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

IMG_0984

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…

Houses of Glass

The Palm House at Kew Gardens-- definitely not a place to throw rocks.

The Palm House at Kew Gardens– definitely not a place to throw rocks.

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw rocks.

This piece of age-old wisdom came to mind last week while I was contemplating the fingerprints, crumbs, and sticky things smeared on our glass-topped kitchen table.  As I wiped, dried and buffed the tabletop for something like the 443rd time this week, I thought, “People who live in glass houses probably shouldn’t give their children crumpets with jam for breakfast, either.” (Unless they are lucky enough to have live-in window cleaners… which, come to think of it, probably should come included if one is building or buying a glass house).

And really, is there anything people who live in glass houses should throw?  Certainly not tomatoes or water balloons.  Maybe pillows?  Or used tissues, or paper wads (not spit wads!)?  Having wandered down that line of thought, I thought better of taking the next turning.  Just think of all the things people who live in glass houses shouldn’t do!

Our house... for a bit.

Our house… for just a bit longer.

I’ve been a little preoccupied with houses– mostly not glass ones– since we recently woke up in the middle of an episode of Househunters International.  (Minus the whining about how we really need a 3-car garage, a “bonus” room, and a pool…)  Our landlord is moving back into this flat, which he designed and renovated several years back.  Despite any complaints I may have had in the past year about that slight problem with our flat being a float… there’s nothing like being told you will have to move out to make you think that you’ve been living in the perfect situation.  I will miss my beautiful kitchen and our luxurious bathroom, if not the perennially reappearing water spots and occasional dripping walls in Quinn and Chloe’s rooms.

Chloe’s room.  I’m having a hard time with that aspect of the move: with breaking up the last household one of the big kids actually lived in full-time.  Packing up our home in Marblehead and moving overseas right when Will graduated made the end of a family era that much more undeniable.  Packing up this place we’ve worked so hard to make our new home means that our next abode will hold no shared memories with Will or Chloe living there.   It doesn’t help that when you go to college orientation they say, “You should keep your child’s room as it is for a while, so they feel like they still have a place.”  OK.  Thanks for that advice, but apparently we live in a different universe from most parents dropping their kids at university.  Clearly I haven’t yet acquired that famous British “stiff upper lip.”

A couple of things I have acquired over the last two weeks are squinting, red eyes and hunched shoulders, from huddling over every real estate website and database in the city.  A person could spend days, 24/7, looking at all the listings, exploring the floor plans and following the google street views to see what the neighborhoods look like…  What? No, don’t be silly!  I said “a person could“… of course that’s not what I’ve been doing all week!  The piles of laundry downstairs?  The dishes in the sink?  That neglected, hungry look in my children’s eyes?  Nothing to do with rightmove.co.uk.  Just because I have now memorized the north London streets almost well enough to take the taxi drivers’ exam?  Nothing to do with Foxton’s real estate website…

When we moved to London for the first time, we hired a relocation firm to assist in the housing search.  It just made sense, as we weren’t on the ground in the city, and we needed to find something in the short window we had carved out for a house-finding trip.  They had a driver and an agent ready for us, as well as a list of about 20 properties that more or less matched what we had described to them.  We went out and saw them all in one day– which was like a dream come true if you like that sort of thing (which I emphatically do) and probably a nightmare if you don’t.  After the last viewing our guide and new best friend, Ryan, took us to a pub and the three of us huddled over beverages and talked through our options.  He got on the phone and made offers and we negotiated in real time.  By the time we parted for the night we were pretty sure we had secured our place.

Our initial choice was a townhouse with a newly redone, beautiful, modern interior– in fact, it had glass railings on all the three floors of staircases… so practically a glass house!  It also had black wooden flooring, a sundeck cut into the middle of the master bedroom suite, and it was about 40 steps from Primrose Hill park.  But the two bedrooms the younger children would have been in were on the ground floor near the entrance, while we were two floors up from there.  And there were no shops or restaurants within a 5-10 minute walk.  The aesthetics appealed to us so much that we made the offer, negotiated a bit, and then went back to the hotel for the night thinking that was probably going to be the one.  But the next morning, Clay and I both woke up feeling like it was the wrong choice.  Luckily for us, the owners had not agreed to our offer, so we were able to walk away from the deal.  Literally.  Will and I took the half-mile walk up to the neighborhood of our second choice flat while Clay went to his office for a few hours.

What our exploratory walk revealed... coffee shop, wine shop, gelato shop, coffee shop, gourmet burger place, family restaurant, upscale pizza place.  All within a block of the prospective flat!  Yep... that's what we now have to leave behind...

What our exploratory walk revealed… coffee shop, wine shop, gelato shop, coffee shop, gourmet burger place, family restaurant, upscale pizza place. All within a block of the prospective flat! Yep… that’s what we now have to leave behind…

Our second choice flat was further from the school, and we needed to see if I could live with the neighborhood and the commute.  The flat hadn’t shown very well, as it was overfilled to stuffed with a French family, their nanny, and enough furniture for at least an 8-bedroom chateau.  One of the little girls in the family followed us around while we toured and fed us with bits of information like, “Daddy likes to sleep in the bathtub!”  (I found it very amusing, but I bet the parents would have thought otherwise.)  But I had seen this property online with pictures from less cluttered days, and I knew the floorplan would work for our family.  What Will and I also discovered when we walked up to the neighborhood that fateful June morning, was that it was in a great street (see photo), with the Tube, great shops and family restaurants, groceries, bakeries, and even a movie theater all within two blocks of our front door.  Second choice quickly flip-flopped to first choice!  (And ultimately, knowing that the bathtub would work as an extra bed in a pinch may have been the factor that swayed us…)

That was our Househunters International,  Round 1 experience.  This time around we really can’t justify a relocation firm.  We live here now.  We know what neighborhoods we like.  We know basically what we should be able to get with our budget.  It’s really just a matter of vigilance, patience, and nerves. All we have to do is spot the perfect place when it comes on the market, sometime in the next 4-6 weeks, and then hope that we can swoop in and be the first and/or best offer.  How hard can it be? (That’s for any Top Gear fans out there… “How hard can it be?” ALWAYS means there’s trouble ahead!)

I promise to be back very soon with an update.  In the meantime, no spoilers in the comments, please!

Having a Look About

Covent Garden gets its Christmas on!

Covent Garden gets its Christmas on!

It’s Day Two of the “Five Months in Five Days” series, and we’ve arrived at… drumroll…November!

What’s that?  No suspense?  No surprise?  You guessed that was coming?  Hmmm.  Why was there no spoiler alert??

One of my favorite kinds of street entertainment!

One of my favorite kinds of street entertainment!

Jump Start the Holidays

One Saturday night early in November, we took a little outing down to Covent Garden.  What a nice surprise to find the halls all decked and the crowds feeling festive!  I usually hate it when any season starts before its time.  Don’t show me Easter candy before Valentine’s Day; and please keep the red foil hearts in the warehouse until after New Year’s Eve!  But then, they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in the U.K., so what’s to keep us from starting the Christmas season in early November here?  In any case, the early Christmas vibe at Covent Garden that night was working.   A string ensemble entertained on the lower level– dancing around, spinning their cellos, and rocking the garden with the rockin-est of classical music– while a crowd watched from the tables nearby and the steps and balconies above.

IMG_0796This year’s decor featured spinning disco balls that cast snowflake lights all around the halls.  It was like some well done mashup of a party and a stage production– I kept feeling that tickle of anticipation I always feel when the Nutcracker Overture starts and the curtain comes up to all the people going to Clara’s family Christmas party.  (Does anyone else love that scene and get that same feeling??)  I snapped a thousand pictures on my iPhone– very few of which actually turned out at all.  We peeked at the macarons in Laduree, I ogled the soaps carved so beautifully into flowers at one of the stalls, and Clay let the kids pick candy at the ‘penny candy’ stall.  I think we even went upstairs in Pollock’s Toy Shop to see the puppet theatres and other old-fashioned toys.  When we’d soaked in the atmosphere for a while, we stopped for mulled wine and hot chocolate at one of the outdoor cafes with those tableside heaters that look like torches inside glass tubes?  It was too cozy!  (In fact, it was  probably was a little too cozy for the 20-somethings on a date at the table approximately 30 millimeters from ours… but it didn’t bother us!)

About Town

The Horseshoe pub is always on the list of stops.

The Horseshoe pub is always on the list of stops.

We had a full house for Thanksgiving, with Will and Chloe home for the holiday.  Since they had already traveled several time zones to be with us for a few days, we decided to stay in London.  We managed to procure a nice, farm-raised turkey– for something like an elbow and an ankle, if not an arm and a leg, as most of the British turkeys were apparently not on the market until December.   But we celebrated a proper American Thanksgiving, right down to the pumpkin pie.  And we had American guests– two of Chloe’s friends (one ASL, one Marblehead) who were in London without their families.  I was so grateful to have the whole family together this year.  We packed a lot into those days.  Here’s a look…

View across the courtyard at The British Museum.

View across the courtyard at The British Museum.

I love this bookshop across the street from the British Museum.  Can anyone place the name Jarndyce?  Leave your response in the comments! (no fair googling it!)

I love this bookshop across the street from the British Museum. Can anyone place the name Jarndyce? Leave your response in the comments! (no fair googling it!)

My favorite umbrella shop.

My favorite umbrella shop.  Yes, they have whole shops devoted to umbrellas in London.

Quinn was so happy to have the Bigs home.

Quinn was so happy to have the Bigs home… we ALL were!

Before Will went back to the U.S., Quinn decided he really wanted a #4 buzz cut like his big brother.

Before Will went back to the U.S., Quinn decided he really wanted a #4 buzz cut like his big brother.

And a Few Other Things

Also in November?  Mudlarking– digging around in the muddy banks of the Thames at low tide for whatever you can find!  It’s a time-honored tradition– and a way that some folks made their living back in Victorian times.  Claire’s class had a field trip to see what it was like, as well as to study the ecology of the Thames.   One kid dug up the sole of a hob-nailed boot– perhaps not valuable, but certainly old and interesting.  But mostly we did a lot of fishing around in tidal pools for freshwater shrimp and other “treasures” of the biological kind.  The group I was chaperoning collected a great Chinese Mitten Crab specimen– the guide looked it over and was excited to show the kids because he was obviously a ‘warrior’ who had survived a lot as he was missing some of his limbs.  Trouble is, while the children were mucking in pools down the way from our bucket, our little crab became a seagull’s lunch.  We’d left the poor old warrior out like a buffet for the birds!  Yes.  I felt bad about that.  What?  You think I should have let the kids go play near the river while I stayed close to the crab?  Still, it was fun to be down on the Thames, and the kids loved it, which is always so great to watch.  Coincidently, not long after the trip I picked up a book called DODGER, by Terry Pratchett.  It was a treat to read, with all kinds of Victorian characters– real and fictional– springing to life.  And yes, there was mudlarking in it.

We closed out the month with another bit of Christmas: a carol singalong at the church of St Martin in the Fields.  It’s one of my very favorite places in London to hear live performances, and it was really special to hear all those English carols we’ve listened to from the Chieftains for many years.  Last year Clay and I went to hear the Messiah by candlelight there.  This year we went to the sing along with the Littles instead (because they were begging me to take them out caroling, and I simply had to find a different way to scratch that itch!)  The church is in Trafalgar Square, so it’s also a great place to go for a nice little hit of London spirit– what with the National Gallery, the Nelson column, the fountains and the lion statues, all the theaters and all the diverse London people.  It’s also a beautiful, beautiful place.  I love the window behind the altar (look closely and pick out the cross and the Light in the center).  It was created and installed after the old, traditional stained glass window was shattered during the Blitz.

The sanctuary of St Martin in the Fields during a Christmas concert.

The sanctuary of St Martin in the Fields during a Christmas concert.

The older I get, the more I want to pause at this time and breathe.  And call it cultural conditioning if you want, but most of all I want to be thankful.  November seems like a very good time for that.

Life as a Lawn Ornament

My kids and I were Olympics refugees this summer.  “Yes, we live in London.  Yes, the Olympics were, in fact, in London.  Indeed, it would have been exciting to be there,” she says in a weary cheery tone.

But we left.  And though I’m tired of feeling the need to justify it, I’ll explain just once more.  You see, I’m crazy about my family.  Summer is my chance to spend time with the people I love in various distant (from London) places I love.  Not even the Olympics could tempt me away from time in my hometown with my family.  Not even prime tickets to the Olympics– which we didn’t have, anyway– could have tempted me away from time in the mountains with my Colorado-based son and my husband’s family.  Beside, the agency that runs public transport had warned us for months that we were going to be miserable and unable to set foot out our front doors during the Games.  We believed them, and apparently so did a lot of other Londoners.

Anyway.  These Olympics needed to simply keep calm and carry on without me.  The fact that I call London home now made me doubly happy, and kind of proud, to watch them do just that– pretty spectacularly I would say– from various screens across the U.S.

Team photo, 2012

While athletes from around the world went about their business in London, I went about my business in the U.S., performing amazing feats of strength and endurance in such events as the deadlift (suitcases…I momhandled a whole mountain of luggage by myself in Chicago).  Another was the marathon (more than an hour in line for the rental car– with a reservation).  The pentathlon (of remembering-how-to-do-things) in the first hours back in the USA:  drive a car on the correct side of the road, pump my own gas, swipe a credit card (instead of inserting and punching pin), order at the fast-food stop saying “to go” instead of “for takeaway,”  and remembering to ask where the restrooms are instead of where the toilets are (as you must in the UK if you want to be sent to the right place).

Part of the Lawn Ornament Endurance event is to keep a close eye on all driveway activities…

My first gold, though, came in the lawn ornament endurance trials.  I’ve trained for this event through many years of visits to my parents’ home, and I’m happy to tell you that I peaked at just the right time to pull off a once-in-a-lifetime performance.  For several days straight I managed to sit for hours in the Adirondack chair out on the long, shady, front lawn.  The kids rode bikes up and down the long, L-shaped driveway with their cousins.  Mom and Dad and my sister, Heidi, wandered in and out of the circle of chairs throughout the day.  But not me, really– I just sat there.  Early mornings, I took a cup of coffee with me; afternoons I switched it out for an icy Vernors (mmm!).  Evenings, it was sometimes even a cold beer.

Fortunately, this most demanding event did allow me to see several old friends and lots of extended family members while in Ohio.  (Some things are worth breaking your training regimen for…).  I loved each and every reunion, and while I’d love to tell you about some of them– seeing family and old friends, and our puppy Gus again– I think I’ll save that for another day.

You see, today I’m engaged in another event– let’s call it a Paralympic Event, in honor of the games going on now here in London.  (“No, I haven’t been to those, either.  Yes, it really is a missed opportunity, isn’t it?” she said in a sarcastic, weary cheery tone).  My event today is called Techno Hurdles.  Might even be a Steeplechase, given the puddles of chilly water below each hurdle.  It’s a series of challenges, the first of which is to get British Telecom wi-fi to stop hijacking your connection through Virgin Media and sending you pop-up windows to offer their services for a fee despite the fact that they just disrupted the service you are already paying for.  Once you x out and re-establish your previous connection, you have to figure out why the printer and the computer refuse to talk with one another.  Then you have to find workarounds to scan and fax a signature to your daughter in America, because she really needs it today, whether or not the printer and computer are friends.  And, really, I could go on and on, because, (like the Ginsu knives’ ‘but wait! There’s more!’), there certainly are more hurdles to clear.   But you would be bored to read about them, and I would be bored recounting more of them.

Would you judge me harshly if I told you that at 11:30am I am drinking my 2nd decaf, after a regular long Americano earlier this morning?  So yes, my 3rd cup.  Desperate times and all that, mate.  After all, I’m in training.

Taking Care

You know that TV commercial in which someone does a small good deed, someone else sees it and then does one for someone else, and so on and so forth?  I think it’s for a bank, but I can’t think whether it’s American or British– so if you haven’t seen it, just think feel-good music and inspiring small acts of kindness…

The Lego Queen– she certainly has a stiff upper lip.

I think of that commercial all the time on the streets here in London– especially in the 3/4-mile walk between my flat and the Swiss Cottage tube station.  Just today, on my walk home, I watched a young man catch up with an older, blind man who was about to cross the street.  It’s not a major traffic street, but I’ve seen cars blast through the intersection many times, apparently oblivious to the heavy foot traffic on that stretch.  I saw the young man say something, and give his arm to the blind man, and as I passed them just after the crossing, I heard him saying, “…yes, treacherous on the best of days, isn’t it?”  And they went their separate ways with just another pleasant word or two.  And I went on toward home, wondering a little if I would have done the same.

I’m always noticing people helping one another here.  I mean, there is plenty of rude behavior, don’t get me wrong.  And there are hordes of pickpockets and other people waiting to take advantage of their fellow Londoners.  But there also seem to be a pretty healthy number of good samaritans about, contrary to preconceived notions about life in the big city.  People routinely help elderly folks onto or off of the buses all the time.  One day I saw two men– one in a suit, one a construction worker from a nearby site– attending to a lady who had fallen down on the sidewalk.  One day right here at the Belsize Park tube station, I went to buy a newspaper from the stand and the lady standing there peered over her glasses and said, “Oh, how much is that?  I’m just watching the stand for the man.”  Just a regular passerby, helping out.

Another day I saw a young woman stop to check on an older lady slumped on a bench.  The older woman was in bad shape, very tattered and dirty, possibly homeless and certainly not in good mental health (I know, I know, who am to make that judgement? But you know what I mean…).  She also appeared to be ill.  The young woman stopped and spoke with her, “Are you alright?”  The woman couldn’t respond intelligibly.  I had just walked up to the scene and I was wondering what I could possibly do to help, when a man came out of the nearby theatre.  He had called Camden Council (the city neighborhood) services for help and he said he would stay with her until they arrived.  I told the young woman, as we walked away, that I admired her for stopping.  She looked surprised, but smiled and said, “Well, we have to look out for each other, don’t we?”

We do.

So why is it so hard?  How many times have I not acted because I wasn’t brave enough to step out of my comfort zone?  It’s so easy to just keep moving, because we don’t have time to stop and get entangled in someone else’s business.  It’s so easy to tell ourselves that we might offend someone by offering help.  It’s so easy to believe that we might be putting ourselves in danger by helping (and I’m not saying we should ignore that possibility– but I know I have used it as a cop-out before).

I’m prone to romanticize some aspects of British character– the “keep calm and carry on” part, especially.  But I see these matter-of-fact ways that they help each other and I can’t help thinking about how they weathered the war and the post-war years.  I think it starts with civility, which matters not just because it upholds some sense of decorum, but also because it ensures that people do the right thing on the surface at the very least.  And doing the right thing encourages others to do the right thing.  If we’re mostly all doing the right thing, then it tends to get down beneath the surface matters.  Not everybody, and not all the time.  But it seems like weeding out the nastiness near the surface allows more genuine kindness to take root and blossom.

So, bravo, you Brits.  (Of course, you’re not the only ones who get this principle– says the American from the Midwest).  But I just had to give a shout out for all the kindness I’ve been spotting.  Cue the feel-good music, and roll tape of all the inspiring acts.

Wait a minute… they’re not filming a commercial in my neighborhood, are they?

Liberty and the Mad Hatter on Holiday

I’m observing the UK “Early May Bank Holiday” (I think that means: we have no idea what to celebrate, but we need a paid holiday about right here on the calendar) with an extra Americano on this rainy Monday afternoon.  But hey, I’ve earned my caffeine today.  Clay is working, because he does business with a whole lot of folks who aren’t in England having a jolly-holiday-for-no-apparent-reason.  That means, not only do we not have the pleasure of his company, but Quinn, Claire and I had to schlep out to Quinn’s holiday t-ball game this morning– at a place called Little Wormwood Scrubs.  Really, that’s the name.

Wait– it gets better.  Not only is there a recreational park there, but there’s also a big prison– Her Majesty’s Prison at Wormwood Scrubs.  Let me say it once more, hear the sinister British accent with me:  Her Majesty’s Prison at Wormwood Scrubs. This has the ring of something straight from Dickens, right?  Imagine the dismal scene:  perennial clouds or a drizzling rain, an overgrown field with escaped prisoners hiding in the marsh, perhaps a nearby orphanage or boys’ school with hungry children peering out the windows, an old rag-and-bone shop around the corner, and a street urchin sweeping the crosswalk…

Not-so-very-Dickensian urchin at first base.

Now superimpose a bunch of American kids playing baseball.  There’s just something jarringly off about the whole scenario.  And in truth, I saw no escaped prisoners, orphans or street urchins of any kind; but merely a couple of small dogs– called Nigel and Esmé– chasing balls into the baseball games.  Highbrow dogs for a Dickens scene, no?

This is not your typical minivan.

Because I am stubbornly independent, I didn’t call a car company to transport us to the game.  Have I mentioned all the bullet holes in my feet from my years of independence?  I walked the children to the nearest overground rail station and took a train, then caught a bus to the approximate location of the ballpark.  The park is enormous, so choosing the right place to get off the bus involved some guesswork, but we did pretty well.  After two hours of baseball, we did the trip in reverse, with a stop for lunch.  All-in-all, our baseball game took 5+ hours.  (Now hand over my coffee!)

While I try to revive, I’ll tell you some fun things from the weekend.  First, Liberty.  Liberty of London (really, click the link and check out the photo!).  How have I lived in London for nine months without going there?  This place is like a Disney World of Design for grownup ladies– but everything there is real!  It’s in an enormous, Tudor-style building, with an Arts and Crafts interior and just gorgeous stuff packed to the rafters.  Liberty is famous for its textile prints, and I remember reading about it in various novels set in London.  I guess I thought it was defunct, or that it was just a textile place, or I don’t know what.  But there it sits, right on Regent Street and Marlborough, and I met Chloe there with bff Bretta and her mom, Nancy, for the very last part of prom dress shopping on Saturday.  With the help of a perfectly professional and personable salesperson (say it five times fast) in the women’s dress department, Chloe found something gorgeous, unique, and even versatile enough to wear on a range of occasions in the future.  Stay tuned for pics, FB friends, as American School prom is in a couple of weeks.  Uhh– that is, if she ever lets me take another picture of her after what I’m about to post…

Prior to the success at Liberty, Chloe and I scoured two lesser department stores, and Chloe skimmed another more prestigious one (Selfridge’s) with Bretta and Nancy.  We tried, we really did, to find something that would work at John Lewis.  But as there was nothing even in serious contention, we ended up in the hat department– where Chloe had a blast.  
I mean, this is a girl who hates having her picture taken.  I must’ve taken twenty pics in various hats, with her smiling and posing all the way through!  Secretly, I feared we would get booted from the department, and she later admitted to wondering that, too.

I never did confess to her my other secret fear:  Lice.  In the hats.  She was having way too much fun for me to mention the L-word!  And in a high-end department store?  Surely not.  Right?  Right, friends?