Saturday, June 2, 2012

Ode to a Second Brother (Nate Althouse)

When I was three, I got another brother.
"No thanks. I already have one of those!"
"Not one like this."
My parents were right. This was no redundancy on their part. Probably the first difference we noticed was that this one was a climber. My parents built two new bedrooms onto the house to accommodate their growing family. The rooms weren't quite ready for habitation, but Nate fell out of his crib one night, forcing them to move him to Jed's bigger crib. Jed got to move into his room a day early. I got stuck in the old room watching to make sure the convict baby didn't try to make another run for it. From then on, I became safety patrol, informing authorities of breaches in security and public safety. Nate climbed so many things, tables, bookshelves. We have proof. My mother always took pictures before scolding him. Meanwhile, Jed and I stood on the sidelines, scratching our heads, wondering why we never thought of any of this.
Of the four of us, I'd have to say that Nate got into the most trouble. He had more imagination and guts and less inhibitions than the rest of us. We used this to our advantage. "SUCKS" didn't sound like such a bad word, but just to be sure we sent Nate in to say it to my dad. Sure enough, it did not make the approved list, as indicated by the soap bubbles floating from Nate's mouth. Note to self: Don't say "sucks."
We put our marks on each other. I tickled Nate when he was hanging upside down on the swing-set and caused him to have stitches. Check for the scar on his bald head. My only black eye? Him--or his head, rather. He caused me to go through the glass screen door, which gave me enough scars on my forearms for my sister's mother-in-law to ask her if I had tried to commit suicide. Suicide. No. Fratricide? No...comment.
Still, this extraneous brother let nothing stop him--even a full leg cast on one leg and an immobilizing brace on the other. He climbed bleachers and staircases, and yes, he fell flat on his face. But fear of the faceplant, real or metaphorical, was never a reason not to do something for Nate. This guy sold encyclopedias door to door in California one summer during college.
I did safe things over my summer breaks--most notably, take more classes. During one such summer session, I came home from college to see my brother Jed give a commencement address to his high school class. The same weekend, I went to the Joan Jett concert, in which Nate was the opening act in the form of a lip-synch competition. Nate performed in this ritual and won first place with a rendition of Joe Dola's "Shaddup You Face". He wore a cub scout hat and had his friends as his back-up band, one mock-playing an accordion. He bought Oakley sunglasses with his prize money.
He loves designing T-shirts. In college he hand painted a T-shirt for pregnant me. It had a huge succulent pear on it and the word RIPE. I loved that T-shirt and wore it to my baby shower. Around the same time, the Seinfeld years, he made a T-shirt for himself to wear around campus. It said, "Spongeworthy." AGGGHHH! Must refrain from making some sort of joke that includes the words "poster child" and "birth control" in it.
I am afraid I have not always been the most supportive of older sisters. I pooed (from the approved word list) on his idea to try out for the Penn State basketball team. This was right after his summer ordeal selling encyclopedias door to door. He was a 5'10" white kid who needed knee surgery. Poor guy trying to relive his high school glory days. I was imagining another faceplant. Instead, the following year, his face is on masks that people wear to the Bryce Jordan Center where fans chant his name. Every year, the team hands out 4 awards to its players, and each year that Nate was on the team, he won one of those awards, including the Coach's award.
Because of this brother, I've seen the President. He's the reason I first saw the great capital cities of the Europe: he was in England for a year as a basketball missionary, trying to save the redcoats from the false prophecy of soccer. This guy tried out to be the Nittany Lion and was runner up. He was also runner up for Pennsylvania Student Teacher of the Year. As an elementary school counselor, he painted his head every year, so the kids wouldn't be afraid of him. He does kind of look like a convict or Jesse Ventura, but a turn as a magic 8 ball or the globe solves that. I have watched him read a poem he wrote to his bride on his wedding day that left not a dry eye in the church. I have watched him defend his doctoral dissertation. That was more of a sweaty palms ordeal. Afterwards, our grandpa started listing his physical ailments over the phone.
"Not that kind of doctor, Gramps."
"Well, what good are you?"
Plenty good.
This brother of mine takes more pictures than anyone I know. And happily, for the last 40 years, I have been able to look through Nate's fish-eye lens and see the world in quite a distorted and weirdly wonderful way. Had my parents stopped at 2 kids, life would have been very boring indeed. I would have taken less risks and had fewer adventures (scars). If it hadn't been for Nate, I would never have taken pictures of myself dripping in purple paint or taken my own faceplant risks such as sending my novel out to agents or telling dad I was dating or a democrat or dating a democrat. Without Nate, I wouldn't be who I am. This, I know this for sure. Happy birthday to Nate. Happy life galvanization to me!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Prescribing Metaphor--For What Ails Our Culture

This spring I have been attending a rather large number of lectures, reading, and classes given by some diverse and entertaining storytellers and poets. It wasn't intentional on my part. Some seasons I hang around art galleries and artists. This seemed an unusually high concentration of poets and storytellers--even for me. Some came in a spiritual bent, from church or meditative groups. Others I saw through schools or the Lancaster Literary Guild. Add into that the fact that I travelled abroad this spring and heard many stories that have been passed down for hundreds of years told through tour guides. These experiences have made for a rich stew in my mind.
I have started to contemplate the importance of story in our lives, what it gives us, what our minds do with it. As a culture, so much of our story life comes through television and the movies. A former soap opera junkie (serious addiction--years of my life, gone), I am not immune to the television. I have to be careful with my time in front of it, and its competitor the computer. I wonder what all of this media is doing to my brain, the brains of my kids. Searching around the Internet, I found some articles on TV and brain development. What I found was the left-side of the brain which houses our language centers is under-stimulated. Combine that with the attention deficit problems that television causes, and we have children who are not reading or reading below grade level. We are losing our power of language, not just in reading, but in the way we orally communicate with one another. A child who is used to visual flashes and constant change of "scenery" is not going to be able to listen and absorb the nuances of language in a story. Kids also have difficulty making pictures in their mind for the stories they are told. The inability to create our own images is a poverty of imagination. Time spent in front of a television is a poverty of play. And that equals a deficit of creativity among our youth.
So what happens to a society that loses imagination and the nuances of verbal communication? I am talking about the loss of metaphor, simile, parable, and allegory. We become literal. We become fundamentalists. (So many of the world's religions hail from story-telling cultures that it is a little hard for me to figure out religious fundamentalists. What do these people do when they encounter parable? But that is another story.) The point is, that without creativity, imagination, and nuanced language, we get rid of the gray shades and need everything spelled out for us in black and white. We become a group of people who can follow only simple straight-forward directions but cannot create new directions and forward thinking.
Our society isn't going to get rid of television. We've just now started carrying them in our pockets. But we can supplement our TV habits and make our left-brain language centers happy. This is especially important for children. Make summer reading a priority. Take them to story hour at the library. Borrow some audio books--for yourself and any children you know. And here is a good one--I challenge you to read one new poem, something you have never read before and figure out what the poet is trying to say. It is better for your brain than Sodoku.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Memorial Day

This Memorial Day is a special one this year. Not only am I celebrating my book's release through Nook First, but it is also my husband's birthday. We have had quite a weekend, so the idea of just relaxing on this momentous occasion is first on our minds.

At the same time, I am reminded of why we are celebrating this holiday. In the past 18 months I have attended two funerals of WW2 soldiers, one of whom was my grandfather. Both were given full military rights, and I was surprised at my own deep reaction to the ceremonies where one's country pays homage back to its soldiers and thanks them one last time for their service.
War? What do i know if that? I have a hard time watching war movies because I just can't handle gore. But I do watch them and read the books, because the stories of bravery, fear, and love are so moving. Things happen in war that don't happen at any other time. The human condition seems magnified and open for inspection in a way that it doesn't during times of peace. I suppose that is why I included a bit of a war story in the novel SUMMERS AT BLUE LAKE. I wanted the prayers and betrayals to be bigger than life.
Even with the imagination of a writer, it is still hard to fully grasp all that soldiers have endured so that we may enjoy the freedoms which, without knowing anything but these freedoms, are also hard to fully grasp.
Right now I am reading a newly published book written by a friend, Charlie Schroeder, who happened to grow up in the same town I did. I am not very far into MAN OF WAR, which is a book about Charlie's experience of reenacting 2,000 years of history with various reenactment groups. Right now I am reading about his participation in in the reenactment of the Nazi/Russian Siege at Stalingrad. Who would want to reenact anything as a Nazi soldier? But that was exactly Charlie's question going onto the stage. I am taken with the hardships of these men as they replay the battle over the weekend. Part of this is because I know Charlie and the high school history classes from which he hails. I know of the NPR shows to which he listens, and just this weekend, I was on the grounds of the Renaissance Fair where he spent a summer as Romeo. So I guess I just started to think about war and ordinary people, and how you end up in a situation where you can't sleep for days, food is scarce. You know the enemy is right up the road. For Charlie and his fellow players in this charade, a bed and home-cooked meal was only hours away. The bullets were blank. Death was a nap. But something about his telling of the tale made the real suffering more real for me. Maybe that is why people reenact the great moments of history, to sink into them and live inside of them.
I'll never be a reenactor, but I am a museum goer. This past year, I saw Churchill's War Rooms where he lived and worked while London was being bombed. I like to examine the stories of service.
I will never be able to fully understand the life of a soldier. I don't understand war and why we have to have it. But burying a grandpa, who was a vet, last year and having a son who will register for the draft later this year has given me a chance for pause and reflection. I am thinking about it. Thinking about what freedoms are so important to die for. Thinking about what life would be like without those freedoms. Thinking about what it takes to be willing to suffer and if necessary, risk everything. Thinking about who those people are who are taking those risks. Thinking about the families of those people. Thinking about what happens when soldiers return after living inside a war. Maybe this year, I am thinking more than thanking, because I'm not sure that thanking is quite enough.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Grandma Lena's Grilled Pittsburgh Steak Salad

The following recipe is our family's all-time favorite recipe. I am sharing it now in honor of the character of Grandma Lena, who hailed from Pittsburgh and had a great command of the grill. It is the perfect recipe for Memorial day celebrations. Enjoy.

Grilled Pittsburgh Steak Salads

serves 4

1-1.5 lb flat iron steak
Your favorite steak seasoning (we use salt, freshly ground black pepper, garlic powder and smoked paprika)
Ore Ida Crispers (4 servings cooked according to instructions in oven while your steak is grilling)
Torn lettuce, either a mix from a bag or we use leaf and/or romaine
One large red pepper, halved with stem and seeds removed
One bunch green onions, cut off white and skewer them, chop the green parts
Chopped tomato
Your favorite shredded cheese. We like cheddar jack.
Your favorite dressing. We like Southwest ranch

-Heat grill to medium high and season steak
-Put red peppers on grill, skin side up. Grill for a few minutes and then flip (skin side down) and grill until skin is charred, about ten minutes.
-Put onion whites on grill with peppers. These will cook faster and will have to be removed after only a couple of minutes.
-When red peppers are done, put them in a plastic container and let them steam a bit.
-Put steak on the grill and grill to liking. We grill by temperature, so we take it off when it registers 135 degrees for medium rare. Remove from grill and tent with foil for ten minutes.
-Rub blackened skin off peppers and slice.
-Slice steak into thin slices across the grain
-Build your salad: lettuce, onion greens, sliced peppers and white onions, chopped tomatoes, steak slices, Ore Ida Crispers, cheese, dressing

Enjoy with a nice California Cabernet Sauvignon

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Summer's call

Since I have become a substitute teacher, my summers have become oh so sweet. They are tiny scoops of gelato, and I try to savor everything about them. My first summer off, I concentrated on reading. My goal was to read a book a week, which I did and then some. Last summer, I was on a mission to show my son, who was preparing for cross-country, that it was possible to get your 300 training miles in, even if you had to walk most of them. I armed myself with Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series on audiobook. If you saw me panting, all hot and bothered, on the side of the road last summer, I assure you it was only partially due to physical strain. That Diana can write a love scene! By the end of summer, I had proven to my son that 300 miles was possible-- a feat he did not reach, though my feet grew a size in the exertion.
So, this summer, outfitted in all new sandals as necessitated by last summer's miles, I have come up with some new goals for myself. I have four, but only one I'll talk about today. Spurred on by my ability to succeed in the summer and by the recent resurgence in my writing career with the publication of my ebook, I am making writing a priority. I have three projects which are in various places in the process: a youth novel, an adult novel, and a memoir dealing with the change in my mother status as my kids get ready to fly the nest.
With three projects going, it is my aim to be organized. I hope that juggling these three projects will stave off boredom, help me to keep working if one project encounters roadblocks, and help me to stay in the flow of writing.

Traditionally, I start my summer brain over Memorial Day weekend. Substitute teachers don't get much work after the holiday anyway. I am using this week to prepare myself. In some ways it is the opposite of the normal flow of life. I am contemplating notebooks, notecards, planners, pens that write smoothly--all the back-to-school practicalities. Of course, this is all compounded because I am geeking out on my iPad. The apps for novel writers are amazing: Manuscript, iBookwriter, Evernote, Notebooks. The choices are dizzying! I am also looking at accessories like keyboards for my iPad. Here is where I will admit that I already have an external keyboard for my iPad; I am not crazy about it. What fun it is to check out alternative options and imagine myself typing away. I am only giving myself this week to contemplate such fancies. (Come next week, it will be all about the writing.) But it is still today, and I can't help but wonder if Staples has a Memorial Day sale.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

My website--on life support

My last website overhaul came when I redesigned it in early 2009. I created it on my ancient laptop using Dreamweaver which was another example of antiquity. But I had worked with it in years past and would only have to review procedures instead of learning all new ones. It is not perfect but it is serviceable. To be honest, I have not been putting much effort into my website lately. With Facebook, Twitter and other modes of communication, it seemed unnecessary. And, too, I wasn't sure where I was headed artistically, so it would have been the case of putting the cart before the horse if I were to revamp it again. This March, I was interviewed by a college student for a Sociology of Art class. I was not surprised when she sheepishly told me that my website wasn't coming up. I looked into the matter and discovered that due to a credit card change, I had missed payments and the site had not been online for 4 months. Low priority.

I got it back online. Just in time, it seems, because my agent called me with an opportunity to convert my book into an ebook. The ebook process was fast, taking us about two months to nail it down and send it out, but it did mean a lot of work for me. I did not have time to create a whole new website. Today I am in the process of updating my site to prepare for the ebook launch which happens on May 28. Here is the thing. I am working on a slow and heavy Dell laptop. I say prayers every time I turn it on. (Is there a goddess of technology?) The only reason I even keep this beast is because of the website design program and content I have stored on there. It would not be easy to move it to another computer because the design program is dependent upon pathways that exist to the multitude of files I am using for the site. I have said it before about the fast pace of technology and what it means for me as a writer/artist. I keep moving forward, though I do feel as though I am only keeping my head above water (and it is hard to write novels and paint masterpieces when one is under water).

My son has taken some web design classes in school. I do believe I will employ him to rework my site and make it very simple and pared down. I do want to keep it, but it is only one fraction of my e-presence these days. And after recently teaching some classes on green art, I have some lovely ideas for turning my old laptop into a piece of sculpture!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Dismantling the nest

I am working on a series of essays that is documenting my son's college search and our transition to an empty nest. Will it be a book some day? I don't know. What I do know is that is therapeutic for me. My son is in flux and that is scary for a kid like him who doesn't like change. I don't mind change, but I don't like the unknown. As a parent, I am not sure I am what he needs right now, because I am weighted down with my own insecurities about the future. How will it work for us to pay for college? Will we be able to move out of this area as we hope to do? Where will we end up in relationship to the place our kids end up? Will we need a house big enough for them to return as a safety net? What will my post-kids career look like? What kind of community life do we want to have. Those are the questions at the back of my mind as we look online for college visiting days, register Jonah for the SAT's, and contemplate college essays. Sometimes it feels like the kind of overwhelm I felt as a new mother. What I wouldn't give for the book What To Expect When You Are Expecting Your Child To Go To College.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Fabulous Sharon Naylor Toris

Four years ago tomorrow, I had the great honor of being matron of honor at my college roommate's wedding. This was no ordinary wedding, and this is no ordinary friend. Sharon is my mentor and my idol. This woman has written more than 35 books and is considered one of the top wedding planning experts in the country. Sharon and Joe's wedding was over-the-top glamourous fun--and this foodie's dream. It seemed that all possible wedding vendors were out to impress her. Self Magazine recently called on Sharon to comment on Brangelina's engagement. Sharon has helped me so much over the years: commenting on my writing, giving me advice, handing me the inside scoop on the publishing industry. I couldn't be happier for Sharon and Joe (I'll have to extol his virtues in another blog entry.) and their four years of wedded bliss.

'Tis the season for weddings. So whether you are a bridesmaid, toastmaster, penny-pincher, Mother-of-the-groom, style guru, or the bride herself, Sharon Naylor has a book for every member of the wedding party. Check out her books and articles. Tell her Jill sent you.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Versailles and Paris goodbye

Mark and I had digestive tract distress overnight. Mark, more so than I. He also had fever, chills, and body ache. I felt okay in the morning. Was it something we ate? Mark also thought he had a bit of a sore throat. He had been achy yesterday, but he thought it was a product of all the walking we did. In light of how he was feeling, we thought it would be best to leave him at the hotel while we visited Versailles. Off, the kids and I went. We needed to take the metro to an RER train station. We had some problems. First of all, my metro passes didn't seem to want to work. Often I had to trade them in. Perhaps it was because I stores them in pockets that were close to my phone or other magnetized devices. Once we got past that hurdle, we needed to find a place to buy train tickets to Versailles. Finding ticket offices is not always intuitive, but I finally found one. I bought the kids an all day pass for €7 which they could use on RER or metro.
We were plenty early for Versailles which was intentional. We could peruse the Notre Dame Market. Being a Saturday, only the indoor stands were open; nobody was set up on the outside. The market has buildings that surround an open air square. Entrance to the buildings are on the faces rather than the corners of the square, so each of the four buildings are L-shaped. We had been to many markets this trip. My awe in these places matches the awe I have in cathedrals. I should have taken pictures, but we were the only ones in the market, and I was feeling shy to ask to take pictures, especially since we weren't really there to buy. In retrospect, I should have done it. The markets held seafood, meats, flowers, produce, cheeses, fresh pastas, and wine. Since we were looking for breakfast items, the kids were disappointed. I, however, couldn't get over the selection. Imagine walking home from work and stopping at the market to buy ingredients for dinner. There were types of fish I'd never seen before and the cheeses---how does one choose? The town of Versailles didn't seem so large to have such assortment. I am going to be a little sad next time I go to an American supermarket-- in spite of all the variety of boxed, bottled, and jarred items that are available to us. Maybe I need to make Green Dragon a habit. If only it was as neatly contained as the Versailles market.
Around the perimeter of the market were other shops, and we easily located a patisserie. Pain au Chocolate and a few other treats. Then we headed to Versailles. Th tour buses were already arriving even though the Chateau wasn't open yet. We waited in the courtyard and took pictures. Eventually we made it inside to the sumptuousness that awaited. Such grandeur is almost unimaginable. And to think they were redecorating these rooms constantly. The fabrics, the statues, the painted ceilings, the chandeliers, the guilded and carved moldings: it was all too much for the modern eye. I began to think about our hotel room which has a delicious spareness to it. In our modern world, we are constantly barraged with images on our screens and magazines that our brains need a break. But in the days of Louis, Louis, Louis, human brains didn't have digital and print stimulation. What enjoyment they must have received staring into the storied murals. They also served as propaganda: Greek gods and goddesses underscoring the fact that being royalty was ordained by the heavens. I thought about all the artists used to make such a place into a reality. Most of those artists were anonymous carvers, painters, etc. In the 21st centuries our artists are busy with different kinds of propaganda through all the media we devour. I understand better my desire for a minimalist cottage.
After touring the royal apartments, we went to Angelina's tea room (in the chateau) for hot chocolate and their signature dessert, Monte Blanc. I had been promising Maren this gourmet Chocolat Chaud since before we left. Each cup was about €8, but I couldn't back out. The drinks came in pitchers accompanied by a little bowl of whipped cream. We poured them into our cups and drank. The first sips were magical, but it quickly became too much--even for Maren. Then came the Monte Blanc. I can't actually describe this dessert other than that it was overly sweet. We each ate two bites, enjoying none, but feeling as though we had to make a dent in it. In the end, Maren did not finish her hot chocolate and said that she was swearing off the drink. Hard to believe.
We did not have tickets to the gardens, fountain show, and Marie Antoinette's little manor. We could have bought them, but we wanted to get back to Mark. We could see some of the gardens from the windows of the royal apartments and took a few pictures from ground level. With that, we made our way back to central Paris. We were hoping to see a crepe stand on our way back to the train, but no such luck. With all the sweet ickiness, we consumed, we needed the salt and protein of a ham and cheese crepe to balance it out. My digestive system was not happy.
At 12:00, When we were about 100 feet from our hotel we saw Mark who was coming out to get a croissant to hopefully settle his empty stomach. I was exhausted and was dashing for a bathroom. Mark took the kids to the McDonalds which was two blocks away from our hotel. They were in search of salty fries. I don't like McDonald's in our country, so it was pretty sacrilegious for me to turn away while they went for their fries, but I was not in any shape to be battling for my ideals.
I went straight to the room to nap. When the rest came back to the room, we all napped and/or read for about 2 1/2 hours. It was a much needed rest and break from our heavy sightseeing schedule.
After our rest, we had a free afternoon. We encouraged the kids to go off by themselves as long as they were together. Jonah patiently took Maren shopping. Mark and I climbed the 270 steps to the top of the Arc de Triomphe. With a sense of accomplishment, we looked out over the city at the end of our journey and noted all the places where we walked. My guess is that we hit 15 of the 20 arrondissements. We descended our perch and found a cute little wine bar on a side street. I had some onion soup for my salt fix/ late lunch. It was a nice relaxed way to spend our last afternoon, watching the people pass on the street and sharing our collected insights on our journey.
After about two hours out and about, we reconvened in our room, all arriving within five minutes of one another. Maren found a ruffled black sundress she loved, and spent the last of her money. I journaled while the kids read. Mark took yet another nap to try to shake whatever it was that he had. I was really excited about the last night dinner reservations I had made for Chez Gabrielle. The place was around the corner from our hotel, and Mark and I had scoped out the menu on the way back to the room. So, imagine my disappointment when we got there at 8:30, and they didn't have the reservation that I had made through It was a tiny place and there was no way they could accommodate us. We went back to the hotel. I talked to the concierge who found us a similar place to eat nearby. It wasn't the same, but we would make do. P'tit Bouchon had a red/gold interior, a circus theme, and it seemed to be occupied by locals. Mark and the kids were skeptical at the French menu, which I interpreted somewhat for them. I was still disappointed that we weren't at the other restaurant and then alternately disappointed that I wasn't on this trip with fellow foodies. I sat there not wanting to say anything. The kids ordered cheeseburgers with foie gras and frites. Mark ordered filet of beef and mashed potatoes. I ordered foie gras appetizer and sole meunière. The foie gras was good but very rich. I could only eat about half my serving, and nobody else wanted to try it. Luckily it came with a light salad to cut the richness. Our plats (main dishes) came. (Entree is the word for appetizer in French). The kids ate the burgers, not complaining about the foie gras on them, but Jonah did complain about the vegetables on his. Mark ate slowly. The beef was rare-- which he liked, but he ordered it Medium. French like their meats rarer than we do. Mark still wasn't feeling 100%, so this dinner, at this time of night, was an effort for him. My sole arrived whole and with unfamiliar silverware. Our waitress asked if I wanted her to plate it for me. I should have taken a video of the way she fileted it with the provided utensils, one of which looked like a flat spoon. It was delicious, but there were still fine bones, around which I had to negotiate. I also received a bowl of assorted steamed vegetables: something in the broccoli family, string beans, fennel, pea pods, and carrots. Still, I just wanted to finish and get back to the room--especially since my dining companions were really dragging. We talked about wanting to see our pug again and being glad that he was the kind of dog that would be happy to see us after a long trip. We had reached reached our vacation saturation point-- happy to have had the trip and ready now for home.
Our last gifts from the hotel fairies was a magnetic bookmark which said, "I read in Paris." We all agreed that it belonged to Jonah. As late as it was, we packed and got ready for our early morning departure. We had had a memorable adventure but it was now time to take our memories with us into everyday life.

Friday, April 6, 2012

From Giverny to the Louvre

Today we were visiting Giverny, where Monet lived and painted his famous water lilies. We had to get up really early, but we weren't moving too quickly after the previous day's activities. Mark had been the one to plan when we had to get up, but I neglected to tell him all that our morning entailed. It wasn't until we were walking toward the metro that I even knew what time it was. Our pastry place wasn't open, and Mark said it was 7:45. Really? We had to get the metro to Gare St. Lazare, get money, purchase our overland train tickets, and get on board by 8:20. We started moving faster, but it didn't seem like it was going to happen. We couldn't find money machine. Then we couldn't find the ticket booth at the train station. We ran to it, only to see a great and slow-moving line. One woman stepped out of line ahead of us, and we were called to the counter. It was just in the nick of time that we made our transaction, ran to the platform, put our tickets though the yellow machine that checked us in, and got seated on the train to Vernon. There were other trains to Vernon that day, but it would have been perhaps another hour, and by that time, there would be a lot of tour buses at Giverny. On the train, we got to relax for the 45 minute ride.
Once in Vernon, we got a bus to Giverny. That took another 20 minutes. The village itself is everything you want in a French village. Really, you just want to buy a home there and spend your days puttering and eating French cheeses. Charming and picturesque-- once you subtract the tourists. We had to walk perhaps a 1/2 mile from the bus to the Claude Monet's house and our destination, but it was a chance to be nosy and peer into gardens. It was a grey day but that hardly mattered here. Once at Monet's house, we had our first views of the gardens which were huge, symmetrical, ordered, bright, cheery, colorful, and most importantly-- in bloom. The pink and purple tulips especially played off the pink house with the green trim. The house itself is decorated in sunny pastels. It seems like you are inside Monet's palette. Interestingly enough, the walls are covered in his collection of Japanese art prints, which seem to take the rooms from a confectionery atmosphere to something more like bright seriousness. You can imagine a happy family living here. Happy and cheerful are the two words that kept playing in my head. Especially the lemon yellow dining room and kitchen with its blue and white tiles and long array of gleaming copper pots. I wanted to cook and eat there. I wanted to paint. I wanted to let someone else deal with the gardening.
The path to the water lily pond passed under a road. Along the path, bamboo acted as a divider to give the pond some secretive walls. Fencing along the path was also made up of bamboo-- a nod to Monet's love of the oriental aesthetic perhaps. The paths were beautifully cultivated and landscaped. The pond itself was rather dreary. I was expecting a red bridge. Why? It it was painted the same bright green as the rest of the garden hardscape (the same color as the chairs in the Jardin de Tuileries.). We took the requisite bridge pictures (I promised some of my 5th grade students at Reamstown Elementary that I would send one such picture to them) and a few cool panorama shots. We have been taking a bunch of panoramas on the trip, though I am not sure what we will do with them. The row boat was parked opposite the bridge, almost as if it were forgotten. Still, you could imagine Monet's daughters taking it out in the afternoons. We bought a few ornaments before heading out. The bus tours were starting to pile in. Lots of Japanese tourists who really liked the prints inside.
We had skipped breakfast in all the hubbub of trying to catch our train, so we stopped to eat an early lunch. Lots of shops have baguette sandwiches made and in their shop windows early in the day. They always look so good and the baguettes really hold up well. Maren and I had smoked salmon, cream cheese, lettuce, and caper sandwiches. Mark's baguette sandwich had camembert, blueberry, arugula in a Dijon vinaigrette. Jonah, who prefers absolutely no traces of vegetables got a ham and cheese on croissant.
It was a leisurely walk back to our bus. From there we got the train back to Paris. First stop after getting back was the fencing store. It was a disappointment from the start. We were locked out and had to knock to be let it. There wasn't much beyond basic supplies to buy. The only t-shirt had a female fencer on it. Jonah felt obliged to buy something so he bought an expensive pair of thigh-high fencing socks. We made fun of him for that. Next we went to Printemps and Galleries Lafayette. We spent a good deal of time wandering through. The style and layouts are different than US department stores. Maren liked the bathing suits. I liked seeing the housewares and furniture. We looked through clothing, took in the views from the roof. The food court at Lafayette was overwhelming. I tried my first taste of foie gras. I considered buying a €28 jar of it, but didn't know how well it would fare in my luggage on the way home. The only other time I had foie gras was in an exclusive restaurant in Atlanta. We also bought macaroons in our traditional choice flavors of: vanilla, chocolate, coffee, raspberry. These cookies were so delicious and very concentrated in their flavors. It seems that way for all Paris treats-- flavors are so intense that you only need a taste to be satisfied, from coffee to ice cream to cookies to appetizers.
It was still relatively early when we were done shopping, so we decided to go to the Louvre. The Louvre is open late on Fridays. It would be possible to go after dinner, but it was about 3 hours before the early dinner hour in Paris. Late dinner is at about ten. The Louvre is so overwhelming and big that we went in with Rick Steve's audio tour to get the absolutely bare bones highlights. We concentrated on Greek Sculpture and Italian and French painting. This would give us the trio of grand ladies everyone goes to see: the Venus de Milo, Nike of Samothrace and the Mona Lisa. The Louvre feels more obligatory than anything. We enjoyed our whirlwind tour except for Jonah who gets very annoyed at Rick Steve's attempt at humor. We were once again at the end of our day, tired and hungry. I had scouted out some places, and we headed toward one, even though it was about a mile away.
The place I had picked out did not appear to be serving. It was open, and the door was open, but nobody was there. It was already 7. So we went around the corner to a brasserie. We were among the first there for dinner. Maren got escargot (her favorite food) and penne with tomato and basil sauces. Jonah got a skirt steak with onion gravy and fries. Mark couldn't decide between the duck with mashed potatoes or the veal on fettuccine in a pan sauce. I agreed to get one of them, and we would split them both. We were all pleased with our choices. Mark and I liked our veal dish best, but they were both excellent. We took the metro home and opened our complimentary bottle of wine. Kids read and we wrote and did things on our tablet. We were too tired for more than one glass of wine. Bedtime was nigh. Our gift from the hotel fairies was a luggage tag.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Paris: Walk Until You Drop

We started the day with five pain de chocolate. Five, because there was a special. I had a cup of cafe créme, but it wasn't up to the standards I remembered. We took the metro to the Notre Dame area to begin the Rick Steve's Historical walking tour. We saw Pointe Zero (the geographical and historical center of Paris). We also took in the faces of Notre Dame. It is hard to conceive of the faith required to begin building a church that will only be finished 200 years later. The interior was awe-inspiring, but by this point we have been in so many churches that it is hard to compare. They are all different. France is a Catholic nation, so there is that difference. Also, the gift shops, etc seem to be more in the actual sanctuary which kind of sullies the spiritual setting, but if you get beyond them (they are close to the entrances) you can lose yourself in the Cathedral. There was an early morning worship service going on in the center quire area. It was nice to hear the singing as we sauntered around. Flanking the outer aisles are little chapels. It gives the effect of having a lot of little churches in one big space. The church at large is dedicated to Mary (Notre Dame) so images of her are central, as in the center of one of the rose windows, but the side chapels are dedicated to other saints. A supplicant can go to different areas depending on his or her need for worship and petition. Near the entrance are also the confessionals, but France is not heavily under the spell of the Pope. They do Catholicism their own way. The confessionals are like little glass offices where people go for counseling and help. Christianity feels very different in Europe than it does in the states. It is mixed in with much of the pagan lore that was there before Christianity. Often, the churches are on sites of ancient pagan worship. And with the degree of art, the church feels more cultural and less moralistic than it does in the States. That said, there is still a terrible history of blood and war that goes along with the state-sanctioned religion in Europe. But I will admit that, with the exception of Sacre Coeur, I felt at peace and in awe in the churches I have been to on this trip.
The next big stop on the walking tour was the English bookstore Shakespeare and Company. This shop is unlike any other bookshop. With used and new books stacked everywhere, it has the feel of a hoarder's house, but there is method in the chaos. In many places are bits of paper, poetry that people have posted. I put a small poem in an upstairs writing nook. Writers can live and work here for free. I know that SARK did this once. Not sure what the arrangements are like. There is a lending library. While only an incarnation of Sylvia Beech's original store, there is still an echo of the ghosts of the Lost Generations among the stacks. I bought a volume of poetry by the recently departed Adrienne Rich. It is a definitely a place in which you want to lose yourself, if you weren't limited in your time in Paris.
Our next stop was supposed to be Saint Chapelle, but the line was very long. If we had already bought our Paris Museum Passes, like we wanted to (we couldn't find the office when we got here, and our concierge at the hotel had a high markup) we could have fast tracked our way inside. We decided to go eat lunch. This particular lunch was one of my most anticipated meals of the trip. L'as du Falafel. We walked into the Marais district which is known as the Jewish district and has a growing gay presence. It houses some really great clothing shops and galleries. It was fun to just window shop which is what I did while Mark tried to read the map and get us where we are going. Mark's city map skills are terrible. He gets himself all turned around, but I keep following him. Mostly because if I had the map and made the least little misstep he would take it from me anyway. It is better for him to have the map and for me to look at all the windows while he is blindly leading us in wrong directions. Eventually he will get us where we are going.
We did get to our sandwich shop. It was worth the wait. I think I have a new favorite sandwich. Sorry, Philly cheesesteak. (Did I actually say that?) I got the falafel special which is falafel, cabbage, cucumber, eggplant, onions on pita with a load of yogurt sauce. Jonah and Maren had a similar sandwich made with chicken and lamb. Mark had the same with a curried chicken base. The kids picked off all their eggplant, and I got to eat that, too. I love eggplant. A basket of fries for the table, and we were good to go.
Before returning to our walking tour, we stopped for ice cream cones at Berthillion on Isle Saint-Louis. The ice cream scoops were tiny but so flavorful. I had banana and coffee. Mark had coffee and white chocolate. Maren had chocolate and strawberry. She declared her strawberry more delicious than her amazing chocolate. Jonah had vanilla and white chocolate. We retraced our steps back to Isle de la Cite and entered into the Deportation Memorial, a monument to the 200,000 French victims of Nazi concentration camps. As you can imagine, it is a stark and chilling presence but with the inclusion of a channel of 200,000 little
squares of light, hope is also a presence.
After lunch the line to Saint Chapelle was much better. The actual line is a security checkpoint because the chapel is in the courtyard of the Palais du Justice-- a governmental building. We got our museum passes. Only Mark and I had to buy them because kids under 18 get in free to museums in Paris. They were doing restoration on the Church. This is a museum-only church now. Compared to Notre Dame around the same period, this large scale gothic cathedral only took 5 years to build. The exterior walls are nothing fantastic. They were built as a frame to the gorgeous stained glass. It was a gray day, so we didn't get the full scope of the sunlight through the windows, but the scale and detail of all the windows is beyond belief. They tell every story in the Bible. The church was built to house the relic of the crown of thorns which was acquired by France during the crusades. Now the crown is housed at Notre Dame. The crown is the focus of this cathedral. Maren especially liked the cathedrals on this trip.
From Saint Chapelle, we walked (and walked) along the Seine, past the Louvre, though the Jardin deTullieres to the L'Orangerie which houses the huge in-the-round Monet waterlily paintings. Nothing can describe these paintings. I looked in the gift shop for posters and long postcards but nothing did them justice. The colors on the walls are so alive, they may just be breathing.
We took time to look at the rest of the paintings in this smallish museum. My back was really having trouble. Mark's was hurting, too, but I was having awful twinges every time I stepped off a curb. I was afraid that it was going to go out. Several times, I thought it had. We were all pretty tired by this point, but we had one more museum.
The d'Orsay, a museum of mostly Impressionism and post-Impressionism, is open late on Thursdays. It is housed in an old train station. We again stood in lines for security, but this moved fast, and as in l'Orangerie, our museum passes moved us pretty close to the front of the lines. The d'Orsay was having a huge exhibition of Degas Nudes. We walked through that. I went more slowly because I was fascinated by Degas' changing techniques. He has always been one of my favorite painters. The rest finished ahead of me and were waiting outside the exhibit. We made a plan to meet in an hour because they couldn't handle my slow pace. We were all beyond exhausted and sore when we met at the lion sculpture at 7 pm. Off we went to find the metro station to home. But we couldn't find the one we wanted which was near the Egyptian Obelisk. The Arc de Triomphe was in sight with the Champs Élysées, some of Paris's best shopping, between us and it. We decided to walk for a little while and take it in. Little did we know, we would walk the rest of the way back. We really wish we had had a pedometer for this day. With the exception of running my one marathon and giving birth, I don't think I have ever been as physically exhausted as I was at the end of this day.
We picked a little place near our hotel to eat dinner. In reality, it wasn't a good choice--probably the Hoss's of Paris but we were beyond choosiness in our hunger and fatigue. Jonah and I had ribs, sausage, and unlimited mashed potatoes. He put the limits to the test. Mark had steak tartare and frites. They asked him three times to make sure he understood it was uncooked. Maren had sausage and fries. We also all got dessert except mashed potato boy. I had crime brûlée. Mark had chocolate mousse and Maren had sorbet, which is her new favorite thing.
We went back to the hotel to see what the fairies left us. At this hotel we get presents on our pillow. First night was a picture holder clip. Tonight was a little diamond paperweight. We have been so tired. The kids haven't had showers. Maren's hair keeps getting
bigger each day. But we sleep like rocks. Not a peep out of us.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

First Views of Paris-- Montmartre and the Eiffel Tower

We woke at 5:30. Finished packing though we had done most of it the night before, and caught our last tube train to St. Pancras where we needed to catch the Eurostar Train. Breakfast was Starbucks in the station. I really hate the fact that we had to resort to Starbucks. It is everywhere!
The Eurostar journey was 2 hours, but add an extra hour for the time difference in Paris. We read, slept, and journaled. The time passed really quickly. At the train station in Paris we bought 4 carnets (bundles of ten metro tickets) for the metro. Then we headed for our hotel: Mariott Renaissance at Arc de Triomphe. We had no problem finding it, but we probably looked like a line of ducklings following one another with our matching rolling bags.
Our room was not ready for us so we parked our bags.
We took the metro back the way we came to Blanche to have lunch and begin the audio walking tour of Montmartre I complied and recorded. First was lunch. We went to the Cafe de Deux Moulins which is where Amalie was filmed. Lunch did a lot to revive us all. Kids had cheeseburgers and fries. I had croque Monsieur and Mark had Croque Madame. Plus we had some red wine. The waitress joked with us.
We started the walking tour on much better footing. We saw the Moulin Rouge before turning our attention to the Montmartre cemetery where many famous artists including Degas were buried. The problem was that the 11 hectare plot was surrounded by a high wall. We walked the entire perimeter before finding the secret entrance. The cemetery was cool and quite beyond the usual that we see in the States. The above-ground vaults were a mix of old and new. We were off to find Degas at the opposite end of the yard. The problem was that the cemetery had a few different levels. We walked in the direction of Degas but came to a drop-off. Degas was on the other side, but we would have needed a bridge to get there. By this time, I was ready to quit, but Mark insisted we find Degas's grave. When we finally found it (Jonah wins the prize), we almost missed it because the crypt was engraved "de Gas". Maren posed in front of in the 14-year-old little ballerina pose.
And off we went. Along the tour we saw famous restaurants and dance halls frequented by Impressionist artists and Picasso. The streets wound upward toward Sacre Coeur. We saw houses and studios where Van Gogh and Picasso lived and worked. Finally, we reached the highest point in Paris, the Basilica of Sacre Coeur. Here, we saw our first, slightly tree obstructed, view of the Eiffel Tower. The church itself felt very commercialized and not very holy. We had an icky feeling. We continued onward toward the Dali museum and were accosted by women trying to get us to sign a petition. They didn't speak English. They kept pointing to a handicap symbol on the page and the words blind and deaf. But I knew they were pickpockets. They try to get you to hold a clipboard and sign while they reach in your pockets. I had not heard of this exact ploy. The one I heard is where they try to tie a friendship bracelet on you. But the effect is the same. After many a loud, "Non" they left us alone. Our cash was pretty well battened down in our secret pockets anyway. We finished our tour with the Art Noveau style of the Metro entrance at Abbesses.
From Abbesses we took the metro back to Ternes which is near our hotel. We made a detour into the Rue de Poncelet Market. We bought camembert aux truffes, wine, sweet biscuits, Maren's requisite pear, and a demi baguette.
Back at the hotel, our room was ready. It is a modern room with a small one seat balcony and one bathroom. We are used to two bathrooms now so this should be interesting. The room came with a complimentary bottle of wine and some chocolate almonds/coffee beans. The bed spreads are white with grey and red accented pillows and throws. Dark paneled cupboards. White wallpaper with pale gray and very large Japanese style floral motifs. We were able to unpack a little and get organized before we were off for our next adventure.
We walked to the Trocadéro area and across to the top of the steps by the Esplanade du Trocadéro and had a grand view of the Eiffel Tower. We chose a park bench along the park path to the tower and sat and ate our dinner. The trees were flowering pink. Skies were gray and spritzing a bit now and then. After eating we walked to the tower, taking pictures all along the way. The lines were long due to an elevator that was out of order. We chose to walk up the 700 steps instead of waiting. Hard to believe we paid as much as we did to have to climb all those stairs. The 700 stairs gave us access to the first two levels. I thought we bought the ticket to allow elevator access to the top, but we did not. Oh well. We had good views from the mid level. The stairs were hard but not impossible. We stopped at the first level to catch our breaths. Of course, the kids ran up ahead. We took pictures including some panoramas, but we didn't stay too long because we wanted to come down and see the tower light up at the top of the hour. It was getting dark. We started our climb around 8. 8:30 was sunset, but it was too cloudy to see any colors. So, down we came. We passed by the carousels on our way back to the Esplanade du Trocadéro. The kids practiced taking pictures with various shutter speeds in the dimming light. In the background, a marching band played songs by Frank Sinatra and the Beatles. Mark and I opened our market wine and put some in our water bottle. The kids, who were very tired when we had started our journey, were very animated with the lights and the camera. The 9 pm (first of the night) light show itself was nice, but limited to ten minutes of twinkling. The night had the feel of Fourth of July but not quite the show. Still-- this was the Eiffel Tower, which started with more style points than a blank night sky.
Afterwards, we checked out some souvenir shops outside and in the metro station. Maren just loves tacky little souvenir shops. She didn't buy anything, but Jonah bought a n Eiffel Tower key chain. The girl he may possibly ask to prom is an Eiffel Tower freak-- it is the wallpaper on her Facebook page. I think she has been there.
Back at the hotel, we went straight to bed. This seems to be a theme with us.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Something Wicked This way Comes: Last day in London

Our last day of London. We got to sleep in a little bit. The kids have been really good about getting up early. I think this morning's wake up call may have been 7:30. We bought some pastries. Our group usually divides up this way: Maren gets chocolate, Jonah and I get lemon or cheese, and Mark gets blueberry or almond. I got my first cup of coffee at an outdoor stand. It was really good latte with a decorative foam. Then, we left for the metro and overland train station to Leavesden (a suburb of London where the Warner Bros studios are located, and where, for ten years, they filmed the Harry Potter films.)
This is the first week that the Harry Potter sets are open to the public. We saw them online and bought tickets. Tickets soon sold out for the four days we were to be in London. The day was overcast with periods of rain, so this was the perfect itinerary. We are very train savvy by this point. The kids are a wonder with their Oyster cards. Only one time did we get separated. The trains were crowded. I said go-go-go. Mark said no-no-no. The doors closed behind me, and off I went. I waited for the crew at the next station. It was fine, but from then on, we made sure that each family member knew our destination point. The kids are great at reading tube maps. If a city is safe, I would have no qualms about letting them travel by themselves. Good thing: we are training them to be independent people.
At the Watford Junction station, we got the WB bus, a double decker bus that was decorated with Harry Potter graphics. At the studios, we were a little early for our tour times so we spent time playing with the wands in the gift store. Love that store. I forgot that Maren has not had a chance to experience the wands yet. The rest of us all got to play with them down in Orlando at Universal Studios. I love how creative they made this one aspect of the story. (We would find out that the wand artistry only began in about the third film.) Our tour started at 10:30, and we didn't get out of it until 2. It was mainly self-guided. We were all enthralled. I cannot even begin to describe it. Jonah took pictures. Let us just say he took more pictures here than during the rest of our London trip combined. There was so much to see and experience. It was magical and intense. To think of all the detail that goes into such a movie. I was looking at the art work and graphics. Mark was checking out set design and building. Jonah had his eye on special effects and model making. Maren was all about acting and costume. (I think between the four of us, we could make an awesome movie.) The sets, props, costumes, and CGI were so detailed. We need to watch the films again with renewed appreciation. Among the sets we saw: The Great Hall, Gryffindor Great room, Griffindor boy's dormitory, Hagrid's Hut, Ministry of Magic, outside 4 Privet Drive, the Burrows, Dumbledore's Office, potions classroom, and Umbridge's office. Maren finally got to taste butterbeer.
This was a definite highlight of our overall trip. The other thing to note is that our family loves these kinds of exhibits. We have travelled to Boston to see Lord of the Rings movie art exhibit, and we have seen two separate exhibits of Star Wars concept art (Chicago) and movie art/costumes/props (Philadelphia). I still believe that Jonah needs to pursue something in the movie genre. Sure, it should be something on the technical side, but something with story. And we all know that Maren wants a future in film.
Lunch was an uninspired sandwich and crisps at the cafeteria. We left Warner Brothers with visions dancing in our heads. We arrived back at St. Ermine's at about 3:30 and had a two hour break before the planned dinner hour. This is significant because it was basically the only break we have had the entire time. Mark napped. Jonah read. Maren and I walked the few blocks to Westminster Abbey gift shop, a place that was closing as we arrived yesterday. One thing to know about Maren. She LOVES gift shops. The kitchier, the better, especially the crappy city gift shops like you see all over NYC. London did not disappoint her. We didn't actually buy anything here. I felt I had enough ornaments from England having bought them at Stonehenge, St. Paul's, Warner Brothers, and Tower of London. One thing we have learned-- sometimes key chains make better ornaments. They are less expensive and sometimes nicer than actual ornaments. And sometimes ornaments aren't available. Maren and I then went to tube station to top off our Oyster cards for the one last tube trip we had to make in the morning. Maren took care of the entire transaction at the computer kiosk. I love seeing her take care of things like that.
We returned to the room in time to get ready for our pub dinner. We ate at The Feathers pub just around the corner from our hotel. Jonah had bangers and mash; Maren had fish and chips with mushy peas, Mark had steak and eggs, and I had a beef, mushroom, and stout pie. Mark and I also enjoyed a few ales--the first of our trip. We all had smiles on our faces, Jonah especially. Not much can top sausages and mashed potatoes in his book (except for a little brown gravy). Maren had the large size fish and chips which she demolished!
Onto Wicked. What can we say about this? The show, the costumes, the music were all breathtaking. After our day at the studios, I tried to take in as many details as I could and to think about all the people and ideas that had gone into this production. We all had to agree, it was a near perfect day. Each night we write in a journal. Each person must record the best thing about the day (rose), the worst thing about the day (thorn), and the funniest thing about the day (jester). We couldn't think of any bad things about the day. The next morning, when asked what were the 3 best things about England, the kids both said Harry Potter, Wicked, and Tower of London.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Historical London

Wake up call was 6:30. We got ready for the day and headed to the Regency cafe for an authentic English breakfast. We knew we were in the right place: the clientele was made up of working class men dressed in uniforms of city workers, firemen, etc. Our breakfasts each included one egg, toast, English sausage and bacon, bean or tomatoes (only Maren opted for tomatoes) and a hot beverage. I wanted to order blood pudding for everyone to have a taste, but they would not let me. We could have ordered mushrooms, but we had enough with what was on our plates. And we ate everything. Good thing. We had a big day ahead of us. We had London Passes and were determined to get our money's worth. The day was gorgeous. Perfect touring weather.
We took the crowded morning tube to St. Paul's Cathedral-- Christopher Wren's masterpiece and setting of Charles' marriage to Diana. This was a filler-- something for us to do before the Tower of London opened. The problem was that the place was amazing, and we could have stayed there much longer exploring it. We stayed longer than I had planned. It is very hard coming up with an itinerary, not knowing how long each thing will take. I did not imagine that we would be as interested in a cathedral as we were. I guess that is a good thing: we have several more churches on the itinerary.
We walked as quickly as we could to the Tower of London but missed the first tour. We had to wait 15 minutes for the second tour at 10:30.
Our Yeoman Warden tour guide was very funny. We had a good time listening to tales of beheadings, imprisonments, murders, and treason. England does have a bloody and rather uncivilized history. I have been reading so much fiction lately about the war of the roses and the Second Jacobite rebellion that I really had a lot of interest in the stories that were told. This was an attraction we all liked. We ended the tour in the chapel where all the infamous people were buried. (Church count for the day--2). Next we toured the crown jewels. Somehow, Maren and I entered ahead of the men, but we all knew the plan: jewels, armory, gift shop. They would catch up. We sped through the jewels pretty fast. I am just not a precious jewelry kind of girl. Then Maren and I waited for a bit outside the crown jewels. The men didn't show, so we went into the armory at the white castle. Henry VIII's armor,and more particularly his exaggerated cod piece, were highlights. Also inside the white castle was St. John's chapel. (Church count for the day--- 3.) Maren hit the mark when she tested her archery skills. At last we made it to the gift shop where I bought an ornament. (We collect tree ornaments on our travels.) Here we waited for an hour for the men to finish. I was not happy. The next thing on our agenda was a river cruise on the Thames. I had four times marked down that would still let us do our afternoon's activities. We had already missed the first three. They had a copy of our itinerary with them, so I could not believe they weren't out of the exhibit yet. This was the point in which I really wish we had texting capabilities, but only Mark has an international plan, courtesy of his job. It is unreal how dependent i am on this technology. To think that 9 years ago when I was here, we had none of it. I didn't even have my own cell phone. Maren and decided to wait 15 more minutes. After ten minutes, I found Mark and Jonah, but we didn't have time for them to do the gift shop. And we didn't have time for a snack/lunch at the cafe as planned. Straight to the boat!
It was a beautiful day for a boat ride. A crew man gave a running commentary on the ride to Westminster Pier. Some of the sights were ones we had on our first day's walking tour, but this time we got to see them from the water side. We saw bridges that were being spruced up or rebuilt to accommodate expected Olympic guests. We also saw a bridge called the Ladies Bridge because 80% of the work to build the bridge was done by women during WWII. We got off at the pier at 2 pm to Big Ben's chimes and commenced Rick Steve's Westminster walking tour. Halfway into the tour which took us past Parliament and Westminster Abbey, we came to Churchill's War Rooms museum. We took time out to complete this tour. It was a claustrophobic experience, but an important reminder of a dark period in British history. Again, I had been reading fiction about this time, in particular, The Postmistress. It was good to have a more historical perspective.
Coming up from the museum, we found ourselves at the entrance to St. James park. What a beautiful sight after the dark underground. Tired and hungry, we decided to deviate from the planned remainder of the audio tour and walk the length of the park to see Buckingham Palace. The kids didn't seem to impressed with the castle, but they were tired. From what I remember, the castle seemed more spruced up--again, the preparations for world visitors.
Our last planned activity before dinner was Evensong, an evening prayer service we were attending as a way to experience Westminster Abbey (church #4 of the day). As you might imagine, the kids were not thrilled with this plan. The service was conducted in the quire section of the church. Because of our place in line, we were ushered into intricately carved individual seats in the choir area. In fact, the choir sat right in front of us and in identical seating across the aisle. It was a perfect place to experience the majesty of this service which consisted of choral music interspersed with lessons and prayers. It lasted about 45 minutes and gave us time to really absorb the art in this church which has seen the coronation of every British Monarch since 1066. Also, this was church was the place where the latest royal wedding took place. Even the kids had to admit it was a treat. Maren went so far as to say she had a religious experience, which I guess is as good as it gets for a proclaimed atheist.
Even more hungry now--we had skipped lunch-- we went to find the subway to take us to Chinatown for dinner. Since the subway stop we were looking for was near Trafalgar Square, the final destination on our walking tour, we decided to make amends for truncating the tour. The square is huge with an Olympic countdown clock. It is a shame we will not get to see the portrait gallery, but we will see plenty of art in Paris. At the square, we realized that Chinatown was only a few blocks away. Even more hungry and tired at this point, we limped grumpily to Chinatown which is near a lot of the theaters.
We stopped at The Little Lamb and saw people eating hot pots. A hot pot is a huge steaming bowl of heavily spiced broth in which you cook food at your table. Not knowing how to order hot pot, we ordered the all inclusive dinners rather than a la carte. This was a mistake as we would soon find out. They brought a large pot of broth to the burner at the table, and each of us ordered 5 different items to cook in the broth. We could select from a menu of various fish, meats, vegetables, noodles, etc. The first thing they brought out was a huge platter of thinly sliced beef. Since three of us had ordered beef, we didn't think this was any big deal, until we realized they were bringing us three such platters of meat. We had more food than we knew what to do with. And, much of it was duplicates. Crab, prawns, fish, beef, pork, lamb, meatballs, four orders of the exact same noodles. The only vegetables we had was an order of bean sprouts Maren ordered. It was comic. We ate and ate and ate. If only we could have taken home leftovers.
On the way home, we saw an M&M store. After the salty broth, we could do with a little sweet (and a bathroom). Maren danced with a green M&M. After we got a bag of candy, I realized I had been at 3 out of the 4 stores (London, Time Square, Las Vegas). The fourth store is in Orlando. Had I known, I would have made a point to go in February so I could complete my collection of M&M stores. (I think that is funny.) London is the largest of the stores and we thought that perhaps the M&M's actually tasted a little better. It was late by the time we got back to St. Ermine's.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Crossing Avalon

Day two: One of my all time favorite books is Mysts of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. My son is a sci-fi/fantasy junkie and loves all things British. Mark has always wanted to go to Stonehenge, so we had no difficulties deciding on a bus tour of mystical King Arthur's realm. We did have difficulty getting a bus to our meeting place at the British Museum. We are bus novices, so it took some time for us to find the stop we needed. The road signs aren't marked on corners like in the states, so we are constantly looking for street signs. Mark is not city literate when it comes to directions. It is odd to see, because he is so good with directions elsewhere. It also means I cannot take it for granted he knows where he is going like I do everywhere else we go. We saw the bus we wanted and chased it down, but we got on in the back of the bus and got a stern admonishment from our driver.
At the museum, we caught our touring bus with International Friends tours. There were 13 of us on the tour. What a good number! Fiona, our Blue Badge guide, gave us some information on London as we passed through the city. We passed Hyde Park and the monument to animals who served in the war. I loved the huge horse head sculpture in this park. We set out for our 2-hour drive to Stonehenge. I don't remember a whole lot about it. Despite all my efforts, I fell asleep. Jonah and I slept most of the way there, but we would catch snippets of what the guide was saying and then have crazy dreams.
We got to Stonehenge when it opened. It was pretty amazing but different than I expected. I learned a lot and felt real serenity there. That peace stayed with me all day at the sites we visited. They all seemed to a have a quiet energy. Stonehenge itself is roped off. We had to stay a reverential distance from the stones, but that felt right to me. Mystery and grandeur were two words that popped into my head. I wanted to
know so much more, but I suppose everyone has that feeling when they leave these stones. I loved hearing about the various myths and legends and hypotheses that have been formulated over the centuries.
Our next stop was Glastonbury. This was another long drive into the country, and again I slept. I just couldn't keep my eyes open, though I didn't feel tired before getting on the bus. In Glastonbury, we stopped first at a Tor with a tower on it. This is a sacred place that predates Christianity. Today it has many ties to the Druids and Pagans who celebrate holy days and do rituals at the top. It was a beautiful clear day, so we experienced some fantastic views of the surrounding farmlands. Very pastoral with all the sheep grazing nearby. I longed to do ritual here. Our tour guide was very informed, but she didn't seem interested in the soul of these places.
After we climbed down, Fiona took the group to the Chalice Well Gardens. Legend has it that the blood of Christ springs forth from the well because Joseph of Arimathea buried or washed the cup used in the Last Supper here. Also the water turns everything red. It is supposed to have healing properties. We all took a drink from the springs. I also waded in the healing springs. Refreshing! At noon, the place participates in a moment of peace. We stopped and meditated for a minute. Then we went I to the gift shop. The symbol for this well is the Vesica Piscis-- two interlocking circles. I just watched a sacred geometry video before we left and learned about this symbol. It is fascinating. What I learned was random, not in anticipation for this trip. I bought a pendant of this place. This small garden was the surprise delight of my day.
From here, we moved on to the ruins of the Glastonbury Abbey. This is the birthplace of Christianity in this country. The ruins were outstanding. It seemed as if they were guarding over the holy place, still. It was impossible to believe how big the church must have been considering what we saw was only one third the height. How did people build such big buildings with the technology available? This was a 13th century building, I believe. It is also believed to be the final resting place of Arthur and Guinevere.
From here, we went to Lunch at Cafe Galatea. Kids weren't thrilled with vegetarian food, but the vibe of the place said: peace, love, hippy, so I felt strongly about eating at a vegetarian cafe. They were placated with local ice cream. (We were in a dairy farm area of England.) For lunch I had a coconut cauliflower soup and country bread. Mark had a Brie and cranberry sandwich. Kids had deep fried potato wedges with curry mayonnaise. Mark and Maren had chocolate heaven ice cream. Jonah had the best vanilla ice cream he had ever eaten, and I had clotted cream ice cream.
After lunch the bus drove an hour to Avebury. Along the way, we passed many towns with the requisite village green, the village pond, and the village parish. How quaint and charming.
Avebury was another henge consisting of one large stone circles and two interior circles. This was larger than Stonehenge but formed with more natural rocks. Diamond shaped rocks represented the female and the pillar like rocks were the male. They think fertility rituals were performed here. The four of us huddled and had a moment's meditation for friends of ours who are undergoing fertility treatments. I bought a book on sacred geometry. That really interests me-- especially after this trip.
We drove home through Marlborough where Kate Middleton went to school. We were told she was smart and got good marks. Other things we saw a lot of during the day were examples of thatched roofs.
The tour bus dropped us off at Harrod's at 6 pm. We took the metro to Pimlico Tandoori for Indian food. The food was good but I was expecting so much more after having Indian food with my brother in Manchester nine years ago. This felt more like upscale version of the takeout that we get in Lancaster. I felt as though we should have gone to Brick Lane, the famed curry mile, instead of this place, but we were tired and had not wanted to travel that far from our hotel. The kids, however, did try new foods and liked them. For that, it was worth it. Perhaps I was jealous that I did not have a "new food" adventure.
We walked the scant mile back to our hotel from the restaurant and called it a night.