March 29, 2008

I Keep It Wholesome

The Blog-O-Cuss Meter - Do you cuss a lot in your blog or website?

Take that you filthy Llama Boys!

March 28, 2008


The kids wanted a snack and I had some chocolate chips lying around, so cookies seemed to be in order. I endeavored to keep my blood pressure down while they helped me gather ingredients and mix them together. Finally, the cookies went in the oven and the arguments about who got which cookie began. Ending when I allowed the child not involved in the argument first dibs. The girls gave the 18 month old a nice chocolate-y cookie which he smeared all over himself before I got the next batch in the oven and then the five year old spilled her milk. Now the baby is screaming, because I am not allowing his grubby little hands unlimited access to the cookie cooling racks.

Who knew such a simple domestic task could be so complicated and loud?

Tintin, the Movie!

Although movies rarely do justice to the books on which they were based, as a child I always wanted to see my favorite books turned into movies or TV shows. Some (most actually) were horribly disappointing.

Little House on the Prairie had nothing to do with the books. Ramona Quimby spoke with a Canadian accent and was blonde. And Tintin cartoons too were Canadian and in my mind Tintin always had a British accent (never mind that he was actually Belgian).

Hope springs eternal and once in a while a book gets turned into a good movie, even if not entirely faithful to its former medium. And so once again, I am excited and hopeful that the casting of Tintin and Captain Haddock for a new Tintin movie will be a good thing. I can only hope that they don't throw into messy love interests and other plot lines that will mess up an entirely good series of books, but that, of course, may be a vain hope indeed.

The Joy of Cooking

Since being home, I've been really enjoying the art of cooking again. I haven't made anything very gourmet or fancy, but just having skillets that don't scorch everything and a variety of foods, spices, meat and cooking implements makes me want to cook.

Although I planned to get right to work making the crumpets we love so much, I haven't gotten around to that yet. I bought some yeast, but it is just sitting there looking at me, not actually making the crumpets for me.

Over in England, the kids loved the Scottish grown carrots. They ate them for snacks and gobbled them down. Back home again, they don't particularly like them and when raw carrots are on the menu, they insist they are not consumable without ranch for dipping. I can't tell a huge difference, but my children seem to.

One interesting thing we came home with was a love of brown eggs. I'd been told before that brown eggs tasted better than white ones, but I never really bothered to research that information before. While we were in England, we usually bought a fifteen egg carton (silly metric system) of mixed size brown eggs, which was the cheapest thing in the store. Since the only skillet we had scorched everything, I usually hardboiled the eggs and the kids loved them. One night for dinner they ate almost all fifteen.

When we came home, I bought our usual white eggs and a few days later made hardboiled eggs for breakfast. "These smell odd," said the five year old. The shells were really, really thin and the flavor wasn't what I'd remembered. Nobody wanted to finish their eggs.

Just for experimental purposes I bought a box of brown eggs (not fancy cage free, organic, farm raised ones). We tried them hardboiled and made a pan of scrambled white and scrambled brown. And in blind tastes tests we could all tell the difference. The brown ones had a harder shell and were much more flavorful. Our current compromise is now to buy brown eggs for eating and white ones for baking. I don't think I'm ready to move to the country and raise my own chickens yet, so that will have to do.

For me one of the joys of traveling is finding new foods, not necessarily exotic things, but different things -- like black currant popsicles (oops, ice lollies) or local varieties of cheese. England made for a pleasant diversion from normal eating with some new and different things to try. I just never thought I'd change my egg purchasing habits because of a trip abroad.

March 27, 2008

War! What is it Good For?

I could make a long blog post, I'm sure, about helping the oppressed, freeing people from tyrants and various other answers to my question above, but war is also really, really good at accumulating stuff that can later be put in a museum.

Or we could entitle this: I forgot one of the stops we made in London in our last week there. I mentioned before that by the last week we'd hit all of my must see stops. We had not gotten to the museum my husband really wanted to visit -- The Imperial War Museum. Such museums, full of tanks, submarines, blood stained brief cases and other military paraphernalia are not places I object going to, but I generally don't go out of my way to visit them either. It's a guy thing.

Fortunately, my husband had a short day at work on our final Tuesday in London and we headed down to Elephant and Castle station on a rainy afternoon (we could have gotten out at the station before, but The Boy wanted to see what it was like at the end of the line). Areas south of the river always seem a little sketchier. Though nothing untoward occurred or was seen, I was kind of glad not to be wandering around that area by myself with my entourage of children.

When one walks up to the front of the museum, one is greeted by a 15" gun off a WWI battleship. Guns and 'splody things may not exactly be my cup of tea, but knowing that that was a "small" gun of its type was most impressive.

I've been to Dayton's Air Force museum and I've been to the Naval Air Base Museum in Pensacola and probably a few other military museums in the US, so seeing the usual tanks and all wasn't exactly unfamiliar, but it is a very full and well presented museum. It was interesting and strangely surprising (though it should not have been) to see someone else's views (even those of our ally) on wars we fought together.

The tour-able bomber and the submarine exhibit were particularly interesting to the kidlets. I didn't have the stomach to take of whiff of what the inside of a sub really smelled like, but some of the braver among us report that it was not what one would describe as a pleasant fragrance.

My husband and I were both far more interested in the large exhibit taking one through both World Wars, the period between them and the Cold War, than the kids were. We lost their interest at some point, but I suppose since we've never spent much time studying that point in history with them, we can hardly blame them for not being terribly interested.

Having small children and only a limited amount of time, we skipped the section on the Holocaust. The kids were fidgety already and there is a time to introduce the horror and sadness of that to them, but that wasn't the time.

Even skipping a section we still spent over three hours wandering around the place, learning about the brave men and women who fought for our allies in the past and seeing their equipment.

For boys (especially ones in their thirties) it was well worth the trip. For the girls, it was a good visit as well, but maybe we should have split off and spent more time admiring the dresses at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

March 26, 2008

Going Postal

While we were away we still had to pay the bills back home. Many of our bills could either be set to auto-pay or we could pay them online, but a few things needed to be sent in with a check. For these we left checks with my husband's assistant and the runner from his office came to our house every week or so to pick up the mail and make sure everything got paid in a timely fashion.

This worked fine at first and then my husband started getting e-mails from his assistant saying that bills had not arrived and, in fact, no mail at all had arrived. Being the highly competent and lovely woman that she is, she called the utilities found out what amounts were owed and the bills still got paid, but the situation could have become rather difficult.

Why was no mail arriving at our house? It's an old house and we have our mailbox on the porch. We also have a fence around the yard and a dog. One day the mailman arrived when the dog was out in the yard. The dog barked and the mailman stopped delivering the mail. No note. No hanging the mail on the gate in a bag. Nothing. He decided the situation was "unsafe" because the dog might be in the back yard and come running around the house when he opened the gate, so he declined to deliver the mail at all.

Now I can understand not wanting to be bitten by a dog, although my dog is not a biter, but I do think a little notice was in order. The day after we got home, I noticed the mailman bypassing our house and I went out to talk to him. He asked, "Have you gotten rid of the dog yet?" I didn't know dog owning and mail delivery were necessarily incompatible and that I needed to rid myself of the canine, but I promised to keep the dog in the house during delivery times and he promised to start carrying my mail on his truck again.

The mail has shown up since and today we got a bright, shiny, new (okay not really bright or shiny, but it is new) side fence, so the dog should stay contained in the back yard and not frighten the mailman with his scary bark. I'm still glaring at the door whenever I see the mailman putting mail in the box though.

March 24, 2008

The Last Week and Home Again

We had one final week to wrap up our tour of London and of course there were a million more things we could have gone to see. London is so full of things to see and do. I'd hit all the major highlights that I planned on seeing, so we didn't rush madly about our last week.

We visited the British Museum again and saw some of the things we'd missed the first time including some of the excavation findings from Vindolanda that we'd studied about in our Minimus program.

We also visited the Natural History Museum again, and although I'm pretty sure we still missed a whole wing or two, we saw some neat rocks, minerals and geological stuff that we hadn't seen the first time. We also ran across the street and saw a bit of the Victoria and Albert Museum. I liked it. The five year old thought the exhibit of historic clothing was wonderful. The baby was miserably cranky and the eight year old boy thought a museum full of clothing and decorative stuff was about the most boring thing he'd ever seen, although he did like the Raphael cartoons. We didn't stay too long.

We spent one day touring Harrods (especially its food halls) and having some ice cream at Morelli's for a special treat.

Otherwise the last week was spent packing up. Saturday a large (eight passenger sized) taxi arrived at 7 a.m. and drove us to Heathrow, we checked in, made it through security (after a minor bobble because I'd forgotten I couldn't take dangerous substances like ginger beer through) and rode on a big airplane back to DC. The flight was uneventful, although the really grouchy woman in front of my five year old who glared at her and told her not to kick the seat every time she shifted her position at all (and my daughter never once kicked the seat although I wanted to) annoyed me to no end.

When we arrived at Dulles, immigration wasn't too hard. In fact, with all the kids, luggage and large belly, they let us skip to the head of the line. We then took a SuperShuttle to our hotel near BWI, got up in the morning and flew on home to Nashville.

It was great to be home, although our house sitter had certainly taken the "eat up things in the house" to heart and the cupboards were bare. We're getting settled back in with much to do and a few people to yell at. All in a day's work.

March 18, 2008

For All My Favorite Texans

Especially our favorite Aunt Mimi.

March 17, 2008


A small shop off of Covent Garden would hardly be on everyone's must visit list while staying in England, but before we left the US my son realized that Tintin was much more popular in the UK than back at home. We searched and found that there was a dedicated Tintin store in London.

From just about the moment we landed at Heathrow, my eight year old asked me when we could visit the Tintin shop. I kept putting him off and forgetting to figure out where it was (foolishly as it turned out since we went to Covent Garden twice without even knowing it was right around the corner).

As our trip neared its completion, it became absolutely imperative that we get to the shop before my son drove me stark, raving mad with questions about it. So off we went to Covent Garden for a third time and finally we found it. A little tiny shop devoted exclusively to all things Herge-ical. Everything was also incredibly expensive -- even a little stuffed Snowy was over 7 pounds -- but we had as a family spent a long time talking about the place, getting to it and we do all love Tintin. I finally let them each get a little plastic figure (Tintin, Captain Haddock and Castafiore) and they've spent days playing different scenes out. The girls keep marrying Castafiore and Captain Haddock, much to my eight year old son's disgust, but such is the way of the little girl.

And we got another to do item crossed off the London sites to see list.

March 14, 2008

What Do You Expect From a German Major?

JustSayHi - Science Quiz

My father, the physics professor, might not approve though.

via Sarah

How Could I Forget?

The best part of the St. Paul's/Globe Theater visiting day as far as my children were concerned had nothing to do with ancient or modern structures. The kids noticed, as soon as we were near St. Paul's, that the bus line passing by still used some of the old Routemaster buses. They'd ridden on the top of the new double decker buses, but the allure of the Routemaster called to them. "They are from the Twentieth century!!!"

On the way home, we took one from St. Paul's to Trafalgar Square, riding in the front of the top deck. For the children, this was definitely the crowning event of the day.

Read More "How Could I Forget?" »

Ancient and Modern

After all the things we've done and seen in the last several weeks, I had pretty much wrapped up my "must see" list by last week. Sure there are lots of other things I would have liked to have done and lots of other things I would have liked to have seen, but those will have to wait for another trip.

I did have a few last things though to get checked off my "must see" list and I didn't want to leave them until the very last minute. So last week we headed off to St. Paul's, the Millennium Bridge and The Globe Theater.

St. Paul's is practically modern when compared to Westminster Abbey. It is obviously more planned and certainly less crowded with graves. Clearly it was the place to be buried during the Peninsular Wars (the Duke of Wellington and Lord Nelson are both buried there), but much before or after there weren't too many bodies hanging around.

St. Paul's also has always been a Protestant church, unlike Westminster Abbey, since this St. Paul's is the rebuild after the Great Fire in the 1660s. Even so, it is much more ornate than any non-Anglican Protestant building would be. The mosaic tiles on the ceilings were lovely and the whole church very impressive. There are no pews in the building. I haven't done my research to see whether there ever were, but now it is all movable seating to make room for events and changing needs.

Much to the children's disappointment we did not walk up the 2 million stairs (a slight exaggeration) to the upper galleries. Not only did I already know I would never make it carrying the one year old and dragging the three year old behind me, but there was a big sign saying people with medical conditions such as pregnancy should not make the attempt. Perhaps some other time conditions will be better.

Since I denied them an vertical climb, we went horizontal instead and left the "practically modern" St. Paul's for the thoroughly modern Millennium Bridge. The structure itself isn't beautiful to one who isn't much into modern architecture and the fact that it design over substance played such a huge role in its creation that it wobbled and had to be shut down for the first many months of its existence is most amusing, but it is a convenient way to walk across the river. It takes you straight from St. Paul's to the Tate Modern and the Globe Theater next door.

We headed to the Globe, where for the second time that day the ticket sellers looked at my brood and only charged me admission instead of all the kids they could have also asked to pay. I suppose it is always nice to get a large family discount.

The tour of the theater was well done (and the guide mindful that there were children in the audience limited some of her descriptions of the time to be more carefully worded than they might have been for adults, although her statement that "Southwark was like the Amsterdam of its time" led my eight year old to whisper to me, "What does that mean?" I told him I'd tell him when he was older.) The craftsmanship that went into recreating the theater is pretty amazing. It's put together entirely with sixteenth century techniques from pegs and the like (instead of screws, bolts and modern building pieces) to the thatched roof on top. I would love to see a play there some day, but we didn't come in season, so that treat was denied us.

Shakespeare, who is already well known to the kids, because they have an English major father (who wrote his college honors paper on satire in Shakespeare) and because our wonderful Nashville library has put on three excellent marionette productions of Shakespeare plays, really did seem more alive and more real to us all after the visit. Although not a child-specific place to visit, since all the kids were familiar with the man and his plays, they all thought it was well worth the time to visit.

A Digression About Guidebooks and Tube Stops

Let me take a minute to complain slightly about my guidebooks. My guidebooks have been very, very helpful and I am fairly lost without them. However, they are not always perfectly helpful -- especially not to someone shepherding a lot of children through the busy Tube stations and streets of a major city.

One place where they fall down on the job is with the recommended Tube stations at which to disembark for various sites. The guidebooks list the closest stop, or sometimes, if there are two or three very close to the same distance, they'll give you their names, but often they'll ignore a station a short walk from an attraction and only mention the very closest station.

Often there is another station on another line that is easier to get to and you'd only have to walk three blocks or not have to hike up nearly so many stairs or change lines. This is the case with St. Paul's. There is a St. Paul Tube station, but I live on the district line, so to get to St. Paul's station, I would have to change lines. The guidebooks don't mention that you could get out at Mansion House or Cannon St. stations on the district line and the walk would only be a few blocks and since the district line is much closer to the surface than the other lines, getting up to the street level is much easier.

This was also true when we went to the Tate Britain. Following the guidebooks, I went to the nearest station on the Victoria line, but after we arrived at the museum, I realized Westminster station was just down the street, on the district line and it has lifts!

Although it obviously hasn't harmed to go through various line changes and haul children and strollers up various escalators and stairs, I now have a better understanding of the Tube than I did when I got here and figuring out that for me there are better routes than those recommended in the guidebooks has been very, very helpful.

March 13, 2008

A Little Education is a Dangerous Thing

Over here in the UK, my eight year old has developed a great love for a series of books called Horrible Histories. He's very entertained, but also seems to be getting a good sense of some of the history of places we've visited.

However, sometimes this knowledge and cultural understanding can be carried a bit far. After reading Bloody Scotland, he came running downstairs wearing nothing but a belt and a sword yelling, "The Picts are attacking!"

At least he wasn't making his own haggis at the same time.

Historical Science

"Your kids will love the Science Museum!" touted all the guide books. "They'll never want to leave!"

I was expecting a very hands-on, activity filled museum, because even our tiny little science museum in Nashville is practically all hands-on activities. There were some such things at the museum here in London, but it was actually more of a museum of the history of science with tons of artifacts than a "run through, pull on pulleys, maybe learn a little science" kind of museum. I was surprised by how "museum-y" it was really.

Which is not to say that it isn't interesting or that there is nothing for kids to do, but it wasn't as exciting as I'd expected and my children weren't as thrilled by it as the guide books predicted.

We did see a one of a kind car -- Jet1 -- a gas turbine car that one had to wonder if Ian Fleming was thinking of when he wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang about a one of a kind car with the license plate Jen11. We saw some interesting genetically mutated animals -- like cats with too many toes and frogs with too many legs. I was excited to see an 1970s era HP programmable calculator like my father's first one that cost a fortune and was huge and clunky, but so cool for its time. We also had a nice chat with some old geezers working on fixing one of the old computers that used paper tape (instead of punch cards) for its programs. Tons to see and for a free museum, it was more than worth the entrance price.

There were a few things I did not like at all though. When my son piped up, "What's euthanasia?" as I was pushing them past an display on the subject. On the section on the history of plastic, I found the Bakelite interesting, the plastic coffin cool and the first colorful plastics fascinating. I did not think having to distract my children's attention away from the case with the female c*nd*ms nearly so enchanting.

So basically, my review -- the Science Museum is ok. The Natural History Museum next door is much more interesting.

March 11, 2008

The Joys of Real Men

If you aren't reading Mrs. P and the whole crew over at Patum Peperium, you should at least make a visit to read Mrs. P's descriptions of life married to a man (part 1 and part 2). I'd try to describe just how wonderful the whole thing is, but how can I top the perfection of descriptions like, "an exceptionally-educated, bony, flat-chested, prune-faced, dead ringer for a female Episcopalian bishop." Just go read.

Destination: Edinburgh

My husband's journey of discovery into the legal system of the United Kingdom sent him up to Edinburgh to meet with some Scottish advocates and the kids and I tagged along. The train ride up to Scotland took almost as long as our flight from Washington D.C. to Heathrow, but we were looking forward to the adventure of it all.

Unfortunately, I have discovered that I do not do very well when I arrive places after dark when it is cold and rainy. Edinburgh, as we discovered is built on two levels, which don't actually show up on maps as different levels, so we got a bit lost getting to our lodgings. The kids never complained, but I was feeling very whiny.

We stayed in the SmartCity Hostel, which was centrally located and cheaper than most other options, though since everyone seems to charge by the number of guests rather than by the room, nothing was actually inexpensive. This hostel, unlike the ones I stayed in whilst in college, had private rooms with connected bathrooms, and though you had to make up the beds yourself, my kids wouldn't have been half as thrilled to stay in a five-star hotel, because the hostel had bunk beds! Truly, that was probably their favorite part of the whole trip.

The next morning it was cold, blustery and raining (naturally we'd left our raincoats back in London), we went in search of breakfast and found a little place called the Southern Cross, where we ordered a vegetarian Scottish breakfast that came with vegetarian haggis. I wasn't strong enough of stomach to try the real thing, but the vegetarian version made from lentils, carrots and various other stuff and spices, was very tasty. I have no idea whether it was anything like the real sheep's stomach stuff though. The kids opted for toast and scrumptious hot chocolate, thinking beans and tomatoes were not proper breakfast foods.

We parted from my husband after breakfast. He headed towards the Old Parliament buildings and we to the Museums of Scotland. Pretty soon they will be closing down the Royal Museum half of it for a few years and revamping, so we were lucky to be able to visit it all. The National Museum side had all sorts of amazing things -- some ancient chess pieces, a harp-like instrument given by Mary, Queen of Scots, lots of swords -- but the children's favorite part was the children's discovery section on each floor. I'm not sure they discovered so much, but trying on clothes from different historical time periods, listening to music from different eras and bashing down castle walls with a miniature trebuchet were definite crowd pleasers.

After several hours, we went through the wall to the Royal Museum side, where the kids, who had never before heard of Dolly the sheep, were nonetheless fascinated to see her and were excited to see a robot build their names with blocks and other delights. We saw a bit of the china and crystal collection, but I was just about as bored as the kids were by that stuff. My daughters played in the old red telephone booth on display having incredibly realistic one-sided conversations and we saw the collection of stuffed animals much like those at the Natural History Museum back in London.

When we left for Scotland we'd brought our peanut butter and honey jars with us, but we'd been out of bread and planned to get some up there. I hadn't done so and therefore hadn't packed us any lunch. By the time we'd gone through the museums, it was abut 2:00 and I didn't know where to get lunch, didn't have any food on me and being a cranky, hungry pregnant lady, I was actually starting to tear up at the overwhelmingness of it all. But I did manage to settle us down at the museum cafe and feed the hungry lot and shortly thereafter my husband was done for the day and came to the museum to meet up with us.

We took him around and showed him some of the interesting museum artifacts and then, in spite of the wind and rain outside, we walked around the Royal Mile area a bit. After some time, we ventured into a tea shop I'd noticed down one of the closes off the Royal Mile. That was the best part of our whole Edinburgh trip as far as I was concerned. The place was tiny and decorated in the style of someone's grandmother, and felt warm and inviting after the damp outside. We ordered tea and scones and the owner sat down and chatted with us, showing us photos of a trip she'd taken once to Arizona, and before we left, giving the kids little presents -- stuffed animals for the boys and lavender sachets for the girls.

We went back to our hostel room and rested up for a bit before trekking over to the other side of town for dinner at a Nepalese restaurant. Maybe it was just this restaurant or maybe it is Nepalese food in general, but almost everything on the menu was remarkably similar to Indian food. On the way there we passed a million or so pre-teen girls lining up to go into a theatrical version of High School Musical. Brigadoon would have been so much more appropriate to my mind, but nobody consulted me, and I didn't have to attend the show, but Disney truly is everywhere.

The next morning we tried a restaurant called Spoon for breakfast. Their food was delicious and the hot chocolate amazing. Then we walked up to Edinburgh Castle, where we decided after seeing the views and the prices of tickets and doing a quick bit of reading about what was inside, we opted not to go in after all. We walked around the city a bit more, grabbed lunch and headed for our train home.

Our train ride home wasn't a direct one and we had some problems with the car we were booked to ride on on the first leg not actually being there, but found seats, made it out of town and eventually arrived back in London.

I really, really wanted to like Edinburgh, but the combination of tourist fatigue, drunken college students all over town, and nasty weather really dampened (literally as well as figuratively) the experience. Perhaps another visit when I was fresh in my travels and the sun was shining would make a difference. I'm glad I can say I've been there, but I don't have the starry-eyed memories of the place that everyone else in the world seems to. I'd go back, but it wouldn't be the first place I'd rush off to. My husband, who has a penchant for wind swept lonely places, is ready to move to the Scottish coast after glimpsing the desolate, wind swept terrain from the train windows.

March 10, 2008

His Highness's Dog at Kew

In light of today's high winds and rain, it's almost hard to believe that a few weeks ago it was bright, sunny, and warm enough to spend the day wandering around the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. The kids and I took the Tube out one bright day enjoying the fact that though it wasn't a long trip, the feeling of Kew was far different from the hustle and bustle of urban London.

Unlike many of the attractions in London, Kew Gardens aren't free to enter, but for one who loves to garden, it's a worthwhile visit. If I were a permanent London resident, I think I'd buy a membership.

When we got there it was almost lunchtime and my children, who like to act as though they are never, ever fed, opted for food before seeing anything. We sat on a bench outside the tropical greenhouse and munched on our sandwiches and then went inside, where we greeted by the world's oldest potted plant or "pot plant" as the crazy English called it (but they didn't mean one of these). The kids were impressed to see a plant that was potted in 1773, before that spot of trouble with the colonies that we American's like to call the Revolutionary War. I was certainly impressed by that and by the two year voyage it took to bring the plant from Africa to England.

From the Tropical Greenhouse we walked around, past fields of daffodils and crocuses, carefully planted primrose borders, ponds and sculptures until we came to the children's favorite part of the gardens. The indoor play area designed to look like giant plants to climb on,through and around. They liked sliding through the meat eating pitcher plant and climbing over spore pods and bouncing around the flowers.

Eventually I dragged them off and we walked through the holly walk (I don't actually like holly very much, so giant ones, though impressive, made me scowl just a bit). We passed a Lucombe Oak, which was absolutely gorgeous. In shape, it reminded me a bit of the live oaks one sees in Florida. We went through a few more greenhouses, down a walk lined with brilliantly blooming camellias, which my eight year old has decided are his favorite flowers at the moment, too bad they won't grow in Nashville, and then being tired we made our way out of the gardens with so much more we could have seen, but very impressed with what we had.

Before getting back on the Tube, we stopped for tea at a little place called "The Original Maids of Honor" after a cheesecake-ish confection they've been making there forever. Naturally we had a try some and most of the kids and I enjoyed them -- the five year old not so much, but what does she know. I thought the Maids of Honor were not too sweet and very, very yummy.

And then home again, home again, jiggety jog.

March 08, 2008

Just Wandering Around

Sometimes a fun day as a tourist is really the unscheduled one, in which you just wander around figuring out that all those Tube stops are really close to each other and seeing where the roads lead.

We had one of those days one weekend. We started the day by visiting Brompton Oratory which is enormous (bigger than Nashville's Cathedral), lovely and quite orthodox, which was a change from the place we visited one week, where a lay woman gave a homily suggesting that switching to a sustainable, green lifestyle was the true meaning of Lent. We went from there to Trafalgar Square and lunch at the Cafe in the Crypt nearby. Here you can see me sitting in Trafalgar Square in my typical "searching the map in the guidebook to figure out exactly where I am" pose.

The Cafe in the Crypt was ok, but nothing special food-wise and I'm not at all convinced that there isn't something rather wrong about dining on top of people's gravestones. I probably would not return to one, although the prices are fairly cheap, which is always welcome. Of course, we were all still hungry after lunch, so it may not really have been such a bargain.

After lunch we decided to just walk around for a while and headed up towards Piccadilly Circus. We stopped in at Hatchard's so my husband could look around and where my son bought a book detailing the history and reasons behind the names of all the Tube stations. He began and has not yet stopped reading the detailed entries to me (my parents will think this fitting punishment for their daughter who often insisted on reading whole trivia books out loud to them). Then again we went next door to Fortnum and Mason's, because my husband hadn't gotten to see that either. We did not buy any chocolate covered bugs, but we did stop at the ice cream fountain and share a couple of sundaes.

We turned a different way on our path out of Fortnum and Mason's and discovered China Town. My husband spent ten years of his childhood in a Chinese country and so I think he enjoyed ambling past all the little stands with fried ducks (with beaks still on) and other things of the sort. We stopped and watched a vendor making dragon's beard candy as it started to rain, but it was a fairly light rain so we kept on walking.

We went on to Covent Garden and watched some of the street performers and finally headed home after a long day of rambling and just enjoying life in London.

March 06, 2008

Packing for Six People for Six Weeks, Part 2: Clothing

Now that I had taken care of the big stuff that I needed for child containment reasons, I turned my attention toward another serious question. How can you pack enough clothes for six weeks for six people and still pack lightly?

In one regard, I was lucky with the packing of all the clothes. Most of my children are still small and their clothes are also small. Baby clothes take up less space than an adult's or even an eight year old's clothes.

The first thing I did was decide to color coordinate everyone. Although in general I do not like my kids going around matching each other too much, making sure their clothes all would work with anything else in their wardrobe was much easier when I decided on a basic family color scheme for everyone except my husband. Working primarily with what we already owned, though I did buy a few suitable things for the girls at Goodwill before we left, I decided to go with navy, red, green and black as basic colors for everyone's clothes (not all clothes were in these colors, but everything had to look okay with those). This also gave me the sense that if anyone got all their clothes completely filthy at the same time, I could swap them out with another child's clothing in a pinch.

The baby got four shirts (navy, red, red with stripes and blue and brown striped), two pairs of overall (one denim and one blue), a red pair of sweatpants, a pair of khaki pants, four sets of pajamas (he's more apt to wet the bed than anyone else), two sweaters, four pairs of socks and all the diapers I could stuff into suitcases.

The two girls each got two pairs of jeans, a pair of red pants, and one got a pair of black and one a pair of blue pants besides. The older got two red shirts, a green shirt and a golden tan colored shirt. The younger got a red shirt, a blue shirt, a black shirt and a white shirt (we call her pigpen for a reason, I should never have packed anything white for her). The older got a skirt and a dress (she really didn't need both after all) and the younger two dresses (again, one would have really been enough). Both got about five sets of underwear (they are still a bit unpredictable in the bathroom department) two sweaters, two sets of tights and four pairs of socks, two pairs of pajamas and one pair of sneakers and a pair of dressier shoes.

The eight year old got two pairs of jeans, a pair of cords and a set of sweatpants (mostly for him to wear on the airplanes), two button down shirts (one red plaid and one blue chambray) and two long sleeved t-shirts (one red and one blue with stripes). He got two sweaters, two pairs of shoes, underwear for four days, four pairs of socks, a couple of t-shirts that could pretend to be undershirts if necessary and two sets of pajamas. I probably packed the least clothing for him and he's actually worn everything more than anyone else.

My husband was the easiest to pack for, but also took up the most space. He needed to bring two wardrobes for both business and casual wear. He got three suits, four dress shirts, four undershirts, two pairs of cords, four casual shirts (though I should have only packed two or three), a couple of sweaters (that he has barely worn), four pairs of socks in blue and four pairs in khaki, four pairs of underwear, pajamas, a pair of black shoes and a pair of brown, a trenchcoat with a liner and a casual rain jacket. His clothes took up a garment bag and part of a suitcase that he shared with me.

For myself, I brought a skirt, two pairs of jeans (though one has proved too tight in the expanding waistline and have barely been worn, so I could have done without), two pairs of black pants (one would have been quite sufficient -- what was I thinking?), five shirts (two white, black with dots, black and red swirls, and black and blue squares), a set of tights, four pairs of socks (most were not new and I promptly put holes in three of the pairs with all the walking, meaning I had to buy new socks over here), four pairs of underwear and yoga pants instead of pajama pants. I packed myself a black cardigan, a red and black sweater, and a black sweatshirt. I also brought some sneakers, a pair of clogs and a pair of dressy boots. I haven't worn the boots at all and the other shoes all seem to hurt my feet now, which they didn't during the much lighter use at home.

I also packed everyone other than my husband a wool or fleece jacket (either pea coat or a toggle coat) in blue, grey or black and a rain coat. We didn't come in the rainy season though and we've only been caught out in the rain twice and even then it wasn't a hard rain. I'm not exactly willing to state that packing rain gear was unreasonable, but we haven't used it at all.

In the end we wound up with two suitcases for the kids (total, as in one suitcase held the clothing of two children), a large suitcase for my clothes, my husband's clothes and our toiletries, a garment bag for my husband's suits, and one more medium sized bag for extra coats and other things. That was what we checked at the airport. It doesn't sound like packing light exactly, but overall, there hasn't been all that much I wouldn't pack again.

March 05, 2008

Packing for Six People for Six Weeks, Part 1: The Big Baby Things

When I first started pondering what we would pack for our trip, my brain basically shut down. I could not figure out where to begin at first, but slowly things started to fall into place.

I began by taking note of the big items I would need to travel with a one year old -- for me these were a sling, travel high chair, a portable crib and a stroller that would hold him and my three year old. I already had the sling (or three or four, but who is counting?).

I had a pack 'n' play style crib, which I've been toting on trips for the last seven or so years. It isn't small or lightweight and I began looking around to see if there had been any improvements in that area since my oldest child was born. From a New Zealand company called Phil and Ted's, I found just what I was looking for -- it's basically a pop-up tent portable crib, which weighs little and folds up small. I'd rather have not paid $150 for it, but it has been absolutely perfect for our needs and from now on when we travel domestically, I will be able to take both a crib and a stroller, which was before something I had to choose between.

Phil and Ted's also supplied the perfect portable high chair. It folds flat and isn't heavy. It's been great for our trip and will be just right to carry around in the car later for when I need a high chair on an outing.

Here in England I see Phil and Ted's strollers everywhere and I admit to having a bit of stroller envy when I see one, but the stroller I brought with me has probably been about as good as anything. My friend Meredith was going to lend me her Maclaren double stroller and she made a special trip out to my house for me to borrow it. I tried it a few times and found it moved well, but I could barely lift it. I love nice sturdy heavy things, but I had read that most Tube stations do not have lifts and knowing that I would have to carry a sixteen month old, a stroller and a purse up stairs several times a day, meant I had to find a stroller that I could easily carry. Another blog friend, Sarah, strongly advised me to consider getting two umbrella strollers and hooking them together. This is what I planned to do, but the folding and carrying part was again daunting, but mostly, I discovered that unless one bought a Maclaren or something similar, umbrella strollers don't come with any sort of basket. Finally, I discovered what would work best for me -- the Combi Twin Savvy (sort of like this one, but cheaper and not pink). It weighs 21 lbs. which isn't light, but was lighter by far than the other options, it folds fairly small for a double stroller and the real selling point -- it comes with a shoulder strap for carrying it.

It isn't the world's ultimate stroller -- one wheel has already stripped and become wobbly, because I have taken it over one too many cobblestone streets with the front wheels unlocked (I'm hoping to get a replacement when I return home to the States). It's baskets aren't huge, though they do get most of our groceries home unsquished. When you fold the stroller, almost nothing can be left in the baskets either, because they fold in half and everything falls out. It's small enough to fit through most doors, but not every door and when we had an annoying bus driver who wouldn't open the back handicapped door for me, I had to take the kids out and fold up the stroller mid-aisle, because its wheels got stuck. Still, overall, I would recommend it to anyone looking for a double stroller to take on trip -- it folds easily, carries easily and keeps the kidlets moving along.

So there you have it -- my list of essential baby items for overseas travel.

March 04, 2008

I Could Never Be A Vegan, But I Could Almost Manage Vegetarian, if I Had to

I like meat. Give me a good medium rare steak any day. Meat in these fair isles is, however, quite expensive. Actually everything here in London is quite expensive, food in the grocery stores being no exception.

So we've been living on a fairly vegetarian diet, because a bag of carrots for 99p goes farther than a small amount of chicken breasts for 5 pounds. I have found though, that I've been using a lot more dairy than ever before -- more cheddar cheese (it's hard to resist trying all 15 varieties of cheddar my grocery store carries), more cream on my scones and in my tea, more butter on my crumpets.

I never harbored any desire to become a vegan or even a vegetarian, but at least I know where I really draw the line. I definitely feel the need for dairy in my diet at the very least. I do wish if I were going to try this experiment again though, that I had more of my normal cooking implements around me. I haven't wanted to by any spices and I have no measuring implements, so our big meals have largely been easy things like pasta and salads.

The kids would, naturally, not object to more meat in their diets, but they also haven't complained too much for which I'm glad. Our proteins have come largely from nuts, dairy and eggs and they are eating a lot of fruits and veggies every day, which other than the dropping of meat from the diet, is not a large change from before.

Even with sticking to simple things and cutting out most of the meat, groceries around here are very expensive and because I have to walk to the grocery store and have a limited amount of space to carry things, I wind up going shopping almost every day. Most days I spend between $20 and $40, and most of that goes towards fruit, vegetables and bread for sandwiches. But considering that a cheap meal in a restaurant would probably run about $60 for our family, grocery shopping is definitely the way to go.

Off With Their Heads! The Tower of London

One of my guide books suggested booking tickets online before you visit the Tower, and this was definitely wise advice. We are here in the off-season, but the lines to buy tickets were still long. I can only imagine what they would have been like on a Saturday in July. Buying online, we bypassed the crowds. If I planned more in advance they would have mailed the ticket (I bought a family pass), but since I bought it the night before, I just wrote down my confirmation code (it said to print out the e-mail confirmation, but I don't have a printer here and writing down the number worked just as well) presented it at the Welcome Center and picked up my ticket.

One of the Yeoman Warder guided tours was just starting as we entered and we joined along. This was worth the time. The guide was funny, informative and we learned a lot more about the history of the Tower than we otherwise would have.

When the tour ended, we went in to see the Crown Jewels. They have all sorts of movies playing to keep the crowds occupied while they wait to see the good stuff, but since we were there in the off-season, we didn't actually have to wait through much of a crowd and didn't stop to watch much of the movies, though the kids were happy to have gotten to see a bit of Elizabeth being crowned. Seeing that footage before seeing the jewels made them a bit more interesting to everyone.

The jewels were certainly interesting, but actually the solid gold punch bowl about the size of a small bathtub was almost as interesting and you could spend your time looking at time. The most valuable stuff is placed so you stand on a moving walkway to view it and don't have much time to gaze in wonder at the size of the massive diamonds and other jewels.

After stopping for a picnic lunch at one of the outside benches of the sandwiches and other things I'd brought along, we headed into the White Tower. That is the central palace in the place, and a must see, but it almost did me in. You can't take a stroller in, the three year old was tired and insisted that her father carry her almost the whole time, which meant I had to put the sixteen month old in the sling and carry him up and down several flights of stairs and through the many rooms and exhibits. He may still be lighter than most kids his age, but he's heavy enough that by the time we got out of the White Tower I was exhausted, grumpy, sore and ready to leave. I simply cannot carry him for long periods of time any more (remember that not only is he getting heavy, but I am five months or so pregnant, so probably most normal people would not have problems at all).

I would have gone on for more, tired as I was, but it was getting on towards closing time for the Tower, so I was spared further ordeal.

March 03, 2008

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

The Tate Britain. Not the Tate Modern. Now there's some real art for you.

When I was but a wee lass (and I couldn't have been more than 4), I made my parents take me to the Huntington Gallery to see my favorite paintings -- Pinkie and Blue Boy. Why did I have such particular favorites when I was so small? It didn't hurt that my parents took me more than once to see them in person, nor that the girl had a pink dress on, but the main reason was probably a very old and very special art book that was kept on a high shelf and that I could only look at with supervision. I'd seen the pictures in there and then in real life. What a treat!

Those aren't my favorite paintings any more, though they still rank on up there in my top list. My favorite painting, and it has been for years, is Sargent's Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. Whenever, I'd see a picture of it in a book, it would be noted that it hung in the Tate. Therefore, I've been wanting to go to the Tate to see it at least since high school.

When we rounded a corner and walked into the room though, I didn't even see it at first. Of course, there were about five other paintings in the room that I also wanted to see, like The Lady of Shallot, but suddenly as I moved down the room there were the two little girls, standing amongst the flowers and lighting their lanterns. I'm not sure if the kids understood exactly why I was suddenly giddy and bouncing up and down, but seeing the painting in person pleased me greatly.

Was it their favorite? No. The two little ones slept through the museum. The five year old was particularly taken by Lady Macbeth (which might be a bit more telling than I want to know) and the eight year old was drawn to a painting called "Heads of Six of Hogarth's Servants."

What do I do in art museums to make them interesting? Probably not enough, but there are certain things we look at in different paintings. Types of dress -- for instance looking at the difference between the empire waisted dress of Sarah Siddons and the real waistline on a dress worn by someone else. We look for the stories (like Macbeth or the Lady of Shallot or King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid) or we look for historical clues -- like can you tell who might have been ruling England when all these people with big ruffs and pearls in their hair were painted? The Tate galleries (both Britain and Modern) are laid out by theme and not by artist particularly, which makes finding connections between paintings easier. Another fun thing to do is to pick a wall and have each person choose their favorite painting and tell one reason why. Acceptable reasons could be anything from liking the pretty dresses to thinking the layout is interesting or the subject has an unusual expression.

Art museums aren't the liveliest places to take the kids and I probably enjoy them more than anyone else, but as long as I don't do a week straight of them, none of the kids mind going to see a few paintings and sometimes it makes me dance with joy to see something I've loved forever.