed lovers and lust vs. love. But the show itself, with costuming and dance from the Moghal timeframe, was very good. Headphones for translation were handed out – mine was tuned into German. Quite the mix -- guttural German emanating from Muntaz, who had lovely dark skin and hair and was adorned in a brightly colored, heavily jeweled costume. (Not to worry, I found the English channel.)

The performance was a nice complement to our Taj visit, and the kids particularly enjoyed the dancing, of which there was plenty.

From the theatre we headed to the train station, saw one rat and plenty of desperate beggars and hawkers. I’ve gotten many offers to shine my shoes…my sandals look bad but I don’t think any amount of polishing is going to help. Plus let’s face it – nothing looks polished for long here because of all the dust and dirt we shelp through to go anywhere (not many sidewalks).

The train ride back went quickly and Ram was at the gate to meet us, thankfully. The slowest part of the whole process was getting out of parking!

Return to Gurgaon

Wednesday, February 11

We left lovely south India on a VERY early morning flight and spent part of the week catching up on life at the Crowne. It was fun to see the staff after being gone for 2 weeks. We’ll miss these people and the great service they provide.
Joe beat London’s big snow, only to experience a city capsized by it. He was delayed a day on the return.

Highlights of our week:

Tuesday the kids and I took books to Nehru Park, one of New Delhi’s big green spaces. This one has a ton of flowers right now – lovely oranges, reds, purples, pinks…from big and bold to dainty.

I had a chat with someone who wanted to understand what we were doing (science in the park). The concept of homeschool here is foreign. We’ve oft been asked, naturally, if the kids are on holiday – when I explain that they’re being homeschooled I get a blank stare. Upon explanation, most seem skeptical about the process. There is a huge emphasis placed on education here, and I think there’s one view of how it can be done: in a traditional classroom environment. The gentleman and I, in discussing school systems, concurred that both classroom and homeschool settings have pros and cons.

The Gurgaon Connection (ex-pat social group) re-launch took place Wednesday with a Web site presentation and discount cards. Attendance was huge and I got some tips on London life from a few Londoners. We haven’t gotten terribly involved with the Gurgaon group in our time here, as we’ve traveled quite a bit, and the mom’s group is geared for younger children. (Plus let’s face it, I’m a bit done with the playgroup thing.)Very nice group of people from many different places throughout the world, many who've gone from one ex-pat assignment to the next, and next and next...

I summoned the hotel doctor to look at Claire this week. She’d had a few mosquito bites and skinned her knees when we were in Kerala. A blister developed on one knee on the way home, then started growing at an alarming rate. The doctor gave us 2 kinds of ointments that deal with infected mosquito bites. We invited the doctor back after the sores continued to grow and were provided with an antibiotic that cleared whatever it was up – maybe impetigo?

For London weather we picked up a few things at one of Gurgaon’s many malls, then grabbed Pizza Hut pizza to take back to Miss Margie’s, who is in a cast following a broken foot. (Their pizza tasted surprisingly good – must be withdrawals I’m experiencing…)

I caught up w/ my hairdresser and squeezed in a pedicure and head massage. This time no oil, and she did my back and shoulders, too – mix of reflexology and pressure points. It was fabulous.

Friday we went to a melee -- a great big outdoor craft fair -- in Faridabad. I think every area of India was represented, along with Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Thailand and Malaysia. (Who knows who I’m missing; the place was so big I think we may have seen 1/3 of it.)

Before winding our way around paths lined with vendors, a huge “smells so good” food court and stages of entertainment (dancing and music) we were waylaid by a man with two white horses. He was offering rides so kids both jumped on that opportunity, each on their own horse.

I think the price started out as 200 R each, then became 200 R for both, then when I pulled my wallet out the bill was 40 R. I’m still confused and overpaid – the horses looked like they could use some extra food.

The melee was so big it had several gates. As noted, we didn’t make a thorough sweep of the place as our energy was limited, the size was intimidating and frankly I got textile overload. We did leave with a few things – scarf, leather toy horses for Claire, serving dish made from walnut wood and a bracelet for Ava, the jewelry queen. Lots of bargaining and good prices, it seemed.

After a 5-hour delay, Joe got in on Sat., so we met up w/ his tailor to review some suits he’s having made. I, too, am having a few things sewn – shirts from the silk I purchased in south India. My tailor was recommended to me by my hairdresser (aren’t they always “wired in?”. I think he’s all of 20 years old, works with a woman who owns Queens, a bra/underwear/lingerie shop in the Galleria. She’s great – very on top of things, seems to run a tight ship. And I think her business is a family affair – there’s always someone in there who looks related to her, or at least hangs out with great familiarity.

We managed to get the kids some shoes and hit the mall for a bit – Ava suffered from diarrhea on and off throughout the day so we cleared out so she could recover. This has been the first real bout of illness we’ve experienced since arriving – we’ve been lucky.

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi
Largest mosque in India