Sunday, June 30, 2013

the highlands -- beautiful land, bloody history

We awoke today to one of those wonderful, hypothetical weather choices -- would you rather be at home, where it is an unreal 117 degrees or here, in Kyleakin, a small village just over the bridge into the Isle of Skye, where it is 50-degrees with whipping, 35-mile per hour winds. Of course, the discussion is academic as we have no choice, and will spend the second of our three-day Highland tour between Skye and Loch Ness. How much we see from outside the bus is a real question mark, at this point.

We had originally planned to rent a car in Edinburgh, drive to Inverness and use that as a base for a self-guided tour of the Scottish Highlands. As I was getting coffee one morning in Edinburgh, I stopped in to the Highland Experience Tour office, which adjoined the coffee shop. It turned out the cost of a three-day tour would be about the same as would the hotel and car rental we had planned. When you factor in our own unfamiliarity with this part of the world and the need for me to drive -- on the other side of the road, shifting a manual transmission with my left hand -- I suggested we take the tour.

And so, we awoke early on Saturday (sabbatical early, anyway) and met the tour bus just outside our building. Steve, the tour guide, looked slightly horrified when he saw us roll up with four gargantuan suitcases. Fortunately, we had spoken to the tour company beforehand and knew they would store three of our bags, so he was only going to be putting on and off the bus/coach one of them. The bus has 29 seats and, after a stop in Glasgow, all of them were filled. A couple hours later, two were empty, as one couple opted out of the trip.

The first day was long -- with too much time spent on the bus -- as we made our way from Edinburgh to Skye. It was also interesting, as Steve provided a running commentary on matters of Scottish history and culture. I think it was a particularly long day for the kids, who were less interested in the verbal history. We boarded at 815 and, apart from three short photo-stops, two coffee/bathroom breaks and an hour lunch break, we were on the bus until 445, when we arrived at Eilean Donan Castle. Lauren spent most of the day looking out the bus window, slightly unhappy. Owen made it through the day courtesy of his iPad.

They missed a lot. This part of the world is gorgeous. Lush, green vegetation as far as the eye can see. Long valleys (glens) wedged in between several-thousand foot high mountains (bens). It is not quite like anyplace I have ever seen. And, of course, the history is fascinating. Controlled in parts by the Romans, Celts, Vikings and Normans, the Scots finally unified and took control of the Highlands in the early 13th Century. They spent the next five-hundred years of so fighting over this land with the English. Although there are no longer military battles over this terrain, some things don't change much, as the Scottish people are currently weighing a political separation and withdrawal from the United Kingdom.

For those of you familiar with or interested in the geography, I'll retrace our steps. From Glasgow, we headed north, driving on the western shores of Loch Lemond (one of more than 31,000 lakes in the country), breaking in the small resort town of Luss. Keri, Lauren, Owen and I briefly walked down to the water's edge and into a swarm of midges, small insects who are most famous (at least in my mind) for their unwarranted and series changing assault of Joba Chamberlain in game 2 of the American League Division Series against the Cleveland Indians. I blame those pests for the Red Sox's second, post-1918 world series title. Damn them to hell.

Steve shared with us the story of the origins of the Bonnie Banks O' Loch Lemond, which you probably know as the "You Take the High Road, and I'll Take the Low Road" song. It involved two Highlander Brothers, the Second Jacobite Rebellion, some truly horrible English war crimes and a tragic end. The drive along the rest of Loch Lemond was narrow and windy. It made me further appreciate my decision not to drive this myself. We drove through Tyndrum and stopped for lunch at a place called The Green Welly. I have no idea what a welly is but, judging from the picture on the sign out front, it is a rain boot. I can see why that would be important up here.

After lunch, we continued north, up through Glencoe, where Steve explained that the valleys we were driving through used to be filled with trees that were part of the Caledonian Forest. The land was stripped of its trees over the years, by the Romans, the Vikings and the local population for shipbuilding and other construction needs. Most the the trees, Steve said, were taken down to to assist in the effort for the Great War. In the mid-20th Century, large plots of Norwegian Pine trees were planted, and still abound. In recent years, there has been an effort to plant the more hearty (but slow growing) native trees.

Steve further retold the story of the the Massacre of Glencoe, where, in 1691, the English military slaughtered most members of the Glencoe Macdonalds. The most disturbing part of the story -- from the Highlander perspective -- was the abuse of the Highland Code of Hospitality as part of this. In short, the Code requires one to show hospitality to anyone who requests it, even one's worst enemy. Codes like this are often found in parts of the world where nature is everyone's worst enemy. Captain Campbell, himself a member of the Campbell clan, requested and was given hospitality from the Macdonalds for him and his troops. When, days later, he received orders to kill all those over the age of 18, he did just that, killing 198 people. So egregious was the breach of the Code that, for many around here, the wounds are still pretty fresh.

We had another brief stop at the Three Sisters of Glencoe, as Steve explained that the western part of Scotland here was once part of North America. If you draw a line through Loch Ness and run it extend it in both directions, it is easy to see the two parts of Scotland that were once thousands of miles apart.

We finished our afternoon by visiting Eilean Donan Castle, one of Scotland's most recognizable landmarks. This small and beautiful castle was destroyed by English warships in the Jacobite rebellion of 1719. It was rebuilt in the early 20th Century and is now a major tourist attraction. The castle does not take long to get through and it pales in comparison to the others we have seen in Scotland for its historical significance. For pure external aesthetics, though, it is hard to beat.

Worn out, our day ended with a drop off at a bed and breakfast in Kyleakin. The place was good and our host extremely nice. The only problem was the mismatch between a second-floor buildout on a home with a slanted roof and a 6'2" guest. I felt like a freakish giant every step I took, desperately trying to avoid hitting my head on a door frame or knock something off a wall. I was Harry Houdini in the shower, trying to work the magic of getting clean in a vertical box in which I could not turn around.  I'm not sure it worked but, from what I hear, I would have fit pretty well in the Highlands three-hundred years ago with that kind of body odor.

Lauren and Owen want me to report that the bed and breakfast produced the highlight of the trip for them -- a television in the room. Of course, the presence of a tv led to the inevitable fight about what would be watched. Owen nixed Harry Potter and Lauren some show on the Atlantic Ocean. After much whining, the kids settled on Wimbledon and Keri and I were able to go to sleep, not knowing the next morning would meet us with some pretty ugly weather. Welcome to the Highlands.

Friday, June 28, 2013

stirling castle and the search for cecil

Following our day at Edinburgh Castle, we met my in-laws for dinner at The Bristo Bar and Kitchen, a pub/restaurant next to the University of Edinburgh. We had ended up there because of the glowing reviews on TripAdvisor. The reviews were right on. Our dinners were quite good (steak for me). I even got Keri and her parents to order a cider -- one for each of them. The highlight of the meal was dessert, though in particular our introduction to banoffle, a disturbingly good combination of banana toffee (served with vanilla ice cream). Lauren declared it the second best dessert of the trip -- so far. She will get no argument here.

The next morning, Keri and I set out separately for our morning runs/breaks from our children. I took a route down the Royal Mile towards the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the royal family's residence in Edinburgh. I turned right at the palace and headed into Holyrood Park, an ominous looking park for any runner, given the volcanic cliffs, steep pathways and interminable winds. I ran the perimeter of the park (which has a fair amount of grade to it but nothing compared to the large hills in the middle) and some of the slope going up one of the two large hills. I pretty much slowed to a walk toward the end of the incline, but I made it, barely, to a nice viewpoint, looking out toward the south and west. I headed back down and, through some bit of luck and reason, found my way back to the flat. It was more of a challenge than I had been looking for, but that is all part of the thrill of running in a strange city. (Keri, who has much more sense than me, took a route in the other direction.)

Later in the morning, I headed over to the City of Edinburgh Registrar's office to look up some birth records on my maternal grandfather, Cecil Newmark, who was born here. After a few probing questions and suspicious looks from the clerk (she seemed particularly troubled when I told her I was fron the United States and not Canada), she pulled up a screen shot of the birth registration page from March 26, 1906 for the District of St. Giles, Edinburgh. The second entry on that page was for my grandfather, who was listed as Cecil Burnett Davidson, son of Isaac Naymark Davidson (cabinetmaker) and Fanny Davidson nee Harrison (who were married in Edinburgh on January 22, 1903). My great-grandfather's surname was Naymark, but he started using the Davidson name at some point during his time here because he thought it would help him get work. Davidson, I believe was the most Jewish of the names of the traditional Scottish clans, or so he thought.

My grandfather was born March 3, 1906 at the family's residence, which was at 13 East Adam Street. (I ran by East Adam Street this morning and was disappointed to see a three-story building dating back to the 1990's. Probably not much point in showing that to the kids.) My grandfather did not live in Edinburgh too long, moving to Canada when he was seven (I think), but he was always proud of his Scottish heritage. His mother, Fanny, was born in Edinburgh too, and he had fond memories of playing as a boy in this city with his older sister, Etta, and younger brother, Phil. It is odd to think that Owen is now the same age my grandfather was when he left Edinburgh and that, 110 years after my great grandparents were married in this city, I am here with their great, great grandchildren. Lord knows where my great grandchildren will be and what they will be doing 110 years from now.

The Eckstein family rallied before noon yesterday, headed down to Edinburgh Waverly (which brought up some bad "rememories," according to Owen from two days prior), grabbed some Burger King (we do love our Owen) and boarded the train for Stirling, which is west and a little to the north of Edinburgh. A short 50-minute ride later, we arrived, walk though this small town, up the hill and to the Stirling Castle. (Note: Both children complained mightily as we walked up what was a moderate, but not difficult hill. Switzerland should be interesting.)

Stirling Castle, like the one in Edinburgh, sits atop a large hill that was critical to the castle's defense from attack. (The site is further important because Stirling is the furthest downstream crossing of the River Forth.) The first buildings on Castle Hill in Stirling were put up in the 12th Century. The castle bounced back and forth between the Scots and the English over the Scottish Wars of Independence in the first half of the 14th Century. Most of the the present buildings, which have a renaissance design, were put up by James IV and James V. They are more attractive and have more of a residential feel than those in the Edinburgh Castle. Perhaps that is why many of the Scottish kings and queens, most notably Mary Queen of Scots, used it as the primary residence.

Years later, during the mid-18th Century, the castle served as a key fortress in the Jacobite risings. From 1800 through 1964, the British military used the site as a barracks a recruiting depot for two all-Scottish brigades. Since 2002, the castle has been the subject of a major restoration project, and it shows, with many of the interiors and some exteriors appearing as they would have several hundred years ago.

The highlight of the tour was our interaction with two of the castle guides positioned in the Queen's Bedchamber and an adjoining dining hall. The guides saw two receptive listeners in our children and engaged them for a good 25 minutes on various aspects of the castle history and related topics. Among other things, our kids (and their parents) learned that the world's oldest soccer ball (football) was found in the castle -- probably dating back to the time of Queen Anne, that King James V and his wife, Mary of Guise, had a marriage of love (a rarity among royals of the time) and the unicorn, which is portrayed all over the castle, was meant to symbolize Jesus (much of this discussion was meant by totally blank stares from Lauren and Owen).

We spent the the whole afternoon there, and the kids were engaged the whole time. If you are in Edinburgh, I highly recommend it.

Back in Edinburgh, we ate at a local Italian restaurant, which was surprisingly good -- pasta all around. We are priming our palettes for next week.

Another good night's sleep and another couple runs this morning, Keri and I joined the kids and Randy and Lois for their final meal in Scotland. We enjoyed spending time with them and wish them a safe return to a miserably hot Phoenix.

After lunch, Keri and Owen did some shopping while Lauren and I went to The Real Mary King's Close, a fascinating tour of portions of a close (a narrow street that once was bordered by twelve-story buildings, and one of hundreds of closes that served as the primary residences for the residents of Edinburgh). This close has been covered up and sits under some municipal buildings put up in the 19th Century. Our tour took us through several rooms in three different homes -- covering periods between the 1400's and the late 1800's. Some of the rooms were incredibly small, as you would imagine, and the description of life for the people who lived there was grim.

The first room we saw was probably twelve by fifteen feet with an arched ceiling that was about eight feet high. That room slept twelve people -- all on the floor. The only furniture was a small table. In the corner was a bucket that served as the communal toilet. The bucket was emptied -- by the youngest member of the family -- two times a day by being dumped into the street, which then ran into the small river that ran where the train station now sits. That river also served as a water supply for the people of Edinburgh. Lovely. Between that, the depiction of the Black Death and the cattle room, let's just say Lauren and I emerged pretty happy to be living in the 21st Century.

We head up to the Highlands tomorrow and I am not sure what kind of internet access we will get, so my posting may be irregular and short (that's what she said). I promise to take notes on the interesting and strange things we see -- and do -- and weave them together when we return to Edinburgh late Monday night.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

second floor, my arse!

Who knew Edinburgh had hills? No one, I suppose, other than a person with a rudimentary knowledge of geography and history. That is, someone other than the author.

We left our Eccleston Square flat yesterday, a bit sad, really. We had such a nice time in London. And the flat was, all things considering, very good. The location -- proximity to Victoria Station, Westminster, Buckingham Palace, restaurants and parks -- was perfect. It was quite comfortable, too, spacious for central London and, once we found the dryer in the cupboard under the stairs, there was not a lot we were missing.

We left London on the 1200 train from Kings Cross Station. We arrived in plenty of time to find a McDonald's, as was promised to Owen the night before. For some inexplicable reason, the station had just about everything -- even a Platform 9 3/4, for goodness sakes -- other than the Golden Arches. Perhaps there was a McDonald's there and we muggles simply needed the right magical spell to make it appear. Oh well, Owen handled it with grace and both he and Lauren made themselves right at home in our first class British Rail seats.

The trip between London and Edinburgh was really nice -- lush English farmland and gracefully rolling hills followed by dramatic Scottish coastline. Not that Lauren or Owen got to enjoy much of it. Between their card games and constant use of electronic equipment, they were much more focused on what was happening inside the train than out. Keri and I got a few hours of relative peace and quiet, though, which, in retrospect, only prepared us for what was to come.

We arrived at Edinburgh Waverly Station at 420. On our way into the station, I had looked up our flat location and saw that it was less than one-half mile from the station, probably closer than our London flat was to Victoria Station. Such a short distance, I thought, would make it absurd to take a taxi. Let's, walk, I said to Keri, and get to see some of the city. (In my defense, the mileage was accurate, it simply did not account for the elevation change.)

The good news is that my wife and children are still speaking to me. The bad news is that this was far from certain yesterday afternoon. Our trek out of the station started with a steep ascent to Waverley Bridge. About halfway up, Owen had given up on pulling/pushing his large bag. Lauren was not far behind. Keri was stuck dragging two bags. I took two, as well, while at the same time trying to navigate through a city that I knew not at all. It got worse. We crossed Market Street and headed up Cockburn Street, which winds its way up -- and I do mean up -- the hill that leads to the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle. As I pulled two bags, with the kids walking with me, Keri was a good twenty feet back, clearly miserable. A stranger saw her travails and offered to help. She graciously told him no and then shot me a look.

We eventually made it to High Street and over to Parliament Square, where Keri headed inside to get our flat keys. As I was waiting with the kids, I expressed to them my personal disappointment that they had not pulled their own bags, thereby making Mommy do so. Lauren broke down in tears, and was hysterical as Keri came back with our keys. We then walked around the corner to our "second floor" flat. I know Europe defines "floors" differently than we do, and I understood that our flat was likely on the third floor of our building. What I did not quite expect, however, was that there would be close to 90 steps to get to our front door. Keri and I hauled the four, large suitcases up the long, long haul of stairs. As the locals would say, second floor my arse!

We made it in, started to unpack and, a few minutes and apologies later, resumed normal conversation. As Keri and I agreed later that night, if this is the worst moment of our trip, we will be just fine.

Today, Keri's parents joined us on a visit to Edinburgh Castle. The castle sits on the plug of an extinct volcano, right in the middle of the city -- and a couple blocks up the street from our flat. (Again, a person more thoughtful than I would have put extinct volcano and proximity to flat together, and hired a taxi.) The first significant structure was built on the site in the 12th Century. Over the next six-hundred years, the Scots and the English took turns holding the site, using it as a royal residence and military fortress, and, of course destroying it (on at least one occasion, by the Scots, to keep the English from using it against them). Most of the present structure dates to the 17th Century, and includes defensive structural features from that time.

The thing that stands out most about this castle is the site. As mentioned above, it sits on a large hill in the middle of a city. The views in all directions are dramatic, and you can really see the strategic importance the site holds to this city. You can appreciate how difficult it would be to attack the castle, as its natural defenses are so pronounced. You can further appreciate that the site would be vulnerable to a long-siege, given its limited water supply and ability to bring in supplies.

Among the other interesting things we saw were a Dog Cemetery -- apparently one of two -- a dedicated burial ground, complete with headstones, inside the castle walls. Keri and I  empathize with the good people of Edinburgh Castle and their desire to honor their canine companions.

At least three other things make a the visit worthwhile -- (1) the Scottish Crown Jewels, not anywhere as visually impressive as their English cousins, but with an accompanying narrative that makes the jewels (which are the crown, scepter and sword traditionally used in the coronation ceremonies of Scottish kings and queens) worth checking out, (2) the National War Museum, an impressive collection of weapons, uniforms and stories of the role played by Scots in the military forces of the United Kingdom (among the interesting things I learned was that more than 11% of the population here was in active service in World War I, the greatest percentage of any nation), and (3) the overlap in royal dynasties between the Scots and the English, in particular the importance of the Stuart family as the first Scottish rulers over England.

We spent the better part of one day at the castle, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. We'll probably meet Keri's parents for dinner this evening and then head in different directions tomorrow, as they are taking a day tour up to Loch Ness. We'll spend three days in the Highlands after they leave.

The family Eckstein has been here less than one day and, after a rocky start, we seem to be settling in pretty well. The four of us look forward to the rest of our week here, and, hopefully, only gentle slopes from here on out.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

churchill, notting hill and apple fritters

Last day in London. I woke up early and headed out for my final run here, heading north through Belgravia, up to Hyde Park where I took the loop up to Speaker's Corner and Marble Arch. The last couple of times I have done the run, I added in a slice of Kensington Gardens, running almost up to the Palace before heading east and going by the Royal Albert Hall (of which I still have no idea how many holes it would take to fill) on my way back towards the flat. Every run has ended at the Starbucks a couple blocks from our flat. I think they have gotten used to my daily coffee order for Keri and me, and I worry our absence may have a real impact on their bottom line.

Mid-morning, Owen and I headed out to see the Churchill War Rooms -- Imperial War Museum, one of the highlights of any trip to London. The war rooms are the underground bunker used by the British command between 1940 and 1945. The rooms have been set up to replicate what they would have looked like during the Second World War. They have done a great job in creating a physical environment that makes you appreciate how physically cramped the entire enterprise must have been. It is, of course, impossible to simulate the blitz bombings or sense of dread that must have hung in the air before the Battle of Britain. This marks my third trip to the museum, following visits in 1991 and 2000. Several years ago, they added the Churchill Museum, a biographical of museum of Winston Churchill (which seems self-evident, I realize, given the name). Owen and I spent about 30 minutes in this new section. That was more than enough time for him and nowhere near enough for me. Another thing to add to my to-do-on-next-London-trip list.

After the museum, we headed back to the flat to meet Keri and Lauren, who were busy with their umpteenth load of laundry, preparing for our departure. (Note: Lauren said she did not want to see the museum because it had the word "war" in it, and that she despised all war. I started to explain to her that no reasonable person liked war, but that some were necessary. I did not try too hard to convince her, though, because if your nine-year old daughter cannot be a pacifist, what hope is there for any of us.) I grabbed Keri and me some lunch from Pret a Manger (of which I have become a real fan -- the quality and efficiency are something to behold) and we finished up most of our packing.

The four of us then headed out to Notting Hill, a quaint area on the other side of Kensington Gardens. Notting Hill has a lot of two-story townhouses painted in different pastels, making for a distinct look. It also has the Portobello Road Market, which has a very Bohemian feel. We walked through the market, stopping for treats for the kids. Lauren opted for a stracciatella cone and Owen (pictured below) some kind of monstrosity consisting of a warm waffle, vanilla ice cream, mini oreos and chocolate sauce.

About halfway through their treats, Owen looked at Keri and said, as though he was about to say something important, "Mommy . . . ." We knew from his tone and look that meant it was time to use the bathroom. Both of our kids seem to have gone through this I-need-to-use-the-bathroom-in-the-middle-of-every-single-meal-outside-the-home phase. Lauren is out of hers, and Owen has taken her place. I, for one, don't get it. Public bathrooms are a necessary evil, not an enjoyable break in a meal, whether in Phoenix or halfway across the world.

In any event, Owen's urgent need to go was met with the absence of a toilet in the treat shop, sending us across the street to one of those public Euro-toilets that typically require some admission fee and which have a self-cleaning cycle that operates between uses. This one charged no fee. It further instructed that children below the age of ten must be accompanied by an adult. Owen read that as non-controlling, and further rationalized that he is as tall as many 10 year-olds, and therefore he would go in by himself. Miraculously, he emerged several minutes later, unscathed and with an empty bladder (for at least another 20 minutes).

We continued our walk up Portobello Road, stopping in a kids' boutique where Lauren got a small purse and Owen a stationery set. We made our way back to the tube and headed home to the flat. Before dinner, I watched the Nadal-Darcis first round match from the All England Club. We had hoped to spend the day at the Wimbledon Championships, as they are called here, but could not wrangle tickets. The next best thing, I suppose, is to watch in the comfort of one's own London flat. Nadal was clearly not himself, moving very poorly. It was odd to see a clearly hobbled Nadal, in particular given how dominant he looked just weeks ago at Roland Garros.

Our last dinner here fell to Dim T, the Asian place we had strong-armed Owen into going last week. After some coaxing, he agreed for a return. (I do hope there is a McDonald's at Kings Cross today, or I could be in trouble.) The dim sum and pad thai were good and the dessert -- fried apple fritter, vanilla ice cream, chocolate and toffee sauces -- was heavenly. Our little dessert connoisseur, Lauren, declared it the second best she had tasted in London, following the Tozi mousse, of course. I expect Lauren may find even better desserts when we get to Italy next week. We'll let you know.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

is that a tower in your castle, or are you just happy to see me?

I feel sorry for Her Majesty. Okay, not really. I mean Queen Elizabeth II was born into obscene wealth and privilege and really never had to work for a living. Everyone should have such problems. Still, there is some downside that comes with the mostly upside gig. Yes, you get as your weekend home one of the world's largest and most beautiful castles, but you have to open that castle -- or at least parts of it -- to any schmuck that can plunk down seventeen pounds. Today, that schmuck was me as we visited Windsor Castle. (Among other things the Queen suffers from are the inability to walk down the street, go to a baseball game (or cricket match), or simply go to a restaurant for a bite to eat. Really, I think it would be an incredibly isolating position.)

Keri, Lauren, Owen and I took the tube to Paddington and then, with the help of Google Maps, I figured out how to get us to Windsor, a lovely little town about 45 minutes due west from central London. I held our place in queue while the kids took turns with Keri walking around town. They tell me it was nice. Keri did get me a soy latte as compensation for my work.

Once inside, we each got our own audio controller for a self-guided tour. Windsor Castle created separate audio guide programs for children and adults. I would have thought this could not possibly work out, but they did a nice job with it, timing the different segments so they match up perfectly at each "stop and listen" location. Lauren and Owen were very attentive to whatever was being said to them, and I did not have to hear a word of it. Perfect.

Among the things I learned in the adult tour were that Windsor Castle was built by William the Conqueror as a fortress. Like the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace, the Castle was picked because of its location on the River Thames. Windsor Castle also sits atop a large hill. Unlike those other buildings, this one still serves as a residence for the royal family. Indeed, it is the longest-serving royal residence in Europe, having been transformed over the years from a fortress entirely into a residential castle. We were told several times that the Queen prefers Windsor Castle as her weekend home.

The tour was, functionally, broken into two parts -- the castle exterior and the State Apartments. The castle exterior is largely practical, built with the things one is accustomed to seeing to fend of a potential attack -- moat, turrets, angled cut-outs in the walls for shooting arrows in all directions, etc. One exception to this is the Round Tower, an imposing structure that sits in the middle of the castle and atop which flies the Queen's colors (when she is in residence). We were told that this structure had 30 feet added to it in the 19th Century for no reason other than some kind of tower envy. (That's quite a tower you have there, Your Majesty. Quite, indeed.)

The State Apartments are a series of rooms that are used as part of state functions. They were built out by King Charles II, but their design comes straight out of the Victorian Era. The rooms are filled with a truly breathtaking collection of portraits, tapestries, fine china, weapons and other valuables taken from all corners of the (now former) Empire. I was reminded on this tour that England really was the preeminent world power for about 150 years, lording over an empire that extended from Canada to the Middle East to South Africa to India to New Zealand. England's colonial history has some dark parts, for sure, but you cannot help but be impressed by the magnitude of what this relatively small island nation was able to accomplish.

I was also struck on our tour by the focus on Napoleon, or at least those British military leaders who bested him in battle. Both Admiral Nelson (hero of the Battle of Trafalgar) and the Duke of Wellington (who defeated Napoleon once and for all at the Battle of Waterloo) are lionized in several different rooms. In the 21st Century, we hardly think of Napoleon as a a threat to the existence of the world as we know it. Clearly, things looked very different in 19th Century Great Britain.

Our tour of the castle took a couple hours, after which we hit the Windsor Wagamama (again, we had a happy and sated Lauren on our hands -- not sure how she is going to respond to haggis later this week). Keri and the kids made use of the Hardys candy shop in the train station, and we were off -- back to Victoria.

We met Keri's parents tonight at a small burger place near Bond Street, Patty & Bun. The name pretty much says it all. There are not a lot of options on the menu, and the place is not fancy, but they get the job done. That job -- producing a good hamburger on this side of the pond -- is nothing short of a miracle and I for one don't take the achievement lightly.

Tomorrow is our last full day in London and we are all already a bit sad about having to leave the place. And just as we were starting to fit in here, the kids having committed the Underground map to memory and addressing me as "g'vnuh."

Saturday, June 22, 2013

slow blog day

It is good to have the occasional day where little happens -- like today. Keri, Lauren, Owen and I were to meet Keri's parents at the steps of Westminster Abbey at 11am. Randy had purchased something called the London Pass, which he needed to pick up somewhere near Leicester Square. The four of us arrived at Westminster on time, got into the cash only queue, and watched with a mix of amazement and concern as the line moved quickly. We were at the door within ten minutes. Keri sent the three of us inside while she waited outside for her parents.

Lauren, Owen and I waited for a while inside (at least long enough for both of them to get reprimanded for taking photographs), and then proceded to do our own tour, part self-guided audio control, part hunt for answers to fill out the questionnaire the abbey provides for children -- with the promise that a completed form will earn you a gold coin at the gift shop at the end. (Pictured is Owen showing off what he thinks should be a new fashion trend in London -- rain poncho on shoulder with sleeves tied through front sweater pocket. He should probably stick to middle age weaponry.)

Westminster Abbey, as you may know, is the most famous church in England. The first church was built on this site somewhere between 960 and 970, but that building did not last long. One of the last Anglo-Saxon kings, William the Confessor, began construction of a new church on site in 1042. It was not until 1245, however, when King Henry III began construction of the present church. Apparently he had picked the location as his burial site, which may have added some sense of urgency for the builders.

The abbey is still a functioning church, but it is most famous as site for royal coronations and weddings, along with state funerals and burial site for monarchs, military heroes, prized scientists and writers. Among those buried there are Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Geoffrey Chaucer.

Lauren and Owen did a very good job on our tour. They managed to be very quiet and respectful, all while trying to find out the answers to fill in their forms. (I will note that the stress level dropped substantially when I told them that this was not a test, that no one would grade their answers, and that I expected they would get chocolate pieces, regardless of what they wrote). The three of us kept checking the entrance, expecting to see Keri and her parents, but we never did. As we approached noon, we started to become concerned. So, we quickly wrapped up our tour, scurried to the gift shop, got the gold coins and headed out to see what was going on. (I'll concede at this point I had visions in my head of Elaine Benes stopping for a box of Jujyfruits upon getting word that her date had been in a car accident.)

We found Keri out front and learned that her parents had taken much long than expected to get their Passes, and were now in the Churchill War Rooms. We walked over to that museum, and saw a long line. With two hungry children, we had little option at that point but to get lunch, which we did at a forgettable "American Italian" (whatever that is) restaurant near Trafalgar Square. We then made our way over to the Houses of Parliament, hoping to catch an afternoon tour. Sadly, they were sold out, and we started making our way back to the tube to figure out our next step.

At this point, fate -- in the form of Keri's asthma -- intervened. It was a very windy day here and Keri, who had spent the better part of 90 minutes sitting outside waiting for us, had hit the wall. We came back to the flat and Keri took a nap -- which she never does. Lauren and Owen spent the late afternoon using the pens Lauren got from Hamleys to make their mother two lovely drawings.

Keri awoke close to 5, and was feeling much better. We still decided to stay close for dinner, making our triumphant return to Tozi, which was great yet again. Lauren was not as emotionally overwhelmed as she was the first time we had eaten there last week, but she was still quite pleased with her dinner. We hope to wake rested and refreshed tomorrow, ready to tackle the end stretch of our time in this wonderful city.

Friday, June 21, 2013

the tower of london comes through again

If you see only one thing in England, make it the Tower of London. Truly. I have been to this place at least five times now, and it never disappoints.

Founded in 1066 by William the Conqueror, the Tower (officially Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress) is a series of buildings inside a fortress wall that sit on the banks of the River Thames just east of the old City of London. The Tower has served as many things over the years -- royal palace, mint, armory, prison, and home to the Crown Jewels, among others. We spent spent half of the day there and, really, were it not for the impatience of the smaller Ecksteins, I would have been happy to spend a whole day touring the grounds.

We took a tour conducted by one of the Tower's many Yeoman Wardens (all of whom are retired British military non-commissioned officers), and it was fantastic. Our tour began in the trench around the fortress wall that long served as a defensive moat. Our Warden explained, among other things, how King William I began construction of the White Tower (the structure in the middle of the fortress from which the entire set of buildings take their name) in 1066, the year his Norman army ousted the last Anglo-Saxon rulers. The Normans were not exactly popular among the Anglo-Saxon locals and William figured it would be important to have a fortress here to control the River Thames and the City of London. It's only been 947 years, so perhaps it is a bit early to judge it but, at this point, William appears to have been right.

The tour continued inside the first set of walls at the base of the Clock Tower. Our Warden pointed to the set of residences where he, his fellow Yeoman Wardens and their families reside inside, and then continued with the dramatic history of the building, the most dramatic of which, of course, are the many imprisonments and killings associated with the Tower. Although many people were imprisoned at the Tower -- particularly during the reign of the Tudors -- only a select few were actually executed there, most having been executed on Tower Hill, which sits just north of the Tower.

The tour moved to Traitor's Gate, under the Bloody Tower, up  to the Tower Green and into the St. Peter ad Vincula chapel, which serves as final resting place for so many, including Sir Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, and Catherine Howard (I know, more Henry VIII stuff).

The White Tower served for many years as the royal palace, with several kings and their families, along with their staff, residing there. The White Tower is now a combination of original structural features (including the toilet that my mother-in-law, Lois, thought was still in use -- she may appear to be laughing but this is really her push face), and a series of exhibits discussing the various functions that building took on once it ceased being used as a kings' residence.

Or, so I am told. Soon after we walked into the White Tower, Owen announced that he needed to use the bathroom. I told Keri and the others I would see them later, attempted to take Owen down the same steps we had used to enter the building only seconds before, only to be told we would have to leave another way. One guide graciously offered a "short cut" that led us into an original spiral staircase that was long the building's only means of getting up and down. From there, we had to traverse back and forth several times, ultimately walking through the gift shop which sits in the basement of the White Tower. I will observe here that this particular basement long served as the Tower's dungeon and, I understand, hundreds of people were tortured there over the years. There is something very odd about using that space now to sell trinkets and books, given the horrible things that took place there, even if they did happen hundreds of years ago. (As you can see here, Owen made it to the toilet and, later in the day was able to hoist a cross bow in defense of the Tower. He seems a little too familiar with the weapon for someone who has never used one before. Maybe I need to double check what they are teaching in the first grade these days.)

As we waited for the others outside the White Tower, Owen and I had a long chat -- or, rather a series of questions (his) and answers (mine). As usual, the questions covered a wide range of topics (religion, the origin of the nation state, colonialism, torture, false confessions, taxing power, the rule of law, representative democracy) and forced me to think on my toes. When the others got back, my in-laws had to leave as they had a show tonight they needed to catch.

Keri, Lauren, Owen and I then walked through the two story structure that overlooks the Thames, a series of rooms that King Edward I had built out as his palace. Upon hearing his name, I recalled that I knew a couple things about this king --  he was known as Longshanks, he expelled the Jews from England and he was a brutal conqueror of the Welsh and Scottish people. As these things were going around in my head, I may have said aloud, "Edward I, that guy was a dick." Excellent moment in parenting, I know. Lauren immediately asked what that word meant. (Had I really not said it in front of her before?) I explained it was a bad word and that I should not have used it. I doubt she believes me, and I expect I will hear more about this over the next days and weeks. In my defense, though, he really was a dick. (Speaking of Lauren, as you will see in this picture, she is not the person you want manning your crossbow in a time of trouble. Lauren is many wonderful things, but warrior princess is not among them.)

As I write this, I think back to an earlier post where I thank the good people of New York for, in their free use of profanity, making me look good by comparison. I will note that the people of London have not been so kind as to curse in front of my children, at least not in any way they can understand. Perhaps this is the kind of good behavior that results when your most famous tourist attraction was once a prison and torture chamber.

there's no jesus in jesus college


My in-laws arrived in London yesterday morning. They will be with us for a good part of the next week. I have been told that I cannot mock them in this blog. In response, I have explained that the blog wants what the blog wants, and if it wants mockery, it is hardly my place to deny it. In any event, I'll do my best to please my taskmaster.

I started college intending to spend a semester of my junior year at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. My college (Pomona College) has a robust study abroad program but did not have at that time any program at Hebrew U. I nonetheless planned on going in the spring of 1991. Geopolitics foiled my plans, however, when Saddam Hussein invaded Iraq in August 1990, setting in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to the Gulf War and, with it, Hussein's threats to launch a sea of missiles into Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Pomona, understandably, was not thrilled about the idea of sending one of its students into a war zone and therefore told me several months before I was to go that I had to pick another destination. I said that there was only one other place I would consider, the University of Cambridge, where Pomona had developed a formal program several years prior.

And so, in January 2011, as the coalition forces were preparing to undertake Operation Desert Storm, I was headed to Cambridge. I had heard great things about the program, which operated through Jesus College, one of the 31 residential colleges that make up Cambridge University. Students are admitted to individual colleges as well as the university and, live, eat and participate in many extracurricular activities through those colleges. Students are free to take lecture-based and supervisory-based (one to three students studying directly with a professor) classes at other colleges within the university.

Funny, I know, that me, a nice Jewish boy, would not only be going somewhere other than Hebrew University, but that he would be going to Jesus College of all places. I learned pretty quickly that the name was in no way reflective of the religious character of the school. Rather, like many of the colleges here, the name reflects the time at which it was founded (around 1500), when institutions were named after something royal, religious and, slightly later on, for people who gave a lot of money. In my experience, the students here were, if anything, less religious than those at Pomona. There truly was, as the students were fond of saying, no Jesus at Jesus College. (I will note though, when cheering for the college's athletic teams, "Go Jesus!" and "C'mon, Jesus!" spun off the tongue quite easily.

Jesus, for its part, stands out from many of of the other colleges by virtue of its large campus, complete with space for separate grounds for soccer/football, field hockey, tennis and rugby. (Pictured above is the second courtyard within the college. The large windows on the right are the dining hall which, according to my father-in-law, looked like the one from Hogwarts. On the other side of the courtyard is the college chapel, which dates back to the 13th century and served as a nunnery before the college acquired it.)

I will not bore you all with a full recounting of my experience at Jesus College, and will instead only say here that it was fantastic, academically and socially. Some aspects of college were the same here -- rigorous analysis, critical thinking, and thoughtful discussion -- but the social experience was entirely different. The formality of things -- particularly in the world's third-oldest university in a country known for its adherence to a class system -- was pretty shocking to a kid who had spent his whole life in Arizona and Southern California. I had some friends among the ten other Pomona students but spent the first several weeks trying to figure out how and where to fit in the broader Jesus College community.

Fortunately, fate intervened and provided the answer when, along with two of my Pomona friends, we decided to give rugby a go. One of the three of us had played before. The first XV (basically Jesus College's first intramural team) had an opening at second row (or lock, as they call it here) and a star was born. Okay. Not really. Like I said, I had never played before and I am not the kind of athlete who can excel on physical ability alone. Hardly. But I played hard and did my best to learn. More importantly, I made a good group of friends and was exposed to a whole side of the English university experience that I would never have had without rugby.

You will observe here a picture of me, Lauren and Owen, as we walk across the rugby pitch that sits at the back of the Jesus College grounds. I am walking away from them, ostensibly speaking to them but really speaking to no one in particular. I wanted them to see the rugby pitch where I played, where I made good friends, where I struggled, where I got kicked in the face and had someone splash some water from a bucket on my bloody nose, where I pushed myself to become more than I was, where I grew as a person. I know it is simply not possible -- at their age, or any age, really -- for them to understand what this place meant to me, but I was glad to show it to them nonetheless. (As I read this over I shudder to think how old I have become. Ugh.)

The rugby pitch behind us, we finished our walk-through of Jesus College and headed towards Trinity Street. The colleges along Trinity  -- St. John's, Trinity, King's, Gainville & Caius -- were all closed to the public. I'm not sure if this is because the term does not end until next week. Regardless, I am sorry I was not able to show my family the really spectacular courtyards and buildings of these esteemed learning institutions.

Shut out of the the colleges, we went to the the Backs, the area on the other side of the River Cam where there are incredible views of the backs of those colleges. The Cam is not so much a river as it is a canal on which there are two major activities -- rowing and punting. The former is done mostly by university students (including the author, along with seven others from the rugby team, in what has to be one of the greatest embarrassments ever to befall the river) the latter (as pictured here) by townspeople as part of the local tourist trade. Punting, by the way, is done by pushing the punting stick against the bottom of the river. I still don't quite understand the excitement of it all but I suppose it does not matter. Punting on the Cam has been here long before me and will be long afterwards.

We walked back through the town center and headed back to London, where we took my in-laws on their first Underground ride, as the six of us went back to their hotel. My in-laws took us to dinner at an Italian restaurant in Mayfair after which we headed our separate ways -- my in-laws to get some sleep, Keri and I to get the kids to bed and then to commence with our nightly watching of Downton Abbey (we just finished season one so don't spoil it for us).

It ended up being a long day -- a long way to go for a relatively short time. It was, as it always is, strange to be back in a place where you last were more than twenty years ago. I'm glad we did it, though, as it brought back so many good memories and gave me a chance to share with my children, in some way none of the three of us can understand quite yet, an important experience in my life.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

stay off the grass!


Please keep off the grass.

For two kids who live in Arizona year-round, these words might as well appear in a foreign language. Why would anyone keep off the grass? Ever? Grass is to be used year-round. Sometimes it gets too hot and the grass dies. Otherwise, it is fair game. It is there for a reason, and that reason is me.

For places like England and other cold weather environments, of course, grass is not a year-round blessing. The seemingly-interminable winter crawls slowly into spring, during which time grass has to be cared for, treated ever so gently so that, by summer, there are beautiful grass lawns on which to play, lounge, and stroll.

Our destination today, Hampton Court and Palace, has some truly spectacular gardens, in which there are a wide array of plants and flowers, not to mention some pretty lovely lawns. Bordering all of these are gravel paths, and signs instructing visitors to use those paths. If you know Owen, or have gotten to know him at all through this blog, you can imagine where this is heading.

The day began with some earlier wake-ups for the adults so we could go running. Today was a bit warmer in London -- nearly 80 degrees, so we wanted to make sure we got out before the "heat" set in. I took a different path today, going south through Chelsea, over the Thames, into and around Battersea Park. It was a nice run, but I prefer the route I have taken several times to and around Hyde Park.

Following my run, I returned to the flat to finish up on last night's blog entry. Between the lateness of the hour when we got back from our show and the total inadequacy of our internet access (I will write more about this some other time), I decided to wait until this morning to finish the June 18 entry. My apologies for those whose yesterday was ruined . . .

Keri has long been a fan of historical fiction, including many of the recent historical novels that relate to Henry VIII and the Tudor dynasty. I, too, have an interest in this most fascinating period of English history. Today, our mutual interests pushed us to go to Hampton Court Palace, one of only two surviving palaces of those used by that most famous of Tudor monarchs.

The Palace sits about 11 miles southwest of Victoria, on the edge of the Thames' waters. We made our way to Victoria close to 130 and, after waiting for the right train, making one switch, we were at the Palace around 230, very excited for what lay ahead.

King Henry originally built the Palace for Thomas Wolsey, a cardinal and the young king's most reliable and trusted advisor. That is, until Wolsey fell out of favor following his failure on two fronts (1) his inability to convince the pope to grant Henry an annulment from his queen, Catharine of Aragon, and (2) a joining of forces between the French King and Holy Roman Emperor, England's two greatest threats for European supremacy. Like all those who disappointed Henry, Wolsey's fate was not a good one. He was arrested on charges of treason and died while in custody.

Henry claimed the newly built Palace as his own, making it his primary London residence. Henry added on to the Palace, as did King William III, more than 100 years later. Given the passage of time between these two major expansions, the resulting structure is a unique melding of two distinct styles -- tudor and baroque. It is quite an impressive set of buildings and grounds.

And the museum is set up really well, with both adult and family audio tours available. We opted for the latter, taking the audio tour through the kitchen and apartments used by King Henry. The audio tour provided a really great description of what each of the rooms was used for, who worked there, and what their lives might have been like -- not so good for the kitchen workers in case you thought otherwise.

We then toured on our own through two of the Palace sections used by William III and his queen, Mary II (who ruled jointly and are often referred to as William and Mary). King William developed the bedchamber approach to governance. That is, he would limit access to his private quarters to a few trusted advisors and friends, from where many of his decisions were made. The bedchamber structure fell away as Parliament took more and more power, making the monarch the figurehead it is today.

After walking through William and Mary's many rooms, we headed outside to the gardens directly behind the Palace and then over to the Palace maze (a human-sized garden made with hedges grown to serve as walls), for which Owen had been asking since we stepped off the train. The kids took off (together) as soon as we hit the maze and, fortunately, found us several minutes later to guide Keri and me to the middle. It took them a bit longer to find their way out, but they did, which we mostly felt good about. Mostly.

We went back into the Palace and walked through a series of rooms that detailed the early years of Henry's reign, in particular, the Henry/Catherine/Wolsey relationship. As with the other museums we have seen here, they were done so well, telling a great story that was engaging to all four of us.

From there, is was out to the Privy Garden, the aforementioned section with repeated instruction to stay on the gravel. Seconds after reading one sign aloud, Owen was off like a shot. He had seen a rolling hill, a gentle slope with the softest and greenest looking grass his young eyes had ever seen. Truly, there was nothing he could do. Before I could scream his name, he was in a full sprint to the top of that hill. When he got there, he dropped and rolled down, enjoying the feel of crushing every last blade his little body could reach. (There are at least ten photos of Owen on various grassy areas, but this one best captures the enthusiasm with which he disregarded the instruction.)

With the garden behind us, we were ready to return to London. After some child-related difficulties, we settled on a local Asian restaurant. The kids had bento boxes with breaded chicken, noodles and edamame. The adults split some dim sum. All were pleased. Lauren and Owen were particularly excited with their dessert -- a selection of fruit and marshmallow to dip in fondue. For reasons I cannot explain, Owen was quite appreciative of this dessert today, and there was no talk of popsicles. Fickle are the taste buds of a seven-year old boy.

And difficult, too, is it to expect children to stay off the grass. I understand why the rules are in place, but that does not mean I have to like them, either. Roll on, Owen, roll on.

keri's stupendous birthday

I used to screw up birthdays. Keri's. The kids'. Mine. I was always pretty ambivalent about the anniversary of my own birth and that ultimately bled over into the way I treated other's birthdays. I suppose that may work with the rest of the world, but it is not a good approach to a healthy marriage or a good parent-child relationship. I did not figure this out quickly but, eventually these lessons took hold. I would by no means describe my present birthday game as good, but it is no longer hazardous to my health.

Months ago, as we were planning our trip, I realized we would be in London on Keri's birthday, June 18. I had heard Keri mention something about a high tea and, putting two and two together, made reservations for a tea today for the four. Keri, to her credit, found a better place than I did so I ended up changing the reservations. I'll still take full credit.

I will say that I was surprised to find a relative lack of good child-friendly afternoon tea venues. Perhaps, when I retire from the practice of law and Keri and I decide to move to London we can start such a place.

We all slept in, Owen until past 11. Phew. Keri enjoyed her morning coffee and started checking on-line for all of her birthday greetings. Lauren gave Keri the card she had decorated and I gave Keri a funny/sweet card of a guy carrying a large dog up an escalator. You really cannot go wrong with any kind of large dog card. Always funny. Owen gave Keri the card he had put together, along with a popsicle he had taken from the freezer. That may not sound like much, but he is pretty fond of his popsicles, so it was a meaningful gesture.

We headed off for Covent Garden a bit past noon. Covent Garden, like just about everything else here can be traced back to Henry VIII, who first seized the lands and gave them to some loyal earl. The area was developed first for some nice homes, but eroded over time, eventually becoming London's red-light district. (Any place will see its ups and downs over the course of 500 years or so.) Apparently it took an act of parliament -- truly -- to reclaim the area and turn it into marketplace. With some further evolution over the years it is now a quaint shopping area, filled with narrow cobblestone streets, lots of cafes, coffeehouse and shops.

We enjoyed a nice stroll around the area as we helped work up our appetite for tea. Owen was very optimistic when he saw a sign for an "apple market." We found no apples, suggesting the name is historic.

We then started heading back towards in the direction of our tea location, stopping off at the local Nike store to get me a replacement running shirt. (Note: As I mentioned in one of my prior entries, I tend to run hot and when I exercise, I will soak a shirt like nobody's business. A shirt that I had worn earlier this week had finally seen enough and needed to be retired. I considered a proper English killing -- hanging, drawing and quartering -- if for no other reason, to send a message to the other shirts. As it was, I settled for sending to the rubbish bin, thereby dooming it to some local landfill.)

At 230 we arrived at our appointed location, the Dial Bar and Restaurant, located in a hotel just off the Seven Dials monument. (We know that proper tea time is 400, but we decided it would fit better in our day to do it on the early side.) The Dial has a traditional afternoon tea as well as its Stupendous Afternoon Tea, apparently named after Matilda, a Roald Dahl book the theatrical version of which shows across the street. The tea has received inconsistent reviews on-line in recent months. Our experience was pretty close to stupendous.

We were first offered a choice of beverages. Keri and I both opted for the English Breakfast Tea, Lauren the vanilla milkshake and Owen an extra large glass of apple juice. Minutes later, two large, three-tiered serving trays arrived. I knew immediately this was going to work out. The bottom tray had on it four kinds of crustless sandwiches (all without butter and ham, per the birthday girl's request). The top two trays were filled with various pastries, including scones, cream, chocolate sauce (not fondue as was advertised) with fruit and marshmallow for dipping, brownie, several kinds of cakes and cupcakes (lemon and red velvet).

As were just about done, the wait staf came out with a special blueberry cupcake and sang happy birthday to Keri. We put up a game effort -- or rather three of us did. Keri, Lauren and I stuffed our faces with three trays of goodness, enjoying everything. Lauren began giggling again -- not quite at the Tozi level, but in the ballpark. Three very happy palates, as we each ate more than our fill.

Owen, it has to be said, did not carry his weight. He ate some cheese (after the chutney and bread were removed) and part of a smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich. He then had a few bites of dessert before asking for my phone so he could play a game of Scrabble against the computer. We tried a number of times to coax him back into engaging in the dessert gorge. I cannot believe we had to do this. I really cannot believe we had so little success, Owen announcing that he was saving himself for a popsicle back at the flat. Keri and I are going to have his DNA checked.

Keri opted to walk off some our handiwork on the way back, so we headed through Leicester Square and on to Regent Street. From there, it was just a matter of time until we hit Hamleys, the self-proclaimed Finest Toy Shop in the World. I have not seen enough toy shops to judge the accuracy of that claim kind, but this store is pretty good. It takes up five large floors and is filled with young people (moonlighting theatre performers, I assume) who are demonstrating a number of their better sellers on the floor. For what it's worth, both of the Eckstein children opted for items they saw being demonstrated -- Lauren for a set of magic markers and Owen for a boomerang flyer.

We finally made it back to the flat around six, just enough time to rest for a few minutes before we headed back towards Victoria to see Wicked, which is performed just across the street at the Apollo Theatre. Keri and I had both read the book years ago on a family vacation, before Owen was born. We had both enjoyed the story quite a bit and were looking forward to the performance. The kids had recently seen Oz: The Great and Powerful, so trying to get them to re-orient themselves to think about the story from a different point of view was a little challenging. That said, I think it was worth the effort, as it gave us an opportunity to talk about perspective and subjectivity, that every person has a story and you should try to find out what that story is before you form any opinions about them. The performance was really good, too.

Most importantly, the birthday girl enjoyed herself. She thought the show was great, as she did the tea. Check and mate. 41st birthday accomplished. Anyone got any good ideas for 42?

Monday, June 17, 2013

sleeplessness, darwin and more dinosaurs

I was concerned last night that Owen would not get enough sleep. He had been in our room several times after 11pm. He last came in at 1130, so it's anyone's guess when after then he fell asleep. I stayed up to listen to the end of the Yankees-Angels game on my iPad. The Yankees led 6-0 going into the 9th inning. The Angels batted around, hitting three bloop singles and working a walk off Mariano Rivera. With two outs, the Angles were down one run and had the mighty Albert Pujols coming to the plate. By some miracle, Rivera struck out Pujols on thee pitches. As any baseball fan would tell you, I was so worked up by the end of that inning it took me another thirty minutes to calm down enough to sleep.

Fade to the morning when, given England's northerly latitude, the sun comes up around 4 this time of year. Owen was not far behind, was up by 5 and making his way to the upper floor of our flat where he started banging around. Keri and I took turns dealing with this situation. We were both up for good by 630 and took turns on our every-other-day runs.

Lauren and Owen had been asking for several days to go to the Natural History Museum. (Please, Daddy, Charles Darwin is da bomb!) Those of you who were reading this blog last week might be saying to yourselves, did you not just go to the American Museum of Natural History last week? To that I would say yes, but my children cannot recall what happened ten minutes ago let alone last week. Further, I was told British natural history is totally different from the American version. Truth be told, the grownups wanted to check it out, too.

The day started out cloudy, but slightly warmer (upper 60's), so we decided to walk through Chelsea and South Kensington on our way to the museum. Owen, uncharacteristically, had little to say on our walk. We strode together, holding hands in supreme silence a good part of the way. Lovely. Keri was not so fortunate with her companion, who bemoaned the unfathomable 1.3 mile march to which her parents had subjected her.

We ate some sandwiches on a small street just across from the museum. In what is becoming a disturbing trend, Owen announced in the middle of his meal that he need to use the bathroom (or "toilet" as the locals call it). The Subway where we purchased the kids' lunch -- devoid of toilets. The underground stop -- nada. The public toilet/coin-a-john outside on the street -- closed for repairs. Fortunately, a Starbucks appeared across the street and we were set. (Note: This is the second time in two days Owen's bladder has been redeemed by the globo-coffee chain.) Say what you will about Starbucks, but their omnipresence and free bathrooms have made me a fan. (Pictured are Owen and I returning from our little adventure, him no worse for the wear.)

We finally made in it into the museum, which turned out to be well worth the trip. The physical building itself is a marvel -- a gem of ornate Victorian architecture. The entry hall alone is a thing to behold -- a massive diplodocus in the middle of this grand, cavernous, three-story room.

Admission is free and the exhibits are very good. We started with what I think the museum is most famous for -- its dinosaurs. The actual collection of dinosaur fossils is probably a notch or two below the AMNH, but the British version does a far better job of integrating the collection with educational material, organizing the displays by era and subject matter and presenting questions on some pretty basic, but interesting topics. Lauren and Owen were fully engaged, as we spent nearly one hour going through this section.

We then walked through the mammals section. Again, the collection is nowhere near as large or diverse as the New York museum, but what is there is presented in a way that really engaged the kids. Owen was prompted to ask a series of questions as to how we know snakes are not mammals. I'm not sure my answers were close to complete, but I thank the museum folks for giving me several scientific-sounding facts I could throw at him in quick succession.

The same is true of the last section we visited -- human biology, which was a very well-done albeit slightly dated presentation of human biology, physiology, and development that you might see in a science museum. As it was, the kids were focused -- sometimes too focused -- on various aspects of our biology. Lauren was -- understandably -- freaked out by the displays dealing with childbirth. Both kids liked the pictured display, which depicts how the human body regulates its temperature by sweating and shivering. As anyone who has seen an Eckstein exercise will tell you, we are pointing at the sweaty man for a reason.

A long afternoon over, we took the tube back to Victoria and walked back to Eccleston Square. I took Lauren out a bit later to get a replacement birthday card for to give to Keri tomorrow. Somehow, Lauren had destroyed the last one by confusing brown and black. Don't ask. In any event, new card purchased, decorated and ready for tomorrow. Crisis averted.

We ate dinner at Giraffe, of which I guess there are several in London, a no-frills but quality sandwich, burger and entree sort of place. Our dinner table had the misfortune of being placed next to a rowdy 5-year old birthday party. At some point, the girls in that party started up a derogatory chant about the boys, who were greatly outnumbered. Watching the chaos from afar made me grateful to have that part of our lives behind us.

Even Owen remarked, with equal parts irony and insight, "I am two years older than them." Sleep well, my seven-year old boy. Sleep well.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

father's day in greenwich

"Stop being such a martyr," I was told. "I'm not being a martyr, I'm being a father, I responded." And so went the discussion about how we would spend our day. In the end, I won out (depending on your definition of win) and picked a destination that I thought would please the entire family -- Greenwich. The results were solid, but not spectacular.

Greenwich sits at the east end of metropolitan London. Not just any suburb, though, Greenwich is famous for two things -- the Greenwich Observatory and the Old Royal Naval College. The former is home to the Prime Meridian, the line from which all countries on earth set their clocks. The latter is a really beautiful set of buildings and grounds that overlook the Thames. The college itself ceased operations in 1998, but the buildings remain, some open to the public and some used by another local college.

We began our tour of Greenwich by doing a walk around of the Cutty Sark, a 150-year old tea clipper that has been encased as part of a small, stand-alone museum. No one in our party was sufficiently interested in seeing the display up close to warrant the steep admission fee, so we settled for the free view, which was still pretty good. Hard to imagine that old wooden ship made multiple trips back and forth to India and Australia. I'm nauseated just thinking about it.

We then hit the grounds of the Royal Naval College. Owen was taken by the display of a large cannon, near the college gates, leading to the following exchange:
Why do they call a cannon a gun?
Because a cannon is a type of gun.
Could you stop a cannonball with a shield?
No, you could not, as this cannon shot weighed 150-pounds.
But you weigh more than that?
Yes, but the force would be far greater than even my weight.
Could the cannon destroy the sun?
Keri . . . 
We walked through the yards and then into the chapel and the Painted Hall, a truly impressive set of rooms that were intended to serve as the dining hall in the naval hospital that was on the grounds prior to the college. My own college has a famous Orozco mural, Prometheus, which is nice. It pales in comparison to these murals. Perhaps that is why the Painted Hall ended up not being used for its intended purpose, lest the murals there suffer the indignity of having a waffle thrown at it by the occasional miscreant college student. Not that I would know anything about that . . .

We wandered into the small town that abuts the college and grabbed lunch at a Spanish restaurant that Owen endorsed based on its purporting to serve fish sticks. (Note: Owen loves fish sticks. Left to his own devices, he would eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some weeks ago, Owen suggested that he would fill a cooler with fish sticks to take with us. We have a lot of bags with us, so it's possible he pulled this one off.) Owen's palette finely tuned to the frozen, processed American fish stick, he found unsatisfying the fresh fish version he was served today. Fortunately, that did not stop him from downing his 438th glass of apple juice on this trip, excusing himself, belching, and giggling with glee at what he had just done.

Another selling point for this place was the Free Drink for Dad's sign in the window. I was slightly troubled by the poor punctuation but, I figured, the restaurant may not be run by native-speakers, so I'll let it pass. Excited for my drink, I ordered a pint of Guinness. Minutes later, they brought me something that was most definitely not a Guinness, and announced that this was the free drink I was getting to honor my patriarcal service. I suspect the look on my face was one crossed between disgust and shock. Keri said she would do me a solid and handle the umbrella drink. Even she could not get past the second sip.

Lunch behind us, we walked up the hill to the Greenwich Observatory where we learned that one had to pay admission and that the Prime Meridian itself was locked, safely, inside some gates, lest someone come and steal the damn thing. We further saw that there was a long queue of people who had paid that admission and were waiting to stand and have their pictures taken with the metal strip that had been placed inside a brick yard and which symbolizes the imaginary line that we use to mark time. For our part, we crossed the same imaginary line by walking across the front of the building.

We then hit what is effectively marketed as "London's Only Planetarium," which sits just behind the Observatory. I had frankly not thought that London would be a very good city for astronomers, given its flat terrain and abundant city lights. So, had we found that there were no planetaria, I would not have been moved. As it was, this marketing gimmick was pretty good at selling Lauren and Owen, both of whom deemed it a must-see. The show and exhibits were decent, but certainly do not compare to others we have seen in the States.

A relatively uneventful trip back to Victoria -- i.e., Owen got some kid on the DLR train in trouble for reasons that are still unclear to us but we think involved an emergency call button an instruction not to say anything to his parents -- and we decided to finish off the day by going our separate ways on meal choices. Keri and I opted for Indian, which we love and which we have been wanting since we got here. Lauren tried a little chicken tikka and went for her standby -- bagel and cream cheese. Owen, because he seems to know how to get what he wants, got nine McNuggets and french fries.

All in all, a pretty good father's day. I got to spend the day with my three favorite people, two of whom still call me daddy (note from Keri: I never called him daddy). Everything else is gravy.

And so, I want to wish a Happy Father's Day to all the fathers and grandfathers out there. A special greeting to my own father who, 33 years ago, walked the same Greenwich grounds that I did with my children today. I hope you have a great day, Dad.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

mousse high

We now have a pretty good idea of what Lauren's college years will look like. Keri, Lauren, Owen and I had a fantastic dinner at Tozi, an Italian restaurant at the corner of Gillingham Street and Vauxhall Bridge Road, a couple of blocks from our flat. The restaurant features chichetti (small Venetian dishes similar to tapas) and it is really, really, really good. Many thanks to the Trip Advisor contributors for their reviews. Everything we ate was delicious -- the bruschetta, calamari, a cheese plate, some ravioli with buffalo ricotta and a small pizza. Lauren, who is generally fond of desserts, just about fell over with her fist bite of chocolate mousse. When she took a spoonful of our burnt cream, I thought for a moment that we were going to have to seek medical attention. As Keri remarked, "Oh my god, I think she is high." Had we not eaten some of the deserts ourselves, we would have suspected that they were spiked. As it was, we got some insight into what an intoxicated Lauren will be like, and she will be quite entertaining.
Another good day, all things considered. Owen was up early again, awaking both of his parents and inspiring them to hit the running trail. I had another good run through Hyde Park. The weather here is near-perfect running weather. I suspect I will miss it when we get to Italy.

As Lauren was still sleeping, Owen took it upon himself to start writing out his postcards he is sending to his friends. Among his best work, really. Enjoy.

Lauren finally woke in the late morning, ate some breakfast and we headed out with all intentions of making the weekly market on Notting Hill. When told the walk from our flat would take at least one hour, Owen unequivocally declared it the "worst day ever." The promise of a few diversions along the way, most notably snacks and a playground, re-engaged Owen back and our journey was on.
The weather was pretty good when we started, the sun ducking in and out from behind the clouds with a steady, but not overwhelming wind. Minutes after we hit Hyde Park, the sun was swallowed entirely and the rains began, lightly at first. We made it to Kensington Gardens and into the snack shop at Kensington Palace for a quick lunch.

As we walked north towards Notting Hill, the rains came with a vengeance. Plans were quickly altered and we headed to the first tube stop outside off the park. Initially, there was some talk of spending the afternoon at the science center or natural history museum. By the time we reached the tube, however, such talk was long gone. My family was cold, wet, and slightly surly. We were headed back to our Eccleston Square flat.

As we were still walking up the stairs into our flat, Keri, Lauren and Owen were all stripping down, replacing their damp clothes with pajamas. It was 330 in the afternoon and, frankly, a 50/50 proposition whether we would leave the flat again today.

Keri, to her credit, had not done any house cleaning in our first three days in London. This, I know, has been contrary to every fiber of her compulsive being. Today, locked in the flat, she had hit the wall. She took out some cleaning materials from under the stairs and asked for my help in working the vacuum. As I peered in the closet, I noticed a squarish looking machine with some dials on it. Could it be? Yes, it was, in fact, the elusive dryer. For some strange reason, no one had bothered to tell us that the machine was, like Harry Potter, confined to the cupboard under the stairs.

After a couple hours -- and a couple of euro-size loads of laundry -- we pulled it together to head out to dinner. And we are all the better for having done it. Seriously, this is one of the best Italian restaurants Keri and I have experienced. The food was great, the ambiance inviting, and the waitstaff helpful and, more importantly, solicitous of our children. You will not be sorry if you try it. And, if you have a dessert-crazy girl like ours, you may just get a little insight into the future.