Monday, December 17, 2007

Off to find Mr. Darcy

I woke up early again to have another breakfast in the fairy garden before we left to go look for the Bennet family in Derbyshire. I went in the vegetable garden to look more closely at the veggies, and I found lettuce, zucchini, carrots, and cucumbers, so we had a salad ready and waiting. I picked another bouquet just because I could, and went in to load up the car.
We were going to go several hours north to the Peak district, which is said to be what Jane Austen was thinking of when she wrote her novels, especially Pride and Prejudice, which is Mom's and my favorite.
We made it through hedge and curb and roundabout by the grace of God, and made it to Shottle by way of Leicester (pronounced lester) and Belper. We had so much fun with the village names.

Finally we made it to Danna Farm, a working farm that had expanded into a small bed and breakfast. Guess what we sang when we got to the parking lot. You guessed it, Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow. Our rooms weren't quite ready, so we sat out on the patio with the 3 cats and had our picnic lunch. The farm house was built in 1799, so it had the Old World charm we came to England to find.

My new friend Cracker

Our room was ready very quickly, so right after lunch we got to go up. The housekeeper was tickled to see how amazed we were at the beauty of our room. You just have to see the pictures. We were blown away. We walked all over the room exclaiming over every detail.
When we had had some time to rest and recharge with a cup of tea, we were ready to explore.

We took a quick walk around the grounds and met the New Zealand Kune Kune pigs,

named Sally Longlegs and Charming Andrew. Soon it was dinnertime, so we went downstairs knowing we were in for a treat. We weren't disappointed. Home-cooked salmon, garden fresh veg, buttermilk garlic mashed potates, drool drool drool.
After our fabulous dessert we went to the main room for a final cup of tea, and met a family from South Africa. It was a very interesting discussion, they were old enough to have been adults when apartheid was ended, and they were very much still of the old mindset. Mom and I
couldn't believe our ears when they were telling us how the "blacks" weren't able to handle running a government, and they were ruining the country. They basically had withdrawn and formed their own private society with its own transportation and police and left the others to fend for themselves. "How about them sports?" we'd say to distract them. World travel really does expose you to unexpected opinions. We were glad to go to bed after that. Hang on, Mr.
Darcy, tomorrow we'll find you!

Charming Andrew says hello

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Loving The Acorns

I woke up and leapt to the window to reassure myself that I really was here. Yup, not dreaming. I crept downstairs as not to wake Mom, and made a cup of tea and toast. I sat out in the so garden having a glorious breakfast. There was a crisp chill in the air, it was hard to believe we had left 90 degree weather back home. I walked around the garden and acquainted myself with all the different plants and flowers. Bluebirds flew past me, which I don't see back home, and the vegetables were bursting and ripe.

I picked a handful of flowers and found a vase for them inside. Then I went for a walk down the lane. I passed pastoral farms, quaint gardens, and a construction crew building a barn and cussing up a storm. Even English cursing was charming to me at that moment.

I found blackberry bushes everywhere, with the most delicious berries hanging ripe. I ate a bucketful, and stuffed my pockets with more to show Mom. When I got home she was up, and liked the blackberries very much. We met the neighbors, they were nice people. We didn't see much of them the rest of the trip, and I don't remember their names now. Anyway, we watered all the flowers and sat down to make our battle plans. In the home exchange we had given each other permission to drive each other's cars, so we were working up our nerve to hit the road. Mainly all we were striving for was the grocery store, but it was still a big goal for us.

The countryside in England is beautiful, and great if you are riding horseback. The streets are a car and a half wide, with tall, thick hedges lining most of them, or drystack stone walls. If a car comes toward you, it's a matter of who has a driveway on their side to duck into. Otherwise, the smaller car has to back up until they find somewhere to pull aside. Luckily, the family had left a basket of brochures, and an atlas, so we took a deep breath and got in the car.
We had some escapades, and LOTS of careening around, bumping into hedges and curbs before we settled on a system, Mom driving, me navigating. It was the roundabouts that gave us the most trouble, we got several firm honkings before we made it into the parking lot of the Tesco.
We paused in the parking lot to sing "Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow", we were so grateful to make it. Tesco was loads of fun, it's sort of a small scale Wal-Mart, without the cheap clothes and welfare moms. We saw all sorts of cool stuff that we would never see at home, and we bought every bit of it. Gooseberry fool, yumberry juice, wensleydale cheese, shepherd's pie, chocolate digestive biscuits, the works. If it sounded English, we got it. We somehow managed to careen home, with a fresh rendition of "Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow" for when we got back in the garage. We finished our mounds of laundry in the teeny washing machines, had a yummy dinner, and packed for our excursion further north to the area in which Pride and Prejudice was filmed. Mr. Darcy, hold on, we're coming!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Off to The Acorns

It is time to say goodbye to the minibar and hello to our home exchange. We've had a great three days but we are definitely ready to slow down and enjoy things more leisurely. The home we are exchanging in is near Northampton, roughly 2 hours by train north and west of London. The trains don't run all the way to Northampton on Sundays though, so we go halfway by train and catch a bus the rest of the way. What with dragging the crazy amount of luggage 2 women pack for a 2-week trip, we were definitely not bored. The people we were exchanging with had prepaid for a cab to pick us up from the train station, and he had never heard of the village we were going to, so we were crossing our fingers. We wandered this way and that, and finally stumbled on it. The village was named Farthingstone, and it's so small that they don't have numbers on the houses, only names. Our house was named The Acorns, and luckily Mom recognized it from the pictures she had seen, because there was no other identification. The Acorns! How awesome is that? Farthingstone consists of about 25 houses, a pub, and a church. Definitely my kind of place. The houses and pub are made from the old brown bricks that are so typical of 19th century English buildings, some even had thatched roofs. It was straight from the pages of James Herriot, and the plumbing and electrical fixtures haven't changed much either. Much of England feels as though it were frozen in the 1950's.
Our taxi driver, Sean Mulligan (a very interesting guy, more on him later) was (to be English about it) gobsmacked at the size of the house. European houses are much smaller, and by American standards this house was quite a comfortable size. He said he had never seen a living room (in England it's a lounge) that large.

What I was amazed by was the garden. Such a garden! I felt like I had stepped into the pages of a Jane Austen novel. You just have to look at the pictures to get the storybook feeling of it. There was a vegetable garden with a picket fence, a greenhouse bursting with tomatoes, and masses of gorgeous flowers. I can hardly believe it still, it seems like I imagined it. The family had the neighbor put fresh eggs, bread, milk, and bacon in the teeny fridge, so we had breakfast for lunch, and I say huzzah for English bacon. It's big, meaty, and delicious. We started laundry in the teeny washing machine, with biological washing powder, whatever that is. We ran from room to room exclaiming about the cuteness of everything, and finally settled down to explore the wonders of the BBC. There were homemade soups and dinners in the freezer, so I got brave and tried a steak and kidney pie. I had read about it, and I always assumed the kidneys were kidney beans. No, they're actual kidneys. They weren't really that bad, it's basically a beef pot pie with organs in it, but it's not something I would order every day. We had several gallons of tea and some digestive biscuits from the pantry, basically vanilla wafers, and called it a night. I laid down in my cute little bed with the window overlooking the picturebook garden, and I thought, I can't wait to wake up tomorrow!

My fairy tale garden.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Last day in London *sigh*

We woke up raring to go and drink London to its fullest. Okay, it was more of a trudge, but we had London passes and we weren't afraid to use them. We went to the Tower of London first thing in the morning before the lines were too long. It was nice to wave that pass at the entrance and walk past everyone. London passes are a good deal, you can pick them up at the tourist offices or on Expedia, but you have to be very active to get your money's worth. The Tower could easily take a full day, and we only had 2 hours, so it was very compacted.

We caught the tail end of a beefeater tour, and he was hilarious! You really do feel the touch of history there, things come to life for you. Plus they have costumed actors running around. The crown jewels were so huge and glittery that it was difficult to believe they were real. I still think surely they have fakes for the public display, but they say they're the real thing. We had brunch in the cafe on site and were on to the next stop.
London has public transportation barges up and down the Thames, and the dock is right by the Tower, so we hopped aboard and sailed down to see St. Paul's Cathedral. The barge driver also narrated a tour about the various buildings, so we actually got a tour for free. That and beef broth coffee are about the only free things you'll find in London, but we appreciated it. The dock for St. Paul's put us out right at Shakespeare's Globe, so we snapped a quick picture. We walked across the footbridge over the Thames, and St. Paul's was right there. I stopped and had my Mary Poppins feed the birds moment on the steps, and we went in. It was truly breathtaking. Everything is so ornate and carved and gilded, it's hard to believe you're still on the planet Earth. At the back of the sanctuary is a memorial in gratitude for the American soldiers that fell in World War II, and it was very moving. We considered climbing the 400something steps to the top of the dome, but nah.
Since the Queen of England was on vacation in Scotland, we figured we'd drop in on the palace and make ourselves at home. Seriously, the queen is only vacant 2 months a year, so it's rare to be able to see the palace, so even jaded Londoners get excited over this. It is a crowded madhouse, with serious security to get in, but once you make it past Guido with the xray wand it's well worth it. Wow, serious bling. They don't allow pictures because they want you to buy the $15 program, which I did *sucker*, or I would have them posted for you to see. The rooms are color coded, the green room, the blue room, etc., and dripping with brocade and 20 foot gilded ceilings, real gold leaf. It was the queen's 60th wedding anniversary, so there was a special exhibit of her wedding clothes and wedding presents. I actually like her dress better than Princess Di's 80's extravaganza, but that's just me. I can't imagine being a kid and growing up around world masterpieces of art and sculpture laying around your living room just as familiar as the coffee table. It was mind-blowing.
Once we finished our tour of Buckingham we went to Leicester (pronounced Lester) square and had a great steak dinner. We were in a hurry to get to the Lion King, and we couldn't get a taxi, so Mom hired a Polish guy to take us in a rickshaw powered by bike. Talk about careening, cars were zooming by, we were cutting across sidewalks and through pedestrian crossings, gripping the rickshaw for dear life. We arrived a little shaky, but gosh darn it we were on time.
The strange thing to me about London theater is that you can eat a 3 course meal while sitting in your seat and no one thinks a thing of it. Heaven help you in America if you bring food in the theater, but in London, go to it, my lad. Just buy it at the concession stand. The show was fantastic, I had a great time. It was much more creative than the movie, I was impressed at the skill with which they brought it to the stage. We got back to the hotel worn out but ready for a new chapter in our trip. And no we didn't eat the 8 dollar
jellybeans this time. We just had the $3 juice.

Our Polish rickshaw driver

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Our second day in London

Well, Mom had a busy day booked for us. We headed down to the lobby for a shuttle to take us on a bus tour. We were there early and waited quite awhile, and sampled the only free thing in the hotel, black coffee that we think had been spiked with beef broth. Of course it turned out that the shuttle driver had come 20 minutes ahead of when we were supposed to meet, and left. So, we dashed for a cab and did some more careening (seems to be a pattern) to Victoria Coach station, where we slid on the bus in the nick of time.
Our tour was to Warwick Castle, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Oxford.
Warwick Castle is a gorgeous place that really was an inhabited, working castle until recently. We could have spent all day there, but in the 3
hours we had we toured a section of the castle reenacting a house party in the 1890s that Winston Churchill had attended, watched an expert archery demonstration, and had tea with scones and clotted cream in the medieval dining hall. Beef broth coffee just wasn't gonna cut it, you know?

Well, we had so much fun that we lost track of time and had to sprint for the bus. They had given us a talk focusing heavily on We Will Leave You Behind If You Are Late, so hence the sprint. We were the last ones on, but we made it to the next leg, Stratford-Upon-Avon.

It is a beautifully preserved Elizabethan village, well at least the part they allow tourist buses to park in, and it is packed with tourists of every nationality. We walked through Shakespeare's birthplace wedged between Japanese and Italian tour groups, with Scandinavians not far behind. It was so cool to hear so many languages together in such small rooms. We learned a lot about the time period of Shakespeare as well, there are costumed guides in each room with an encyclopedic knowledge of the era. If you go to England with a readiness to learn, you will be amazed at how much you can get. What I liked most about Stratford is the passion for beauty and pride in their history, everything was spotless, and the flowers were wonderful. Plus Shakespeare's not so bad in his way (just kidding). We ditched the recommended route and went to look for the church where Shakespeare is buried. We found it, and were nosing around when we checked the time. Yes, time for another Miss The Bus sprint, and we weren't quite the last ones on, but we were close.
We were taken to a nearby pub and served good hearty food. We had a good time talking to all the Australians at our table. Get an Aussie talking about sports and you are good to go. I learned that in a pub if you want a dessert, any kind of dessert, order a pudding. If you want a Sprite, order a lemonade. If you want lemonade, order lemon squash. Ah, those English. I finally had an explanation for what it was Lucy had to drink in the magician's house in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Sorry, I nerded out for a minute.

So, we lined up, sorry, "queued up" to pay, and guess who was last on the bus.

Finally , Oxford. The land of learning. All I cared about was the choir. After my taste in St. James' yesterday, I was mad for more. We were at Christ college, where Alice in Wonderland was inspired, and where Harry Potter was filmed. We were enjoying ourselves, when the choir started their service. MAN it was spectacular, and just as they were getting into it, the tour guide dragged me off. AARRGGHH!
Well, we drove back to London, me listening to a Patton Oswalt stand up routine on my iPod and trying not to make a spectacle of myself exploding with laughter and trying to keep it contained, so I kept shooting things out of my nose and having to get the kleenex out. When they dropped us off we walked several blocks and found a great fish and chips shop. Once you acquire a taste for orange soda that's not so sweet, you really get into it. Finally we were done sprinting and we made it back to the hotel, had some 8 dollar jelly beans and went to bed.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Our first day in London

When we finished our tour of Boston, we drove/careened to the airport. Now, we had heard that Virgin Airlines was working to revamp their image, but that's just ad speak, right? Well, first let me say that it was worth the bump in price to buy "premium economy" seats. We ran up to the gate, petrified that we had missed our boarding, and pulled up short when we saw the room packed with people. We were settling ourselves in for a long, drawn-out process, when that very second, all the premium economy boarders were given first boarding! Yes! They served us champagne the minute we sat down, we had extra room to store stuff, the on-flight meal was recognizable, and actually tasty, and there is an entertainment center built into every seat that lets you watch movies, tv programs, or video games for free. They had me at champagne.

A word of advice. Heathrow airport has now established stricter immigration guidelines, so don't arrive at the airport midday. You will stand in line to get your passport checked for an HOUR. Arrive in the morning or evening, you'll be fine. End of soapbox.

So, we took a cute English cab to our hotel. Every cabbie we rode with was friendly and knowledgeable. Practically everyone we spoke to in England was polite at the least, and the majority were fun and talkative. We found that if you approach an English person with a request for help, they warm up to you very quickly. And as often as we were lost, we had no shortage of requests for help. We found no dislike of Americans, just curiosity and interest. Our hotel was beautiful, with doormen in Dickens outfits, the whole nine yards. Those were the best nine-dollar jellybeans I've ever eaten. At the moment we were just interested in the bed, and man it was worth the wait. The hunky concierge left our bags in the room for us, and we collapsed. This is our hotel room.

When we woke up a few hours later, it was time for our tea at Fortnum and Mason's. F & M's is a high end department store solely devoted to food. How could you not love it? We had bought tickets for it, but it turns out the store was under renovation and they weren't serving tea. We were just about to be really disappointed, but they showed us to their new dining parlor, so we still got our girly tea. Mom had duck and quail's egg sandwich, and I had a smoked fish salad sandwich. They were actually delicious, as was the pistachio sundae we finished with.

Quail's egg anyone?

Girly tea!


It turns out that directly across the street from our tea was the Royal Academy of Arts, which had a major Impressionist exhibition, so we went on the spur of the moment. The Royal Academy is typically free, but this exhibit was extra, but it was worth every penny.

Next we had to go to Harrod's, so we took the tube. The public transport in London gets a bad rap, but we had nothing but good experiences, and it's certainly cheaper than taxis, which are $4 just to open the door. Anyway, Harrod's was a blast. The Egyptian stair has a memorial to Princess Di that was thronged with people, and the food court was so fun. There is a soda counter that you can have a meal at, or you can buy just about any food from any country in the world, all surrounded with marble and gilt carving. I loaded up with interesting cheeses for my dairy addicted husband, and we set off.
The trademark Harrod's bear

On the way around London, we had noticed an ad at St. James' cathedral for a benefit concert that evening featuring an a capella choir. Now one of the vows I had made to myself was that I would not leave English soil without experiencing some fantastic English choral music, so here was my chance. It was one of the most beautiful concerts I have ever experienced. The choir's music was so beautiful that I cried. The rest of the concert was fantastic as well, several really good pianists playing Chopin, I can't get enough. Concert patrons were treated to champagne at intermission. Can you beat it? I never wanted to leave. Artisanal, locally made champagne, no less. *sigh* God's country, this. There was a second half, but it was already 10, and we had had 3 hours' sleep, so we turned in and washed down our champagne with $8 bottled water. Tune in next time when we attempt to catch the bus to Oxford. Will we make it?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Trip of a lifetime, part 1

For the first part of our journey, we stayed in Boston for 2 days before we flew to England. Boston is a great place, the city is beautiful and historic, the people are outgoing and friendly, and the food is fantastic. We went to Plimouth Plantation, a recreation of the original Puritan village, and the Indian settlement as it was before the white devils arrived. It was very well done, the reenactors were very good at their craft.

The "Mooflower", heh heh.

The Native Americans were not in character, but they were dressed as their ancestors would have. It was a little uncomfortable, because America has not been kind to its original inhabitants, and it's tough to come face to face with it. However, one of the ones I talked to had grown up in Louisiana, he even was a Tigers fan, so it was easier to talk to him.

Cutest baby ever!

The actors in the English village were in character, they pretended not to know what a camera was, they were very well trained in the history of the period. It was fun to mess with them. We really learned a lot about the period of time, the whole museum was very well done.

There was a companion exhibit in the town of Plymouth itself, a recreation of the Mayflower. There were more reenactors explaining how awful the voyage over was, Mom took a shine to one called John Craxton and tried to marry me off to him. Plymouth is a gorgeous New England seaside town, all white clapboard houses with beautiful gardens. We had a gigantic chocolate shake and called it a day.

The next day we explored on our own. Mom rented a car, but I tell you, Boston traffic was evidently designed by whatever loonies wandered out of the booby hatch and happened into Ye Olde Urban Development office. Trying to drive around Boston is a whole category of memories to itself. It was rainy, so we drove/careened to the Boston museum. We enjoyed the Winslow Homer exhibit, there are fantastic Impressionist exhibits and way too much to explore in one morning.

The entrance to Harvard

We walked around Harvard, and went to one of the best seafood restaurants I've ever been to. That Boston cream pie will live on in my dreams.

John Kerry's house in Beacon Hill

The morning we left, we took a walking tour around downtown Boston. There is so much cool stuff crowded into a small area. Our walking guide was very friendly and knowledgeable. He had met his match with my mom, though, she is a history lover, and the revolution is her favorite era to learn about. The guide told her she wasn't allowed on any of his tours, she knew all the answers. We saw all kinds of famous stuff that you take for granted, reading about it in school, but seeing it in real life makes connections that you never would have made otherwise. I love Boston! I would go back tomorrow if I could. Then we got on the plane. I'll leave off here, my next post will be England!

I think this would be a cool job.

The site of the Boston Massacre. This pretty much sums up the impression of Boston for me, modern and bustling but still maintaining its connection to history.

Our cool guide Alan

Mother Goose's grave in the Old North Churchyard.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

I live!

Okay, lots of catching up to do. Since the last time I wrote, school started, I went to England for 2 weeks, I took over as director for a piano lessons company, Ferris has been to another grad school session, and now I'm wrapping up my Thanksgiving vacation.

Wow, that was easier than I thought.

I came home from England with WAY too many pictures, so I'll post a few of my favorites. My mom and I did a home exchange with a family from England, so they stayed at my mom's house in Shreveport, and we stayed in their house. We exchanged cars, watered each other's plants, took care of pets, just like we were house sitting. Except we were on another continent. It was SO wonderful. I will start a running log of posts from each leg of the journey, but for now I want to show you a few of my favorite pictures of the whole trip.

Me and Cracker, the English Belton Setter at Danna Farm in the north country.

We went to Chatsworth manor on Gardener's Weekend Festival, so all the statues were decorated with beautiful flowers.

Later we went to Haddon Hall, and walked around the newest addition to the house, built in 1630. We also made time for the girliest, Englishiest tea ever in London at Fortnum and Mason's. *sigh* Fabulous.