Thursday, 17 September 2009
Friday, 10 July 2009
Tuesday, 21 April 2009
Friday, 16 January 2009
Philip and I woke around 8:15 and went down to join others at the hotel breakfast. After fortifying with the very English full breakfast of eggs, mushrooms, tomato, toast or croissant, fruit, bacon, and various other sides, we split up to each get in some places of interest. Drew, Tjitske, and Dad went off to see Baker Street and the Sherlock Holmes Museum while Bill, Joseph, Philip, and Mom went back to the Tower Bridge to walk across it. Abby and I set off for some London shopping!
We entered the main door, held by a uniformed doorman, into the House of Luxury. Here Hermes scarfs were displayed in glass cases. We then went through a doorway on the right into another House of Luxury - this time handbags. The entire ceiling was elaborately carved and painted, and carved Egyptian tiles were around the upper walls. We then entered the first of the Food Halls - there are a bunch of them and each is elaborately decorated according to what is contained within. The Fruit & Veg hall had grape and vine chandeliers, the Tea and Coffee Hall had Chinese decor - lanterns, etc. Each food hall is the size of a small supermarket. After touring through all of them, we returned to the hall that had sandwiches and other prepared foods and chose a sandwich to share and some salmon sushi rolls.
We met Bill and Mom and the boys near the doors of the National Gallery and found that they had a great time touring the Tower Bridge. Drew, Tjitske, and Dad showed up shortly after, having had a good time touring the Sherlock Holmes Museum and eating at a nearby cafe. We then all struck off through the square and down Whitehall. After reaching Big Ben and Parliament, we left Mom, Dad, Tjitske, and Drew at Westminster Abbey (we had just toured through in August) and headed back up, taking a leisurely tour around Parliament Square to take some more pictures.
Then it was a stop at the Horse Guards to snap pics and let the kids pet the horses. We went through the Horse Gate into the park behind to figure out what is was and caught the Horse Guard changing as we came back out. After walking all the way back up Whitehall, we headed to Starbucks off of Trafalgar Square and chilled out for a few minutes with our coffees and hot chocolates.
I had my phone, and Drew had Bill’s phone, so Bill was left with no way to communicate with us. We knew he could get a train a half hour later and decided to wait in an obvious place for his later arrival at St. Pancras. I was really hoping they wouldn’t check his ticket too closely so he wouldn’t have to buy a whole other adult ticket.
Once at St. Pancras, we left the frigid track area and went downstairs to the shop area, spotting Tjitske and Drew on our way down the escalator. After a toilet break and a few trips up and down the escalators for Philip, we spotted Bill coming down the escalator! Basically, the car-park ticket machine there at the train station was broken, so Bill had to go all the way across to a different place to get the ticket which was why he was overly delayed. It all worked out pretty well though and the delay was not too long at all. Dad and Mom set off with some of the luggage in a taxi – heading to our hotel – while the rest of us headed for the tube. There were huge long lines to get tickets, so that took some time, but we eventually made our way to the Earl’s Court station and easily found the hotel. We left all of our luggage there and set off for the Tower of London. It was back to Earl’s Court and all the way across the District Line to Tower Hill – a ride of about 20 minutes.
After arriving, hunger set in and all but Bill and Drew went to find somewhere to eat. Bill and Drew got in the hugely long line to buy tickets for the Tower of London. Once we found a nearby bbq restaurant, I went back to the line to tell the guys where we were. Fortunately, the line moved fast so we were all able to get our lunch pretty much together. Then it was off to the Tower.
I personally think the Tower of London is a “must see” and it was quite an amazing tour. You walk along the walls and go through the round towers spread here and there along the walls. In one tower, we found King Edward I; and Bill, Abby, and Joseph were sent by the queen to go before the king to plead for their home and land to be returned to them. King Edward I decided to allow them to live in their home and pay rent to the crown – very magnanimous!
We then took the tube back to our hotel to prepare for dinner. Bill and I had dinner reservations just for us (anniversary dinner a day late) and the rest had reservations at a restaurant named Giraffe. They set off walking shortly before 6:30 and Bill and I leisurely got ready for our later dinner of 8 PM. At 7:30, Bill and I went downstairs to leave and as I was walking by the hotel restaurant, I saw the family sitting at a table getting ready to eat. Somewhat taken back, we went in to see what had happened. They had walked up to Kensington High Street and were just about to reach the restaurant, when a group of Palestinian protesters started up pretty much right in the area of the restaurant. Things were looking a bit chaotic and rowdy and very quickly police arrived on the scene and started barricading things. So they couldn’t get to the restaurant and in the interest of safety, they turned around and brought the kids back to the hotel.
Bill and I then went on to our restaurant, a lovely French place smack in the middle of a high-end designer store area with the requisite Rolls-Royces, Lamborghinis, etc. It was a quiet night in that area though and we had a peaceful and delicious dinner before heading back.
A note about this trip: there was definitely a difference in London at this time of year. In August, there were lines at the London Eye, but there was not the huge crush of humanity that occured during this trip. London was packed, everywhere, and it was almost vibrating with energy. Tourists like us were out in droves speaking many languages. Lines for attractions were long and there were little “events” happening everywhere you went. Add to this the heightened security (elite police with automatic weapon guarding various places) and things were hopping.
Thursday, 8 January 2009
Tuesday morning, Bill felt pretty sick and decided to stay in. The rest of us went for a drive up the coast to explore the area. We wound our way from the middle of nowhere (Dailly) out to Ayr then on to Largs. It was quite a cloudy afternoon and pretty windy down by the ocean, so our explorations were abbreviated. At Largs, you can catch a ferry over to an island, but we decided against doing that. We then took our cold selves back home for some R&R and dinner.
Wednesday was our big outing to Edinburgh Castle. Edinburgh was about a two hour drive from our place, so we left at about 8:30 that morning. After parking in a nearby garage, we began our trek up to the castle. I say up because when you arrive at the castle area, it is perched up high on a hill above and you have to climb significantly to get up there.
We strolled across a bridge, and past a large fountain, then down a wide lane flanked with gardens (somewhat winter-bare). Then, it was onto the streets of Edinburgh, steadily climbing uphill - one of the roads was appropriately named The Mound. Views of the city were wonderful. Finally, a little breathless, we arrived in the castle courtyard.
Our tour of Edinburgh Castle was in general a real highlight! The castle is huge and has many areas to explore. Along the walls, you could view the entire city spread out before you. Beyond that to the west you could see for many miles over to Ben Lomond and surrounding mountains. Over to the north and east-ish, you could view surrounding hills and ocean. It was amazing despite the grayish skies and very easy to see why the castle's location was prime for fortification.
We toured through a chapel that is the oldest building in Scotland, a building honoring dead soldiers, the Royal apartments (Queen Mary would have lived in these apartments), the building containing the Crown Jewels of Scotland and the Stone of Destiny (this is the stone that Jacob supposedly slept on and that every monarch has had under the coronation throne as they were crowned), and the Great Hall. We also ate lunch in a cafe there near those buildings where I partook of my first mince pie ever. I thought it was very tasty. Then it was onward through the dungeons and a few other buildings including another military type of museum. Hours later, we determined we had seen almost everything and definitely enough, so we headed on out.
Then we headed down the Royal Mile, going first into the store where tartans are made and they have an actual tour of the mills downstairs. We then continued further with a brief stop for a few in the writer's museum (something about Robert Burns). Then we detoured over to the Royal Museum to view some great exhibits from Scottish history. After all that, we exhaustedly plopped ourselves down at a Mexican restaurant for dinner before heading back to our place.
The next day was Christmas and the first order of business was for Andrew and Tjitske to be picked up at the airport. I started cooking the giant turkey. Despite not being at home, we were able to produce a wonderful Christmas dinner feast, followed by present-opening for the children.
The next day, I managed to sleep long in the morning which was great! Late morning, we all headed out to a nearby castle ruin - Dulquharran. The drive was about a mile or so away, and then we walked along the muddy road leading to the castle for about another mile. This castle was once magnificent, I am sure. Now, it is an empty carcass, surrounded by tall fencing to keep people out.
After lunch, we headed out to nearby Culzean Castle. This castle is located high on the cliffs of the ocean overlooking the Firth of Clyde. It is ranked as the second-best castle in Scotland, after Edinburgh Castle. The castle grounds are extensive and are now a country park open to the public. There is a fountain garden, , a walled garden, a swan lake, a cliff walk, a deer park, an aviary, thousands of acres of woodland walking paths, and a few thousand feet of beachfront. The castle itself was closed for the winter season, but we were able to tour around all the castle buildings. You cross a very picturesque bridge after going through a very old archway. On either side are gardens. Then you enter the castle courtyard where the main larger building is to the left, and a smaller building is to the right. The archway leading directly through the building on the right brought us out into a smaller courtyard and gave spectacular views of the ocean and cliffs looking to the north. We then headed back along the front of the larger main castle.
This lea down to the various walks that you can take through various gardens. Nothing was in full bloom of course, it being winter, but you could still how beautiful they would be. Then it was up to the cliff walk. We took the path that switch-backed down the cliff to the beach and explored down there for a bit. The beach was very interesting - course-grained, multi-colored sand, purplish-pink rocks, yellowish covered rocks, and all manner of huge rock formations. There was also a view out to the ocean's left of Ailsa Craig, a large, round mound of rock sticking out of the ocean. A few of these unusual formations can be found around the coasts of Scotland. By this time, it was closing in on dusk, so we headed back up and wound our way through part of the park and back to our car.
As opposed to the strong and impressive fortress profile of Edinburgh Castle, Culzean was a more whimsical and romantic type of profile, with many turrets and decorative medieval columns. The surroundings were stunningly beautiful, both in splendid ocean views and well-planted and tended gardens.
Thus ended our tour of Scotland and its ancient castles. The next morning we headed out to brilliant and blinding sunshine and below-freezing temperatures. We saw incredible countryside views (missed coming in because it was night) sparkling with ice and glistening in the sunshine.
We left Scotland without incident, except for Mrs. Kruppa beginning to feel worse and worse (sick). Upon reaching the same area of M6 near Manchester though, we were literally stopped for a few hours in terrible traffic. Shortly before we got in this jam, we blasted by a truck catching fire - and just managed to make it safely through the view-obscuring billows of smoke before traffic stopped there also. It was frustrating to sit in traffic, but we finally made it home at around 7 PM.
Scotland was very gray at this time of year - not a whole lot of daylight, but was still very beautiful and the castles were awesome. I have come to the conclusion that it would be even more incredible in the long summer hours of daylight. There is no spot on Scotland that is more than 65 km from the ocean. A trip to the Highlands might be well worth it in summer.
Friday, 5 December 2008
Public transportation - most cities or good size towns have buses that run their routes. Corby is especially cheap - at 1.50 pounds for an entire day of transportation. Buses also run between cities and to train stations. We lived for almost four months without a car, taking buses everywhere we needed to go when we weren't walking.
Cheap internet: 7.50 pounds a month for broadband is what we pay. There are more expensive companies of course.
Flowering stuff everywhere: right now, in December, I have a plant in my garden with yellow flowers as well as one with white flowers. During other seasons, there is stuff everywhere you walk - hedgerows with blackberries, flowers, other berries - lots of color everywhere.
Power shower and instant hot water: even in relatively cheaply built homes like ours (typical housing development type construction), they now put in these power showers which have fantastic pressure - I actually have to use it at about half the power. And because they have these boiler units in the kitchen that produce instant hot water, you basically never run out if you keep your hot water on continuously (which we pretty much do, being the wasteful Americans that we are). Most Brits have their hot water come on for a certain period of time, fill the tank, and that is all they use for the entire day, being the very energy efficient people that they are.
Grocery delivery: need I say more! I do. I have a veg box delivered once a week from a local organic farm. This veg "scheme" offers fresh fruits and vegetables, grown organically, dairy products, and even meats. I usually get a different box each week for the variety and some whole milk, also from a local farm. Then I also have groceries delivered from a place like ASDA (Walmart) or Tesco. This is so great - click the mouse a little, and then all my bags of heavy groceries are delivered right to my door.
Countless old castles and such to visit: the historical sights one can see here are fantastic. All over the country are various castles or "houses" (really mansions or palaces) that are anywhere up to a thousand years old, some maybe more. Many of these have opened up to visitors in order to raise much needed money to upkeep their monster estates and pay the unbearable taxes. Even the Queen has opened up Buckingham Palace for this reason - she is using funds to refurbish Winsdor Castle after it was damaged in a fire. You can view the various ones that we have visited in previous blogs. Then , throw in the occasional Stonehenge (over 5000 years old) and Roman ruins in various places (like the baths in Bath) that are in spots all over the country, as well as all the treasures they have ammassed in London museums, and basically you could never run out of incredible things to investigate.
No mosquitos? At least I think so. I did not see a single one when we arrived in the summer, and none of the windows over here have screens, and people just leave windows and doors wide open in good summer weather, so I am going to assume there are no mosquitos.
No poles, wires, lights, and other view-obstructing paraphenalia: There are very few traffic lights - just at certain busy pedestrian crossings and busy city round-a-bouts. There is absolutely nothing overhead. All power lines and cables are burried underground. This makes things look significantly prettier.
So now on to the cons:
Financially starting over: When we arrived, we were able to use our passports to start a bank account here. It seemed as though they needed proof there would be income to start it. We had to wait for debit cards - these have a chip in them, unlike any of our American cards. There are stores that only take cards with a chip and pin. And I could not buy my cell phone (with monthly plan) until I had a card with a chip. The wait was frustrating. We also found out that we could not get any financing. So when we purchased our washer and dryer, we couldn't get store financing but had to pay for the whole thing. We couldn't apply for a credit card, so we had to continue to use US credit cards which made us very dependent on the exchange rate for the true purchase of our stuff. It's hard to start completely over like you are newly out on your own when you have been financially capable for years. The same held true for our recent car purchase - we are not eligible for car financing until we have been in the UK for 3 years! We should be able to get a credit card though at some point in the next few months.
Lack of closets: when they build houses, they do not automatically have closets in the bedrooms. If you pay extra money, you can get built in "wardrobes" but many rentals here have no built in wardrobes either. So where do you hang your clothes? Well, you have to buy wardrobes! In addition, there are no closets throughout the house - like in the bathrooms, in the hallways, etc. So you have to buy storage solution type of stuff for all your things. This is a real pain and even having wardrobes, containers, other storage furniture containing all your stuff is still a lot more cluttery than having nice closets in all your rooms.
Taxes: 33% typical tax rate - yikes! Bill was actually having about 29% or so out of his paycheck. He then opted out of pension, reducing that to about 25%. (you have to work for 15 years in the UK to receive pension benefits) We have now applied for working tax credit and child tax credit which will help to further lower the percentage. There is a process we have to go through before we get this, and we are still waiting on all that. In slight defense of this taxation, we are paying about 140 pounds a month in taxes for National Health Service. That is incredibly cheap for a whole family. But, it is a very socialistic system and therefore heavily taxed. Of course, if the US keeps pace, they will have similar taxation difficulties before long!
The roads: when going somewhere for the first time, we can almost guarantee that we will get mixed up at some round-a-bout along the way. They are not the easiest things to negotiate when you are clueless as to where you are going. Once you know your way around, they are easy. Road signs can sometimes be not-so-helpful, although they are not always bad. I do prefer having street signs on posts at the corner of every intersection. They only put road signs at the beginning of a road, so once you are on it, there are no signs along the way to confirm. Or if you turn onto the road from a street somewhere in the middle, there is of course no sign so you may not know what road you are on. This is the reason why I prefer to have every intersection marked with BOTH streets.
Nickeling and diming: you pay to park in Town Centre, you pay to park at the mall, and a million other little charges like that.
And the jury's out on:
the educational system
the National Health Service - quality of care etc
These are just some of the things that we have positively and negatively experienced here in the UK. Maybe a while from now, I'll revisit the pros and cons. By then, some of the cons may have resolved themselves as we become more established. In the meantime, the pros are many because basically how can I not be thankful in everything when God is in control and is so good and merciful to us?