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.)