Scottish Rhapsody

Scottish thistle... symbol of Scotland.

Scottish thistle. It’s an ancient symbol of Scotland– some say because a Norse invader’s yelp after stepping barefoot on one of these thistles alerted a party of Scottish warriors of an imminent attack.

“Gosh, look at those cobwebs!  Here, let me just knock those down and do a quick sweep up.  Claire?  Would you please wipe off the table, honey?  And Quinny, prop that door open, will you?  It smells a little musty in here.”

“That’s better.  Now.  I’ll just rinse out the basket and we can make ourselves some coffee.  Cappuccino?  Latte?  Or was it double espresso macchiato?  It’s been so long…”

I would apologize for going AWOL for six months, but that seems a little conceited– as if you were all hanging around waiting for my words and my figment-blend espresso (yes, figment of my imagination…)  But I did miss writing to you over the last several months.  You may not realize it, but when I write this blog, there’s a dialogue in my head between us– the author and the theoretical reader.  (If you think that’s creepy, then maybe you could leave a real comment so the conversation is not all imaginary!)  In any case, I do hope we can wash up the coffee mugs, clean the big window in front– so the sun shines in on the old round table again– and get back to meeting here to catch up every week or two.

Last weekend was a school holiday here– fall break for the American School kids– and we’ve just come back from a long weekend in Scotland.  I know that sounds exotic, but from here it’s really not… just four hours on a train from King’s Cross, it’s a comparatively easy out-of-the-city getaway.

Croquet on the lawn at the Roxburghe Hotel.

Croquet on the lawn at the Roxburghe Hotel.

We were meant to be fishing and doing archery and such.  But the country hotel had to drain the trout lake on account of some algae thing, so while Clay still did his salmon fishing on the river Tweed with the ghillie (Scottish fishing guide), the kids and I did not fish.  This fly fishing on the river is actually kind of a big deal– the number and location of fishermen are regulated, with each fishable river having a certain number of “beats,” or stretches of river from which a person or a small party can fish.  There are reservation systems for the various beats, and the Roxburghe sporting estate owns four beats on two rivers.  The ghillie Clay worked with has an international reputation as one of the best, and he kind of reminded me of a Scottish Steve Irwin (you know, the Crocodile Hunter?).

The archery also fell through– for the simple logistical reason that it turned out to be 40 miles from the hotel rather than onsite.  So we took long walks around the grounds, learned to play croquet on the front lawn (which the kids totally loved), and Clay and I got to try clay pigeon shooting (which we both loved!).  And who knew? The clay pigeons do not look at all like pigeons!  They are just clay discs that get shot up like frisbees from behind a little rise.  I have to say that I did really well and hit the first several attempts, with the great coaching of the shooting instructor, Alastair, whom I could mostly understand (when I leaned back too far, he said, “dinna dae agin!” and then translated, ‘don’t do that again.’)  My triumph only lessened ever so slightly when I realized that I was shooting buckshot rather than single small bullets.  So my fantasy that I was a sharpshooter was maybe a little overblown, but still…

Anyway, on the more cultivated side of things, inside the house, Claire enjoyed having tea in the drawing room each afternoon; and the grownups enjoyed sampling a different whisky (or two) in the library before dinner each night.  It was really like being in a grand country house for the weekend– all Downton Abbey-esque!  We even got to know the staff by name; and if there was any drama going on there, we were as oblivious as the Lord and Lady Grantham.

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Contemplating the sheep.

On one of our walks, the kids and I met a really nice local lady and her dog, who was so like our Gus in the face and in his manner… I hardly know whether it was more pleasant or painful.  He played with the kids, and then he came over and laid his head against my leg, and just like that my heart felt like a drippy little squeeze toy.  After we said goodbye and walked back toward the house, the sound of bagpipes suddenly rose up from somewhere on grounds.  Seriously– does everyone find that sound so stirring, or do I have more Scots blood in me veins than I thought?  Turns out the piper was for a wedding taking place at the house, so the kids and I sat on a bench a ways out front by the croquet lawn and watched the gowns and kilts go in.  Unfortunately, the hotel also forgot to communicate that they were not serving Saturday lunch because of the wedding.  So we found ourselves in a cab headed for the village after Clay came in from the fishing.

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Floors Castle, seat of the Duke of Roxburghe

That’s how we wound up at Floors Castle, which is the home of the Duke of Roxburghe (our hotel was one of his houses, too).  It was the first time, I think, we’d been through a castle where people actually reside.  Very strange to see all the modern family photographs sitting around on the shelves, right alongside fairly priceless antiques and art by the likes of Matisse.  Apparently, when tourist season is over, they simply remove the ropes from the walk thru area and the family settles back in to the whole castle (after a summer of confinement in just one wing– quite a hardship, as you can see in the photo above).  Incidently, a turn-of-the-century Duke of Roxburghe married an American heiress from New York, whose immense fortune and personal attention oversaw the refurbishment of the castle (and undoubtedly the topping up of the family coffers).  More Downton Abbey, anyone?

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Secret Gardens?

After a quick tour, we walked across the grounds to the garden cafe for a late lunch.  I insisted then on walking through the castle gardens, and we were rewarded with a gorgeous stroll and a really fun playground for the kids.  Inside the walled garden, which led to other walled gardens, I really could put myself in one of my favorite childhood stories, The Secret Garden.  Clay sat in the sun near the playground, while the kids played on the zip line and the climbing structure.  I walked along the paths, taking pictures and imagining a little girl with her skipping rope, watching the robin near the ivy-covered wall… and fitting the key she found into the rusty door lock.  Loved it!

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It was also the weekend of the Kelso Horse Races in the local village, so we cabbed back in on Sunday for a really nice gastropub lunch and then to watch some races on the big turf track– steeplechase, like in Mary Poppins!  It was neat that the jockeys and horses were right in among the crowds at times.  And the Scots, like all Brits do fancy a flutter (like to place a bet, that is) when given the chance!

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Quinn picked himself a cracking new Scottish tweed cap at the races, which is quite a change from the one he sported around Edinburgh and throughout the Highlands on our last trip to Scotland, back in May.  That older hat, in fact, has acquired its own name and personality as my-other-son-Hamish (see photo below)!  He travels with us sometimes– went to Ohio this summer, actually, and we left him behind… er, I mean, he got to stay a couple extra weeks with Grandma and Grandpa, eventually catching up with us via first-class on the US Postal Service.  Quite the posh life that Hamish is living– none of us got to fly first-class!

Meet my other son, "Hamish!"

Meet my other son, “Hamish!”

In fact, I really must dredge up a few old pictures from the earlier trip to Scotland– the Highlands are so beautiful.  Here is where the blog differs from real coffee with friends in an actual cafe:  I would never carry on so long and show you all these pictures in person.  But then again, the advantage of the blog for you is that, if you get bored and walk away, I will never know!  My cappuccino has gone cold, and it’s time to load the dishwasher and get a few things accomplished.  Have a wonderful day, friends.  Meet you back here soon?

Half Done is Well Begun

This is the Bratislava of postcards...

This is the Bratislava of postcards…

The Bratislava of my run...

… and this is the Bratislava of my run.

I know, I know… Mary Poppins said it the other way ’round: “Well begun is half done.”  But then, she wasn’t out running half marathons, was she? I mean, living in pre-sufferage times, wearing those shoes and corsets, and carrying that amazing umbrella and overnight case… not conducive to recreational running, right?  But I have been running– sans corset and heeled boots, much less umbrella.  The Bratislava half marathon is done, and running– for me– is not over, but simply well begun.

Warning:  the rest of this post contains explicit running talk… do not read if you are sensitive– or get bored to tears by– this topic!  Plus, it’s really, really loooong– almost like a half-marathon!  A Fresh Cuppa Chaos will return soon with its usual coffee-swilling fare! 

Sunday, March 24 had long loomed on my iCal as the date marked, “Bratislava??”  The question marks really say it all:  I didn’t commit to the trip until February, and even then I never bothered to remove the question marks from the calendar.  You see, it was a half-marathon destination trip for the running group I had sort-of joined in the Fall.  And by “sort of,” I mean, I was a little surprised myself every time I showed up to run with them; and I was, frankly, astonished when we started racking up serious mileage.  And then one cold, cold day, I found myself lined up to start a race in an East European city– Whaaat?

Starting line... not everyone was as nervous as I was!

Starting line… not everyone was as nervous as I was!

I won’t say it was a piece of cake– I had to push through it all the way.  We started off at a faster pace than we’d done before.  I ran with too much gear, and mismanaged it, wearing too many layers to remove while running, and overstuffing my little camelback pack after an impulsive, starting line decision to carry rather than to jettison the outer layers.  After about 2k, I was ready to shed my outer jacket, but I had to struggle with the pack and the jacket and the whole kit– and running about a minute/mile faster than our normal pace, juggling everything kind of put me in a bad place.  Our pace group of about 10 women stuck together, and some of us chatted as usual, but I was winded from the start and never fell into the groove that makes running with them so much fun.

But, I was determined to stick with them, because I was terrified of running the whole way without these ladies!  I stayed quiet while they waved at cheering spectators, and listened to their chat without contributing much (sorry!).  Bit by bit we ticked off the kilometers, running through the cold, windswept streets of the more industrial parts of Bratislava.  We hit the time where we were slated to take a gel (basically a tube of gooey, peanut butter-like stuff that provides your body with the fuel to keep going so it doesn’t start burning the wrong kind of tissue), and despite us having done long enough runs to test it out several times, I just wasn’t able to get it down.  I sucked down a couple of swallows, tried to drink my water, and found I couldn’t get a decent drink down either.  I just kept going.

Eventually, we hit a hill headed up into the old city centre from the postcard (above).  Thank goodness for those Hampstead Heath hills I ran through the fall and winter in London, because I actually could bear the uphill portion.  And then the downhill portion, running out of the charming part of town, was a quick drop before the road leveled out to another less scenic portion running along a major road parallel to the river.  By then we could see a steady stream of faster runners coming back toward us along the river on the last 5k stretch… but it seemed like we would never get to the place where we would make the turn back ourselves!  At this point, I did manage to get down the rest of the gel I’d been carrying in my fist for the last 5 miles, and I swallowed a bit of water to help it down, though I knew I should have had more.  We finally made the turn back to run along the river on the homestretch and– yikes was it cold and windy along there!

Our group began to spread out along here, and I found myself running with one of our coaches.  When a motorcycle escort came through pushing us to one side, Syma encouraged me to pick up the pace so I could finish with the men’s marathon winner, who was coming up on his finish somewhere behind the motorcycle.  I so wanted to, but just didn’t have the juice!  One of our runners finished her half at the same time as the winner of the women’s full marathon, and there’s a fantastic picture of her raising her arms in victory at the finish line just behind the marathon winner– a Kenyan professional.  Wouldn’t that be a fantastic souvenir???  You wouldn’t have to tell anyone that you were running the half…

Cold, tired, slightly miserable... but I did it!

Cold, tired, slightly miserable… but I did it!

Anyway, I did finish slightly ahead of the pace goal we’d set (2:19, and the goal had been 2:20-2:25).  Though it wasn’t pretty, and I didn’t run the race feeling happy and triumphant, I did keep putting one foot in front of the other!  I’m not ashamed to admit that I had a little moment to myself after the finish chute (when I was actually quite glad I’d stuffed those old yoga pants in my pack, because it was FREEZING!).  I sat down on a bench to slip the pants over my shoes and broke into private tears because I had just never, ever, expected to do a run like that.  It was really quite a feeling– and I would have to say that doing something hard and unexpected and out of your comfort zone is a very good thing to do if you possibly can as you get a bit older.  It reminds you that there’s still so much ahead of you…

Which, I guess, is why I registered for the Windsor half-marathon in September.

>>>>><<<<<

I find I can’t end this running-related post without at least acknowledging the awful events at the Boston Marathon.  That something so life-affirming could be attacked in such a twisted way is tragic.  Even at a minor race on a cold day in Eastern Europe, the mood was excited and happy; and the finish line was a place to celebrate.  The finish line should always be a place of celebration.  That anyone would seek to steal that is just completely and utterly senseless.  My heart goes out to the families of those whose race ended that day, as well as to those who didn’t finish that race and maybe won’t get the chance again.  But runners around the world– some of them, at least– will carry them in their hearts the next time they cross a finish line.  I know this is true:  I went out to watch the London Marathon the week after Boston, and I saw the black ribbons worn by the runners, as well as the occasional Boston t-shirt and Red Sox hat rounding the bend into the final stretch from Embankment at Big Ben.  There may not always be the outward signs, but runners will remember their own.

Finally.  Right now, right here would be the appropriate place to say a couple of thank you’s (like I’m receiving an Academy Award or something– geez!  How obnoxious am I?)

There’s really no way to say a big enough thank you to Paula Mitchell for this gift of running, which is really about way more than just running, it turns out.  Paula’s exceptional passion for helping women learn to run is simply inspiring.  Without her, most of our group would never have had this experience.  And Syma, whom I mentioned earlier, saw that I was struggling that day, and she almost personally escorted me through the race– thank you, Syma, for ensuring that I saw the day through, and for pushing our group to exceed our own expectations!  

Patricia and Kelli transporting the "Sketchy Box" to Bratislava:)

Patricia and Kelli transporting the “Sketchy Box” to Bratislava:)

My Bratislava roommate, Heidi, offered just the nudge I needed to finally register for the race when she asked if I wanted to room with her– thanks, Heidi!  Running buddies Jody, Catherine, Carmine, Charlotte, Niyani, Ariadne, Mary, Julie, and many more– thank you for making the whole endeavor so much fun!  And most certainly not least, Kelli… thank you for encouraging me to try it, introducing me to Paula, seeing that she had my e-mail address, and being such an inspiration, along with Patricia, in all your marathon endeavors.  I never wanted to be a runner, but it sure was exciting to cheer  you both on!

Never say Never

Just happened to be running by Big Ben when the clock struck 12!  That's a lot of bongs...

Just happened to be running by Big Ben when the clock struck 12… that’s a lot of bongs!  I had to turn around at the traffic light and snap a photo.

I admit, I’ve been hesitant to post much about running.  As a devoted couch-sitter for the last several years (if not most of my life), I’m sort of allergic to runner’s talk.  My eyes glaze over when people start talking about miles logged, or pacing, or running gear.  I tune out completely when it comes to races they’ve run.  And if they happen to mention “runner’s high” or endorphins, I have always felt secure in my belief that chocolate does the same thing without all the effort.   So with apologies to my friends who have the same allergy I just described, I promise this blog is not generally going to run on and on about… running.  But that’s what I’m here for today.  Sunday is the half-marathon I’ve committed to in Bratislava, so running has ramped up and taken an increasingly large wedge of my time over the last month.

I swore I was not going to fall for the whole running gig– too much time down the drain, and too much wear and tear on my already crickety knees and ankles.   But the fact of the matter is that I have been running for nearly six months now.  I feel great, and it’s part of my life– so I guess it’s time for me to come out of the closet about it.  And now that I’m running all over London, I’m really enjoying that familiarity of city monuments being landmarks on my regular routes.  Instead of setting off specifically to see Big Ben, it’s where I turn right and cross the river on one of my runs.  Trafalgar Square is a halfway mark– I either turn right and run to Buckingham Palace from there, or I turn left and run up The Strand.  Getting to see and know London in this way is yet another unexpected benefit of my very surprising detour into running.

It’s been pretty cold and wet in London recently.  One day recently I had a particularly hard time making myself get out there (but surviving that 13-mile run coming up is pretty good incentive, it turns out.)  I finally kicked myself out the door, looking fairly ridiculous in my daughter’s running cap– which is a little small for me and tends to pop off the top of my head, despite the efforts of my scrawny ponytail to anchor it in place.  I like to start with a nice long, downhill incline toward Camden, enjoying the view over London toward the new Shard building.  Camden is a busy, edgy area with street markets and lots of vendors selling everything from tacos and donuts to bustiers and big boots.  I always have to dodge around people meandering the sidewalks, but it never bothers me much at the beginning of the run, when I’m still fresh.

On that day, I had a moment’s eye contact with the guy wearing a sandwich board advertising one of the many tattoo parlors– we silently agreed I wasn’t part of his target demographic.  The lady of a certain age in running tights and a turquoise jacket doesn’t usually stop off for a quick piercing or tattoo (sweaty eyebrows are a piercing disaster waiting to happen!  And please let’s not talk about navel piercings…)  My running app calls out one mile exactly when I cross the canal in Camden– I will miss that feature when we move and my run starts from somewhere else.

A snap of Singin' in the Rain theatre while I was waiting at a light.  Should I admit that right after this picture I accidently snapped about fourteen really unflattering shots of my chin as I ran?  They've all been deleted, thank you very much!

A snap of Singin’ in the Rain theatre while I was waiting at a light. Should I admit that right after this picture I accidentally snapped about fourteen really unflattering shots of my chin as I ran? They’ve all been deleted, thank you very much!

This first half of my run after Camden is basically right above the Northern Line on the tube:  Mornington Crescent, Warren Street, Goodge Street, all pretty nondescript until I run smack into Tottenham Court Road tube construction.  After a little detour around the fences, I’m suddenly in theatre-land, running right past Leicester Square.  It gets a little crowded in this area, but not too bad considering how dense the crowd is just on the other side of Charing Cross Road, on the pedestrian area where they sell all the last-minute theatre tickets.  (Laura, we bought tickets there!  And Sandy, I think that’s where you buy them).  And then, who knew it was so close to Trafalgar Square?  I never did until I started doing these runs.  The Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields is just up the street and across from Trafalgar Square, with its tourists, its steps, its fountain and column and lions.  Today there were lots of the guys who pose as statues (taking gratuities from tourists to get their photos taken with them), as well as a kilted bagpipe player in full blow.  I had to dodge behind a gold pirate “statue” wearing a Captain Sparrow wig and Ray-bans, as a class of young kids spotted and mobbed him.  You may remember I have a theory that Johnny Depp gets bored and goes to Covent Garden in full Jack Sparrow kit… but this was definitely not him.

Anyway, I bounced on through the crowd– then stopped on the other side of the square and looked back over my shoulder.  This is what I saw…IMG_1132

IMG_1133And this, in the other direction.  Then I ran past the Canadian embassy (and the Texas Embassy, which is a cantina located in the former White Star Shipping offices– you remember, the Titanic people?  The actual Texas Embassy from 1836-1845 was not too far from here, though.)  From there into St. James Park, across in front of Buckingham Palace (where I unintentionally photo-bombed a handful of tourist snaps– really, it’s impossible to stay out of all of them!), and on to Hyde Park.  Then a tube ride home from Hyde Park Corner, because I was out of time before the kids were due home.  And because I had already been running for over an hour.

So maybe you can see how running has become a pretty fun pastime for me.  With all the things to visit, I barely notice that I’m actually running!  And that’s just when I’m alone.  At least once a week I run with about thirty women who are also training as beginners for the Bratislava half-marathon.  We meet up in the morning and take to the streets together– most recently running through the city and out to Kew Gardens, a final 11-mile trek before our trip.  I wish I’d snapped a photo, but I was too busy running and chatting!  There will be at least one more post about running– the one where I tell you about the fantastic group I run with, and how I ended up doing this thing that I said I would never do.

Never say never, right?

Of Falcons and Field Trips

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A real, live falcon perched outside the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square– right in the middle of London!  One of those moments it did pay to look up at what everyone was staring at.

Just when you thought you had escaped my endless narratives of what we were doing while I was on my unscheduled blogging sabbatical… well, you still have time to click away from the page…   I’ve been reminded I never finished the five months part of the deal, though I did give you the five days.  So tonight I give you:  January!  (cue trumpet trills, or at least kazoo calls).

The week the littles went back to school, I got run over by some virus.  I was down hard for a day, and then really weak and tired.  But Will and Chloe were here, and I wasn’t going to waste our precious time recuperating in bed.  So once the fever passed, I dragged myself out to spend time with them– doing pub lunches, making a visit to the National Gallery, and taking a boat trip to Greenwich.

The day we went to the gallery we noticed a bunch of people pointing their cameras up toward the building facade.  Chloe and I rolled our eyes at each other, not understanding the compulsion that makes people take pictures of random things that “might be important landmarks.”  Not that anyone elected us the culture jury, mind you.  But then we looked up.  And we saw what they were photographing– a falcon come to perch near the front entrance.  Upon further observation, we saw that there were actually two or three flying in Trafalgar Square, and they were accompanied by handlers, to whom they returned periodically– perching on their arms, just like the falconers you might see in a King Arthur movie!  Pretty amazing.

Inside the museum, Chloe was pleased to note that she had absorbed something from her Italian Renaissance Art class in the fall (yes, liberal arts degree).  And Will was happy to admire the Turner landscapes, though I think he still prefers Bierstadt’s American West landscapes.  As for me, any day I get to visit the Leonardo da Vinci cartoon is a good day.  (No, it’s not animated and it doesn’t have a zany laugh track playing in the background).

On the water... (river photos from a 3rd grade field trip in the fall).

On the water… (river photos from a 3rd grade field trip in the fall).

Unfortunately, Chloe fell hard to whatever bug we had going (I swear it wasn’t my fault!), so she couldn’t join us the day we took the boat up the River Thames.  It was cold and slightly miserable that day, but fortunately we were sitting inside.  If you’ve never done this little trip, it’s well worth it– London looks different from the river.  And it’s so mind-boggling, because the river twists and turns so much you can hardly figure out where you are– it seems like St Paul’s Cathedral ought to be somewhere up ahead on your left and you suddenly see the dome off on your right.

Cruising past the HMS Belfast-- if you're very lucky, the officers on deck will wave, as they did that day to the 3rd graders!

Cruising past the HMS Belfast– if you’re very lucky, the officers on deck will wave, as they did that day to the 3rd graders!

Depending on where you board, you see the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, the Globe, the HMS Belfast, the Tower of London… well, most everything!  The transit boat is much faster, but the slightly slower tourist boats give you a narrative with all kinds of landmarks and interesting bits of London history thrown in (like pirate executions, famous riverside pubs, histories of the many bridges, and what that building-that-looks-so-familiar-but-you-have-no-idea-what-it-is actually is).  Both kind of boats leave from Westminster and Embankment, and the people in the ticket office at Embankment are really helpful.  Also, if you have an Oyster card, you can show it to get 30% off your ticket…

Looking back at the Shard after coming under the Tower Bridge.

Looking back at the Shard after coming under the Tower Bridge.

Our destination by boat was Greenwich, which is the maritime town that hosts the world’s Meridian Line and Greenwich Mean Time (GMT? the zero point for time zones around the world).  It also happens to be a charming place with lots to see– The Old Royal Naval College (designed by Christopher Wren), the Royal Observatory, and The Cutty Sark (fastest clipper ship of its time).  Of course, there’s also a Byron Burger restaurant with its siren song right on the pier when you step off the boat in a January chill.  That was our first stop, as Will and I couldn’t resist having a ‘proper burger,’ as their slogan calls it.

The hull of The Cutty Sark-- the new museum design lets you admire the shapely bones of the fastest clipper in history.  It's a very cool space-- also with a masthead collection and a coffee shop.

The hull of The Cutty Sark– the new museum design lets you admire the shapely bones of the fastest clipper in history– while sipping an espresso from the cafe.

Then it was on to The Cutty Sark, which has a colorful history as a China tea trade ship beginning in the 1860s, then a cargo-hustling ship (with mutinies and murders, even!) once steam ships took over the tea trade, an Australian wool-trade ship, and finally a Portuguese cargo ship.  Eventually she was brought back to England and finally placed in dry dock in Greenwich as a museum in tribute to that era of shipping history, as well as to the ship’s speed record-breaking past.  A fire on board nearly destroyed her, but led to a major preservation effort that encased her hull in molten gold.  Okay, it’s not molten gold, but it looks like it, and I got your attention back after my humdrum history lesson, right?  Anyway, it’s a good example of how to turn a really bad thing into something good.  We went to the museum when the kids were little, before the fire, and it has seen a serious upgrade, with the encased hull becoming a major feature rather than a tragic ending for the ship.

From there we trudged through the town and up a hill to the Royal Observatory, going through Greenwich Park, which was still all torn up and muddy from the Olympic Equestrian events held there last summer.  Did you catch any of those?  I did not, but what a cool setting for them: between the Royal Observatory and the Old Royal Naval College.

The Old Royal Naval College, with the remains of the Olympic Equestrian venue in the foreground, and Canary Wharf (London's newer financial district) in the background.

The Old Royal Naval College, with the remains of the Olympic Equestrian venue in the foreground, and Canary Wharf (London’s newer financial district) in the background.

At the top of a very steep hill is the Royal Observatory.  It’s hard to imagine any place in London being a good spot for observing a clear view of the night skies, but I suppose this is as good as it gets.  The clouds do part occasionally.  IMG_0995At any rate, they were able to work out from here a randomly inserted vertical line across the globe to divide East from West– the Prime Meridian, Zero Degrees Longitude.  Yes.  There is an actual line.  You can just see it painted down the window in the photo at left, and it runs across the courtyard then stops at a sculpture that points off in the continuation of the line, much like the old arrows in geometry that tell you the line goes on and on forever.  We also enjoyed climbing up into the dome of the old observatory and seeing the massive apparatus and its housing.

Shall we just say the telescope is 'bigger than a breadbox'?

Shall we just say the telescope is ‘bigger than a breadbox’?

I wish I could remember specs, or even how it compares to other telescopes around the world, but those facts just don’t stay in my head.  (And I’m sure you’re glad of that, as this whole post has been a bit schoolmarmish).  But fear not… I’m nearing the end of the field trip.  We did stop in a museum at the Old Royal Naval College on the way back to our Thames boat, and we caught a very nice Ansel Adams exhibit.  Definitely on target with the East meets West theme, to see all those gorgeous photographs of the American West.  As if he needed any encouragement, I do think it made Will more ready than ever to get back to his Colorado home– where he would be headed within a few days.  Actually, it made me want to go there, too!

IMG_1001Before the big kids left, we took the opportunity to celebrate Claire’s 9th birthday.  Our special guest was Marblehead friend Madeline, who was on her way back to university in Scotland.  The girls probably didn’t like me snapping their photo on the tube, but it was a good thing I did, as I don’t have any other pictures of them together this time.  On Saturday, Claire took a birthday entourage including Mom, big sister Chloe and friend Madeline to the salon to get her ears pierced.  But by Sunday noon, all the big kids were gone and we were left feeling a bit desolate again.

Hampstead Heath in snow.

Hampstead Heath in snow.

Because I just can’t end this on that sad sentence, I will slip in a photo of late January snowfall in London.  Quite the big doings here.  Just a week before the snowfall, I had been kind of making fun of the little shop down the street with the enormous pile of plastic sleds (or sledges, as they call them here) for sale.  It really doesn’t snow much in London, you know.  Day of the snowfall?  Yes, I was queued up with half a dozen other locals to buy a sled or two.  Sometimes a gamble pays off, eh?

This one is for the grandparents!

This one is for the grandparents!

That, my friends, was January.  February’s Harry Potter studios and the London Eye, plus running tours and whatever else, will have to wait for another post– or maybe we will just Spring Ahead to March.  On that note, sorry about your lost hour this weekend, U.S. friends– now I will be even more confused about the time differences separating us.  Perhaps I should return to Greenwich for a recalibration…

Roman Holidays, Part I

St. Peter's at sunset from the Borghese Gardens.

St. Peter’s at sunset from the Borghese Gardens.

IMG_4108So you’ve heard about the Pope stepping down, and the Vatican subsequently being struck by lightning?  Super weird, huh?

No lightning when we were there in December.  It was business as usual, except that they were setting up St. Peter’s Square for New Year’s Mass.  Sorry, by the way, for the trite blog title.  Such a toss-up:  use the obvious and be a cliche? or skip it and wonder if people think it didn’t occur to you?

I snapped this when I noticed the sun illuminating the fountain-- I love that the Sister walked through as I snapped.

I snapped this with my iPhone when I noticed the sun illuminating the fountain– I love that the Sister walked through as I snapped.

It should have been obvious to us that the Vatican would draw a crowd at Christmas.  It was certainly obvious the minute we stepped into the Vatican Museums.  It was a little less magical than the first time we went there, when we went through with a guide who skillfully led us through ahead of the crowds and landed us in the Sistine Chapel before anyone else got there.  Twenty minutes alone with Michaelangelo… that was something.  This time we went on our own and, consequently, had to contend with the huge tour groups and the swell of people all pressing on to the same destination: that amazing painted chapel.  It’s 500 years old now, and I’ve read that they may have to start limiting the number of viewers, as all our breath and sweat are beginning to ruin the frescoes.

IMG_4092As we left the museum, we found ourselves exiting via a spiral staircase we hadn’t seen on our previous visit (because that fancy guide took us round by some private staircase used by people who have an audience with the Pope!).  My family patiently allowed me to send them ahead and make them pose for a photo on the spirals across from me.  They even stayed still long enough for me to zoom in so you can actually see them (but not the staircase– funny how that works– and I chose the picture that shows the staircase better).  But they weren’t patient enough to wait around while I tried to get a good shot of the tall Christmas tree in the center of the spiral.  I never did manage a great shot, but I did get a couple of angles to help me remember what struck me about the scene.  With my lack of technical skills in photography, that is usually what I have to aim for!

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There are just a few other things to see in Rome, of course…

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I think this photo credit actually goes to Clay.

IMG_4142We did hook into a tour for the Coliseum this time, because waiting in line on our own would have taken hours.  We listened and learned for a bit, and then went our own way after a while on the inside.  What a pleasure it was to turn our pasty winter faces to the sun for a few moments.  I could claim that we were imagining the scenes of old.  IMG_4141

But I might as well admit we were mostly soaking in some Vitamin D.  Although, I’m not sure what Quinn is doing in the picture– possibly shining Will’s Timberlands?  The littles were pretty into the Coliseum.  We read up on it– even the gory parts– in the “Not for Parents” Rome book they got for Christmas, and Quinn brought home one of those mini models.  I confess, one of us taught the 7-year-old to deliver the line, “Are you not entertained?” with exactly the right inflection while we were in the Coliseum.  I fear I will insult your cultural intelligence, but I can’t resist throwing out the question… Can you name the movie?

A favorite view from within the Coliseum.

A favorite view from within the Coliseum.

A favorite view into the Coliseum.

A favorite view into the Coliseum.

And then there is the Forum.

And then there is the Forum.

There’s so much more of Rome to tell.  Come back for another if you have the patience, and I’ll share some stories and photos of just being out and about in the city.  In the meantime, Arrivederci!

Cafe Cortado: A Valentine

Breakfast in Spain.  Sometimes you have to make the tough choices, like whether to have the coffee or the sangria... (note how they're both so ready at hand!).

Breakfast in Spain. Sometimes you have to make the tough choices:  like whether to have the coffee or the sangria… (note how they’re both so ready at hand in the Mercado in the morning!).

Cafe Cortado: two words to make a coffee lover’s heart leap.  Clay and I discovered this perfect, perfect little espresso drink for ourselves many years ago in a hotel on the coast of Spain.  It was love at first encounter.  We had the room service waiter bring us a second round, and then a third!  (And then we ran caffeine-induced laps around the marble lobby… no, not really).

November 28 marked a milestone wedding anniversary for us.  The age-old question has a little twist in our family:  Instead of “What do you get for the man who has everything?” it’s “Where do you take the guy who travels everywhere?”  Somewhere with good coffee, of course!  But, hmmm.  Italy has good coffee.  So does France, and Spain, as I’ve just said.  And Scandinavia and Belgium and Turkey– and Ireland, if you count Irish Coffee.  So maybe coffee isn’t such a good way to decide.  Just a thought.  Though I do much of the actual travel planning for us, I never decide all on my own where we are staying, much less where we are going.

Here’s how it normally works.  We talk about three or four places we might go on the next break, then I jump online and start looking for places to stay and deals to be had in each.  I look and look.  And I look.  And then, when I’ve narrowed it down to a list of something like forty-three possible accommodations in half a dozen different cities, I start asking Clay (or anyone else who will listen) for their opinions.  I do this for as long as they will listen, and then when they walk away, I start looking at new ones.  By this time, they are all blending together anyway.  Now, Clay hates dithering, and I’m pretty sure he also hates looking at lodgings online– though it could just be that, with me, looking at anything online tends to turn into dithering.  Maybe I am sort of obsessive about reading the reviews.  But, we always get to a decision.  Eventually.

This time I was on my own, though.  It was relatively easy to settle on Madrid, because– well, cafe cortado!  No, not really.  Actually, it was one place Clay hadn’t been yet in all his work travels.  Also, I wanted to surprise him with tickets to a Real Madrid football (soccer) game.  At the time I booked, tickets weren’t available yet, nor was the time of the game definite– in fact, they had not yet determined if the game would be Saturday or Sunday that weekend!  And it’s not like I was planning months in advance– haven’t I already conveyed that I’m not that organized?  But I think those La Liga people are even worse:  three weeks ahead of time, they don’t even know what day the game will be played!  I booked our return flight for as late as possible on Sunday, hoping I would be able to pull off the surprise– but in the end the game was set for Sunday night and we weren’t able to make it.

Looking over the Gran Via-- busy shopping street in Madrid.

Looking over the Gran Via– busy shopping street in Madrid.

Never mind.  We consoled ourselves quite well with food and drink.  Oh, the tapas!  Fried artichokes to die for… and the Iberico ham!… and manchego… and I can’t even remember it all!  I wish I had taken pictures of the food, as Will likes to do (before and after pics, in his case!).  We were given a lovely room with two balconies looking out over the Gran Via.  We could just cross the street and be instantly in the warren of little streets that make up part of the centro and huertas barrios– which is where people go for everything from protest marches (some big one about hospital workers was going on while we were there) to live music at night (the jazz kind more than the dance kind).  We spent a lot of time walking those streets, soaking up the vibe, trying restaurants and tapas bars, and simply crossing through on our way to the museums and the royal palace.

One of the peaceful streets curving off of a busy plaza.

One of the peaceful streets curving off of a busy plaza.

One moment you could be in a pretty, peaceful looking street with lots of old world character, and the next moment you stepped out into a Plaza, where vendors were hawking their cheap souvenirs and  street performers– the kind who try to get you to pay to take your picture with them– were using their little voice changing toy to make themselves sound like crying babies.  Yes, it could be an assault on the senses!  The most famous plaza, the Plaza Mayor, was half taken over by a Christmas market.  This was disappointing, as the #1 must-do in the Madrid book we bought was to “watch the passing parade in Plaza Mayor.”  The accompanying picture in the book shows cafe seating all around the Plaza and people strolling along in the sun.  Oh well, next time! This time we got to see market stalls full of crazy hats and cheap toys– which I suppose is just another part of the parade, right?  And there wasn’t a lot of sun, but then it didn’t rain too terribly much either.

Part of the Plaza Mayor.

Part of the Plaza Mayor under Christmas siege.

Sometimes we saw things we didn’t really understand– small wonder, I guess, since neither of us really speaks Spanish.  We were walking along a pedestrian street one morning when this band of singers and strummers in their Zorro-esque dress came by.  By the time I fished my phone out for the picture, there was no time to film the musical part– I could only snap a photo.  It seems like there is always a procession of one sort or another going through the streets in Spain.  I really ought to learn Spanish…

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Along these same lines of misunderstanding, we found ourselves speaking French with a palace security guard who was trying to explain to us that our ticket did not allow us to be in the rooms we were walking through.  She was very kind and all, it was just a little surreal to find that we could communicate in French, though she didn’t speak English and we didn’t have enough Spanish.

I could be misidentifying this, but I think it is a view from the side of the Royal Palace.

I could be misidentifying this, but I think it is a view from the side of the Royal Palace.

This conversation with the security guard came about because we had skipped by the ‘weird’ miniature grotto or nativity that people were queuing to see in an anteroom to the Palace tour.  It was enormous, and people seemed to think it was wonderful– but we skated by so we could see the Palace rooms we’d queued to view.  Ironic then, that the free ticket the lady had handed us as we filed in the palace after patiently waiting in line for some time, was really only for the grotto!  How surprised was I to later read in the in-flight magazine on our way home that this grotto was an amazing, not-to-be-missed Madrid at Christmas experience.  Oops.

We did go to Museo del Prado to see the Goya and Velazquez paintings and a host of others.  El Greco blew us away, though.  Room after room of stiff, subdued, medieval and renaissance religious art, and you walk into a room filled with El Greco, and it’s so vibrant and different you think you’ve hit the modern wing of the museum, and then you look at the inscriptions and realize that he, too, painted in the 16th century!  And you wonder how some people can be so visionary that they see beyond, and dare beyond, all conventions of their time.  What must that be like?  Could you walk around in a cloud of inspiration, or would it just become incredibly frustrating to deal with a world that can’t see what you see?

On that note of high culture, I’m going to segue to haute couture.  How could I NOT take a picture of the Manolo Blahnik shop– for Chloe if nothing else!

A museum of beautiful (possibly not wearable) shoes!

A museum of beautiful (possibly not wearable) shoes!  Look at the pom-pons in the lower left front…

And I’ll close with just a few more shots from the streets of Madrid…

Giant gecko made entirely of CDs!

Giant gecko made entirely of CDs!

Inside the Mercado San Miguel.

Inside the Mercado San Miguel.

Pretty sure this store has one of everything... in the world!  Question is, does he know where to find it?

Pretty sure this store has one of everything… in the world! Question is, does he know where to find it?

Universal!

Universal!

A little snack at the Mercado.  Are those olives gorgeous?

A little snack at the Mercado. Are those olives gorgeous?

Lest I forget to say it, we had a wonderful weekend exploring Madrid together.

The cafe cortados were marvelous, but the company was even better!