Last Of The Photos

Uncle AndrewUncle Andrew
Filed under: @ 5:01 pm

As promised by my darling wife, here are the last three batches of photos: The British Natural History Museum, Whipsnade Wild Animal Park and the London Zoo.

Better Nate than Lever

Filed under: @ 9:26 am

My dad used to tell an old joke about a village of people who couldn’t figure out how to use a lever to lift things.  It would repeatedly break, fall apart, whatever, until they figured out that the best way to lift something was to use the village’s really big dude called Nate.  Thus the statement of the village, “better Nate than lever”.  You had to have been there.

Yes, we’ve been home for a while and yes, this is dreadfully overdue.  Andrew has a book in which the author describes jetlag as the condition that happens when your body travels faster than your soul and the symptoms of jetlag (the listlessness, the difficulty sleeping during normal night time for your area etc.) are the direct result of your body being present in your time zone without your soul.  It’s taken a while for my soul to catch up.  Better Nate than lever.

Andrew will post the photos later on today.
9 June

Our goal for today was to get out to Whipsnade Wild Animal Park. This is another in my list of Durrell History sites and ever since we went to the San Diego Wild Animal Park I’ve been interested in getting to another one for comparison.

I was impressed, but I’ll have to back up and get there first.

Picadilly Line to King’s Cross/Thameslink rail station. City Link train from London to Bedford doing a whistlestop tour through to Luton, which is where we wanted to get off . We first got off at the Luton Airport Parkway station which is where the Whipsnade website told us to get off. Except that no one at the Luton Airport Parkway station could tell us how to get to Whipsnade from there, there was a bus, they said, direct from Luton to Whipsnade. We could get a taxi from the airport, but it would be much easier to get back on the train then get off in Luton and get the bus.
They lied.

First of all, Luton is a dump. Dirty graffiti smeared streets, broken windows, boarded up shops. And about 85 degrees with somewhere around 70 percent humidity.
Today Luton was not only a dump, it was a sticky, gritty, sweaty dump.
Secondly, while there are signs at the train station pointing you towards the Tourist Information Center, they point you directly at a mall and when you get to the mall you walk under a pedestrian footbridge only to find that there’s another sign on the other side of the footbridge directing you to the Tourist Information Center in exactly the direction from which you just came. There is a bus depot outside the mall, but all of the bus schedules list where the busses are terminating and don’t bother to list which stops they’ll take in between (reasonable of course, but annoying for the casual tourist). We gave up finally and went into the mall looking for someone we could ask (heaven forefend) about the Tourist Information Center and ended up finding another sign pointing us towards same. We walked in the direction of the sign and found ourselves overlooking a construction zone. Waaaaaaay at the back, underneath the “Luton Public Library” sign, was a sign that said “Tourist Information Center”. Ah.
So we walked around the construction site and into the library where a set of doors proclaimed “Tourist Information Center” but were not only locked, but blocked. RRRRRRGGGGGHHHHHH!
Further into the library were the actual doors to the Tourist Information Center. The woman there directed us to the bus timetable rack within the library, but it didn’t have the timetable for the bus we wanted. Sigh.
The guard behind the desk said that the timetables were printed on the second floor and so we hiked up there to find no printed timetables, but a reference librarian who was able to help us. Unfortunately the bus we wanted only runs every few hours and we had, of course, missed the most recent one.
Back to the Tourist Information Center.

A totally random local, for some reason visiting his town’s Tourist Center, directed us to a local cab company and we ended up in a cab driven by a tiny (like shorter than me) East Indian guy who drove like he was in the end stages of hallucinatory syphilis. Which isn’t to say we didn’t appreciate his expertise, he just drove like every other Brit we’ve experienced only shorter. Anyone who ever met my Gram Do when she was in her driving days will recall the sight of this little tuft of grey hair and not much else being visible over the dashboard of the gi-NORMOUS vehicles that she drove. This guy was driving the equivalent of a Toyota Celica and he still had the seat so far forward I was amazed his knees weren’t about his ears.

He dropped us off at what turned out to be the coach entrance for Whipsnade at just before noon. This did give us a chance to find the bus stop and make plans for catching the last bus to Luton (sounds like a Monty Python sketch really), but when we got to the gate the woman selling tickets threw a bucket of cold water on that idea. We asked her how reliable the bus service was, she said “Well…..sometimes it’s reliable. It might show up when it says it will, it was half an hour late this morning.”
We decided to get a taxi back to Luton and take our time at the wild animal park.

Whipsnade Zoo was started on the Duke of Bedford’s estate in the early part of the 20th century. The then Duke of Bedford was an early conservationist and somewhat of a revolutionary for his time in his ideas of how to keep zoo animals. Whipsnade was one of the first zoo parks, i.e. a zoo that keeps animals in large paddocks in more natural settings instead of in cages that make it easy for people to look at them. Whipsnade also has the honor of being pretty much the reason that the Pere David deer isn’t extinct since when Pere David (a Jesuit missionary who managed to smuggle himself out of China just in time) smuggled a few breeding pairs out of China after the Boxer Rebellion it was at Whipsnade that they were first kept and bred. Before the Boxer Rebellion the deer weren’t very numerous and what was presumed to be the last vestiges of the species were all kept within the grounds of the emperor’s palace. During the rebellion, the great majority of them were shot and eaten, but Pere David managed to sneak a few. I find this very cool.
Whipsnade was also the first place that Gerald Durrell got actual zoo keeping experience. My focus on zoos during this trip has been primarily because I’m an animal nut, but also because I’ve wanted to pay my respects to a man who is, in large part, responsible for me being in the animal biz as it were. It was the lure of being able to work with wildlife, of being able to make a difference in the outcome of an individual or (what a goal to aim for!) an entire species that initially drew me into medicine. Some days I really think I should go back to school, get a PhD in zoology and start working at a zoo. Then reason, and my love for getting a paycheck on a regular basis, re-assert themselves and I’m absolutely happy with dogs and cats. A lot of my colleagues have taken pilgrimages to Yorkshire to visit James Herriot sites, some day I’d like to do that too. For this trip, Durrell was it though.

All preaching aside, we were at the entrance gates of the zoo smearing ourselves with sunscreen.
A practically empty double decker bus was sitting at a bus stop a bit up the road from us. Whipsnade is a LARGE zoo and we wanted to see the most of it without having to walk the whole of it since it was, as I have mentioned, HOT and STICKY.
Seeing a zoo from the open top storey of a double decker bus is very fine. There was a bit of a breeze, the view was excellent, we were able to see into the paddocks with ease and there were exactly three other people on the top storey with us until we got to the zoo café and the tiger exhibit where we were absolutely run under with school kids. Remember what I was saying about British school kids, their uniforms, and their self control? Yeah, well these wasn’t them. Kids with soda in one hand and ice cream in the other, kids running up and down the aisles falling over each other, kids standing up, jumping and grabbing at passing trees. Now granted these kids were all in civvies, maybe they only feel the need to control themselves when they’re in uniform.
We got off at the next stop.
Wandered through the bird garden and had a lovely discussion with some Military Macaws. Wandered off and watched a flight demonstration in the amphitheater. Wandered past the petting zoo and the “Jumbo Express” train station. Early afternoonish, the temperature was pretty unreasonable unless you were out in the breeze so we tried to stay so. We wandered a lot. Saw deer in paddocks, dromedary in paddocks, wandered into a lovely tableau where a keeper was giving a rhino her afternoon wash and then passing around through the surrounding paddocks with a bucket full of fruit, vegetables, and a large armload of alfalfa hay. For the record one horned rhinoceros eat bananas.
All through the grounds there are deer of various species, wallaby, and something that I can only classify as a Jackalope (we took pictures, you’ll be able to see!) wandering free. Rhinoceros also don’t like wallaby poaching off their alfalfa since one of the rhinos wandering free in the paddock managed to chase a couple off with only a warning snort. Elephants and tigers, and flamingoes, and non-existent hippos (to be strictly truthful, there was a pile of what looked like boneless hippo sleeping in the sun, but it was so amorphous as to make me question the actual identification). We wandered off crossways along a grassy pathway past the zebras and ended up in the lion enclosure meeting, almost face to face, what has to be the most shameless lioness in the entirety of creation.
Okay it was hot. And granted, the poor little buggers have to wear fur all the time, but for heaven’s sake lady, have some (heh) pride in your species.
Male lion collapsed in the shade under a tree. One lioness wumped out on her side in the sun. And then this second lioness flat on her back and turned slightly so that her delicate pink tummy was pressed against the cool glass of the enclosure shedding as much heat as she could. Well, okay, technically her tummy was fur covered and tawny, not delicate and pink, but you get the idea. Head thrown back, forelegs folded coquettishly over and this enormous expanse of tummy against the glass. It was charming.
Wandered from the lions across to the giraffe enclosure. I’ve decided it’s pretty hard to get a bad photograph of a giraffe. From there we caught the tram again, now refreshingly free of enormous numbers of sugar hyped kids, and hitched a ride all the way around back to the zoo entrance. It was just after 5 p.m. I poked around the gift shop while Andrew called a taxi, this time out of Dunstable (a slightly closer town) rather than Luton, and we sat outside the gate and waited for the taxi to show up. And waited. And waited. And started to get concerned about getting back to the train if the taxi didn’t show up. The taxi finally did show, of course, and the driver was, of course, a mad man. Prone to driving with both hands off the wheel while making expansive gestures and raving about the traffic. I kept my eyes closed a lot.

It also turned out that he was the brightest of all the potential direction givers we had gotten all day. We asked him to take us into Luton or to the Luton Airport Parkway train station whichever was closer so after a while of thinking about it he took us straight to the Airport Parkway station (I wasn’t disappointed to have to miss a second glimpse of Luton) which shortened our trip by about 15 minutes. Flash the rail passes, find the first available train to London and we’re back on our way to air conditioning. The windows on the City Link trains do open which makes them better ventilated certainly, but it was still FREAKIN’ HUMID. Steamy humid, but not badly crowded, thank God, tube from King’s Cross back to Glouster Road.
We stopped at the Waitrose (grocery store) next to the tube station, got some water for tomorrow, then got some takeout from the local organic pizza place and a couple of (yes, I’m ashamed of this, but they were cold!) iced coffees from Starbucks. Then we came back and sat in our air conditioned hotel room. Life is good.
Tomorrow’s goal is the Portobello Market.

Now That’s Not Something You Hear Everyday 6/9/06:

“Tamzin, would you like pizza for tea?” The family that was sitting behind us on the top of the zoo tram the second time we got on had three small (all under 7) kidlings, and this was a question to the middle kidling by the mother. Now granted, I know exactly what she meant by it, but it was still a little odd to hear. Give it a try, say it out loud, it sounds weird,

“Tamzin, don’t chew on the bus dear, the bus doesn’t like being chewed on.” Again, the middle kidling (about 3ish), who was intent on chewing on the railing over the seat in front of her. I just loved this statement.

10 June (Saturday)

We have fallen into a pattern in the last few (very hot) days. We get done with whatever touristing we’re going to do for the day then, as we’re leaving the tube station, we drop into the Waitrose right next to the tube station and purchase 4-5 liters of water. We get back to the hotel room, drink some water, take a shower and then go and get dinner. This way we’re sure to have plenty of water to take with us the next morning.
Last night the air conditioning started to punk out on us a little. Not that it was particularly hot in the room, just that it wasn’t as cool as we would have liked. I woke up very early. It still took us a while to get going so that by the time we had finished our croissants, croques, and juice from the Forum Cafe, it was 11:30ish and hotter than stink. And humid. Have I mentioned humid? Saw a headline on the news stands this morning that the London Transit Authority has started to place emergency medical crews at the tube stations because people on the tubes are starting to drop like flies. It’s hot.

Circle Line tube to Notting Hill Gate and then a quick (HOT) walk from the Notting Hill tube station to the Portobello Market. This is a Paddington Bear pilgrimage rather than a Durrell pilgrimage for once. I was thrilled when I figured out we could actually go to Portobello, I looked on it rather as a piece of literary exaggeration, but as it turns out the market is absolutely bigger than life real. Saturday is the day to do it. Once. After that if you want to go to the Portobello market I’d recommend doing it on some other day because Saturday is the day when the antiques dealers are out and it’s more crowded than usual.
The Portobello Market defies (or at least strongly resists) description. If Joan hasn’t been there yet, she really needs to go, but Tony should look upon it as an opportunity to sit somewhere with a good book (a long one) and a (big) cold drink because if Joan does end up there it’s going to take days to get her out. The Portobello road is not closed down because of the market. There are people living in row houses along both sides and traffic is allowed down the streets when the market is active. For the record, people who attempt to drive down the Portobello road when the market is open don’t go very fast or very far, but people can, in fact, drive down there (shudder).
You start with the antiques dealers. Booths and shops lining both sides of the road. Narrow little side alleyways lined on both sides with booths making hot, claustrophobic little aisles absolutely crammed with people a la the worst Hollywood “Middle Eastern Bazaar” images that you can think of. People buying and selling anything. Stamps, silver, books, clothing, collectibles of all sorts, the (very hot) booth selling telescopes, binoculars, and magnifying glasses, antique (and not so antique) coach horns, crystal, china, military collectibles. Blocks and blocks and blocks of antiques dealers and people wandering aimlessly looking at everything.
About a quarter of a mile down, you start in with the food vendors. Booths with produce, meat, fish, spices, Halal meat markets in the buildings. Bakeries, dairies, carts selling ice cream and Italian ices. One enormous booth in the middle of the street (yes, vehicles are still allowed) with barrels and barrels of olives, brined cheeses, and other pickled vegetables that smelled absolutely divine. Small cafes, Starbucks (of course), numerous pubs advertising their big screen TVs and the World Cup. A couple of head shops selling (amongst other things) hemp products, and, enigmatically, a hair dresser (insert your head shop joke here).
We pulled into a cafe to get a snack and something cold to drink. In conversation with the waitress we discovered that the first match of the World Cup was going to be starting as of 1400 and that since England were playing every British person on the street was going to magically evaporate as of the start of the game. We drank juice and ate our gazpacho QUICK to get away from their big screen TV before the game started.
At the tail end of the food vendors (about another quarter mile) you start in with the flea market vendors. Bolts of cloth. Weird clothing, several booths full of scarves, booths with junk jewelry, booths with old, sun faded, dusty, but “new in box” electronics that look like they’ve been sitting on the shelves at Radio Shack for the last 20 years, booths with cosmetics, household goods (dish detergent, shampoo, paper products, toothpaste) that look like they could very easily have “fallen off the truck” or in some other creative way been disappeared from the inventories of legitimate businesses before showing up here. Booths full of car stereos and speakers that I’m sure were hot, booths full of ugly crafts projects, booths with shoes (new and used), booths with luggage, booths with knock off fashion clothing. Basically a mix of every garage sale that Joan has ever been to in her entire life (no, that isn’t exaggeration, the place is huge), a large proportion of those side of the road vendors of any sort of (very likely stolen) products of all types, and a stiff shot of the Tacoma Discount World. For the non-native (or for the native that hasn’t had the questionable pleasure of the Tacoma Discount World) TDW is in an old Costco warehouse and you can purchase all sorts of, absolutely legitimate of course, odd lot products ranging from toothpaste to small appliances. You come out of the place feeling like you need a shower. This end of the Portobello market was much the same up to and including the shower. At least another half mile of flea market vendors. Woof.

To be able to say that we’d done it, we walked the entire length of the market. And then turned around and walked right the hell back again. The return journey was much more direct than the outbound trip since we were able to resist the urge to rubberneck, but we did have to detour to investigate the possibility of a closer tube station. We saw a sign, but didn’t manage to find the tube station so in the end we just walked back through the flea market, the food stalls, and the incredible press of people at the antiques dealers and headed back for the Notting Hill Gate tube station.

We stopped at Starbucks before we got to the tube station. Now I would like to mention that, while we seem to have spent a good deal of time in various Starbucks while we’ve been in London it has primarily been for two things. One: air conditioning, and two: free internet access while we’re away from our hotel. I’m terrified at the idea of someone reading this and thinking that we’ve sought out Starbucks on purpose because of the familiarity, because of our deep seated need to have some island of American culture to cling to. No. We have continually sought out Starbucks because it’s bloody damn hot outside and we get lost so frequently that we have often needed to stop, pull up the map software that Andrew has on the computer and figure out where the hell we are.
Disclaimer over.

We had plans to go from Portobello to a local (okay local-ish) comic and collectibles mega-store in the hopes of finding cool omiyage and just to check it out. It took a bit of tube juggling (Central Line from Notting Hill Gate to Tottenham Court Road) and starting out from the tube station in entirely the wrong direction, but we did eventually find the place. It was stunning. Two floors of weird collectibles (you can purchase a remote control Dalek for instance), action figures, science fiction/fantasy/anime themed Lego sets, and more comics, graphic novels, and books than you can shake a stick at. Now for the record we didn’t actually go downstairs into the book section because the store wasn’t air conditioned and at that point I was so hot and sweaty that being outdoors in the heat and humidity was more appealing than being indoors where it was hotter and moister. We found some really cool toys though, then hopped it back to the tube station. Central Line to Notting Hill Gate, Circle Line back to Glouster Road. Stop at the Waitrose for more water then the inevitable collapse in the hotel room.
Except it wasn’t as cool as we remembered.
We turned the AC down as low as it would go and we both took a cold shower.

Dinner at The Prince Regent around the corner. We’d talked about going to Yailousa, the Greek restaurant that my family and I had patronized extensively on our trip in 1985, but we were both so wiped out from the heat and the humidity that we just couldn’t face the tube again. And since we started out from our hotel relatively late, it was at least a little cooler walking around the corner.
Why is it that restaurants that have non-smoking sections in this town have the non-smoking section in the back? The food was good, but getting to and from the street was a smoke bath. Andrew wanted to check out a place near the South Kennsington tube station that advertised itself as selling “cookies” which he thought was odd for the area (since every other cookie we’ve seen has been called a “biscuit”), but I was tired so I just came back and collapsed.
The hotel room is absolutely not as cool as I remember.

Tomorrow is for the London Zoo.

11 and 12 June (Sunday and Monday)

There is definitely something not right with this air conditioning. Woke up this morning hot. Not overwhelmingly hot, but still too damn warm for a room with the AC set to 15C (no, I don’t know what that is fahrenheit). Tepid shower, minimal clothing and a trip to the Cafe Forum for our morning OJ and croques in some lovely air conditioning. Long discussion about whether we are going to brave the zoo or if we’re going to punk out and find a nice air conditioned museum somewhere. I don’t know about the Victoria and Albert, but I’m convinced that the British Museum would be air conditioned.
The point is moot, we decided on the zoo anyway. The Picadilly Line is closed today (essential engineering works, please pardon my French) so we took the Circle Line to Euston and then got the Northern Line to Camden Town. The week long transit passes have absolutely proved their worth. One sweaty walk from the Camden Town tube station to Regent’s Park which is where the London Zoo is. Once again, the Great British Heritage passes won’t let us in.
By far, the London Zoo is the most commercial of all the zoos we’ve seen this trip. This is absolutely set up to be a tourist draw and is a little disappointing actually. They’ve made huge improvements over what I remember from 1985, there’s a lot less of the “concrete pit with an island in the center surrounded by a moat” type exhibit and a lot more in the way of natural environments, but the exhibits are still primarily designed to show off the animals instead of being comfortable living quarters. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy myself. Our first stop was the reptile house where we were enchanted by the Egyptian tortoises, these cute little wind up toy critters all of about 3 inches across. It was tortoise feeding time and they stick their tongues out when they eat. Really hard to get good photos inside the reptile house, the light just isn’t right. I did end up with a photo (I’m not sure how well it’ll turn out) of the enclosure featured in Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone where Harry first talks to a snake. Absolutely impossible to get a photo of the enclosure without people in front of it, but I’m sure they keep the python amused.
Lovely walk through aviary. Scarlet Ibis sharing space with several Australian species because they’re re-doing their African small animal exhibits and they needed a place to keep the Scarlet Ibis (I guess the Scarlet Ibis count as African small animals in this case).
Really hot.
Really stinkin’ hot.
Drinking LOTS of water. Ooo! Small mammal house! An enormous concrete barn of a place, dim inside with just the noise of a few pigeons and other bird like trills coming out of the doors. No sounds of other humans. Shade!
Actually almost deserted building. Open doors on all four sides, but these lovely thick concrete walls made it very cool inside. And since there weren’t any animals easily visible, there were only three or four other people. Quick rest on the cool concrete benches then a wander about to find that the bird like trills are coming from a display chockablock with a small species of monkey (I don’t remember the type) and another exhibit with Gentle Lemurs. Obviously temporary exhibits, but the critters were the most active of any that we saw all day since they were also the coolest.

Asian lion exhibit (I didn’t know there was an Asian subspecies of lion) where the lions were notable for their lack of activity (to the dismay of the general public) and then another quick bench in the shade stop outside the bug exhibit. No interest whatsoever in going into a building that contained approximately half the current child guests of the zoo (also no indication that the building was air conditioned) so we wandered past the bugs to the butterfly garden exhibit (a lovely garden) and past the British Field Cricket pen. No kidding. Little sign on the fence thanking Volvo for sponsoring that particular section of garden and the British Field Crickets. You think I’m kidding. Go look at the photos then.
Hah! Dude wandering on the trail ahead of us in the butterfly garden noticed me watching him as he was trying to get off the path and pick the ripe seed heads off the poppies. They were standard field poppies i.e. they weren’t opium poppies which is, I am convinced, why he was trying to rip them off. As I said he noticed me watching him, stopped what he was doing abruptly then stepped back onto the path and walked briskly elsewhere shooting one or two glances back over his shoulder at me. I’m POSITIVE he was trying to sneak the seed heads off those poppies in the hopes that they contained raw opium. Did he really think that they’d have planted opium poppies without knowing what they were? There I go again, assuming that most people think on a regular basis.

It was feeding time at the bird house. The Hyacintihine Macaws were making one heck of a ruckus and there was an African Ground Hornbill snorking down on a pile of dead rodents much to the disgust of the little girl that was watching him. I love going to zoos for the animals, I also love watching the responses of my fellow animals to the natural behaviors exhibited by the critters in the exhibits. People can be remarkably amusing (irritating, dumb, and painfully mindless, but amusing nonetheless) sometimes.

The butterfly exhibit is housed in an inflatable caterpillar. We sadly didn’t get any photos of the caterpillar itself, but you walk in the mouth end and walk out the other end. It’s green with black mouth parts, big red eyes, and little spikes around the mouth……. a very passable imitation really. Looked a lot like the caterpillar from the children’s book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”. And signs outside the door noting that it will be hotter and more humid inside. Man, they weren’t kidding. We got some great photos, but it was a challenge keeping the camera lens from fogging up and it was wringing wet in there. On the whole I think Woodland Park puts on a much more impressive butterfly exhibit, there are a lot more species involved at Woodland Park but this one was still pretty neat.

Came out of the butterflies and ended up stopping to change camera lenses in front of the pond where they keep the pelicans. Overwhelming smell of fish and a dozen or more grey herons (plus a couple of cormorants) without leg bands. All the pelicans had leg bands. None of the herons or cormorants did. I absolutely hope that they were opportunists poaching a free meal.

Really hot.

Boneless, aimless walking through the gift shop and into the African exhibit. River otters and a woman banging on the glass just above a sign saying “please don’t rap on the glass it hurts my ears” trying to attract the attention of the otter swimming around in his pond. Meerkats in their desert exhibit and the same ninnyhammer whistling and clapping her hands at one of the meerkats that was taking a nap in the shade by the wall. The next time she takes a nap I hope her phone rings about seventeen times. A beautifully dim and relatively cool exhibit with Aye-aye, one of the most endangered mammals on the planet and this same wonderful specimen of humanity whanging on the glass trying to attract the attention of one of them who was much more interested in an orange than looking at her. I hope the next time she sits down to a quiet dinner the Jehovah’s Witnesses come to her door.
Did I say I occasionally enjoy my fellow humans and their behavior at zoos? It’s only very occasionally. Most of the time I want to kick people in the shins.
But I’m cranky, it’s been hot.
And humid. Did I mention humid?

Wandered out past the zebra and giraffe exhibit. They’ve got a wonderful walkway over the exhibit that has giraffe feeding stations on some of the support poles. Has to be pretty cool to be able to look up from a footbridge and have a giraffe feeding just above you.
Around the bend to the (sleeping in a cool mudhole) warthog exhibit and the complaint that I heard from a pair of tourists with heavy southern (American) accents “Why are they all asleep? Why aren’t they doing anything?” Well really. If you were covered in hair at this temperature and you were given the opportunity to sleep in the cool shade or dance around “doing something?” wouldn’t you take the opportunity to nap in the middle of the afternoon? Honestly.
Really, really humid.
I am my mother’s daughter. For years, until remodeling projects improved the airflow through the upstairs of their house a good deal, when the heat of summer would hit my mother would retire to the basement to wait out the heat in the relatively cool basement and be grouchy. Mom has never gotten along well with extreme heat or humidity, and as I mature I can see a good deal of the wisdom in that position. I was REALLY grouchy at the London Zoo.

The African hunting dogs were also doing a quite remarkable impression of being dead. Big pile of them, all blissfully asleep in a huge gangly tangle of ears and legs, in the corner of their pen that was in the shade. Some really great photos.

Crossed the footbridge over the Prince Albert canal to the flight cage with storks and kites and peacocks (for some odd reason), then along the far side of the zoo past their owl exhibits and a pair of kookaburras that had a sign on them for the staff noting “These birds are known to be aggressive, helmets and eye shields are available.” Looking at the beaks, I would have chosen the helmets and eye shields thank you very much.

Then out the turnstile and to the bus which, I discovered, would take us to the Baker Street tube station which meant that we didn’t have to transfer trains another time and it meant that we didn’t have to walk back to the Camden Town tube station in the heat. Altogether a desirable thing except that when the bus showed up and we got on we discovered that the seats were so close together front to back that Andrew literally couldn’t sit down.
Our last day touristing.

We were grateful to call it a day, but when we got back to the hotel we discovered (shudder) that the room was NOT cool. It wasn’t hot, but it wasn’t cool, and it wasn’t air conditioned. Muggy at best. Humid.

I wasn’t really hungry so I showered, napped, and started to get stuff packed up while Andrew showered, napped, and then went out in search of something to eat. We called the front desk and complained about the air conditioning.
When Andrew got back with his burger and a bottle of milk for me, housekeeping came by and asked if there was anything we needed. Since we hadn’t gotten any response from the front desk about our AC, we complained to him. He said he’d send someone right up.
An hour later we called the front desk again and were told we would talk to someone in maintenance who said he’d be right up.
An hour after that we called the front desk again and finally got some sort of flunky who said he’d send someone right up to fix the AC or he’d put us in another room. This call actually produced a real person who came in and agreed that it wasn’t 15C in our room. When we told him that the front desk had said they’d put us in another room he seemed a bit taken aback, but went to go talk to the night manager while we packed. It was now about 10:15 p.m.
By 11 the flunky was back, we were mostly packed and on our way to a room at the end of a dead end stairwell which, as it turned out, wasn’t any more air conditioned than the room we had just left.

It was a hot night.
A hot, damp night interrupted at 0545 by the television turning itself on with some sort of weird welcome message for us. I was too out of it to call the front desk and complain and I don’t think it would have done any good anyway so we shut it off and went back to sleep.

The plan was to wake up about 0930, finish packing and check out at the required 11 a.m. then go and get breakfast and find somewhere close that was air conditioned to wait for our taxi which was scheduled for 1445. Up. Humid.
Packed. Hot. Too damn many clothes planned for the trip. Strip down the layers, shed the socks and sneakers, trade out for the sandals.

Haul the bags downstairs, complain at length to the desk clerk about the air conditioning. He said that it wasn’t just us, that the whole hotel had been having problems. It seems that their AC system isn’t designed to handle the requirements of 100 plus rooms when it’s 87F outside with 70% humidity.

Note to self: When planning future trips, be sure to plan the time of year quite carefully, but also check on the availability and overall health of the hotel’s air conditioning systems.

We dragged ourselves to the Cafe Forum for breakfast. Andrew got another croque, I couldn’t stand the idea of anything hot so I stuck with croissants and OJ. We discussed where we were going to go to spend almost 4 hours and decided to wander back to the Wildlife Garden at the Natural History Museum. It’s a lovely little section of the grounds that they’ve terraformed into representative regional environments of Great Britain. They have fens, a pond, meadowland, chalk heaths, the works. It’s lovely. It’s shaded, and while there’s a good deal of traffic noise it’s really quite a pleasant place to be. It isn’t air conditioned, but we didn’t feel right about walking into Starbucks and leeching their air conditioning for four hours so we figured that this would be the best alternative.
It was closed. Or, to be more accurate, when we got there, it wasn’t open yet so we colonized a bench in the deep shade of some lovely mature chestnut trees on the grounds of the museum and just sat. Nice shade, nice breeze. So long as we weren’t doing anything particularly active it was very pleasant.
Pigeons to watch, a gardener along the front of the building to pity, and groups of school kids providing entertainment by wandering out into the grounds for their lunch and then discovering that someone had put a sprinkler on the lawn about twenty feet down from our bench. The first batch of kids were very (barely) restrained, only looking longingly at the sprinkler as they walked past. There was a second group sitting on the lawn behind us lunching and a third group wearing uniforms and, for some odd reason, pith helmets, walking past in front of us towards the wildlife garden (which was open by then). It was the kids in the pith helmets that broke everyone down. One kid just skirted the splash zone of the sprinkler, a second ran under it briefly, then it was a free for all. Kids in and out of the sprinkler, kids filling their pith helmets with water, kids sliding on the wet grass and their poor harassed teachers trying to round them all back up and get them to the wildlife garden for some further education. All the while this group of middle eastern-ish (lots of dark complexions, lots of girls in head scarves) looking group behind us sitting on the grass very demurely eating their sandwiches. Until the very last of the pith helmet kids walked past and then it was all over. Splashing, squealing, kids holding other kids in the spray and the comment of one woman walking past us who had been taking her lunch under a tree “I wish I could join them!” Their poor, poor teachers trying to keep all those white shirts from getting mud and grass stains as kids were flying over the sprinkler and making huge squashy bellyflops on the other side.

We packed up a little after 1 p.m. and went to the Starbucks for some air conditioning. Cooled down enough that we were at least comfortable by the time we got back to the hotel for the taxi.

Another lunatic behind the wheel of a (fortunately) mini-van. He said that the company had sent a Mercedes driver for us at 2 p.m. but we weren’t at the hotel so the Mercedes driver had come back and he had been sent out when the hotel called again at 2:30. I can’t imagine why the car company sent someone out at 2 since the concierge that called was very specific that we needed to be picked up at 2:45, but it worked out better anyway since we would have been distinctly uncomfortable in a Mercedes with all our luggage.

Quick zip to the airport, juggle at the check in to be able to upgrade to “World Traveller Plus” tickets and get wider seats on a bulkhead so we had MUCH more leg room. And then we sat. And sat. And sat.

Now for the record, I’m grateful that we sat in the air conditioned airport rather than having the airline stuff us on the plane to sit on the HOT tarmac, but sitting in an airport for 4 hours is one of my least favorite things to do. Turns out that when our plane came out of the hangar it was, for some reason, routed to the maintenance shed instead of the boarding gate. When maintenance figured out that there wasn’t anything to do to that plane they turned it around and started pushing it back to the departure gate. Then the tractor that was pushing the plane overheated and died leaving the plane stranded on the tarmac while they went to look for another tractor. By the time they found another tractor and got the airplane to the gate it was 43C inside the airplane and they couldn’t let us on until it was cooled down.
Two and a half hours.

We got our British Airways meal vouchers, five pounds to be used to purchase “light refreshment” which translated into two baguettes with brie, tomato and basil and two soft drinks for us and only one drink at the pub for the dude in line behind us who missed his connecting flight to Edmonton. Airports are particularly uninteresting places to be when you’ve spent the last three days overheated and you’re trying not to spend any money that will result in you getting any coins in change (the money changers will only purchase bills, not coin).

And for the record, British Airways World Traveller Plus is probably the way to go. Really considerably less cattle car than their coach section and not that much more expensive.

It took checking into a four star hotel for me to get a washcloth. Now granted, this four star hotel had faulty air conditioning, but washcloths there were a’ plenty. On the whole I think I’d rather have had better AC and no washcloths. Perhaps there’s some sort of mathematical formula.

If you bring canned haggis through US customs you will be subjected to agricultural inspection. Really. They were also interested, to the point of confiscation, in Andrew’s bacon pannini which he purchased for the flight but didn’t end up eating.

Sleeping 4 1/2 hours of a nine hour plane trip is one of the best ways I know to make it less painful. I wiped out after they fed us the not entirely inedible chicken casserole and while Andrew swears that he woke me up to drink something every time the stewardess came by with drinks, I only remember him waking me twice. I can’t say it was a great way to sleep, I remember a lot of jerking my feet around looking for someplace that was comfortable to put them, but since, when I woke up, we were less than two hours out from SeaTac I can’t really complain.

Our king size pillow topped mattress with the right number of pillows, the correct number and size of blankets, and a room around it with a window that opens and a ceiling fan, has got to be the most comfortable bed on the planet. It’s good to be home.


On Our Way Home

Uncle AndrewUncle Andrew
Filed under: @ 9:09 am

As I type this we are cruising along at 34,000 feet and 613 miles per hour, having recently passed the Isle of Skye on our way over Greenland and then danglier bits of the Arctic, en route to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. My definitely-not-inedible, valiant attempt at a chicken casserole is sitting well in my belly. (The emergency backup bacon, Swiss and tomato paninis I bought at Café Forum this morning remain in their silo; if my normal routine is observed, they will likely be eaten over the next day or two as a silent tribute/memoir of our vacation.) We are comfortably ensconced in bulkhead seating in British Airway’s World Traveler Plus section; basically the same as coach except they reduce the seat count left-to-right and front-to-back to make finding a comfortable position for a Shambling Mound such as myself far, far easier to do. Truth be told, I am more comfortable here in this flying cigar tube than I have been in several days. It’s cool, the seat is sufficiently sized for my needs, and the gentle roar of the jets is much, much better experienced from inside the plane than from a hundred feet below it. Perhaps I should have spent our vacation on the plane.

I know, I know; exactly how long and to how many people do I plan on bitching about our vacation anyway? (This long and that many; you happy?) Truth be told, we both loved our time in the UK, and no amount of relatively minor discomfort was going to change that. This was fun.

One of the games tourists play when out on the town in surroundings vastly different from their home is the “Would We Want To Live Here?” game, and we’re no different from most tourists, no matter how much we’d like to think so. The answer, after considerable pondering, would seem to be no.

We love it here in the UK, for so many reasons. We love the sense of ancient history embedded in and encapsulating nearly every street, every building, every shop (well, maybe not the Burger Kings, pretensions to royalty notwithstanding); we love the incredible mass transit system that can take you to places near and far, far and farthest, farthest and where-the-fuck-are-we anyway?; we love the little cafés and specialty shops that seem to thrive where a typical American Mom N Pop operation would be lowballed into oblivion by packs of rabid Wal-Marts and Targets and Circuit Cities. (Though there’s a bit of that going on here as well; remember, 57 pence of every pound spent in Inverness is spent at Tesco. Thanks a lot, Graeme!)

Personally, I love the dichotomy of a culture that lingers for hours in restaurants, pubs and coffee shops (in restaurants ‘round these parts, the waiter won’t bring you the check for at least—hell, I don’t really know, since I’ve never been patient enough to out-wait the waiter—and if you actually have the temerity to ask for the check, you are likely to get a look of mild shock and reproach. Just trying to help move your business along, Mack, no need to get all bent out of shape there) but will bowl you over like a ninepin if you dare get in their way exiting the Tube station. The pace of life here has an attraction to it, to be sure. Lots getting done, but also a lot of time devoted to smelling the English tea roses.

On the other hand, there are a number of things we found less than thrilling. Along with antiquity comes an inevitable corollary; obsolescence. Things here tend to work right up to the point where they stop working, and then it’s likely to cost you an Imperial assload to get it repaired. Looking at the constant, unrelenting, Brobignagian scale of the renovation and reconstruction industry here (I just finished reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, his quasi-fictional account of the nightmarish working conditions in the meatpacking industry in Chicago in the early 1900’s, in which he talks about the Beef Trust, a consortium of purportedly competing meatpacking concerns that regularly gathered to set prices across the industry and discuss ways to quash the labor unions. Looking around me everywhere we went, I was tempted to believe that there must exist in the United Kingdom a Scaffolding Trust, a subterranean organization of renovation-support-structure barons that rule the industry with a cold-forged, two-inch-diameter iron pipe fist), it is obvious that shit is just falling apart around here. Probably not as fast as the dwellings in the average crackerbox housing development in the American ‘burbs, where you may have oak trim in every room but when you walk through the kitchen the china rattles in the hutch in the dining room. But a building that is two or three hundred years old is likely to be due for some major retrofitting sooner rather later, and at a cost significantly higher than that needed to patch a little drywall. I can’t imagine what it would cost to, say, re-plumb a unit an eighteenth-century block of flats. There probably aren’t enough spare organs in my body to pay for it.

This segues into one of the other problems we would have living here: stuff is expensive. I don’t think I really appreciate how much we spent while we were here, because the difference in currency threw me off. I simply cannot take a coin seriously as a significant piece of legal tender, despite the fact that some of them were worth nearly four bucks apiece. It was no problem to spend nearly twenty-five bucks for a couple of (delicious, filling, bacon, ham, tomato, cheese and béchamel, you-can-take-your-Egg-McMuffin-and-stick-it-where-the-sun-don’t-shine) breakfast croques, two pan au chocolat, two juices and a cappuccino. I know because we did it damn near every morning while we were staying in London. (God, those croques were spellbinding! I dreamt of scooping up Café Forum and transplanting it, whole, into our neighborhood. Then I’d remember how much everything they did cost, and decided that, fantastic products aside, they’d fold in a month from lack of business.) This pattern was repeated just about everywhere we went, not just the touristy spots. Kew Gardens is a working bedroom community, and our experience there was largely the same. Retail grocery prices were of course far lower, but still appreciably higher than the US, reflecting among other things a higher average sales tax than we have in any given community in the States. (And perhaps also reflecting a more realistic assessment of the actual cost of growing, packaging and transporting grocery items. I can’t be sure.)

And if we found the food prices daunting, the real estate prices were enough to send me careening across the afternoon sky on a contrail of shit and tears. Once again, Kew Gardens: standard bedroom community, smallish but with a lot of services, offering great access to public transit but even better access to the underbellies of departing 747s. Half a duplex starts at well over half a million. Thirty-nine-year leases are not at all uncommon, and fifty-year leases are on the rise. Uh uh, no way.

You know how I raved about the public transit here? Damn-friggin’ good thing too, because private transit is a nightmare. I already have a problem controlling my tendencies towards road rage, as evinced by my near-weekly postings under the “Blood (Boils) On The Highway” category. Just walking here has made me despise the British (and Scottish, and Jerseyite) motorist. These people drive like—well, as my dear wife has already put it, like they’re suffering from the hallucinatory stage of tertiary syphilis. And the only thing crazier than an English motorist is an English motorcyclist. These death-loving bombardiers literally weave in and out of traffic—standing still at lights or moving along the motorways at speed—acquiring and appropriating any space on the blacktop sufficiently long and/or wide to accommodate them. The reasoning apparently goes something like this: “I can do it, and since anyone I piss off in a car has just about no chance in hell of catching me on my motorcycle, I shall do it.” I hate to say it, but if bikers in the UK are going to continue to behave in such an antisocial manner, then this country needs more guns.

I suppose that if, in the days following the inevitable demise of our beloved cats, a close friend were interested in renting our house for a year or two, we might consider a temporary move to England. To paraphrase David Sedaris, living in a foreign country is something that you’re obligated to do; it’s supposed to help sand down the provincial edges, leaving you more a person of the world. I suspect there might be something to that. On the other hand, making that sort of transition also sounds a little precious and self-aggrandizing. And hell, if I want to take a real shot at worldliness, why not someplace like Prague or San Salvador or Lesotho? Why improve myself by sitting around a first-world country run by a conservative Christian government when that’s what I’m doing anyway? Why not instead join the Peace Corps and teach Tahitians algebra or build water projects in Darfur or help reduce river blindness in Namibia?

And let’s be honest; can a couple who habitually find excuses to avoid visiting friends who live fifty miles up the road because the traffic on Interstate 5 is too stressful really get their act together enough to make a permanent or semi-permanent migration to another area code, let alone another country? Something tells me “no.” Or perhaps more accurately, “heh heh heh…heh heh hee hee hee HA HA HA *snort*”

Ahh, fuck it, self-examination is for the birds (kind of ironic given our current altitude). It’s just nice to be heading home.


Last Day….

Uncle AndrewUncle Andrew
Filed under: @ 5:31 am

Okay, I’m done.

England has been a wonderful experience, one I hope to repeat sometime in the future. Great country, beautiful landscapes, nice people, compelling culture and history. All that good shit. But I’m done.

London in the summer is like Seattle in the summer, with one notable exception; it’s actually more like DC in the summer. High eighties, humidity hovering around the eight hundred precent mark, and while the Crown has done many things for the benefit of it’s citizenry unlike DC, water fountains and air conditioning are not among them. Trying to find a cool place to sit in this town during the summer invariably involves a venti iced Caramel Macchiata (much like the one I’m slurking on right this very moment). Once I accepted this universal axiom, I was able to relax and enjoy it for the comforts Starbucks brings, not for the least reason because there are literally two on every street corner. Here’s a rough map of the Starbucks in walking–hell, spitting–distance of our hotel:


Kind of creepy, huh? Looks like someone aimed a gargantuan shotgun at our borough and peppered it with twelve shells of corporate coffee franchises.

Thing is, in addition to being the only place to sit down and let the sweat evaporate off of your clothing (it won’t happen outside, even in the shade; your’re likely to end up damper than when you sat down), the American joints are the only thing open late. Last night I was casting about for a bite to take back to the hotel, and at eight thirty in the evening the only thing I could find open was….a Burger King. Sheesh. Although I must say that, after a ten-plus-year hiatus, a Whopper is actually not a bad piece of prefab cow.

Anyway: we were doing so well at our hotel until the heat wave hit. Gradually, over a period of four or so days, the hotel’s air conditioning started to flag, presumably under the strain of the extra demand. Our room went from comfortable to sleep in under a comforter to not quite comfortable to sleep under a topsheet. Each time we came back from yet another (fun, beautiful, inspiring) life-sucking adventure out in the streets (and tubes, let’s not forget tubes, which in these climes felt more like an Easy Bake Oven than a form of rapid transit) of London, the room would be a little stuffier, a little less like staying at a four-star hotel. By the last night (last night, by coincidence), we were convinced that our AC was on the fritz and made them switch us to another room, which turned out to be just as uncomfortable. So on our last day before embarking on a nine-hour coach flight in which I was unlikely to get any sleep, I barely got any sleep.

The UK has been a blast. I really hope we are able to come back someday, perhaps with Margaret’s parents, to revisit Jersey and Scotland and to take another stab at London. (And if we do, and our air conditioning whacks out on us again, I shall kill the concierge with a flame thrower improvised from complimentary shaving cream canisters.)

But for now, stick a barbecue fork in me, I am ready to come home.

More pictures, and more from Margaret, later.


London Living

Filed under: @ 2:03 am

8 June, Thursday

Another culinary adventure that we had planned for this trip was a meal at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant. Again for the non Food Network addicts out there, Jamie Oliver is a local chef who started with a program (and a book) some years ago called “The Naked Chef” and who has made quite a name for himself since. He owns three or four high end restaurants and decided that what he wanted to do with his fame is teach underprivileged youth to do what has brought him a lot of joy (and money). Fifteen is an experiment in teaching and it seems to be highly successful. The restaurant is making money hand over fist and profits go to funding the education of motivated local young people. It also puts on one hell of a menu.

We had reservations for early lunch, 1215, so we had to find a new tube route and then actually find the restaurant when we’d gotten off the tube.

As it turned out, this was not a problem. The directions on Fifteen’s website were accurate to a fault and finding the place was easy. Figuring out what to do in a relatively seedy section of the business district was another thing entirely.

I think I’m a little ashamed to say that we went to Starbucks. Not for the coffee, not for the familiarity (I hasten to assure you), but mostly for the free Internet connection.

Sat around, read e-mail, sucked on COLD drinks, and generally had a very quiet hour.

I’ll try not to be star struck while I’m doing this, but it was very cool that, as the girl at the reservation desk was leading us down to our table, we met Jamie Oliver in the stairwell. It was also cool that, as there was a TV crew there filming a special about this place, Jamie Oliver was doing the cooking so we got our meals direct from the master’s hands. What I most fervently hope is that we didn’t end up as a part of this TV special (although I know our meals did).

It was obvious that the reservations girl was on her first ‘real’ job. And most of the wait staff, and the sous chefs. About the only people that gave off the vibe of “I’m a professional, I do this for a living” were the maitre d’hotel, and Jamie Oliver himself. The whole place had this incredible feel of, well I hate to put it in such a corny fashion, but I can’t think of any other way to do it, hope. Relief. Someone’s finally giving me a chance, this is my ticket, I’m not going to screw this up. The service was superb and the food was out of this world.

I had a wonderful cold pork and tuna mayonnaise with watercress appetizer (it sounds weird, but the combination was sublime). Andrew had a crab salad that was even tempting to me and that’s saying a lot (I don’t do bugs and crabs is nothing but aquatic bugs). Pork for Andrew as a main course, I had chicken with pesto. I have GOT to try roasting chicken wrapped around lemons. It was incredible. We had to have dessert. Okay, we didn’t really have to have dessert, let’s just say we couldn’t not have dessert under the circumstances. We were both, however, so stuffed that we ended up sharing a piece of raspberry cheesecake and a scoop of basil ice cream. I think I have worked out how to do the basil ice cream and I’m really hot for giving it a try at home. The cheesecake was depressing though. Not that it wasn’t good, it was wonderful. I just can’t figure out how they managed to make cheesecake fluffy. I make a pretty mean pumpkin cheesecake, but no one in their right mind is going to describe it as fluffy. Maybe it has to do with the pumpkin……

Anyway, our only other goal for the day was to find somewhere that Andrew could purchase another pair of shorts. Being that, when we packed, we were assuming that the weather would be somewhat like it has been at home, he only packed two pairs of shorts. So did I, for the record, but I don’t tend to get as hot as he does. This doesn’t mean, however, that I’ve been wearing jeans the last three days. So we got back on the tube and got off again at Knightsbridge. Right next to Harrods. Right in the center of the most incredible seething mass of hot tourists purchasing high fashion that I ever hope to be exposed to.

Found and purchased shorts. Came back to hotel. Napped.

Big lunch. Really big lunch. Sleep now, don’t eat dinner.

Tomorrow we plan to go to Whipsnade zoo.

Observations for the week 6/8/06:

Reaching back to Inverness and the one legged Kiwi, I’ve got to add a “Fun With Non-American English” here. People actually, honestly do say things like “fair dinkum”. Granted, it’s Aussies and Kiwis that do it, but honest, really, he piped up with “fair dinkum?!” more than once.

Hairy coos, or shaggy kine (for the Hawaiian audience this is not ‘kine’ as in ‘da kine’, but kine as in kine. No I don’t know how the two words could possibly be related.), are also cute. But not as cute as the Jerseys.

There is something about the uniforms, or perhaps it’s the increased discipline that is inherent in British schools, that makes British school children much easier to take than American school children. Andrew mentioned the Peepratory school up the road from us (it’s a very valid observation by the way. All these little girls in their pale lilac dresses with their purple hair ornaments looked remarkably like Peeps), we’re also just around the corner from the Queen’s Gate Girl’s School. Again, hoards of little (through teenaged) girls, dressed in blue blazers and skirts, pale blue blouses, dark blue ties, and STRAW BOATER HATS with pale blue ribbons around the crown. They are absolutely adorable. And the boys in their dark trousers, white shirts, neckties, and blazers with the school crest on the breast pocket give off such an aura of, well, being under control that it’s hard not to find them impressive. And it’s not just the ultra rich schools either. Yesterday at the Natural History Museum there were hoards of kids from what were obviously not the snooty prep schools that you find in downtown Chelsea. But there it is, they were all dressed in trousers and school sweaters with their school crest embroidered on and they looked so much better behaved than a similar group of American school kids. Granted I can’t say for sure that they were actually better behaved, but their appearance created quite an impression.

African (Senegalese?) French is a much more lyrical and lovely language than Continental French. There was a woman at one of the boulangeries just around the corner that was having an animated conversation with her co-workers, they rattling off spiky elegant Parisian French, she responding with this musical liquid gargling French. I was charmed.

And I would like to note that while we have uniformly managed to get COLD beer (despite the warnings of so many that the British serve their beer warm) we have not been able to get cold soda, juice, or ferslushinger water unless we order it with ice. Really. Even the stuff that comes out of the refrigerated sections of the local Waitrose (supermarket) is considerably less refrigerated than you’d expect. Warm Coca Cola. Urgh.


Inverness to London: Part II of a Series

Filed under: @ 12:34 pm

By this time y’all will have realized that I’m not still writing this on 3 June. It’s somewhere around the 7th and I’ve been trying for 3 days to get this back up to date.

During our whole outlands trip we had been discussing the situation at Maura’s and how we were going to deal with it on our return. Maura is a wonderful woman and a good hostess, her room is palatial and the access to everything we need to do is good (if not outstanding), but the airplane noise is simply not to be believed. We spent six nights sleeping in other places only to discover that our sleep had been seriously and severely interfered with by being in the direct flight approach for Heathrow. We decided that what we really needed to do when we got back to Maura’s was to find somewhere with internet access, find another place to stay, preferably closer in to London, and move the heck out. We felt bad about this decision, but we really couldn’t have stayed there for another 8 days without going absolutely around the bend.

We got back to Maura’s, changed clothes and went out for birthday dinner at the Kew Gardens Hotel pub which, oddly for a Saturday night, was absolutely deserted. It was great! Quiet, smokeless, and wonderful food. Two chunks of cow, two pieces of apple tart and clotted cream later and we were ready to tell Maura we were moving out.

As it turns out she wasn’t terribly discommoded by this for which we were terribly grateful. As I said, we like her personally a good deal and we didn’t want to interfere with her income from this room, but she said she had people on a waiting list who would be happy to take over so it was all good. I hope they’re congenitally deaf. No kidding, I was woken up early Sunday morning (like about 5 a.m.) and because I was in that state where you’re desperate to get back to sleep and can’t, but are too wiped out to do anything constructive like go and get a book, I just lay there and counted airplanes. Or, to be more accurate, I counted the interval between airplanes. Between 0530 and 0645 there were approaching or departing airplanes going over that house every 9 to 15 , seconds. Yes seconds, not minutes. It was not a good morning.

We spent Sunday morning doing laundry and sitting at Starbucks trolling the net for somewhere that we could afford that was also likely to be quieter than Maura’s. Jackpot! Reservations for Monday 5th June for the Radisson Edwardian Vanderbilt in Chelsea, complete with free in-room internet access and it only took us three freaking hours. Starbucks is not my favorite place to sit on a lovely Sunday morning while I’m on vacation and I’m not too proud to admit that I was tired, cranky, and falling apart because of the airplane noise. Sunday morning was not good at all.

We got lunch at the Kew Greenhouse, went to the Laundromat to pick up our clothes then went back to Maura’s to drop everything off and change. Our goal for the afternoon was Kew Gardens. This makes Margaret very much more happy.

For the record, and for future Great Britain travelers, the Great British Heritage pass is a waste of money. So much so that I’m going to issue a charge back on my Visa card when we get home because I paid an inordinate amount of money for these damn things and they have let us into exactly ONE British Heritage site. The Tower, nope. Jersey zoo? Never heard of them. Jersey War Tunnels? Unh-uh. The same response for Culloden Field, Eilean Donan Castle (the McRae seat), Castle Urquhart, and the bloody Kew Royal Botanical Gardens. For heaven’s sake, what could be more British Heritatage than gardens that were commissioned by Queen Victoria and that have been there for more than 100 years? Besides, the paperwork that the Heritage Pass people sent me, and their website claimed that not only would these passes let us in at the Tower, that they’d let us in at Culloden and Kew. In three weeks, (okay, two and a half) the only use these passes have been to us is to get us into Stonehenge. Enough ranting.

Kew was lovely. I could have spent days there. Beautiful old Victorian greenhouses stuffed to the bursting point with organically maintained lovingly coddled plant life. Creepers crawling up painted steel girders, wonderful arches full of palm leaves and acacia trees, and that’s just the inside! Kew Botanical Gardens is a large (I don’t know how many acres) patch of land with Victorian greenhouses, proper English gardens, all meticulous borders, hedge mazes, and cosseted rosebushes, as well as huge swathes of carefully non-maintained English woodlands. It’s stunning. The one greenhouse that we were both determined not to miss was the one with the giant water lilies. We took a lot of pictures. The next time we’re here we’re coming back to Kew to spend the day (or possibly more) so we can see the whole thing. Absolutely stunning! Pictures can be found here.

Dinner at Kew’s one fancy Chinese place. Again, great food if you stay away from the tourist joints. We had a set meal which I had honestly forgotten the benefit of in Chinese restaurants. We managed to get a taste or more of a lot of things off their menu that we wouldn’t have had a chance to eat all of if we’d ordered a la carte. I’d kind of fallen out of the habit in Chinese places at home, but I’ll have to remember that trick. And, as a very unusual change in my rather Catholic food preferences, I LOVED the duck.

Monday morning we packed up, went and got some more cash so we could pay Maura and then hung out waiting for our taxi. The reason we didn’t take the tube is that we are perpetually encumbered by these 50 plus pound suitcases. If we only had one suitcase (and two backpacks and my waist pack) we might have made do with the tube, but under the circumstances, a taxi was well worth it. And air conditioned forbye so it was much more appealing. I hadn’t realized that there is, of course, no air conditioning in the tube so with temperatures in the mid to high 70s and 60 plus percent humidity, the tube has become a very uncomfortable place to perform much strenuous exercise. Doesn’t mean we don’t still enjoy the heck out of it though.

Early check in at, as Andrew puts it, Comfy Central. They couldn’t actually let us into our room at 1100 so they put our bags in their left luggage office and we went wandering around Chelsea.

Let me just say, for the permanent record, that I am not a city mouse. I like having a city available to me when I want things like theater and shopping, but I don’t really want to live in one. I find apartments claustrophobic, I hate constant traffic noise and having to battle in and out of vehicles (either as a pedestrian or as a driver) and I absolutely MUST have a piece of ground to mess around with and grow things in. That having been said, I love Chelsea. We’re in the heart of an international district that is heavily French which means that there are incredible patisseries around every single corner, there are cool little bookshops, sundries shops, and insanely wonderful restaurants everywhere you look….. actually, under the circumstances, cool is a bad descriptive. None, or extremely few, of these places are air conditioned and I find the humidity quite oppressive. Anyway, there are embassies everywhere you turn, the architecture is to die for and there are three different tube stations within walking distance so you can end up anywhere in London in minutes. If I were to have to live and work here I’m sure I’d find it considerably less appealing, but under the circumstances it’ll take a barnacle knife to pry me loose.

Another thing we both forgot to mention about Comfy Central. The street we’re on is Cromwell Street. If you walk far enough up the road it turns into Brompton Road which is the main thoroughfare through the shopping and high fashion district in London. It’s a very busy road. When we told Maura where we were going to be staying she said “Oh, that’s quite a busy street. I hope it’s quiet enough for you.”

We neglected to fill her in further on our opinions of what will and what will not be quiet enough for us.

So we got back in plenty of time for them to let us into our room. I’m not used to staying in hotels this snooty. People at curbside grabbing our luggage for us, people at the desk bending over backwards and getting us “a much more suitable room for a stay of this length”, it’s all Madame and Sir, it’s a little overwhelming. The room is a little overwhelming.

Refrigerated to a wonderful temperature, freakin’ KING size bed, refrigerator (okay, mini-bar, but there’s enough room for Andrew to keep his meds), a bathtub that’s too long for me to lie in, marble fixtures, a little light that turns on when you open the closet door…..and it’s QUIET. It’s not costing us a lot more than Maura’s was and we are much more comfortable. Besides, there’s free internet access and we can finally check e-mail and get blog entries done without having to sit at Starbucks. And there are three tube stations within walking distance so our commute has been cut to an absolute minimum and there are three different tube lines to take us here so if one is slowed or cut short, we can get another.

“Essential Engineering Works” have become extremely dirty words in our lexicon.

We checked into our room, reveled in the bed, the air conditioning and the quiet, then we hopped it for Harrods which is also within walking distance.

Joan may not want to read this next bit. Tony, however, I am sure will find it quite wonderful.

Harrods gave me the bends.

Okay, it’s an incredible spectacle and you can, literally, purchase anything, but that’s the main problem. You can purchase freakin’ ANY-THING! And everything. And the ground floors are chockablock with tourists and weird attractions like a large reproduction of a Tutankhamun statue in gold plate. The higher up you get the swankier it gets so that by the time we got to the third floor (books, pet shop, toys, and electronics) we were so far out of our depth that, well, I was getting the bends. The toy section is insane though. When so many toy stores in the US are basically attractive shells for Kenner or Mattel and so will only have toys of those manufacturers, to say nothing of having NOTHING that isn’t TV or film related, god forbid educational, it was enchanting to wander in and have the corporate toys in small amounts and books, and puzzles, and imaginative, creative, play related toys in great plenty.

The best bit about Harrods was the food court. Four (five? I lost track) great enormous halls full of butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, what have you. The smells were wonderful, the sushi was ferociously expensive and (this is the best part) they’ve got a KRISPY KREME! While wandering around the food court we walked past the counter where you can order picnic baskets to go. Seated at that counter was a, in every sense of the word, gentleman. From the tips of his highly polished shoes to the graceful drape of his (I know this has to be true) valet tied cravat, this dude was old British aristocracy to the nines. He was talking with several of the Harrods staff, obviously a regular since he knew them by name. I didn’t think much more of it at the time than “hm! Old money!” and let it go at that, but after we left we took a seat on one of the benches outside to have a rest and hydration break, the same dude came out of the door we were sitting next to and started briskly walking towards the car park. In one hand a Harrods bag. In the other, a Krispy Kreme bag with a dozen donuts.

It was so perfect I could have wept.

Dinner at a Greek place called Leon which introduced me to the idea of vanilla and rhubarb smoothies. Sounds disturbing, looks like pink Slime (the children’s toy for those of you old enough to remember), but the taste is out of this world. Yummy. We both had (wait for it) lamb which was tasty if a bit tough. I don’t know how they managed that.

Tuesday morning, after a quiet, cool, and airplane free night, we hopped it for the tube to get to Waterloo for our train to Salisbury. The fates were making up for our kludge trip to and from Inverness.

The guy at the ticket booth at the tube station happily sold us two week long tube passes so we can take the tube anywhere within three zones (covering an enormous amount of real estate) at any time until 11:59 p.m. on the day we leave. Our tube train was in the station when we got down to the platform. We got to Waterloo and while looking around for the train to Salisbury completely neglected to notice the information booth and the proper timetable on the first pass by. Found it the second time around, the information booth dude pointed us to the correct train and told us we’d have to hurry. We got to the correct platform just as the train guard was raising her whistle to signal the train to leave and got on and seated before the train started to move. Timing was absolutely perfect for once.

The bus ride from the Salisbury train station to Stonehenge was something else altogether. I had forgotten how terrifying it is to be on the upper storey of those busses as they hurtle along tiny little ancient English village streets at insane speeds. Also the heat was on so it was stifling, but ye gods, the scenery! It was terrifying, but very worth it (although we did go a more conservative route on the way back to the station and sat on the lower level).

What can you say about Stonehenge? Well for starters, I, personally, can say that the weather was volumes better than it was when I was there 20 years ago and the company of half a hundred tourists who were all impressed or at the very least, interested, was a considerable improvement than what we got 20 years ago. To explain, at least in a small way, the preceding rant, I would like to say that when we went to Stonehenge in March of 1985 the only tourists there were ourselves (my parents, my sister, my brother, and I) and a pair of the ugliest of ugly American tourists. The weather was……mmm, how to describe it…..foul isn’t quite it. Nasty is closer the mark. It was cold, spitting rain, glowering clouds and a wind that hadn’t anything between it and the North Pole but a few reindeer. Tuesday it was sunny with a little haze, a lovely brisk breeze on top of the hill where the monument sits to keep you cool. Beautiful weather. And granted, while there were a BUNCH more tourists this time than 20 years ago, the Ugly Americans, as we started to call them, were so nasty as to constitute a whole crowd on their own. Bitching about the weather, bitching about the rain, bitching about the bus ride, bitching about how slow the train had been, and then, the topper, bitching about how un-inpressive Stonehenge was. I believe it was the bubble butt wife who commented on how she was going to get a postcard at the gift shop to send home with the single word “DISAPPOINTING” written across the back. It was embarrassing, and then they had the nerve to show up at the restaurant where we were eating dinner that evening. They recognized us and knew that we were Americans so they spent a good deal of the time that we were both there yapping out insulting things about Great Britain and expecting us to agree with them because we were Americans too.

This time was much better. Hoardes of Asian tourists (Japanese I think), an entire busload of Germans, half a tour bus full of French speakers of one brand or another, a very confusing American couple dragging a suitcase (never did figure out why they’d bring a suitcase to Stonehenge), and a good number of Brits. All gawking, all commenting on how cool the stones were, all avidly listening to their audio tour earphones, and all taking hundreds and hundreds of photos.

I was very interested in the bird life. There was some sort of insect bloom in the surrounding fields (June bugs I think) so there were thousands of starlings. Jackdaws were nesting in the monument itself, there were two nests that I could see (with my binoculars) in between the standing stones and the cap stones, and the fields for miles around were covered with ravens. Now for those of you who are saying: “Margaret, you went to Stonehenge, one of the most impressive examples of ancient stonework in the world and all you notice are the freakin’ birds!” please calm yourselves.

I also noticed the stones. I noticed that their placement is exact, they’re big damn stones and I cannot for the life of me figure out how they got the cap stones in place, to say nothing of the feat of bringing the stones, which aren’t native, up to the top of this deserted hill hundreds of miles away from their quarries. It’s absolutely impressive. And mysterious, and lovely.

But the birds were pretty cool.

Okay, enough teasing.

Another train trip back into London. Another steamy, sweaty, sardine-ish tube trip from Waterloo back to Chelsea. And the inevitable, wonderful, glorious collapse on the bed in the refrigerated hotel room to be followed by gallons and gallons of water and a tepid shower. I love this hotel.

Dinner around the corner at the Med Kitchen, a trendy sort of fusion between Mediterranean and British food. One lamb burger with a parsley, red pepper, and cucumber salad, one salmon cake with tsatziki and some truly impressive house made chips. I did eat mine with a fork.

We had reservations for dinner at St. John restaurant for Wednesday evening and we wanted to be in plenty of time. If, for no other reason, than their reservation folks called us about three times between Monday and Wednesday morning to let us know when our reservations were. We started Wednesday a little late. Being able to sleep without being woken by the 545 to Tokyo is of great appeal. We fell into this café type joint up the street by the tube station for breakfast. A little grimy, a little run down in the furniture department, but they have these wonderful things called croques which make a stunning breakfast. A bacon, tomato, cheese, ham, and béchamel sandwich toasted to a crisp during the baking then heated to molten when ordered. They also have a juice bar where you can watch your juice being squoze. Orange and ginger juice is a great way to start the day.

We wanted to stay fairly local so we didn’t have to fight the tube to get back to the hotel and change before dinner so we just toddled up the street to the Natural History Museum. We’re also right next door to the Victoria and Albert Museum, but I’m not sure we’ll have a chance to get there.

The Natural History Museum is a joy. It’s an enormous imposing Victorian building with horrendous gargoyles and furbelows on the outside. The inside is tiled and bricked in natural history themes and the exhibits are delightful. The more modern ones are well put together and very educational, the older exhibits, a lot of them involving animal specimens that have to be close to 250 years old, are a little creepy and depressing, but impressive nonetheless. We only managed to take in the ground floor, there are four others which we may or may not get to. There were two big problems with the museum as it was on Wednesday. One, and this is true all days, not just Wednesday, it’s not air conditioned. I hate to keep harping on this lack, but it’s been pretty humid here and with minimal air flow through the building and literally 7000 children on school field trips running in and out, the building is pretty oppressive. The other problem, and this was unique to Wednesday, they were filming a children’s TV quiz show in the main lobby so the lights and all the extra equipment weren’t helping with the overall temperature.

I still want to go back though.

A little factoid regarding the British Natural History Museum: Gerald Durrell’s public memorial service was held in the main lobby. I think this is a very cool thing.

We got a taxi to take us to St. John. This was a good thing. It was very humid and in the low 80s yesterday afternoon and we were wearing some pretty decent fancy dress. The tube would have been oppressive.

For those who aren’t familiar with David Sederis and/or for those who aren’t hopeless Food Network addicts (there’s a show called “A Cook’s Tour” which featured St. John), St. John’s restaurant specializes in snout to tail cooking. Last night’s menu featured dishes like “Venison offal with mash” and the much touted “Warm Pig’s Head with Butterbeans”. They are right next door to the Smithfield General Market (kind of like Pike Place on steroids) and so they get the freshest ingredients available and they use everything. We stuck to pretty safe dishes however. I’m feeling adventuresome, but not so much so that I’m willing to try venison offal. I know, in general, what that term implies, but under the circumstances I wasn’t willing to find out what specifically they were going to offer. I was even willing to try the grilled pigeon heart appetizer that Andrew was considering ordering, but he got the roasted bone marrow instead which was lovely. I had peas. I was expecting cooked peas, what I got was fresh off the vine, raw peas in the pod. I haven’t eaten that many fresh peas since the last time I managed to grow them in Mom & Dad’s garden. The powdery mildew always seems to get the plants when I try to grow them in my garden.

Andrew had grilled eel which he said was tasty but oily, I had saddle of rabbit. Another culinary first for me. The rabbit was tasty, the beet relish that Andrew got with his eel was delightful, and the dandelion salad that I got with my rabbit tasted like dandelions. Not something that I’d pursue as a regular thing. Overall a wonderful experience and since we got there at 1800, far before the dinner rush, we were leaving just as the place started to busy up. Yet another thing that I would recommend for the discerning food nerd traveling through London.

Now I’m finally up to date.


Reporting In From Comfy Central….

Uncle AndrewUncle Andrew
Filed under: @ 7:10 am

Sorry it’s been a while, but we’ve had a serious-ass change of venue, and just in the nick of time. We struggled mightily with the embarrasment of telling the hostess at our B&B in Kew Gardens that we wanted to switch to a hotel in London for the balance of our stay–I know, I know, struggled why, exactly? It’s not like we’d give even a picosecond of thought to telling the reception desk at a Best Western that we wanted to move to another establishment. But for some reason, letting a sweet, dowdy, 70-year-old matron know that we’re leaving her one-room guest house for greener (and let’s be frank, quieter pastures; staying at this place was like sleeping at the airport. On the runway. Or possibly housed in the actual intake of a Rolls Royce RB211-524 Jet Engine) seemed horribly rude and possibly unethical. We’d gone so far as to construct an elaborate cock-and-bull story about how we were planning to stay in Paris for the entire balance of our vacation so as to avoid having to tell her the truth. This scheme became more and more complicated as we attempted to plan for every contingency of explanation; where we were staying, when we were leaving, why we were taking both our suitcases when we had just come back from a stay in Jersey and Inverness where we had only taken one….just totally, totally overthinking it. Finally I decided to just tell our host the truth. Turned out that she didn’t care one whit about why we were leaving, just that it opened up a space for someone who wanted to stay there starting the day we left. All that agonizing for nothing, save the satisfaction that comes from a masochist’s job well done. 🙄

Anywho, as of Monday we are ensconced at the ridiculously posh Radisson Edwardian Vanderbilt on lively Cromwell Road, close to museums, restaurants, cafes and Tube stations, resplendant with complimentary WiFi and central air conditioning, and a safe distance from any large airplanes. Lord oh Lord, do we love this hotel room.

Of course, we’ve left out a significant portion of our trip, namely our journey to Inverness. I’m going to leave that story to Margaret. Firstly because she does such a marvelous and thorough job of detailing these things (I’m a bit jealous, truth be told), and secondly because, in all honesty, I don’t remember much of it. “But Andrew”, I hear you saying, “why do you not remember such an exciting adventure, so recently concluded? What so ever could be the problem?” Simple, my friends. I cannot remember a lot of our trip to Scotland because 57 pence of every pound spent in Inverness is spent at Tesco. Allow me to elaborate. See, we took a day-long tour of the Highlands led by a loveable high-function psychotic named Graeme. As we passed a Tesco supermarket on our outward journey, he mentioned that “57 pence of every pound spent in Inverness is spent in Tesco. Now, they tell us in tour guide school that most folks only retain information if it’s given to them three times. So, 57 pence of every pound spent in Inverness is spent in Tesco. And, just in case ya missed it the frist two times, let me just add that, 57 pence of every pound spent in Inverness is spent in Tesco.” So that’s all I fucking remember about our trip to Scotland. That, and the fact that the woods there are eerily, blatantly, freakishly green. Not a forest green or a jungle green, but a lambent and penetrating ultra-jade that presses on your mind like a heavy blanket, yet buoys your spirit. Remember the movie Excalibur? Remember how the forests in that film seemed to pulse with the green? Remember thinking that this had to be some sort of lighting technique? It wasn’t; they just dragged a camera out into the woods and the forest did the rest. Whilst tromping through the forest of Scotland I was totally, utterly convinced that the Green Man was going to step out from behind a larch and ask me what the fook I was douin’ trampin’ aboout in hes woouds. The sense of power is unmistakable, and something I don’t typically get in Northwest woods, possibly because I have no genetic tie to them. Hawaiian tropical rainforest has a bit of it, but I always get the feeling it’s sort of resigned to see me there and would just as soon ignore me.

Anyway….back to Britain. After we got settled in at our new digs, we set out for Harrods, or as I like to call it, Her Majesty’s Strategic Merchandise Reserve. Juh-HEEbus. Seven floors of consumer goods; clothing, electronics, books, toys, pets and pet supplies, cosmetics, housewares, restaurants (I had some sushi because I had to say that I’d had sushi at Harrods. Meh, not bad, but being from both Hawaii and the Northwest I’m spoiled) and fresh and packaged foodstuffs. After three or so floors my dendrites were fraying like a ship’s rigging driven in a killing storm for too long. My neurons were bright and feverish, my eyeballs were grainy in their sockets, and my feet were killing me. Plus, they wanted nearly seventy five bucks for a frigging Crumpler laptop bag, can you believe that? We buggered out shortly after discovering the (shudder) Krispy Kreme.

Yesterday we took the Tube/Train/Bus trifecta to Stonehenge, along with approximately six grillion other tourists.


It was a beautiful day, and the site itself is majestic and awe-inspiring, but it was also one of the single most touristy things we’ve done since getting here. I felt a little dopey walking a big circle around an ancient monument and taking close to a hundred photographs so I would be able to get that one perfect shot of it….then I looked around me and saw two or three hundred people doing the exact same thing. If any of the interstellar visitors who bulit this thing were watching from space, I imagine we all looked like the flagella on a giant stone paramecium or something.

Today we went out to pick up an extra suitcase in which to schlep our newly-accumulated crap home. We took the long route around to find a nice cafe at which to have breakfast, and in doing so happened across a private school for young girsl, maybe seven and eight-year-olds, from the look of it. They were gamboling around in the school’s fenced courtyard as we passed, decked out in identical lilac-colored dresses, gigling and squealing something fierce, and I noted to Margaret that they made the place look like a private school for Peeps.

After brekky we visited the British Museum of Natural History, which is conveniently located next door to our hotel. The place is very well put together, with at least two centuries’ worth of collected samples and displays. We were only able to complete one floor out of three because we had to get ready for dinner. (And, to be honest, to cool off. Right now the temp is hovering around eighty, with high humidity. We both were in need of some of that good stuff, central AC, courtesy of the good folks at Radisson. This just in: we’re pussies.) We’re catching a cab to St. John, a famous “traditional English cuisine” restaurant that specializes in snout-to-tail cooking. We first heard about it in a piece by David Sedaris, then got to see their wares on Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations. Been dying to go there ever since. Not sure if I’m emotionally prepared to order the Warm Pig’s Head With Butter Beans, but we’ll be sure to let y’all know how it turns out. 😉

Jersey to Inverness: Part I of a Series

Filed under: @ 12:47 am

Editor’s note: pictures that go with this entry can be found here.

3 June Saturday (I think?)

Okay, so the next installment is from the first class coach of the Inverness to Newcastle train on our way back to London, but there’s a reason for that.

We left Jersey on a stunningly beautiful day. Bright clear skies, lovely little white puffy clouds, and a wind off the back end of TWO glaciers around about the Arctic Circle. I have absolutely fallen head over heels in love with Jersey and intend to come back as soon as I can for the longest I can. It’s a charming community and I imagine even with the fog the weather is lovely (so long as you have a stout windbreaker).

Our flight was set to leave a little after 10 and touch down at Gatwick a little after 11. I was hoping that we would then be able to catch a train that would take us to King’s Cross in time to catch the noon train to Inverness, but it was not to be. Firstly the train we caught was a whistle stop tour between Gatwick and King’s Cross and secondly it was delayed. Oh well, no harm done, I was really planning on catching the 1300 from King’s Cross to Inverness via Edinburgh. Yes, I am truly going native with my times, the cause of this primarily is the difficulties I’m having with this keyboard. It’s so much easier to put in the minimum of punctuation marks.

Anyway, there we were on the 1300 from King’s Cross to Edinburgh. We paid 40 pounds for the upgrade to first class and boy howdy, let me tell you, first class is the way go. Seats are wider, there is considerably more leg room and you get (on some trains that is) free wireless internet access. Despite what came next I’m still firmly of the opinion that train travel is the only way to go. You’re blasting along at 90-100 miles an hour, you can see where you’re going, you can get up and walk around…… Train travel is it.

We had a bit of lunch, and I slept while Andrew worked on photographs. We didn’t realize, because we weren’t keeping track of time and we didn’t know where we were in relationship to where we were supposed to be, that the train was ever so gradually more and more delayed though. And what we didn’t realize about the Thatcher administration’s privatization of the train system (that Maura had been complaining about) is that there is no more BritRail and there are no more Intercity 125 trains. So we were on a whistlestop tour stopping at every station (or at least most of them) between London and Edinburgh. So that by the time we were about half an hour from our 1740 connecting train from Edinburgh to Inverness, we were actually about 35 minutes from Edinburgh (if you understand what I mean).

The Great North Eastern Railway folks went through the carriages and took a count of those of us that were likely to miss this connection so they could call ahead and let the ScotRail folks know to hold the connecting train. Very kind of them. We packed up all our stuff and were ready to leap up and run as soon as the train stopped at the Edinburgh station. And it would have worked, but our parents brought us up to have nice manners. We were seated just in front of the vestibule doors which meant that there was a luggage rack between us and the doors. Up the aisle, just as the train is slowing comes old fart and his wife. They took up their stations, one in front of the door of the carriage, the other right in front of the luggage rack, unloading every bag in the universe. I assumed they were in the same hurry that we were to catch the 1740 to Inverness. Except they weren’t. They were just interested in clogging up the vestibule and standing in front of the door so that we were forced to stand there, jittering, for a very crucial 2-3 minutes until the train guard came by and told the wife that she had to push the button to open the train door.

“Oh!” she said brightly, pushed the button, let her husband off with the luggage and they wandered off aimlessly in the direction of the taxis. While we were left blasting our way through the crowds at the station just getting through the ticket gate as the 1740 to Inverness was pulling away from the platform. While we were wailing and tearing our hair, the train guard came up and told us we should go and talk to the reception people at the GNER office. We walked back in the direction she’d pointed and blew into the reception office (literally, heavy winds) to tell our tale of woe to the woman behind the desk.

She listened to our rant and said “I’d have pushed him out the way!” then offered us the phone to call the White Lodge and let them know that we’d be late. There was a final train from Edinburgh to Inverness, but it didn’t leave for two hours and it pulled into Inverness at a little after 2300. Urgh.

I could not be more impressed with the aplomb shown by Margaret and Jackie McRae, the owners of the White Lodge. You’d think they were used to panicked calls from disgruntled Americans that had missed trains and were planning on showing up on their doorstep at ungodly hours of the night. They’re a lovely couple, more about them later.

So we sat at the station in Edinburgh for two hours. Gave us time to get some dinner (Cornish pastries from a shop at the station) and to sit down and get really familiar with the terrible coffee and the construction project at the station. Andrew argued with the wireless connection which was, at times, present but unaccessable, and I alternately read and stamped around looking for a rubbish bin and/or a wrinkly old dude in a yellow pants suit to kick.

I promised Andrew I’d stop ranting so I’ll take this opportunity to say that if we hadn’t caught the 1940 to Inverness I wouldn’t have had the chance to see the red deer, the Sitka deer, the bunnies, the hares, the buzzards (a small hawk that seems to like sheep fields), and the lovely calm lake full of fishermen who were taking advantage of the on coming evening hatch. On the whole I’d have preferred getting into Inverness at a decent hour, however.

We pulled into Inverness, after another whistlestop tour, at a little after 2300 just as promised. The train was almost deserted by the time we got to Inverness, the station was all but closed. Dark, damp, chilly, and entirely uninviting. I had a brisk row with a machine that promised to sell me a tourist map of Inverness and probably amused the snot out of whichever security firm is watching the closed circuit TV cameras at the Inverness station, pounding on it, hitting the coin return button a dozen times or so and then falling back on calling it filthy names in whatever language I could come up with (okay, only three, Kato sensei never taught us any Japanese profanity and I didn’t hang around with native Japanese speakers at the right time in my life to pick any up) and flipping it the bird when it ate my pound coin and didn’t spit out a map or return my coin.

Andrew called a cab while I was fighting with the useless machine and we were deposited promptly on the doorstep of 15 Bishop’s Road, Inverness. The White Lodge Guest House.

Margaret McRae, I’m not even going to try and translate the Gaelic for Margaret back into English, was up waiting for us. She clucked at us and hustled us upstairs to our room. The rooms we’ve been getting have been progressively smaller. If we were to stay in one more British guest house in the next 10 days we’d have to sleep standing up. But there were two (twin) horizontal beds with blankets and flat rectangular things that were masquerading as pillows (I was later to start referring to mine as the Highland Pillow Torture, but I’ll get back to that) and it wasn’t an effin’ train carriage!

Sleep is good. Sleep is very, very good.

We did, of course, sleep right through breakfast. When we blearily made our way downstairs, Margaret met us. We had a brisk conversation about what we would be doing for the day, she gave us some pointers on how to get into town and had a chat about Gaelic. She was pleased to meet another Margaret and referred to me by the Gaelic for Margaret for the rest of our stay.

Wandered downtown across the river Ness. Pedestrian footbridge absolutely had harmonic vibrations in the wind that we were able to enhance by walking in step. MythBusters should come to Inverness and try to collapse their pedestrian bridges (or at least reinforce then so they don’t collapse!). Downtown Inverness is a shell of a wonderful ancient city surrounding a core of tourist trap. The tourist section was quite helpful though, we were able to drop into a tea shop, The Lemon Tree, and get breakfast and then find the Tourist Information Center (sorry, Centre) to find out how to get where we wanted to go. Andrew finally got his proper English breakfast (I did too), of fried egg, sausage, bacon, beans, mushrooms, and grilled tomatoes with toast, marmalade, and coffee. The food was all, without a doubt, proper British tea shop food. It wasn’t bad, but it was much along the lines of “and if you have to keep the sandwiches fresh, wash them!” Regardless, I didn’t need lunch on Thursday.

We had intended on going to Culloden Field on Thursday. We went to the Tourist Center, but couldn’t find a tour that was leaving any time soon, so we got information about how to get there via municipal bus from the very helpful staff behind the counter. We wandered off to look for the municipal bus stop we were aimed for and promptly got butt lost. Well, not really, I did have a vague notion of where we were, but it just didn’t turn out to be where we had expected to go. Oh well.

Wandered around Inverness for a bit tamping down our breakfast. We wandered through the Victorian Market, a combination of Pike Place and downtown Waikiki with butcher shops and fishmongers side by side with cheesy cashmere and tartan shops and shops selling cream fudge in packages marked “Thanks for…..(watching the cat/dog/house, watering the plants etc.)”. It was enchanting and enchantingly awful at the same time. When we finally got back to the Tourist Center we were just before the departure time for the Jacobite tour to Culloden Field and the Clava Cairs so we hopped the tour bus.

Culloden Field doesn’t actually exist. Actually where we went was the site of the battle of Culloden on Drumossie Moor. It’s the site of the last pitched battle on British soil, the place where the Highland Army of Charles Stuart were plowed under by the English Army of George III and thus failed to restore a Scottish king to the throne of Scotland. In a lot of ways (I get this from our tour guide from yesterday, an utterly engaging Highland lunatic named Graham) Culloden marks the end of the Highland way of life and the vicious suppression of a culture as fierce as that of the suppression of the Japanese in the US during WWII.

The battlefield is creepy. Within an hour the battle was over and almost 2000 people were dead or dying. The real kicker is that the English had orders to kill the culture as effectively as they could. As soon as they were done shooting the English army tore off across the Highlands killing and burning whatever else got in their way for a week or so. Relatives of the dead weren’t allowed to retrieve the bodies from the battlefield and they, as well as the wounded, were tossed into piles and burned.

The place is quite thoroughly haunted. Stones mark the spots where the pyres burned and there is rough approximation of which clans burned where. The place is a heather and gorse covered bog, incredibly rough terrain, squashy in spots, with the sounds of trickling water (apparently from nowhere) and a howling wind. Haunted, haunted, haunted.

And there’s a gift shop at the interpretive center. Seems a little disrespectful, rather like purchasing tack-o-rama t-shirts and stuffed toys at Pearl Harbor.

I tried to find the Gordon clan stone. Those who aren’t related to me and/or haven’t met my Uncle Don won’t know that my mother’s family (Dorwards) are a sept of the Gordon clan and there were a good number of Gordon kilted madmen waving swords at the English cannons at Culloden. We poked around and couldn’t find the Gordon stone, nor even the position they’d held in the Highland army line. Since we were on a time deadline I had to cut my geneologic quest short and hop it back for the bus. We took a lot of pictures and since I mentioned that I had a connection to the Gordons the nice dude behind the admission counter at the interpretive center came up with a clan newsletter which I intend to forward on to the appropriate family geneology mavens.

Next stop Clava Cairns. At least the people who were sacrificed and burned at this site were done so so far outside of living memory as to make this site less haunted. The cairn site is close to 5000 years old and while it’s not as cool as Stonehenge, it’s still one of those miracles of prehistoric engineering with LARGE standing stones of a type of stone not found for at least 100 miles. The tour guide pointed out that while there was considerable bird life all around the cairn site there weren’t any birds directly around the cairns, something that Andrew and I had seen on our first trip to The City of Refuge on the Big Island. It again begs the question whether or not there is some sort of spiritual juju keeping the birds off the cairns, or simply whether it’s racial memory on the part of the birds whose ancestors were all slaughtered for the impertinence of pooping on the cairns. The world will never know.

The tour guide also told us a story that he swears is true, about the Tourist Center getting a package from Brazil containing a stone and a letter about how the author of the letter had taken the stone from the Clava Cairns and had suffered nothing but bad luck since he had taken it and would they please take it back. He swears it’s true, but since we have the same sort of information about lava stones from the Big Island, I’m disinclined to believe this one as thoroughly.

We got back to Inverness a little after 5 and found (miracle of miracles) a restaurant that was willing to serve dinner before 6. By far this Italian place, just underneath the Tourist Center served us the most unremarkable meal we have had so far. Generally just by staying out of the tourist joints we’ve had superb luck with food, but we were hungry, still tired, and unwilling to walk around to try and find somewhere to eat. The pasta wasn’t bad, merely unremarkable. This was absolutely a tourist joint.

An early night was called for all the way around. I was asleep by 8:30 and in the early stages of being introduced to the Highland Pillow Torture. Sleeping in strange beds with strange pillows of random numbers and degrees of fluffiness over the last ten days has started to do a job on my neck and shoulders which are touchy to begin with. The pillow that I ended up with at the White Lodge was firm. Very firm. I purchased a travel pillow from REI before we left and while that is much poofier than the Highland Pillow Torture it alone isn’t tall enough to support my head and neck properly while the combination of the two was distinctly too tall. It was a frustrating night of turning pillows, squashing pillows, folding pillows, switching pillows and trying to sleep without a pillow, but we both still managed to get enough sleep.

Breakfast at the White Lodge is a thorough affair. Cereal, fruit, yogurt, and juice are out when you come down to the dining room. If you’ve ordered a “cooked breakfast” you are then also offered porridge, and a farmhouse breakfast (egg, tomato, bacon, mushrooms, and sausage). And regardless of whether you are getting the cooked breakfast you’re stuffed with toast and marmalade and coffee or tea until Margaret and Jackie are convinced you’re replete. We ran across a couple from Mountlake Terrace (about 15 minutes north of our home for the non-native Washington reader) and I had a wonderful discussion with the wife about growing black currants since she was volubly enamored of the black currant jam.

Yesterday we’d decided that what we really wanted to do was to take a tour around and see Loch Ness. We’d decided that putting me on a boat for a tour of the Loch was a bad idea and as it turns out we were quite correct. By the time we got there yesterday there was a vicious chop and a heavy wind and I know I’d have been thoroughly seasick despite the scopolamine patches. Heck, I was almost sick just watching it.

I described our tour guide as an engaging Highland lunatic. It also occurs to me that I’ve described most of the people who have driven us around/been tour guides as either madmen or lunatics. I wish to explain.

Overall I have found these gentlemen to be quite personable, polite, and delightful people. Every one of them, with the exception of the Jacobite Tour guide who was much more staid and proper, has had such an utterly extroverted, upbeat type personality as to make them entirely engaging and hopelessly amusing. A useful thing in a tour guide, and genuine I hope, especially in Graham’s case. It seems like it would be a really tough persona to don every day.

And now to Graham and Canny Tours. We picked up an information pamphlet in the Tourist Center about this tour that advertised itself as taking you around the whole of Loch Ness. Started at 0930, was advertised to end at 1830. A good day’s outing we thought and the price was absolutely right (25 pounds per). We got there early and sat around waiting for the bus to show up. At 0925 when we and a couple of American college girls were getting a little antsy, we wandered around the corner to find our bus, and outside it a dude in a kilt and sporran sucking on a HUGE coffee from McD’s talking to a youngish looking one legged dude on crutches. Okay, that’s a little surreal.

Dude in the kilt seems to be in charge so he introduces himself, confirms that he is, indeed, our driver for the day and hustles us on to the bus. The bus has room for 16. There are 5 of us. This is a good thing.

Graham introduced himself in between pulls on his coffee and driving. Told us that there were two C words we were not allowed to utter on his bus, “cute” and “cold”. The scenery is stunning, the animals are handsome, the wind is bracing, the water is invigorating, but nothing is either cute or cold. Graham has been driving tour busses a little too long I think. He truly seems to enjoy it, but he’s got his own style that I’m sure is not popular (and therefore, I am sure, is suppressed) for most regular tour busses. Turns out that he is co-owner of Canny Tours and since the other three tourists yesterday were the two college girls and the one legged (as it turns out) New Zealander, he asked and we absolutely told him we had no problem with him being himself for the day. This was also a good thing. Graham then proceeded to spend the next 9 hours telling us Highland history, Highland stories, dirty jokes, and a good deal about sheep farming, all framed in this wonderful Highland lilt, that I found I had no trouble at all understanding, interspersed with occasional bits of Gaelic, Scots English, and some occasionally very rude language that would have blanched most tourists. He was, as I discussed above, utterly extrovert, amazingly funny, and quite undeniably the best tour driver in Scotland. www.cannytours.com. Look him up if you’re ever in Inverness, he is absolutely worth it.

Oh, and I forgot. As we got on the bus, Andrew and I were discussing the local bird life. We had been introduced to Jackdaws the day before (which I find charming), and along the river we’d seen a fair number of Sooty Terns. I was explaining to Andrew the difference between tern bills and gull bills when the Kiwi (who was seated behind us) piped up with “Oh are those gulls? I thought they were albatross.” I was explaining to him the difference between gulls and albatross and mentioned that both species biteth like crocodiles. Graham asked what we were talking about and when I told him we were talking about gulls he replied “Gulls?! They’re bloody pterodactyls!” which I thought was pretty amusing.

Where did we go? Everywhere. We went back to Clava Cairns, we went back to Culloden and heard a great deal about Scottish history on the way. Graham started with Robert the Bruce, went through Mary Queen of Scots (describing her as “a bit loose in the knickers”), ended up at James I (“a nice Protestant boy”) as we pulled into Culloden and went through James II, James III and the Stuart Restoration as we were standing on the battlefield. We drove from there to Loch Ness where we met up, on a completely windblown beach, with a buddy of Graham’s who has dedicated his life to living on this beach scanning the loch with binoculars and sonar equipment for Nessie. We didn’t see the monster, nor did we purchase any of the plasticine Nessie statues that this friend was selling to help finance his lifestyle. For some reason there was a HUGE turnip bobbing along a few feet off the beach. Loch Ness monster bait?

We drove up into the mountains on the west side of the loch seeing more red and Sitka deer on the way. Graham took us up some scary looking logging type roads, stopping at one incredibly beautiful spot to let us out and give us a demonstration of traditional Highland dress. He had eight yards (the appropriate amount for a great kilt and plaid) of naturally dyed, felted Highland wool cloth. The one legged Kiwi (for the record I only describe him as one legged because of events to come later) volunteered to be the model for the day and so was lain down on the pleated plaid. Graham told him he had to close his eyes for the next bit and when he refused Graham told him “Oh please do, otherwise you’ll get a view of Scotland that you really weren’t expecting!” a statement that was made clear when, in getting the plaid done up and belted, he had to step over the Kiwi’s prone body. I did mention that Graham was wearing a kilt didn’t I?

We drove way up into the mountains at the north end of the Loch, went wandering around in the glens and glades past the north end then stopped in the town outside Fort Augustus for lunch. Quick stop at the grocery store for cheese, bread, fruit, and cans of haggis (oh man, y’all absolutely will not believe these cans of haggis). The cheese, bread, and fruit were delightful; we did not eat the haggis. I don’t think anyone was meant to eat canned haggis. Its fate is going to be that of the Spam I’m sure, merely a conversation piece, unless someone is a truly hardy soul. Do me a favor, if any of you ever actually want to open one of these things, let me know so I can arrange to be in the next county well beforehand. I decline to say more.

We also resisted the “Nessie Nougat” although it was a very close thing.

Anyway, a lovely lunch beside the canal and the locks that run from Loch Ness north into a second loch whose name I don’t recall, then a wild trip way up into the mountains on the northeast corner of Loch Ness ending at the castle where the first part of Highlander was filmed. It has a name, but at the moment I don’t recall it, nor do I remember exactly where the information pamphlet that has the name is. It’s the ancestral seat of Clan McRae, okay? Look it up somewhere.

Okay, so the castle.

Cool castle. Still inhabited by various McRae cheiftans (currently a minor Earl and his family), utterly photogenic. The tiniest, narrowest, stair- and doorways that I’ve ever seen anywhere. No joke, I was having to walk sideways at times and Andrew was hunched pretty much the whole time we were indoors. We went outdoors fairly quickly, being pretty much uninterested in the history of Clan McRae which is mostly what the interior exhibits in the castle are centered around. The outdoors was much more interesting and the wind was absolutely invigorating. Really. I’m not just trying to avoid using the word “cold”, although it was a bit chilly (neener), it was just that we had been sitting on a bus most of the day and the wind did blow the cobwebs away. And my hat, and my hair, and I swear I saw a rock picked up off the beach and blown away. Mmmm, bracing!

At some point on the way back down the road from the castle, in the middle of a story about a giant poet (that is, a giant that was a poet, not just an enormous poet) named Oblan, Graham interrupted himself, said “Oh! Hang on a minute!” and started to hum the Imperial March from Star Wars into his microphone. As we passed another tour bus going in the opposite direction he made an incredibly rude gesture out the window and flashed them his chest. When we all stopped laughing he went on with his story but we stopped him and demanded an explanation. I would like to note that Graham had, up until that point, been enthusiastically positive about all other tour guides and had waved politely to all the other busses that we passed. Turns out that this particular company is corporate owned and has the nasty habit of finding out the itineraries of independent tour companies then offering the very same tour at a few pounds less per head and driving the independents out of business. Now the best part of this is that Canny Tours has gotten complaints from this company about the attitude that their drivers show to the drivers of this company’s busses, but since Graham and his partner are the only drivers and also the owners of the business they can, with straight faces, say “oh yes, we’ll talk to our drivers about that” and then ignore the complaints completely. It’s an utterly devious, entirely Scottish scheme and I love it. We asked why he didn’t moon them, he said that he’d done it a few times, but his bus “ends up getting a view of the tackle” and he didn’t think that was quite polite. You absolutely have to meet this guy if you’re ever in Inverness.

We stopped at a community center in some small village outside Castle Urquhart along the eastern edge of Loch Ness. It was a little confusing because here is this absolutely nowhere town and we pull into a gravel parking lot outside a very deserted community center whose restrooms have won the “Best Loo of the Year” award for 2006. Seems a little elaborate for a potty stop, but whatever I guess. Graham kicked us all of the bus and said “now here’s where you get what you can’t get with the bigger tours” and proceeded to lead us off through the trees along what had to be a well known local hike, but absolutely couldn’t be known to the larger tour companies. In and out of trees, wonderful quiet Scottish forest above the river Ness ending up underneath an abandoned bridge above a waterfall. The one legged Kiwi was in his element. We were on top of a rock ledge above the river and he turned to Graham and asked “Does anyone ever go down there?” When Graham confirmed that yes, people frequently did go down to the river and even went whitewater rafting along the falls, the Kiwi couldn’t be stopped. He, Graham, and the two college girls went merrily scaling down the cliff at speeds that Andrew and I couldn’t hope to match. They ended up at the water’s edge, we stopped a good deal above it. Watching this dude maneuver with his crutches was something else. He was like a monkey, I was quite impressed.

Ended up back on the bus heading towards Castle Urquhart which was lovely, but not really worth stopping at for very long. Basically it’s the ruins of a castle along the eastern shore of the loch at a promontory which made it the place if you wanted to control shipping along the loch up until the early 1900s or so. Pretty, but not really that interesting.

From there we absolutely failed to stop in Drumnadrochit which is the town for Loch Ness Monster tours. It is a tourist trap to end all tourist traps. We didn’t go to the Official Nessie Museum, we didn’t go to Nessie 2000, and we didn’t end up at any of the gift shops where you can purchase chocolate Nessie Poo or Haggis Poo. I think, overall, that this was a very good thing.

We ended up back in Inverness at about 1845. Decently late enough to find dinner at most any restaurant. We fell into this hotel restaurant across the river from the Tourist Center where I had (guess) lamb and Andrew ate a chunk of cow bigger than his head.

We packed, we showered (the water pressure at the White Lodge could be described as nothing more than “gentle”) and got ready to hop it the next morning. Our train was set to leave Inverness at 755 so we figured on getting to the train station at about 730 so we could get our seats in plenty of time. I traded pillows with Andrew.

Margaret and Jackie were up and cooking when we got up the next morning. Our taxi was scheduled to show up at 715 and so there was no way we were going to get a “proper” breakfast which doesn’t mean that Jackie didn’t stuff us full of coffee and toast while we were eating cereal and drinking juice. Absolutely wonderful couple. The taxi showed up and when Jackie noticed he said “Finish your breakfast, I’ll hold the bugger off!” which made me snort juice. These two are another absolute gotta do if you’re ever in Inverness.

Our train was a little bit of a kludge. We hadn’t realized that we were traveling on a Saturday and both the London tube and National Rail do “essential engineering works” on weekends. So our train, instead of being Inverness to Edinburgh and Edinburgh to London was scheduled to be Inverness to Newcastle with a bus for an hour from Newcastle to Darlington and then the train again from Darlington to London. Urgh.

Oh well, at least we’ll be in first class again. Lovely roomy seats, free internet access etc. Nope. Not on this train! Turns out that the train we were on is a much older set of coaches and they haven’t been outfitted with wireless yet. Sigh. It was a long trip, but the seats were roomy.

I would like to mention, however, that on my birthday last year I started in Baltimore, got up at an awful hour to attend a lecture, got on an airplane in the middle of the afternoon and flew to Salt Lake City where I found that my connecting flight to Seattle was delayed until 1030 local time so that when I finally landed in Seattle it was 130 a.m. on June 4th. All the while I was sucking down NyQuil in the hopes that when the plane changed altitudes my sinuses wouldn’t explode. Spending 9 hours in the first class compartment of a train whistle stopping it through some truly stunning scenery (the Highlands first thing in the morning with a clear sky and a light mist trailing coyly around the sheep covered hilltops are unsurpassed) with my husband by my side instead of a cranky furloughed soldier from Iraq is a MUCH better way to spend my birthday.

This is, as it says above, part I of a series. Between lack of internet access, lack of sleep, and lack of time for want of wandering around (gasp) actually being a tourist, I’ve gotten a little bit behind. There are four more pages currently written, but I’m not quite done yet with this most recent part of the story. In the interests of not having a post that is umpty thousand pages long, I’ll post up to the current date when I get it finished (likely tonight or possibly tomorrow depending on how late we get back from dinner tonight).



More Pictures, Give Us More Pictures!

Uncle AndrewUncle Andrew
Filed under: @ 10:37 am

We have a TON of stuff to tell you all but we’ve been too frazzled and Web-deprived to get it all online. so in the meantime please help yourselves to a steaming plate of Jersey Zoo photos!

More later, maybe Monday.


Woo-Woo And Woo Hoo!

Uncle AndrewUncle Andrew
Filed under: @ 6:42 am

View From The Train

I’m posting this from–get this–the train from King’s Cross to Edinburgh, Scotland. Man, is this the way to travel! Upgrading from our BritRail pass coach seats to First Class only cost us about 40 pounds per….well worth it for extra-comfy seats and some relative privacy. Okay, there’s one woman and her daughter in our cabin but they’re pretty quiet. Man, we ought to take the train back to Seattle! I’m almost willing to wait for it to be built. 😉

By now I’m sure you’ve read Margaret’s account of the goings-on of the last few days. Yesterday was a bit of a downer for me, what with this goddamn virus keeping me up all night (you know that feeling when you’re throat itches and burns and you’ve just got to do something about it and all you can do is swallow repeatedly? It’s possible albeit problematic, to get to sleep while this is happening. On the other hand, when you get to the point where your throat is so dry from repeated swallowing that the fricition on the inner surfaces of your mouth and throat is greater than the lubricating ability of your now all-but-exhausted supply of saliva that you can’t swallow at all, that instead you get a brief spasm at the back of your glottis and a totally unsatisfactory glick! sound, sleep is pretty much a quaint notion from more innocent times). But last night Margaret gave me a Snoot-O’-Phedrin, an Ambien and something else (it was green, I think), and I got my frist real night’s sleep in three days.

After the sardine-can that was our plane from Jersey back to the mainland, we are now on an 8-hour train ride to Edinburgh and ultimately Inverness, home of castles, moors (geogrpaphically speaking, not racially) and a certain body of water purported to contain a totally unlikely Jurassic-age aquatic reptile. We may even take one of those cheesy Nessie-hunting boat tours of the Loch, if Margaret doesn’t think she’ll be chumming the water with her puke. If we get any pictures of it (the varmint, not the vomit), we’ll do our best to get to shore before we’re eaten.

Beyond what Margaret has already discussed in exhaustive detai over the last few days, I really don’t have a lot to offer at this time. I plan to get another batch of photos uploaded at my next opportunity. Until then, here are a few other random observations:

My previous observation about the dearth of non-American obsese people here in the UK turns out to not be entirely true. Our trip to Jersey revealed a codicil to this rule: almost without exception, the only working class obese people you will find here are Americans. The “fat cats” tend to take on the physical form of their name at a higher rate than their countrymen further down the socioeconomic ladder. Perhaps this is because they still believe in the caste system here, and unconsciously follow the tradition that only royalty can afford to eat well enough to overdo it. Whereas in America, every man is a king, so every man can pork out as he sees fit.

A tomato, brie and basil baguette is just about the perfect quick-eat food, and can be trusted to be not only edible but quite delicious no matter where you get one, from garçon to gas station. The same cannot be said for sausage and pickle sandwiches. 😮

I may be blowing this out of proportion due to my inherent biases, but parents in the UK seem to be more willing to discipline their children–and more to the point, prevent the kids’ improper behavior–in public than their American counterparts. It seems like a rug rat has to be actually setting something/someone ablaze for the average American parent to put a stop to their shenanigans, whereas the British parents we’ve seen shush their kids when they raise their voices. It must be noted, however, that this training seems to wear off with the application of alcohol; pickled Brits are as obnoxious as any out there.

That’s all for now; see you with Round Three of pictures later!


Jersey Girl Part II

Filed under: @ 11:32 am

30 May, Tuesday (I think. I’m not entirely sure and I find that an enchanting state)

Day started out poorly. Andrew has come down with some sort of throat virus so we spent late last night and very early this morning with him swallowing, on average, about twelve times a minute. Neither of us slept very well and this room, while quiet, tends to get very warm if the window is shut which, I hadn’t realized until I got up this morning, it was.

We managed to find a doctor just around the corner who very kindly took a look at Andrew and reassured me that he wasn’t coming down with Strep. Okay, reassured us both, but really it would seriously suck if one of us came down with a bad case of the creeping crud while we’re traveling and Melanie did promise to cancel all out of country vacation permission if I came back to work sick, so this is of moderate importance. I think she was joking, but whether or not she was really joking, I suppose depends on whether or not I come back sick and how busy the summer is. I’ve got a lot of doctors depending on me here.

Once we got the official blessing of the British Medical Association we wandered off through the business district of St. Helier trying to avoid getting to the bus station by walking through the transit tunnel from Hell like we did yesterday.

We did manage to find an alternative route to the bus station and had a very nice stroll getting to our circle island tour bus. Nice chat with the dude selling tickets and we were off.

The streets are narrow and walled in either by real walls or by trees in most areas so there are blind spots from the Black Lagoon. There are many one lane two direction sections of the roadway. And every single driver we’ve run across drives, as I’ve mentioned before, like they were in the last stages of hallucinatory syphilis.

The island, however is GORGEOUS. Lots and lots and lots of potato and onion fields, lots of Jersey cows, I just can’t say enough. The architecture is stunning, the newest building I saw was dated 1914, and they all seem to be built out of these cool orange/red pumice type stones. The coastline is easily the equivalent of Hawaii (highest praise I can come up with for stunning coastline), however the wind is something else entirely. Beautiful day, blue sky, bright sunshine and a wind off the back end of some glacier around about the Arctic Circle.

We made our first stop at the Jersey War Tunnels, a tunnel complex built by slave labor during the German occupation. Originally designed as a munitions dump it was transformed into a German critical care hospital near the end of the war, but was never used. It was a really depressing sort of exhibit really. Basically takes you through from the moment that the British Navy browbeat Churchill into giving up the idea of defending the Channel Islands (“In case of an invasion the Channel Islands will not, repeat not, be defended!”) all the way through the war until about a month past VE day when the German soldiers were finally taken as prisoners of war. It’s pretty much no more depressing than any other WWII exhibit and certainly no more moving than, say, Pearl Harbor, but it’s so sad to see the timeline of how this wonderful and slightly dotty island was made into a German fortification. Also the opening of the exhibit consists of a series of pictures and bits of movies alternatively showing beautiful pastoral scenes of 1940’s Jersey and German propaganda films with a lot of swastikas, marching soldiers, and “Seig Heil!” which is specifically designed, I’m quite sure, to be very unsettling.

Took us about two hours to get through the exhibition by which time we were quite ready to be above ground in the sunshine, and somewhere where we weren’t still occasionally getting echoes of “Seig Heil!” (which is, honestly, a very unsettling phrase to have echoing down the hallways at you when you’re buried 50 meters underground).

We hopped back on the circle island bus and proceeded at a madcap pace through some of the more hideous tourist traps on Jersey. Granted there was also some wonderful scenery, but the “Jersey Living Legends Village” where you can take a ride on “Jersey Karts” (don’t ask) and the “a-MAIZE-in Maze” were a little distressing. We got off for lunch at St. Brelade’s Bay which amused the snot out of me. Standard tourist trap beach town, absolutely stunning half circle white sand harbor and blue, really blue water. Remember the wind off the back end of that glacier? Yeah, well it hadn’t calmed down any. And so the sight, at this veddy British beach resort darling, of people in coats, scarves, and mittens side by side with people in Speedos and nothing else. Now why the people in Speedos and the kids splashing in the water and the damp little girl playing Cricket in her bathing suit weren’t as blue as the water was beyond me. Andrew and I were walking a good clip and I was pretty darned uncomfortable in jeans and a t-shirt.

We had lunch, got some great photographs and then hiked it back to the bus. While we were waiting we struck up a conversation with an older Scottish couple and I was distressed to discover that while they were speaking English, I was completely unable to determine what it was that they were saying. No joke, I was only able to understand about two words in five. I thought the advice I got from one of my contacts on the Veterinary Information Network was exaggeration. I was told that I should get used to nodding my head and smiling a lot when I was in Scotland, and I’m afraid he (my VIN buddy that is) was correct. Andrew seemed to understand them pretty well, so I may have some hope.

Bus trip from St. Brelade back to St. Helier. The bus didn’t stop at the lavender farm which was disappointing, but just means that I’ll have to come back again. Rush hour traffic in St. Ouen means that you sit in traffic just long enough to be able to have a good look at the fields of what turned out to be lettuce along the side of the highway before the traffic starts moving again. Stopped at the pizzeria in St. Helier for takeout calzones so we could come back to our room early and get all set up to leave tomorrow.

The plan for tomorrow is to get up, get breakfast and then wing back to London so we can catch the train to Inverness. Tomorrow’s installment from The White Lodge Guest House in Inverness.

Observations for the day 5/30/06

Yet another comment on public lavatories. I stopped at the WC just across from the beach park in St. Brelade bay this afternoon. While the toilets had seats that were bolted to the bowl, this least upscale lavatory that I’ve encountered so far had no graffiti, no garbage, and intact windows. I’ll try to stop commenting on The Restrooms Of Great Britain, but truly I’m amazed.

At breakfast this morning I most thoroughly freaked Andrew and the waitress out by commenting that the King Charles Spaniel that was following the waitress around probably had an ear infection because I could smell it. Apparently this is a weird thing for me to be able to do, but I was right. After her eyes stopped going a little buggy the waitress confirmed that yes, the spaniel did have an ear infection and that they had taken her to the veterinary down the way a few days ago so that she could get some ear drops. Andrew thinks that it’s a very weird thing for me to be able to do.

I have got to come back to this island. There are so many cool, beautiful, and absolutely interesting things to do here that spending a week or more wandering around with a camera glued to my face would be a pretty appropriate thing to do.

Observations regarding European parents are, by no means, commentary on the parenting skills and styles of our direct group of friends, nor, god forbid, are they any commentary about either of our sets of parents. On the whole what I am seeing here is what I see from our group of friends who are parents and what I saw and have seen from all four of our own parents. I am merely commenting because what I am seeing is so different from the average American parent/child interaction, especially that to which I am witness in my professional capacity. That disclaimer having been made I hope I am free to say that I’m impressed. I have seen children disciplined, I have seen rowdy and disruptive children removed from social situations, and I have seen fathers especially being much more affectionate towards their children than I am used to seeing. It’s really refreshing honestly.


Jersey Girl

Filed under: @ 1:09 pm




I’ve been waiting my entire life to do that!

Well, okay, maybe not my entire life, but how old must I have been when Mom first read to us from My Family and Other Animals and The Overloaded Ark? Nine? Ten?

So only just most of my life.

Let me just back up a bit. I missed Saturday and Sunday.

Saturday we did laundry. We hung out in Kew, we had a superb meal at a European Bistro (this is beginning to sound more like a gastronomic diary rather than a travelogue). We dealt, with poor grace, with the airplane noise and the loud drunk people in the streets of Kew overnight and we got all packed and set to leave Sunday morning.

Sunday we woke up way to damn early and didn’t wander around the streets shouting about how sober we were early in the morning (no, we’re not grouchy about the noise at Maura’s place, why do you ask?). We tubed to Victoria and caught the Gatwick Express to the airport. Breakfast consisted of baguette with brie, fresh basil and tomato, and fresh squeezed OJ. At the airport.

Have I mentioned that I love this society?

You may actually get that feeling when you see the photo that I took of a sticker that is placed prominently on multiple lamp posts around Kew noting that “People who let their dogs foul the pavement are bad mannered, inconsiderate, unhygienic and can be prosecuted under the ‘DOGS FOULING PAVEMENT LAW’!” A whole society of people (at least the great majority of the society) who are concerned with being bad mannered and inconsiderate!

I really love this society, although having seen more of how most people live, at least in the greater London area, I can understand the social pressure to be well mannered and considerate. The train trip from Victoria to Gatwick took about half an hour and at least 15 minutes of it (at an average speed of about 80 miles an hour) was through London and the outskirts. Block after block after block of row houses. The smallest houses we saw were duplexes. If you’re an ill mannered, unhygienic, inconsiderate person I rather imagine your close neighbors, all 60 or 70 of them, tend to run you out on a rail.

Which doesn’t, I’ll admit, do much to explain the pickled pixie that was wandering around Ennerdale Road Friday night screeching into her cell phone to Tom about how he did her wrong.

I should have bunged a brick at her head.

Anyway, we were on the way to Gatwick.

Love the train. Love it. Not much else to say although I may have more commentary after we get to Inverness (our train trip is set to take about 8 hours).

Gatwick Airport was loud, confusing, and absolutely choked with people. We took the tube to the train to the airport and once we got to the airport we had to take the tram to check in for our flight. It was a strenuous morning.

Our flight was set to leave Gatwick at 11:50. The boarding gate was set to CLOSE at 11:35. While we were finishing breakfast at 11:20, our boarding gate hadn’t been assigned yet.

Mild panic.

Went to talk to the guy at the BA information kiosk, he told us the flight had been delayed. What he didn’t tell us is that the flight had actually been delayed for FOUR DAYS due to fog on Jersey and that we’d be lucky if we got off the ground.

We were, in fact, lucky, it just took a while.

About three hours in fact. They started to board us at a little after 1:30. They took Andrew’s boarding pass and let him on. Since our flight was very full, we were seated separately (this part is important). They took my boarding pass and wouldn’t let me on. Colin (the very Irish dude at the gate) ran my boarding pass under the scanner again and the computer answered with a very discouraging “BONK” again. He poked at a few buttons, ran the scanner again and was again rewarded with “BONK”. Andrew was already on the plane and there was a LONG line behind us.


Colin turned to his counterpart and asked “Maeve, have you boarded seat 6C yet?”

To which Maeve replied “No, it’s reserved, an Internet booking for Margaret Hammond.”

Blink blink blink.

I turned to Maeve and said “I’m Margaret Hammond and I did book on the Internet.”

She took my boarding pass, ran it through her scanner and got BONKed again. I offered to show her my passport and my driver’s license, she declined and asked me to sit while they boarded the rest of the flight.

Oh yeah, THAT’S designed to reassure me.

So they boarded the rest of the flight and then Maeve walked me down the gangway and parked me in first class, no less, while she went to figure out which Margaret Hammond was in 6C.

I was perfectly happy to stay where I was for the rest of the flight, but she did find a girl about the size and shape of a Q-tip in 6C who was supposed to be in first class. No appreciation she’d have had for those wider seats.

Oh well.

We finally got off the ground, it was a fun flight. The cabin crew had just enough time to close the curtain between first class and coach (that is supposed to be secured in the open position during takeoff and landing) and to get everyone a drink before they had to turn around and take everything away again so we could land. The folks in first actually got a meal, but I don’t think they had any time to eat since it was all I could do to finish my soda before they were collecting rubbish before landing.

Jersey is beautiful from the air and stunning in person (as it were). Green rolling hills separated by hedgerows, miles and miles and miles of white sand beach. Gorgeous architecture, ancient buildings…… I could go on.

And while there were both Pizza Hut and KFC advertised in the airport there’s not a Starbucks in sight.

We got a taxi driven by a mad Glasgewian. He was charming and gave us a lot of good tourist information, but he drove like…… well, he drove like a Brit.

I think a lot of my discomfort with the traffic here is that we’re on foot all the time and I can never figure out which way to look to avoid being squashed. Even when it’s printed in the crosswalks (as it frequently is) “LOOK RIGHT” or “LOOK LEFT”, it never feels like I’m looking in the correct direction and I’m positive I’m going to get squashed.

But it doesn’t help that they all seem to drive like they were in the end stages of hallucinatory syphilis. Dude that was driving our bus this afternoon scared the pants off of me.

I get ahead of myself again.

La Bonne Vie

La Bonne Vie Guesthouse, Roseville Street, St. Helier, Jersey.

The interior layout of this place confuses me greatly. There are thirty seven steps from the entry up to our room and we’re on the fourth floor. How do you get an odd number of steps?

La Bonne Vie

The view out our window

There are two rooms on this floor, #1 and #2. #3, #4, #7, and #10 are one floor below us. Two floors down you pass #5 and, inexplicably, #8, but there is no sign of #6 or #9. Now granted I haven’t done any snooping on the second floor to see whether the hallway at the back leads to #6 and #9, but still.

And no, for the record, there is no street number for this place. It’s just “La Bonne Vie Guesthouse, Roseville Street”.

There are at least 5 small hotels or guest houses on Roseville Street. It is crowded, the street is almost impassable for vehicles (which isn’t to say that the garbage truck and the street sweeper didn’t do a fine job this morning) and it’s QUIET. I was woken twice this morning, once by doves, once by seagulls. Right now I can hear the waves hitting the seawall at the quay a block and a half away. If the bed weren’t so tiny Andrew and I would sleep much better, but it’s still QUIET!

Completely off the subject for the moment, but I was reminded by a typo that I just deleted out. Andrew has spent the last four or five days being entirely enchanted with British cars. He wants a Ford Ka. They are cute I must admit, but I think a little impractical to put in our carryon.

We got here, got settled in and I went for a walk while Andrew napped. Lovely walk, I got to see a good section of the touristy areas of St. Helier and marked out some places that we’ll have to investigate more closely. There’s a park with a statue of King George V that I’ll have to get a picture of. You’ll understand when you see the picture.

Dinner last night at the Roseville Bistro. Three doors down the road and absolutely stupendous food. Andrew had prawns while I disported myself with chicken in mushroom sauce. The Jersey New Potatoes are worth a shout out too. Really wonderful little potatoes.

Today was dedicated to the zoo and only the zoo. Until I was completely zooed out, there wasn’t any way anyone could have pried, threatened, or cajoled me out of there.

We took the bus from St. Helier, about a half hour across the island to Trinity Parish. Gerald Durrell and his zoo have rather become Trinity’s talking point and it’s obvious why.

This is not a commercial, make a profit type zoo.

This is a show the animals to the people enough that they’ll pay to see them, but for the most part keep the animals here because they’re endangered, they need a safe place, and let’s see if we can’t get them to breed type zoo.

You can get within touching distance of most of the animals, and it’s my impression that most of them are pretty hand tame.

As impressed with and as proud as I am of Woodland Park, Jersey beats them hands down. This place was put together for the comfort and pleasure of the animals not the visitors……you’ll just have to see it. I spent the day somewhere I’ve read about my whole life, looking at animals that I’ve read about my whole life. No joke, there are a couple of the orangutans and a couple of the gorillas, to say nothing of the reticulated pythons, who are originals to the zoo. It was like meeting an old friend for the first time.

I was in tears more than once. It’s quite an experience.

And I found that I do, in fact, own every book Gerald Durrell ever wrote. I picked up his authorized biography though. Started reading it while we were waiting for the bus back here, it looks like it’s going to be really cool. It will be leant out on request (once I’m done of course), but understand that this is one book that I will get back from whomever borrows it OR ELSE.

Got off the bus in ‘downtown’ St. Helier and wandered around looking for a place to have dinner. No one opens for dinner before 6 p.m., it’s weird. You’d think in a tourist town they’d be open a lot more than they are, but I’m also forgetting that Jersey has a serious French influence and it’s probably illegal in France to eat dinner before 6:30. We wandered through a really cool little cemetery, again, you’ll have to see the pictures.

Dinner at a Portugese place on the waterfront. Our chorizo appetizer came on a grill over a dish of flame. Great food, absolutely wonderful and yes, for the record, I had lamb again while Andrew was inspired by his seafood steamed rice. The lamb kebabs came on a not so miniature sword. Now that’s a kebab.

Tomorrow we plan on taking a circle island hop on hop off bus tour. I secretly hope to get out to the lavender farm, but if our bus doesn’t go there I might be out of luck.

Observations for the Day 5/29/06

All of the houses have names. It’s odd. We passed one today whose sign read “#1 The Cloisters”. I thought that was only in books! Makes it hard to tell which are the guest houses and which are the private houses.

There is apparently a British ban on washcloths. Bath towels are present, hand towels are present, but there is no such thing as a washcloth. I can’t even find one in a store.

Mom and Dad have GOT to get to Jersey. We’re already planning our next trip, perhaps we can chase them out here when we come the next time.

Jersey cows are really cute.

And I still want to know what happened with Matt’s bat woman.


More From Us In The Uk

Uncle AndrewUncle Andrew
Filed under: @ 12:55 pm

We got into Jersey about six hours ago, after an agonizing wait at Gatwick airport for our flight. (Turns out we had it soft; some folks had been waiting for three days to get to Jersey. The airport here had been socked in by fog for that long.) Tomorrow we head out for the Jersey Zoo, the brainchild of Gerald Durrell (still overseen by his wife, in fact) and the subject of Margaret’s Great Britain travel fantasies since she first heard of the place. Me, I go look purty aminals. And maybe buy a T shirt. 😉

Here is the second installment of photos from our trip, taken mostly at or around the London Eye (which is quite a cool little tourist attraction, lemmetellyou. Pity the cars don’t detach and ply the Thames like they did in that Simpson’s episode. Ah, well.), plus some at Trafalgar Square and the nearby, um, Something Cathedral (Margaret’s asleep or I’d ask her for the name).
I’m not quite as loquacious as my darling Wife when it comes to this trip–I’m really not getting enough sleep for one thing–but I thought I’d share a few random observations with you all regrading my experiences here:

Flying into Heathrow Airport, the modern steel-and-glass towers seem to rise up like futuristic mushrooms from a rich loam of antiquated red brick and stone.

While the President of the United States backs the “theory” of Intelligent Design and can only grudgingly admit to the possibility of global warming, the Brits like science so much that they put a strand of DNA on the back of their two-pound coin.

In England, there are lots of interesting physiological and physiognomic perplexities among the human populace. There is a manner of stentorian female figure here, a woman of a type that brings to mind the description “handsome”, big matronly women in their late 60’s hulking statefully down the sidewalks. There are people with weird planes and angles of the face where Americans don’t even have places; jawlines designed to admit dentata never meant to fit in the human face; faces like horses, faces like pugs, faces like Siamese cats. But there are virtually no truly obese people over the age of ten; if you see one, chances are super-good he or she has an American accent.

In the UK, a can of diet soda measures its energy content in kcal, or kilocalories, rather than calories as is the case in the US, which, in the case of the US, happens not to be the case.

The transit system here is to die, kill, rape, pillage and (more to the point) pay out the ass in taxes for. Our host at the B&B was lamenting to us the other day how Maggie Thatcher had butchered the rail/bus system in England, reducing it to a pale shadow of its former self in the name of her backers in the automobile industry. If this is the pared-down version, I think the real thing might be enough to send me into diurnal emission.

Despite popular lore to the contrary, beer in the United Kingdom is not universally served piss-warm. We have eaten out every single day of our stay, at pubs, bistros, Mediterranean restaurants, tandoori and fish-and-chips joints, and I have yet to be served a beer that was not refreshingly cold. Unless local comestabularies maintain a separate “stupid American” fridge of ice-cold brewskis, this piece of common knowledge about the beer-imbibing habits of the British would appear to be completely inaccurate. And it should be noted that, were it actually true, I would still quaff my Brit suds with nary a hesitation, because truth be told, the beer here does not have to be cryogenically prepared in order to be drinkable. I chalk it up to the preservatives–primarily nitrites, that jaw-tightening bitter aftertaste that seems to be the hallmark of domestic brew–that most non-American beers manage to do nicely without. Even a beer from, say, Holland, brewed and bottled in Holland for the American market, is brewed to American standards for shelf life. Which means the average imported beer contains enough nitrites to preserve a hundred strips of bacon….three hundred, if it’s a dark beer.

That’s all for now. I’m sure we’ll have just a royal shitload (or is that a metric shitload?) of Zoo photos for y’all to see in the coming days. Until then, cheerio!


First Batch Of Pictures

Uncle AndrewUncle Andrew
Filed under: @ 9:10 am

I haven’t quite figured out how to add captions with this goofy photo album software I’m using, so you’ll have to use your imagination, but here is the first batch of UK photos. Have at!

A Shout Out From Across The Pond

Filed under: @ 2:45 am

It took us about a week to finally sort out the whole Internet access thing, including calling our housemate at 11:30pm our time so he could reboot my server. So here, without further ado, is an extra-large, old-tymie super-deluxe posting on our trip so far by Margaret. Pictures to come. -Andrew


Where to start.

First and foremost this keyboard is going to drive me insane. There’s a reason I don’t usually use laptops.


Shawn dropped us off, we breezed through security, found our departure gate and only then figured out that the currency exchange booth is, for some damnfool reason, in the arrival area next to baggage claim.

So I went back. Toting our ready supply of stored up American dollars ($464 for the record. I’ve been saving bits of cash for a long time now.) I went down the escalators from the S gates, along the tram line back to the main terminal, up the escalators to baggage claim and then halfway back along the length of the concourse to find the currency exchange booth which was peopled by what I assume was a congenital moron.

That’s not exactly fair, she seemed pretty reasonable actually, but I gave her my cash, she typed in a few numbers and then told me I could get 220 pounds for $464 or I could get 240 pounds for $500. I didn’t have any more cash so I handed her my Visa and told her to take the extra $36 from my Visa. She obligingly ran my card through the swiper.

And then her machine gagged. Locked up. Froze. As in, 0 Kelvin, frozen solid. There were three international flights that had arrived at baggage claim fairly soon after I had. I was carrying nearly $500 in cash, minutes were ticking away (our flight was due to board at 6 p.m., when I got to the exchange booth the clock on her monitor read 5:15 p.m.) and here is this woman with my Visa, every scrap of cash that I have on me, and my driver’s license and she won’t give any of them back because she says that since she swiped the card there is no way for her to cancel the transaction.

A line started to build up behind me. A line of grumpy, JOJ (Hawaiian pidgin term) international travelers who wanted to exchange their currency into US dollars and get the hell somewhere they could have a hot shower and sleep in a bed.

You know on the TV shows when they’re “showing” someone being given a polygraph exam how they’re always careful to show that the person’s hands are placed flat on the table in front of them so as to allow the examiner to monitor how much tension is in their hands? Yeah, well if someone had been watching my hands, laid on the counter on either side of the sliding drawer in the bulletproof glass, they’d have been able to look at my hands (them or the finger shaped dents in the formica that is) and say…..”HM! Margaret’s under a lot of tension right now!”

And the minutes kept ticking away. I was about to jump out of my skin when she finally made the correct call to the correct person to cancel the transaction from hell so she could count out my cash and let me go. The clock on her monitor read 5:45 p.m.

Did I mention that neither of us saw any reason to bring our cell phones with us? We do have an international cell, but its service didn’t start until we’d landed at Heathrow and I don’t know the number anyway.

I thought I was jumping out of my skin!

Andrew, having been left at the departure gate with our carryon baggage was a wee bit ANXIOUS about where I’d gotten off to. Fortunately I didn’t have any problem getting back through security again and they say that running stairs is great aerobic exercise (escalators were just not fast enough!).

And, just to state the obvious, I got back to the departure gate in plenty of time, the flight started boarding just when they said it would and all was well. Except that I saw a client, an older dude who owns a chocolate Lab (don’t ask me his name, but the dog’s called Godiva) with a camcorder taking home movies of the plane and the line of people waiting at the departure gate. He did board after we did, that is, I don’t suspect he was video taping the plane for any NEFARIOUS PURPOSE, but I did manage to confuse the daylights out of Andrew by doing my duck and cover routine while trying to explain to him through clenched teeth why I was suddenly acting like a lunatic.

The flight was not bad. Not bad in a claustrophobic, desert dry, heavy turbulence at the start sort of way. Cattle car class on British Air is somewhat more humane than cattle care class on, say, Hawaiian, but it’s still close and stuffy, and remarkably uncomfortable. The turbulence didn’t add anything. Y’all will know that I get profoundly seasick. I have never been airsick, but as I get older I think it may start to happen. The next time I do something like this I’m taking an ocean liner. My understanding is that they don’t move (much), and besides if I’m on an ocean liner and seasick, I’ve at least got plenty of space to throw up then lie down and be miserable instead of about thirty six square inches of space and no chance to get to the lav because of the turbulence.

Once we crossed the Rockies into Calgary, things settled down a good deal. I got perverse enjoyment out of watching our progress on the map when I wasn’t trying to sleep or decide what sort of food they were trying to convince us to eat. The food wasn’t bad, but lord it wasn’t good.

My MD had prescribed Halcion pills for me. My understanding is that Halcion is the stuff that they give presurgical patients to keep them from wigging out so that they’re nice and sleepy for the anesthesiologists. I can’t say whether or not I slept. I don’t know that I did sleep, but if I wasn’t sleeping I at least didn’t care that I wasn’t asleep. That is, once the loud Russian guys two seats back, and whistling dude one seat up shut up.

Please pardon the more pointed parts of this commentary. By my current clock it’s still Monday evening even though by local time it’s a quarter of Wednesday. We did nap once we got here, but I wanted to get all this down before I went to sleep so I’m still pretty loopy.

Andrew didn’t sleep on the plane at all so he’s currently crashed out waiting for me to finish with this so he can do whatever he needs to do before he puts the computer away for the night.

Once we hit the ground at Heathrow it was smooth sailing. The “Passport Control” (I love that phrase) agent looked like one of the minor female characters from The Full Monty, the people at Customs asked us if we had anything to declare and waved us through when we said no, and we were first in line at the taxi queue so we leaped right in and drove off.

We did have instructions on how to get here via the tube, but the tube station at the international terminal at Heathrow is closed so we would have had to take a bus to the nearest tube station, take the Central Line tube to the South Ealing Station, and then take a taxi from South Ealing to Maura’s.

It seemed easier just to get in a taxi. By no means less expensive, but SO much more straightforward.

Besides it was kind of cool to go screeching along the motorway (why is it a commonality around the world that local taxi drivers all drive like lunatics?) looking at Great Britain from the top side instead of the Underground. Lovely, very homelike, vegetation, enormous Magpies, and a number of small finches that I’ve not managed to find in our bird book yet. Of course we have a British bird book. It’s lovely, my only regret is that it’s not a copy of Olson’s Standard Book of British Birds (Monty Python reference, sorry, I am quite loopy). And yes, I checked. It’s got gannets and nuthatches in it.

58 Ennerdale Road, Kew Gardens, Richmond Surrey.

This is one section of a large multiplex. Three stories, narrow (only about two rooms wide and two deep that I can see), but tall. This is the ONLY guest room at this guest house, the Old Unitarian Network has really done itself proud in recommending it. We are literally across the street from the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens. The street is about two and1/2 cars wide which means that since people are parked along both sides the traffic is almost nil. There are robins bellowing, numerous finches tweedling, starlings, ring neck doves (hey Susan! I’ve got pigeons to chase!). We’re in the flight approach for Heathrow, but the airplane noise won’t bother Andrew or I, it’s quite homey. Hell, right now brass bands aren’t going to keep us awake. The room is spare, but clean with lots of closet space, and the nightstand has a copy of Rick Steves’ London 2006 travel guide along with about two dozen maps, brochures, etc. If there is a bible, I’ve not found it yet.

And Maura makes a mean cup of tea.

Italian for dinner. Good Italian. Fresh made mozzarella on my bruschetta, audible whamming when Andrew ordered veal cutlet. And I’m sorry to say that neither the fact that the carpaccio was raw nor the fact that the veal was, in truth, veal detracted from the enjoyment of the meal. It had been close to 24 hours since either of us had eaten anything resembling real food and it was GOOD.

Fun with British English 5/23/06:

That bag I carry strapped around my waist as a purse is a waist pack. Not a butt pack, and God forbid not a fanny pack. Apparently the word fanny has an other definition in British English. A good thing that I’ve always referred to my purse as a “waist pack”.

Another word with other definitions: stuffed. Apparently it’s a pretty darn rude thing to say to come out of a restaurant and say “man, am I stuffed”.

And if you ask for water someone is likely to ask you “Do you want gas with that?” Um…… no, all I want is water. I was prepared to not automatically have water delivered to my table, but it took me a few minutes to parse that question. Apparently you’re supposed to ask for plain water or sparkling water (i.e. water “with gas”).

Tomorrow we’re going to take the tube into London and ride the ferris wheel.

But now I gotta sleep.

Wednesday 5/24/06

I still dislike this keyboard intensely.

We got a late start. Maura offers breakfast after 0830, and I was up and showered by then. Andrew was still dead to the world when I came back up and decided that I should go back to sleep as well.

I finally managed to boot both of us out of bed at about 11:30, but only for long enough for Andrew to take a shower, eat some breakfast and for me to make the bed. Then we decided to take another nap.

It was a little before 1400 (yeah, I’m going native) by the time we both got it together, got dressed and went out.

Then it started to hail. No shit, hail. Well, truthfully, thunderstorm, then monsoon, then hail.

We went to the Kew Greenhouse Café and had lunch.

We got some entirely unhelpful information from the dude at the tube station regarding travel passes (he said that there weren’t any that were likely to be useful for us whereas the dude at the Victoria tube station gave us some great information about prices, week long passes, and travel options) as well as a pair of what turned out to be one way tickets from Kew Gardens to Victoria which we only found out when I tried to barrel through the turnstile at Victoria on our way back this evening only to be stopped at the midsection by the turnstile gate that refused to open.

Anyway we took the tube to Victoria and hooked up with The Original London Bus tour which was narrated by one of the most engaging lunatics I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. He claimed that it was only his first time narrating that particular tour, but the ease with which he rattled off some of the minutiae makes me believe to the depths of my soul that that was just part of his patter. He was claimed to have been a solo European tour guide in a previous job but said he had to quit when one of his tourists tried to murder her husband on his tour and he was then saddled with a paranoid schizophrenic with bowel problems. Man you just can’t make stuff like this up. Anyway we tried it on the top of the bus for a while but it was spitting and still hailing occasionally so we made do on the bottom level which didn’t have nearly as good a view. We also ended up sitting behind another pair of Americans, the female of which had been a program secretary at Evergreen for many years.

So we went round and round and round London, sometimes passing through the same intersection three times. I know we saw Trafalgar Square from three different angles and were told at least twice that the statue of George Washington that is in Trafalgar is sitting on Virginian soil because Washington refused ever to set foot on British soil. There is also, for some odd reason, a statue of Abraham Lincoln somewhere outside of Buckingham palace.

Oooh, and for the Potterheads out there, we saw the façade for Gringott’s bank, a.k.a. the Australian Home Office. I’ll try to get a picture, but I’m not sure if embassy security are as fussy in the U.K. as they are in the U.S. about people aiming cameras at their front doors.

Observations for the Day:

British toilet paper has improved since 1985. Even in the public lav at Victoria station it was relatively reasonable and not the waxed paper nightmare that I remembered.

In her story “The First Thanksgiving” from The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Sarah Vowell describes her family as being “claustrophobic homebodies who would prefer to be alone than in a group. I can relate to that. London is a DAMN big city, there’s lots of people, lots of places, and I tend to go all to pieces when I’m not in an area that I recognize or can maneuver well in. At Victoria there were literally thousands of people, lots of ambient noise, I couldn’t see well anywhere around me (too short), I don’t tend to hear well when there’s a lot of background noise, and as a result I got us completely turned around while trying to find the pub at which we had planned to eat dinner (called The Rat and Parrot) and just about had a breakdown when I couldn’t find the underground station again. And I am very much my mother’s daughter in my sense of direction. Given a map I can probably find where I’m going most of the time, but if there’s any inaccuracies or twists I can get butt lost in no time.

Doesn’t mean I’m not having fun though.

There are still Cadbury chocolate vending machines at the tube stations. I’m thrilled.

Being simultaneously kippered by cigarette smoke while enjoying some truly stellar Indian food detracts from the enjoyment less than one would think. The Indian place we fell into after we failed to find The Rat and Parrot was the real thing. Andrew’s prawn vindaloo was hot enough to give me hiccups and my lamb masala was outrageous.

The statue of QueenVictoria is still quite one of the ugliest pieces of statuary it has ever been my pleasure to witness.

Also it’s not just taxi drivers, tour bus drivers regular drivers, scooter riders, pedestrians, etc. are all complete and total lunatics. I won’t ever figure out the traffic here, I can never remember which way to look when I cross the street and it’ll be a miracle if neither of us ends up getting squashed. Thank God we decided not to drive while we’re here.

Fun With British English 5/24/06:

People do say words like “cor” and “strewth” unashamedly and without any sense of irony. I’m enchanted.

Tomorrow we plan to go back into Victoria, pick up the bus tour again and get on and off this time instead of just riding around. I wouldn’t mind getting the barking mad narrator again, but I could do without the Americans from Olympia. I came to Great Britain to get away from most other Americans.

Hey Matt, what happened with the woman and her bat?

Thursday May 25th 2006

We’ve been married for ten years. Thanks again to everyone who came to the wedding and encouraged, with great energy, our relationship. Here’s to another forty or fifty more.

We both managed to get up and get it together in time for breakfast. I could have used another few hours of sleep, but Andrew was all bright and bushy tailed so I gave up and got up. The water pressure in the shower on its own is pretty wimpy, but Maura has this magic little doodad that spikes it up to PRETTY DAMN IMPRESSIVE. Wake you up impressive.

We tubed it into the Tower Hill station instead of Victoria and went directly to the Tower instead of catching our bus tour again. The Tower is still really cool but I’m distinctly cheesed off that the Great British Heritage passes that I purchased at great expense with the understanding that they’d get us into……well, British Heritage sites, did not, in fact, get us into the Tower. I am considering major complaints and charge backs on my Visa card if these passes don’t end up paying their way. Cost us thirty damn pounds to get into the Tower.

Enough ranting.

There’s still a whole lot of walking to be done, the stairs inside the towers are still extremely narrow and spiral-y, the 11th century graffiti scratched into the walls is absolutely stunning, and Henry VIII’s armor with the codpiece still cracks me up. I also noticed that the face plates for the horses’ armor (it has some special name, but I’ve forgotten what it is at the moment) not only have little armor sections covering the ears, but the earpieces are tufted as if the horses’ ear hair needed protection. We got some good pictures.

Contrary to popular rumor the ravens at the tower aren’t locked up for fear of bird flu, although most of them were on restriction in their mews today. They don’t seem as large as they did in 1985, now whether that’s because I’m more adult (god knows I’m not any much bigger except in girth than I was 20 years ago) or whether it’s simply that I’m more acclimated to dealing with big damn birds it’s hard to say. They’re still pretty big, they’ve still got REALLY IMPRESSIVE beaks, and there are still signs sprinkled all over the green that say in multiple languages, ‘RAVENS BITE!’

I couldn’t find any information at all, anywhere, about a Tower Ghost Tour which makes me think that what I heard about it was just urban legend. We were both really interested in getting in on the Ceremony of The Keys where you follow the beefeaters around as they lock things up for the night, but you have to sign up for it a few months in advance. Oh well.

They’ve improved the traffic flow through the vault with the Crown Jewels too. You start in a reception area where you get to watch the important section of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. Watching it over a few times I was struck by the tremendous responsibility that was placed on her, even as a token monarch, at such a young age. Okay, she was 25 (by the estimation of the beefeater that I asked later), and sure there have been many more coronations of much younger monarchs, but for heaven’s sake, even to be named the token head of state at 25…… yeesh.

That doesn’t really do what I saw in the films, the expression I saw on her face, justice. It was a pretty moving film quite honestly, but then I’m a real sucker for ceremony.

Anyway, you start by watching Elizabeth’s coronation and then move into the vaults. No windows, any available window embrasure is boarded over with steel shutters at least 3 inches thick, vaulted, reinforced ceilings, walls quite literally 4 foot thick the works. There are displays of the less, well certainly not less valuable, but less important, paraphernalia involved with the royal house. A lot of impressively ugly gold work, a fountain basin calling itself a punch bowl…..solid gold, three feet long by two feet wide by three feet high. That’s a load of punch.

Then you move into the vault with the Crown Jewels. Instead of the round room and the multiple tiers on which you have to keep moving, they’ve now got a central island with a moving sidewalk on either side. You can’t stop, and if you try to get off and go around again one of the beefeaters comes around and prods you.

We went along the wall walk after we finished with the Crown Jewels. Little teeny narrow spiral staircases, cool glimpses into the yards of the beefeater’s living quarters, and when we finished the wall walk and were sitting for a bit afterwards I found a sparrow’s nest in a crack in between two of the stones of the wall.

A lovely day, it didn’t rain on us once. We took a lot of pictures, tried to load everything to the blog and found that there’s something not right with the web server which Andrew is now, at a quarter to midnight, trying to fix.

Dinner at the Kew Gardens Inn. You walk in and think that you’re going to get pub grub and what you get is a very fine meal. I had lamb (it’s going to be a sheepish sort of vacation it seems), Andrew had porkchop with bubble and squeak which he said was lovely. I had rhubarb sauce for dessert which had a shot of something savory/spicy in it that we think was woostershire sauce.

Fun With British English 5/25/06

While clearing our dinner plates this evening, the middle European waitress at the Kew Inn asked “Do you want some, maybe, pudding?”

I was able to translate this to “Do you want some dessert?” and asked for the menu before Andrew had a chance to pipe up with “No, but I’d like some dessert please.”

Tomorrow we’re going to Trafalgar, probably the London Museum, and quite possibly St. Paul’s cathedral. I still love the tube.

Friday 5/26/06

My love affair with the tube was strained quite considerably this afternoon when it took us almost an hour and a half to make what is usually a 20 minute trip. Not the fault of the London Underground that there was some sort of police activity at the Earl’s Court Station, but I sure wish that if they were going to stop our train on occasion that they would have done so in an area where they could open the doors and let some air in instead of in between stations where we’d sit and cook.

It was an annoying sort of morning to begin with anyway. We both stayed up far too late last night looking at the photos we’d taken at the Tower. It started raining again overnight which meant that early early this morning it was quite impressively humid in here and I was, I admit, grouchy when I got up this morning. The magic shower doodad did help, really there is nothing like being hosed in the face with hot water at high pressure to get your blood moving, but I was still grouchy when we set out at about 11 a.m.

We had some of our travelers’ checks to cash since we’ll need to pay Maura before we leave for Jersey on Sunday morning and I can guarantee that none of the local banks are open on Saturday. What I neglected (grouchy and tired remember?) to recall was that while we were planning on cashing in $1000, the packets of $500 were only packets of five $100 checks instead of packets of two $500 checks.

So when we got to the bank we only had $500 to cash which wasn’t going to get us the amount of money that Maura would need n Sunday. So I walked back, leaving Andrew at the local Starbucks to fight with their T-mobile hotspot. I got another packet of checks, walked back, and we went into the bank to cash them only to find that you’ve got to have your passport to cash travelers’ checks.

So I walked back. Leaving Andrew at the local Starbucks to fight with their T-mobile hotspot.

Thoroughly irritated with $1000 in checks and BOTH our passports, I met Andrew at Starbucks, handed him the checks and his passport and went to soothe my soul looking for emery boards at the local drugstore (they call themselves a drugstore, not a chemists).

Then we got on the tube only to find that some nutter was being chased along the tracks at the Earl’s Court Station and our train had to stop for periods of up to 20 minutes since the transport service had turned the electricity to the tracks off.

It was an annoying way to start the day.

We took the tube to Westminster and wandered down to get tickets for the London Eye. Coming out of the tube station at Westminster was like being dropped right in the center of Waikiki. One of the most unashamed tourist traps I’ve ever been privileged to witness including some woman “selling” tissue paper flowers on aluminum foil stems “for the children”. She was asking for donations, but, as Andrew pointed out, she couldn’t answer what charity she was collecting for nor did she have any indication of any children (photos, pamphlets etc.) so it seems likely that she was just panhandling and probably making a pretty good go of it.

We walked past the stand selling roast peanuts in some sort of horrid looking sticky sauce.

Oh damn, and I just remembered that we also walked past, without getting a photo, of the sculpture (and calling it that is really gilding the lily) of an elephant’s body on giraffe legs with a pyramid on its back. We really will have to go back and get that one, it’s quite impressive.

The London Eye is cool. Flat out, grade A cool. 30 minutes of slow ferris wheeling over the Thames and a simply stupendous view. Really worth 13 pounds and a long line. We got a LOT of photos.

We walked from the Eye over the Golden Jubilee bridge. Fans of Mythbusters will recall that that’s the bridge that helped to inspire the “see if you can collapse a bridge by marching in step across it” episode. It has been significantly reinforced since it was built and apparently no longer threatens to collapse from harmonic vibrations in high winds with lots of people walking across it.

And the winds were high. I am tempted to shave my head if the weather doesn’t settle down. Andrew already cut almost 6 inches off my hair, but in high winds it’s still a serious nuisance.

We were able to walk direct from there to Trafalgar Square which is cool enough if you like pigeons. Every pigeon in the city is there, most of them panhandling from people who ignore the signs that say in about 8 languages “PLEASE DON’T FEED THE PIGEONS”. I was struck by the thought that people wouldn’t be nearly as blasé about it if they didn’t have feathers. Really, what is the difference between a pigeon and a rat besides the feathers?

Anyway we went from there to the Cathedral of St. Martin-In-The-Fields which is right across the street. Standard Catholic cathedral, really cool organ. Engagingly hideous cherubs on top.

After that it was pretty much a matter of just tubing it back here. We now have a compact that if we can’t get on the tube before 4:30 p.m. we’ll just stay in London until about 7 because the tube was PACKED. Sardine can packed. Sweaty, stepping on people’s toes packed. Better than being stuck in rush hour traffic in a car, but a LOT hotter.

And at the Baron’s Court stop, two stops before ours, a pair of guerilla musicians hopped on and started to sing “this train is going to Richmond/this train” “this train is stopping at Gunnersbury/this train” etc. When they finished with that song they burst into a song of their own, a protest song called “If You Can’t Have A Shave In A Toilet” complete with guitar, bongo drums, a kazoo, and a whistle. Apparently the London Underground has recently started, in an effort to discourage homeless people from using the public lavatories for shaving etc., a policy of prosecuting and/or persecuting people they find shaving in the public lavatories. The lyrics went something like “If you can’t have a shave in a toilet/where can you have a shave?” “If you think about it much worse things happen/in a toilet” and lines commenting about how people are just trying to stay neat and tidy.

I just about ruptured myself trying not to laugh. They were commenting about how their song was available on CD, but if I’d turned around to see whether or not they were really selling CDs I’d have burst out laughing. I think I would have bought one.

When the train stopped at Kew, they jumped the turnstile, guitar, bongo drums and all, and disappeared.

Observations for The Day/That’s Not Something You See Every Day 5/26/06

Two things you will never see in a public restroom in the states:

1. A vending machine with little disposable, chewable, mint flavored toothbrushes instead of a vending machine with condoms.

2. A scale.

No joke, the public restroom at Westminster Station had a scale.

Being a licensed buskar in a hallway at Westminster Station in London does not, in fact, make your plonky rendition of Led Zepplin’s “Stairway To Heaven” any more appealing than it is anywhere else.

You will never see four pre-teen boys, three of whom are wearing neckties, EVER reading a newspaper in a public place in the U.S., let alone will you be able to notice that they leave their table in a fast food joint (the local fish & chip shop for the record), cleaner than it was when they sat down.

Clothes from Deva Lifewear should most probably be washed before they’re worn to remove excess dye. I’m currently wearing a new blue blouse and I’m blue in several interesting locations.

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