Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

October, 2011

October, 2011
Chess in Lausanne, Switzerland

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Blog revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other information about the artist per the Serpentine Web site:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Althorp:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Otherwise on the Weber front...

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

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

and some very sad news --

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

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

Saturday, September 5, 2009

School, Fall (already?), Oxford

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

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

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

Back to the last week of August!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi
Largest mosque in India