Deep in the spleen of Texas


Now and then a person’s ears need some loving, so this week I took both of them to Texas for a vacation. They are now happier than a dog with a dead skunk. Everywhere I take my two ears, I hear people using Texas’ most personal pronoun, “y’all,” which like the humdrum pronoun “you” can be either plural or singular. (Note to you grammarians  and punctuationists out there: I know some of you write the possessive for Texas with an extra “s” as in “Texas’s most personal pronoun.” However, I don’t like it and if I see it I’m likely to ask you to move your “s” elsewhere.) My heart’s been soothed hearing people speak proper and without those accents the Yankees are so fond of.


I have been traveling with my daughter and grandchild visiting family in Houston, basking in hot and humid weather and enjoying every minute of it. That’s what Wisconsin’s 9-month winters will do to a person.



Houston is a great big old city built on a bayou. Unless you are from the South, you may not know that “bayou” is a fancy name given to rivers and ditches to make songs more interesting. Just imagine if the refrain in Hank Williams’ song Jambalaya “Son of a gun we’ll have big fun on the bayou” were “Son of a gun we’ll have big fun at the ditch.” It just don’t sound right and kind of makes your toes stop tapping right in the middle of the song. And yes, that “don’t” is there on purpose, thank you very much.


Our last few days of vacation, we have been staying in Katy, Texas which is just down the road from Houston. We were able to make a run up to San Antonio, but we never made it to the heart of Texas, which approximately 5500 people swear is Brady, Texas. (That’s the population of the city and please don’t tell their mommas about the swearing.)


Houston has set up home near the Gulf of Mexico and southeast of the heart of Texas, so I believe it’s appropriate to consider it the spleen of Texas. Spleens store and filter blood, and Houston does the same with oil, which is pretty much the blood of our nation, so the analogy seems to fit.


I have never lived in Houston myself, but if I did and if I had a son, I would name him Billy Rueben just because it would tickle me every time I thought of my sweet Billy Reuben living in the spleen of Texas.


Today we return north. I sure do hope they didn’t have summer while we were gone. I’d hate to miss it.


Photo: Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.

The end is near!



Like a couple of old but still valuable coins, my brother and I were collected from our Killarney hotel at 7 a.m. by a man in a van. He drove us to Limerick to meet up with the tour bus. Someone else got the seats in the first row, so we sat on the left in the second row. I know the hung-over man in the front seat appreciated having such a nice view to sleep through on most of the tour. We contented ourselves with seeing what was left.


The Up and Down Castle


Bunratty Castle has experienced a number of ups and downs since 1270 when Robert De Muscegros built the first fortress near the Ratty River. Literal ups and downs. After being raised, razed, and ruined (history’s three R’s) for almost 700 years, Standish Robert Gage Prendergast Vereker took on the daunting task of  shortening his name to  7th Viscount Gort. He then restored and refurbished the castle (in 1954) so tourists would have some interesting places to leave their money when visiting Clare County. It worked. Tourists visit Clare County, they leave their money there, and they find it interesting.


Bunratty Castle

Giant deer antlers in Bunratty Castle


As was, is, and ever will be my wont, I gawked a lot. Viscount Gort furnished the castle with medieval furniture and tapestries, and visitors are free to roam about and try to remember to take some pictures. Tapestries from the 15th century and antlers of giant deer decorate the walls of the Great Hall. Giant deer with antlers up to 24 feet wide once roamed the Irish countryside. Thankfully, some of them died in bogs, those Irish scrapbooks of early history. The folks who run Bunratty Castle not only let you photograph whatever you want, but they also have a website that shows the Bunratty collection. How’s that for Irish hospitality?


Thatched-roofed house in Bunratty Folk Village


After visiting the castle we wandered through the folk village on the castle grounds. We didn’t have enough time to see all of the grounds because we needed to head to our next stop.


I never found out what this door was alarmed about. I wasn’t alarmed even once at the Bunratty Folk Village.


I saw this Irish agitator at Bunratty Castle.

I can resist anything but temptation.”


We stopped in Doolin for lunch at O’Connor’s Pub and stumbled into a chocolate shop nearby called The Chocolate Shop Doolin, makers of Wilde Irish chocolates. I don’t remember much after that. I know money exchanged hands and I was holding a label that said 70% dark chocolate. I remember, too, that the chocolate was organic fair-trade. (As you probably guessed, the chocolate was named in honor of Oscar Wilde who made the famous statement about temptation.)


The Cliffs of Moher


On our last day, the weather turned warm and sunny, mostly. To the southwest, some kind of cloud convention was going on, but they hung around the horizon and didn’t head our way. The bus driver said the tour group on the previous saw little of the Cliffs because of the fog.


When we un-bused, everyone un-sweatered themselves, and headed lemming-like toward the cliffs.  In spite of the grand weather, I managed to take quite a few bad pictures, but also captured some with a ridiculously blue sky and sea.


Cliffs of Moher facing the cloud convention

O’Brien’s Tower on right is the highest point on the Cliffs of Moher


Part of the cliffs were cordoned off to make sure the tourists go over to that part. We made sure to do so ourselves. I made both my camera and purse hold my hand but managed to lose my coral windbreaker, which I had slung over my purse because it was a one-shirt day.  Thankfully the windbreaker didn’t jump over the Cliffs; it just jumped down on a walkway to get a closer look. Before we left, I checked the lost and found, and someone had turned it in.


Let’s Rock!


As we headed for Galway to catch our train back to Dublin, we stopped at The Burren, which means “rocky place” in Gaelic. Geologists, scientific Rock Stars, call the limestone landscape ‘karst’: a rocky place full of fissures, cracks, caves, and sinkholes, which sounds remarkably like my brain. Unlike politicians, you can’t find much dirt in the limestone bedrock, yet it hosts over 700 species of plants, both those that grow in arctic and alpine areas of the world and those more typically found in the Mediterranean.


The Burren

Fairy tree


As our bus hurtled forward to Galway on the motorway,  the driver pointed out a fairy tree on our left. He even slowed down a bit and explained that the controversy over moving the fairy tree had delayed the building of the roadway for ten years. In the end, the tree won, the non-fairies rerouted the roadway, and the Irish moved on to other controversies. Since I was sitting on the left, I had a clear shot of the tree, which I didn’t get. I’m still mastering the skills of photography: digging in my bag for the camera, turning on the camera, looking through the viewfinder, seeing total blackness, removing the lens cap, looking through the viewfinder again, and trying to remember how to adjust the f/stop, shutter, aperture, and speed dial. If you want to see the tree of controversy, you have to visit someone else’s blog, someone like Paz, who obviously has mastered that tricky speed dial on his camera.


Back to Dublin


In Galway, my windbreaker, tried of being slung over my purse, left me again, seeking solace in the arms of a stranger. If you happen to be Galway and see someone wearing a coral windbreaker, say hi for me, and tell it I’m sorry.


Thankfully we picked up something to eat on the train because when we got to our downtown Dublin hotel, it was after 9 p.m., and we couldn’t find a place to eat.


Farewell to charms


Like a bowl of Lucky Charms slurped down by an adult who should know better, our time in Ireland was swallowed up by the calendar.  My brother left Dublin the next morning to return to Budapest, and I retraced my route via ferry and train back to London to a hotel near Heathrow. The following day I flew back to the States and stepped off the plane into the waiting arms of the TSA, and finally my husband.


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(Note to any reader who is still here and did not stop reading, even though I went on and on, post after post, about my vacation until you were ready to scream because you were sick of it; and the only way you could calm down was to eat lots of chocolate, or drink wine or Guinness, or all three at once; and then you were really sick: I almost promise I won’t write about it again.)

Bogged down in Ireland? For peat’s sake, why?



A tour bus has 4½ seats suitable for touring, and one of those belongs to the driver. That leaves 3½ seats for the tourists to scramble for. All of them are in the front row. From there you get an unobstructed view of the world coming toward you with its hands full of treasures. The half seat is the one in the front row directly behind the driver. You can still see quite a bit, just not directly ahead because directly ahead you see a head. All the seats that follow provide you with half a tour. If you do right-sided touring, you see the world right, but you can’t see what’s left. Conversely, if all you see is left, you don’t see things right.


Tuesday morning we ate an early breakfast in our Killarney hotel, filling up on butter-slathered scones, and  then hurried over to the tour bus stop to make sure we got the front seats. Our route: the Ring of Kerry, a 105-mile drive around the Iveragh Peninsula. Our direction: clockwise, the direction all tour buses take because buses can’t pass one another on the one-and-a-half-bus-wide roads.


Glenbeigh and the Kerry Bog Village Museum


Ireland has more bogs than just about any other country in Europe. Bogs are burial grounds for vegetation. Green things die, rain falls, oxygen chokes, drains plug, decay happens, decomposition doesn’t, and peat forms. Re-peat each century and you have yourself a bog. If you want to preserve a body, bury it in a bog. Of course, it helps if you bury it a few centuries ago. (Read about the amazing preservation properties of bogs and a recent find in an Irish bog at National Geographic online.)


Did turf-cutters get bogged down sometimes by having to repeat the same job all the time?


Close up of peat “bog logs”


But back to the Bog Village Museum in Glenbeigh. It consists of a small village founded by a turf-cutter (peat gatherer), Jeremiah Mulvihill. The six furnished buildings depict life in the early 1800s.


On route to our next stop, the driver gave us the option to stop at a sheep-herding exhibition. “The best five euros you’ll spend in Ireland,” he said. I raised my hand ”yes,” confident that all the others behind me would do the same. After all, each of us paid hundreds if not thousands of euros to travel to Ireland, and this was only five euros. A few pushy ones barked out “no,” and the rest, sheep-like, agreed, so we didn’t stop. I still snarl every time I think about it.


Along the way


The Atlantic Ocean crashes onto the beaches all along the western coast we traveled, and the MacGillycuddy Reeks (“black stacks” mountains) stand in the middle of the peninsula to watch. Carrantuohill mountain sees the most because it’s the tallest (about 3400 feet) in all of Ireland. I struggled to keep the views from taking away my breath, but lost.

Coastline on the Iveragh Peninsula


We returned to Killarney via Moll’s Gap named for Moll Kissame (a great last name for an Italian: What’s your name? Kiss-a-me), who ran a pub and quenched the thirst of travellers in the early 1800s. She also put the shine in the moon, if you get my drift, with her homemade, unauthorized whiskey. She definitely left a gap when she died. A tourist shop now stands in place of her pub.


Mind the Gap; Moll did.


Ladies View

We stopped once more before returning to Killarney at Ladies View, a scenic spot providing a panoramic view of the Killarney Lakes. Apparently it remained nameless until 1861 when Queen Victoria, then sovereign of all of Ireland, visited the lakes with her ladies-in-waiting.

Irish coffee picture courtesy of my iPhone


We didn’t find any four-leaved clover on the tour, but we found shamrocks in some Irish coffee. I drifted off that night under moonshine, wondering if Moll served that kind of coffee to her customers.


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Next installment: The end is near!

On the rails in Ireland


Riding a train is like looking at the 10,000 pictures your Aunt Ethel took of her trip to Des Moines. There are so many of them. And half of them are blurry. “And this is another building,” she says a tiny bit too loudly because she notices your head nodding and your eyes closing. “As you can see, I’m crazy about street lights, sidewalks, and pigeons, so I took pictures of every single one of them.”


Seeing Ireland by train is like that but only in the sense that you see a lot of the same things. What you see keeps you wide awake: hill after hill of rolling green, intense rain-drenched green; sheep moving across the fields like small fallen clouds; wind-sculpted rocks and boulders; castles and ancient ruins who stand guarding the past, grey, grim-faced, and fearless; flowers as wild as any you have ever seen; and fields of horses.


If you’re from Ireland, or have been in Ireland, or know anything about Ireland, you know that horses play an important part in Irish history and culture. I, on the other hand, did not know that.  You would think that someone with a great-grandfather from Ireland would know a wee bit more about the Emerald Isle. The explanation: one part of me is Irish; the other part is pure ignorance.


Heuston Station in Dublin


On our first day, we traveled from Dublin’s Heuston train station to Cork in the south. We passed nearby Templemore in  County Tipperary where my ancestor came from, or at least emigrated from. He landed in St. Louis, Missouri, set up a grocer’s shop, and eventually produced a grandfather for me.


At Cork we un-trained ourselves into a bus, which un-Corked us and took us to Blarney village to visit Blarney castle, home of the famous Stone. (Note to readers who are aging Boomers: Blarney, not Keith Richards.) We climbed the narrow spiral staircase up the castle ruins, gripping the thick rope hanging down from the top for balance. Up top, we walked around the parapet, as well as looked down at the ground through the large rectangular openings that run parallel to the walkway. The only thing protecting me and my camera from falling through were some widely spaced metal rods, which are maybe two feet below the top of the openings. I rarely worry about dropping my purse or camera until I get near gaping holes 90 feet above ground; then suddenly I have to wrestle with my valuables to keep them in my arms. Had I taken a picture of the gaps, I’m convinced my camera would have leaped from my hands to the earth below. (One of us clearly needs counseling. I think it’s my camera, but we both fear exposure, lack focus, and have days when we see the world with our lens cap on.)


Blarney Castle


Two men had to help me kiss the stone: a photographer who stood on my right, carefully blocking the view so no one else could get a shot, and a man on my left who sat in the ledge next to the gaping hole where the Blarney stone lies (possibly in more ways than one). To kiss the stone, I had to lie on my back atop a plastic liner. Obviously, at least to everyone who is not me, I shouldn’t have worn white pants. The kind man who had my back placed what I prayed were his very strong arms around my upper body and helped me scoot forward to grab the two metal rods running parallel to the wall. Finally, I lowered my head down, mercifully unable to see the now wire-thin rods protecting me from Mother Earth who beckoned me with a voice full of gravity. After one quick kiss, a peck really, I was pulled back up and gently pushed away so the next tourist could contribute to the Irish tourist industry. Since the official photographer stood in the only good spot for picture-taking, my only chance to get photographic evidence of the event was to buy the official picture. I did. However, when my brother kissed the stone, I held my camera over the shoulder of the back man, pointed it in the general direction, and got a fairly decent shot of him just before his lips made contact. It was a good thing I did, too, because in the official photos, my brother’s arm is blocking his face.


My brother prepares to kiss the stone.

I’ve never been so grateful for big hips. There’s no way they could fit through those rods.


Now that I have kissed the stone, I have been granted “a cajoling tongue and the art of flattery or of telling lies with unblushing effrontery.” Don’t say you weren’t warned.


From Blarney village, we took the bus to Cobh with a short stop to see Saint Colman’s Cathedral and a longer stop at the Cobh Heritage Centre.


At Blarney Castle, you are tricked into thinking one kiss will turn you into a trickster, convinced by tricksters far trickier than you. But you walk away feeling good. Your heart feels lighter, and you don’t mind that your pocketbook does too. At the Cobh Heritage Centre, that light heart of yours gets broken.


Cobh (called Queenstown until Ireland became the Irish Free State in 1922) was the last port people on the unsinkable Titanic ever saw, and the first port survivors of the Lusitania saw after being torpedoed by a German submarine.


Inside the Cobh Heritage Centre: a million goodbyes.


Even more sobering is the exhibition on the Great Famine and Irish Emigration. In the six years of the potato famine (1845-1851) one and a half million Irish left their homes to build new lives abroad. From then until 1950, about six million people left, almost half sailed from Cobh. The pictures, videos, written accounts, and artifacts, all drawn deep from that well of sorrow called Irish history, tell a story that stays with a person. At least a person like me.


Read even a part of Irish history and you understand why William Butler Yeats said, “An Irishman has an abiding sense of tragedy which sustains him through temporary periods of joy.”


I practically slid out of bed every morning in our Killarney hotel.

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Next installment: Rings, cliffs, and fairy trees

Vacation: Racing to disappointment


Imagine the weather as a blog. Day after day the weather posts something new, rearranging the clouds, sending winds first this way, then that; then one day it needs a break, and reblogs an earlier post. That’s what Dublin’s weather did the Sunday we were there. Instead of posting a summery June day, it reposted a day from March, an especially cold and rainy day that barely made it to double digits on the Celsius scale.


It turned out to be the perfect weather for me.


The night before our one day in Dublin, I had looked over the brochure for the Hop-on Hop-off bus and selected bus stop number 3 as my must hop-off must-see place to go. I was going to see the Book of Kells at Trinity College. No matter what.


Life, of course, has a way of showing us what’s what. And sometimes “what” matters. Our “what” turned out to be Formula One: Bavaria City Racing. To accommodate and showcase F1 cars and other means of transportation that go zoom, the police cordoned off half the streets of Dublin for the small crowd of 100,000 people expected to attend.


We waited until almost lunch to leave the hotel, and I dressed as warmly as possible with my I’m-pretty-sure-I-won’t-need-anything-too-heavy-because-it’s-summer-and-I-mean-how-cold-could-it-possibly-get clothing that I had carefully packed several hours before I left on vacation. Four layers later, I stepped outside and began the long, slow process of freezing to death.


We took the tram downtown and waited in the cold for the bus. For a while I stood inside a telephone booth, but then we discovered we were waiting in the wrong place. Once we found the bus stop (the one without a phone booth), we made sure we were first in line. That way we could choose the best seats. Because brilliance runs in my family, both my brother and I thought it would be a good idea to sit on the top of the tour bus under the little roof. The one that doesn’t cover the entire top half. The one that lets cold wind blow down your neck and find your skin beneath the four layers of summer material. Surely, it would be heated. And we could see so much better. In a better world, a warmer world, a not-so-rainy world, it would have been a good idea. We thought we would have to scramble to get the front seats at the top, but oddly no one else went up top.


But no matter, in just two stops from this first one, we would hop off and see the Book of Kells. Except we didn’t because we couldn’t. The bus had to go a different route and visit places out of order because the race cars needed the streets. So we sat in the cold, waiting to hear the driver announce stop number three, which was difficult to hear over the chattering of our teeth.


We passed interesting stop after interesting stop and stayed put. Finally, when we stopped at Number 13, Guinness Storehouse, we got off. Just to warm up. Really. No, really. And we were hungry. So there.


Inside the Guinness Storehouse: Water + hops+ barley + yeast = beer



We spent a couple of hours exploring the seven-story building, learning the history of Guinness, and walking through a mock-up of the brewing process and cooperage (beer barrel building). We took the glass elevator up to the top floor, the Gravity Bar,with its circular wall of windows that provide a panoramic view of Dublin, weather permitting. The weather did some intermittent permitting, but no one seemed to mind. Everyone there was enjoying a pint of Guinness, which is included in the price of admission.


At the Gravity Bar


Hey, bartender, there’s a girl in my Guinness!


When my brother and I de-bused at the Guinness Storehouse, we discovered that the lower level of the bus had a surfeit of heat. While we had suffered up top, all the other tourists basked in the warm and cozy seats below us. To understand why we didn’t just move to the lower level right away would require more explanation than I can give you in just one blog post. Let me just say that one of the defining characteristics of my family is a determination and hardiness that looks vaguely like stupidity in a tuxedo.


From that point, we rode in the lower part of the bus, waiting for number 3 to be announced. It never was because that part of the route belonged to Formula One for the day: it’s route ran right in front of bus stop number three. By the time we realized this, we were headed back to O’Connell Street where we started. We were too tired and hungry to go through the tour again, so we walked over to the Spire of Dublin, officially called the Monument of Light. Our bus driver pointed it out on the tour and called it The Stiletto in the Ghetto. Dubliners have a few other colorful nicknames, which you can search for on the web. The Spire stands almost 400 feet, and everyone on the web says it’s the tallest sculpture in the world, so I believe it. You should, too. (It cost somewhere between four to five million euros, approximately €40,000 per shiny, pointy foot.)



Normally, after any kind of disappointment such as not seeing the Book of Kells, I pull out my small dark cloud and place it over the center of my head, halo-like. But that day in Dublin, I decided not to do that. Why waste my time walking under a small dark cloud when I could walk under the big dark cloud over Dublin. It seemed friendly somehow, as if the entire city shared my disappointment, and I felt strangely cheered. Then again, maybe I felt strangely cheered by the Guinness.


Next installment: On the rails

The cult of vacation


Our first two weeks in Europe as we traipsed through Budapest, Paris, and London, we scheduled our own days, lingering and loitering with abandon. We squandered mornings, wandered through museums as long as we liked, and generally stayed out of reach of the clock’s little hands. When we locked the door of the London apartment, we left that life behind.


At London’s Euston Station, we abandoned our lackadaisical ways, forsook lingering and loitering, and took the vow of obedience that joining a tour requires.


Becoming a tour-ist is like joining a cult. You must agree to obey the rules (“Carry these papers with you at all times and don’t lose your tickets.”), be on time (“Or we may have to leave without you.”), eat when you are told to eat (“You have one hour.”), drink when you are told to drink (“Is this koolaid?”), and cheerfully donate all of your money to the group (“We take Visa, Mastercard, or your firstborn.”)


Goodbye, London. Hello, Holyhead.


The cult we chose was Railtours Ireland. As far as cults go (and this one goes all over Ireland and back), they’re a good one. A yellow-vested representative met us at Euston station in London, handed us the information packet and tickets, and remained with us until the train left the station for Holyhead in North Wales. We saw beautiful scenery along the way, so I took a picture of a red sign. Sadly, our train did not stop at Llanfairpwilgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwillantysiliogogogoch Station, one of the longest place names in the world: Welsh for “St. Mary’s Church in the hollow of the white hazel near the rapid whirlpool and the church of St. Tysilio with a red cave.” (Amaze your friends by learning to pronounce it.) More sadly, the place name is not authentic Welsh, but a ploy to draw tourists to the place. And most sadly of all, this station really has nothing to do with my trip to Europe but does support my contention that the Internet should be called the worldwide warren because once you enter in, you find yourself heading down rabbit trail after rabbit trail.



At Holyhead we boarded the Ulysses (Largest ferry in the world!), reportedly decorated according to James Joyce’s book of the same name. If you’re like me, and I’m sorry if you are, you’re thinking, “What a novel idea.”  We got on the ferry with what seemed like thousands of English tourists eager to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee by going to Dublin, where it wasn’t celebrated.


When the ferry docked in Dublin Port, we followed the crowds down six or seven floors where the cars were parked. It took us that many floors to realize (1) we could not exit that way, and (2) we didn’t have a car. Going up the down staircase does little to foster good will and gives American tourists a bad name, so we excused ourselves saying, “Sorry, we’re from Canada.” (Note to Canadian readers: Just kidding! We excused ourselves with an accent and said we were British. Note to British readers: Sorry.)


I practiced sleeping here for two nights in Dublin.


Another yellow-vested tour guide kindly met us when we de-shipped and took us to our hotel. After settling in, we noticed it was past time for our repast, so we put on warmer clothing, activated our push-button umbrellas, and took the tram downtown in search of a restaurant. We discovered 101 Talbot and had the best appetizer ever: an organic hen’s egg with broccoli and some kind of wonderful lick-worthy sauce, that made me rue my slavish obedience to the rules of polite behavior. Some plates were meant to be licked. Both of our entrees included potatoes cooked in duck fat, which for some reason creates a picture in my head of Robin yelling at Batman as an oily criminal lobs lard bombs, “Duck! Fat!”


My bathroom in the hotel. The picture? I don’t know either. Was it meant to be endearing?

The source of my strange dreams that first night?


Our official rail tour would not begin until Monday. We arrived in Dublin on a Saturday, which left us Sunday to see some of Dublin. The tour package included a pass for the Hop On, Hop Off bus, so before I went to bed I read through the brochure and selected the one stop where we had to hop off.  No matter what.


Next installment: I discover what’s what

In which the Queen ignores us


What the heck is opprobrium?


On our vacation, we had a hard time distinguishing between breakfast and lunch. Other than the difference in spelling, they seemed a lot alike. We spent all our mornings trying to tell where one ended and the other began. So on our fourth full day in London, we waited until we knew for sure that lunch was over before we headed out. Destination: Windsor Castle. Tickets: purchased months in advance. Cameras: all batteries charged, correct settings optional.


By the time we got off at Windsor & Eton Central station, we had worked up an appetite from the exhausting hour-long train ride, so we stopped at a café for a drink and a morsel. All was well, too well, too idyllic, too perfect. Something was missing, something like an emergency, something like leaving the tickets to the castle on the table in the apartment.


What Windsor Castle would look like from the village if there were no sky.


As we walked to the castle from the café, I castigated myself, flogged myself with all my past failures, declared myself unfit for vacationing, and prepared my pocketbook to pay the entrance fee – again. Apparently ordering them once online was not enough for me. Unable to reach abject despair and a sense of worthlessness by myself, I begged my brother, daughter, and granddaughter to heap opprobrium on me. They refused, partly I believe because they had no idea what it was.


While I was standing in line at the castle entrance huddled beneath my personal small dark cloud, my more rational daughter flagged a worker and told her our dilemma. She directed us to the counter where a young woman smiled about the forgotten tickets, said it happened all of the time, and swiftly found my information in the computer. Already paid. My pocketbook rejoiced; I took back all my flogs, uncastigated myself, and proceeded to have a jolly good time.


Visitors are not allowed to take pictures inside the castle, at least with cameras, but I took pictures inside of my head of Queen Mary’s dolls’ house, along with the paintings, tapestries, armor, and woodwork in the areas of the castle open to the public. One current exhibition showcased sixty photos of the Queen representing her sixty years as monarch. Go to the royal collection here to see them.  As striking as the architecture and furnishings were, I was struck by the thousands of gleaming weapons displayed on the walls. Not literally struck, of course. But in room after room, swords and guns formed herringbone designs up and down the walls, and spears and halberds were crisscrossed into patterns that looked as if they were created to be decorations. The beauty and craftsmanship of the weapons adorning the castle almost made me forget they were instruments of war and death. A hundred years from now I wonder if we will have disarmed nuclear missiles artfully arranged in the gardens of government buildings, with groups of tourists strolling by snapping pictures of them. Unfortunately, I can’t offer any inside pictures of Windsor castle and few are available online, but it you want to see virtual tours of three of the rooms, go to the official website of the royal residences. Equally unfortunate, I can offer pictures of the outside, and I have made them available online.


When I initially booked the tickets, I had no idea the Queen would be in residence that day. Normally she stays at Windsor on weekends; we visited on a Thursday. Perhaps she was resting up before her Diamond Jubilee the following week. On hearing that the Queen was at Windsor, the grandchild felt confident that she would invite us in or at least come out to say hello when we stood outside the gate in front of her apartments and waved. She must not have seen us. We left feeling just a tiny bit dejected.


The Queen was in one of these rooms not looking at us as we waved.


However, on our walk through the village later, we discovered Hotel Chocolate. Their free samples consoled us, and to prepare for any future dejection, we purchased more consolation, along with a bottle of port, just in case we got lost at sea. Our motto: any port in a storm.  (Note to readers: Hotel Chocolate does not use slave labor cocoa.)


Even though the grandchild interacted with PIGEONS! throughout the day, enjoyed the train rides, and partook of the chocolate consolation, that night the little one suffered a bout of homesickness. Two weeks is a long adventure for a five-year-old.

First we were four; then we were two


We scheduled the last full day in London for shopping, even though none of us planned to buy much. My brother headed out to some camera shops, while my daughter, grandchild, and I took the Tube to Oxford Street. It may surprise you to learn that after walking around an hour or so, we stopped for a small repast.


When we met up with my brother, my daughter decided to go with him because the grandchild and I wanted to ride on a double-decker bus. We rode down the street, got off many blocks later, then got on the Tube and went back to Oxford Circus station, so we could once again ride in the top in the front seats all the way back to Notting Hill station. On the way back to the apartment we bought a meat pasty and a chicken pie for dinner.


Oxford Street seen through the glare of the window from the top of double-decker bus.


That night, for the first time on vacation, we went to bed early because we needed to be up at 4:30 a.m. I set my phone alarm but I needn’t have worried. At 3:30 someone full of cheer and beer walked down the street behind the apartment singing at the top of his lungs.


At 5 a.m. my brother and I said goodbye to my daughter and grandchild; then two hours later, our ride came to take us to Euston Station. The train carried us across the British countryside to Holyhead on the west coast where a ferry waited to take us to Dublin, Ireland.


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Next Installment: From the land of Eng to the land of Ire

In which we dilly and dally, then lolly and gag


On our third night in London, the middle toe of my left foot found the leg of the chair in the middle of the night. I was looking for the key to open the window and dragged the reluctant toe out of bed with me. It found the chair before I found the key.


We would have dilly-dallied and lollygagged around all morning even if my toe wasn’t complaining about the chair, but relaxing at the apartment helped it calm down a bit.


Imagine yourself as just a speck in London’s Eye


After lunch we slid down the Tube to the Eye of London, Europe’s largest Ferris wheel. It’s much higher in feet than meters (443 feet to only 135 meters), so if you’re afraid of heights, I suggest you use the metric system. One rotation takes about 30 minutes and the wheel doesn’t stop to let you board; you must jump on one of the 32 clear capsules as it slowly rolls by. We enjoyed the view and took lots of pictures. My brother, daughter, and I all pointed to the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster and exclaimed to the grandchild, “Look! There’s Big Ben.” Later we learned that it wasn’t. Technically, Big Ben is not the clock or the clock tower but the bell of the clock. It’s true that Big Ben-ness is now associated with the clock and tower, but I bet if you’re British it gets your knickers in a knot to hear the tourists exclaim to small children, “Look! There’s Big Ben.”


Look! There’s not Big Ben! It’s Big Ben’s clock tower!


After getting out of London’s Eye, we went to the 4-D London Eye movie, which is included in the price of the Eye ticket. Decked out in our 3-D glasses, we not only spent almost four minutes soaring over London town, seeing fireworks explode within arms reach, and watching seagulls fly by our faces, but we also felt the wind and mist of London all around us. When the precipitation first started, my brother thought someone had brought a water pistol into the theater.


From there, we walked over to Westminster Abbey. The grandchild took one of the children’s treasure hunt papers, and my daughter and I took turns finding the important historical information in the Abbey. We didn’t finish the treasure hunt, but the grandchild still received a large piece of chocolate wrapped up like a gold coin.


Watching the child eat chocolate reminded us that we needed some sweet morsel as well. We found a French bakery with scones and macarons. Perfect with tea.


The advertisement for the French bakery, BB Bakery County Hall.


Although the sky got drippy, we walked along the Thames after that, avoiding pointing out too many things to the grandchild, since we so often were mistaken. We took the last river tour down the Thames, and that’s when I didn’t take a picture of the real London Bridge.


My toe didn’t complain much during the day, but that night it looked like it was still carrying a grudge because it was all puffy and red like maybe it had been crying. It avoided the chair after that.


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Next installment: Two days and a wake-up until we say “Ta-ta” to London

Our London vacation goes down the Tube


Day One: London Bridge falls down (in the privacy of our own minds)

Our room for living in the London apartment

Every apartment needs some place to keep the scones.

For outside relaxing, eating, and surreptitiously spying on the neighbors.


Our first morning in London, we woke up in a lovely apartment in Holland Park in west London. After a late breakfast on the terrace, we walked above ground to under the ground. Londoners called their rapid transit system the Tube. In a better world it would have gotten the name from travelers who were pushed out the door of a crowded train during rush hour and felt the way toothpaste feels when it is squeezed out of the tube. Alas and alack, the hole story is that the Tube merely refers to the tunnels the trains travel throughout the town.


Our vacation is going to head down the Tube any minute now.


We arrived at the Tower of London and went on one of the guided tours led by a man wearing a Beefeater uniform. Most of the time I understood what the tour guide was saying, but my daughter said she needed to focus on his face and see his gestures to follow.  At one point, after she attended to the grandchild and turned back, she lost her concentration and told me all she could hear was “blaah, blaah, blaah” (British English for “blah, blah, blah”).


We spent hours exploring the buildings, walking through the exhibitions, and viewing the crown jewels. The ancient castle, built not long after the Norman conquest in 1066, so near the financial center of the city contrasts with  the modern London skyscrapers, the Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe), a tubular building that looks like a spiffy rocket ship taking offices where no office has ever gone before; and the Shard, a glass pyramid 72 stories high that will soon allow people from all over the world to look down on London.


Beefeater guard guarding what Beefeaters guard


From the Tower we tally hoed over to what we all told the grandchild was London Bridge, except it wasn’t. Go ahead and laugh: we all thought that Tower Bridge was London Bridge. We based it on the fact that it is a bridge and it is in London. Later, on our river tour, we saw the real London Bridge, a modern concrete and steel bridge in industrial strength gray that replaced the original falling-down one. I didn’t even take a picture.


A bridge. In London. But not London Bridge. (Tower Bridge)



Day Two: Gawk and Stalk

Inside the British Museum: Let the gawking begin!


After relaxing away the morning, we spent the afternoon in the British Museum admiring their gawk-worthy exhibitions. Although the grandchild did well in our museum visits, we tried to include opportunities to run and play, so in the early evening we went to the Kensington Gardens to the Diana Memorial Playground. When we got to the entrance, however, the child didn’t want to go in. Oh sure, there’s a pirate ship inside, swings, slides, climbing equipment, and sand; but, at the gate, near the concession stand, one can stalk PIGEONS! Since by that time in our journey we were well-trained and prepared, we carried dry bread and rolls to feed them.


Stalking the PIGEONS!


For about an hour, the child followed after the pigeons and coaxed them into coming within arm’s reach. Over and over the small hand would reach forward; the pigeons would draw near, and then…fly just out of arm’s reach until more crumbs were offered. Whoever said that small children have a short attention span has never been around small children and pigeons.


The child as bird whisperer


Eventually we coaxed the child into the gates of the playground with small bribes and promises of treats, much as the child had done with the pigeons. We got no further than the pirate ship sailing in its sea of sand.


After an hour of pirating, our bellies, unaccustomed to such long neglect, finally insisted that we go back to the apartment and make pesto pasta. We didn’t hear another word from them until the following morning when they reminded us that we were in the land of scones.


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Next installment: Finally we have some emergencies

The vacation chronicles: An interlude


Paris to London.

From le pout to the stiff upper lip.

From chic to cheeky.



Paris and London are separated by 500 kilometers and bookloads of history. Like all of the countries in Europe, France and England have so much history they can’t put all of it in museums. They leave it out in the streets. Everywhere you go, and even the places you don’t, there is some piece of history sitting out in the elements, usually covered in pigeons or pigeon paint.


France and Britain both sprung from those mathematically-inclined Germanic tribes, who traveled around dividing Europe into one kingdom after another. The Franks settled the area now called France. (If you couldn’t help yourself and made cheap puns every chance you got, you might say it took a lot of Gaul to do that. If you were incorrigible, you might even say they built their kingdom with Gaul stones.)

Although the Franks were warriors and conquerors, as early as the 5th century, Saint Sidonius Appolinaris described them this way:

Their faces are shaven all round, and instead of beards they have thin moustaches, which they run through with a comb. Close fitting garments confine the tall limbs of the men, they are drawn up high so as to expose the knees, and a broad belt supports their narrow middle.


Even then, fashion mattered. Now, of course, the Parisians walk around in that insouciant way they have; the men smelling of debonair, and all the women looking like current or former ballerinas, wearing their casual sweaters and ballet slippers, with their red pouty lips licking Berthillon ice cream with aplomb (probably French for ‘tongue’).


Two hours away, Britain was overrun by Anglos, the hyphenated ones who put the ‘ax’ in Saxon and every head that got in their way. Fierce. Serious. Stoic. In 1066 the Normans (Frank and Viking mix) made the trip across the channel, axed the Anglo-Saxons and taught them multi-syllable words.  Eventually the Normans assimilated and declared themselves English, so one wonders who conquered whom. The rest of the Franks stayed home, elected a King and realized they couldn’t be bothered with conquering and ruling the world; they had wine to drink, chocolate to eat, bread to butter, cheese to cut, followed by perfume, lots of it, and fashion to flaunt. Now they are the home of haute couture, haute cuisine, and haute dogs (poodles). Being haute is what makes them so cool.

Paris is for lovers; London is for raincoats.


I don’t mean to imply that one is better than the other. I would be happy to live in either place. Everywhere you looked in Paris, you saw lovers, and we really did need raincoats and umbrellas in London. But let’s be frank, or if you’re like me, let’s not be Frank because we aren’t. France, Paris in particular, represents culture and refinement. For an American like me, going to England/Britain/Great Britain/the United Kingdom/God Save the Queen! is like going home except that you don’t live there anymore and strange people are living in your house now. And they speak with an accent.


Sign of the Thames
(We were in London the week before the Queen’s Jubilee and saw this on the riverboat ride down the Thames.)


But how can you not love a country that puts bonnets on their cars and eats scones with clotted cream? No wonder the British almost conquered the world. After eating scones almost every day I was there, I began to doubt I would have been on the side of the American colonists during the Revolutionary War. (All that fuss over taxation without representation and look at us now: taxed while our representatives represent themselves, or if you were lucky enough to be born a corporation, representation without taxation.)


Scones: spend a pound, gain a pound


And now that I mentioned eating all of those scones, I know you are dying to ask: Did you gain a lot of pounds in England? Yes, I gained a lot at the train station when we first arrived, and it pained me to see them melt away so quickly. Unlike in America, in England, having a lot of pounds is a good thing.


Next installment: We travel in a Tube

(Note to readers: I may have omitted a few details in the history of France and England. I won’t tell if you won’t.)