Sunday, March 25, 2012

London: Day One - March 14, 2012

When we travel, my daughter and I divide sharply over the subject of itineraries. She doesn't like them. She prefers to catapult herself into a town and wander until something catches her eye. I like to have a bulleted list of things to see and do. Preferably, that bullet list contains a loose framework of times to keep us on track for seeing all of the things on our list. This was my itinerary for our first full day in London:

Tower of London (crown jewels first to beat the crowds, then Beefeater tour, then White Tower)
  Munch a sandwich on the Thames while cruising from Tower to Westminster Bridge
Tour Westminster Abbey (consider Evensong service at )
Follow the self-guided Westminster Walk. When finished, return to the Houses of Parliament and pop in to see the House of Commons in action.

I borrowed this itinerary from a writer on Anglotopia, and felt that it was a reasonable way to spend our time.

However, probably due to nine hours on a plane followed by the super-soft bed in our flat, I woke up with a painful twinge in my back. Just a note: always pack your prefered form of pain relievers. I got up, grumbled a bit about my back, fixed coffee, and popped a couple of ibuprofen. When Katya woke, she decided to be the first in our rather deep shower/tub combo. It was then we discovered that we neglected to pack her jeans. This wouldn't have been a problem in Texas, but in March in the UK, it's still quite cold. She had two skirts, a pair of leggings, and brown dress slacks.

After some more grumbling (the caffeine hadn't quite hit my system yet), I declared that we'd just have to go out and buy some jeans. She dressed in a lovely leggings-skirt-black shirt ensemble with her Sherlock Holmes wool coat to keep her warm, and we were out of the flat by 8 a.m.

We went into the Tube to buy our Oyster Cards, which is handy to have if you intend to travel the Underground extensively. I'm a goob for trains, subway or otherwise, so the Oyster Cards were essential. Unfortunately, and despite the fact that we informed our bank of the trip abroad, the credit card would not go through on the automated system. Fortunately, people in London are kind and helpful. An employee at the ticket booth ran our card manually, and before long, we were subway-trippin'.

That was all well and good, except we got turned around on the Tube a little bit and wound up northwest of the City of London. We exited the subway and wandered around to get our bearings. Quite by accident we found BBC Studios. Odd as it sounds, I think that's what snapped us to reality. We were in Britain. Land of Doctor Who and Sherlock. Home of Harry Potter, Monty Python and Neil Gaiman. Really, really there.

We wandered back up the street again, found the Great Portland Station, and took the opportunity to try out the new app on Ziggy, my iPod. It's called London2Go, and if you're traveling to a big city anytime soon, I recommend it. One of the best things about it: no Wi-Fi needed. We were able to find ourselves on the London Map without an internet connection. We nommed pastries and navigated a route from Regent's Park to Baker Street, home of Sherlock and Watson. 

Another great thing about the London2Go app: it contains a Tube map. From Baker Street, we took the Circle Line train to Westminster station.

Here's what I wanted from the moment we emerged from Westminster Tube Station: I wanted Big Ben and Parliament to appear as if dropped from heaven directly across from the stairway leading up to street level. I wanted spangles of sunlight to reflect from our sunglasses (well, my sunglasses; Katya's glasses), and I wanted to be struck wordless by the epic beauty of this ancient city sprawled before us.

That's exactly what it was like. And maybe I did weep upon seeing Big Ben. Maybe I wept again as we crossed Westminster Bridge and heard the melancholy moan of a bagpiper's song. And probably, I wept again at hearing the tolling of the tower clock in Big Ben.

While listening to the city hum around us, Katya and I ate ice cream in a waffle cone on Westminster Bridge. At this point, I'd completely forgotten this itinerary business. We wanted to ride the London Eye, doggone it, so that's what we did. Katya found an interesting way to pass our time whilst in line. She became a "creeper." By that, I mean she took surreptitious photos of unique outfits worn by fellow tourists. Even at midday, the wind off the Thames chilled us, so a lot of the people gathered in line wore sweaters-jackets-and-scarves combos in a variety of colors and styles. Later, when we were back at the flat, Katya used the pictures as references for character studies, so it wasn't all about the creeping.

Riding the London Eye might have been the most touristy thing we did the whole time we were in London, but it was worth it. Getting to see everything from the Eye gave us a sense of perspective about the layout of the city, which helped us get around better than we anticipated.

Also, at this time, we caught a glimpse of the first of many rather suggestive statues in London. This one was part of a building's upper level rooftop structure, best scene from above. So, in addition to being a creeper of people, Katya began to actively seek out England's naughtiest statuary.

After the Eye, we headed back to the House of Commons, where I had an idea of salvaging some of my itinerary. This would not be happening, though, as we tumbled headlong into a crowd of students marching on Parliament to protest an increase in fees British Universities. We had an enlightening talk with a tangent group of protesters who were against US/UK involvement with Iran, all because of their
TARDIS-shaped Peace Box. They were really neat people who proposed a peaceful three-day of non-emergency UK workers if the British government decided to take forceful action against Iran.

By the time the protest finished, Westminster Abbey had closed for the evening. We walked down to Victoria Tower and sat to watch the seagulls along the Thames. Then we rode the tube to Trafalgar Square and made our wishes in the fountain. Katya scaled to the back of one of the enormous lions ringing Nelson's Column. And then, using our serendipitous mishap from the previous day, we walked down Northumberland Avenue to find the Sherlock Holmes Restaurant, where we ate one of the best meals while we were in London. Katya had traditional fish & chips -- not as good as the Blue Lagoon in Glasgow, but close -- and I had cottage pie.

The sun was setting by the time we were done, and the temperature turned knife-blade cold. So we headed back to the flat, and were so exhausted that after watched a couple of episodes of Big Bang Theory (seriously, what was with the American TV over there? More on that later) we went to bed before 10.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

London: Day Zero - March 13, 2012

Ladbroke Square Park, Royal Borough of Chelsea and Kensington, Notting Hill

London. The city of our dreams. The setting of three of my five novels and two of my short stories. As avid anglophiles, we have obsessed over researched the city with passionate ferocity. We've perfected our British accents through hours and hours of practice watching BBC America. And now we've arrived.

First, and this invariably happens, no matter how careful we think we are with directions – the cab driver took us from the train station to the wrong address. He thought I said
Northumberland Drive
; I’d actually said
Northumberland Place
. Apparently, there are a number of Northumberlands in London. The cab driver apologized, but honestly, we were excited to have had a brief tour through the city. We got to see
Trafalgar Square
, the London Eye, Big Ben, and the House of Commons, one of the City Gates, the National Gallery, and the Sherlock Holmes Restaurant and Pub, which we never would have found on our own. The little amble was a lovely pre-amble to what was to come. Oh yeah, and while we drove by Buckingham Palace, we got to see Princess Ann.

The cab driver delivered us to Notting Hill. He was very kind and didn’t charge us to full fare because he claimed responsibility for the lengthened trip. We came in, got settled into our flat, and met the flat-cat, Francis (so christened by us, as he is a British male version of our cat, Sunday). Then we napped. This happened somewhat unexpectedly. We both flopped down into our very, very soft beds and went out like candles. We were wakened by our landlady, Ms. Petch, who told us we absolutely must get up or we’d be awake all night (she wasn’t wrong). We got into a great conversation about books, and she answered many of the questions we had regarding transportation, internet, and how to work the radiator. She provided hand-drawn maps (very helpful) and directions to local shops in Notting Hill. Mr. Petch came down for a while, but Katrina said something odd, possibly about zombies, and he went away.

We ventured out to get the layout of the neighborhood, stopping by to split a sandwich at Illy’s on the corner of Chepstow and Pembridge. One thing about London in the spring after the sun has set – it’s cold. Bitingly cold. I wished often for gloves. We’d dressed suitably in all other respects, but my hands froze. Katya’s were fine, though, so that’s good. I wore my brown pinstripe pants, black wool sweater, black leggings, argyle socks, my Doctor Converse (TARDIS blue!), fancy shiny brown tassel-y scarf, and my white leather jacket. Katya wore her Jack Skellington striped stockings (which, unfortunately, ripped, before we made it out of Texas), her kicky grey skirt, purple shirt, and House Griffindor jacket.

After a quick dinner, we went shopping at a Marks & Spencer grocery store. It’s a bit like our grocery stores, but smaller, and they have a lot of fresh packaged food. We got fresh fruit, an Indian dinner for me, a Chinese dinner for Katya, caramel pudding (flan), hot cross buns, and chocolate yogurt parfaits. I also picked up coffee, but it seems I’ve broken the coffee maker (more on that later).

We spent the evening in, watching American television – re-runs of Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother. We also watched a show about two Norwegian baker bikers. Lots of fun. They kept calling each other ‘troll’ and ‘dude’.

At about 2 a.m. London time, I awoke to the sound of birdsong in our garden. It was so sweet and so beautiful, I lay in bed a long time listening to it. Then, I found I wasn’t remotely tired. Ms. Petch had warned me. I stayed up until 4, which led to me sleeping well past Ziggy’s alarm the next morning. We didn’t get up until after ten on Wednesday morning.

But still, as first days go, this was good. The trip from the airport to the flat did not result in tears, as it had in France, when no one would help us figure out the building and our landlord was unreachable by phone. Sure, we got lost, but sometimes getting lost is part of the journey. And getting lost in London? Not so shabby a prospect if you ask me.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

London, London, here we come

Tomorrow, we leave for London.


We've been packed since February. We've been planning since April of 2010. We've been dreaming since forever, and now we leave tomorrow.

I would write more about this right now, but at the moment, my brain is going, "Tomorrow!"

So I will leave you with a picture of the place in Notting Hill where we will be staying:

And so, in the words of the 10th Doctor, Allons-y!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Life of My Dreams

Most of us: Savannah, Grannye, Katya, Amber, Allison, Melanie, Marian, Ava, and Amy. Not shown because they were hiding from the camera: Pam, Matt, Michael, Chelsey, me (the photographer), and Jason.
On Friday, the Family gathered at Pappa's Pasta in San Marcos to celebrate our Grannye's 83rd birthday. After the meal, the cake, the singing, and some impromptu interpretive dance (more on that later), our family matriarch gave us these fine words:

She said, "May you live as long and as full a life as I have, and it has been a good one. May your years be full of happiness and fun. And just remember, big families have more fun!"
She then made a dirty joke about the rooster who keeps coming into our yard to steal the cat's food.

After dinner, we went out into the crisp Hill Country spring night and hung out -- the sprawling, loud lot of us -- on the veranda between Pappa's and Tres Hermanas. Savannah sang a hauntingly beautiful rendition of "My Funny Valentine" as a gift, making more than one of us teary-eyed. Michael and Chelsey, the high-schoolers, and Katya and Savannah, the middle-schoolers, played freeze tag with the younger cousins, Marian and Allison. And then, because the song on the PA system was just so fun-kay, Katya and I took to dancing like no one was watching all around the koi pond.

Only people were watching, at the bar in Pappa's. We froze for all of two seconds, and then kept right on dancing.

When we drove home that night, we were giggly. Teenage girl giggly. Like strung up on kitestrings and swaying on a fine breeze giggly. Partly because Katya is a teenage girl. Partly because I'm not a teenage girl, but I've been there and I remember what it's like.

Later that night, sitting on my patio to watch the alignment of Venus and Jupiter, along with my favorite spring constellations, Taurus, the Pleiades, and Orion, I realized what I've slowly begun to understand over the course of the last year:

I'm living the life of my dreams.

I have a strong, smart, lovely daughter, a beautiful home, four healthy, spoiled cats (one who, according to my grandmother, likes cock...), a roommate who is also my best friend, a decent job,  a big-crazy-happy-fun family who enjoys each other's company, and the ability to take fantastic trips to amazing places all over the world.

When I was a little girl, younger than my daughter, this was what I hoped for in life: Love, family, cats, travel, a simple life. A good life. What's more, I'm also healthy and able to enjoy all these great comforts. I realize a lot of this comes from the way I choose to see things. But, when I think of it in these terms, the blessings out-measure the hardships by a wide margin. We are blessed, and life is sweet.

We have worked hard to get here. We have had pain and loss, too, but it has been worth it to share all of these moments together.

So that's what I hope for everyone: to live the life of your dreams. We only get this time together. Make it sweet.