Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

October, 2011

October, 2011
Chess in Lausanne, Switzerland

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Off to Italy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Blog recovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The week after Thanksgiving…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi
Largest mosque in India