Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

October, 2011

October, 2011
Chess in Lausanne, Switzerland

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Ok I'm exhausted. As much as I enjoy moving locations, the actual process does suck me dry (could be because I feel a need to get EVERYTHING unpacked and put away in record time).

Actually, most things are finding homes and coming together nicely -- it helps not to move an entire house; the lack of toys alone is fabulous! I do like living "light;" I'm sure my husband will love it when we move home and I get rid of 2/3 of what we've accumulated...

As for being wired in, I'm now thoroughly confused. BT, which canceled my phone order twice, now tells me I don't need an engineer and that my phone line should simply be active. (Since our phones aren't charged I can't begin to tell you if that's accurate or if he's blowing smoke you know where.) Meanwhile I received a text message confirming that a BT engineer will be at my house Friday at 120 pound charge. But guy on phone says no engineer, no charge. Are they really working for the same company?

Internet of course CAN'T come on until Monday; they couldn't give me a good reason for that. Let's just hope it actually does work when the time comes...

And the TV people have given me the typical "appointment" timeframe: just be home between 9 and 6 on Friday, ma'am. I was told yesterday that TV service here is a misnomer. So we'll see what happens on Friday in TV land.

In the midst of all my organizing, unpacking and cleaning, I danced off to a St. Johns Wood Women's Club meeting and my Ancient Britian Class yesterday. Fabulous break!

At the first event there was a speaker who talked about Olympic Park. Apparently the area in which the village is being constructed boasts the worst five boroughs in all of England. So as money and construction pour into the place, efforts are being made to create facilities/infrastructure that can be maintained longer term. Unemployment is part of what is being addressed within the community -- will be interesting to see how much success the effort has in future.

It turns out Olympic Park will be at the end of our tube line, about a 20 minute ride. Olympics, here we come! (Provided we're still here, naturally.) Tours are given of the Park as it comes to life, so I think the SJWWC is looking into one for fall -- would be fun to see it before it's actually up and running.

The women at the meeting seem like a neat group, variety of ages and backgrounds with many different interests...hiking, lunches, teas, book group, stitching, theatre, happy hours, etc. I anticipate fitting some of their activities in to enhance my time in London.

My Ancient Britain class rocked; we'll go to Stonehenge in a couple of weeks to actually see what we've been learning about. Families are welcome so the kids and Joe are coming, too.

After class it was back to reality with house stuff, though such a gorgeous day that we had the doors thrown open and Ava's picked half the community garden to decorate our kitchen table. (Maybe that's why my eyes are swollen? Hello pollen!) Apparently it's one of the warmest Aprils on record here. They must have known I was coming and that I simply can't handle the slightest chill.

Cheers and happy Thursday!

Monday, April 20, 2009


After a busy Monday on the move end of things, I'm happy to report we have hot water and heat. I now know how to work the system (small things in life, critical).

I got a call from the furniture company yesterday morning at 8:30, saying they were at the house...Ava and I were at the old house waiting on the packing crew. (A in her nightie and I hadn't showered). We mobilized with water and clothes and as we were walking out the door to let the furniture folks into the new house, the doorbell buzzed. Packers.

So we oriented them, then headed out to meet up w/ furniture folks, who'd gone to have tea while they waited.

All went quite smoothly if a bit hectic; at one point there were 15 men in the house.

And w/ regard to TV, phone and internet service, it looks like Friday 2 out of 3 may happen, Monday the 3rd (I'm not holding my breath here).

On tap today: some unpacking and Ava and I will escape the chaos for a bit to enjoy what promises to be gorgeous weather!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Easter and the rest of spring break


We started our day with chocolate in bed (it was Easter, afterall), then headed to St. Nicholas Church for Mass (it was one of a few churches w/ masses in English). Droves weren’t lining up for seats – a first. Those C&E Christians must have all been at the Flemish and French masses.

We took our loitering to a sidewalk café and had doughnuts and pastries for breakfast. Nothing like more sugar before 10 a.m.

After a nice mass, officiated by an American priest, we looked for the cannon ball still lodged in the nave from the French invasion in the 1600’s; we can attest that it is still there.

From the church we wandered to an art market near the square – candles in the form of beer, jewelry, clothes, figurines that whistled like birds (novel but after a day the thing would lose its squawk in our house). Nothing we couldn’t live without.

We checked out some of the shopping arcades in lovely old buildings off the square, found a lace souvenir for Claire (small pillow with what she claims has 3 uses: necklace storage, American doll accessory, Xmas tree décor).

Ava, naturally, wasn’t far behind in the need for a souvenir. We found a row of purses for the change she keeps finding on the sidewalk (it pays, quite literally, to be close to the ground, apparently). Ava is now sporting a Bruxelles purse for her change.

Per a recommendation by the lace shop owner, we lunched at a little Italian place – non-touristy. Lovely food, local crowd and a staff that spoke very little English, a whole lot of Italian. Joe asked the kitchen crew what the house specialty was and after blank stares they all said “pasta.” (Isn’t every house specialty in Italy pasta?!?)

After lunch we tracked down dessert – I wanted a waffle with nutella and whipped cream at Patty’s favorite waffle shop. As usual, she was on target – it was superb. Kids wanted ice cream (they’re both really into lemon sorbet these days). Low and behold we came upon an ice cream truck on our way to the Royal Palace, so we sat by a fountain overlooking lovely Brussels while they consumed their sorbet.(When I was a kid it was all about vanilla ice cream; I’m still not a big sorbet fan. Does this mean my ice cream tastes are less grown up than my children's?)

Claire and I hit the ancient art portion of the Musee des Artes, spent much time viewing artwork by the Flemish masters. It was a truly great couple of hours and we eventually left when they kicked us out (closing time).

Meanwhile Joe and Ava made their way back to the hotel, stopping at the The Église Notre Dame du Sablon (Church of Our Lady of Sablon) en route (Claire and I did the same thing on our way through).

Built in the 15th and 16th centuries, Notre Dame du Sablon is "noted for its four-fold gallery with brightly colored stained-glass windows, a striking contrast with the gray-white Gothic arches and walls."

Also inside: two baroque chapels decorated with funeral symbols in white marble and the celebrated statue of St. Hubert -- it was once stolen and taken to Antwerp but was seized and returned to the church in 1348, where it has remained.

While Ava ate free chocolate eggs at the hotel and Joe sampled more Belgian beer, Claire and I stopped for photos and to look over the city by the Place Poelart (where the lovely Palais de Justice sits – the domes weighs 24,000 tons) and the war memorial.

All of us collapsed for a bit, then had dinner at a pub nearby – casual place with good stuempf (sp?) – local sausage/mashed potato/vegetable specialty), great Parmesan croquettes (does it get any better than fried cheese) and live music. Not bad.

Easter Monday

We wandered Brussels this morning, stopping for waffles and ice cream for breakfast, then checking out a couple of churches (feeling quite holy on this trip).

Notre Dame de la Chapelle (Our Lady of the Chapel) is a large Romanesque-Gothic church; construction on it began in 1210 and was completed by the end of the 13th century (thus marking the transition between Romanesque and Gothic styles; the transept and choir are Romanesque-Gothic, most of the remainder is in the Flamboyant Gothic style). Which I guess means there’s a non-flamboyant Gothic style?

Notre Dame de la Chapelle is notable as the burial place of Francois Anneessens (1660-1719), a Brussels hero who lost his head for campaigning for civil rights. It’s also the burial site of Pieter Brueghel the Elder and his wife.

The other church we popped into escapes my memory, other than it is very old and looks that much older sandwiched between modern buildings on the busy, broad and tree lined Avenue Louise (quite the contrast to the more historical Brussels, with its narrow, windy streets that seem to lead easily from site to site but make map orientation confusing. Best to wander and wing it, I guess).

We later ended up in the city park near the Royal Palace, where it was international playtime at its best: Muslim kids, English kids, Italian kids, French and Flemish speaking kids, African kids…and of course American kids.

Then it was onto the train station for our Eurostar trip back to London, lovely day here, trees are in bloom and gorgeous. One near us has already left a carpet of white petals on the pavement.

And the remainder of spring break?

Kids and I hit the London Zoo, a great place – yes, it should be for the amount of money we and every other family in London w/ a spring breaker spent on Tuesday). I must say it’s a startling contrast to the Delhi zoo. I do believe the animals at both zoos are well treated, with clean, natural habitats and all that.

But…for under $2, the Delhi one rocked. Of course we were scared to try the ice cream, which was the only snack available, and the bathroom wasn’t up to the same standards held for the zoo inhabitants. And while the Delhi zoo experience was pretty much only about the animals (and us being stared at, pointed at, talked about and photographed by curious Indians), the London Zoo features all kinds of special events, fundraisers, partnerships, talks and demonstrations, playgrounds, cafes, carnival equipment, on and on and on.

Oh, and HEAVY with the conservation messages. If you find me politely escorting spiders outside rather than whacking them with a shoe, you’ll know it’s due to the London Zoo’s brain washing.)

Anyway, with tix, lunch, ice cream and one ride on the merry go round, we left just under $100 with the fine London Zoo people. They actually asked if I wanted to donate MORE money. I think I covered that pretty well.

Despite all that we’ve decided to become members (really, going twice is more expensive than joining for a year, and since membership will recoup our last week’s ticket expenditure, I’m for it…plus said zoo is only a 10 minute walk from us.
(I’ve seen the giraffes a few times on my morning walks, scratching their necks on their doorway.) I do believe we’ll go there enough to take advantage of joining. (Can’t you just see it: “do you want to go to the zoo? Not today mom. Well too bad. We paid for it so you will go and you will enjoy it, @!X$#!”).

We also hit the National Wildlife Photography exhibit, which is in town for a few more days at the National History Museum – very cool and very worth seeing if you get the chance.

And on Thursday, when it rained, we went to one of those noisy indoor play areas where every child screams at the top of their lungs. It was great fun. (I hope you can hear the sarcasm coming through my keyboard.)

Other highlights:

Ava cut her hair. Must be a rite of passage for the 2-5 year old crowd, right? I caught Claire cutting hers when she was 3 or so…I did not find Ava cutting her hair, I found her hair near shards of paper and blunt, plastic green handled scissors. Thus Ava is now sporting a chic little bob per the 8 pound Great Clips equivalent up the road.

Halfway through the haircut she burst into tears, said something about her stomach. After consolation and quick action by the hairdresser we hit a café for a snack (I thought she was starving; sometimes she becomes cranky or maudlin when in need of food). That’s when it came out: she was sobbing because “I look like a boy; I hate my hair cut. Can’t we just pull it and make it longer again?”

After plenty of comments about her princess looks, she now preens about her new ‘do.

And after voracious Claire/Ava fighting through the grocery store and into the tube the other day, I watched as Ava stuck her tongue out at Claire all the way home on the subway. Unbeknownst to her (or maybe she knew and was loving the audience bit) everyone in our tube car was watching her as she leaned over and stuck her tongue out at Claire as many different ways as one’s tongue can be stuck out. I couldn’t see Claire face from my vantage point but I suspect she had her arms crossed in anger and was giving Ava a look of rage.

Saturday we had a lovely time at the Household Cavalry Museum, where first we watched the changing of the guard in the courtyard adjacent to the museum. Big, black horses with impeccably dressed riders sporting red and white, plumes and armor vests, strode out, later joined by a larger procession coming down the street near Buckingham Palace.

They then stood around for a very long time, as did we and a growing crowd, waiting for something to happen. Eventually it did; they went through a ceremony, then some guards went one way, the other group another – they rode by within a couple of feet of us. Incredibly beautiful animals and such grace and dignity of horsemen.

This whole thing took about an hour, we then headed into the museum and checked it out – learned about the lengthy process involved in grooming, training, preparing costumes daily, the history of the guards and their activities around London and abroad. Through a glassed wall you can actually see the stables, the big black rumps of the horses, some coming and going with guards leading them, other groomsmen watering, feeding and cleaning.

Very cool experience.

More about the Household Cavalry Museum:

The Household Cavalry Museum sits within Horse Guards in Whitehall, central London, which dates from 1750. It is still the headquarters of the Household Division, and the Household Cavalry has continued to perform the Queen’s Life Guard, a daily ceremony which has remained relatively unchanged for over 350 years.
The Household Cavalry was formed in 1661 under the direct order of King Charles II and now consists of the two senior regiments of the British Army – The Life Guards and the Blues and Royals.
They have two roles: as a mounted regiment (on horseback) they guard Her Majesty The Queen on ceremonial occasions in London and across the UK and are a key part of the Royal pageantry; as an operational regiment they serve around the world in armored fighting vehicles. They currently have units deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And in other news…

Naturally w/ the move to our new house, we’ve spent plenty of time and energy getting things set up, only to find we have no hot water, the heat won’t turn on, my phone order has been cancelled twice, my TV hook up once and broadband…who knows?!? And people really thought we were crazy for living in hotel? Hello?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Saturday in Bruges

Today we headed to Bruges via train from Brussels Midi – hopped a cab wherein the driver asked if 10 Euro would be ok rather than the meter…as the meter would be cheaper. Hello?!? And no, it wasn’t far to the station, obviously, but Claire has done an awful lot of walking and no doubt Bruges would be a lot of footwork.
The driver’s excuse for wanting 10 euros from us for a 6 euro ride was because he had to sit at the hotel for an hour waiting for a customer. And we were supposed to compensate for this?

The ride to Bruges was quick, kids enjoyed the train and the deep green farmland, small villages with lovely churches and steeples, brick houses with triangular roofs, a few horses and cows sprinkled in, made for a lovely view.

We were in Bruges by 11, headed for the city center and hit the canal ride first. A nice way to tour the city from the water, our guide gave a spiel in 6 different languages (diverse group of tourists, obviously).

Bruges’ many gorgeous buildings dating back to the 11th century are mainly intact as the city was untouched during both world wars. Thus it’s a lovely place…gorgeous architecture, winding streets, canals, flowers in bloom.

Five km of canals around the city are devoted to tourism. The area used to be at sea level and you can still take canals out to sea (the outer ones, not the ones we sailed). The boat took us under bridges built in the 13th and 15th centuries. We saw many of the city’s key sites – old hospital (now museum), a house that looks like a church, cathedral, many other churches (I think there are 16 or more, and only one of them isn’t Catholic).

Today Bruges has a large Italian population, per our boat driver. People here speak Flemish as it’s in one of Belgium’s Flemish states (I think he said 4 are Flemish speaking, 4 French).

After the boat ride we looked for the Godiva factory but apparently it’s left Bruges so we took refuge at a pub near the fish market for lunch. We sat outside and enjoyed the sunshine, beer and grilled ham and cheese sandwiches. This was after attempting to eat at an Italian restaurant that looked like it had great pizza (apparently I hadn’t gotten my fill from the previous night).

When we came in (kids and me), the waitress looked at us and said “no.” Not sure if that meant no room, no kids or no stroller -- or all the above -- but we made haste to depart.

Joe waved at the patrons in the window on the way by later.

From lunch we headed to the chocolate museum – a more upscale version than the one in Brussels. We got samples on the way in and wandered through 3 floors of chocolate info – history, marketing, manufacturing, etc. The last stop was the kitchen, where a chef was giving a demo and distributing REALLY good chocolate.
We then wandered the neighborhood around the chocolate museum and found a lovely church, Baroque style.

After a stroll along the canals we jumped into a long line for a horse carriage ride per Claire’s request. Thankfuly it was in the town square area, which makes for great people watching. Plenty of sidewalk cafes, some carnival rides, snack stands, etc.

Eventually Lynn and Bernard (Lynn being the carriage driver, Bernard the big black horse in front) picked us up, charged us an exhorbitant amount of money for a 45 minute ride around the city and off we went.

Claire sat next to Lynn on the buckboard for the first half of the ride, Ava for the second. Bernard rootie toot tooted on Ava’s watch -- Ava rolled her eyes at Lynn, much to the latter's amusement. Kids got to see Bernard get a snack and water break half way through the ride. No doubt the horses have a good gig going in Belgium, in contrast to those poor over used animals in India -- here they work every other day, have food/water breaks in the midst of each ride and only give 8 rides per day. (I actually believe it; the lobby for animal care is probably just as vocal as it is for human health care in Belgium).

After a fun jaunt around town, Lynn gave us a recommendation for dinner – traditional Flemish food at a nearby restaurant. Lovely, warm little place with Flemish tapestries on the walls.

Joe and I got the fillet for two, the kids shared a fried fish and we all dove into the fries – very good meal with a lovely bottle of red wine to accompany it. For dessert Claire opted for lemon sorbet, A for 3 kinds of ice cream (she’s into coffee flavored ice cream these days – I need someone to be a fellow coffee connoisseur in the future), I had a decadent chocolate mousse and Joe had some ice cream concoction.

As we made our way to the train station we stopped in the cathedral – the largest building in town, which also boasts the lengthiest history of any in Bruges. (Holy Savior Cathedral was not originally built to be a cathedral; when it was founded in the 10th century it was a common parish church.) Over time it's grown and changed, becoming a cathedral in the 19th century.

The path to the station took us to another town square and fountain, lots of flowers and plenty of people out and about. We hit the station at 8:29, ran for the 8:31 train to Brussels and voila – arrived an hour later!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Good Friday in Brussels

After sleeping in we headed out in search of waffles for breakfast – alas settling for decadent pastries at a lovely little Belgian café near the hotel. (Seemed quite French to me, maybe that’s an affront to the Belgians – who knows?)

Our hotel was city centre so lots of shops and businesses around us – little side streets lined w/ restaurants. We sat outside; the weather was lovely – blue skies and warm.

After coffee, decadent hot chocolate, chocolate croissants for Joe and Claire, a scrumptious cherry pastry for me and a chocolate brownie for Ava, we were sugared up and ready to start our day. (The brownie was masquerading as a muffin, but it ended up being more like fudge cake. I'll justify by stating that since muffins are generally cakelike, what does it matter if we go straight for the heavy duty dessert?!?)

We took the tram to the Grand Market area and checked out the Cathedral. (It’s actually the St. Michael and Gudula Cathedral, but that’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it?)

Named for the patron saints of Belgium, said Cathedras is Belgium’s primary church, completed in 1047, when Saint Gudula’s relics were transferred to it. (Apparently she was the daughter of a 7th-century Carolingian nobleman).

In the 1200’s the cathedral was renovated in the Gothic style; the choir was constructed between 1226 and 1276, the facade was completed in the mid 15th century.
Today the Cathedral of St. Michael and Gudula is the episcopal see of the Archbishop of Mechlin-Brussels and therefore the leading Catholic church in Belgium. It’s also the site of all royal weddings and christenings.

Of note: the stained glass windows, designed by various artists including Bernard van Orley, a 16th-century court painter, whose windows are the most spectacular (per the Cathedral’s web site – they all looked good to me).

When we wandered through a painting exhibit – folds – was sprinkled throughout the place. Beautiful, a bit ethereal, folds of cloth were painted in various hues of cream, symbolizing Christ’s ascension.

The church was also being prepared for Easter, with several laides putting gorgeous bright yellow flower arrangements together behind the altar.

From the Cathedral, set on a hill overlooking the city, we headed down to the cartoon museum. There caricatures and cartoon strips, historical information about the development of cartoon art, freedom of speech and information about Belgian’s renowned cartoonists is displayed. It was a beautifully organized, inviting exhibit, much of it in French and Flemish, but we gleaned a greater understanding of the process through artists’ tools and works in progress and could appreciate the sheer artistry and work that went into making the hundreds of strips housed in the museum. A couple of TV screens also featured cartoons the kids enjoyed.

After the cartoon museum we went in search of the legendary Belgian waffles, were pointed to an outdoor stand by a restauranteur soliciting for business. Success! The kids each got chocolate ones, warm and melty. They ate outside by St. Nicholas church. We then traced our steps back to the restauranteur who’d helped us out and opted to eat at his seafood restaurant, set on one of the narrow streets lined with al fresco dining spots.

Our perch was great for people watching -- outside, tucked into a corner away from the walking path. Tourists, locals, families, Asian tour groups, ladies out shopping, teenagers with loads of piercings, men smoking, plenty of dogs being walked…we saw a little of everything meander by.

For lunch Joe and I tried a couple of leffe beers (light and a little darker – good, but I liked Jupiler better) and some fabulous whole grain rolls, shrimp that was outstanding, fries and chicken. At the table adjacent to us a pampered pooch had its own seat with a group of ladies. The dog was dressed in a snappy little outfit and was being hand fed mussels by its owner. Rough life.

After lunch we wandered to the square; Claire and I peeled off to check out the fashion and lace museum, which is fabulous. It’s tucked away on a side street near tons of lace shops – 3 stories of fashion exhibits very tastefully done.

We were given a guide in English w/ verbiage corresponding to a number on each dress exhibited so we took turns reading about the evolution of fashion in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. Gorgeous day, evening, cocktail and wedding dresses were exhibited, having been produced by couture houses, many worn by models.

The brochure had all kinds of details on fastenings, pleats, types of sleeves, some of the events to which they were worn. Along with the dress displays were some photos of the women who’d worn the gowns, and hats, furs, patterns, lace and other accessories were showcased.

We rejoined Joe and Ava for ice cream, then rubbed our hands over the brass effigy of the mediaeval knight ‘t Serclaes near Town Hall for good luck. (He defended the city in the 14th century, saving it from falling into the clutches of the Count of Flanders).

From there we tried another chocolate shop (why not?!).

No doubt a sugar crash led us back to the hotel for recovery, then we wandered out for dinner, settling on an Italian sidewalk café. Our waiter, an elderly man with round glasses, took our order. He stood at the end of the table and simply shouted everything we wanted to his staff nearby. Food and drinks were delivered by a swarm of young, fast-moving Italians. Not a bad gig that older waiter has (maybe he owns the join?!?).

Anyway, great pizza (just like those mouth watering pizzas we ate a ton of when I roved Italy 18 years ago – am I that old? Was it really that long ago?). Claire’s chocolate mousse was out of this world.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Off to Brussels on Maundy Thursday

Easter/Spring Break

I’ll work backwards on this one…Happy Belated Easter to all; we spent ours in Belgium, where there certainly seem to be – quite appropriately – plenty of churches. And we wandered through a number of them (lovely but like Hindu temples, they start to blend together in one’s mind, or at least in mine).

Anyway, we had a lovely holiday, left on Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday in our neck of the woods). Apparently in England the term is widely used, though not so in Ireland, and its use varies geographically and from religion to religion. So there you go, I’ve just increased your vocabulary.

Our Maundy Thursday started with us scrambling to get out the door as our mini-cab driver (cab isn’t smaller than a black one, just not the same cool London cab you see in all the ads…but it’s cheaper. And at least in this instance, efficient – maybe too efficient).

We got to Saint Pancras train station in plenty of time, retrieved our Eurostar tickets from the machine, zipped through security and immigration, then hopped on the 8:34 a.m. train to Brussels.

Easy, relaxing, clean train ride and speedy too – we were in Brussels 2 hours and 15 minutes later. (At times the thing goes 180 mph.)

Plenty of tunnels, green green green grass/farmland (now I’m dying to see more of the English countryside, especially this time of year). Upon arrival at the train station we of course had to hit a bathroom; en route we passed a mime, a violinist and a lady in the loo handing out cookies. (Yes, Claire has us all calling it the loo at this point.)

We cabbed it to our hotel, then headed via tram to the Grand Place, Brussels’ “center” spot, if you will. Certainly for tourists. Our first stop was lunch. We found a great restaurant near the square located in an old cellar built in the 1600’s. It was cozy and warm on a gray Belgium day, menu was all Greek to us – well French – waiter helped us out though.

Joe’s burger arrived w/ a fried egg on top, the chicken fillets came with pasta sauce, much to the girls’ consternation and I very much enjoyed Belgium’s traditional dish: mussels and French fries. (The fries here are big, meaty and crispy. Perfect. They make McDonalds look puny and cheap.)

That and Belgium beer and we were set.

From there we hit the chocolate museum, located in an old house near the main square – 3 floors of chocolate information and memorabilia.

First we were given samples – yum – then caught part of a chocolate demonstration (in French). The woman in the apron was pouring rich, delicious smelling chocolate into molds. Looked good to me.

Other aspects of the exhibit dealt with growing cocoa beans, harvest, fermentation, drying, etc. Work intensive. The exhibit referenced how the popularity of chocolate spread, how originally it was just a drink, etc.

Then on to Neuhaus (one of doznes of chocolate shops) to sample more Belgian chocolate. We sat outside amidst the growing crowd in the square – lots of people out and about enjoying the warm day (the sun had decided to join us), then we went to the Brussels City museum, which is in the King's House (a lovely, ornate old building) in the Grand'place of Brussels. (The museum opened its doors as such in 1887.)

The top floor boasts 600+ costumes donated to the city for the statue Manneken Pis (Dutch for little pee man). A famous Brussels landmark, Manneken Pis is a fountain sculpture depicting a naked little boy urinating into the fountain's basin.

On various occasions the statue is costumed, changed according to a schedule managed by the non-profit association The Friends of Manneken-Pis, in ceremonies that are often accompanied by brass band music (per wikipedia).
On occasion, the statue is hooked up to a keg of beer and cups are handed to passers-by.

The Manneken Pis costumes we saw at the museum reflect various countries, areas of Belgium, occupations, military branches, global causes, stars (i.e. Elvis), ways of life, etc. An interactive computer gave more detail on costume donors, when they were donated, etc.

We then checked out the other floors of the museum – different aspects of Brussels’ history and art – city development, fire, paintings, sculptures, etc.

Then we headed off to find the infamous statue, winding through narrow streets and checking out all the chocolate shops and lace shops. Plenty of bars and cafes, too. I suspect people here spend plenty of money on beer, coffee and chocolate. I joined in as much as possible, throwing in a few waffles, too.

Ava soon feel asleep in the stroller – bumpy cobblestones and all. (If the stroller decomposes before our eyes it will be because of Brussels’ streets.)

At our last stop – St. Nicholas Church – they were setting up for the Last Supper. Since we weren’t invited we elected to collapse at the hotel.

About the Church (it has an interesting history so I will bore you w/ the details):

One of the oldest churches in Brussels, Saint Nicholas Church was named after Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of the traders because the market was just around the corner. The church was built in an asymmetrical way because a small brook used to run through the street.

The entrance to Saint Nicholas dates from the second half of the 12th century, the choir was completed in 1381 and the side-chapel, devoted to the Holy Virgin, was constructed in 1486.

During religious troubles in the 16th century, the church was plundered and in 1695, during the bombing of Brussels by the French troops, it burned completely. In one of the pillars of the Holy Virgin chapel a canon ball can still be seen (we saw it).
During the Middle Ages St. Nicholas’ tower served as the city belfry (watchtower), but in 1714 it collapsed, killing 1 man and 1 pig – is that a holy way to go or what?).

In 1929 a plan was proposed to demolish the church because it hindered the traffic in the Boterstraat. This plan was never executed, and the old houses surrounding the church have also been preserved.

For dinner we hit a French restaurant near the hotel. Our waitress walked us through the menu – we had to laugh as she described the poultry dish – “it’s between a chicken and a turkey.” (What might that be? Wasn’t a duck; she described that later.)
Re: the last dish…we didn’t understand her first explanation so she said “balls” quite clearly with a gesture to get the point across.

We didn’t order the tur-chicken or the rocky mountain oysters, instead opting for lamb, beef and pasta. All good, lovely ambience and service.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Shopping, Cabbages and Frocks and a Really Good Beach

My latest greatest adventure these days is furnishing the house, which we should move into mid-month. (I say should because moving does hinge on having beds for sleeping...)

Thursday Ava and I measured rooms and photographed spaces in our house, which is an old Victorian home (no, I don’t know when it was built) in St. Johns Wood. It’s on a lovely street lined with other brownstones; behind us is a private garden shared by us and our future neighbors.

Anyway, since we left all of our forks, hangers, pillows (not to mention couches, TVs and beds) in North Carolina (and no, we really haven’t missed anything, certainly not enough to go get it) it’s SHOPPING TIME!

Ava and Eva hung out (Eva being our Polish babysitter, Ivonne was from Bolivia – international childcare at its best) while I shopped at John Lewis, which I’m told is your all around good service/quality/price provider.

Actually I was helped by Tony from Perth (you might wonder if anyone I interact with on a day to day is from England), who was a great help in figuring out what would work best in our narrow, 4 level place. He’s a John Lewis furniture advisor and seemed to “get” what we’re looking for – furniture w/ clean lines, neutral, casual and comfortable.

Round 2 of shopping will take place later today: rugs and electronics.
I’ve also spent a good deal of time on Amazon, seeking out the deals on house wares. All fun and games but a bit time consuming.

Friday evening Joe and I had a date, this time to a pub called The Engineer in Primrose Hill, not far from us. It’s a neat little gastropub with the best fries I’ve had in I’m not sure how long – really thick and meaty, with just the right crisp salty but not too salty coating, meaty warm potato inside.

The lamb was superb, too; we finished the evening with desserts at a French café in St. Johns Wood.

And Saturday we all slept in, then wandered down to the Cabbages and Frocks market near Baker Street. It didn’t live up to its name, not a single cabbage to be found, and there were a few frocks but nothing to write home about.

However, we did enjoy some farm-fresh sausages a young guy was diligently grilling and serving with freshly grilled onions. The Lincolnshire ones are his most popular, so that’s what Joe and I had; Ava had a curled up beef sausage and Claire went with a big, meaty burger. All served on homemade rolls.

We also loaded up on hot chocolate at the café truck, which apparently pulls into the Cabbages and Frocks market (in a green “circle” near a big Methodist church off Marylebone Street) each week.

Oh, the other thing that rocked were the cupcakes – we hit the cupcake lady’s stand after a little sojourn down Marylebone High Street (not to be confused with the former Marylebone).

The area is packed with cool cafes, and since it was a very nice day, everyone in London was sitting outside, drinking beer, wine or coffee. (Those people who worry about waiting until 5:00 don’t live here, apparently.)

I stopped in a couple of great cheese, meat and bread shops. Claire’s the bread picker these days so we got our loaf and found Joe and Ava in a park. That, too, was cool; London’s green spaces and playgrounds are awesome. (Of course coming from India we’re probably easy to impress in the playground department.)

We ended our outing w/ a few errands and a Stella Artoise at home.

Sunday we made haste to hit Westminster Cathedral for Palm Sunday Mass. We slid in a couple minutes late, but then so did half the congregation. A lovely place for worship, it’s hard to take in the enormity of the place.

Some info…

The Cathedral Church of Westminster -- dedicated to the Most Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ -- was designed in the Early Christian Byzantine style by Victorian architect John Francis Bentley. The foundation stone was laid in 1895, the fabric of the building completed eight years later.

The interior, though incomplete, contains fine marble-work and mosaics. The fourteen Stations of the Cross by sculptor Eric Gill are world renowned.
The Cathedral site had a varied past – it was originally known as Bulinga Fen and formed part of the marsh around Westminster. Reclaimed by the Benedictine monks (the builders and owners of Westminster Abbey), the space was then used as a market and fairground. After reformation the land was used as a maze, a pleasure garden and as a ring for bull-baiting (I’ve heard of bull fighting, but bull baiting?).

In the 17th century part of the land was sold for the construction of a prison which was demolished and replaced by an enlarged prison complex in 1834. The site was acquired by the Catholic Church in 1884.

I must say Westminster’s 9:00 mass was the shortest Palm Sunday experience I’ve ever had. We were done before 10. (Apparently they had a bigger service with procession (?) later in the morning, so opted for the shorter reading and passed on a homily.)

Afterward we wandered through the cathedral, then went up to the bell tower to check out London from above. Nice, clear day so we saw plenty of buildings, old and new, and a plethora of cranes. We could see St. James Park, Buckingham Palace, Houses of Parliament, Canary Wharf, etc. And a great view of the main part of the cathedral below. (It has a name, I just can’t remember it.)

From there we set off walking to Buckingham Palace, where changing of the guard was not happening (it’s every other day) but a big crowd was gathered anyway. We joined them for a bit, watching the guards occasionally stride, then wandered on to find a pub for lunch. We passed guards on horses at the Household Cavalry Museum, which of course captivated the kids.

And for lunch we landed at a pub near Trafalgar Square, a sleepy breakfast/paper reading kind of place with decent bar food, where we perched at a tall table.

Yesterday (Monday) the kids and I, after a slow start, headed off to the National Portrait Gallery for one of their family events. The place offers workshops for lids over the age of 5 (ok I fudged a little on A’s age); today’s was an hour and a half program on mobile portraits. (The gist: creating from felt a representation of yourself and the things/people you enjoy and making a mobile with them.) First step was drawing the ideas, then the kids had at it with glue and scissors.

They seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves, then we caught lunch at a spaghetti restaurant, shlepped up to the grocery store and collapsed at home.

Ava was talking about various countries yesterday, so I asked which was her favorite – Australia, the US, England, India, Singapore. Her very firm answer was: “A country with a BEACH.”

So there you have it. The secret to choosing the best place to live is not culture, infrastructure, standard of living, weather or lifestyle.

It's simply access to a good beach.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Culture culture and more culture

April 2

Well…the big news here of course is the G20 and protestors. While I do love to check everything out, I passed on the action down in the banking center yesterday. I figure Obama needs as much support as he can get if he’s going to fulfill any of his campaign promises.

You can feel the buzz of excitement here over the whole thing and plenty of news to incite yet larger demonstrations. We’ll see what today brings…

Unfortunately, the American School kids did not get to see the Prez, who apparently mentioned dropping in for a walk-through prior to his evening event there on Tuesday. (A group of ASL kids did get to see Clinton several years ago when he came through; they were bussed down to Hyde Park for meet/greet/photos.)

We saw plenty of snipers setting up on the roof and no doubt we were all being watched like hawks as we left the high school performance of Grease Tuesday afternoon. (Kids did a great job, Claire thoroughly enjoyed it, Ava thought the music was great but that it was 20 minutes too long. At least that’s what I inferred from the “when is it going to be OVER?” stage whispers.)

Tuesday was a big day for me – I spent some time at the National Portrait Gallery, where a Richter exhibit is on display. (That would be Gerhard Richter, one of world’s greatest living artists. Yes, well I found that online.)

Anyway, I very much enjoyed the exhibit – not terribly large, it came with a written guide to each photo – great way to understand the works better. Essentially, per Richter “A portrait must not express anything of the sitter's 'soul', essence or character.” Thus many of his works are deliberately “veiled” or appear to have a veneer over the subject matter, leaving a sense of mystery, of surface that is skimmed over rather than delved into.

Very cool, very good reminder that rarely is anything as it seems.

After wandering through Richter’s exhibition, I tuned into an exhibit of John Constable’s portraits (with a few landscapes thrown in). He is “celebrated as one of England’s greatest landscape artists but he also excelled in capturing likenesses and personalities.”

Paintings of Constable, drawings of friends and family, his wife and children and areas around his home were on display, as were wealthy families, clergymen and landed gentry (great terminology, landed gentry).

From the Portrait Gallery I headed to lunch at an incredible little deli that called to me en route to the paintings: Gaby’s. It was the food in the windows that was bellowing: a whole bunch of delicious looking side dishes, with a big sign for salted beef.

I bypassed the takeout counter and took a table; on the wall were all kinds of newspaper articles applauding the food, a picture of Matt Damon with the chef (that sold me, I’m sure my husband will say). I had the falafel but the owner gave me a slice of salted beef on the way out, told me it was better than America’s corned beef (salted beef/corned beef = same thing). Now I need to go back and tell him my mom makes a mean corned beef and cabbage. Plus I need to go back and have one of those salted beef sandwiches – the falafel was the best I’d ever had and that sample of salted beef was wicked good.

My high culture day – from portraits to Grease – continued with the ballet. I met up w/ a group of ladies from the international club at ASL for Swan Lake Tuesday evening. Great production, great theatre. I know very little about ballet, but Swan Lake was beautiful – a poignant love story with music that alone could carry one away. The ballerinas really did look like swans, so graceful and elegant. Apparently it was first performed in Russia in the 1800’s, circulating regularly today. Endings to the production vary; in this case the two lovers, unable to be together, commit suicide and are shown rising together to heaven in apotheosis.

One of the women in our group takes ballet twice a week, so it was interesting to hear her reactions, plus how cool is that to continue with ballet as a parent and adult. So often it seems we chauffeur our kids to activities and watch; it’s refreshing for them and us to change it up a bit.

Speaking of, yesterday I took my kids to school, then went to school myself. (Up to this point Ava’s been saying “Claire goes to school, I go to school, Dad goes to work, Mom goes home and does nothing.” Either that or she thinks I should grocery shop. Exciting stuff.)

My first day of class, “Ancient Britain,” kicked off yesterday – great group, mostly women, sharp and interesting. We discussed the first half of a very dry book (also called Ancient Britain) which contains very interesting information – descendents of 7 daughters of Eve, Britain as its own culture thousands of years BC, as opposed to a group that learned it all from the Romans, Celts, etc.

We’ll head to Stonehenge and a variety of other archeological sites as we get further into the material.

I did also watch a documentary on said material last night, great pictures of some of the sights where many artifacts and structures have been found. Not terribly exciting primetime viewing, per my husband’s reaction. He vacated the couch.

Today I got my first London hair cut – took a shot in the dark with a 29 pound offer for a 90 pound hair cut. Sounded like a great deal to me. After I’d booked I did think, gee what am I getting myself into flying blind w/ a hairdresser. (Reality is, the hair is already pretty short, what’s the worst he could do?) Plus it’s hair. Grows fast and is quite expendable.

I’m quite pleased with the result, I feel somewhat hip and young again – nothing too spiky or out there (but give me some time here and I may come home w/ it half shaved, complemented by a couple of groovy tattoos and some more piercings).

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi
Largest mosque in India