Blog part IV

May 24, 2016 at 4:57 am (Uncategorized)

I’d mentioned way back in Blog part I that we last were in London in ’09. That was the year Dave’s sabbatical took us to Lille, France, where we spent one month in the home of the Millescamps family, while they stayed in ours in Portland. At the end of our joint exchange, we had 48 hours in which to meet. During that very short period of time, we became fast friends.

 

My one blog reader will recall we’d enjoyed an East Coast vacation in 2011 with the Millescamps family but hadn’t seen them since. We stay in close contact, however, and so the Millescamps – now living on an expat assignment with Goodyear Tires in Ghana – knew of our trip to England. Gilles – the family patriarch – needed to take a quick planning trip to his hometown of Lille and made the effort to come meet us during two of our four days in London. Reconnecting with him was an incredible treat. He’d not been to London, either, since 2009; it was very apt we’d have the chance to meet and play there again.

 

Cheers, London.

 

Gilles

 

 

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Blog part III

May 24, 2016 at 4:53 am (Uncategorized)

A few Facebook posts of mine revealed we were in London, and I had a few of my many FB friend (har!) ask what it was like having children along for the ride. When I was a kid and my folks used to return from a parents-only trip, they’d always say, “Everything about it was perfect, except you girls should have been there.” I never really understood that sentiment until I became a parent and our girls became sentient beings able to deal with crowds, some sleep-deprivation, foreign customs, foreign languages, tons of cigarette smoke, and uncertain victuals. Trips are made better with our children. Did we enjoy any alone time? Nope. Any intimacy? Nope-nope. Yup. Did they whine a bit? You bet. Were we on their schedule (for the most part)? Uh-huh.

 

Case in point: We went to the British Museum. It’s very possible tourists have died there, never to have been discovered again. The place is enormous beyond description; the items it holds due to plunder and pillage are truly an impressive lot. We enticed the girls to a place with “Museum” in its name by telling them we’d see actual mummies.

 

The first day we ventured to the museum, the bobbies had cordoned off the area and there were people scaling the enormous columns out front. They were dressed like lumberjacks, helmets and all, who scale trees to saw off top limbs. Turns out they were Greenpeace folks, demonstrating against BP’s sponsorship of the museum’s special exhibit, Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds. One kind bobby who dared answer questions of eager tourists with mummies on the brain said he didn’t know when the museum would next open, as they had to “negotiate” with the activists. Alyssa, at least, deemed that experience better than any damn museum.

 

protesters

Look between the fence posts; protesters up high.

After a couple days, we did return to the British Museum – a literal oasis of peace on this day – and made our way to the mummies. As we’d entered the free museum (donation suggested), Dave smartly grabbed a brochure highlighting the institution’s top-10 relics. He engaged both girls in helping him find the items that take the tourist through nearly the entire place. And we did hit the mummies, but that exhibit only was our 9th out of 10 total. Hayley declared 90 percent is still an “A” grade and so we all left, satisfied.

hieroglyphics

This makes Hebrew look simple.

porcelain collection

This piece is one of 1700 in one man’s Chinese porcelain collection, all of which are on display in a single room.

checking list

90% = A 

As the trip wound down, Dave asked me if I could live in a huge city like this. I could not. The activities to do here are endless and we took advantage of many: The British Museum, the London Eye, the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, Prince of Wales Theatre, The Globe, Harrods, the changing of the guard/Buckingham Palace, Parliament Square, the Tate Modern, Greenwhich, Warner Bros Studio Tour, the Making of Harry Potter, going to a pub with the kids in tow… And there remains a lifetime of things left to do, see, experience, taste. It’s exciting and filled with incredible history and educational opportunities.

 

But the crowds! And the pushing! And the bustling! And the cars on the wrong side of the street! No, I couldn’t live in a place like this; it’s like what many say about New York: It’s a great place to visit. Full stop.

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Blog part II

May 24, 2016 at 4:33 am (Uncategorized)

Here, whether in the countryside or in London, I constantly remind myself we’re in an English-speaking country, whereas in other European cities, I always have to remember English is not their first language. Sure, American and British English share a common foundation. But other than that, they truly are two languages apart. Here are a few phrases to give you just a taste:

 

Way out = Exit

Cheers = Excuse me; Thank you; Glad I could help you; F-off (they’re cunning, these Brits…)

Pardon = What the hell did you just say?

Fancy a…? = Would you like a…?

Franked = Pre-stamped mail

Right = OK then.

 

Beyond expressions and short phrases that differ from one another, when speaking in full sentences with British folks, one needs a pronunciation guide to understand one another. They said “Wha’?” every time I opened my mouth, and I said “What?” nearly every time they opened theirs.

 

Example: On my first morning run in London, I tried finding Hyde Park. I stopped what looked like a kind, sensitive guy, walking a very tiny, yappy dog (his look, down to the dog, made me think momentarily I was in France). Turns out he was very kind indeed but, damn, spoke only British English. “How do I get to Hyde Park from here?” “Right, you now are on Juke Street. You’ll stop at Oxford, and turn right.” I ran around in circles for a little while, searching for “Juke Street.” Then a street sign caught my eye: Duke Street. I paused. I’d been on the proper street all along; “D” comes out like “J.” I’d found the right street. I’d found the right street!!

 

On another occasion, I asked a bellhop the name of the neighborhood in which we found ourselves. “You’re in Maw’bahre,” he told me. I asked him once to repeat himself, as that sounded more like an African town than a local neighborhood. “Maw’bahre.” “Thank you,” I said politely, like the dumb American lass I am. I hadn’t a clue what he said, so I went searching for signage. Indeed, we were in Marble Arch, just like the lad had said. Oy.

 

At the Tate Modern, I saw – no, experienced – an arresting piece by Cildo Meireles called Babel 2001 . It is a tower comprised of about 800 radios – from the 1920s to the present – many of which are tuned to a just-barely-audible frequency so that the ear detects speech but cannot make out one single word being broadcast. In this very vibrant city, everything – walking the streets, cramming into the Tube, enjoying a gin in a pub, browsing a store whose contents are too expensive to consider purchasing, dallying in a museum, attempting to order an ice cream from a street cars – feels like it’s being done from within a Tower of Babel. I came across languages I could not identify and others that were more abundant than either American or even British English: French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Polish, Hebrew, German, Dutch, something from Scandinavia…

 

Even if the volume were turned off here, it doesn’t just sound like a Tower of Babel; it looks like one, too.

 

Orthodox Jews, Muslim men and women in all manner of garb, guys looking like they just walked off some soccer field in Northern Ireland, women in heels navigating narrow escalators with slats more narrow than their spikes, piercings and tats galore, hairdos in literally every shade of the rainbow, and more man-buns than Alyssa hopes to see in her lifetime.

 

[One very interesting cultural moment: While waiting for Alyssa near the dressing rooms at a Forever 21 (they, and H&Ms in Europe, have better variety and prices than in the U.S.), a heavily made up Muslim woman covered in black from head to toe exited one of the rooms. In her hand was a very slinky, black, faux leather halter top. I must admit to having been shocked at what seemed to be incredible incongruity between her outward appearance and clothing selection. But I later considered: This woman doesn’t sleep in her modest, billowing outerwear! And judging by her beauty, it’s likely she’d wow her companion with her suggestive Forever 21 purchase at home. I’d just not had any experience like this at home. Nor will I any time soon; the Muslim population of London is staggering to the uninitiated.]

 

We felt kinda ordinary, in our Nikes and jeans. But we needn’t have felt ordinary for long, however, considering the huge number of professional photos snapped of us. Hell, we felt famous. It’s true what is said of London: There are cameras EVERYWHERE. On every street corner, in every Underground stairwell, in every alleyway, in every store we ventured in to. I often feared while having a private moment in a public restroom (“toilet” in British English) that my moment perhaps wasn’t so private. There were even CCTV signs on rustic, historic buildings in the countryside; I’m certain the sheep there were tagged not just for their abundant wool but for the fact they likely had cameras hiding in their fluff.

 

sheep needing a sheer

surveillance

 

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A blog in four parts

May 24, 2016 at 4:27 am (Uncategorized)

Blog part I:

There is so much about Europe that’s better than America. Its café (or pub) culture. Its narrow, winding streets. Its architecture.

But its wi-fi sucks.

Example: Dave loves to be an expert in the latest app, particularly those that promote efficiency. And what’s more efficient in an unfamiliar place than a cell-phone based GPS system? As we left an evening production of the uproariously funny “Book of Mormon” at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Dave kept swearing under his breath as he became increasingly frustrated with his non-connecting GPS. He was trying to locate either the closest Tube station or Uber car for our commute home. We’d shuffle behind him for a block like ducklings and then stop behind him, waiting for him to swear while staring angrily down at his phone which wasn’t connecting to any helpful satellite. This went on for a few blocks, until Alyssa looked around and said, “There are taxis everywhere!” Dave pretended to ignore her entreaty. Until Alyssa stepped to the curb, put out her hand like some lifelong New Yorker, and yelled, “Taxi!” Exactly one nanosecond later, a taxi pulled up along side us and in we jumped. In five minutes, we were home; by then, Dave’s blood pressure seemed to have returned to normal.

Usually, when we’re away on an exciting trip, I like posting an entry a day. But that wasn’t to be on this journey. Rather, the attempt to find consistently running wi-fi has been a bit like attending a terrific party with grand hors d’oeuvres, none of which I can eat. (This one has gluten. Damn. This one has gooey gruyere. Damn. This one has prosciutto. Damn-damn.) In other words: You know sustenance is out there, but none is for you.

The last time the Knudsens were in England, it was in 2009, and we were here for less than two days, the memory of which is fogged by a jet-lag haze. And we’d stayed with friends in Watford, a small community on London’s outskirts. So we saw little and experienced less. Prior to that family trip, I had the fortune to visit London with my parents and sister; at that time, I was around the age Hayley and Alyssa are now (they’re 12 and 14, respectively).

That was a loooooong time ago, so this trip feels like the first time. And like the first time with many things, it’s awkward and a little uncomfortable, but I’m getting the hang of it.

However, one thing I do remember of London from my early teens – and praise god for – are the warnings, painted in white on the streets, telling you, “Look Right,” or “Look Left.” Were it not for those signs, I’d be dead. The English really have their way of doing things, and driving “on the wrong side” – on the left – is one of them. But the Brits lack consistency (which could be an English trait; I don’t yet have a conclusion on that one).

For example, in stairwells in the Underground/Tube, you’re supposed to stick to the right (and “mind the gap,” of course), though sometimes the signage says to stay left. While boating, you’re supposed to stick to the right. And when walking (or jogging) down the sidewalk, stay right. Considering I have a hard time finding my way out of a paper bag, I’m utterly confused along these London streets; it’s a miracle I’m writing this today, having found my way – all by myself! – on my morning runs from the Marylebone area of this Manhattan-like city to Hyde and Regents parks and back. (OK, OK, I did ask for directions the first time – of three different people.)

Something I’d not had the chance to do when here with my folks in the mid-80s is staying in and experiencing the English countryside. Yet on this trip, it was our first stop and where we spent four of eight days before spending the latter half in the London flat of very generous friends.

leftmiddle right

We arrived at Heathrow on a Saturday and drove north straightaway to the Hanbury Manor-cum-Marriott Hotel in Hertfordshire and spent one day there; our next stop, via Cambridge, was the village of Sandy. After two nights in a farm cottage there, we made our way to London (again via Cambridge, of which we couldn’t get enough).

Having recently wrapped up “Downton Abbey,” yet continuing to mourn the serial’s conclusion, I got a terrific fix from our countryside locales. Indeed, well prior to the Marriott’s purchase of the Hanbury Manor, it was a single family home. With grounds. And a nearby village. And acres and acres of rolling, unmanicured fields in about fifty shades of green. The theme song to “Downton Abbey” kept running through my head on a continuous loop chain, and I swear I saw Isis and the Dowager Countess. We did see the head cook, Mrs. Patmore – of that I’m certain.

Dave was incredibly brave to have rented a car; he remained its sole driver. Every time he got behind the wheel, he’d mutter to himself, “Stay left. Stay left.” It worked in nearly every instance, except one, where he hadn’t yet mastered how – and when – to yield to oncoming traffic on increasingly narrow roads through village after village. At one harrowing “give way” (yield, in American English), Dave finally just pulled over as far as he could to the left and let the car idle. The oncoming car did nothing of the sort; rather, it continued driving right on toward us. Until Mrs. Patmore herself was alongside Dave and rolled down her window. She scowled while her male counterpart in the passenger seat opened his quite toothless mouth, preparing to chew us out. Dave beat him to it, saying in clear American, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” To which Mrs. Patmore’s cavernous-mouth companion said in a lovely cockney: “Bleh. The’re American. They don’ know what the’ do’in.”

And on we trolleyed. Guffawing our asses off, poor bloke.

Our most memorable experience of the English countryside was at the wedding of a dear friend, which was the reason we’d flown across the pond in the first place. The bride and her fiancé had selected an out-of-the-way venue called South Farm in Shingay-cum-Wendy for their fairytale-like event. Guests arrived at 2 p.m.; I believe the last of the intimate group left at 11 p.m. It was hard to leave such an enchanting spot. Sheep grazed on open land. Wisteria drooped from eaves much like Lady Mary Grantham’s gowns drooped over her slight frame. The couple exchanged their emotional, personalized vows beneath a wooden gazebo. Nearby, a cock crowed and its hens pecked; a lactating brown sow with about seven spotted piglets muddied themselves, keeping clear of the gobbling turkey. Throughout the ceremony and then reception (complete with dinner for every dietary restriction; a bicycle replete with ice cream choices; and a flower-petal-laden, three-tiered cake), the sun set in a nearly clear sky upon acres and acres of both cultivated farmland and untamed, gently rolling land.

flowers

wisteria

sheep needing a sheer

Uniquely country.

 

The bride is American, the groom Spanish, the officiant a very proper English. The entire experience, magical.

Much like Cambridge. We took the advice of a university student (who was a chatty staffer at South Farm) and tried our hand at punting. Actually, the only brave souls to try it were Dave and Alyssa. Hayley and I braced ourselves in the wide wooden, flat-bottom boat for either of them to punt themselves (via a long, hefty wooden stick…think Venice) right into the River Cam, but neither did. Much like I’ve yet to meet my maker on the grill of a London vehicle, their remaining dry was nothing short of a miracle.

We drifted past Trinity College, King’s College, University of Cambridge itself, each gothic structure more imposing, stunning, and envy-inducing than the next. While rolling along, we came across a few students studying on the banks of the river; we yelled to them, wanting to know at which of the town’s colleges they were studying and in what disciplines. One young woman was as smitten with her student experience (in the sciences) as we were as tourists: Beaming, she informed us she is a Trinity student and did a little jig with her torso indicating her thrill with the locale. And who could blame her. I wanted to head straight for one of myriad libraries (including one connected to the iconic Bridge of Sighs), don tweed, and crack a book by Dickens or Darwin or D.H. Lawrence.

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