Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

October, 2011

October, 2011
Chess in Lausanne, Switzerland

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Last day of May

Ok, May flew...and the last few days have been spectacular. England in great weather is beautiful.

Ava was off school this week so we hung out, caught up on some house stuff (we are now sporting cable; it actually works). Installed by a surly gentleman who reeked of cigarettes and coffee (he kept disappearing to his van during his 4 hour installation stint so I'm assuming he was refueling).

He also just plain reeked but since he actually set about doing the cable job, who's complaining? Plus he opened all the windows in the house...

The BT engineer was here for hours this week, too, but he left without solving the internet problem. (Why BT had to cancel broadband when it was happily minding its own business and working is beyond me.) His recommendation as I was again left high and dry without internet access: cancel and call Sky (competitor).

This I did promptly. So we begin again...

However, I've gotten no less than 8 calls from BT technical help trying to track me down to "help" me. I wonder when their own activations dept. will tell them we cancelled?!? I've already informed at least three of them.

Ava and I hit the zoo on Friday with some friends from her school -- great day for it. Big news: warthogs had babies. They're as cute as a warthog can be, I guess. Poor buggers were hot; no doubt heat in London is a rarity for them, so they were well and truly wallowing in the mud.

To end the week Joe and I had incredibly good steak at a little French restaurant near his office. We haven't eaten much good red meat since...well, really since Texas, which of course has the corner on good, big food.

BUT our little French spot was fabulous, with intimate, wood interior in sight of the kitchen, great service and a baby artichoke appetizer that was out of this world.

Yesterday we headed to the butterfly exhibit at the Natural History Museum per Claire's request. It's set in the front yard of the museum with numerous varieties of butterflies and moths flitting about. A big crysalis display is featured in the middle, so you can see the creatures as they "hatch" and are later turned loose.

Snakes, scorpions, hairy tarantulas, a variety of bugs and other assorted creatures were also featured in the exhibit (these fellows were caged, thankfully). Outside the exhibit is a playground and picnic area, nice way to cap off the outing.

Oh and we stopped at Whole Foods on the way home. I hadn't set foot in Whole Foods, again, since leaving Texas. What fun what fun! Claire and I sampled our way through, left with a couple items (must be careful at WF or you leave half your bank account and walk away with 2 grocery bags).

Today we hit the Spanish Festival for a couple of hours. Regent Street was shut down for flamenco dancing, horse dancing, food sampling, face painting, caricatures, etc. Kids enjoyed the latter activities most. We also left with all kinds of travel info on Spain. Plenty of lovely destinations to check out when the weather turns south here.

Last night I managed to saw through my index finger so spent half the night trying to convince it not to throb. This morning it wasn't much better, this afternoon it seems more agreeable. I have of course convinced myself it does not need medical attention; an iodine wipe and some neosporin solve everything, don't they? (Lord knows I'm caught up on tetanus and every other booster out there.)

Speaking of shots, sounds like we need one for swine flu. A "mild" case was reported at Claire's school this week, so it's clearly making the rounds. Bird flu, swine flu, what's next?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Aldeburgh, internet challenges, Ancient Britain...

Hello from Aldeburgh, England

Well I'm way behind on blogging, aren't I? Must say I don't have a great excuse other than trying to do too much in too little time, but that's fairly typical for everybody these days, I guess.

Now that we're AWAY from it all (in Aldeburgh, a little coastal town in Suffolk, a couple hours from London), I can actually take a minute to write.

This is a lovely place, 2,500 inhabitants in winter, swelling to 12,000 in summer. Little cottages line the windy streets and go up the hills overlooking the coast, which is full of rocks that in my mind are larger than pebbles. (They call it a pebble beach.)

It's windy, of course, and cool, and I'm sure the water will be cold to our toes (we're planning to dip them in today). Yesterday we sat out on the rocks and enjoyed the view and the kids' energy as they ran back and forth looking for the "right" 4 rocks to bring home. (One must put limits on these things or the luggage will weigh more than we do.)

Fishing boats and fish stands are here there and everywhere along the windy coast, and plenty of people are out and about flying kites and playing along the water. What a contrast from India's beach, where heat meets water.

We left a sunny London, took the train to Saxmundem, then cabbed it a short way to the fine Wentworth Hotel. Our cabbie said it's a traditional English Inn, frequented by people who've been coming for years upon years, some still coming even after they've passed. Food: adequate. He gave us the two minute tour of town (it's a one main streeter).

We checked in and headed out on foot to check the lay of the land, first stop being the North Sea. Very much a breath of fresh air. We headed through town and stopped for ice cream at the most popular shop around: the ice cream place. (Line half way down the block.) (There were also lines around the block for the fresh fish and chips shops.)

Claire ordered her standby: lemon sorbet. I had a chocolate crunch that was missing the chocolate (huh?), Ava had chocolate mint, Joe banana fudge (again light on the chocolate). We checked the rest of Aldeburgh out, then had refreshments at the hotel bar (doesn't that sound so British) and dinner at the hotel restaurant. Our driver was spot on; we were clearly among the younger crowd.

Day two in Aldeburgh was fabulously lazy; Joe and I each headed out, taking turns exploring before the kids got moving, then had breakfast at the hotel. And from there we spent 3 hours on the coast. Kids pored over the pebbles, donned swim suits and checked out the water temp. (Frigid.)

Eventually I was convinced to leave my sunny spot and we wandered through town, had ice cream again, this time before lunch. Why not?!? Then down to the wharf to check out a tower (couldn't go in though). And we landed on a Michelin listed restaurant for a late lunch. Superb fish and asparagus.

Then onto our hotel for a bit of regrouping...the bath tub is the longest I've ever bathed in (love love love baths). We then enjoyed a bit of time in the main part of the hotel (we're in the annex across the street, which is supposed to have family rooms vs. smaller ones at the property itself -- maybe it's code for "let's keep the noisy people off site.)

Anyway, some cards and Ava's purple nail polish later...we ate dinner at the hotel again (why not? It was included in our stay...). Great duck I must say.

Lovely day. Following a good, busy week...and what did we do last week? Bit of a blur but what stands out:

- Lipchitz art exhibit on Tuesday night. A curator from the Tate museum lectured and walked us through drawings and studies at the Ben Uri Gallery in St. Johns Wood. More than 150 of Lipchitz’s works spanning 60 years are featured there. (Lipchitz was a Lithuanian-born sculptor and “pioneer of Cubist sculpture in Paris.”)

Many of the drawings were studies for very well known sculptures in the U.S. and in Israel. The curator discussed how his art changed over the years, how it was influenced by other artists, political events, religion, etc. from when he began in 1910.

Very worthwhile experience, and apparently the gallery expects to move into a larger space near the National Portrait Gallery and other frequented museums/tourist destinations. Their focus will continue to be on immigrant artists, many with a Jewish background like Lipchitz.

- On Wed. I headed off with my Ancient Britain class to Butser Ancient Farm, south of London, for a tour by working archeologist. The bus trip there wound us through London and eventually into the crisp, green countryside. Butser is gorgeous -- farmland area, verdant green hills surrounding a spot with roundhouses recreated from what is perceived to be farm homes from the Iron Age.

Our guide was an impassioned, energetic man with wild salt and pepper hair who moved quickly and spoke eloquently about all the projects he's been working on at the farm. Among them: a number of roundhouses he and others have built, using materials from the areas upon which roundhouse remnants have been found (various areas in England and Wales).

Some have roofs made w/ reeds, others with straw, for example). Mud daub walls, chalk floors (chalk is commonly found in the soil here and in other areas around England.) He showed us where he'd dug holes for grain storage, as would have been done during the Iron Age. Sheep from the time period are raised on the farm, fed with “ancient” grains. (That sounds tasty, doesn’t it?)

Inside the houses are no windows, just a single door, generally facing east, with thatch thick enough for protection yet thin enough to let smoke seep out (holes in the roof would lead to leaks and/or fires). One of the houses was "furnished" as it would have been then -- some spinning tools, grain pounding implements, shelves for pottery, etc.

The last structure we toured was a Roman villa from more recent times, featuring an under-floor heating system.

From Butser we headed off to lunch at the Red Lion pub, which had a warm ambience with plenty of wooden furniture and a big table to seat all of us. I had a fabulous lamb pie with superb potatoes and onions. A warm, satisfying meal after a breezy couple of hours wandering about the farm felt just right.

Friday evening Joe and I met up for theatre -- Sunset Boulevard at the Comedy Theatre. While it wasn’t our favorite, the performance was excellent, the twisted Hollywood plot kept us engaged and we had great seats. We ended our evening with a bite to eat at a nearby Italian cafe.

The prior week...(May 11 onward)

Ai yai yai…I have been booted off the internet again by BT (British Telecom). Boobs. Sometime in the next millennium we’ll have cable and wireless internet. The former I could live without, the latter is a bit of a lifeline these days, especially as we’re going on 7 months out of country.

If and when we get back online you’ll be the first to know.

May 11 was a delightful day – I dissed rug unrolling and all that jazz to join the ladies for a special tour of Spencer House (think Lady Di – it was built by her ancestor, the first Earl Spencer).

The house is recognized as “one of the most ambitious aristocratic town houses ever built in London and is, today, the city's only great eighteenth-century private palace to survive intact.”

Spencer House was built in 1756-66 and is located near St James's Palace, Buckingham Palace and the Palace of Westminster, with a lovely view of Green Park (this I can attest to – the views into the park from various rooms are gorgeous – lovely “back yard” with beautiful, huge trees).

House info per the Web:

The first architect of Spencer House was John Vardy (a pupil of William Kent), who used the Palladian style. He was responsible for the external elevations of Spencer House and the design of the ground floor rooms as well assome of the furniture.

James 'Athenian' Stuart, who’d just returned from Greece, superseded Vardy as Lord Spencer's architect in 1758. Thus the House became the first example in London of accurate Greek detail in its interior, making it one of the pioneer examples of neo-classical architecture.

Spencer House was designed to be used for receptions and family gatherings, as the first Earl Spencer and his wife were prominent figures in London society, and during their lifetime Spencer House was often the setting for lavish entertainments. Their descendants, notably the fourth and sixth Earls, both of whom served as Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, continued this tradition.

Following the death of the first Earl Spencer in 1783 the House was partly remodeled.

The Spencer family lived in the House until 1895 when the building was let to a series of tenants, including the Duke of Marlborough and his wife, the former Miss Consuelo Vanderbilt. Following the death of the fifth Earl Spencer in 1910 the family returned to the House and in 1926 the building was substantially restored. A year later the family moved away and the House was let to the Ladies' Army and Navy Club until 1943.

The contents of the House were removed to Althorp and in 1942, at the height of the Blitz, valuable original fixtures such as chimneypieces, doors and chair rails were removed. During the war the House was occupied by nursing services, and in 1948 a lease was signed with the auctioneers Christies's (their property was bomb-damaged).
The House was then converted into offices for the British Oxygen Company (from the Vanderbilts to the Oxygen company – whoa!). In 1963 the Economist Intelligence Unit moved to Spencer House until 1985, when the lease was assigned to J.Rothschild Holdings and to RIT Capital Partners.

The House has since been restored, complete with carved architectural detail, chimneypieces and copies of original furniture. A wide array of paintings – some provided to the House by the Queen (prior to Diana’s death) are featured.
A select number of functions are held each year at Spencer House, and part of the building is used for offices. The public can schedule tours, like we did, and I think the House is open for a couple of hours on Sundays.

- On Tuesday I had lunch w/ the International Culture Committee’s cuisine club – it was their last event for the year as the ICC breaks for summer. Great finale – we met at a Greek woman’s flat for incredible Greek food. Highlights: fried meatballs, pita and traditional dips, spanikopata (sp?), fresh Feta, of course a lovely Greek salad…it went on and on.

The entertainment, too, was great fun and quite a surprise – a gorgeous woman in fancy red costume belly danced. She pulled members of the club in to dance with her, which was a hoot. I was selected to balance a sword on my head while the rest of me wiggled and jiggled to the music. Let’s just say I was successful at balancing the sword, not sure if any of my flesh actually moved to the beat.

Wednesday marked my first online grocery store delivery – free since I met the 100 pound mark. Worked great, will do that again – it was a “general goods” stock up – no meat, cheese or produce (that stuff, I do believe, needs to be selected by hand…I need to decide if the tomato looks worthy of purchasing.). Plus frankly I like to grocery shop for those things – TP and paper towels, who cares?

Friday my outing was a visit to the Dulwich Picture Gallery with a friend. We went to see Sickert in Venice, which was a great exhibit, in town until early June. A bus ride wound us through town to a great little gallery off the beaten path, featuring Walter Richard Sickert, one of the “the most important British artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

Known as the father of modern British art; he introduced Impressionism and Post-Impressionism to a younger generation of British painters. Sickert trained under James McNeill Whistler.

Per the name of the exhibit, it featured many of his Venetian works as he’d visited the city many times and painted many scenes of Venetian architecture. Apparently the churches and bridges lost a little of their lustre as Sickert moved onto painting prostitutes…also featured in the exhibit.

And after lunch at a French café we made our way back to SJW.

Joe and I had a date that evening, as he’d returned from a week in the U.S. earlier in the day. We opted for dinner at Gilgamesh, where I’m convinced I’d had the best sea bass of my life a couple weeks earlier.

We had the tasting menu:

Edamame Beans with Sea Salt
Selection of Sushi and Sashimi
Chicken Croquettes
Prawn Spring Roll
Scallop Sui Mai
Asian Spiced Rack of Lamb
Hoba Miso Chilean Seabass
Chicken and Papaya Salad
Stir Fried Asian Greens
Crab Fried Rice
Gilgamesh Dessert Platter

It was delicious. And great ambience – Asian influenced, warm with great lighting, mixed crowd.

On Saturday Claire and I headed off to Windsor for the Royal Windsor horse show, which she was EXTREMELY interested in attending. We went early, took the train from Waterloo. It was a cool, breezy day but rain-free for the most part. The grounds are near the castle, which greeted us as we left the train station. It’s huge and lovely – another day we’ll have a Windsor Castle experience.

After wandering past that landmark we made our way to the grounds, which featured three arenas, booths (plenty of food and drink options, horse related products, cheese, wine, clothes, paintings, jewelry, etc.), sponsor displays (British armed forces were all over the place) and plenty of horses, horsewomen and horsemen.

The Castle arena was the largest venue; we watched jumping competitions for a couple hours, then checked out the practice area and watched the carriage races. (Teams pulled carriages with a driver and one person as a “moving weight” on back through an obstacle course. Near us was a series of turns/bridges the carriages had to move through as quickly as possible before racing to the finish. Teams from around Europe were featured.

For the jumping competitions, most riders were from the UK, several members of the Olympic team and/or offspring of Olympians.

In one area showmanship competitions were taking place with Welsh ponies, gorgeous with their long wavy tails and shiny black coats.

One of the jumping events featured a wall that was raised after each round, riders eliminated after knocking the top piece off. The winner cleared 7+ feet.

Great experience, such a contrast to the western horsemanship style I’ve been exposed to.

And in other news of the week…I got to escort first graders throughout the streets of SJW to practice street safety, wise skills for all in this city. In addition to driving on the other side of the road, cars move at a very rapid pace and the pedestrian ONLY has right of way at zebra crossings and lights. So Look Out!

I leave you with this anecdote, which may not be amusing to you, but I had a chuckle:
Last week a delivery person left a box at my door, then run to his unmarked van. I asked where he came from (meaning which company); he replied without hesitating “Hungary.” DSL, Hungary, fed ex…

Sunday, May 10, 2009

May 4 – May 11

It’s been a great short week – Bank Holiday Monday, which was a nice catch up day for us. Tuesday I headed to Camden Town (Stables Market) for lunch at Gilgamesh with the St. Johns Wood Women’s Club. Cool group of ladies who’ve had varied work/living experiences, many with kids at the Amer. School.

We had incredibly good Pan Asian food – I particularly enjoyed the sushi, sea bass and scallops. Say that five times fast. The area around Gilgamesh is cool – lots of funky shops (cyberpunk to vintage clothing, esoteric record stores, unusual furniture, piercing places, you name it, along w/ more mainstream stuff – and what looked like great street food). Many are housed in Stables Market, a converted Victorian horse hospital. I took a quick stroll around the market but will need to go back to absorb the sights and sounds at a more leisurely pace.

Waddesdon Manor

On Wednesday I caught up w/ a group headed to Waddesdon Manor for a tour. The place is spellbindingly beautiful, a French villa built in 1880 by the Rothschilds (specifically Ferdinand). Queen Victoria visited there in 1890.

The house has been passed through the family over the years, bequeathed to the National Trust in 1957 and opened to the public two years later. At one point Waddesdon was used as a refuge for evacuee children during WW2.

Here is a description of the place per Waddesdon’s web page soliciting film crews…

Built in the style of a 16th century, French Renaissance-style château of the Loire, Waddesdon’s wine cellars are modeled on private vaults of Bordelais vineyards. The Dairy is also French in tone but has a Germanic accent to its steeply pitched roofs. There are over 7 miles of quiet roads and lanes only used by estate and farm traffic, unusual estate buildings and stunning views over the Vale of Aylesbury. (Waddesdon has appeared in a few movies, one a Ballywood flick.)

These days Lord Rothschild (Jacob) manages the Manor, which houses collections from four generations of Rothschilds (25,000 items, ranging from manuscripts to porcelain, furniture to contemporary sculpture, from ironwork to musical instruments, from tradecards to gold boxes).

May happens to be open furniture month, which means various pieces (desks, dressers, tables, etc.) had doors and drawers open. Thus offering us the inside view, quite literally. Some have hidden keyholes and secret compartments – fun to see.

Gorgeous pieces, heavily detailed. Forty-five rooms are on view with “exceptional collections of French 17th century decorative arts and English portraits. (French royal furniture, porcelain and Savonnerie carpets, and portraits by Reynolds, Gainsborough and Romney, Dutch Golden Age paintings, 18th century books, drawings, textiles, 16th century limoges, enamel and majolica and a spectacular 18th century silver dinner service commissioned by George III.)”

Outside an immense garden surrounds the house, not sure where it begins and ends – trails, playground, aviary, statues, a huge bird topiary, stunning trees and flowers, fountains…

Our tour guide was fabulous, a lovely older lady with a lilting voice who is obviously impassioned about the house and its treasures. We ran short on time so raced through the 2nd floor. I’d love to go back – so much to absorb.

Gutting Quail, Pub Grub and Zoo-ing It

And on Friday, after a great literacy event hosted by ASL first graders, I treated myself to lunch at a cooking school with some other women who live in the area. We had a great time chopping veggies for our shrimp risotto (our chef instructor did a very quick run down/demo of what we were supposed to do, then turned us loose with knives, garbage bowls, vegetables and shrimp). And quail. With their heads on.
We had to whack them off (the heads), then break the quails’ backs, gut them and cut the birds into four pieces. It was hideous. But at least all 10 of us were in it together.

Suffice it to say in future, should I decide quail is on the menu, I’ll pay the bigger bucks to have it cleaned. Therein I can handle removing the liver or whatever, giving it a rinse and a pat w/ a paper towel.

We then seasoned our little birds, tossed them in a hot skillet (w/ olive oil), added a big dollop of honey and some soy sauce and served them over a bed of seasoned rocket tossed w/ citrus sections, citrus juice and good olive oil. Fabulous.

Our main course was risotto – we ran short on time so our chef friend pinch hit for us, didn’t season it enough though. And dessert, which we did not make but did plate (panna cotta with strawberry sauce) was to die for.

We got to eat all this around a big wooden table, sipping a lovely white wine. I’d do that again in a heartbeat, with or without those little quail waiting for some savagery.

Since Joe headed for the US Friday, the kids and I wandered over to the Clifton Pub for dinner (minors are ok in many pubs for early dinners -- i.e. before 7:00 – there’s even a guide to best pubs for families here).

CP is a few blocks from us and apparently Kate Moss hangs out there occasionally. No doubt she could walk by and I’d be oblivious (I’m not much of a People reader, I guess). When we were there it looked like a pretty non-descript crowd, though. Good food, nice change of pace.

Saturday we headed off to the London Zoo again because now that we’re members, why not?!? (Plus we need to maximize the membership!) This time we shopped (birthday parties and who doesn’t like a gift from the zoo, plus we get a discount), hit the merry-go-round, checked out the butterflies, monkeys, burrowing animals and giraffes and that was enough for one day, as we had a birthday party to hit later. Kids had lots of fun at both. (Apparently at British b-day parties the cake isn’t eaten at the party, it’s toted home and consumed later. This being an American family, kids ate their Madeline cake on site.)

Real Food Festival

And today so totally rocked – we went to the Real Food Festival at Earl’s Court. The place was foodie heaven – tons of stalls with olives, fresh juices, yogurt, cheeses, hams/prosciuttos/salamis/cured meats galore, sausages/lamb/pork/beef (free range, organic, salt marsh…), eggs, pickles, oils and more oils (including rapeseed), pates, honey, PB, cookies, crackers, breads…on and on and on.

I never did eat lunch, just tasted my way through until I no longer wanted anything bitesize!

Kids made off with all kinds of freebies (last day of the festival always helps). Aside from all the food, they enjoyed Petals the water buffalo (yes, in the middle of this thing was a big black water buffalo w/ a ring through her nose – quite pampered, quite a contrast to many of the water buffalo we saw in India). They both brushed and petted her, tried several pieces of buffalo mozzarella, some buffalo ice cream, etc. We watched a demo on stretching mozzarella, too. The guy who did it made different shapes with the cheese (a chicken, a pig, etc.).

Claire got to feed some bum lambs, there were chickens in a cage to admire, a jersey cow and her twins were chewing their cud and a 30 minute sheep show captivated half the crowd (the guy doing that brought 8 or 10 sheep out on stage, one at a time, to music (i.e. “Pretty Woman”).

Each had a name tag and stood or sat eating grain at his/her station as the guy told about the various breeds and what they offer (prolific parenting, for example, bigger lamb steaks, ability to survive in rainy climates, optimum wool for specific uses, etc).

He did a shearing demo (first hair cut for one of these fluffy sheep) and left us with the sheep dancing on stage. Great mix of fun and interesting facts about the wool/sheep industry in the UK. (Sucks to be in the wool biz here now; one fleece is worth 50 pence and it costs 1 pound to shear…and still the farmer carries on…)

After four hours of food, we trekked back, loaded down with oil and salami, the best parmesan I’ve had in ages, a big round of bread, some PB (what can I say; I LOVE peanut butter and nowadays I’m into the natural kind) and various other odds and ends. Next foodie excursion I’ll bring a packhorse. Joe lucked out; 1) he didn’t have to carry anything and 2) he didn’t have to suffer through me traversing every inch of the place – his mode of operandi at these things is to eat and run.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

What have we been up to lately? With the move, broadband wars, the TV guy who (apparently) doesn’t want to do the job (or at least at 4:15 on Friday he wasn’t up to the challenge) and the day to day stuff it suddenly became May! It’s all been good (British telecom/Skye TV aside) but I haven’t really thought much about blogging. Or else have simply been too tired. Oh the days of hotel living when someone else cleaned the floor…

Last week Claire and I had a delightful day – she had Thurs. free so we went to the Natural History Museum to check out 1) dinosaurs 2) mammals and 3) some human biology. In that order per Claire. (Glad we didn’t get too in depth on the latter; I’m not ready for some of those conversations, and some of the exhibits were pretty clear.)

The museum is IMMENSE and even if we are here for three years I doubt if we’ll see all of it (something like 15 miles worth of exhibits). The dinosaur exhibit is way cool, mammal stuff we enjoyed too – though having recently been to the zoo we weren’t as captivated. And Claire enjoyed the video of baby growing in utero. We finished w/ pasties and shepherd’s pie for lunch (so British, right?).

Friday evening Joe and I wandered Piccadilly Circus; it was a gorgeous day so tons of people were out and about, some pig flu activists (?) looking for an audience, among other things. We landed on an inviting Mediterranean café for dinner – great lamb. I must say that’s my meat of choice here; beef has been a bit of a disappointment. Save that for the good old USA!

Eggs here are great too – big, brown and yolks are golden. The real thing. (Why don’t they refrigerate them, though? I don’t get that. I got it in India…refrigeration is hit and miss for meat, let alone anything that might have a shelf life of its own for awhile.)

Scones of course rock. Kidney pie and other internal organs haven’t grabbed me yet. Don’t hold your breath on any reviews from me on that stuff. Let’s focus though; I’ll eat raw fish (sushi rocks) but a cooked kidney: NO Way. Now does that make any sense?!?

Suffice it to say plenty of great food options in this town…I could go on all day about the cheese and bread alone. Each time I buy cheese I get a different type. I’m most impressed w/ the kids; they’ve found a goat cheese they love.

Over the weekend we headed off to Stonehenge with my Ancient Britain class. Saturday was a gorgeous day, we got an early start and were whisked out of London via ASL school bus into gorgeous green rolling countryside. A stark contrast to busy London and absolutely gorgeous.

Our trip was a family friendly event with kids of a variety of ages – Ava up to teenagers. The girls hit it off with another girl on the trip, and we all spent lots of time outside, so kids had fun running wild around monuments that date to 3000 B.C. (Let’s focus; 3000 B.C. And I think of the medieval ages as long ago.)

Stonehenge itself is roped off so you can’t get as up close and personal as you used to (first time I was there in high school we leaned on the stones and had photos taken). Apparently after bits of the stone were being ratcheted off, some security measures were put in place. No, the class from Dillon, Montana, didn’t make off w/ pieces of Stonehenge, though I wonder what they’d go for on ebay?

However, when we went to Avebury, another ancient monument with big stones carefully positioned, much like Stonehenge in terms of size of stones and deliberate “presentation,” sheep are grazing near the big stones (so we judiciously dodged the doo doo) and we could touch and examine them (the stones, the sheep not so much).

We did the audio tour of Stonehenge, listened to much conjecture about the site, some of the old myths surrounding it and pondered over its meaning, how it came to be and why, and why then did its use fizzle…

Any ideas?

From Stonehenge we headed to the Wiltshire Heritage Museum in Devizes, founded in 1853. It is housed in the old Victorian Devizes Grammar School and two Georgian houses on either side, housing artefacts from famous excavations on Salisbury Plain and the Marlborough Downs.

After checking out the Bronze and Iron age exhibits, we checked into The Bear Hotel, just up the street in Devizes, a small market town in the heart of the English county of Wiltshire, southern UK.

Across the street from the Bear Hotel was a market so lots of activity on a Saturday morning.

And with regard to the Bear Hotel, it too has a historical past it's been in business for 3 centuries. Not only have famous patrons such as ourselves stayed there, King George III and Queen Charlotte were guests a while back. (Apparently she noted – in 1817 – that she had an “elegant repast” at the Bear and that the landlord put at her disposal “10 pairs of horses as fine as any were put to harness.”

We had lunch at the hotel (bright green mashed peas, among other things), then headed off to see West Kennet Long Barrow and Silbury Hill. The former is one of the most well-preserved burial chambers in Britain. It extends 10 meters into a mound, consists of five separate chambers and is thought to have been constructed around 3500 B.C. It was used for 1,000 years, then sealed with chalk rubble and huge sarcen boulders (sarcen being a very hard rock).

Excavation revealed that 50 people were buried within the tomb.

Nearby is Silbury Hill, another prehistoric monument: a 130-ft. high man-made chalk mound. Archaeologists calculate that it was built about 4750 years ago and that it took 18 million man-hours, or 500 men working 15 years to deposit and shape 8.75 million feet of earth and fill on top of a natural hill.

Phew. Makes me tired even thinking about it.

From there we crashed at the hotel, wandered the town and had dinner at the George and Dragon, a nearby Gastropub. Good food, good company!

On Saturday after breakfast at The Bear we piled on the bus, this time to Avebury, the largest known stone ring in the world. Like Stonehenge and other megalithic monuments in Britain, Avebury was added to and altered during several periods. It is estimated that Avebury was used for around 2300 years and may have been the most significant sacred site in all of Britain, if not Europe.

We spent some time at two museums in Avebury – the Barn Gallery (great exhibit, very kid friendly) and the Alexander Keiller Museum – then wandered some nearby gardens and had lunch at the National Trust restaurant.

Our last prehistoric chapter was a walk through Avebury with Mike Pitts, editor of British Archeology (and expert in all things Avebury).

He provided great insight which frankly I’m too tired to regurgitate at the moment. Suffice it to say he brought the Ancient Britain class material alive with his expertise and obvious passion for his work. With him we traipsed the hills past ancient stones as they wound their way toward the two circles, where sheep roam and through which a village sits. Again, a lovely setting.

After quick tea we headed back to London with a bit deeper understanding of Britain B.C. (or with more questions about what really did take place around these stones so long ago...).

Monday, May 4, 2009

Settling into Alma Square

Well I must say I do like our new digs – house is very narrow with plenty of stairs – kitchen/living and dining downstairs, opening out into a community garden. So far that’s a big hit with the kids, especially since they’ve had a couple of impromptu play dates with some neighbor children.

The street seems a mix – some of the brownstones have been turned into apartments so single dwellers/couples mixed with families. No big North Carolina or Texas welcome wagon, though. Not exactly your suburbia “where are you from? We brought you cookies…join us for coffee.” But no unfriendly vibes, either (despite a note we received before moving in said "welcome to the neighborhood. That said, please keep your music down"). I haven't heard since responding with a note that said: Thanks for the welcome. But since we haven't moved in yet, I'm not sure how we can address the loud music..."

We ended last week with a theatre date; Joe and I saw Carousel, which we very much enjoyed, especially from our 3rd row seats. (Any closer and the lead would have been spitting all over us; he was a bit saliva-ish in his delivery.)

Carousel is a poignant story with incredible staging – I am amazed at how sets can be created to replicate movement (i.e. a carousel going around) in a static environment.

On Saturday we slept in and went out for a late breakfast at a French café in St. Johns Wood. The area is filled with cafes; my favorite is a different little French spot – a patisserie with decadent desserts and the best hot chocolate I’ve found yet. Plus the waiters there speak French, newspapers are in French, croissants scream topnotch butter and cream. No doubt the cows that produced them are French too.

Anyway, breakfast was good, ran some errands and relaxed in our new home; what started as a rainy day became lovely, thus the garden was full of people enjoying the sunshine.

Sunday we stopped at Covent Gardens for a couple hours after Mass. Again, sunny day so many people were out and about, enjoying the street performers. They actually have to audition to get spots at Covent Garden and many, thus, are quite good so it’s fun to watch. We perched on high stools and enjoyed baked potatoes and pasties for lunch.

On the way home dozens of marathon supporters were climbing on the tube; the London marathon started at 9 on Sunday. No need for us to join in; sometimes I think we walk half a marathon on a regular basis.

As for the work week, so continues my frustration with BT (British telecom)…will we ever have broadband?!?

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi
Largest mosque in India