Sunday, April 22, 2012

The end of our amazing vacation

Last Wednesday, we visited the Bank of England museum (lots of old currency and videos about inflation) then took the tube out to Stratford. We had tickets to see an Olympic qualifying event at the aquatic center. This is a building always featured in pictures advertising the Olympics. It's beautiful.
The architect is Zaha Hadid. Her picture was featured at the national Portrait Gallery. She's Iraqi born but moved to England for graduate school -- She studied with Rem Koolhas who designed the Seattle Public Library central building among many other buildings. The Olympic Stadium is next door. To get there, we went through the largest shopping mall in Europe. It's basically behind the mall. Then we spent a long time going through security. The event was fun to watch but I cannot imagine navigating the crowds that will be there during the actual Olympics.
On Thursday, we traveled to York. It's a very old city. It became York in 1212 but was around long before that. It's filled with medieval buildings and surrounded by old, old walls some even built by the Romans. We toured a Viking museum. In the 70's someone discovered some Viking artifacts by accident. When archeologists started to dig, they found the remains of a relatively large and prosperous Viking village. They know details such as the color of the clothes the people wore. They recreated the village and we went on a little gondola ride through it. York has lots of tiny pedestrian-only streets so it was fun to wander around. Their cathedral is incredible but like so many churches here they charge quite a bit of money to tour the church. We were content to hang out in the entry.
We toured the remains of a 13th century castle built by Henry III... It had a great view. Thursday we had pretty bad weather -- lots of rain. We ran back to the hotel after the castle but were soaked. Friday we headed to Liverpool. Most of what we saw was new.. old docks rebuilt for tourists. We saw the Beatles museum (privately owned.. very fun .. lots of memorabilia), the maritime museum (the Titanic was built in Liverpool. It sunk 100 years ago this month so there was a big Titanic exhibit). We also got to tour a little bit of the Tate museum there (nice kid area.. a floor of interesting sculpture -- such as that rather odd Jeff Koons work of the three basketballs). We went on a ferris wheel ride for a nice view of the city. It's a very industrial place We returned to London on Saturday.. had down time with the kids then the adults went out to a restaurant specializing in a British cuisine ( I had a pot pie ). Today, it was sunny most of the day. We visited the lovely Holland Park. The playground equipment here is so cool -- trampolines, climbing ropes, swinging ropes, hills, ziplines.. it's cool. The kids had a blast. We are now preparing to leave tomorrow. We don't really want to go. It's been so fun.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Days 15 and 16

I started this post last Wednesday.. It's Saturday night, we just got home from travelling to York and Liverpool and the adults are going out on the town. More details to follow but here's last Tuesday. I'll update more tomorrow and add pictures. Tuesday we decided to have a mellow day. The kids seem to be struggling -- we have kept a pretty busy pace and I think sometimes it's just too much. In the morning, I took Jack and Kate's oldest to a nearby community pool. The kids area was a pretty large pool that was less than 3 feet deep. Jack loved it and practiced his "swim test" many times -- meaning he swam underwater for several feet. Pretty big leap for him. We stayed there for over and hour then met all the kids at the neighborhood park.

Ryan had gone to the Churchill War rooms in the morning. In the afternoon, I went out to the National Portrait Gallery. They display portraits of mostly British people from the last 500 years. One portrait that caught my attention was one of Queen Victoria handing a bible to a King from an African country. The anecdote behind the picture was that the King had asked Victoria to explain the reason behind the English Empire's success and in response, she handed him a bible. I thought that if that were true, the state of Mississippi would produce many more nobel laureates. The success of English civilization over the last 500 years is remarkable. The gallery is filled with scientists, artists, monarchs, politicians (did you know Margaret Thatcher was a research chemist then a tax lawyer before she was Prime Minister?), architects, explorers, and on and on all from this tiny little island.

After the museum I met Ryan, Stephen and Kate in the very vibrant Soho district. Kate remembered we were near a famous chocolate shop called Paul Young chocolates. She said their hot chocolate was amazing and they closed soon so we had to have dessert first. We had a long discussion with the man who worked behind the chocolate bar about their chocolates. I had a stilton cheese and port dark chocolate truffle then one with various citrus flavors that needed to be eaten last because of the way the flavors "popped." Then we had a thick, non-dairy hot chocolate that was the best I have ever had. It was unreal.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Quick non-update

I am in a hotel room in Liverpool. Everyone is asleep. I've been meaning to update the blog with our adventures but we've been busy and now I'm tired.. Will get it updated tomorrow by 9pm GMT (kind of cool to be on Greenwich mean time

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Day 14

Yesterday was sunny. Jack had his heart set on the London Eye ever since he saw the London Eye on a video on the British Airways plane, and it seemed like the perfect day to do it.

We had all planned to go until we learned it would cost $200 for 5 people. Ryan took Jack and they had a great time. Since they went at 1130am, they got a bird's eye view of the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. They got a great view of London for miles because it was a clear day.

Meanwhile, Kate and I attempted to take the kids to the Natural History Museum. Something has happened to Sonia these last couple of days. At first I thought she was getting sick because she was so cranky. She is crying constantly, won't follow directions and picks on Kate's youngest constantly. I got to see a few things at the museum but Sonia wasn't interested.

Entrance to museum:

We met Ryan and Jack in front of their amazing Science museum that is next door. This was marginally better since Sonia slept for a while and Jack got to play at a dedicated kids area. Once Sonia and Kate's youngest woke up, everything became chaotic. The kids were running in all directions. So we decided to go outside.

We went to Hyde Park. The sun was shining. It was warm and the kids were happy just running around. Jack and Kate's son played with sticks until that ended in the obvious way. We hung out in front of the Prince Albert memorial. He died in 1861 and the Queen wore black to mourn his death for 40 years. She also built a huge memorial to him. I asked Ryan if he'd mourn my death by building me a memorial and he laughed. Hmm. We in the 21st century are not so sentimental I guess.

Ryan had spent the afternoon in the Science Museum so Monday evening, I went out for a few hours on a walking tour around Westminster. I loved hearing all the facts about the area. The Abbey was built in the 11th century. William the Conquerer was the first monarch to be crowned there in 1066. Every English monarch since has been crowned in Westminster Abbey. While standing in front of the abbey, we watched Camilla Parker Bowles- the wife of Charles - drive out (or rather be driven out) in a big black car -- no tinted windows and a royal flag waving on the car. I learned the famous Parliament building and Big Ben were built in the 1800's after the original Westminster palace burned down. We toured a residential neighborhood that looked a lot like Georgetown in DC where houses sold for no less than 10 million pounds. A big highlight was touring the Parliament building and watching a debate of the lower house. The debate was on the issue of taxation -- removing tax loopholes I believe. I learned that the average British family of 4 earns 20,000 pounds. 14,000 people earn over a million pounds a year. Many, many people must earn well into the 6 figures here. I see so many luxury cars and it is wildly expensive to live here. The home we are staying in costs more than $4000 a month.

I jumped on the bus around 10pm and returned to Kate's. I've been listening to the Hunger Games. Wow. What a great read! The movie is advertised everywhere here. I'll have to catch it when I return home.

Days 11-13

On Friday, we had a mellow day. We'd traveled a lot Thursday and knew we were going out of town for the weekend. We took the kids to the park by Kate's in the morning. We went to lunch at a very kid friendly place called Giraffe. Kate had told me that London is very kid-friendly. It is remarkable how much more kid-friendly it is than Seattle. People seem to really like kids here. The restaurant had a healthy, delicious and affordable kids menu. There were lots of kids there but it wasn't chaotic. The staff were very friendly and playful with the kids. I notice it when I have a stroller in the Tube. Each time I have carried the stroller down stairs someone asks me if they can help. This has happened every single time.
We returned to the park in the afternoon. It was a sunny day so it was a very easy place to be.

In the evening, Ryan and I left to go to dinner at pan-asian restaurant nearby called E and O. Then we went to the Victoria and Albert museum. We saw a special exhibit called British Design: Innovation in the Modern Age 1948-2012. England has a population of 50 million people and it is roughly the size of Louisiana. It's pretty incredible how much talent and innovation has emerged from this small island. We saw samples of their mid-century modern architecture, an IMac from head of design at apple, Jonathon Ives, samples of work from Damien Hirst and Alexander McQueen, lots of costumes and pictures from famous musicians like Brian Eno, Mick Jagger, the Beatles.. We then wandered around the regular exhibits a bit.

Courtyard of V & A:

Front of museum:

Inside the main entrance hangs a large glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly. This surprised me. First because I didn't know Dale Chihuly was so famous that his work would be displayed in such an esteemed museum. Second because there is nothing about the grand Greek classical design of the entrance that matches with the funky multi-colored sculpture. I wonder how they decided on that piece.

It was 10 when we left. We caught a bus home and stopped for gelato. One of the things I love most about this trip is that we walk everywhere or take public transportation. We get to see and experience so much this way. Jack has become a pro on the scooter and we walk many miles a day.

Saturday, all 9 of us took a high-speed train to Dover. Dover is a small town on the southeastern coast of England. It was a cold, sunny day. We took a boat cruise so we could see the famous White Cliffs then we hung out on the beach for the day. Kate and I took the kids to much less expensive tea around 4. The kids were freaking out from hunger and probably fatigue and Stephen and Ryan couldn't handle the chaos and left. Once the food and tea arrived, they calmed down. A British woman, who had just walked in, complimented us on how well-behaved our children were. I thought she was joking... but she wasn't!

Kate's oldest driving the boat

Our hotel was an old, historic hotel on the water and we had a lovely view of the water. We ate a simple dinner of bread, cheese, and fruit together in our room.. reminding me of my college days.

The next day we toured the very old and stunning Dover castle. We started the day with a tour of the secret war tunnels that had been instrumental in planning a successful evacuation of trapped British and French troops at the Battle of Dunkirk on the French coast which is only 21 miles away. The Germans had pushed the troops to the coast. The British navy evacuated around 300,000 troops over a week. There are miles of tunnels under the castle. The tour guide explained to us that until WWII, Dover had many buildings from medieval times but those buildings were all destroyed by the German bombing. The Germans did not bomb the castle and no one really knows why. It is assumed that Hitler planned to use the castle as a base.

In front of a tunnel

actors at the castle re-enacting the medieval era

We toured the castle which was built in 1100 by King Henry II. We climbed to the roof and had a great view of Dover and a faint view of the French coast. We then returned to our hotel and hopped on the high-speed train and went home.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Day 10

The weather here is similar to Seattle in the spring. Today began as a beautiful sunny day .. mid-day we had a quick thunder and rain storm .. then it became beautiful again. We decided against a formal bus tour and took the regular bus (which is a double decker and very exciting to the kids -- Jack screams 'It's a double decker!' every time he sees one) to the Victoria station then the tube to the Tower of London. What an amazing place. It's 1000 years old. Monarchs lived there for hundreds of years. Anne Boleyn and soon-to-be Queen Elizabeth were imprisoned there (along with many, many others). Unfortunately the line to tour the tower was too long for small kids. We opted to return next week when kids here return to school.

I found this image on google.. better than anything I took.

Since the tower bridge and HMS Belfast (an old battleship) are within walking distance, we went to both. The tower bridge was built in the late 19th century, as were many cool London landmarks.. the age of Victoria was big here. It occurred to me that in 1894 while this majestic bridge was under construction Seattle was a tiny logging town without many buildings since most of the city had burnt down in 1889.

Sadly, the Belfast was closed for repairs so we jumped onto a Thames river cruise and then walked over to Trafalgar Square. The square was built in the mid 19th century (era of Victoria). We hung out for a while and watched a riveting street performer. First he juggled knives. Then he swallowed a very long balloon (inflated.. I was never clear on why he did that particular trick). He also tied himself into a straight jacket and had someone in the crowd tie chains around him and put padlocks on the chains. He, then, escaped from the chains and straight jacket in under 3 minutes. Quite impressive.

Knowing that event could not be topped, we headed home.
While Ryan watched the kids I visited a very large and fancy shopping mall that is about a 10 minute walk from Kate's house. I wanted to visit the European versions of Old Navy. I found some great clothes for the kids but not much for me. The mall had a lot of amazing food.. Here it seems everything is organic or free range or advertised to be untainted by chemicals. Kate told me citizens of the UK lobbied large companies such as Kraft to remove all food dyes from their products. They were successful. So in the UK their processed food is free of those chemicals but the same food in the US is full of them. Lovely.

I am not sure if I have written that we are staying at Kate and Stephen's home. It is a 1000 sq foot, 3 story home in the Notting Hill/ Holland Park neighborhood. I am surprised by how comfortable we are. We have the top floor which is just one open room. All 4 of us sleep there. The second floor has three small bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. The first floor is the kitchen, dining and playing area. 4 adults and 5 kids. We are grateful to be here for so many reasons. I find that hanging out with another adult who has kids the same age as mine just makes life more fun for everyone.

Days 8 and 9

On Tuesday, we traveled about an hour out of town to see the Royal Air Force museum. It is similar to the Museum of Flight in Seattle in that there are airplanes from throughout the 20th century on display. One big difference is that the RAF museum has German WWII airplanes procured after the allied victory. Some of the planes had been shot down and were on display in their bombed out state. The museum also (unintentionally I am sure) told the story of the decline of the British Empire. As the 20th century displays progressed American history played a more prominent role in the exhibit. I was reminded of the exchange between Kevin Kline's character and John Cleese's wife in the movie 'A Fish Called Wanda'

Otto: Don't call me stupid.
Wendy: Why on earth not?
Otto: Oh, you English are *so* superior, aren't you? Well, would you like to know what you'd be without us, the good ol' U.S. of A. to protect you? I'll tell you. The smallest fucking province in the Russian Empire, that's what! So don't call me stupid, lady. Just thank me.
Wendy: Well, *thank* you for popping in and protecting us.
Otto: If it wasn't for us, you'd all be speaking *German!* Singing "Deutschland, Deutschland ├╝ber alles..."

It makes me wonder who will bail out the US one day..

The trip home from the museum was really long so we returned to Kate's house. The kids played and later we went to the park across the street.

Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day. Kate and I went running through the Holland Park neighborhood then a few hours later, we took the kids to Hyde Park. Ryan ventured out to find half price tickets for a show. We toured Kensington Palace. The public part of the palace is newly remodeled. One of the exhibits was dedicated to Diana and it displayed a few of her dresses and many photographs. Another showed where the King received visitors. There was a lot of Renaissance art. The exhibit also had some very modern aspects. One displayed 44 small boxes -- each in front of a light so you could see the different miniature scenes inside. The room told the story of a change in the rules of succession that ended the rule of the Stuarts. Queen Victoria lived at Kensington Palace. Diana lived there and Cate and William live there now.

View out the window from inside the palace

The Princess Diana memorial playground is very close to the Palace. It's a beautiful playground and the kids played there for several hours. Kate and I enjoyed the sun. The playground only has one exit so the kids could play freely.

That's Jack at the top to the mast.

We decided to go to afternoon tea at the palace. We wandered around the park waiting for 3pm to roll around. There were lots of interesting things to watch -- we went to the pond pictured above. A family was sailing a model sailboat that they told us was almost 100 years old. It was a model of the English sailboat that was supposed to sail in the America's cup in 1914. The boat never sailed because of the war. The boat entranced the kids for quite a while.

Then we were off to tea. Ryan joined us. The kids all drank tea and enjoyed their little sandwiches and desserts. The setting was lovely and the kids did well likely because they were so tired from all the hours we had spent outside.

As an aside, London must be one of the most expensive cities in the world. I try not to convert pounds to dollars because it makes me feel like I come from a third world nation. The above pictured tea cost $160. I am grateful for the experience but it was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime event.

By the time we got home it was 5pm. We had scheduled a babysitter and quickly left to have a quick dinner and see the musical Wicked. It was an amazing production. It was playing at the Apollo Theater in Victoria in the center of London. It's been playing for 6 years and was nearly sold out on a Wednesday night. I have not been to a musical in probably 20 years. It was so much fun. I marveled at the set and the talent of the performers. The singing was unbelievable.. It's amazing that there are musicals like this one occurring all over London with people of equal talent.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Pics from Stephen

Stephen has a really nice camera.. here are some pictures he's taken over the last few days..

Monday, April 09, 2012

Day 7 in London

We woke up to light, misty rain and gray skies. We had a slow morning then Kate and I went to run a 10K at Regent's park. It was actually great running weather but it seems not many people agreed. The run was supposed to have 500 people but no more than 200 could have been there. It was a great way to see Regent's park though... another large, beautiful, well-landscaped park.

When we got home Ryan and Stephen had not left the house so I knew I had to get the kids out of the house. Kate's kids are still sick so they all stayed in. Ryan went to the British Museum and I took the kids to the Victoria and Albert Childhood museum. The museum had toys from the last 300 years..very interesting.. lots of old dollhouses, cool, vintage Fisher Price toys, various marble runs, old rockets and of course a great Star Wars exhibit. There were more toys than I could list. Jack was most fascinated by the Star Wars toys of course.

It was my first outing on my own. Due to how difficult it is to navigate around the tube alone with a stroller, I put Sonia in the backpack. She napped on the way there then was asleep for a little while in the museum. When she woke up, things got challenging. She and Jack were not interested in the same things and went in opposite directions. The museum was really crowded because today is a holiday in London. Then when we left the museum I gave Jack the option of stopping in a park to ride his scooter. Jack doesn't do well with choices and he completely freaked out. He started to scream and I had to drag him down the stairs of the tube. When we got on the subway, Sonia wriggled out of the backpack and wanted to run around. Luckily the train wasn't crowded. We managed to get home. Even though the weather wasn't great today and it was tough to deal with two wild kids on the subway, it was still a fun day. London is such an interesting place.. there is always something interesting to see. I really appreciate that while I am a foreigner here, no one treats me like one. No one looks at me if I shout at my kids or speak with accented English. It makes being here very easy.

We are ordering Indian food for dinner. Kate says the Indian food here is great.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Day 6 in London

I am grateful for the experience of being a parent. One of the true thrills of parenting is leaving the children with a babysitter and going out. This was never such a thrill pre-kids. Last night, after making sure the babysitter had all the information she needed, we wandered back to Portobello Road. Kate wanted to visit a chocolate shop to get some easter candy. The shop had such amazing chocolate, we had to make a purchase. We purchased a basil and lime, tobacco, and black cardamom to name a few.

This is a picture of the bottom of the bag they gave us at the shop.

I have seen many reminders of caring for the environment. I am reminded that in other countries, the human effect on climate change is not debated.

After chocolate, we went to a delicious Mexican restaurant, and later, we stopped at Stephen and Kate's favorite gelato place... again delicious. When we returned home 4 of the 5 children were asleep. One of Kate's neighbors had stopped by to pick up some keys and told Kate the sitter was very kind and calm and seemed to have everything under control. Pretty impressive for 5 kids. Jack reported when he woke up that he wanted her to come back again.

Before going to bed last night, we made Easter baskets for all the kids. This morning when they woke up was a festival of sugar and an impressive display of meltdowns. Kate's kids are still sick and I didn't think they'd go anywhere. However we headed out around 1030 to Kew Gardens where there was an easter egg hunt of sorts.

It took about 40 minutes to get out to the gardens by the tube -- we had to wait longer than usual because of the holiday. The Kew gardens started as a park in the 16th century. In the 17th century it became the property of the Royal family and George III spent his summers there. I couldn't find the current size of the garden but by the time George III was there, it had expanded to 400 acres. It's a very large park. It is host to trees that are hundreds of years old. Today the mission of Kew Gardens to "inspire and deliver science-based plant conservation worldwide, enhancing the quality of life." We wandered around the gardens, participated in a hunt of sorts (we got little tokens from people dressed as various animals then were supposed to collect a chocolate egg -- my kids didn't dig the delayed satisfaction and didn't finish the hunt), then found a cool playground that had indoor and outdoor sections. The kids really enjoyed it. The playground equipment here is different from home.. there's just a lot more of it -- for example, they build little hills that the kids spend a lot of time running over.

We had 3pm reservations at a neighborhood restaurant so we left around 2. IT's traditional in England to go to a local pub for a "Sunday roast." Since it was Easter and Stephen's birthday we splurged and took the kids. It wasn't really a pub. It looked like a restaurant to me. The food was amazing.

The action continued when we returned to Kate's and had a traditional easter egg hunt. We sang Happy Birthday to Stephen while Kate served whoopie pies she had purchased from a neighborhood bakery. At this point, the kids were zipping all over the place. Ryan joked we were stress testing their endocrine systems. We took them all outside to the park to run it out. Yes, Kate's kids are still sick but they don't want to be left out of the action. Tylenol works miracles.

Meltdowns began the day and ended it. We dragged Sonia crying from the park and Ryan is now reading to them. Wow. lots of action.