Thursday, 17 September 2009

May Trips - Paris!

Paris has always been a dream trip for both Bill and I. We had some vague idea to do it for a 15th or 20th anniversary trip, but here we were, with Eurostar tickets in hand, ready to go!

We set off early Monday morning for the Kettering train station. About a mile and a half down the road, Bill turned to me and asked me if I remembered the passports. Ummm, NO!!! Of course, they were the one thing I forgot to pack. After zipping home to get them, it was a nerve-wracking next 20 minutes, trying to rush to the station, get the car parked, get all our luggage and kids in and over to the right platform, all in time for our train. Missing this train meant probably missing our train from London to Paris - not a good thing. We made it though, Bree and I rolling and dragging luggage like crazy while Bill rushed to get the car parked! Why does this situation sound so familiar??

The Eurostar was a very smooth and easy traveling experience. We sat at tables and could eat our packed lunch, the kids and I could get up and go to the bathroom any time - it was very convenient and very nice. Arriving into Gard de Nord, we went down a level to get metro tickets. Here, I was bombarded with gypsy beggar girls (while Bill and Bree were in the line for tickets) and after about 20 minutes of telling them I had no money, I gave them granola bars and they finally went away. These beggar girls are all over Paris and are a big annoyance - we are told they are of course scamming people.

After dropping our luggage off at our apartment (which turned out to be fairly decent and very much in the center of Paris), we set off for an ambitious afternoon and evening of sight-seeing. The itinerary - first, the Louvre, followed by the Arc de Triomphe (timed to arrive for the lighting of the tomb of the unknown soldier), and finished by a trip up the Eiffle Tower. In retrospect, this was crazy to do after an early morning and dragging three kids along. But everyone knows quite well that we are a little crazy!

The Mona Lisa was swarmed with people, making it somewhat difficult to have any appreciation for it. We toured through many halls of this museum - paintings, sculptures, ancient Egypt, you name it. Philip had a small tired meltdown about half-way down the Italian Paintings hall and I held him as he conked right out. Then Bill held him for a while and he soon revived. A detour down to the Starbucks gave us enough energy to continue on through the exhibits. The Louvre is not something that is tremendously easy to do with small children - they are not quite as interested as adults, let's just say. But they endured, and I was quite pleased with how much of this huge place we actually got through! We even careened back through the halls to get to the Mona Lisa right before closing - a now empty space condusive to art appreciation. I personally liked one of the other da Vinci paintings there much more, but what is my opinion worth?

The Arc de Triomphe is surrounded by ten (?) roads and is quite the impressive monument. We went underneath the arch for the ceremony - WWII vets bear flags and one lights the tomb, etc. It was very nice, if crowded. We then made the big mistake of deciding to WALK down to the Eiffle Tower - these things look a lot smaller on the maps!
If we were fresh and energetic, this would be a nice walk down the Paris boulevard. We were neither fresh, nor energetic. Well, at least, I wasn't. Hey - it had been a long day of walking for this pregnant mama!

At last we arrived and went up the elevator. Our goal was to go up while it was light, but have it get dark while we were there so we could see the lights. In this we were perfectly successful. We took a timely (due to a short rainstorm that swept through) detour into the cafe for a pretty awful meal, hit the top level, and came down just as the lights came on and started flashing. Philip conked out yet again, poor guy, but this time carried by Bree. Bill and children took the stairs down. After some photo ops across the Trocodaro (where Philip briefly revived, but somewhat grumpily) we wearily headed home.

Tuesday was a much needed day of touring the city on a double decker bus.
Paris is an ornate city, every building's facade a fanciful decoration from a variety or eras. We wound our way through the city, crossing the Seine several times and seeing every highlight along the way. Ending that tour at Notre Dame, we decided to climb the towers of Notre Dame. This involved LOTS more spiral stairs, but you get up close to the gargoyles and the various statues, the famous bell, and other things that you would otherwise miss.
Bill had to quickly curtail his tour up the towers when Philip became excessively distressed needing the toilet. This is forever captured on film by his expression in our family photo on the tower. We went inside the church after descending and I found it to be very grim and oppressive - probably exactly what they were going for.

Wednesday was devoted to seeing Versailles. We took the double decker metro out to Versailles, much to the kids' delight. Approaching the courtyard, Abby was waylaid and consequently terrified by a big black dude vendor. She was listening to a podcast on my iphone and the guy was asking her to give him the iphone. We grabbed her and hustled away from that. Every room of Versailles is marble walls, gold trim all over everything, painted ceilings, and lots of gold stuff around the room. This is only topped by the Hall of Mirrors, which is more of the same but then has mirrors every few feet to reflect all the opulence. We diligently listened to our audio guides and toured room after room of this.

Out in the gardens, I quickly figured out that there was no way this pregnant mama could haul herself around the miles of gardens. It was decided after some debate to get two golf carts and do the driving tour.
This proved to be lots of fun and very relaxing. Bree managed to stay on the road and everything - no driving into fountains or crashing into trees! I did feel a bit ripped off though because none of the fountains were in operation at the time.

Thursday was "clean up" day - getting to the things we hadn't made it to yet. We decided on Sacre Couer for the morning. Arriving there, we started the pilgrimage up the many steps. Bree was briefly harrassed by some vendors (one even grabbed her arm) and I had to yell at them. Bill our great protector had fallen behind us to deal with Philip.
We did finally make it up the long and steep climb to the top. The weather was very hot and sunny and we were tired! In fact we were so tired that we couldn't muster up the enthusiasm to go inside the church and settled for some photo ops of the city view from the top. After looking around, we discovered a gondola that goes from top to bottom - part of the metro. Of course we find it AFTER we have climbed all the way up! It was a nice way to get down though.

We grabbed a crepe lunch at a cafe nearby and then headed over to Georges Pompidou. This is a modern art museum and the building is designed inside out - the escalator is on the outside of the building. We knew there was no way we could enjoy the inside exhibits at that point, so we just took a ride on the escalator up to the building's top.

Then it was off to Starbucks for some rejuvenation. We still had a couple hours to kill before our train left, so we hit a nearby park/playground for the kids to let off some steam. After trying out a few different playgrounds, we decided to stay at the one with the big sand pit. The kids promptly began building their sand castle and had a great time getting completely dirty.

It was a very tired little group that got on the Eurostar back to London that evening! Friday morning, Bree had to fly back to the US, leaving Philip in tears as we pulled away from the airport. What a trip! It was perhaps a little ambitious for our group, but in the end we saw so much stuff!

We found that the attraction prices were pretty good - many of the things were completely free for children which was a big help for us. But food and especially water were very costly there. I think that it's tough to travel with small children because they are not inclined to want to eat the different foods they have never encountered. Joseph and Abby gamely tried some different things but mostly did not like them. When eating out, this can be very frustrating - sometimes wasting money. At just turning the age of four, Philip was in a state of exhaustion quite a bit of the time, and museums etc are just not going to cut it for four year olds. This was realistically the only way we could do this trip at this point in our lives, but for future reference, I would probably not want to do such an extensive sight-seeing thing unless the kids were older, or it were just adults.

I also felt very "nervously watchful" over the kids at all times. On the metro, the doors close lightening fast and we just didn't want a child's limb getting caught in it or something horrible. This actually does happen. So each of us three adults always had a kid in hand, and when the metro was crowded, we would end up yanking them inside with us, pushing and shoving to get the both of us in without leaving anyone behind. There was one time when we all got on the metro and I looked around and there was no Abby. It was so crowded and I started calling out to her - she had been crushed up between people and was a few rows away - she crawled through the people to get back to us. These experiences are not calming to parents!

The kids were also very scared of the big vendor guys that were everywhere. The beggar girls were annoying, but not particularly scary. At any rate, it is no small thing to keep little children with you and watch over them. On the flip side, I guarantee that Joseph and Abby will remember that remarkable trip forever and it most likely was very broadening for them to experience. I know that Bill, Bree and I had a great, if not tiring time! So Paris dream came true and we packed enough into our four days to last us a good long time!

Friday, 10 July 2009

May Trips - London Week

Well, to begin wrapping up this blog, I do have to tell a little about our trips in May. After that, maybe only a few short posts and I think that will have to be it.

Bree flew over on Saturday and we spent the afternoon gathering groceries for the following week and hanging out with the Picketts and playing games. Sunday was church, and then Monday morning Bree and I prepared to go to London. We had train tickets from Corby and because Bill needed the car, we had to take a taxi. I left calling the taxi a bit too late and when he
arrived I told him we needed to rush to the train station. He was very obliging, zipping us around the town roundabouts at a rapid pace. The train was sitting in the station when we arrived and the taxi driver gave him a little honk and we raced out to get on the train - just in the nick of time! Not a great way to start off, sigh.

First in London that day was the Tower of London, a tour well worth it. This was my second time there, as I had been with the Kruppas in December. The display inside the White Palace had changed so that was very diverting. The Crown Jewels were as stunning as ever and all in all it was a great tour.

After leaving there, we headed down to the riverside to walk up to the Tower Bridge, the idea being to pay to go through the upper level of it. When we arrived there though, the upper level was closed, so we continued across and walked what seemed to my tired feet and aching back like an eternity of streets until we arrived at the next subway station. There at the
Tower station, we became confused by which turnstyles were for train and which were for subway. After some trial and error we eventually got the correct ones and went on down to the London Eye.

Once there, I decided to use my time wisely by laying down there on the grassy park and having a snack. Bree whipped through a very short line and was up the Eye in no time, taking her fifty million pictures of the view. After this we headed over to Harrods to gawk at the hugest department store, the finest of goods, and the huge rooms of makeup. We spent a while going through the food halls and chose a few small items for our dinner. We took these back to St. Pancras and once on our train home, we ate.

Tuesday, Bill and Philip joined us for another day down to London. The bulk of this day was spent doing the Original Tour - the double decker bus - of the city. I was pretty happy to do this because it involved a lot of sitting. It is also a really great way to see a huge amount of the city that otherwise is difficult to do in a short time.
We got off at Westminster, trying to get into the Abbey, but there was a huge long unmoving line, most likely due
to the Indians striking in Parliament Square. At this point we decided to get on the river boat tour, which was also a nice way to see a lot of things from a different view. We landed at the Tower of London, where we settled in for a serious caffiene fix at Starbucks. After this it was back on the bus
until we got to Buckingham Palace. There wasn't a ton to do at Buckingham because the palace was closed, and there were no fuzzy-hatted guards for us to gawk at outside the gates, so after getting our pictures and loads of tree pollen in our eyes from the wind, we finished our bus tour. We then had a nice meal at Texas Embassy, stopped in at some souveneir shops, and took the train back home.

Wednesday, we were off to tour Burghley House, an Elizabethan era mansion. This is very close to us - about 30 minutes, so it made for a shorter day. The house is very elaborate inside - painted everywhere and you get a bit of a crick in the neck looking up at the ceilings. The gardens are fairly pretty - and someone has an obsession with modern sculpture, as it is all over the gardens. Some of it is just weird and stupid but some was fairly neat and interesting. The Garden of Surprises is full of water features and would be much more suited to a hot summer day, of which that day was not.

Thursday we went back for one last day in London and started off at St. Paul's Cathedral. The interior ceilings are somewhat like a wedding cake - very white and fancy in decorations. I found this cathedral to be very pretty versus Westminster which is somewhat stern and impressive.
The dome makes St. Paul's distinctive and we determined to go up all the steps to the top. In the whispering gallery, the first level you reach in the dome, we sat for a few minutes to recuperate, got in trouble for getting up on the benches, and then decided to head for the top. The very top was closed off, but we made it to the upper level that is outside. After our trek down all the spiral stairs, my legs were shaking, so we headed for Starbucks to remedy that. The rest of the afternoon was spent at the various exhibitions in the British Museum, followed by a Wagamama's meal, and then the trip home.

Saturday, we took all the kids with us over to Warrick Castle - an original William the Conqueror castle, but now owned and operated by Madame Toussad's. The various rooms are adorned with period decorations and wax figures. The castle grounds are very neat and the tall towers are very impressive.
Once again, it was many hundreds of spiral stairs to tour around the towers and walls. Our day there was enjoyable, if not off-and-on rainy.

So thus finished our brief tour of England - hitting London, a palace, and a castle, all in one week. Then we turned our attention to laundry and packing for Paris!

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Mallorca, Spain

It has now been over 6 weeks since we went to Mallorca, but I haven't admittedly felt like blogging about the trip until now. And even now, as I think about describing the island, I am sad that I don't have a picture to just show what it was like. But, this is life!

We took an insanely early flight out of Birmangham and had an easy and uneventful 2 hour flight down to this island. Upon landing, we experienced temporary blinding due to the brilliant sun. We piled into our rental car and drove (on the right side of the road, yay!) into Palma to get some food. After trying a little cafe of sorts where they spoke no English and didn't seem to understand that we wanted to be served food, we gave that up and hit good old Mcdonald's. There seem to be some universal things - Coke, McDonalds and Burger King, Pringles, Ritz, Ben & Jerry's, and a few others. Anyway, with kids, it seems to be the best thing to hit the known fast food joint in a strange place when everyone is tired, hungry, and out of sorts.

Our place turned out to be very nice - situated on the cliff of a cove, with landscaped paths leading down to a small beach. The cove was long and narrow, like a finger poking into the island and creating cliffs on either side. Our rooms' balconies had beautiful views down to the cove.
(taken on phone after we lost the camera - view from our balcony)
A good portion of our vacation was spent either on the beach or by the pool while the kids ran around and swam. The water was pretty cold (for me at least), so swimming was limited to the kids. We took a few days for sight-seeing though and saw some interesting things.
One of the days, we went to the Coves del Drac - these are similar to Luray Caverns or Carlsbad Caverns. They were underground about 75 feet and at the end of about a mile of caves, there was an underground lake. They did a short show in which a small string group and organ gave a classical concert while rowing around the lake in a lighted boat. After this, we were rowed from one end of the lake to the other in one of the rowboats. It was here in the caves that my wallet was picked out of my purse, which I later discovered missing.
On the return trip from the caves, we put our rental car to the test by driving it up switchback after switchback to the Santuary del Salvitore (I think...) - a monastary that sits on top of a mountain. There are no surrounding mountains, so views at the top were quite spectacular, extending all the way to the ocean.
Another day, we went back to Palma to tour the Cathedral and other city sights. The Cathedral dominates the skyline with its great gothic spires. The inside was full of grandeur, including immense gold candlesticks and jewels on display. What I really appreciated was that they allowed photography inside, although I of course don't have any of those pictures. We then took a walk around the city, meandering on both major roads and tiny back streets, with a brief stop at a cafe for chocolate croissants and coffee leche. After hitting the Placa de Major, we took several wide avenues back to our parking garage. Then it was a short drive up to Bellver Castle. This castle is round and sits on top of a hill overlooking Palma. We toured the entire castle, taking loads of pictures of the view down to the harbor at Palma - which was just beautiful! The harbor is full of sailboats and yachts, and then the gothic cathedral and other nearby buildings create an even more dramatic backdrop to the brilliance of the Mediterranean.
Then it was another day of sunny relaxation, broken up by a hike up the opposite cliff from our resort and out the entire length of it to the point. Here, you could look back to the coastline of Mallorca which was riddled with coves and dramatic cliffs. And looking out from the point, we could see the Mediterranean stretching out. Here we ate a picnic lunch, keeping very close track of kids so that they didn't go off the cliff.
Bill and the kids went on an ancient train ride up into the mountains of Mallorca on another day. Then Bill and Joseph biked up to the ruins from 4000 BC another afternoon while Abby and I chilled by the pool. This was unfortunately where the camera was taken and we sadly lost months of pictures. We went back to the drink stand to beg for our camera, but this was to no avail. Our receptionists at the resort even tried (much more effectively, being multi-lingual) to talk to the owner, but it became evident that nothing was going to change.
Overall, Mallorca was a wonderful holiday destination. The sun shone every day, the coast was beautiful, and even driving around was delightful - almond, fig, and olive trees everywhere, as well as loads of flowers. The island is obviously a big destination for British and German people, as those languages were predominate in touristy areas. The TV channels in our room included one English speaking Sky TV channel (British). Also, something which we found hilarious - the Spanish TV channels showed popular American shows during primetime (CSI, Bones, 24, etc) all dubbed in Spanish. Very funny listening to the show in some Spanish person's voice instead of the regular ones! We were there too early to really enjoy the swimming and warm waters that summer provide, but it was still (despite our losses) a beautiful and sunny break after a dreary winter!

Friday, 16 January 2009

London Holiday Day 2 & 3

London Holiday Day 2

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!

Abby and I boarded the tube and got out at the Oxford Circus stop to see what was there for shops. We walked down a little bit of Oxford Street and part of Bond Street, stopping in at stores that caught our fancy. Sales were incredible, but we didn't find anything perfect to purchase. After about an hour of this, we once again got on the tube and headed down to Knightsbridge to visit the world famous Harrod's department store. This is apparently the largest in the world and is very elaborate in its decor. People (like us) do not go here to shop but rather to gawk. Clothing and accessories are multi-thousands of pounds and are from the highest end designers. The main attractions here though are the food halls and the Egyptian Hall and Escalator.

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.

It was also in this hall that I had my first ever sampling of haggis. Knowing what haggis was, I had no desire to try it in Scotland (or anywhere else) but there was a lady giving out samples in a cup and she claimed it was fresh lamb meat and very delicious. So I took a cup and gave it a try. This Haggis at least was not greasy or disgusting at all. It was very tasty served over taters and neeps. I saved the rest of the sample for Bill to try.

Then it was back to confectioneries to chose a treat for Abby. We then headed to the Escalators - five floors of them all stacked in an atrium with many Egyptian decorations. The bottoms of escalators were covered with mosaic tiles and if that wasn't enough to keep you interested as you rode up to the next floor, there were plenty of carvings and statues lining the walls. Abby and I rode up a few floors and then back down, enjoying the sights. We then exited via the crush of humanity in the Cosmetic and Perfumery section and headed to Trafalgar Square via the tube. We were all to meet up at Trafalgar to spend the afternoon touring the West Bank sights.

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.

Then the five of us went to visit the National Gallery. This Gallery contains quite an astonishing collection of art. We started with the left side of the gallery, working through 15th and 16th century artists. The Kruppa Srs met up with us after a while and we whiled away some more time, hitting a good portion of the Impressionist rooms. Philip was getting very tired and cranky and had a few bad moments in the museum but Joseph and Abby did pretty well all in all, putting up with a more adult activity with the promise that they would get to go to the Science Museum the next day. I myself was very tired of walking and standing by the time we were all done. My personal take on the art was that some of the paintings I would view and not be particularly captured by, but then there were others that I would look at in astonished wonder - like how did he get that pink gown to shimmer?

We then collapsed in a tired and hungry stupor on a bench in the main hall of the gallery, waiting for a few minutes before heading out to dinner. It was a short walk down to the Texas Embassy where we guzzled down the iced tea. Tjitske and Drew joined us after a short wait and we found that they had gone into some War Museum and then into the western portion of St. James park, where hungry squirrels were aggressively looking for food. One particularly brave squirrel raced up Drew's trouser leg in search of food - I am thinking that lots of people feed the squirrels here, as they do the birds at Trafalgar Square (thank you Mary Poppins). Then it was back to the hotel, where the kids were divied up in the rooms and we all crashed in exhaustion.

London Holiday Day 3

Joseph was staying in our room that night, and we gave him permission to quietly play his DS if he woke up before us. The next morning, I stirred as he rustled a plastic bag to get to his DS. He then made a lot of noise getting up to use the toilet. I was laying there, waiting to go back to sleep, when it occurred to me that I didn't feel 6:30 or 7 AM tired but more like 8 or 8:30 AM tired. Since we were meeting up to go to the Science Museum at 9:45, I figured I should get up and look at the time. Hmm, it was 9:30!!! I quickly woke up Bill. Needless to say, it was a very late start for us. When we called over to the Kruppas, we found that Abby again was sick with a fever. So after eating breakfast as quickly as possible, everyone but Abby, Mom, and me set off for the Science Museum. Mom decided to stay in her hotel room with Abby that day, so I got ready and packed up all our stuff, took it over to the Kruppa's room and checked out (the Kruppas were staying another night to go to the airport the next day, while the rest of us were taking the train home).

I have to say that I myself was very tired that day - I wasn't too keen on standing and walking around all day, after two solid days of it. I got to the museum just in time to sit down for lunch! : ) After lunch I took Philip down to the exploration area for kids his age, where he spent an hour playing with this water contraption. Bill, Dad, and Joseph hit some more exhibits, while Tjitske and Drew took off for Buckingham Palace and other highlights they hadn't gotten to. At 3:30, I blissfully sank into the seat of the IMAX with Joseph, Philip, and Bill to watch Fly Me to the Moon - very cute animated movie about the lunar landing. After that, we went to get our coats - Bill and Philip leaving to go back to the hotel, and Joseph and I going back to watch another IMAX - Sea Monsters.

After Sea Monsters, we booked it to the tube to get to our restaurant to meet everyone on time. We found the restaurant easily and were hardly late, despite the tight amount of time to get there. There we celebrated Tjitske's birthday - New Year's Eve - and ate our Thai dinners, topping it off with lots of fried banana desserts. It was then a huge rush to get back to the hotel for our stuff and make our train home at St. Pancras. I was somewhat concerned about the timing - taking the Piccadilly line seems to be very time consuming because it is so far underground, and at St. Pancras, it is always a hike from the tube to the trains. We said our very sad goodbyes to the Kruppas at the tube station. The tube stopped for a bit on our way to St. Pancras, but fortunately got going without too much of a delay. And we were so quick getting from the tube to the trains at St. Pancras, that we ended up being a half hour early! The train ride home was fairly empty and we purchased some teas to settle our fried-banana-laden stomachs (oh, and scarfed down some cookies to help with that too) and enjoyed a nice ride home.

At home we did a quick unpacking and got the kids to bed and then ushered in the New Year watching Big Ben chime the hour and the London fireworks display over the London Eye. Happy 2009!!!!!!!!!

London Holiday Day 1

Monday morning, we organized ourselves to head to the train station. Two adults had to take an 8:57 train (in order for rail ticket discounts to apply) and the rest of our group had to travel on the 9:26. Bill drove his dad, Joseph, Tjitske, and Drew down to Kettering and dropped them off to come back for Abby, Philip, his mom, and me. Drew and Tjitske took off on the 8:57 with plans to wait for the rest of us at St. Pancras train station. Dad and Joseph chilled in the coffee shop waiting for us to arrive. Our drive down to the train station was as fast as possible but only left us five minutes until the train’s departure. I leapt from the car and whipped out our huge duffel bag and my bag and with Mom’s help, herded the kids into the train station. Bill zoomed off to park the car. As we came out onto the platform, the train was already there waiting, so we started to load our luggage on. Dad and Joseph saw us from the coffee shop and came out with all their luggage and began loading. Bill was nowhere to be found. The train guy was ready to close boarding, and just then I saw Bill coming through the doors. But, unfortunately, he hadn’t been able to get a ticket for the car-park, so he ran to the train to get a train ticket from me. I whipped one out of the holder and stuffed it into his hand as the doors were closing on us. So our train took off without Bill. It was then I realized that I had, in my haste, given Bill a child’s ticket, not an adult’s.

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!
Another tower held ancient crowns used in the past for various monarchs – now without the gemstones because the settings had weakened. Then we moved on to the White Tower – perusing weaponry from the last 1000 years as well as actual suits of armour from various monarchs and aristocrats etc.
It was quite the crush and we tried to see as much as we could of the five floors, but time was going fast and the last admission for the Crown Jewels was 4:30. So with this in mind, we exited there at about 4:15 and got in the huge line to enter the vault. The line moved much faster than I anticipated and we made it through the doors in time. The Crown Jewels at the Tower holds gem encrusted crowns – about a dozen of them, including the State Coronation Crown. There is also the scepter that holds a 530 carat diamond – one of the nine diamonds to be cut from the Cullinan diamond – the largest ever found. There is also a robe made with gold thread as well as huge displays of gold used for dinners and feasts. Of course it’s no photography allowed and there was tons of security everywhere to ensure no one was breaking rules. One guy tried to surreptitiously take a picture and we saw a guard corner him and confiscate the camera and start deleting photos. After being boggled by priceless treasures, we exited to the beautiful sight of the Tower Bridge lit up in the night.

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


Monday morning (22nd), we set off around 10:15 for Scotland. It was us with two kids in our "estate" Mercedes and the Kruppa Srs with one kid in a rental compact. Shortly before leaving, I tossed a whole bunch of food stuff into boxes including a very large turkey for Christmas dinner. I knew we were in for a long trip when our first toilet stop was 45 minutes later. Then of course, it was another stop for lunch down the road. After lunch we managed to eek out an hour and a half before stopping again. Then we hit traffic around Manchester which slowed us down for a while. But the hours eventually did pass and we hit Scotland at Gretna Green, unfortunately missing the exit for our route. I was supposed to be navigating, but the lady from Edinburgh Castle had called me back right in those moments and I became distracted until we were right on the junction. We then wound our way down a B road to connect back with our route. Now, when I say B road, you must picture a narrow, winding, country road with loads of hairpin turns and hedges on either side of the road. Anyway, our journey did eventually bring us to Scotland's west coast. We then decided to stop and eat dinner shortly before we reached our place. We were the only customers at the Black Bull that cold dark night. Thus fortified, we drove down a few more one-lane, twisting roads complete with hair-pin turns and sheep-crossing grates until we reached the middle of nowhere. Our place proved to be two 3-bedroom bungalows and we unpacked and settled in.

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

The Pros and the Cons of Living in the UK

There are some really great things about living here as well as some not so great or frustrating things. So here are some of the pros and cons that we have personally experienced.


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?