Thursday, January 31, 2008

Silence is Golden...NOT

What a most frustrating week it has been! I am still in pain, still unable to talk, and my family has not adjusted to it very well. I cannot tell you how many times my children have stood at the top of the stairs yelling, "Mom!" over and over in frustration because I'm not answering them immediately. So I stalk over to the bottom of the stairs and glare up at them while pointing to my voice box and they grin, "Oh, sorry, I forgot!" They also keep asking me questions which require long answers before remembering they need to ask only, "Yes," and, "No," questions. Tell me, were there too many commas in that last phrase? I pride myself a bit on knowing correct punctuation usage, but that last bit looked kind of weird and I'm not sure if I over-comma-ed. Hmmm, guess I'm slipping...

My mother has handled my disability with hilarious brilliance, as only she would. She is, indeed, absolutely suited for this kind of situation. She calls me and carries on full conversations completely comprised of her asking me questions and me hitting a key once for, "Yes," or twice for, "No." It goes something like this, ahem:

"Hi. Are you feeling any better today?"

Beep beep.

"'No.' Oh, Boy. Do you think you'll be better by Saturday?"


"You don't know? Beep once if you don't know."


"'You don't know,' Oh, Boy. Does [The Viking] have a back-up plan for Saturday?"


"'Yes,' Oh, that's good. Do you think you need to go to the doctor?"


"'Yes,' You need me to call and make the appointment for you, right?"


"'Yes,' Now what is your doctor's name. Oh it's a long Indian name, isn't it..."

Beep. And hissing laughter.

"...Marsupial, Marmaduke, Marmalade..." She's just messing around now cause she's enjoying herself immensely.

"Wait, how am I going to get the number from you? You're going to have to beep it in and I'm going to have to decipher which numbers from the tones."

Beep BEEP.

"'No?' (laughing) Okay, why don't you email it to [The Viking] and have him call me? Or have him make the appointment and call me about the time?"


"'Yes,' Okay, do you need anything else?"

Beep beep.

"'No,' Okay, then I'll talk to you later. Have [The Viking] call me.

I especially liked how she repeated every answer I gave. It's all a big game of charades to her and she lurves charades. She came over to make some phone calls for me the first day of silence (cancelled my babysitting gig for tomorrow and made me an appointment at the hair salon for tonight) and we did a lot of acting things out. We are very good at it. Mom also went to our local Honeydukes and bought me a lovely box of fine chocolates to cheer me up. The Viking needs her to give him lessons. He has been very supportive and kind, but if he brings me one more variety of immune-boosting cough drops to try, I'm going to drink from his glass behind his back! And if that man doesn't stop whispering back at me cause he thinks it's cute that all I can do is whisper, I'm going to hit him with my note pad and buy an air horn! It seems I am not handling my infirmity very graciously either.

My doctor says there is nothing I can do. And, apparently, I have a fever. I am sentenced to squirt stuff up my nose twice a day, force two enormous horse-pills down my swollen, pain-riddled throat each day, gargle with salt water (ew), and lie around next to the humidifier sucking lozenges and drinking fluids. All without talking. At all. For any reason. Like to get my son out of bed, or track my husband down or yell at the increasingly passive-aggressive dog. She would not come in the house today because all I could do was stand at the back door and clap my hands and, apparently, that's not how she do.

In more light-hearted news, Spirit Week continues. I didn't get any photos of the kids in their beach wear, but I managed to get this one of Redheaded Snippet as she was dashing out the door on Crazy Hair/Crazy Hat day:

Man-Cub wore his Transformers helmet, which I did not get pictures of, but looks like this:

It fits over his entire head and is wickedly cool. It has prerecorded phrases from the movie and has a button that will distort your voice. It was a big hit at school, though I heard a rumor that the Principal made him take it off right away.

Yesterday's Rainbow Day was uneventful as Man-Cub could not have cared less and Redheaded Snippet had to wear her basketball uniform because there was a game after school so her color was green whether she liked it or not (she liked it and apparently played like she had sold her soul to the devil in that game after school).

Today was a different story. Today was '70's Day. We had a few hiccups at first, me wondering how any of the students were going to look any different from any other day as so many of them look like they're out of the '70's to begin with, and Redheaded Snippet insisting all her friends were going to dress as Hippies because there were still Hippies in the '70's even though the style is mostly associated with the '60's. Eventually, we settled on this:

It took some cajoling to get her to wear a belt and tuck her shirt in (she protested mightily saying it was so uuuuggggllyyyy but I told her it was more authentic-looking so she went for it. You can't see it, but she has her most bell-bottomed jeans on with her very retro '70's sneakers that she wears every day.

The biggest challenge was her hair. I was actually quite young in the '70's so I never actually styled my hair that way, but I think I got it okay. It was weird to be using a curling iron and large can of hairspray again! Redheaded Snippet couldn't believe how much like hay her hair felt and I said (whispered), "Just be glad it isn't '80's Day then!"

Tomorrow is the best day of all, Comfy/Cozy Day. That means I don't have to wrestle with Man-Cub over his clothes! They get to wear pjs and slippers and robes to school! They just can't wait, and I can't either. Picking out clothes is one of my least favorite tasks in the morning. It probably doesn't help that Man-Cub is down to about 5 pair of pants that don't have holes in them so I'm usually scrambling to find something clean.

Well, I am about due for a nap and then I have to write a note for my hairdresser. How I'm going to tell her how to cut my hair without actually speaking, I don't know. This could be disastrous.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Silent Night, Not-Quite Holy Night

Ah, Bloggy Friends (I know, that's rather presumptuous of me, sorry), I have nothing sweet/lovely/delightful/charming to share today. Nothing of any interest has happened, not even anything embarrassing or ironic which I could find a way to spin into a marginally humorous story to share with you all.

It's that time of year. That time when I desperately need a ripping good snowstorm. The loveliness of it, the sparkle, the softness, the instinct to hole-up inside and create warm, hearty, rib-clinging food with which to nourish and revitalize my rosy-cheeked children upon their return from their tramp through the frosty expanse beyond the laundry room door. Snow Days, sledding hills, Snow Men guarding the driveway, dull, padded footsteps, toasty, padded coats and mittens...ah, I hope it's all on it's way soon.

It's also that time of year when people get sick. And our household has not escaped unscathed. Both children are just now getting over a lingering 2-week cough with which everyone seems to have taken a turn. Nothing too horrible, just enough to make them sleep a little more and be a little more cranky (and miss a little more school). And now, it seems to be my turn.

I have laryngitis. If I'm going to get sick, it's most likely going to settle in my throat or chest. I don't often get head colds, but I do get bronchitis about once a year and the laryngitis seems to be cropping up with some regularity as well. Which is no fun at all for a singer. Not to mention someone who likes to talk as much as I do. I had to stop myself no less than three times from talking to myself today. It was embarrassingly hard to do.

Also, I have two children, one of whom is a 12-year-old girl who, I found out today, requires a lot of talking to in order to maintain good behavior. Nothing like an evening of forced muteness because each word you speak causes you great discomfort to show you how many times you typically repeat yourself with your children. That should explain the above photo. I spent most of the evening hissing at them. I was appalled. At them and myself.

Add to that nonsense the fact that I have a singing gig this weekend and you'll understand why I'm just irritated beyond measure. The Viking and I are providing the musical entertainment for a Valentine's Day-themed dinner at the fire station on Saturday. It's a fundraiser for the fire department's new building. We're pulling out all our old jazz standards and bringing a drummer with us and singing/playing softly in the background while people wine and dine to their hearts' content.

We had a rehearsal this evening and I am most concerned about my vocal health. We had to lower each and every song by at least 3 keys and go over just the most necessary bars of each song so I could sing as little as possible, but I'm still completely worn out. I don't know if my voice has ever been this tired and scratchy. We kept joking that my new "whiskey and cigarettes" voice might actually work pretty well for this venue, but I'm not worried about sounding okay. I'm worried about doing actual damage to my voice by using it in this state.

So, I've decided I am not going to speak at all from now until Friday night when I have another rehearsal, in hopes of allowing my voice maximum time in which to heal for the gig. This will be, quite possibly, the biggest challenge of my life. No talking for three, almost four, days? Not even to call my children, tell a joke to my husband or yell at the evening news? No singing in the shower, scolding the dog, laughing on the phone or cheering at Red Headed Snippet's basketball game? This means no cell phone, no drive-throughs, no bedtime stories and no amusing myself with British accents (don't even ask). I just don't know how I'll manage. Mom told me to take a notepad and pen everywhere, but I can just imagine how little patience I will have with that.

In other news this is Spirit Week at the kids' school which means each day has its very own "crazy" theme, the preparations for which will require us all to wake at least 30 minutes earlier each morning. Today was Beach Day which turned out to be not so much fun in late January. Also, the office sent home a notice informing us that bathing suits, flip-flops, nor short shorts would be permitted. But have a fun Beach Day!

Tomorrow is Crazy Hair/Crazy Hat Day. Red Headed Snippet lives for this day each year. It's kind of her thing. She begins planning it months in advance. In fact, she's had this year's selection planned since May. That's right, May. That was when my mother and Daria returned from Scotland with a Balmoral for her. She declared right then and there that it would be worn with pride on next year's Crazy Hair/Crazy Hat Day. Which is tomorrow. She's arranging her hair in two braids and topping it with the Balmoral. I am going to try very hard to remember to get a photo to share for she looks darling in that bonnet. No word, yet, on what Man-Cub's choice will be. I suppose he is going to see what inspires him 5 minutes before departure time.

For those interested, Wednesday is Rainbow Day (um, what?), Thursday is 70's Day (no platform shoes allowed and someone please tell me how this is going to look any different from any other school day?) and Friday is the perennial favorite, Comfy/Cozy Day: pajamas and slippers in school! Yay!

I hope to get lots of photos that will make the earlier alarm clock setting worthwhile.

Well, for someone with nothing to share, I sure took up a lot of blog space. Guess I'd better get myself to bed. I have a full day of not speaking to look forward to tomorrow. Actually...maybe it would be better if I just stay up all night so I can sleep my mute day away tomorrow...

Good night.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Does this look like Spring to you?

So, all the catalogues and magazines have their Spring issues out already. Decorate for Spring! Fashions for Spring! Get ready for Spring Cleaning!

Why are they shoving Spring down our throats? I know most people have had quite enough of winter and are just aching for Spring to arrive, but I, for one, am simply not ready. It feels, to me, as if Winter is just getting started. But then, I love Winter. I love bitingly cold air, frosty winds, thick, woolen scarves and sweaters, downy quilts, snowy landscapes and steaming mugs of strong tea.

We haven't had a good snow storm yet and we can usually count on at least one each year. Maybe that's why it hasn't felt like a proper season yet. We're supposed to get some snow today, but the baby-faced weatherman was very non-committal and only said, "Perhaps an inch or so South and East of the city," meaning, "I'm not really sure who's going to get what, so this way you can't make angry calls to the studio complaining that I don't deserve my paycheck"! That or he KNOWS we're going to get a few inches and doesn't want to throw the entire region into the kind of frenzied panic that always erupts if more than a half-inch of snow lays on the ground. I don't understand that, either. This is New Jersey. I know it's not Minnesota, or Buffalo, where they're quite used to feet of snow on a regular basis, but it's not Miami either. We get snow each year and we should know how to handle it by now. It's Winter, people! It's going to snow! Get over it or move South!

Sorry, I have gotten myself under control.

So, with all the catalogues that come to the house and the magazines I pick up at the grocery store being all broken out in Spring-fever, I'm sadly short of reading material. I'm just not ready for them. Come the beginning of March, I'll be ready. I'll smell the coming Spring in the air and I'll turn my thoughts to warmer weather and longer days.

But for now, I'm happy in my cosy Winter nest, sipping tea with my slippers on and waiting for the snow flakes to fall, hoping for many days of this:

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Lazy Sunday

Aye, me! Now that I've finished boring you all silly with my trip to England, I'm going to have to work at coming up with something to blog about again. Which gets kind of hard in the dead of winter with nothing going on, not even a good, lovely snowstorm. Sometimes I hate New Jersey. Like every day of winter it doesn't snow, and every day of summer it's humid and sticky and every day at Rush Hour. Maybe we need to move?

Anyway, we've enjoyed a slow weekend so far and are enjoying a lazy Sunday today. We spent the day yesterday helping sell hoagies at the fire station and socializing with the other firefighters and their wives. Not a bad way to pass a Saturday, I must say. And everyone got a delicious hoagie of their own as a reward at the end.

We declared last night to be Family Night and locked ourselves into the house with lots of treats and had tournaments on the Wii. The Viking was Grand Tennis Champion after beating Man-Cub by the smallest of margins in the final match. But Man-Cub got his revenge by rising victorious in the bowling competition. Red Headed Snippet beat me in a boxing match but was then beat in turn by The Viking. And I think it was The Viking again who beat us all in baseball. We all had soda and chips and made cookies and enjoyed ourselves immensely.

Oh, and Man-Cub fashioned himself a very stylish hat.

He just walked casually into the room wearing it; I think he had forgotten he had it on.

Once we started howling in laughter he got into the spirit of things and wound up putting about 20 of those darts on it, but the original is still my favorite.

It's bitter cold today with a high of only 24 degrees so we're holing up and drinking lots of hot liquids. At least Man-Cub and I are. Neither The Viking nor Red Headed Snippet can handle sitting still for very long so they are both out doing various things to alleviate their boredom. They're cut from the same cloth, those two. And Man-Cub and I, being cut from another kind of cloth altogether, are quite happily being sedentary, amusing ourselves with the Wii and the computer, respectively. The house is reasonably tidy, laundry is being done as I type and there is no school tomorrow, so I can sit here on my bottom with a clear conscience. Ah, relaxation.

I think I might make sticky toffee pudding tonight. I bought all the ingredients to make it for Christmas, but never got around to it. Sticky toffee pudding is my most favorite dessert in the world! We had it for the first time in a pub in Surrey and it's just about my idea of heaven in a spoon! It's a piercingly cold day, dinner is bangers-n-mash, and I've got nothing else pressing so I think the time is right.

But for now, I think I'm going to make a nice, hot pot of tea and try to finish the puzzle that has completely taken over our dining room table for the past week.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

England: Part IV

This post should wrap up my Trip To England Written Report With Photos, as long as I don't get too wordy and can cram it all in.

Are we ready? Where were we? Oh, yes, York. Our favorite city. We didn't really do anything spectacular in York, but we just loved the feel of it for some reason. We felt we could have stayed another week there, just prowling around.

The city walls are still intact which make it impressive at first sight. You can walk along the entire length of the wall if you are so inclined, but as it's quite a distance, it's rather an ambitious undertaking. We walked along just a short portion of it, just to say we did.

Here's one of the medieval gates, called a bar. Streets are gates and gates are bars and bars are pubs in York (of course bars are called pubs throughout all of the UK, but it just flowed so nicely there). Lost? Just wait until you try to navigate your away around the street-sign-less city limits! It was in York that another kindly Australian woman took pity on us, the lost American couple arguing over a map on a street corner, showed us where we wanted to go and explained why there is a distinct lack of street signage throughout all of England.

Are you ready for this? It's from WWII. Apparently, when they English feared invasion by the Germans, they spitefully decided to take down all the street signs. They figured if the Nazis were going to overrun the country, then it was just as well for them to be lost! Actually, it's not a half-bad strategy. The amusing thing is, once the war was over, the people decided, in their typically English way, not to bother putting most of the signs back up because anyone who really needed to know where to go already knew, and anyone who didn't, um...didn't.

I have no idea if that's really true or if the kindly Australian lady was having a bit of fun with us, but I like the story anyway.

So, as I mentioned before, we made it back into York, after riding the pseudo-Hogwarts Express, just in time to get into York Minster before it closed for the day. Now, we didn't visit Westminster Abbey (I know, I know, stop screaming at me) and I have yet to visit Notre Dame, so I can't compare it with those reputed examples of cathedral splendor, but York Minster has to be one of the most breathtaking visions I have ever seen.

By the time we got to York, we had already toured Lacock Abbey, Bath Abbey, Gloucester Cathedral and several village chapels and churches. I had experienced beauty and reverence in stone and glass form. I went into York Minster expecting to find it much the same, another lovely building I could check off my list.

I did not expect the breathlessness I felt at the pure magnificence and exquisite beauty of the place. For the first time in my life, I was absolutely dumb-struck. I stood, mute in the center of the Cathedral, all senses going into overload. These photos simply do not do it justice.

I know it's a cliche, but standing in the hushed awe of York Minster, I felt I caught the most fleeting glimpse of what my finite human mind can possibly imagine as Heavenly. It's very beauty and splendor seemed to invoke God's presence. Mission accomplished then, eh?

We arrived in the middle of Evensong so we could not sit in the service, but we stood outside the gate and listened. I have been a musician all my life and have heard my share of beautiful music, but that was the first and only time I have been moved to tears by the sheer beauty of it. The Viking knows my cold-hearted analytical approach to music and was shocked to see me crying while listening. It was indescribable. As an added treat, shortly after the service ended, a children's choir rehearsal was conducted right under our very noses. I loved listening to the children's voices echoing through the vast space, watching them fidget with their music and look around impatient and bored while the choirmaster stopped and made corrections. I wanted to march over and say, "How on earth can you be BORED? You are singing in YORK MINSTER, you lucky brats!" Happily this scenario only happened in my head. We did not get thrown out of York Minster.

My brush with the sublime left me emotionally spent and I had no choice but to rest on the steps once we made our way back outside. The Viking snapped this photo of me which I think is blurry and boring, but he likes for reasons I can't remember. He said I look, "European," or "Cosmopolitan," or something else quite unlike me. So I included it for him. In case he reads this. Which he only does rarely.

We concluded the day with a ramble through the Shambles, an ancient street which used to be the butchers' market in olde York and boasts a distinction I can only half remember; oldest intact city street in England? Something like that. It may also be one of the narrowest city streets, but then I might just be making that up. Either way it was charming and one of those places you just have to go if you're in York.

This wonky house was not far from the Shambles and, no, the photo is not warped, nor are you seeing things. The house is crooked and seems rather like the Weasleys' Burrow and held together solely by magic. This is just the kind of house I would find myself living in. And if it was in England, I'd be happy the rest of my life, I think.

The next day was my birthday. We began by having a tremendous row, overheard by at least one housekeeper, and stalking through a museum the name of which alludes me at the moment. We wound up going through the museum separately, partly because we have very different sight-seeing techniques and philosophies and therefore drive each other a little crazy, and partly because I was still mad and it took an entire tour of the museum and a bit of distance before I could cool off. But we made up, took our leave of York and our sights on the rugged city of Durham.

Durham was the only place we encountered accents we had difficulty understanding. There was one cab-driver, in particular, whose accent was so thick I had no choice but to translate what I could decipher for The Viking. I wonder if the poor man had as much trouble understanding us?

The Cathedral, by no means the most magnificent, was the most unique of all the Cathedrals, Abbeys and Chapels we saw. Very Norman in appearance, it was more rugged, sturdy and massive than the others. It was also darker, more brooding and austere. I had heard it had been used as a filming location so I approached a teen-aged tour guide and asked timidly if it was true. He got a very patient but smug grin on his face as he explained we had missed film crews by only a few weeks. Then, seeing he had a pathetic fan on his hands (though I tried to insist I was interested only so I could tell my children about it--ha ha) he told me he could show me a wall erected to cover a water pipe for filming. Would I be interested in seeing it? Heck, yes, I would!

There it is, in all its glory. A drab, nondescript piece of the Harry Potter movie set. And I touched it. And, yes, I'm a loser. And yes, this is the last Harry Potter reference for this post. I must admit, the guide looked very pleased with himself as he pointed out this fascinating bit of trivia. And the wall is quite impressive. The portion with the plaque on it, which has nothing whatsoever to say about anything HP related, is not made of stone, but of sheet rock or something else undeniably modern. You'd never know it unless you touched it so I would say the art department did its job quite well.

I can't remember what part of the Cathedral this is...

...but this is back in the Cloisters and was used in many scenes in all of the Harry Potter movies. Ooops! Did I promise there wouldn't be any more HP references? I'm so sorry, I just couldn't help myself. Each time I watch one of the movies and Durham Cathedral's Cloisters pop up, I point and yell, "I was there," and someone throws a pillow or sock at me. That should make you feel better.

We celebrated my birthday by attending Evensong at the Cathedral. We sat in the quire, surrounded by the choir, and a most dignified and genteel Englishwoman was kind enough to help me find the readings and songs to follow along. It was the best way to spend a birthday and if our children had been with us, it would have been the best birthday I've ever had.

We spent the rest of the evening wandering around the city. We tried to get into the castle, but there was some kind of festival going on so we had to settle for far-off photos instead. I've since read it's not really worth touring anyway as it is part of the University. I don't know why that is, but it helps ease the sting of not being able to go inside.

The next morning we woke early to catch a train back to York, and then settled in for a long train ride to London, our final destination. I had the joy of reading Murder on the Orient Express for the very first time while on that train from York to London. How thrilling is that? I think The Viking read a newspaper like a jolly, stodgy Englishman.

London. We arrived at the beginning of a record-breaking heat wave. It was stifling and horrible, weather-wise. All anyone was talking about was the heat, the heat, the heat! That, and Ronald Reagan's death, but mostly the heat.

We actually stayed just outside London in Surrey, in this lovely Edwardian B&B. London was dreadfully expensive and it was refreshing to come back to this place and relax at the end of the day.

This was our room, most dreamy, which had the most superb bath tub I have ever had the pleasure of soaking in.

What the heck, here's a picture of the tub! If I could have packed it up and taken it home with me (with the owner's permission, of course) I would have. Just the right depth and length for a restorative soak. Ah, good times.

We only had two blisteringly hot days in London and as it was the end of our trip we were tired and opted out of a lot of the things we had originally planned to see. We decided most of London's most famous sights would be best seen from a nautical viewpoint, and set sail up the famed River Thames.

The London Eye(sore) best viewed at a distance, I think. We had no desire to get any closer to it than this and were quite content with snapping away up at it with our cameras rather than from inside of it.

Say it with me, "Look, kids, Big Ben! Parliament!" Oooh, aaaah!

We did stick with our plans to get up close and personal with The Tower of London. It took the entire rest of the day and I began to feel as if I had been sentenced to live the rest of my days in the Tower after spending several hours there, but I'm glad we did it. We did take many photos in the Tower, but in the interest of time and mercy, I'll only share a few.

The legendary Tower Ravens. Their perpetual presence stems from a superstition from the time of Charles II which warns of the falling of both the White Tower and the British Commonwealth should ravens no longer inhabit the Tower grounds. Their wings have been clipped to prevent this horrible fate from ever coming true.

Henry VIII's suit of armor with its startling codpiece. One has to wonder whether it was that size out of necessity of just plain ego. Can you just imagine if codpieces were still fashionable today?

We finished our sight-seeing in London, and indeed in all of England, with lunch eaten on the lawn of Westminster Abbey. By the time we got there, we were exhausted of all our resources: time, energy and money. So we just looked at each other, shrugged, and collapsed on the lawn. I have greatly regretted our lack of fortitude ever since, but at the time, it was the last place I wanted to be. Mom and Daria explode in waves of rage whenever they remember that we simply skipped it, but I swear, next time I'm in London, I will tour Westminster Abbey properly!

That about does it for our trip to England. We had one more day in London which we spent shopping for gifts to take home, which was an experience in and of itself. We found an outdoor sidewalk sale and had tons of fun culling through all the treasures in the stalls. We managed to get something for everyone on our list before heading off to the airport for our flight home.

I hope you have enjoyed hearing about our trip. I have surely enjoyed sharing it with you, reliving old but cherished memories!

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

England: Part III

Our ramble down memory lane leads us, sadly, out of the Cotswolds and toward points North. I was actually sad the day we left Stanton, and wanted to find a way to send for the children and live there forever. But sounder minds prevailed and we began the long drive to York.

I can't actually remember why, but we had decided to stop in at Warwick Castle for a day. We wanted to see a castle, Warwick was supposed to be a fine specimen, and it was on the way to York. It turned out to be rather a disappointment, though we did get some good photos for posterity. It was very much a tourist destination and we happened to be there during a term break so the place was absolutely mobbed! Long lines, crowds of people, few of whom shared our American perspective on personal space, and a very dismal, grey, overcast sky (one of only two the entire trip) went a long way in dampening our enthusiasm for the place. Still, we made the best of it.

It was interesting enough seeing a castle and being inside of it, but it was very touristy and commercialized, with gift shops around every corner and everything costing an arm and a leg. That green lawn you see in the picture served as our dining table as we plopped our tired bodies down upon it to share a can of soda and a few hot dogs in order to save some time and money.

I complain about the tourists, and, yes, I realize I was one, but we did meet quite a few nice ones along the way. Though, come to think of it, they were all Australian or Canadian...hmmm...interesting. Anyway, this photo was taken by a very kind Canadian woman who, inadvertently, gave us a bit of a laugh. She pegged us as Americans right away and had us impressed with her ear for accents until she said to The Viking, "Wow, that's a pretty strong accent you have. What part of the Midwest are you from?" She had to laugh, too, when he answered with a grin, "New York City!" In her defence, The Viking has only the slightest of New York accents, detectable mostly when he says, "chocolate," or "drawer". I like to ask him questions about the chocolate I left in the drawer or if we should paint the drawers a nice chocolate brown, but he gets irritated with that pretty quickly. Anyway, moving on...

The Viking had loads of fun trying to hide amongst the wax figures, insisting I take this shot of him in the Kingmaker exhibit. I had never seen wax figures before (we declined to take in the wonders of Madame Tussaud's) and, I must admit, I found them to be pretty creepy. I'm still not convinced all of them were wax. I'm telling you, there were some real people in there standing very skillfully still, just waiting for our backs to be turned so they could pounce on us.

This young lad, in particular, gave me the jitters.

This photo, and the two that follow, made the day spent at Warwick Castle completely worth it. I think these helmets were intended to amuse children, but my Viking got an immense measure of satisfaction from stomping around in them.

I think you see what I mean.


Our first evening in York marked the low point of our trip. We got predictably lost, it rained buckets practically from the moment we left the Castle, and we had foolishly decided to find lodging upon our arrival instead of booking something beforehand. We had heard it to be quite an adventure to blow into a new city and see where the winds of fate may take you. It was very nearly a disaster. There was, of course, some kind of railroad convention in town and every place was full. The only place we could find was a third-floor walk-up with, as the kindly Scot helping us put it, "a wonky bathroom door" that wouldn't shut all the way. But as it was only the door between the bedroom and the bath, we didn't care.

The next problem was actually finding the place. The Viking refused to spend money on yet another taxi and insisted we could find our way ourselves and walk there easily. With all our luggage. In the rain. In a city mysteriously missing most of its street signs. By the time we got to our room, I was actually blubbering like a child. But the discovery of a curry shop on the corner and a nice, deep, soaking tub in the bath did wonders for my presence of mind and we wound up passing the night rather pleasantly, sitting on the bed bundled up in cosy terry-cloth bathrobes, munching samosas and watching the telly.

The next day dawned bright and clear and turned out to be as spectacular as the day before had been disappointing. We took a day trip to the small village of Pickering in order to ride a steam engine into the train station used as Hogsmeade Station in the Harry Potter movies. Yes, another HP reference. Just a few more, I promise!

This isn't the actual engine used as the Hogwarts Express (that one was on display in the railway museum as part of that pesky railway convention, but we didn't know it until we were on our way to London) but it was wonderful anyway. This was the day I missed the kids the most. They would have loved riding that train!

It had the old-fashioned compartments with the sliding glass doors, just like in the movie, and would have been very cool even if I had never even heard of Harry Potter. We got lunch off the trolley and enjoyed the Yorkshire scenery rolling gently past the windows.

The train pulled into Goathland Station, the quaintest little train station I've ever seen, which is probably why it was chosen to portray Hogsmeade Station. It has lots of little shops (we bought toys for the kids and some ice cream) and is nestled in this little valley in the middle of nowhere. The village of Goathland lay tantalizingly close by, just waiting to be explored, but we had to catch the train back in time to see York Minster before it closed so off we went reluctantly.

It was in the station at Pickering that we struck up a conversation with an Australian woman who was heading back to York as well and offered to save us untold amounts of time and money by driving us back in her car. I was immediately wary of her offer, convinced she was planning to rob and bludgeon us, but The Viking sized her up and felt he could take her so he agreed. He sat watchfully in the back seat while I nervously played navigator in the front. She proved all my suspicions false and turned out to be merely a nice woman who enjoyed being kind to people. She wouldn't take any money for gas either, asking only that we pass the favor on to someone else in their time of need. It was much later that I realized she was probably more at risk in that situation than we were, a single woman giving a strange couple a lift. I was amazed at how trusting and kind she was and felt suitably ashamed of myself for suspecting her of having sinister intentions.

Obviously, we made it safely back to York, with all our belongings intact, and were able to begin our exploration of the city. But, alas, I think those stories are going to have to wait until next time. One more post should do it, I think.

So, tune in next time when we'll revisit our favorite city, York, travel north for a day in Durham, then head back down for the obligatory tour of our final destination, London!

Friday, January 04, 2008

England: Part II

We resume our pictorial report on my trip to England in the small village of Lacock. We stopped here because a) it was on the way to the Cotswolds from Bath b) it was reportedly lovely and c) Harry Potter and A&E's Pride and Prejudice both filmed scenes there and, yes, I am just that much of a dorky tourist. Just so we're clear.

We went to the Abbey first. This was the first place we got a glimpse of the famed soft, rolling gentleness of the English countryside. Bath was bustling and elegant, but we were much more enamored with the soothing calmness we encountered walking about the Abbey grounds. The balmy breeze, sweet, damp air, fields of sheep and cows, hidden ponds, and sounds of crows cawing made it idyllic.

We found this bench tucked away near a picturesque little pond and just sat, drinking it in. I don't think I can describe how peaceful it was. Very serene and almost reverent. Good place for an abbey, I thought.

The Abbey itself was closed, but we explored the cloisters to our hearts' content. Being an American on her maiden trip abroad, I had never been in an abbey, cathedral or chapel before and did not know anything about the structure of any of them. But I can now tell you the cloisters are always my favorite part. The Viking took this picture because of its artistic qualities, but Harry Potter fans like myself may recognize it as the exact location on which Harry, concealed beneath his invisibility cloak, witnesses Snape threatening Quirrel about where his loyalties lie in The Philosopher's Stone. I was unbearably excited about standing where Alan Rickman had stood. Oh my, I am such a geek.

This is one of my favorite photos ever. I wanted to unpack a picnic right below that spot and lie in the grass, gazing up at the blue sky.

After tearing ourselves away from the Abbey, we wandered down to the village itself. There I am, looking rather schlumpy, but I'm standing where Colin Firth once sat on his horse looking achingly dashing in a scene from Pride and Prejudice. Aye, me. Now, my mother and sister got to spend several nights in the quaintest of thatched-roof cottages on their recent visit to Lacock and loved it. We were not so lucky, but we did pop into a tea shop and have a quick cuppa and a treacle tart to revive ourselves before wandering around the lovely village.

While the landscape surrounding Lacock was lovely, it was nothing compared to what hit us when we made our way into the Cotswolds proper. I was dumbfounded by the beauty of the place and bitterly disappointed that not one of our photos do it any justice. I don't remember where the above photo was taken, but I believe it was somewhere on the way into Stanton, the tiny village where we spent three glorious days.

This was our Bed and Breakfast, The Vine, in Stanton, recommended by Rick Steves and well off the beaten track. The innkeeper looked at us sideways when she heard our accents and said, "You must be fans of Rick Steves. His readers are the only Americans who come here." The place, as you can see, was lovely, and I wished we had stayed longer. The house had the smallest, steepest, most winding staircase I've ever seen. There was a velvet rope braced to the wall and we had to pull on it as if our lives depended on it in order to heave ourselves up the stairs.

There I am at breakfast the first morning in Stanton. I loved the cluttered, messy, but lovely dining room in that house. I felt right at home. There was an Aga in the kitchen and I decided to try soft boiled eggs served in egg cups for the first time. It was an abysmal failure as I hadn't the foggiest idea how to actually go about eating them and made a sad mess and, I'm sure, gave the kitchen staff something to laugh about when they cleared my plate. I also loved the candlesticks on the table so very much and was delighted to find a pair exactly like them at a street sale in London at the end of our trip. I bought them for my mother; she brings them out for every family meal.

Yes, we drove in England. Wait, let me clarify: THE VIKING drove in England. I didn't dare. I have a hard enough time keeping my left and right straight on a good day so I didn't think it was a good idea. We rented a car for our Cotswolds jaunt as public transportation is harder to come by in that area. It was terrifying. The Viking, being a born and bred New Yorker, learned to drive in New York city so we figured he'd be okay. But after driving in both Gloucester and York he declared he will never drive in Europe ever again! The other side of the road is the least of ones worries while driving over there! It's the personal space issue. We Americans are used to our personal space and lots of it. It was on this trip that we learned that is very uniquely an American concept. I never felt so violated in all my life as I did in a crowd in England. Seats, beds, showers, rooms, parking spaces, driving lanes, all are smaller than we're used to and it was nerve-wracking, not being used to it. The Viking did exceedingly well and it was wonderful being able to just drive around wherever we desired whilst in the countryside.

We drove past field after field of this pretty plant, which we found out is called rapeseed. Looking across the landscape you can see patches of brilliant yellow all over the place. We saw so much of it The Viking had to snap a photo of it, and I swiped a sprig to press in a book as a keepsake. It's framed with a few other English wildflowers and sitting in my living room.

Ah, the sheep. Herds and herds of sheep. Nothing like in Scotland, from what I hear, but there were still droves of them in the Cotswolds, all lolling about in their stone-walled patches. The Viking kept baa-ing at them which nearly drove me insane. Later on the trip we ran into an intolerable American woman who insisted the sheep had different "accents" than the sheep back home. Ridiculous, she was.

We got wonderfully lost on our ramblings through the Cotswolds and were charmed when we came across a young lady and her Border Collie herding their sheep into the fold for the evening. We watched as the dog ran back and forth, guiding the sheep forward and into the gate. We were breathless at the perfect quaintness of it all and then, we heard an electronic ringing noise and next thing we knew, the girl whipped out her cell phone and began chatting away! We found it to be hilarious and had a good laugh at ourselves for being initially surprised that a shepherdess would have a cell phone. Bloody American tourists!

We took a day-trip to Gloucester while based in the Cotswolds. We only had enough time to see the cathedral and the little tailor's shop from Beatrix Potter's The Tailor of Gloucester. My mother used to read Beatrix Potter's stories to my sisters and me when we were younger so it was such a treat to see the tailor's shop, looking much the same as it did in the illustrations, on the outside at least. The inside is now a Beatrix Potter souvenir shop.

Gloucester Cathedral was magnificent, of course. The inside was very different from the other cathedrals and abbeys we visited. More massive and impressive than delicate or intricate.

Until you get to the cloisters, that is. I loved the cloisters at Lacock Abbey for the air of hushed serenity in them, but the cloisters at Gloucester were breathtaking. The ceiling reminded me of icing on an elaborate wedding cake. This was, of course, used as a location for several of the Harry Potter movies, most notably the scene in Chamber of Secrets when Harry, Ron and Hermione find Mrs. Norris petrified and then later when Harry and Ron see the writing in blood on the walls. Good times, good times.

Our time in the Cotswolds seemed hideously short. I could have spent a solid week there, exploring all the little villages. It remains my favorite place on earth. When I need to think of a happy place, I think of the Cotswolds.

I think that's another good place to break, while I gather my photos of the next leg of the trip: Warwick Castle, Durham, and, our favorite of the big cities we visited, York.