Monday, August 25, 2008

First day of school

Happy day! The girls are both very excited about the start of school this year. They're in third and fifth grades. Sorry about the t-shirt - Juliette decided that this was the day to wear her school shirt. The name of the school has been covered for privacy reasons.

I'm always happy when school starts in the fall. The kids and I have fun together, but we definitely need a break by this time of year. They love their school so much, and I do too. I do a lot of volunteer work at the school, so I'm there frequently as well.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Out with the bad air, in with the good

There's always some sort of surprise after a vacation. In our case, it's the air conditioning. We had it repaired the minute we arrived home on Wednesday. But less than 24 hours later, it was out of commission again. We've been nursing the fourteen year old unit along since we bought this house seven years ago, and it was finally time to stop. So today, we're replacing the whole thing. The guys should be here any minute to yank out all of the crippled heating and air conditioning and put in shiny new high-efficiency goodies. While it's not the most fun thing to have to pay for right after a trip, we have known for some time that the day was coming, so it will be good to have it finished.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Nine weeks of junk mail

Guess what happens when you have the post office hold your mail for nine weeks? Yikes!

The sweet lady at the post office took my form and disappeared into the back room. When she returned with one of the post office tubs full clear to the top, I was amazed. But even crazier was the fact that there was another tub full as well. Guess what I did this afternoon?

Ahh. Much better.

The best part? Not a single jury summons in the pile! Going on vacation has always been the way we get summoned. I was a bit afraid that we'd come home to one or even two missed ones and have warrants out for our arrest! Whew!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

We're home!

We made it home! It's been a really long day, with a ten-hour flight plus a broken air conditioner to greet us when we arrived. The house was 96 degrees inside. A quick call to our trusty heating and a/c company got us a $300 repair, and we should be back to normal by morning. Meanwhile, we've decided to have a backyard campout tonight, since it will be in the 70s overnight. I made a quick trip to the grocery store and discovered that I do remember how to drive, despite nine weeks as a pedestrian. So all is well, other than the jet lag, but a good night's sleep should fix most of that.

Edited to add: The air conditioning managed to get the indoor temperature low enough for sleeping before we went to bed, so we did get to sleep in our comfortable beds after all. What a treat after a long day on the plane!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Time is running out

Our summer in London is winding down. The girls and I fly back to the U.S. this Wednesday, August 13. Darrell will be staying here awhile longer for work. We've been making return trips to our very favorite restaurants. Yesterday we went back to the Dove Tail, the Belgian pub that I wrote about here. The beer and the food are both great here, and the atmosphere is friendly and relaxed. The standout among the things we ordered this time - a starter course of a leek, walnut, and goat cheese tart. It was so good that I'm going to have to try to make something similar once we get home. After lunch, the girls found a shelf of board games and decided to play for a little while. Check out the British Monopoly board!

This afternoon, the girls and I went into London to find the Banqueting House, one of the remaining sites on our Historic Royal Palaces membership. The building is all that's left of the Palace of Whitehall, which burned down. King Charles I was executed on a scaffold outside the building. The ceiling is completely covered in paintings by Peter Paul Rubens that have survived since 1635. I think I'm about "palaced" out, because it didn't really do too much for me.

Better than the Banqueting House is what's found right across the street - the Horse Guards for Buckingham Palace. It's kind of comical. The guard sits on the horse looking straight ahead while one person after another steps up for a photo. That horse was VERY interested in Katrina, don't you think?

Here are some London Underground pictures. Since we spent a large part of our summer on and around these trains, it's only fitting to show them. The two stations we saw the most were Uxbridge, where we live, and Baker Street, which is a good connecting point for several other train lines.

I've mentioned the canals in Uxbridge and how close they are to our apartment. Here's our building. This was taken from a little footbridge that crosses the canal. The entrance to the building is on the side away from the road. The canal runs in between the building and the road (actually the road in front of the building is a bridge over the canal as well).

This photo was taken from the same bridge, looking slightly to the right of the previous one. You can see the bridge on the right that is the road in front of the building.

This photo was taken from the road, looking straight at the building. I've outlined our apartment so that you can see how very close we are to the ducks and swans that live in the canal.

And finally, here is our swan family. We hadn't seen them for a couple of weeks and were hoping they'd make another appearance before we left. The babies are still gray, but they're almost as big as the parents now.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The wheels on the bus go round and round

Today was a high-powered sightseeing day. The girls and I signed up for a bus tour with destinations of Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and Oxford, all in a single day. We got up very early and were on a train out of Uxbridge at 7:15 a.m. We had to meet our bus in central London by 8:45. We got there and settled in on the comfy bus with about 50 other folks from all over the world. Our nearest bus neighbors were from Dubai, and we met others from Spain, Australia, Canada, and all over the U.S.

Our first stop was Windsor Castle, which is Queen Elizabeth's favorite home. The castle is about an hour outside of London. Funny thing is, it's only about 15 minutes from Uxbridge. So we got up early, rode the train for an hour and the bus for another hour to get there! It's the journey, I tell you. We toured the State Apartments, which are amazing. The rooms are huge, opulent, and beautiful, which is quite a thing for me to say, as opulent rarely equals beautiful, in my opinion. No photos were allowed indoors, which seems to be the case with all of the castles here. But outside was another matter. This is the approach to the castle. Can you even imagine living someplace like this?

We caught a glimpse of the Moat Garden over a wall. Pretty! What we didn't know was that you can go into the garden. A little while later, we found the entrance, and the price of admission was a very small donation. So in we went.

I'm getting more and more pleased with the things that my camera will do. These roses were in the Moat Garden.

Here's a view of the castle grounds from higher up in the garden. I don't think I'd like having tourists traipsing all over my yard day after day!

We all piled back on the bus for the drive to Stonehenge, about an hour and a half away. The stones are in the middle of a field, in the middle of nowhere. But they're an amazing sight. They're well cordoned off so that you can't get too close, but the walkway is laid out in such a way that you can walk around all sides of it and see it very well. I'm sure that the crowds are much worse on the weekends, but I really didn't have much trouble getting photos without a ton of other people in them. This was one of the major sights that the girls had listed on their "must see" list earlier in the summer, and it was definitely worth a visit. It's way far out in the boondocks, though, so I do recommend taking a tour and letting someone else drive!

Next we were off to Oxford, another hour and a half away. We took a walking tour around the campus. The architecture was fabulous. Some of the buildings were almost 1000 years old. It was very hard to get photos without many other people and their cameras, but I did my best. The atmosphere of the town is very nice.

After leaving Oxford, we rode another hour and a half on the bus to get back to central London. We passed right by Uxbridge, which was unfortunately not a stop for the bus! We could even see our building from the bus. But we had to ride an hour further, then take a train back an hour the other way. By the time we got home, about 14 hours after we left, we were beat. But it was a great day.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Fun word pictures!

I ran across something really cool in my blog surfing today. While checking out This D*mn House, which is one of my daily reads, I was introduced to Wordle. Just give it the URL of your blog, or type in a list of words, and it will create a word picture for you. You can change the number of words, the orientation, the font, the colors, and lots of other details. Here's what I got using my blog, with all of the recent posts of our Paris trip. Isn't that fun? Click on the picture if you'd like to see it larger.

Try it out! If you load yours into the gallery, leave me a link in the comments. I'd love to see what you make.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Paris trip - part three

Continuing where we left off, still on Saturday, we left the Pompidou Centre and its generally not-so-interesting (to us) modern art. The next museum on our list was Musée l'Orangerie, which is located along the Seine not too far from the Louvre. This is a small museum which was said to contain a lot of impressionist art. As we approached the museum, Darrell was unable to avoid being eaten by a lion.

The girls were getting along so well that I had to snap their picture. You'll believe me if I say they've been like this all summer, right?

Okay, here's the big deal about Musée l'Orangerie. There is an enormous display of Monet's water lily series of paintings. The entire ground floor of the museum is dedicated to them. There are two very large oval rooms, each containing four huge paintings. This painting is probably six feet tall, and I didn't capture the whole length of it! The lower level of the museum contained lots of other great impressionist paintings as well. I was a happy camper here!

Katrina took this photo of us at the hotel. Does this happen to anyone else? We can't take decent pictures of each other, but both of the girls can get good shots of us just about every time.

On Sunday, we took a trip up Montmartre, the highest hill in Paris, which is home to the Sacre Couer (Sacred Heart) basilica. Our hotel was right at the foot of Montmartre, so it was a quick walk up to the basilica. There is no photography allowed inside, but the ceiling mosaics are amazing. Well worth the trip to see the inside. The outside is gorgeous as well.

Our next stop was a visit to Marché aux Oiseaux. It's a market right near the Notre Dame that is Marché aux Fleurs (flower market) every day except Sunday, when it becomes the bird market instead. Lots of vendors are there selling caged birds. As our family pets are parakeets, we thought it would be fun. The birds were beautiful, and there were many varieties that we had not seen before. I never saw so many different colors of finches!

Here is a picture of an ordinary Paris street. I love all of the balcony railings and the colorful flowers. The apartments seem to be this tightly packed everywhere in town.

This is another view of the Seine from a bridge. It's one of the few peaceful views in the bustling city.

So after four very busy days in Paris, we headed back to the train station to board the Eurostar train back to London. We were so tired, but it was a fun trip. I'm very happy that we had the chance to see Paris while we were here.

Paris trip - part two

Okay, where was I? It was Friday and we were just finishing up our visit to the Louvre. After lunch, we went to Musee d'Orsay. It's not nearly as large as the Louvre, but it has a wonderful collection of impressionist paintings. My wonderful high school French teacher taught us a lot about the impressionists, so I tend to gravitate toward them in museums. The collection here is terrific - Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, Seurat, Van Gogh, and lots more. I loved this museum.

Here's a lovely Monet.

And a Van Gogh - Starry Night Over the Rhone - not the hugely famous starry night painting, but I love this one, too.

Musee d'Orsay was originally a train station, and it shows in the shape and scale of the main part of the building. This enormous clock hangs at one end. I have no idea how big this is, but it's got to be at least ten feet across!

Saturday started with a visit to the Notre Dame Cathdral. It was a drizzly morning, and the crowds were not bad at all. The line looks long, but it moves quickly, since there is no charge to visit the main part of the church.

Here is one of the famous rose windows. I played around with shutter speeds a bit, and found that most of the windows photographed well with a speed of 1/10 to 1/25. This was on a very overcast day - I'm sure it would be different if it were very sunny outside.

We walked around to the back of the cathedral to get a view of the flying buttresses.

I had to snap a closer shot of the spires of the cathedral.

Next was a trip to the nearby Pompidou Centre, home to the modern art museum. I remember hearing all about this place in high school, as it was very new at the time. Its most striking feature is the fact that the mechanicals of the building, such as the elevators, escalators, heating ducts, and so forth, are on the outside. The outside of the building turned out to be more interesting than most of the contents, unfortunately.

I have to admit that a lot of modern art leaves me a little cold. Some of it looks like a pack of school kids were let loose with fingerpaints. And some just seems like a great big scam. There were three huge all-white canvases in the museum. There was a breathless bunch of blather on the accompanying placard, saying that the artist was of the minimalist school, choosing a very limited color palette, sometimes limited to white only, for his work. Excuse me? That's just a bunch of baloney if you ask me.

This piece was just bizarre at first. It's an airplane made of branches, like you'd use to make a basket. And it's completely covered in scissors, knives, corkscrews, and things like that. But reading its placard reveals something interesting - all of the objects - over 10,000 of them - were confiscated by airport security in Sao Paulo. This was one of the most fascinating things we saw in the museum.

Thoughts on Paris

Here are some highlights (and low-lights) of Paris that I thought deserved their own post. I still have a couple more posts worth of photos to share!

Good things:

My high school French from over 25 years ago served me pretty well. The girls enjoyed using the phrases that I taught them, such as "parlez vous anglais?" and "soixante-trois, s'il vous plait" (to reclaim our room key from the front desk). I was able to purchase our train passes even though the lady at the ticket window spoke even less English than I speak French. I was able to make out some things on signs, which was helpful in some instances. The directional signs in the subway were clear enough for a non-native to navigate, but a little bit of French sure helped! I found myself very grateful that I was finding my way in French and not something like Arabic or Chinese! One pastry shop lady who said she didn't speak any English accidentally taught me the perfect way to ask for something that you don't know what it's called - "(number) comme ça" while pointing at the item. Comme ça just means "like that". So if you can count to four or five and point, you can fake it pretty well! We also found that the shopkeepers would usually add up our purchases and then turn the calculator to face us, so that we didn't have to understand the spoken total. We only met a few people who said they didn't speak any English.

The front desk staff at our hotel was great. One woman in particular was very popular with my kids. She was originally from Australia and moved to France to go to school. She's now engaged to a French man she met in Ireland. The girls adored her. Katrina kept coming up with excuses to go to the front desk to ask questions. We were very well cared for by the hotel. They had a lot of wonderful suggestions for restaurants and sightseeing.

The big sightseeing spots in Paris are very much worth visiting. I don't care how many pictures you've seen of the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame. They're so much bigger and more impressive in person. And the museums were fabulous. We visited four, the Louvre, Musee d'Orsay, Musee l'Orangerie, and Pompidou Centre. The first three, in particular, were filled with one amazing well-known priceless work after another.

Not-so-good things:

Parisians seem very impatient to me. I was raised to avoid pushing and shoving and to respect others' personal space. The rules must be different in Paris, because I was constantly pushed aside. Sometimes it was simply due to people wanting to push through a gap that I considered too small to take. Other times it was not so innocent, like the time I hesitated in a subway station for maybe two seconds in order to read the directional signs. A woman shoved me aside hard with her arm, and looked back while yelling something in French that I couldn't understand. But her expression made it very clear that I was being cussed out. Another time, we were waiting for a train, and when it arrived, nobody inside the train opened the door (the Paris trains require someone to pull a lever to open the door - generally someone who wants off will open the door, and then after they get off the train, others will get on). Since nobody opened the door from inside, I pulled the lever and started to get on the train. The (young, able-bodied) man inside then decided to get off the train and yell at me for being in his way. I understood just enough of the French he was shouting to know that I was not, in his opinion, supposed to have opened the door.

We found that we were swindled by just a couple of euro on many, many transactions. Darrell and I are both fairly hard to cheat, I thought. But there were numerous times that we got taken. The cafe waiter who didn't bother to tell us that they were out of croissants, then didn't make any adjustments to the price of the breakfast to make up for the lack, even though the croissants were 2.60 euro each when purchased a la carte. The souvenir salesman who sold us an empty box for one daughter after making a big production of checking the other daughter's box. We did discover that one fairly quickly and went back and made him cough up the goods. I wanted to think it was an honest mistake (it happened on our first evening), but the events of the rest of the trip lead me to believe that it was intentional. These are just a couple of the incidents. There were several others. I don't like having to be on guard against stuff like this all the time, and it kind of spoiled the fun for me.

Paris sidewalks are ridiculously narrow. On some of the major streets, like the Champs Elysee, they're nice and wide. But on most streets, there's barely room for two people to pass. This often forces you to step into the street to pass someone, risking being run over. Drivers in Paris make it very clear when they think the pedestrians are in the wrong. They won't hit you (at least I don't think they will), but they're not afraid to get within mere inches of your toes if they think it's their turn. There are also hundreds and hundreds of motorbikes everywhere in Paris! The noise from the motorbikes makes our retarded rooster in Uxbridge (he crows all night long) seem quiet.

The prices in Paris are outrageous! We had thought London was expensive. Wow, not even close. The average prices for a simple sandwich lunch were 9-16 euro ($13.50-$24). Soft drinks with a meal? Forget it. A can of Diet Coke (called Coca-Cola Light in France) was 4 euro ($6)! We were able to find half-liter bottles at little grocery stores for under 2 euro each, so we satisfied our caffeine cravings that way. Getting restaurants to serve tap water (instead of overpriced bottled) was extremely difficult, and we had some who said yes to tap water and then magically "forgot" and brought out bottled instead. We didn't even consider wine or beer, as it was 6-12 euro ($9-$18) per drink! We were in Paris for three nights with two kids, and we dropped over 500 euro ($750), not including our hotel and Eurostar tickets. And we're not extravagant travelers! That's a couple of tourist things per day, subway rides, take-away pastries for breakfast, and simple lunches and dinners. I was happy to get back to the London prices. When we return to the U.S. next week, I'm sure the reverse price shock will be amazing. Maybe it will sustain me through the high-speed back to school shopping I'll have to do. Hope so.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Paris trip - part one

We're back! Three nights in Paris with plenty of sightseeing is just about enough for us. We abandoned our leisurely pace that we've used in London this summer for a whirlwind of monuments, museums, cafes, and subway trains. We're exhausted, but we had fun. I took so many pictures that it will take a few days to show you what we've been up to.

The Eurostar train is wonderful. It runs straight from the middle of London to the middle of Paris. You even go through passport control before leaving London, so you get to Paris and just walk off the train and start your vacation. The train is super fast - over 180 miles per hour - so it's only a little over 2 hours between cities.

We arrived at our hotel and found a nice room on the top floor, complete with sloping walls and ceilings. With no air conditioning, the rooftop location was perfect, as we had windows on both sides of the room and were able to get a great breeze with the help of the fan provided. We scored a room with a double and two twin beds, and still enough room to walk around. The hotel is Hotel Le Regent Montmartre. I definitely recommend it if you're looking for a place in Paris.

With our London Underground experience, we decided to purchase five-day passes, called Paris Visite, for the Paris Metro. There is no four-day pass, but the five-day is discounted to the price that four days would cost, so it was perfect for us. We found the Paris Metro to be fairly easy to navigate. The lines are more tangled up than London's, so we had to consult our map more often. And of course, the names of the stops are all in French and more difficult for us to remember from one moment to the next. Overall, though, it was a great way for us to get around the city.

We arrived in Paris on Thursday afternoon, and got right to work with our sightseeing. First stop was the Arc de Triomphe.

As this has become our "summer of climbing tall things", we took the 284 stairs to the top of the arch. The views are wonderful. We took lots of photos from the viewing platform. I was struck by how densely the apartments are packed into the city. This is the view everywhere you look. Check out the trees along the street, with their canopies all cut into square shapes. You see this in many places around Paris.
After the arch, we headed to the Eiffel Tower. We wanted to see it before the weekend crowds arrived. Here is a view of the Seine from one of the many bridges.

And here is the famous tower. It is awesome to see from a distance, but walking right up under it is just jaw-dropping. I think I took at least 100 photos of the tower from every possible angle! There are three viewing platforms, and it costs more the higher you go. We decided to go for the top, of course. Chances like this don't come along every day! The admission price for the four of us was about 36 euro (about $54). It is possible to climb the stairs up to the second level, but we'd had enough stair climbing for one day, so we took the elevators. The elevator to the first and second level is actually an inclinator, traveling diagonally up the leg of the tower. After that, you take a different elevator straight up to the top. The views are magnificent! The photos were not that great, though, as it was approaching dusk.

As we descended from the top of the tower, night was falling, and the tower's lights came on. It's lit with blue lights at night. I've been learning more about my camera, and was able to adjust the shutter speed so that I could capture the tower at night. I love this picture!

We were exhausted after our first day. It was about 90 degrees during the day, and we were just beat after all of the walking and climbing. We had dinner at about 10 p.m. and then fell into bed.

On Friday, we visited the Louvre. We had purchased Paris museum passes on Thursday, which cover admission to lots of museums and other attractions for four days. We found them to be very useful, as we just breezed into most places without standing in the ticket lines. Here are Darrell and Katrina outside the entrance. Inside the pyramid is an entrance plaza, one level below ground. Admission is there, plus easy access to the various wings of the enormous museum.

We didn't even try to see the entire museum, as it would take weeks. We followed the crowds and the directional signs to the Mona Lisa. It's a small painting and well-separated from the crowds, but it's a must-see. We also found the Venus de Milo. I found the ceilings to be just as fabulous as the ones in the London museums. If I ran the world, there would be a special tour available where someone wheeled you around on a gurney flat on your back, just to see the ceilings! See what I mean?

The girls had fun looking for animals in the museum. They are always searching for dogs and cats. Sometimes they strike gold, like with this tiger painting.

That's not all of our Friday adventures, but I'll save some for the next post!