Archive for the ‘Road Trips in Europe’ category

Farewell, Brittania

November 23, 2014

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I’m actually in France now, since yesterday afternoon, but there’s more of England that I’d like to show you before we delve into the realities of going to language school 9 hours a day, with homework every night. That starts tomorrow, and I can’t wait! But meanwhile, back across the Channel…..

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I went on a little two-day tour in a minivan, with three other Americans and a family of six from Myanmar. The first stop was Oxford, which was quite lovely IMG_8543 IMG_8545 IMG_8547 IMG_8552 IMG_8553 IMG_8555

but pretty much everything to do with the University was closed to non-students, so it was just a lot of looking at buildings from the outside. My favorite part, actually, was coming upon a group of guys selling the Socialist Worker and gathering signatures for a petition in support of striking National Health workers. I was amazed at how many people stopped to sign the petition, a steady stream, during the half hour that I sat in the square, reading the Socialist Worker and listening to what turned out to be Afro pop rappers for Jesus. When I finally figured out what they were saying I headed back to the bus and we all headed to the Cotswolds.

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The first stop was Stow-on-the-Wold, a pretty little town, sort of the Carmel of the Cotswolds, with lots of cute little shops and restaurants, and, of course, a poppy memorial.

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I did buy some exceptionally good Cotswolds cheeses to share with my bus mates, not sure whether folks from Myanmar eat cheese or not. But yes, they did, much to my surprise.

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This was the first real butcher shop I’d seen in a long time, and the fact that there was leg of goat in the window made me long for a kitchen. IMG_8568

In this cozy pub there was a sign saying that if you were only there to use the loo (as I was) you should make a financial contribution. So I went to the barkeep and said that I wanted to contribute to the loo fund, holding out a handful of change. She gravely picked out 30 pence and said “that’ll do it, then.” I have to confess that in a week in England I never did figure out all of their coins, which are especially obscure.

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After that we made a quick twilight stop at Bourton-on-the-Water and when  I saw this house

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I immediately knew that Shel would have wanted to live there. We arrived in Cirencester after dark, and I stayed in a B&B that was a long way from dinner. As I hobbled into the closest pub, alone, I was expecting to feel welcome, but it was a place where everyone clearly knew each other and liked it like that, and although the welcome was correct, it wasn’t any more than that, so once again I praised the Kindle gods.

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Next we visited Lacock, a dead village from the 13th century that’s been nicely preserved. Here’s where I discovered that I was really missing fresh air and the countryside. Instead of visiting this little abbey I preferred to hang with the sheep in their meadow on its grounds.

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Happily, there are still a lot of thatched cottages in that part of the country.

And finally we went to Avebury, where there’s a henge.

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We walked into the largest stone circle in Europe, dating to about 2600 BC. I was really hoping to feel something special there and I went to a stone and put my hands on it and closed my eyes. Uhm, rock, big rock , cold rock. Just rock. One of the Myanmar contingent touched my rock and said “Nothing.” That’s what I felt too, alas.

So my short time in England was peachy, and now I’m in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a whole ‘nother world. Soon I’ll tell you about that, but for now I’ll just say that I’m so happy to be speaking French again, and having French food, and all that stuff I’ve been dreaming of for the past year, since Shel and I left France, for the last time, together.

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Heaven And Earth

November 19, 2014

IMG_8647It’s probably not at the top of everyone’s list of what to do in London, but my personal dream was to watch Parliament in session. I’d heard that the queues were long and that I might not get in, especially as there was a Question Session with the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. But in the event I just walked right in, happy as a clam, until I saw all the steps leading up to the Gallery where one may watch from behind (presumably bulletproof) glass. As soon as I asked for a lift and explained my predicament, I got a personal escort up in one lift, who stayed with me through the Speaker’s Procession where the Speaker of the House, the Sarjeant at Arms, and a doorkeeper process past the waiting crowd and a police officer yells, quite loudly Hats Off, Strangers! My escort then took me up in another lift to the gallery, where I happily installed myself to watch the wheels of government turn. You’re not allowed to take any pictures inside Parliament, in fact, they take your camera and phone away from you, so all I have is pictures of the outside.

IMG_8651IMG_8657It’s quite spiffy though, inside and out. But I wasn’t in it for the beauty, I wanted to see the famously rowdy House of Commons strut their stuff. But while there was a little jeering, mainly it seemed that Members were earnestly trying to get their work done. The Speaker did offer this rather singular reproach “Will the Honorable Member please turn around, as we do not wish to see the back of his coat but rather the front of his face,” and the Deputy Prime Minister did actually use the phrase “suck up to” in disgusted response to one question, but all in all it was tamer than I’d expected. Although, come to think of it, if Joe Biden said in public that he wouldn’t suck up to some Senator we’d absolutely never hear the end of it.

IMG_8663After that very down to earth couple of hours I went across the street to Westminster Abbey, another place where you may not take photographs inside, which is probably a good thing because it’s so overwhelmingly filled with beautiful things that no one would ever stop snapping pictures and the gridlock would be unbearable.

The list of people buried there is staggering – basically all the kings and queens of England from 1066 through Elizabeth I, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Geoffrey Chaucer, Oliver Cromwell, Henry Purcell, George Frederic Handel, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, the list goes on and on. Not to mention the fact that most of England’s monarchs were crowned there, and many significant weddings also took place under the superbly vaulted ceilings. I could hardly breathe. The sense of history is palpable there, and I had to sit down several times just to remind myself that I was walking in a place that had been central to the whole story of England since 1066.

IMG_8679Lots of the time you’re even walking over the graves, although the most important people have huge monuments. After seeing the tomb of Queen Elizabeth I had to ask one of the staff whether the current Queen would also be buried there. “Oh no,” he said “we’re full. There hasn’t been a burial here in 100 years.”

As I was leaving, the light on the outer, photographable, parts of the abbey was gorgeous. Here’s your dose of beauty for the day.

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Dining Alone In London

November 18, 2014

IMG_0224-001No, I promise, I did not eat a Starbucks Marmite and Cheese sandwich! I just want to show you that it exists, it’s a thing. Not my thing, but a thing. However, I did go into a Starbucks and get a coffee, when I didn’t seem to have time for lunch, and it gave me a great idea.

Before coming by myself to London my greatest anxiety was about eating dinner alone every night. That, amazingly, has turned out to be a piece of cake. Skipping lunch is part of the key, and the magic of Kindle is the other.

My hotel feeds me a copious breakfast every day, included with the room. In fact, their fried eggs are so perfectly cooked, so much better than any fried eggs I’ve ever made myself, that this morning I asked to go into the kitchen and talk to the cook about how she makes them. So that gets me off to a great start, and not eating lunch is pretty easy. The hotel also happens to be in a neighborhood chock full of little, and not so little, ethnic restaurants, places where I can have a whole dinner, with wine, for about the price of a main dish in a posher place. So all in all, I’ve figured out the secret to solo dining happiness, and I’ll share it with you.

I walk into one of these places early, 6:00 or 6:30, before it’s busy. Restaurants aren’t empty, though, at that hour, and eating early means that when I’m ready to leave and walk back to my hotel in the dark the streets are still teeming with people. I get a glass of wine, open my Kindle to something fun, and then try to befriend the server. I happened on this strategy accidentally. In an Argentine restaurant I commented that the fish reminded me of moqueca, and it turned out that was pretty much the local dish from the server’s hometown. Then the guy who brings around all the meats offered me beef and I asked for chicken hearts. “Ok, she knows moqueca and likes chicken hearts!” (which were indeed fabulous), from then on they were being super nice to me for the rest of my visit.

In an Indian restaurant the food wasn’t spicy enough (Brit tastes, I guess) and when I asked for a dish of chilis the server, formerly quite formal and distant as Indian servers often are, lit up. He took the most solicitous care of me for the rest of the evening, spent a lot of time explaining to me how the restaurant had been named for a warrior princess “so beautiful, so brave,” and I didn’t feel alone at all.

Tonight, in a Greek place, the server was perturbed by my request for three starters instead of a main course, and even shook her head at me a little. But when I lamented when she told me that they were out of retsina, because her boss thinks that people don’t like it, I told her that it seems normal to drink Greek wine with Greek food and besides I like retsina, and she beamed. Shortly thereafter she brought me a bowl of beautiful fruit “on the house, on the house,” and when I explained why I don’t eat fruit, or pita, or rice, she told me “I understand, but I offer it to you from my heart.”

Talk about food, which is the cross-cultural, universal language, and the kindness of those who spend their lives serving the food of their homelands to itinerant foreigners: they’re saving me on this trip from the potential awkwardness and loneliness of eating out alone. I don’t know why I worried.

Roman Bath

November 16, 2014

IMG_8593There was a point when Shel and I said “ho-hum, more Roman ruins,” since we were so surrounded by them in the south of France. But today, in the ancient Roman town of Bath, I was wide awake.

IMG_8591And who wouldn’t be? Just look at this gorgeous bath, jade green, pristine, so seductive.

IMG_8597Fed by this steaming thermal pool

IMG_8595and guarded by these beauties

IMG_8594it’s all I could do to keep from jumping right in,

IMG_8604from putting my feet right here where Roman feet stepped, just before they got a good soaking.

IMG_8600But even this fierce man, guarding a temple doorway, couldn’t save the Roman empire,

IMG_8601which eventually crumbled, its power drained by the forces of natural decay that affect all civilizations.

IMG_8602Although as drains go, you have to admit that this one is pretty picturesque.

IMG_8586Fast forward to 1499, when construction began on Bath Abbey, although it wasn’t finished until 1616, so if your contractor is late with your remodel, cut him some slack. The Abbey wasn’t open to visitors when I was there, because services were being held. I sneaked into a Choral Matins, a lovely thing with a choir of 30 boys and men, singing like angels under the soaring vaults of the church. I had planned to sit in back, so that I could slip away for more touristical pursuits, like shopping, but an usher led me way down front. And thus it was that I heard my first-ever Church of England sermon, in which the priest surprised me by referring to the ongoing G20 Summit as an opportunity for rich countries to address some of the greater global inequalities.

IMG_8609After church I eased back toward modern times gazing at the breathtaking Pulteney Bridge, which was completed in 1774, at which time the United States didn’t yet exist. Swimming in those Old Country waters really puts things into perspective.

Mind The Gap

November 15, 2014

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If you’ve been in London you’ve heard the iconic “mind the gap” that greets you at many Tube stations, where there’s a gap between the train and the platform wide enough to swallow your foot. It’s perfectly emblematic of all the gaps in my life right now, to wit: what insanity led me to get a new laptop and a new phone, an iPhone that’s barely compatible with my PC (whence this abbreviated set of mediocre pictures) right before leaving home, and to set off on my own with 85 pounds of luggage? Why did WordPress, home of this blog, decide to change their GUI to something really wonky at just the moment I had all these other gaps? And why didn’t I realize that I’m not only travelling solo for the first time in 20 years, but also travelling handicapped for the first time in my life? I knew that I had trouble walking when I left home, but somehow I didn’t translate that to having to face walking through miles of airport and Tube corridors, painfully slowly, and I do mean painfully.

These things, when combined with eating dinner alone in restaurants, and stupid stuff like not recognizing English coins and having to hold out a palm-full of change like a little kid for vendors to pick through so that (I hope) I’m paying the right amount, and tossing and turning all night from the pain in my hip, are making it hard for me to actually have fun. I keep telling myself that this part of my trip isn’t actually about having fun, it’s about learning to face every sort of adversity without Shel’s help and support, and believe me, that proposition is getting a workout. However, there have been some fun moments, and that’s probably what you’d like to hear about instead of all this whining.

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For example, I did hobble through the Tower of London, and saw the end of the stupendous poppy installation, where nearly a million ceramic poppies were installed in the moat to commemorate the centennial of the lives lost in World War I. It looks like rivers of blood, just as it was intended to. A woman I spoke with at the installation told me that each and every poppy had been bought, for 25 pounds apiece, by families that had lost someone in the war. People were out in force, even though the installation was being dismantled.

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The forces were also out, this being Prince Charles’ birthday, and a 21 cannon salute being in order. Since my photos aren’t cooperating with WordPress, I’ll just throw, more or less randomly, a few more Tower images at you, gritting my teeth all the while.

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You aren’t allowed to take any photos of the Crown Jewels, but I thought they were kind of ho-hum. They’re replicas, anyway.

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And then, because the sun came out unexpectedly, I hopped on a Thames River cruise to Greenwich. As it turned out, the things I thought I was going to see were also unexpectedly closed for a private event, but it was great being out on the river, by day and by night.

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But my favorite moment of the day was when I was waiting at Westminster Station to get on the Tube, right at rush hour. People crammed into the car until one guy and I were the first people not to make it in. He and I raised eyebrows at each other and shrugged. Then one man in the train, a greying, balding guy, raised one eyebrow at me, moved a fraction of an inch, and looked down at the tiny space next to him. I jumped into it, wondering what would happen next.

There then ensued a conversation between several of us who were so crammed in that we had nothing to hold onto and were counting on the sheer crush of humanity to keep us from falling. I, of course, was crushed against the guy who had made room for me. In a sort of pre-emptive strike I said to him “it’s very kind of you to have let me in, so good for international relations, now I’ll have to write home about how kind the English are.”

By “home” I, of course, meant that I’d have to write about it here. And then a pretty blonde, very young, one of us who hadn’t anything to hold onto, said “We English are really kind, not like the Americans, who are so rude.” Very softly I said “But I am American.” I thought she’d faint, she turned beet red and began stammering her apologies. “I thought you were Canadian, because of your accent”she managed to choke out. “Oh god, I’m so sorry.” And there was a murmur all through our part of the car. And the nice man who had let me on wished me a pleasant stay in England, while she absolutely melted into the crowd and was swallowed by the gap.

So then, feeling pleased with myself despite my accent, I went to a Brazilian restaurant and there, sitting at the bar, was the Ugly American. The guy who loudly proclaims that “Hillary can never be President because she let Chris Stevens get murdered in Libya when she could have prevented it,” not to mention a bunch of asinine remarks about our President. In self defense, the Brazilian waiter and I talked about how the grilled chicken hearts were the best thing on the menu, and they were, indeed, delectable.

So many holes to fall into, sometimes it’s only chicken hearts that keep you afloat. My own personal heart is feeling pretty faint from all of this, but I’m still paddling away, doing my best to mind the gap.

Colmar Highlights

December 6, 2011

On our last night in Colmar I stood on the little bridge outside our apartment and thought “I could get used to seeing this every day.”  Actually, I kind of wanted to live forever in our adorable little home in La Maison Bleue, which is a wonderful place to stay if you’re ever in Colmar.

We’d sit in the cozy kitchen and Shel would eat the little bread people called mannala, and the swans would get any leftover crumbs. Kind of a Hansel and Gretel dream, and very comforting.

We’d go out shopping for gingerbread

or pretty dishes and textiles, which are two really strong points of shopping in Alsace,

and we found plenty of Christmas gifts all within easy strolling distance of home. We also tried a few restaurants, and if you get a chance to have the jambonneau with choucroute at La Taverne, or the venison stew called civet de biche et cerf at Winstub Brenner, jump at it.

What we didn’t expect at all was that we’d have a chance to be on French television, but there, right outside the museum, they were about to film an hour-long introduction to Colmar with a live audience, and even though it was a toss-up (go to the museum, become a star on French TV, go to the museum…nah!” we happily settled ourselves onto the risers and indeed, when the show aired the next day, there we were, looking right at home.

However, it was just a short visit, and once we had bought as much cheese (that fabulously smelly Munster), wine (those ultra-delicious Alsatian whites), clothing (aforementioned hat and jacket) and gifts (now that would be telling) as we could reasonably carry back with us on the train, we had to head back down the south, laden like Santa but minus the reindeer, tired, and happy. Christmas markets will do that to you, all of that, if you let them.

Alsatian Eye Candy

December 1, 2011

I’ve gotten lots of requests for more pictures of Colmar, so here you have it, the beauty that is Colmar during Christmas Market.

There, wasn’t that worth a thousand words?