Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

October, 2011

October, 2011
Chess in Lausanne, Switzerland

Saturday, December 11, 2010


It’s wintertime in London (or at least it has been for the past few weeks…a few inches of snow, closed airports, icy sidewalks, commuting challenges (ok nightmares). Yesterday temperatures popped up a bit, though, and for the weekend it's supposed to be in the 40's, then back down again next week.

I must say I haven't been miserable (yet) this time around; I’ve discovered boiled wool and at 40 am finally taking my father’s advice, which is to dress appropriately for the weather. And you know, it works. That and walking from point A to point B as fast as humanly possible.

It’s been two weeks of illness, both kids taking turns with some virus from hell. They and everyone else at school it seems. Ava’s been alternating between laughing and crying on the couch, one minute singing Christmas carols, the next seeking a hug and moaning tearfully about her stomach, nose, throat, neck, the list goes on.

Claire woke up the the other day vomiting – the kid is adamant about not missing school EVER so I knew she was ill when she flatly informed me she was going back to bed, no school in her plans that day. The next day she rallied but a week+ later still is plagued by a cough.

I hit the wall this week, went to bed one night with the worst chills/fever I’ve experienced since I was a child. The next day I was certain someone had pummeled my back while I slept. Nothing that exciting went on at my house. Apparently the flu settled into my lungs and was having a hey day. Somehow Ava and I resurrected ourselves that morning and made it to the NHS to treat her ear infection. While we were there the doctor took my temperature and hastily wrote us both prescriptions. Happily we’re now on antibiotics and my back is no longer killing me.

Despite all that, we’ve managed to hit most of our Christmas festivities – Ava’s school concert was yesterday and as always, was delightful. The kids sang tons of songs, brought out the recorders and looked great in various costumes and finery.

Claire’s writers’ presentation was yesterday and was equally well done. Each child shared his or her work with parents in small groups, then took turns performing poems with their partners. The kids had to work hard on timing as the point was to recite parts of the poems by themselves and parts in tandem. Very nicely done and enjoyed by all.

Joe and I enjoyed a dinner out with some of his colleagues the other night. I must say I was amused with a similar conversation I had (separately) with the people on either side of me. Both are married (to different people) and older than we are, no kids.

And both made a point of telling me a couple times that traveling/moving is SO much easier without kids.

Now I don’t dispute that some aspects are easier – after all, we didn’t always have kids. But I am reminded of a conversation I had with a very wise woman I worked with in Michigan.

She said: your life changes when you have kids. It doesn’t stop.

That thought came to mind as both were reassuring me that their lifestyles allowed them so much freedom. I suspect that while there is some truth to that, the reality is this:

If I opted for a lifestyle of no kids, I’m sure I’d push the same line – don’t we all justify?

As for traveling w/ kids, it can be done, we certainly do – but we modify to make sure we all enjoy it. Just as you modify depending on your budget, interests, age, etc.

And based on the individuals I was chatting with, who both left the restaurant before 10, you can’t tell me they’re dancing on tables in Maui at 2:00 a.m. or backpacking through Europe and staying at hostels (which I am proud to say, I did…). Frankly they’re not going to stay in anything less than a Marriott at this stage).

Regarding travel freedom, these are people who work like dogs so the amount of time they actually spend traveling for fun is no more than anyone else.

The kicker to this conversation about how much freedom the no kids lifestyle offers was when they told me how they have to get their dogs sorted out whenver they leave. Both have two. Now if that isn’t a ball and chain I don’t know what is…

LOL! Now on to getting some things in order for the holidays...nothing like being sick to throw a kink in the best laid plans.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

York should not be neglected!

Why bother trying to make order out of the disorder in this blog at this point, is my theory. Nearly December and I’m going to write about York in October, like it or not!

For October’s long weekend, we headed off to northern England, to check out the town York, which we’d heard was a must. (This York business caused some confusion with Ava, who relayed to her class where she'd gone. Convinced we'd gone to New York, Ms. Cox keeps telling Ava New York isn't part of the U.K. I think Ava is still confused as to exactly where York is, if it isn't in the U.S. or England.)

Any we agree that both York and New York are not to be missed.

Day one of this adventure: we cabbed it to King’s Cross for a 9 a.m. train after seeing Patty and Steve off to Heathrow.

Our two-hour train ride flew by and we stepped out to ponder navigation around town, to the hotel, etc. Low and behold, before even leaving the train station we spotted a big sign pointing to the hotel across the street. Does it get any easier…

We ditched our bags and headed to the city centre (I’ve become so British, right? Centre vs center…) for lunch. Lovely place, York – wall around the city, medieval streets/buildings teeming with cool shops, cafes, chain and independent stores.
We crossed a bridge over the River Ouse to get into the heart of the city and found a little Danish café that was doing a lively business.

Plus it had counter service (long sit down lunches make us restlss and suck the day away, we’ve decided).

So after soup, jacket potatoes and pork sandwiches we were off to the Jordik Viking Museum. It’s a good one. Per the web site...

The remains of 1,000 year old houses are revealed beneath your feet, objects taken from the excavations are explored, and Viking-age timbers are brought before your eyes. New audio and video displays help you to investigate all of the information gathered from the 5-year long dig at Coppergate and piece together the jigsaw of where the Vikings came from, why they came here, how they lived and died, and where they travelled to.

At JORVIK Viking Centre you are standing on the site of one of the most famous and astounding discoveries of modern archaeology. Between the years 1976-81, archaeologists from York Archaeological Trust revealed the houses, workshops and backyards of the Viking-Age city of Jorvik, as it stood 1,000 years ago. These incredible findings enabled them to build the JORVIK Viking Centre on the very site where the excavations had taken place, creating a groundbreaking visitor experience that enabled you to experience life in Viking-Age York.

As you travel around the Viking-age city of Jorvik aboard our state of the art time capsules you will encounter the old-Norse speaking citizens, see inside their houses and back yards, experience a blast of smoke from blacksmith's furnace and enjoy the smell of home-cooked stew inside the home of our amber worker.

Now I’m not terribly sure about the smell of home-cooked stew; I think it was over-powered by the stench of hides drying and the privy. Or else the stew left ALOT to be desired.

But the exhibit was very cool – bit of Disney ride in Viking boat meets hands-on history appealing to or repelling all senses, sometimes all at once. Hmm. Reminds me of India, now that I think about it! LOL

From this museum we headed off to Barley Hall, the entry to which we walked by twice before finally figuring out where it was hidden. Tough to hide such a big structure, too, I might add.

Barley Hall is a stunning medieval house, once home to the Priors of Nostell and the Mayor of York. Until the 1980s the house was hidden under the relatively modern facade of a derelict office block. Only when the building was going to be destroyed was the amazing medieval building discovered and its history uncovered.

The building has now been lovingly restored to its original splendour with stunning high ceilings, beautiful exposed timber frames, and possibly the only horn window in England. It has been decorated to replicate what it would have looked like as the Snawsell home around 1483 and boasts a magnificent Great Hall. Visitors to Barley Hall can make themselves at home and sit on the chairs and handle the objects and experience what it would have been like to live in Medieval England.

I like that "lovingly restored" business, don't you?

We enjoyed touring the place – the great hall was probably my favorite. The kids got to play some medieval games upstairs – bowling, among other things.

From there we stopped for sugar at Betty’s, a small shop with pastries, cookies, teas & coffees…the other Betty’s, a big tea shop, had a line around the corner so clearly it’s a hot York ticket.

Then we stopped at The Minster, an immense cathedral that is gorgeous. And steeped in history, as noted below (a diatribe I know but just think how many thousands of years this spot has been of religious importance.)

The first Minster: 7th to 11th Centuries

York's first Minster was built for the baptism of the Anglo Saxon King, Edwin of Northumbria. Edwin was christened in a small wooden church that had been built for the occasion, this event occurred on Easter Sunday in the year 627. Almost immediately Edwin ordered that this small wooden church should be rebuilt in stone. Edwin was killed in battle in 633 and the task of completing the stone Minster fell to Oswald.

This small stone church built on the same site as the original wooden one was enlarged over time. It survived through the Viking age in York but was badly damaged by fire in the year 1069 when the Normans finally took control of the city of York. While we know something of the history of these early versions of York Minster, to date no archaeological evidence of them has been uncovered.

The Norman Minster: 1100 - 1220
Once the invading Normans had taken control of the city a decision was taken to build a new Minster on a fresh site to replace the old fire damaged Saxon Minster. Around the year 1080 Thomas of Bayeux became Archbishop and started building a cathedral that in time grew into the Minster we have today. This vast Norman church was completed around 1100, and the base of some of its distinctive columns can be seen today in the Undercroft.

During the mid twelfth century the Norman church was enlarged at both East and West; this may have been due to fire damage sustained in 1137, but this now seems unlikely.

Today's Minster: from 1220 into the future
In 1215 Walter Gray became archbishop and he was to serve the cathedral for 40 years. It was Walter who started to transform the Norman Church in to the Minster we have today. Firstly the South and North transepts were built, Walter died before they were completed. In 1291 work began on the Nave (western end) this was completed by around 1360. Work then transferred to the East end with the building of the Lady Chapel and then the Quire this was completed by around 1405. In 1407 the central tower collapsed and work on its replacement was not finished until 1433. Between 1433 and 1472 the Western towers were added and the Minster finally completed. The Minster that we know today had taken about 250 years to build.

Heritage and challenge
From 1472 until 1829 the fabric of the building changed very little although there were big changes to the way in which worship in the Minster was carried out. In February 1829 Jonathan Martin deliberately started a fire in the Quire. This act of arson resulted in the destruction of the entire east end roof and timber vault and all the wooden furniture of the Quire. Just 11 years later a second, accidental, fire destroyed the Nave roof and vault.

In the twentieth century two major events affected the building. Between 1967 and 1972 major work was undertaken to stop the Central tower collapsing. This involved close co-operation between engineers and archaeologists, but no trace of the Saxon Minster was uncovered.

On the 9th of July 1984 fire broke out in the South Transept after the Minster had been hit by lightning. The damage resulting from 3 hours of fire took some 4 years to fully repair and restore.

The cathedral is awesome in size, décor and detail, and the crypt illustrates its history beautifully through artifacts and illustrations.

We passed on the tower climb (probably to the relief of my family) as it was for the over eight crowd only. Our tour day more than complete, we headed back to the hotel, walking over part of the wall en route (gorgeous the way the wall encircles the old part of the city).

Back at our immense hotel (it’s a monolithic thing that just keeps going – we had a “garden room” (another name for basement out of the way room which management has deemed perfect for families with potentially loud children, I think). Our journey from lobby to room was a good 5-7 minute walk, which doesn’t sound like much but bear in mind it’s all in the same building…

I’ve no doubt this hotel had an abundance of very nice rooms; ours more than met our needs but no need to lounge in luxury there. We did very much enjoy the breakfast space – lovely room overlooking a gorgeous garden. And the property is probably well enjoyed for special events (i.e. the wedding taking place the weekend we were there) given its proximity to transportation, its size and the elegance of many of its rooms.

After collapsing for a bit we made off to J. Baker’s bistro moderne for our evening meal. A very modern look and feel, yet warm and comfortable, the place had an unusual – and delicious – menu, plus a few items specifically for kids.

Claire had the gnocchi, Ava fish and chips (which were about the best looking and – I sampled – best tasting – fish and chips I’ve had, ever). We all had just baked bread in the shape of bones (reference to the Jorvik place, maybe).

My aubergine stater was amazing (that would be eggplant), and I enjoyed my fish dish, too, particularly the potatoes. Dessert was heavenly – billed as chocolate cake but it was really a decadent brownie.

Ambience: urban chic. Great cow art downstairs. Yes, still urban chic, cows and all.


We started our day slow – Joe took a walk, I headed to the fitness center in my flip flops. This broken toe business is wearing. But alas, after collecting coffee, I sucked it up and did the stairmaster barefoot. Then lifted weights, which felt great as it’s been forever since I’ve lifted w/ machines. Only the fitness obsessed can appreciate the small joys of making the muscles ache…Traci, I’m sure you’re with me.

Breakfast: good buffet with the ever popular bacon for the kids. I did step out there and try vegetarian sausages but they tasted like sawdust so I can’t imagine why anyone would bother.

From our hotel we headed off to the York Castle Museum, trailing along the city wall en route. Our first stop, though, was Clifford’s Tower, which we climbed (ha! I did get a climb in, aside from the stairmaster).

'The history of York', declared King George VI, 'is the history of England', and in many ways the history of Clifford's Tower is the history of York.

In 1068-9, William the Conqueror built two motte and bailey castles in York, to strengthen his military hold on the north: the mound of the second, now known as the 'Old Baile', can be seen clearly across the river from Clifford's Tower.

But very soon afterwards both castles were burnt by a Danish fleet, supported by the people of York. William thereupon savagely laid waste wide areas of northern England as a warning and punishment, and rebuilt both castles. The mound on which Clifford's Tower now stands became the core of the principal fortress, York Castle, defended-as can also clearly be seen from the tower-on one side by the River Ouse and on the other by the River Foss.

As the core of one of the most important fortresses in the north, the tower played a crucial role in later medieval history, when York Castle sometimes served as the seat of royal government and always as the administrative focus of Yorkshire.

Having witnessed the upheavals of the northern Pilgrimage of Grace against Henry VIII-whereafter the rebel leader Robert Aske was allegedly hung from its walls in chains to die slowly of starvation-the tower narrowly escaped demolition in Elizabethan times, when its keeper began to demolish it in order to sell its materials, beginning inside the tower so as to avoid detection.

Happily our experience didn't involve hanging from walls and starving to death; we were there on a gorgeous blue sky day so we had a spectacular view.

From the tower we walked across the yard to the York Castle Museum, which is very cool, too. And very big.

York Castle Museum is one of Britain's leading museums of everyday life. It shows how people used to live by displaying thousands of household objects and by recreating rooms, shops, streets - and even prison cells.

The Victorian streets were the highlight of the visit, as was the outdoor courtyard/play area – the kids burned off steam with hula hoops while we absorbed the sun. GREAT weather.

We also hit the attached millhouse, where the kids could grind wheat into flour the hard way.

Then it was off to the Shambles, the best preserved Medieval street in Europe. It’s a lovely little street with quaint buildings and shops. We also wandered through the the market, opting for street food for lunch (crepes and sausages). We then shopped around a bit, checked out the street entertainers and walked along the wall back to the hotel.

There we spent some time in the pool and sauna before dinner, then headed off to Melton’s Too for our evening meal. This was a more traditional restaurant – dark, worn wood planking on the floor, wooden tables, exposed brick walls. Joe and I shared starters and tapas, kids had homemade pasta and some of our food, which ranged from chorizo and mash to four different types of smoked fish. Ava ate all the salmon; think of the health value.

We also had stuffed peppers and Turkish meatloaf. My favorite was the chorizo and mash, though the blue cheese and zucchini dish was hard to beat. And the sticky toffee pudding was fabulous.


This morning Joe walked the city wall, I had another fitness center day. Given we aren’t gym members it’s nice to pop into one occasionally for a change of pace.
After trekking the length of a football field from our room to breakfast, we ditched our luggage and hit the National Railway Museum. That place is immense, with warehouses full of trains old and new, royal and for the masses. We could climb up some, peer in windows, watch footage of times past wherein the train played a key role, the kids even got to ride a miniature train. Great stuff and you could spend hours there. We spent a couple and had to pry ourselves away to catch our own train!
Great weekend out. Go to York! or New York!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Thanksgiving Success

Yes I know, it’s too early for Thanksgiving. However, since we’ll be eating cod or some Welsh specialty on Thanksgiving proper, we decided to have our big American feast a few days early.

So yesterday was all about food.

I spent last week trying to get a headstart on the meal deal, plus I think the process is great fun to stretch out a bit…searching out ingredients, ordering food, perusing recipes (one time, early in my marriage, my husband incredulously asked if I was actually reading a cookbook. And yes, I was.).

This was all fun and games until the turkey business went pear-shaped (love that British expression). First I’d thought perhaps I’d do something radically different and go with pouissins (fancy name for small chickens). I.e. six of these little chicks for our six adults and one standard chicken for the five kids.

We’d extended our early T’giving food plans to our Australian and Texan neighbors. Who doesn’t like a happy secular holiday with plenty of food?)

The reasoning here – about poussins, not Texans and Australians --was to avoid the challenge of 1) locating a turkey (they are to be had here but are costly, many places require advance ordering and they often aren’t available until two days before T’giving. Plus I don’t have a big oven here. That said, it’s not a tinker toy (one would think we all have ovens the size of toasters here, the way some ex-pats exaggerate about the inadequacy of their appliances. Or maybe they had ovens on steroids at home?).

Anyway, it is prudent to make sure the bird will fit in the oven while also allowing the oven heat to circulate properly, thus helping to ensure a properly cooked hunk of poultry.

But then I noted the poussins and chicken were going to eat all my oven space and then some, plus I’d have to fuss over 7 birds rather than one.

So turkey ended up being the logical choice, and a 10 or 12 pounder would work, I figured.

Next mission: finding one. Three stores later, no birds available until next week.


Ocado to the rescue. Now don’t let the word get out, but (shock of all shocks) I purchased a frozen bird. This was after I picked out a lovely free range 12 pound animal that had purportedly enjoyed a fantastic life wandering the fields with his 10 favorite female friends, eating a splendorous fruit, grain and nut diet. Said bird would then have been humanely sacrificed and rushed to my kitchen for a splendid T’giving feast. Not only would his happy, healthy, carefree life have been cut short gently, he would of course be juicy, flavorful, chemical-free etc etc.

As I moved toward the “purchase” button I read the fine print: available in December.
Scratch the homespun heirloom happy go lucky turkey.

What was available in the 12 pound range was a frozen bird. No details on how he lived, but let’s get real here: turkey isn’t the world’s sexiest meat. (I’m having vague recollections of the turkey farm I toured in Germany eons ago. The experience would convert most to beef, pork, venison, squid, anything but poultry. But that’s another story.)

While that was off-putting, it didn’t really turn me off turkey. I just find it’s a bit bland (that word just says it all, doesn’t it?). And in fact I feel quite vindicated on my feelings about turkey, having listened to my foodie program earlier today (Splendid Table). The program featured a chef who, when asked how he does T’gving, said he avoids it, roasting a big chicken, stuffed with fabulous chestnut stuffing, instead.

HA! I am not the only one who thinks turkey is overrated. Of course, if you smother it in really good gravy…

Now I must say I can’t believe I’m telling the world that I happily settled for a frozen bird, but the reality was I was a bit desperate, plus quite pleased with the price. And Ocado could deliver two days before I needed it, plenty of time to thaw the thing.

This delivery business wasn’t smooth sailing, though. I had carefully orchestrated delivery from 3 and 4 that day because I had a Tudor outing at the Nat’l Portrait Gallery from 10 to 2 ish, then had to get back here to get something accomplished and await the grocery man. (Let’s face it, I’m behind on everything due to Tudor outings and such.)

He showed up just before 4, dropped the bags and ran. I ignored said bags for 20 minutes, then started putting things away. Only to find no turkey. Someone’s brown and serve rolls instead. GREAT.

In a panic – and rushing out the door to collect Ava – I called Ocado. On hold.
Caller # 5 in the queu.

Collected Ava. Got disconnected. Frantically re-dialed. Now caller 3 in the queu. Short window before Claire retrieval and finally someone picked up only to tell me she’d call back after doing some reconnaissance. As I was about to walk over to ASL, she phoned to say the driver was again en route, this time w/ the turkey. Dilemna. Claire. Turkey. AHHH. Friend Kelly to the rescue. She happened by to pick up something up as I was in my state of frenzy and took over Claire pick up.

Ten minutes later, my bird was indeed swapped out for the rolls.


Now that it’s 48 hours past the feast, I have to say that was one of the best turkeys I’ve ever eaten. Whether he never saw the light of day, was pumped up with hormone infested pellets, crowded in with a bunch of birds he hated or whatever, he made a mighty good feast. Juicy, tender and flavorful (this is coming from a serious turkey skeptic).

It also helped to not over-cook said bird and to slather him up w/ butter, salt and pepper, then a maple syrup/black pepper glaze (this was my 2010 experiment and I’ve already committed it to my recipe book).

The glaze contributed to the best gravy I personally have ever concocted. (Drippings plus malt vinegar, of all things, the roux and some chicken broth…fabulous.)
Everything else was tasty too – cornbread/sausage stuffing (with my recent favorite cornbread recipe), homemade rolls – Mom’s buttery sweet roll recipe, those cranberries I’d cranked on earlier, mashed potatoes with plenty of real Irish butter (yes, it is better), Melissa’s green bean casserole (it’s not T’giving without the French fried onion casserole), sweet potatoes with brown sugar/pecan topping, pecan pie, a big green salad w/ feta that, even on day 2 of the feast, I still haven’t found room to fit in, either on my plate or in my tummy.

A thoroughly fabulous T’giving with great company and cocktails to start and finish, thx to the Texans.

I hope, as you read this, that you’re eagerly anticipating my favorite holiday, and that you glory in your turkey, frozen or fresh, free range or “housed” (sounds better than caged, right?).

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Comfort food

Written last Wednesday. One would think I could write and post same day, but apparently not.

Ok so what does comfort food mean to you? For me it’s polenta, warm, just the right amount of salty, just the right amount of thick/chewy but not chewy, with just the right amount of good Parmesan and BUTTER. None of that substitute stuff.

This I subjected my kids to tonight. They actually also love it. Put a grain in front of them and they’re happy. My husband, not so much. His idea of comfort food is probably something different. Midwestern meatloaf and mashed potatoes, likely?

When I think comfort food I don’t think mac n’ cheese, though for many that ranks. (Maybe my brother still fondly reflects on it; he kept Kraft in business for a while. Today I think he tends more toward a really good steak and my mother’s incredibly perfect seasoned salad. This is nothing more than an olive oil/vinaigrette mixture w/ just the right amount of seasoning, but somehow no one else gets it perfect.)

What else ranks on my comfort list…I would have to say oxtail soup with barley (again, my mom’s). It’s really rough when you grow up with a REALLY good cook. I won’t even get started on her pie crust. Or potato salad.

Do not ask me how I felt a need to extrapolate on polenta and barley soup; maybe it’s because I’m consumed with Thanksgiving. Today I had a foodie heaven day. I started at Whole Foods, where you leave (I should say I left) with a SMALL brown bag in exchange for 26 pounds. OUCH.

These cranberries better be good.

But I did so enjoy perusing the aisles with the people stocking them (9 a.m. is a great Whole Foods time), though there aren’t many samples out. So if you’re diet obsessed, go then.

From Whole Foods I moved on to a Thai cooking class, wherein the chef cooked up Thai comfort good (hence my digression. I knew there must be a connection somewhere).
Her comfort food was an incredibly good curry chicken served over coconut rice. I could get used to this.

Then I collected Claire and made DECADENT (and I do mean decadent) brownies. 80 percent dark chocolate. Big eggs. Plenty of REALLY good butter.

You’d think with all this food talk I’d weigh 200 pounds. Not to worry. Even in my limping state I get plenty of activity schlepping around London, usually carrying at least 10 pounds worth of groceries, kid stuff, books, the like. Plus Sam at pilates is trying to kill me so I haven’t many calories to spare.

We moved on from the really good butter in the really decadent brownies to conjuring up cranberry sauce (with those whole foods cranberries that cost a million dollars). And no, I don’t do the jellied stuff out of the can. Once I year I crave cranberries and given the infrequency, they better be the real deal.

Tomorrow: head start on the cornbread stuffing. You know the drill. No stove top here, sister.

Monday, November 15, 2010

How do you wash a tie?

That’s the topic of the morning, as Ava came home with applesauce on her tie. (This would be a critical component of the Abercorn uniform, which I must say, was tied successfully by yours truly yesterday.)

This tieing of the tie was somewhat of an accomplishment given

1) her father typically does it…but hard to reach across the Atlantic this week, therein leaving me in charge of one crisp, proper knot. You can see I’m stretching for descriptors on properly tied ties.

2) I don’t have much tie expertise.

And 3) Tie-tying under the duress of morning mayhem takes the process to a new – and not necessarily good – level. (Some days it’s all we can do just to get out the door in something other than our underwear, let alone ramp it up on accessories.)

Getting back to my question of the hour, I tried sponging; I’ll get back to you on my level of success. Or not; somehow I doubt you’re sitting on the edge of your chair on this one.

As for other mundane topics, ever ponder light switches? Normally I don’t bother, either, but this weekend I had the opportunity. Why, for instance, doesn’t the switch closest at hand turn on the lamp similarly…closest at hand?

It’s a Seinfeld sort of thing, I suppose.

Anyway, I’d been laying awake at the fine Ramada Inn Tunbridge Wells, trying not to wake up my two sleeping beauties, pondering all the things I haven’t yet done (not things like writing the world’s greatest novel or learning to scuba…though the first holds appeal, the second none whatsoever). The list running through my mind was more along the lines of Thanksgiving menus, ironing, ordering school clothes.

Tired of my ramblings, I hit the nearest light switch, which lit the whole place up like a fire. The next one lit the kids’ side, even though they can’t reach said switch from their bed. The third hit the light over the mirror and TV. And the last one – a long reach from little old me – nailed my lamp. Hmmph.

Similarly, at home the light in the patio is governed by a switch in the living room, as far from the light as you can get and still remain in the living room.
And then there are two light upstairs that are governed by one switch; I’ve yet to understand why, when its sister switch could do one of the jobs…

You really can write about nothing. Maybe Seinfeld was also created at 6 a.m. without coffee.

As for mid-October onward…

York? I wrote a diatribe on this trip (great town in northern England which we as a family thoroughly enjoyed a few weeks ago. I'll regurgitate my prose at a later date; it takes some time to decode chicken scratch).


With a little extra time on our hands upon our return, Claire and I met up with friends for an outing to the Natural History Museum and its Amazonia exhibit – a one room wonder. The exhibit brought nature and art together through abstract paintings, photography and sculpture (i.e. works that resembled bones with splotches of color, extreme close ups of nature photos, etc.).

Also during our museum visit we lunched and checked out the bugs. I'm not sure if it's best to check them out before, thereby putting a damper on the appetite, or after, which could provoke indigestion...

The most striking thing about this particular Natural History Museum visit was our discovery of a new entrance (the building is huge but apparently I hadn’t been imaginative enough to get beyond the main entrance, generally featuring a line out to the sidewalk).

This new way in didn’t have even a glimpse of a line and it opened a whole new world of natural history to us. I maintain you could live in London all your life, hit two or three museums per week and still never cover it all.

Upon return to routine that week I fit in an India lunch with the American School London’s international group. This is an organization open to all ASL parents, its goal to provide international experiences – through food, culture, art, learning – to the community. I think it’s a very valuable organization, given ASL can lean toward being a “mini-America” experience unless you push outside the boundaries.

The culinary arm of the group is particularly interesting (the foodie in my surfaces). This lunch was at an Indian woman’s home, with demonstrations of how to prepare homecooked Indian food. Naturally the dishes are less complex, less heavy, less intensely spicy than many restaurants throw at you. It was all very good, though I do like Indian food with some serious HEAT!

On the theatre side, I took myself out with a group of ladies to see “Flashdance.” Flashback to high school! As is everything I’ve seen on the West End, it was very well done, but the male lead was a little light. That is, he could have been taller, darker, more handsome and with a deeper voice – could I get any more critical this morning?

Perhaps I should just say he didn’t come off quite as heroic as the movie version.
Other members of our party echoed similar opinions, someone noting that the lead in Dirty Dancing was considerably less Patrick Swayze-ish. She said it ruined the experience for her. I prefer to herald PS in that role so will pass on DD at the theatre.

Further to the art scene, a few of us gathered for the Treasures of Budapest exhibit at the Royal Arts Academy. Very thorough representation, it seemed to me (and according to the Royal Academy):

This exhibition showcases the breadth and wealth of one of the finest collections in Central Europe. The exhibition features over 200 works and includes paintings, drawings and sculpture from the early Renaissance to the twentieth century. Selected works by artists including Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, El Greco, Rubens, Goya, Manet, Monet, Schiele, Gauguin and Picasso are on display, many of which have not previously been shown in the UK.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest houses the state collection of international art works in Hungary and includes the Esterházy collection, acquired by the Hungarian state in 1871. The collection began in the seventeenth century but expanded during the rule of Prince Nikolaus II Esterházy (1765 – 1833) who was responsible for developing the fine collection of Old Master paintings and drawings which will be showcased in the exhibition. One of the highlights of the exhibition will be Raphael's 'Virgin and Child with St John the Baptist', 1508 (known as The Esterházy Madonna).

This perusal of art, followed by lunch at Fortnum & Mason, made for an extraordinary day out.

And now I'm onto making toast and peeling kids off the bed. Happy Tuesday!

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Sept 29 – Oct 1 found me, with the Alice Leader contingency of ladies, catching a train to Dorset…

My first order of business was to limp to the tube, meet up w/ the group at Waterloo and watch the rain fall as we headed coastal, toward Weymouth. Lovely country and a great day to be watching the world go by.

Upon arrival at the train station we marched off with our suitcases; our trusty bus whisked us off to the Wise Man pub in West Stafford and we had pub grub in a warm, woody setting. The local cider: good (it’s apparently cider making time here so we naturally got on board with the seasons). The local chili: not so good. Who does chili on rice, anyway?

From The Wise Man we hit the Dorset County Museum, which was supposed to have plenty of Hardy items to peruse. However, our tour guide apologetically noted X was missing, Y they couldn’t find, Z was under protection, etc.

We all had a good chuckle at their expense.

Then off to Max Gate, Hardy’s home, which he designed. It’s a Gothic looking, stately but not particularly grand home. There one of the very elderly actresses who played Tess’ sister in one of the theatre productions done during Hardy’s time was present. She couldn’t hear well but shared memories of rehearsing in the parlor. The Swiss woman in our group visited with her for a bit, spending most of the conversation trying to convince her she wasn’t German. In fact, she’s from the French part of Switzerland, so really not inclined to jump on board w/ the German business.

The room in which this little old lady held audience was one of a few we could tour (ok, one of two if you didn’t count the entry way). In the other room we were given a welcome by a Hardy expert, who recited some of his poetry, bringing it alive with his Dorset accent. What I remember best was the old sofa on the far side of the room; someone expired upon it 100 years ago.

Then we were off to the Yalbury Cottage (at least my faction of the group; others were chauffeured to their respective hotels.). Our cottage was in a quiet, rural spot with cows and ponies frolicking in the pastures behind.

My window looked out upon this pastoral scene, which felt straight out of a Hardy novel. He captures the essence of the landscape and weather beautifully in his prose.

After some re-group time we met for dinner at the Yalbury, which I have to say has a great chef. I’d stay there for the food alone. Short commute, too. Apparently said chef used to work for 4 Seasons as an executive chef.

At the moment I can’t remember what I ate (unbelievable, isn’t it). Of course it is a month later.

Ah yes…now I recall. Scallop starter, vegetable and spelt pie for my main (sounds so healthy but believe me it packed a wallop of really good butter) and apple flan to finish. Perfect for the season.

I do remember the conversation at our table…it went from “why are our kids taking the tube for their field trips?” (vs. busing, why 3rd grade and not the older/potentially more seasoned 5th graders, for example.) I, for what it’s worth, didn’t really get concerned about losing my daughter on the tube. One, I guess we’ve already been down that path and am now de-sensitized? (thankfully a short-lived fright but all ended up fine), 2) Claire’s teacher is WAY on top of things and 3) the 3rd grade crowd seems to have enough acumen to sort themselves out (probably because ASL has drilled the protocol into them should they get separated from the group, tube or no tube).

Ok back to the table conversation. Yes so it ranged from the tube to plastic surgery (re-building of cheekbones – who knew?). As my friend Allison says, I thought you did that through weight loss.

Then we moved on to 3rd grade girls and carbohydrates. This I refuse to make an issue in my humble home.

Oh and this led into obesity in the U.S. Phew doesn’t it sound like we were all a bunch of carpies (is that the right word or am I referring to fish?). Yes, there is an obesity problem there but it’s also a growing problem (no pun intended) here, in India, Mexico, you name it…blame it on Nintendo, TV, internet, McDonalds, laziness, cheese, beer, whatever.

The following day I had a fabulous omelette. I do mean fabulous. Boy that sounds funny right after my paragraph on obesity. LOL.

Then off to Hardy’s childhood home, a lovely little cottage with tiny upstairs rooms. We then went to Bere Regis, famous for its connection to Hardy's novel 'Tess of the d’Urbervilles', first published in 1891, where it is referred to as 'Kingsbere'. (Never mind that he described it as a “half dead townlet.”) We stopped at the church there, lovely with carved roof and Tuberville stained glass window.

Then it was time to eat again (these trips are heavily weighted toward food, again no pun intended). This time: the Greyhound. I think we pre-ordered, then all re-ordered and confused the kitchen, wherein we all passed around some starters and desserts because we didn’t want to add insult to injury. I recall thinking the soup (which I did not order) was quite good.

After all that food we simply had to move, and Alice had arranged two walk options for us. Being a gimp, I opted for the putz around Dorchester – “Far from the Madding Crowd” walk. We hit the points on our map, had time to tool around antiquing and shopping a bit, then slipped back to the hotel for some down time.

In my case, a massage at a room in a very cool inn dating back to the 1500’s. The masseuse was fabulous and doctored up my toe with some homeopathic meds. I’ll try anything to move the healing along (anything except the R-I-C-E treatment at this point, apparently. Don’t worry, my time came.).

Truly a fabulous afternoon – historic walk with friends, nap, massage, bath and dinner, all in the space of a few hours.

Our coach (sounds so Cinderalla doesn’t it? Never mind; it was a bus with a bit of a grouchy driver) whisked (lumbered) us off to dinner, this time at the Blue Vinny. Great name, you think? Another good meal; I seem to recall fish this time.

And on Friday we enjoyed another amazing breakfast before heading off to Stinsford Church. Hardy and his wives are buried in the churchyard, and he was baptized within. I shall probably always recall best Alice swearing like a sailor inside; I can’t remember the story she was recounting but it was most amusing and blasphemous! (I’ve always wanted to use that term!!!)

We then stopped for coffee/tea before hitting the train back to Waterloo. 1) we had a little time to kill and 2) one can never have enough of a warm beverage living here, it seems.

Actually, Szerina and I used our coffee time to go on on a mad, fast paced shopping trip that netted nothing (I was looking for warm slippers to accommodate foot issues. You know as well as I that when you go in search of such specific items they are NO WHERE to be found.).

All too soon we were back on a train homeward bound. Another great Alice Leader adventure!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

India. Or not?!?

I was still in fly high mode after the 13.1 disorganized Run to the Beat race. (I'll go w/ 13.1 because it sounds longer than ½ a marathon. Even better would be the measurement in km but I’m not that good at math and am too lazy to google. That’s wicked bad down to the toes LAZY, isn’t it?).

Well anyway, still in my high flying mode, I recall getting up early the following day set the world on fire (generally that means I've gotten up before everyone else to putz in my kitchen and on my computer. Plus the toe/coffee table accident hadn't yet occurred so I had big plans and no distractions.)

Order of business: make coffee, check email. So while the French press was doing its thing and I was as of yet devoid of caffeine, I was sure the note I opened from my husband did not say he hadn't been let in and was catching a BA flight home in an hour.

How does a tired clean cut, nicely dressed businessman not get allowed into India's India-ness? Last time I saw him he didn't look like much of a threat to the country.

(Frankly I’m the one who occasionally runs around the house in a rave with bedhead. Husband? Not so much. And since he’s in human resources, his diplomacy skills are outstanding (when one is deficient in a category, i.e. self, one does notice these things).

At this point I had coffee, which did not change the content of his note. Hmmm!

So there you have it. Husband turned up exhausted later same day. Apparently he’d been shuffled from small waiting room to small waiting room along with others who couldn’t pass go.

He did manage to be returned to England via business class. A long way to go for nothing but miles…

The following day found me doing the St. Johns Wood walk with the London Walks people. Ironic, isn’t it, that later that day I would slam myself into the coffee table and find walking REALLY a drag.

The SJW walk was good, though the guide took plenty of potshots at the high retail value of homes in the area. Maybe she didn’t make the connection that we were with the St. Johns Wood Women’s Club…a group of women residing in…well, St. Johns Wood.
Then again maybe she enjoyed slamming residents w/ her snide comments?

Nevertheless, a good walk that carried us around the neighborhood to learn about historical events, buildings and famous faces in our back yard.

Some of the highlights:

St John's Wood is a district of north-west London, England, in the City of Westminster, and at the north-west end of Regent's Park. It is approximately 2.5 miles north-west of Charing Cross. Once part of the Great Middlesex Forest, it was later owned by the Knights of St John of Jerusalem.

St John's Wood was developed from the early 19th century onwards. It was one of the first London suburbs to be developed with a large amount of low density "villa" housing, as opposed to the terraced housing which was the norm in London up to the 19th century, even in expensive districts. Parts of St John's Wood have been rebuilt at a higher density, but it remains a highly desirable residential district.

St John's Wood is the location of Lord's Cricket Ground, home of Middlesex County Cricket Club and the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), and original headquarters of the sport. It is also famous for Abbey Road Studios and the street Abbey Road, where The Beatles recorded, notably the Abbey Road album, the cover of which features the band crossing the road. Paul McCartney has owned a property in the area since the 1960s along with many other famous music and film stars.

The King's Troop, Royal Horse Artillery has a barracks in St. John's Wood and regularly exercises their horses by parading them through the streets of St. John's Wood.

Chef Clarissa Dickson Wright grew up in St John's Wood, and the former Wrights' home is now home to supermodel Kate Moss. Actor Damian Lewis was born in St John's Wood. The Rolling Stones referenced it in their song "Play With Fire". The director, wit and physician Jonathan Miller was born into a wealthy family in the area. The British World War II flier Douglas Bader was born in St. John's Wood.

I must say I’ve yet to hit a cricket match, but that’s on the list…I believe the 2012 summer Olympics archery events and maybe others will be held at Lord’s, so watch for it on the telly!

As for the Beatles crossing, I step over that much-acclaimed crosswalk at least twice a day, if not more often. Much to the annoyance of many strategizing for the perfect Beatles replicated photo, I’ve walked through plenty of shots. Good thing for photoshop.

Re: Kate Moss. If I’ve seen her, she hasn’t registered. Clearly I don’t read enough People magazine.

As for the royal horses, we do see them regularly and had the opportunity to tour their barracks last year. That’s a must do, especially since the horses will be relocated next year.

More late; I’m fried!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Late September in London: Pilates

Yes, I realize it's now Nov. 1 and I'm still talking about September...stop the clocks!!!

Late September found me discovering pilates, which has become my latest exercise obsession.

I was introduced into this torturous looking program by my dear friend Suzanne, a high energy New Zealander who convinced me to try “beautcamp” pilates.

So I signed up for my first free class (love free, don’t you) and made my way to Bayswater for this experience. I wasn’t sure if this was a mix of cardio and floor/machine exercises or what, but I was game.

10:00 rolled around. No Suzanne. 10:05 no Suzanne. Class took place. No Suzanne. Class ended, no Suzanne. Hmm!

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the class (as much as one can enjoy burning muscles, particularly ones that have languished, untested, for years. In fact I think they were/are MAD that I found them and have since put them through their paces).

I had a great instructor for my first class; Ben walked me through the reformer (imagine a cot covered partly with a matt that moves back and forth, tension adjustable). The thing has a movable bar, useful for push ups and all manner of exercises.

Underneath this machine lie a variety of props to continue the physical torture – weights, boxing gloves (have yet to use those), a pole, ring, etc.).

So far each class has been different as there are a variety of instructors and they change up the routine each time. Some things seem to be consistent throughout – squat-like exercises using the reformer to warm up, lots of planks, tricep press ups, etc.

I've become a regular at this place for the past 6 weeks, sorting out who my favorite instructors are and finessing my form to gain the most benefit (burn). So far I think Vicki and Jordie give the hardest workouts. Vicki’s class leaves me feeling like a wet noodle, in a good way. And Jordie is very good at coaching superb form, plus he’s eye candy.

I had to laugh at a recent exchange I overheard between him and another guy who was taking the class. The guy said he'd been away from pilates for a while since he was busy w/ "Tap Dogs," which I saw on the West End. They were talking about a mutual friend who moved to Vegas and had her third child. Jordie's comment: Well I guess there's not much else to do in Vegas. I'm still chuckling about that...what would he think of Charlotte in terms of excitement I wonder.

My pilates launch also fit beautifully into my “light mode” training prior to the ½ marathon and, bonus, it’s a great way to work on flexibility for people like me who don’t bother with stretching.

On Sept. 23 I had a belated birthday celebration. If you turn 40 you’re allowed to celebrate the event for at least six months afterward, I think. 15 of my favorite women friends gatherwed with me, we all donned frocks and had fabulous food at Il Baretto. It was a lovely night, fabulous company and I felt well celebrated.

Small anecdote: I hit the ladies’ room and as I was making my way to the sink a horror-stricken man looked at me and said “wrong room?” I just laughed, delighted to know it wasn't me.

Somewhere during that week I also snuck off to the movies with the ladies. It always feels decadent to hit a matinee during the week, doesn't it? We saw Tamara Drew, which appropriately follows Bathsheba’s story in The Mdading Crowd (Thomas Hardy). The movie, though, was a bit slow/long and then came to a crashing, rather dark ending. WFV

Happily, my husband also returned, unscathed, from a business trip, only to prepare for another.

The kids started pre and post Communion classes on the 25th and I headed off for my ½ marathon the following morning, dressed in three layers. Can we say cold. Our start was at the 02 centre near the river. Colder. Then it was delayed due to tube issues. By then Michelle and I were beyond blue.

I must say, it was a great race (shaky start – 17,000 runners and a rather disorganized race organization). We scarcely found our start; Deb and I were booked into the same timed group and ended up leaping fences and weaving our way through the masses to try to find our space. I’m still not sure if we did but at least we ended up toward the first third.

Somehow we missed the place for checking in our bags (no biggie; neither of us had anything of value in them so we made use of a trash bin). We also managed to find the port-a-potties; that too was chaotic BUT good thing it panned it for us. Could have been a long race otherwise…

We took off together and I have to say I was so frigidly uncomfortable for the first three miles I didn’t think I’d ever get my shoulders out of the clothes pin position.
About mile four, though, the blood seemed to come back into my system, and at mile 5 or 6 I actually shed a layer. Who knew? I also lost Deb about then.
The miles after that were quite happy; well I don't remember them so that's why I would describe them as happy.

However, someplace toward the end, when I could no longer find the mile markers (same problem Deb and Michelle said they had, so it wasn’t just me), someone in the crowd, thinking they were being helpful, hollered “not much longer now.” And someone else said “almost there…”

Boy was I bummed when the end wasn’t just around the corner. In fact, I had a few more corners to go.

But all in all, a great race, I finished in 1:51, which was good for me. And I finished strong, pushed it to the end, still had energy in me, no particular pain.
Yes, I would do the ½ again.

So I was flying high with this attitude until Tuesday afternoon.

Then the coffee table attacked me. Well ok I was in a huge, clumsy hurry...

And the pinkie toe was the casualty. Since then I haven’t been running. In fact, I couldn't wear anything but flip flops for over a month. Those apples SUCK.
This problem contributed to my infatuation with pilates.

I must say I did want/need a break from running (I had some strange bruises on my feet/ankles, was starting to dread getting up early on Wednesdays to run, etc.). But I could have done without the toe breakage to get a change of scenery.

Now that the toe has gotten a week bit better (this is one long drawn out healing process), I can wear my very ugly UGGs that, happily, John Lewis put on sale last year. Also happily, the one pair available as I was heading off to Haworth for a very COLD, very authentic Bronte experience in the Moors last winter was in my size. They are now my savior. Not pretty, but toe-friendly and warm.

Oh the little dramas of life...

Friday, October 22, 2010


September 18…this marked Claire and my lottery day. That is, we’d been given admittance to see the pope at the Papal Vigil in Hyde Park.

Thus she and I packed up a picnic and our folding chairs and joined our group at St. Thomas More for a pilgrimage to Hyde Park.

It was a slow process – any large group activity is, I guess. Plus it was a pilgrimage, so a cheerful, long drawn out journey there. We broke into smaller groups for purposes of bus travel and made our way gradually down to the park area. Had our group all been capable of walking the few miles to the park, it would have been a truer pilgrimage, I think. Plus it would have been just as fast or faster, given the waits for buses and for our groups to re-group.

We had a lovely day for it, though, and got to Hyde Park just before 2:00. The place was already crowded with hundreds more pressing in. The ambience was
fabulous, very light-hearted and energetic. Even the security guards were cheery, asking people if they’d traveled far.

We had a fabulous afternoon waiting for the Pope, who was to wheel in on the Pope mobile around 6:30.

Our group marched up to where we could find a good viewing spot and spread out a bit, sporting our huge banner, which, as Father stated, was the best one there. It was the biggest and ended up on the front page of the Telegraph. Can’t beat that.
Around us groups gathered eating, chatting , sleeping, reading, praying, saying the Rosary. Confessions took place here and there, people stood in line for ice cream and just enjoyed being out enjoying the community of fellow Catholics on a warm, sunny autumn day. (Or I’m projecting how I felt about the event. What’s life without a little emotional projection.)

It really was fun just to look around and absorb the happy anticipation in the crowd and to watch everyone mingling. Lots of laughter and happy faces, even in the long lines for the porta-potties. I also saw more mingling among strangers, generally less common in the big city.

Claire and I read a lot, she did some puzzles and games in between being entertained by dancers and musicians from Poland, Wales, Spain, Aftrica and many other parts of the world. The program, broadcast on huge screens throughout the park, included speakers who shared stories about their Catholic faith and/or how Catholic charities or Catholicism had affected them or their loved ones.

The most poignant story was told by a couple, parents with a large family who lost their 16-year-old to a violent act by a drugged out stranger at a convenience store. They talked about how faith had helped them not turn their grief into bitterness and anger but instead to work against drug-realted problems by sharing their story and through community volunteerism.

The mom called to young people in particular in the crowd to be proud of their faith, as her Jimmy had been.

It was wonderful to see Catholicism celebrated or brought to life in so many ways as we waited – through dance, song, prayer, even a bit of “fire and brimstone” preaching. Eventually, as the sun dipped for a great sunset, the screens gave us views from above of the Pope mobile making its way to Hyde Park. With cheers and energy building, we were all on our feet to welcome the pope!

He graciously waved and smiled a gentle, happy smile. He looked tired but pleased with the welcome he received.

The service was lovely in the dusk, the stage beautifully lit. The pope gave a well-spoken, succinct homily that addressed his sadness with the problems in the church’s past and hope for the church’s future.

In particular he reached out to the youth in the crowd, many of them gathered up front. A group from Spain, where the next World Youth Day will be held, were particularly enthusiastic in cheering for the pope when he referenced the event. Their cheers brought a huge smile to his face.

I left a bit in awe; it was the largest group of Catholics I’ve ever gathered with in prayer. It was a very powerful, peaceful experience, and I’m very glad we went.
I think Claire enjoyed it, too; it was particularly well timed given her recent First Holy Communion.

The week following the Papal experience was a busy one, Joe left for business in Charlotte and my friend Beth and I traipsed off for complimentary training sessions with some personal trainers who are new to St. Johns Wood. This of course was followed by coffee because one can’t exercise without coffee. Before and after!

While each of us felt like we got something out of our freebie sessions (for me, focus on flexibility and subtleties to improve my running), we won’t be signing up for the 60 pound/hour sessions.

Ava sharted her drama club, a one-hour afterschool program, this week, after telling me for a year she had no interest in any of the after school clubs. Now she’s all over drama and is dying to take cooking too (they made cupcakes the first week, which I must say looked awfully appealing).

The awards for best dramatic acting each session are balloons; Ava so far has made off with two, one for best flamingo, the other for simply being the best in class, she tells me.

My art outing for the week was to see the Raphael tapestries at the V&A (museum). As part of the Papal visit, these tapestries were on loan from the Vatican, appearing for the first time next to their matching cartoons (which reside at the V&A). A lovely exhibit and an easy one to fit in given it’s succinct.

About it…

This is a display of four of the ten tapestries designed by Raphael for the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. These are the original tapestries from the only series designed by Raphael of which examples survive, and are comparable with Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Ceiling as masterpieces of High Renaissance art.

The tapestries are displayed alongside the full-size designs for them – the famous Raphael Cartoons. This is the first time that the designs and tapestries have been displayed together – something Raphael himself never witnessed. The tapestries have not been shown before in the UK.

That’s it for today. I must get ready for Thai food at the Blue Elephant!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

3rd Grade Kicks into Gear

Claire’s first week of school was good, and short. Love it when you can ease into the schedule w/ a weekend close at hand.

We started with third grade oerintation – really just a brief stop at the school for a rundown on logistics, tours of the 3rd grade pod for the kids and a download on expectations for parents.

From there we met friends in the park for a couple hours of fun on a nice, sunny September day.

Claire likes her teacher, who she gets to call Suzanne; her classmates seem like a nice mix. And the third grade agenda includes a couple of rapidly advancing field trips, one to Buckingham Palace. Not bad for the 8 year old crowd. Spanish has been swapped for Italian, which is a bummer as Claire was really enjoying it.

While she jumped into things at ASL, Ava and I had a few days together to catch up with friends at parks. We also met up with friends for a picnic in Kensington, and of course we retraced our steps to the Duck tour bus stop.

We scored on the weather for our amphibious vehicle adventure, and our guide was good – witty and fun, great with kids. She had lots of smart little insights to share.

The part on land, I think, is actually better as it’s longer than the water portion, hits the highlights well but without being laborious and then the pop into the water is a fun end with great, if shortlived, views.

That same week I went on a walk with a group to Islington, walking along the canal from Regent’s park until we reached the town. It’s a great way to enjoy the changing neighborhoods, plus helps me sort out my (lacking) skills as a navigator. We had another great, sunny day for our Islington adventure (so far September has been much nicer than August!).

That evening Joe and I had a final good-bye dinner with our friend Price, the last in his family to head home for work in New York City. We met for drinks at a local pub, then had a great meal at l’Aventura in St. Johns Wood – it’s a lovely little French restaurant just around the corner from us. Our food at l’Aventura was fabulous, from the olives to dessert. I had the lamb, which was beautifully done. Lovely atmosphere, too – quiet, warm and quaint, very nice service.

On Sept. 6 our first St. Johns Wood Women’s Club board meeting kicked off – great group of ladies with lots of fun plans for the year.

With a poorly timed tube strike (is there ever a good time) Ava and I spent half the day on Sept. 7 navigating to get to Toy Story III. Let’s just say we were determined. With our travel plans awry, we switched gears to the bus and many moons later wheeled into the mall, where we met another Ava and her mom for our movie.
It was a good one, I must say. Worth the time it took to weave our way there!

That evening I took a VERY long cab ride to join a friend and a few other ladies for an evening of burlesque at Volupte. We all dressed up and had some lovely cocktails in the bar before being shepherded downstairs for dinner and the show.

Here’s a descriptor of the venue:

This tantalising burlesque supper club will entertain you with its mesmerising dance, circus and cabaret acts.

Discreetly tucked away and yet within easy rich, Volupte is a wonderful treasure box of retro extravagance. To titillate your mouth and mind, there is a bar on the ground floor.

Past a velvet curtain, you will find yourself in a surprisingly small space: the kitchen and stage area are at the very back, while the rest of the room is occupied by small tables. The decor is slightly rough around the edges, a detail which adds to the atmosphere rather than detracting from it, and it includes contemporary elements like the elaborate wall murals and vintage tributes like images of Bettie Page and other starlets, grandma lampshades or a display of old bottles, shoes and other pre-1950s paraphernalia. Additionally, a kitsch semi-private booth is like something out of the Little Mermaid and this adds to what is a vivid vision.

The Atmosphere
Effervescent as champagne and yet smooth as velvet, Volupte has the smoky atmosphere of a decadent Moulin Rouge-esque venue but none of the seediness. Here you should definitely expect the unexpected: it is a burlesque supper club (try to actually eat before the show starts or you may end up dropping food everywhere) but burlesque is definitely not the only act on the bill. Vaudeville comedy, fire eaters, snake enchanters, circus performers, hula hoopers and even aerialists are all at home here.

The atmosphere is remarkably similar to the Au Lapin Agile, a small, ancient cabaret venue in Parisian Montmartre, which can be considered the forefather of venues like Volupte.

Dinner was good, particularly as it was accompanied by good champagne. And the show was bawdy, fun, suggestive without being lewd, if that makes sense. Plenty of skin, bare boobs with nipples decorated with sparkly things or things dangling from them and propelled in circles.

A few numbers were done solo, most in groups of 3 or 5. One woman did a fan dance, which was probably my favorite – dramatic and lovely (the fan). The women were young, a mix of shapes. One wonders if they aspire to different types of dance or theatre work? The emcee, also a woman, played the crowd well, particularly the rowdy reunion group, a mix of men and women near our table. There was one couple that looked to be on an awkward date; if that was the case, I’m thinking it was an odd venue for a first date…

September 9 marked Ava’s first day of year 1, the equivalent of Kindergarten. Drop off was happy this time as several of her friends were gathered, all smiles, in the John O’Connor room. She was beaming at pick up, so I gather it was a good first day with Miss Cox and Miss Laffy.

Meanwhile I too went to class – the first session of Thomas Hardy with Alice Leader. Frankly I was less than excited to get into his books, having been preoccupied with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. But Alice's classes are always good; she’s great fun and draws a good group of interesting, intellectually stimulating women. And her field trips are spectacular.

Hardy, I’ve found, is really an enjoyable author. My favorite so far has been Tess of the D’Ubervilles.

On Sept. 10 I went to Knole w/ the St. Johns Wood Women’s Club for a tour. It was a great day out.

About the place…

Set at the heart of a timeless deer park, Knole has fascinating links with kings, queens and nobility, as well as literary connections with the novelists Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Knole was the birthplace and childhood home of Vita Sackville-West, who went on to create the gardens at Sissinghurst. Thirteen magnificent state rooms are laid out much as they were in the 18th century to impress visitors with the wealth of the Sackville family, who still live at Knole today. The house includes world-renowned rare furniture, important paintings and the prototype of the famous Knole settee.

Knole has always excited a range of different reactions. Henry VIII liked it so much that he forced Thomas Cranmer, his Archbishop of Canterbury, to hand it to him in 1538. Yet, the following century, the diarist John Evelyn was so depressed by the greyness of this 'greate old fashion'd house' that he hurried out into the sunshine. In the 18th century, Horace Walpole was impressed by Knole's 'beautiful decent simplicity which charms one' but on a later visit decided that it 'has neither beauty nor prospects'.

These mixed emotions can partly be explained by the many faces Knole presents on different days and at different times of the year. On a dull winter's day, as you ride the crest of the knoll in front of the house and the north front looms in sight, Knole's sprawling mass of sodden Kentish ragstone strikes a sombre note. But on a sunny summer's day, the south front, with its colonnade of seven lightly coloured marble arches, dances to a very different tune.

The Sackvilles and Knole
Knole was rebuilt and then furnished in three main bursts of activity, each separated by around a hundred years. In the early 17th century, Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, transformed the late medieval archbishop's palace into a Renaissance mansion. Towards the end of the 17th century, his great-great-grandson, the 6th Earl, acquired Knole's unique collection of Stuart furniture and textiles through his office as Lord Chamberlain. And then, towards the end of the 18th century the 6th Earl's great-grandson, the 3rd Duke, added Old Masters bought on the Grand Tour to Italy and portraits commissioned from contemporary English artists such as Reynolds and Gainsborough.

Visitors today see a house and collection little changed since the 3rd Duke's day. By the end of the 17th century, the Sackvilles had withdrawn to private apartments on the ground floor and tended to live there rather than in the more formal, public rooms on the first floor - today's showrooms. The very fact that large areas of Knole were inhabited only intermittently from the end of the 17th century and that the furniture therefore remained under dust sheets for long periods, accounts for its miraculous survival.

On display in the Great Hall is a facsimile of the bound manuscript of Virginia Woolf's novel 'Orlando'. The novel is dedicated to Vita Sackville-West and, in the words of Vita's son, Nigel Nicolson, it is 'the longest and most charming love letter in literature'. Vita is the eponymous hero/heroine (Orlando changes gender over the four centuries in which the novel is set) and Orlando's ancestral home is a house, like Knole, with a legendary 365 rooms. The pages are threaded through with similarly specific references to Knole and to its past and present incumbents. It ends with Orlando taking possession of the house whereas, in fact, Vita had been denied ownership of her beloved Knole because the house was passed through the male line.

In 1930 Vita fell in love with Sissinghurst Castle and bought it, along with 4,000 acres of farmland. Together Vita and her husband, Harold Nicolson, made a garden which reflected their different personalities - Harold being a classicist and Vita a romantic. Today, Sissinghurst Castle Garden is also owned by the National Trust.

After coffee we had a guided tour with a very sharp little old man leading the way. Lunch was crusty bread and tomato soup, then back to London. It was a great, relaxing day out; I did manage to get Ava’s ballet slippers ready for class (why they don’t come with elastics attached is beyond me). Alas, that evening I learned I’d done them incorrectly. So much for efficiency.

The next day Joe and I headed off to the Proms, a big, very British summer event.
The Proms, more formally known as The BBC Proms, is an eight-week summer season of daily orchestral classical music concerts and other events held annually, predominantly in the Royal Albert Hall in London. Founded in 1895, each season currently consists of over 70 concerts in the Albert Hall, a series of chamber concerts at Cadogan Hall, additional Proms in the Park events (like ours) across the United Kingdom on the last night, and associated educational and children's events. In the context of classical music festivals, Jiří Bělohlávek has described The Proms as "the world's largest and most democratic musical festival".[1]

Prom is short for promenade concert, a term which arose from the original practice of audience members promenading, or strolling, in some areas of the concert hall during the concert. Promming now refers to the use of the standing areas inside the hall (the arena and gallery) for which ticket prices are much lower than for the reserved seating.

The gates opened at 5 for our Prom experience, and our group made its was into Hyde Park with the masses, landed a good picnic spot and spread out our feasts. A very civilized event and a lovely day for it, we danced, chatted and listened to a wide range of music, watching the acts on big screens around the field. Great lawn party!

Mid Sept found activites kicking in, Claire resuming Monday afternoon ballet, which is now 1 ¼ hours. Good thing it’s close to Pizza Express; Ava loves their doughballs and the occasional Monday glass of wine isn’t a bad thing.

About ballet…Miss Susan was a ballerina, now runs several ballet/dance programs around London. She oversees things and frankly isn’t the most organized person I’ve dealt with. She doesn’t do anything electronically, doesn’t write things down (i.e. shoe sizes – I’m not sure how many times we discussed Claire’s size, which is critical as she needs four different pairs for the class). It’s a mix of ballet, jazz and tap, and now that Susan’s decided the girls will stand for their exam, character dancing has been added in. Therein in addition to the 4th pair of shoes, a long black skirt with ribbons is required.

Naturally all of these costs just keep mounting up so no, the ballerina won’t be giving up dance class anytime soon.

Ava’s continuing with ballet too, a different class, different approach, not so many shoes.

On the 15th of Sept. I went to the Sargent and the Sea exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts.

American expatriate artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) is best known for his glamorous society portraits. Now, for the first time in Britain, 'Sargent and the Sea' presents more than 80 paintings, drawings and watercolours that reveal a less familiar side of the artist: the seascapes and coastal scenes subjects produced in his early career during summer journeys from Paris to Brittany, Normandy and Capri, as well as two transatlantic voyages.

Great, concise exhibit with some lovely seascapes. I then wandered through Mayfair/Piccadilly on my way home as it was a great day to be out.

In the evening I gathered with my reading group at the Clifton Pub to select our upcoming reads over pub grub and wine. First up: Paulo Cuelho’s Witches of Portabello.

That same week I found my way out to the Olympia Centre, one of those big special events venues, for a Boden warehouse sale. It was a cheerful, bustling madhouse of clearance and great fun – especially as I’d arrived early in the day. No doubt not much later it became a jumble sale. I got a few great bargains after pulling all kinds of potential pieces into a big free for all “changing room,” wherein 25+ other women were donning bits and pieces and crowding around the few and far between mirrors.

Phew! I'm now mid way through September...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Summer Ends

More on Weber summer adventures

As we wrapped up August back in London, we managed to keep ourselves memorable outing: the production “Railway Children.”

With three other families, we first lunched at Giraffe (family restaurant that is well liked by Claire and Ava, particularly for their free plastic giraffes and balloons).

The play was set at Waterloo Station on the former Eurostar platform.
Having read the book earlier in summer, we were ready! The staging was obviously unique, with flat cars moving back and forth as backdrop for various scenes. We audience members perched on folding chairs along the track.

The actors moved themselves around the platform as the stage moved, and the train rolled in dramatically a few times – majestic, loud, shiny and billowing steam.
The cast members were adults who began by remembering being The Railway Children, then slipping into their roles as kids. Very well done, poignant ending.

Since there was a “kids go free to theatre” week in August, we hit two other productions before school started. One was “Burn the Floor,” a West End dance production featuring dancers from around the world. We had superb seats to take in fabulous moves, costume and synergy. The lead-in was lovely: a talented dancer who played the crowd selected a couple different men from the audience for a comedic start.

Throughout the show various dance styles were represented: flapper, 50’s, flamenco, sad songs, love songs, patriotic songs, etc. The program flew by, with Gabbi, kids and I mesmerized by all the talent we saw.

Later that week Joe and I ate at Yauatcha, a wonderful Chinese restaurant in Soho. Martin spent 20 minutes reading the wine mineu start to finish. He just handed his menu over to us as apparently he couldn’t be bothered with the food. Eventually he set his turquoise cheaters aside and ordered sherries for the table to start. Naturally we got two different types of sherries so we could pass glasses around.
Then he moved onto wine; we had an English vintage, which was quite good, and a bottle of red from France.

The food was fabulous…we sampled a little of so many flavors and differently done shrimp, pork, chicken, beef. The duck was amazing. Martin made friends with the waiter, who brought us saki to try with our food, which really does taste better with the food. I would still go with the French, the Italian, the Californian, the Chilean, the Australian, the New Zealand, the South American…wine.

And the waiter has Martin’s business card so the next time she goes to Germany she can imbide at Weingut Schweikart.

Yautcha is a bustling, cheery place that does a great business; we were, in fact, told our time was nearly up! Full of Chinese food, we made our way back to St. Johns Wood and Carluccio’s for dessert and after dinner drinks.

The next day I somehow managed to run for 1 ¾ hours…who knew.(This upcoming half-marathon does require a bit of prep.)

On the weekend the kids, Joe and I went to “Stomp,” our 2nd kids free theatre adventure. I liked my first stomp experience better, still enjoyed it but found this one really loud. May that have had anything to do with the sherry, wine, saki…
I think the kids and Joe enjoyed “Stomp” but once was enough for them.

That evening Martin and Gabbi made dinner (after also shopping for the ingredients). They (I should say Gabbi) created some wonderful crepes, which were served with a fabulous tomato/corn filling. And of course we had crepes with nutella for dessert.

On Monday the kids and I tripped out to Richmond via the tube/overground. Richmond is a lovely little town on the Thames. There the puppet barge (which I associate with its docking spot in Little Venice, a 10 minute walk away). So when I called for tickets I’m not sure why but I did ask about their location near Maida Vale when low and behold the lady told me the boat had relocated. I nearly cancelled. But she convinced me that Richmond is an easy trip so voila! We found ourselves wandering along the water, a lovely walk, on a gray, windy day to enjoy “The Hare and the Tortoise and other tales.”

Set on the barge, the theatre is small and quaint, and the stage is fabulous. Our production featured some of the most intricate marionette activity we’ve ever seen!
The kids very much enjoyed it, despite a loud, obnoxious kid in row two with some kids in row one telling her to be quiet. I’m not sure who was louder, the offender or the offended.

On our return trip we stopped at McDonald’s, much to the joy of my children. Somehow we’d missed McD’s when we were in the U.S., though I was told I promised we’d go. Clearly not my highest priority, I guess.

The next day marked the first piano lessons with Kym, who turned out to be delightful; the kids are signed up for in-home lessons! I'm not sure what I'm more excited about -- budding pianists or not having to take the kids to a piano studio in the dark, cold November and December evenings...

Wednesday we headed back to the Waterloo station area for the infamous Duck tour, which was high on Martin’s list of to-do’s. London Ducks is a squad of bright yellow, duck shaped and duck-decorated amphibious vehicles first used during WWII on the Normandy beaches.

Our duck was Mistress Quickly, who unfortunately was overloaded. Apparently there was a snafu with the number of people on the tour – one too many, even though we’d booked in. With Ava in tears and me beyond annoyed, we saw Claire, Martin and Gabbi off on their duck while we tromped off to the duck office.

I got a refund and complimentary tickets for a tour the following week, while Claire was in school and Ava still footloose and fancy-free. We assuaged our irritation with hot chocolate while we waited for our party of ducks.

From there we headed off, in the rain, to Notting Hill for pizza at a great little Italian restaurant. There we relaxed in a covered veranda and ate copious amounts of food – sardines (not the little ones in the can that Jeff Hale used to subject us to on the Reichle School bus), pizzas, pasta, bread…

We left Martin and Gabbi to look for traces of Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts while we relaxed at home.

Our last weekend of August was busy; Joe and I went to “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at the Globe Theatre on Friday night. We had a bite at the The Swan (the Globe Theatre's restaurant). The pub area has great big wooden tables that you share, and its windows overlook the Thames. A wonderful pre-Shakespeare food spot, I had a warm cheesy dish that was quite tasty.

Then we wandered over to our seats in the theatre, wood in the round as in Shakespeare’s time.

We'd opted for seats (traditionally most stood, but three hours standing, potentially in rain, didn’t appeal). Our 2nd tier seats were covered and, recommended by colleagues of Joe, who are Globe members, offered a great view. The performance was very entertaining, humorous, fun to watch. The perfect Shakespeare play for the likes of me (light!).

About “Merry Wives:”

Imagining that Mistress Ford and Mistress Page have each fallen for him, the fat knight Sir John Falstaff decides to seduce them both, as much for their husbands’ money as for their personal charms. Wise to the old rogue’s tricks, the women turn the tables on him with a series of humiliating assignations and a very damp, extremely smelly laundry basket.

On Saturday we headed to Cambridge for the weekend. There we ditched our things at the Crowne Plaza (gotta love a Crowne) and headed downtown. What a lovely little city, easily walkable. First: lunch at a little deli for good sandwiches and a local feel. Then off to King’s College Chapel, one of the most iconic buildings in the world and a splendid example of late Gothic (Perpendicular) architecture. It was started in 1446 by Henry VI (1421-71) and took over a century to build. It has the largest fan vault ceiling in the world and some of the finest medieval stained glass.

It’s spectacular. We also got to enjoy lovely views of the grounds and other parts of the King’s College campus as we made our way in and out of the Chapel.
Since the weather was sunny, we headed off to punt the river.

About punting in Cambridge:

A punt is a flat-bottomed boat which does not have a keel, and is propelled by means of a long pole. Punts were introduced as pleasure craft in Edwardian times, since then punting has become one of the most popular ways to see the famous bridges and colleges along the River Cam.

The Cam rises in Ashwell in Hertfordshire, progressing northwards to Cambridge. It then flows into the flat area of the Fens and onwards to Ely and King's Lynn. There it joins the sea at the Wash in Norfolk. Cambridge's humble beginnings relied strongly on this river connection when King's Lynn used to be one of busiest sea ports in England. Goods would travel inland to Cambridge which slowly grew as an inland port.

Some of the first colleges to be founded were built right on the banks of the river. On the riverside the colleges would benefit from this major trade route into the town of Cambridge. The result today is the "Backs", a one mile stretch of river that supports some of finest examples of architecture in England. Altogether there are 8 colleges and 9 bridges. These include Queens' College with the Mathematical Bridge, King's College with its famous chapel, and the Bridge Of Sighs at St. John's college.

Our punter was a male college student (most punters we saw were young men and women). He perched on back of the boat in bare feet, steering and pushing with a long pole. We learned some Cambridge trivia (which I’ve since forgotten) and relaxed as we watched the experience punters navigate their way through the congested waterway, with numerous less experienced boaters nearly losing their seats or hitting their heads on the bridges above.

After punting we hit the Fitzwilliam Museum and were steered toward the Egyptian exhibit. We were also provided with some activity sheets, so the kids had fun looking for various jewels, markings, etc. in the cases. Then Claire and I headed up to the art section (the place has a great collection) and Joe and Ava visited the military displays.

Afterward we window shopped a bit before heading back to the hotel to relax before dinner. En route we passed Jamie Oliver’s restaurant, which wasn’t terribly busy but smelled fabulous, and the menu looked good. We asked about reservations, were told to come early and wait. So we dissed our other res to hit Jamie’s at 6:30. But by then there was a line out the door. We were encouraged, however, when we were soon sent to the bar.

After a long wait, just as Ava was at the end of her no-food rope, they shepherded us to our table. Good food, not out of this world memorable, but very good. Great bustling ambience with a good view of the kitchen at work. I had a very tasty pasta seafood dish, the kids naturally gravitated toward pasta, and I can’t remember Joe’s meal of choice.

I recall a unique, orange-flavored tiramisu. It was tasty, though not my favorite style of tiramisu.

I’d give Jamie a B, the service was a little flat and machinated, the food good but quite doable at home.

Sunday Joe and I took turns walking to the highest spot in Cambridge (it’s a great biking city since it’s pancake flat). Castle Hill is a small, grassy hill a few minutes from downtown. Apparently in Anglo-Saxon times there was a settlement on the hill, and in 1068 the Normans built a castle on it.

After a leisurely breakfast at the hotel, we enjoyed some more of the city sites, sat out the deluge of rain that hit mid-day, had some appetizers and beers before making our way to the train station and back to London. Lovely weekend out.

And then…school days!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Blog not dead, hanging by a thread...

Ken, this belated update is for you.

I must confess I'm over-scheduled (I know, aren't we all). Thus blogging has been on my mind, just not on my agenda, I guess.

So over the next few days I'll make an attempt at catching up, starting w/ this summer entry. Cheers and enjoy autumn; we are!

Summer with Webers...

Wee!!! It’s been a fast paced summer! After returning from Berlin we did some laundry and packed…with a little Henry Moore, Shakespeare and dentistry inbetween.

The Henry Moore exhibit, which was at the Tate Britain, was a must-see after Ava studied old Henry at Abercorn. Her class made statues in his style (woman lying down was what she came home with, a couple parts having fallen off in the two-block walk from school home. One wonders if Henry had the same trouble keeping his art together.).

To get a better sense not only of the artist’s mastery of sculpture, in particular, but also the greatness in size of his works, we three schlepped off to the Tate on a Friday afternoon. Great time to go, too – while everyone else is having cocktails or getting ready for dinner.

Claire’s decided we’ll go again and catch pizza at the Pizza Express next door. Not sure what she’s more motivated about: the art or PE’s dough balls and pasta.

But I digress.

Henry Moore’s exhibit was fabulous:

Radical, experimental and avant-garde, Henry Moore (1898–1986) was one of Britain's greatest artists. This exhibition took a fresh look at his work and legacy, presenting over 150 stone sculptures, wood carvings, bronzes and drawings.

Moore rebelled against his teachers' traditional views of sculpture, instead taking inspiration from non-Western works he saw in museums. He pioneered carving directly from materials, evolving his signature abstract forms derived from the human body. This exhibition presents examples of the defining subjects of his work, such as the reclining figure, mother and child, abstract compositions and drawings of wartime London.

The works are situated in the turbulent ebb and flow of twentieth-century history, sometimes uncovering a dark and erotically charged dimension that makes us look at them in a new light. The trauma of war, the advent of psychoanalysis, new ideas of sexuality, primitive art and surrealism all had an influence on Moore's work.

Highlights of the show included a group of key reclining figures carved in Elm, which illustrated the development of this key image over his career. Moore was an Official War Artist and his drawings of huddled Londoners sheltering from the onslaught of the Blitz captured the popular imagination, winning him a place in the hearts of the public.

We followed Henry with another arty event over the weekend: MacBeth (for families) at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. It was a lovely summer day – we scored! Actually late spring/summer through July were most excellent here in London. Mostly sunshiny, warm days wherein I actually contemplated wearing shorts…

MacBeth was delightfully fun and in a great venue – the theatre is in the middle of Regent’s park, with trees and greenery around fitting into the staging. Here’s a description of the production:

A spellbinding concoction of witches, battles, ghosts and murder, Macbeth continues our programme of Shakespeare plays re-imagined for family audiences.

Three witches foretell that Macbeth will be crowned King. Driven by ambition and encouraged by his ruthless wife, he secretly assassinates the current monarch to realise the prophecy. However, as Macbeth claims the throne, he is haunted by the demons of his past and his fate is set.

Condensed, yet still using original language and text, Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays with young people.

And it did indeed keep the interest of the four of us. Again and again I am astounded at the level of talent in this city. I also love observing how productions are staged; in this case with a big board with balcony in the back ground, steps leading up/down. Pictures were construed by actors on the board throughout the production to help audience members follow the story. Great music and effects.
From there we wandered back to Baker Street and had lunch at Nando’s, which specializes in chicken. Fast food meets service restaurant. Not bad, not a must hit. BUT good w/ the young crowd.

Before leaving for our annual MT/WI adventure we did manage to make it to the dentist to get the routine list of tooth-related must do’s. (Who I am kidding, most of them are “should nots,” as in should not use Listerine, should not drink juice but if one must, use a straw; should not drink too much sparkling water, should not have chocolate milk…Frankly we break all the rules. May as well add chewing tobacco to the routine.)

It seems we’ve found, in the country where teeth aren’t looked upon as a priority, a VERY particular dentist. Who I actually very much like and respect and seems to be on the same page as our NC dentist. Yes, one can find incredible talent in all professions in all parts of the world, just some more in abundance than others...

Then we were off to the US! This time the kids and I made off to Salt Lake City via Denver, one long flight, one short one. We walked onto the 2nd one as boarding was wrapping up after passing through immigration and retrieving and re-checking our baggage. Oh the processes.

Denver was a friendly and I’d say folksy welcome. Maybe because we were greeted at passport control by a smiley volunteer in a 10-gallon hat.

Salt Lake’s airport, as always, clean and bright with more families (but is that because I just expect there to be more kids in Utah…). And of course it always feels like the air is healthy when you hit the west.

Soon we were at Jim and Donna’s, where we helped wrapped up a small birthday celebration with their close friends. After a snack we tunneled into Donna’s down comforters and slept some.

I got up early (no point to trying to convince myself to sleep) and hit the hills (translation: mountain) behind Jim and Donna’s house. Great way to start the day and take my breath away. Quite literally. The altitude is WAY up there. (4,327 feet in the valley; at least 1,000 more where the trails are…).

After hiking amidst other hikers, runners (uber runners), bikers and dog walkers, I found the kids up and eating oatmeal with Donna. An aside: Donna’s kitchen is full of the healthiest food imaginable. No wonder she and Jim look they’re 40.

Question: if I continue with the coffee, red wine/white wine, copious amounts of cheese and chocolate, the sour cream and chive dip I've discovered at tesco and the French food at our two favorite restaurants, might I look ageless?

As for edibility of Donna's cupboard, Claire’s decided she doesn’t do soya milk. We did find, amid the vitamins, some peanut butter (organic, all natural probably made from babied peanuts, of course...which I must say is also my preference). And some coffee.

From Donna’s we headed off in our fine rental car to SLC’s Discovery Museum. (oh to be behind the wheel on a wide road with everyone driving on the right side...and in a city laid out on a grid with Mormon Church in center. Makes sense, doesn’t it)

Great stuff, the museum: 3 floors of interactive kid displays. Perfect for the jet-lagged adult and children. At lunchtime we wandered over to a food court, then through the pedestrian shopping area, found Ben & Jerry’s and a perch over a very popular fountain.

Back to Discovery for a bit, then to find the car. Which we lost. Amazing how many silver cars there are in a carpark when you’ve lost yours, isn’t it. Eventually it did re-surface. Not to worry, I wasn’t panicked. Too tired to really care, I suppose.
Back at Donna’s, we collapsed on the patio, revived for Tex Mex at a fun local spot with Jim, Donna and Aunt Claire (who of course looks fabulous. Un-ageable and hip in her 70’s).

The next day I again hiked high in the hills; Salt Lake is set in such a great spot (weather wise and scenically). After breakfast we re-grouped a bit, then headed off to Donna’s museum – The Utah Museum of Art, where she is a curator for the American exhibits. It’s a great space at the university. She gave us a short tour, showed us where she works, we met some of her colleagues, did some art kid activities, then met up w/ George, my dear friend from college.

We had a long lunch catching up at the museum café, then ran some errands and crashed at Donna’s before a wonderful dinner, again with Jim, Donna and Aunt Claire.
It was the perfect night to be out and the kids convinced Jim to turn on the sprinklers. I don’t think it took too much convincing. They seemed to connect beautifully with him.

And on our final morning in SLC I once again hit the hills – would love to be able to hike like this regularly. I guess Primrose Hill in London, while offering great views and a good pop to the step, just isn’t the same.

We had a leisurely morning, the kids hiked around the neighborhood with Jim as he went into work late, and then we set off for Idaho and our next visit: Jeanette’s.

I must say it’s fabulous to drive those interstates out west when the summer sun is glorious, the clouds high and lofty and the dominant feature is blue, blue sky. It also helps that the roads aren’t crowded, so one can fairly sail through the valleys and enjoy the mountain scenes as they gain in majesty and alternatively recess into the background.

Eventually we stopped for fast food someplace, much to the kids’ joy. And we sailed into Jeanette’s driveway sometime in the afternoon for some serious playtime with her boys. She and her family have a lovely little spot in Idaho, sharing a great view and the lovely peace of a flowing creek out back with few and far between neighbors.

The trampoline was the toy of choice for all, and the little Eva dog got plenty of attention throughout our visit. We stayed overnight, so I got to run up the road behind Jeanette’s house, which quickly turns to a dirt, little used route. So it was a fabulously quiet run, with only a duck crashing out of the willows as I turned the bend. Upon return a storm was lighting up the sky. Later we enjoyed great views of rainbows from Jeanette’s second floor kitchen.

After homemade pancakes, sausage and eggs, we lazed a bit, then headed off to Montana. And that drive is delightful: valleys, more imposing mountains, Clark Canyon dam. And probably one of the greenest Julies I’ve ever seen. A cool, damp spring lent itself beautifully to the lush greenery in fields and meadows surrounding Dillon.

Our Subway lunch found us running into my sister and niece (small town). And our next stop, Safeway, found us running into Romeo and a friend. Really small town. Or we just have Marchesseault radar.

After slamming some groceries into the car (nice just to pull into a parking lot and load up once in a while…my mind is now programmed to think: how am I going to get this home and “ooh – better put that back, I can’t carry it all…”

Off to the ranch we went to catch up with my family. We had a busy, enjoyable week…


- visit with Aunt Estelle, who unfortunately was a bit housebound while we were there. So I swept up some of Mom’s leftovers, a few steaks and no-salt steak seasoning (she’s also temporarily – I hope – on a no salt diet. Though I must say the Mrs. Dash grilling seasoning isn’t bad!). I took over her kitchen, made us a steak lunch and we had a nice chat. She was thrilled to savor the pie for later. Never mind what salt/fat etc. it contains.

- A hospital visit with Ron Benson, who unfortunately has some rare disease that requires periodic IV treatments. We were able to help pass the time for him and Marilyn; hopefully he’ll have a swift recovery or at least get some relief from the symptoms.

- A great chat with long-time family friend Marilyn Begin, who seems to be doing well. It’s already been nearly two years since her husband, Howard, passed away. Definitely a void without his humor and friendship.

- A superb picnic at Aspen Creek Campground, one of my favorite spots. We were joined by Uncle Tex, cousin Sharon and her husband Jay, Romeo, David, Jenifer and Grace, Mom and Dad. We had a lovely day for it and an amazing spread, as always. There is no better cook than my mother. Really. Have her potato salad and you’ll be won over. Or the pie. There is no better pie.

- The Meine cabin, where we’ve stayed the last couple of visits. It’s a great little 2-roomer, built in the 40’s or 50’s, I suppose. So quiet at night you can hear a pin drop, other than coyotes our first night. The cabin is set in a draw with sagebrush around, no doubt a rattle snake or two not far away. Great place to relax and read in the rocker on the front porch, have pancakes for breakfast (which of course we did) and hike the hills and trails around.

- A stop at the infamous book store. Dillon has a great independent little book shop, right next to the Pategonia outlet, which can be a good stop, too.

- Dinner at the Wagon Wheel Café in Twin Bridges. Great tomato soup, the wagon wheels with Xmas tree lights do let you know you are in Twin Bridges.

- GREAT weather. Not too hot but no need for a jacket. Sun sun and more sun. Love Montana in the summer.

Our week in Wisconsin was very nice, too. This time we had two families in our cabin, a recent addition to the rental fold. So we had a bit more space, and of course spent most of our time outside, catching up with family members (nearly 40 of us this time around!) and enjoying Wisconsin activities:

- Kayaking (I do love the kayaks on the lake)

- Sitting by the lake (I’m not convinced I need to get in, unless someone is in peril). It’s critical that I take up my position in deck chair and have my yearly chat with Dave.

- Biking. Though the resort’s mountain bikes are in less than great condition (at the same time, one doesn’t have to shift gears – the bikes have minds of their own), they do have wheels and it’s great fun to check out trails and roads that all seem to intersect at numerous points here there and everywhere.

- The bonfire. There’s something special about fire next to water and s’mores.

- The welcome dinner, where the beer flows from a keg and brats and we can all sink into a week of R&R.

- A morning date with my husband. This time we walked into town for pancakes at the Wolfpack Café (they’re fabulous). We did get drenched on the return – the only rainy day in WI during our week-long vacation.

- Ice cream at Cathy’s. By car or by boat, it’s a favorite destination.
As for the kids, they love catching up with their cousins, playing in the lake and sand pit, fishing and water skiing successes and attempts.

Another great week of memories made, and plans in place to enjoy in 2011!

Our departure from Wisconsin was uneventful until we got through security, when our flight was cancelled. So back to the check-in desk we went and were handed new tickets for later flights out.

Thus we commandeered a cab and headed for downtown Wassau to peruse a bit. After some ice cream and shopping we made our way back to the humble Wisconsin airport for a second attempt at departure. This time, success. And frankly the arrival back into London – later in the day – worked out better for all of us.

On a side note, we had plenty of ice cream in Wisconsin. Appropriate to the dairy state, I suppose – boy when you ask for a small, even a kiddie scoop, you get more than you bargained for. They must dole out the carton when you ask for a 2 scooper.

I must say I was rather devastated with the weather upon return. I was still in white Capris/tank top mode, given even at its coldest Wisconsin was a balmy 75+.

London had tanked to the 50’s/60’s, gray, not rainy really but breezy and not warm. Still, I defied all forecasts and donned my flip flops and sun dresses for gadding about town. Clearly I was in the minority as I looked at boots, jeans and (gulp) scarves. Could it be? Already? Thankfully God must have heard me; September was a lot nicer – some warm, sunny days that at least seemed to prolong that summer feeling.

But I digress on weather on this non-tropical island.

Our 2nd half of August was really fun. We took the time adjustment business slowly, slept in (kids rose at noon once, and only after prodding from me), stayed up late, had some mornings of pancakes and nighties. Our dear friends Martin and Gabbi flew in from Germany and stayed 10 days. While that sounds like a long time for guests, they’re lovely people to have around…they come bearing gifts (including wine), they play with the kids, they made dinner one night, they took us out for a tremendous dinner (more on that later), they brought me flowers…frankly they can come as often as they like!

In the early part of their visit we showed them around St. Johns Wood and Maida Vale, our local stomping grounds, stopping off for an afternoon beer at the Warrington, one of those very London-esque pubs. The weather smiled upon us, so we enjoyed the outdoors while sipping and catching up.

One evening we headed out to the Dickens Inn, a huge complex housing I think three different restaurants to accommodate a wide array of tastes/budgets, I guess. We went for the grill, since it was supposed to have the best view of the Tower of London/Thames area.

And I must say, it definitely had lovely character, a stone building along the water, gorgeous lighting and balconies, big wooden floor and tables inside. The food was good, too; the kids shared a steak that they absolutely devoured. Could it be because they are steak-deprived in London or hooked on steak from their recent Montana experience???

From Dickens we headed off to the Tower for the Ceremony of the Keys…

The Ceremony of the Keys is the traditional locking up of the Tower of London and has taken place on each and every night, without fail, for at least 700 years. The importance of securing this fortress for the night is still very relevant because, although the Monarch no longer resides at this royal palace, the Crown Jewels and many other valuables still do!

We had a great night for it – warm and clear, and the ambience of the Tower at night is spectacular. The light reflecting off the water, the Thames in the moonlight, the silhouettes of the buildings against the river, all of it was beautiful, and it was so quiet, in contrast to its typically tourist-filled bustle.

We hovered with a number of others waiting for the Beefeater guard to let us in. Eventually we were shepherded in, led into the tower and given a bit of history on the buildings and ceremony.

Several minutes later a very regimented ritual took place, with guards barking orders loudly, soldiers in their tall black bearskin hats marching loudly to and fro, snapping their rifles in and out of various positions. A big set of keys was escorted in, more loud barking, marching, snapping taking place.

And not long after we were escorted back out. A very good little London outing.

Also that week the kids and I headed off with friends to Great Missenden and the Roald Dahl Museum & Story Centre. He (Dahl) wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and so many more great books, several of which we’d recently read, we had arranged to spend the better part of the day, training it from Marylebone station.

Our first priority was of course lunch, which we had at the centre, then made our way through the interactive exhibits. (Kids could create various types of artwork, record their voices telling stories, sit in Roald Dahl’s writing hut, put words together with magnets to create different stories, etc.

In the afternoon we trooped up to one of the special activity rooms for a workshop with illustrator Chris Tichborne, who worked on Fantastic Mr. Fox, Cora and all kinds of other well known animated films.

Unfortunately, the fire alarm went off as soon as Chris started talking so we all (ALL people in the place, and there were many) trooped out, down through main street Great Missenden, past all kinds of little shops and cafes, to end up near the fire station. No action there, though. Apparently fire calls are answered by a different station a few miles away. Eventually we heard sirens. But then of course the firemen had to walk through the premises to ensure no sparks.

So we were hastily arranged into a walking group to go back through town and up to Dahl’s gravesite. Lovely walk and his grave has giant’s footsteps (BFG) leading down to it. Visitors to his gravesite had left coins and small tokens on the stone slab, so we added a few and then were shepherded back to the museum for the continuation of our workshop.

Which was very good, I might add. Who knew there was so much laborious detail involved in moving puppets – which are specially made and very valuable (i.e. one puppet worth 9,000 pounds…) – ever so slightly and so frequently as to create a realm of action and emotion.

Chris does what is called stop-motion animation (essentially moving a puppet ever so slightly, then having the shot done, then moving it again ever so slightly, having the shot done, etc. for countless frames, which then create a short piece of animation – he said several animators work together to create films, and because each of them have different styles/personalities, sometimes they can identify one another’s work through the motions of the puppets).

He demonstrated how stop-animation works with a couple different puppets, and kids got to come up and help him – Claire moved an arm slightly, for example, as he made a short “film” of one of the puppets doing a wave.

Great demonstration, then we went back and perused the museum some more, stopped in the gift shop on the way out and wound our way back to the train station and back to London.

Phew! Must update this more frequently.

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi
Largest mosque in India