Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Buses and Subways and Things That Go




The London Transport Museum is every vehicle mad boy's nirvana. My oldest son hasn't been totally vehicle crazed in years, but he loved it and has told me many times since that it's his favorite museum yet.

Before entering, we had to queue up with every other mother and set of children in London. Because it was half-term last week for a number of little English kids, many of them were out and about seeing the sites like we were. But the museum is used to children and did a good job of keeping things moving along. They also handed out "passports" to each child that they can get punched at various stops along the way. The children loved this, although the punch machines were so stiff that none of my children could work them without help.

Kids climb on old buses and subway cars, pretend to drive buses and subway cars and even, once in a while, pick up a little history of transportation. The Museum starts you in the 1800s, when chairs carried by a man in front and a man in back were the norm for those who could afford them and every one else walked. Kids can climb in a model omnibus, complete with shaking and jolting movements, test the difference between pulling an omnibus on a cobbled street and over a track and see models of some of the other vehicles of the time, like the two wheeled hansom cab.

Down the stairs, you enter the age of steam and there is a nifty model of workmen tearing up the street and tunneling down to build the subway system of London. You learn about some of the innovations designed to keep the smoke and steam underground to a minimum (using coke instead of coal, using cooling pipes to re-collect the steam and use it as water again, big vents in the street to release the steam into the above ground world) -- or your child races straight on to the old wooden subway cabins. Either way, they are pleased.

Down to the ground level now, you arrive in the twentieth century, where one is greeted by the fact that by 1901, over 4.5 million people lived in London. Okay, the kids were unimpressed. They just raced on to the antique double decker bus where they all wanted to troop up to the top and get a look around.

More buses, more subways, driving things and looking at various other transportation stuff and the end is in sight. It was a few hours of vehicle-mania and thoroughly enjoyed by all the little set.

Monday, February 25, 2008

A Few Lovely Days of Nothing

Being a tourist for six weeks is exhausting. I like getting out and doing things, but walking around seeing the sites all day every day can quickly get to be too much.

We spent that Monday returning from Yorkshire and had absolutely no desire to go out when we finally got home at 1:30 or so. My husband did change into a suit and head in to Chambers, but the rest of us lazed around at home.

The next morning I still wasn't up for much touring, plus we've had great difficulties with our front door lock -- leading to us being both locked out and in -- so finally that day we had a locksmith coming over to change out the whole contraption. I am sorry to report that contractors in England do not have any more desire to show up on time than those in America. By the time he did show up, it was rather late to get started anyway.

Wednesday I had intended to get out and do something, but we had to wait for someone from the rental agency to pick up the spare key and copy it, and again, by the time he arrived, it was late to get started on a trek out somewhere.

So instead we read, did math (which we've sadly neglected for quite some time) and just caught up a bit on all those little things that make for pleasant domesticity.

Finally on Thursday we ventured out into the wide world again. I chose to take the children to a place they would love -- naturally, I had to pick the worst possible week, when all the little English children were on their half term holiday, to do it. I'm not sure when the English learn to queue up, but the 3-8 year old set has not seemed to have yet mastered the skill.

Destination: Yorkshire



Some college friends of ours are living in Yorkshire courtesy of the US Air Force and they invited us up for the weekend to visit them. The planning stages started out well enough. We reserved our seats on the train and knew when we needed to leave to make it there, but somehow Friday afternoon saw us running out the door of our flat, walking as fast as possible with a suitcase, stroller, and two car seats, not to mention the children, to our Tube station, changing lines and then sprinting for our train to York in Kings Cross.

The train was comfortable and we had nice seats sitting across from each other with a table between. The ride only took about two hours, but in that time, the baby became quite beastly due to boredom. The other children were a bit better, because I had snacks, paper & pencils and a book to read to them. Remarkably, the train ran on time to York, but the little train to Harrogate, where our friends picked us up, was late.

Beastly children and slow trains aside, we made it there and woke up in Yorkshire, which looks pretty much as beautiful as described in James Herriott's books and where one could easily imagine Sarah Crewe doing a bit of gardening.

Saturday morning we tramped around the small village of Kirkby Malzeard (which is in Wensleydale, home of Wallace and Gromit's favorite cheese, which we naturally had to sample in its local environment) and that afternoon drove to the somewhat larger village of Pateley Bridge, where we strolled around the narrow streets and bought candy (honey liquorice and treacle toffee) at what claims to be England's oldest sweets shop (which may be as accurate as the various claims one sees in Nashville to having Nashville's coldest beer).

Down the road a few miles down the road was our next destination, a short hike up from an inn and pub in Wath-in-Nidderdale along the River Nidd is a beautiful dam at the beginning of the Gouthwaite Reservoir.



Sunday we went to York. I could have used at least a week to see all that I wanted to see, but we made do with an afternoon. We saw York Minster, the ancient walls, a few ruins, and the Shambles (which is an area of town leftover from Medieval days).



Monday morning we took the train from Harrogate to Leeds and from there back to London. It was a lot less rushed and crazy on the return trip, which I definitely prefer.

As I said, I could have spent days in York alone and the Dales, which James Herriott has always made sound so lovely, were a place I would love to spend more time hiking, strolling and just hanging out. There is always not quite enough time to do all that one would wish, sadly.


Friday, February 22, 2008

The Brits Sure Nicked a Bunch of Stuff in Their Time

I've learned from my experience over the last few weeks, that if you are going to place near two or three Tube stations, none of which have any lifts (and you happen to be hauling four children and a stroller around the city with you), always choose the station with the smallest number of intersecting lines. Some stations are big hubs and some Tube lines are way, way, way underground. If you stop at Baker Street and are on the Jubilee or Bakerloo line, you will be carrying a baby, a stroller, and holding the hand of a three year old up several flights of stairs and more than one really steep escalator. This is no fun. If you get off at Regent's Park instead, through which only the Bakerloo line runs, you will still be way underground, but you will not have to navigate so many crowded steps and passages and it seems like many of the smaller stations actually do have lifts, though not ones that get you all the way down to the tracks or up to the street level.

And from that digression into navigating the London Underground, let me suggest that with children around, you should take Russell Square, rather than Holborn to get to the British Museum. At least that's what we did.

The British Museum, as all the guide books will tell you, is huge. We could have spent days in there and I would like to go back, if we get a chance.

First things first, we headed for the Rosetta stone, which they handily put front and center. We've read the kids a book about Jean Fran�s Champollion (who deciphered the thing) and also talked about the stone when studying Egypt. That and the other Egyptian statuary were neat, though perhaps not thrilling because we saw a nice exhibit of Egyptian stuff come through the local art museum in Nashville, sure it wasn't the British Museum's collection, but trying telling that to the kids.



We hadn't seen Assyrian artifacts before and there is nothing quite like passing between a couple of those giant winged lions to put one in awe of what they, though terrible and violent, could also accomplish in terms of art and beauty of a sort. This is where I started really thinking about what I wrote in the title though. The Brits have, at least in their past, had a long and glorious career in taking home prize possessions from other peoples. On the other hand, those same things are now being cared for, stored, and preserved for the future. They are not being left in the questionable care of barbarians who might one day decide to blow them up.

Past the Assyrians, we entered a small area of Greek artifacts, and again although these were the real thing and not the fiberglass copies they'd seen at home in the Nashville Parthenon, but the Elgin Marbles were really only rather ho hum as far as they, the children, were concerned.

"But you said there were mummies! Where are the mummies?" the five year old was quite definite on what she wanted to see next. So we scooted on upstairs to see more ancient dead people, these ones more exposed than those at Westminster. Mummies are one of those fascinating things. It's hard to believe that you are looking at a real person who once lived, breathed and cared about the things of this life, and when you do think of it, it is hard to look at the mummy. Who would want to be stared at in a case in the hardened, blackened condition of an ancient mummy?

So, I can't say that was my favorite part, but the kids thought it was rather nifty and I enjoyed the fancy sarcophagi. Actually, one thing I really did like even better was the art put on top of the mummies to represent what they looked like. In the late Roman Egyptian period, people were still being mummified, and they often had a painting of them in life laid over the face of the wrapped up body. Since I'm generally used to thinking of ancient painting as rather flat and Byzantine, these paintings, which were very good and very three dimensional (for flat works) were a surprise. Seeing how the people looked in life interested me, just as it had when looking at the sculptural effigies at Westminster.



The little kids started getting wiggly and fussy and the older ones needed to find a toilet, so we speed toured through the Greeks, Romans and a room full of money. I was interested in the busts of famous Roman leaders, but didn't get much time to look.

After our bathroom break and a quick stop for a few postcards, we were on our way home to rest up for the next day's cross-country excursion to see college friends.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Food, Glorious Food!

Fortnum and Mason's -- words for the foodie to conjure by surely. What's not to love about a place that has half a floor devoted to different kinds of tea?

The bottom floor has wines, cheeses, meats, and various other items. They also have samples out, which my children always enjoy whether they are in Sam's Club or Fortnum and Mason's. We checked out some of the interesting merchandise and when I was pointing out the various kinds of jerky at the meat counter to the children and remarking that they called in Billabong, the clerk offered the kids a sample of whichever Billabong they wished to try. My children are sometimes more adventurous than their mother. They all wish for a taste of the ostrich jerky, which they inform me was delicious. Some things I can't quite bring myself to put in my mouth.

Later on, we noticed the shelves where they kept lollipops with worms in them, toasted ants and chocolate covered ants and scorpions. Big meanie that I am, I wouldn't buy any for the children, which the eight year old regrets and reminds me of still. He's hoping to get back to the store again, so he can spend his own money on a sample. If he gets there, I'll try not to be sick while he snarfs up scorpion.

What I did buy was far more tame. A local spicy ginger beer, which we still haven't tried, and a couple of boxes of tea -- Rose Pouchong, an aromatic tea with a distinct rose flavor, and Keemun, a light tea that goes quite well with a spot of milk.

I was going to take the kids out for a shared ice cream sundae at one of the restaurants, but my grumpy child objected to the idea of sharing, and while I hated to deprive the rest of us of the treat, I also didn't want to spend large sums of money on ice cream that was causing a grouch fest from the small set. We did without and are none the worse for it, I expect.

Next door to Fortnum and Mason's is Hatchard's. One of those very old bookstores one reads about frequently in Regency romance novels. Sadly, it was just a bookstore like any other bookstore. Lots of books, but nothing terribly different from any other bookstore any where else -- just a lot more expensive, given the state of the dollar compared to the pound. I'd already bought books elsewhere, so this was mostly a looking tour, though I did cave and buy a comic book called Lucky Luke that is written by one of the authors of Asterix.

Home again! Home again! The next day it was time to see the place where the Brits store all the souvenirs they've picked up on their various Continental and African tours.

Lunch at the Palace and Lots of Old Dead Guys

On Tuesday since everyone was healthy, it was time to make the requisite trek to Buckingham Palace.

It's a pretty easy place to get to, although since I travel everywhere with a certain child whose bladder must be the size of a walnut, we had to stop twice on the short walk from Victoria Station, just so she could use the loo. Since one of those stops was right by Marks & Spencer, we stopped in and bought some scones and I got some socks, since all this walking has actually worn holes in three of the pairs I brought with me.

I had opted not to try and reach Buckingham Palace in time for the changing of the guard. For one thing, they only do the ceremony every other day during the off season and I didn't know what day it would be. For another, I didn't care to stand knee deep in other tourists. What the kids don't know they missed won't come back to haunt me for at least a few more years. So we arrived at the Palace in time for lunch and since it was a lovely day, we sat by the fountain and picnicked in the sunshine. Here are two of the children having their lunch at Buckingham Palace. It is highly unlikely that they will ever come closer to royalty, which, when one comes to think on it, isn't such a bad thing really.



After lunch and a stop in the royal gift shop, where I resisted such royal kitsch as crown shaped erasers and Buckingham Palace raincoats, we headed over to Westminster Abbey.



Westminster Abbey is quite beautiful inside and out, though the statue of Martin Luther King Jr. amidst the 20th Century Martyrs did raise my eyebrows a bit since I wasn't aware that he'd been murdered for religious reasons. Oops, did that come out, out loud? Pardon my failure of political correctness. I will endeavor to do better next time.

My five year old described Westminster later in her journal as "kind of like a grave church." The kids found the effigies on top of the graves interesting. It was rather fascinating to see how different the faces were. Sometimes one doesn't really expect a very real portrayal of the person inside, but these really did have a decent amount of variation. It was also interesting to see how some were portrayed as being asleep in prayer, while others depict the person as lounging around waiting for the next thing to happen. Walking on the grave markers on the floor was "creepy" according to the eight year old and he endeavored to do so as little as possible.

They both (the five year old and the eight year old), and I say that, because the smaller two slept through the whole of Westminster Abbey, and because they wouldn't have cared much had they been awake, liked the Poets' Corner the best. My budding literary scholar was pleased to see the memorial to Shakespeare and Chaucer's grave. The five year old preferred the plaque honoring Lewis Carroll, since she's much more interested in Alice in Wonderland than the Canterbury Tales.

Neither the Queen's little shack nor the graves of the famous departed really and truly thrilled the kids though. Sure those are must see stops on a London tour, but children just don't see things the way a grown-up does. They much preferred our trip on the next day to a justifiably famous purveyor of fine comestibles.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Thank Goodness for Modern Medicine

Sunday afternoon we were lazing around the flat. I was cooking dinner and the littlest one was sitting in his high chair working hard to dump the contents of his sippy cup onto the table. He's developed a technique of banging the spout just right to bring out a little spill each time -- one of his many lovely talents. The oldest went over to give him a hug and said, "He's really hot. I think he has a fever."

I felt the baby's forehead and he seemed a tad warm, but nothing alarming for one who had been running around and was sitting in a warm room with warm clothes on. At dinner though, the baby did seem a little tired and red cheeked. When I got him out of the high chair he was distinctly hot.

As it turns out, it is a good thing I have an eight year old around to be the parent. He noticed that his brother was sick a full hour or so before I did. I don't like to bring a fever down when it isn't too high, but I did pull out the thermometer I'd packed for the trip and this fever was over 103. So I pulled out the Infant Tylenol and dosed him up.

In the morning he was still very hot, but not quite so hot as the night before. So we hung around home, worked on the kids' journals and I read them several chapters of The Famous Five Go to Smugglers' Top, while the baby slept on my chest.

He woke up much cooler and acting healthy and lively. I didn't want to go far from home, but there was an interesting looking cemetery not far down the road, so we went for a walk.

I know it's a bit gothic of me, but cemeteries are interesting and the cultural differences are sometimes noteworthy.

For one thing, in England they seem to do things a bit differently when writing the inscriptions. In America, after the person's name we usually put the date of birth and the date of death and perhaps a short description of some aspect of their life. Usually one sees one marker per person or a double marker perhaps for a married couple.

In England, at least on the graves from the 1800s and early 1900s that we were walking through, the name of the person is followed by whose child they were (even when the grave is not one of a child) and then their date of death and age at death. Birth dates seem never to be mentioned. Most of the gravestones were covered in writing, because they were marking the graves of several people, not just one or two.

As hard as it is for me to walk through an American graveyard and see a stone with dates on it that tell me a person died very young, this English graveyard made me cry, and cry hard enough that the kids all noticed. How can you not cry when a whole family of children with their exact ages is lined up for your eyes on a single stone with parents who lived to a ripe old age at the very bottom. One such, that perhaps was hardest of all, was the one that started with the name of my oldest son. Their son had died at age four. Their daughter Mary followed a few years later at age two. Their other daughter died at 11 and another son at 17. The parents lived into their sixties and seventies. The stone doesn't tell us whether or not they also had ten other children or even two or three who didn't proceed their parents in death, but it does tell us of parents who lost a lot in their young adulthood and went on for many, many years until finally being laid to rest with the children they had for so long been unable to hold.

Excuse me...crying again.

But it is a beautiful cemetery and one near where Beatrix Potter was born and one in which she most likely strolled. Though we didn't see any of the graves with such names, supposedly a Peter Rabbett, Jeremiah Fisher and Mr. Macgregor are all resting there.

When we got home though, I was back in reality. My baby was feverish again and I was more thankful than ever for modern medicine. His fever shot up past 104 and Tylenol and a warm bath didn't lower it much at all. However, I had also packed infant Advil and that did the trick.

In the morning, he was healthy again and we headed out to see the Queen and other old dead guys. But I'll tell you all about them later.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Various Things

Here are some links to friends around the internets who have interesting things going on.

A new baby over at Lenise's house.

My friend at Musings of a Housewife has a new beauty product blog and a gig over at Parenting Squad.

And Alli, another homeschooling mom, is heading up Homeschool Hacks.

We shall return to the regularly scheduled travel blogging at a later time.

The Beginning of Time and Real Art

The weekend before last, we spent Saturday on a boat ride down to Greenwich. Although not strictly a tour guide, one of the men working on the boat did point out the highlights of our trip downstream and not making any bones about his likes and dislikes on the London riverscape. His accent, though, was thick enough (in what I, the uneducated in London dialects, would call Cockney) that I had trouble understanding him at times, but it still brought a little something extra to the trip.

So we made our way under the Millennium Bridge, the London Bridge and the Tower Bridge and on down to the city where time begins. Greenwich, of course, is where one finds the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian. The kids were, perhaps, a bit young to be impressed by the thought of standing with one foot in each hemisphere, but they sure thought the Bart Simpson alarm clock in the museum of clocks was cool. All of them remarked on it in their journals, leaving forgotten the ancient Chinese fire clock and other time keeping instruments that made a somewhat bigger impression on me.

We opted not to return from Greenwich by boat, but hopped onto the light rail train that runs back into town. It was much faster and took us through the old dock areas, where large office buildings now inhabit many of the old quays.

Sunday after church, we headed out to a restaurant -- a special treat these days -- to The Wallace Collection's Museum restaurant. It came highly recommended in our guide book and with good reason. The food was excellent -- I had an omelette with herbs (don't forget to pronounce the "h") and a pot of orange blossom oolong -- and the price of the meal was reasonable.

The Wallace is a wonderful art collection. It was all collected privately by the Marquesses of Hertford over several generations and became a museum collection in 1900. The gallery is the former Hertford House on Manchester Square not far off Bond Street. The collection is one of not only amazing paintings and sculpture, but also ancient weaponry and armor, china and furniture. The paintings were my favorite part though.

I would have loved to have spent hours in the collection, but my three year old did not feel the same way. After the first floor, my husband kindly took the smallest three outside, while the oldest and I went on upstairs.

There is something special about an art museum when I get to see face to face a painting I've seen before in a book. The collection contains many pieces of sacred art and seeing on particular version of the Annunciation, that The Boy and I already loved was a real treat. Other than that, seeing The Laughing Cavalier, pleased The Boy a great deal. I particularly liked the Gainsboroughs and seeing George IV and Victoria. We sat briefly in the different rooms picking out our favorite piece on each wall and discussing what it was about it we liked and also looking for paintings with similar themes.

Still, I didn't get to browse, because I didn't want my amiable spouse to be overcome by the swarm downstairs.

After leaving the art galleries, we made our way over to Grosvenor Square where we ate a picnic lunch and established that we Americans have the ugliest embassy on the Square.

We walked around town some more, came home to rest up and discovered that it wasn't without good reason that I'd packed the whole medicine cabinet for a our trip abroad.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Books, Can You Ever Have Enough?

By Thursday my feet were already screaming for a break. I brought along what I had considered for home use quite comfortable shoes, but when one goes from not spending the whole day on one's feet to walking several miles, I suppose no shoe is really going to be comfortable and cushioned enough.

Friday I was just sick of the thought of museums. The Boy was ready to head straight out to The National Gallery or The Science Museum, but I was not. We spent the morning catching up on the kids' journals, doing a little reading and just lying down for a bit.

I couldn't bring myself to not go anywhere at all though, so we headed out to a bookstore that my guide books recommended. All of us love bookstores, and my oldest has been itching to get to one ever since we landed on British soil, in the hopes of getting a look at the two Tintin books not sold in the US. I had been unable to convince him that neither Tintin in Russia, nor Tintin in the Congo was any where on par with later stories.

We descended upon Daunt Books and The Boy headed straight for the Tintin and Asterix section, while the girls flipped through picture books, unbelievably actually obeying my command to get out only one at a time. I grabbed some Famous Five books, which we all love and are hard to come by in the US and was unable to resist a book called Nicholas, by the author of Asterix. I have yet to read it, but my eight year informs me that it is hilarious. I could have waited to get that one back in the States, but I'm afraid I gave in to temptation.

After the bookstore, we wandered down the shopping lane of Marleybone High Street and I might have drooled on the windows of the Cath Kidston shop, but fortunately for my wallet, the double-wide stroller wouldn't have fit through the door anyway.

So home we went and then to the park conveniently located almost directly behind our flat, where I got to sit for a few minutes while the kids ran around.

Dinosaurs, Blue Whales and Bears! Oh My!

Last Thursday, at the children's insistence we went to the Natural History Museum. I wasn�t nearly as enthusiastic about it as they were, because after all the walking we�d done over the past several days, my feet were already aching at the thought of walking about for another whole day. Still, a mother must sometimes just suck it up.

I�ve been to other natural history museums, and was sort of wondering what the point of going to this one really was. We were in England to do English things, right? But no two museums are ever really just alike and this one is different than any of the others I�ve visited. First, this one is larger than most I�ve visited. It has the largest collection of stuffed animals (as in the taxidermist sort of stuffed, not the teddy bear version) that I�ve ever seen, and although The Boy is not as into dinosaurs, he was absolutely thrilled with their very large dinosaur exhibit. I actually can�t comment on the other floors of the museum and what they contained, we never made past the animals. We spent over 3 hours learning and walking through that single floor, without getting to the levels dealing with the geology and other subjects.

My three year old thought the taxidermy collection was pretty �weird,� but she did appreciate the zebras. I sort of agree about the �weird� part. Seeing stuffed birds and bears (Alaska is covered in stuffed grizzlies and polar bears) isn�t so strange, but I�d never run across a whole stuffed elephant, hippo or giraffe before. My son was completely thrilled to see a stuffed dodo. I didn�t ever have the heart to break it to him that it was a mock-up and not a real one.

In the bug room, there were lots of creepy crawlies, living, dead and plastic. The Boy was interested. The girls who are usually in hysterics over seeing a dead bug somewhere out in the open handled it quite well. I was not nearly so sanguine after seeing the room demonstrating all the things that could be living in a kitchen. Remind me to stock up on bleach when we return to America.

Next came ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs and then the dinosaurs. There was a nice discussion about Mary Anning, who found the first intact skeleton of an ichthyosaur when she was 11. The Boy was impressed that she was a kid, which gives him hope to make a big discovery in the next few years. Since she is always in competition with her brother,
the Oldest Girl to discover that it was girl who first made such a discovery.



The dinosaurs were quite impressive -- loads of skeletons and a large and intimidating robotic T-Rex, which had the Japanese tourist snapping pictures like mad. Okay, I took a couple of the kids in front of him too. One could have spent a long time just in the dinosaur room alone reading all the material presented, but I had four kids with me. The only thing we sat still long enough to read was a list of reasons for and against the dinosaurs being either warm or cold blooded. Unfortunately, from the list presented there was no way to form a conclusion on the subject, because for every reason they might have been one, the same data could be used to also show the other.

The stuffed birds had come before the dinosaurs, but the rest of the stuffed menagerie came afterwards. Along with stuffed animals both ordinary (like sheep and horses) there were exotics like pygmy rhinos and pandas. None of these are new, in fact signs made it quite clear that they no longer collect any new animals, but do maintain the historical collection. Floating (okay, hanging really) over the top of the other animals is a full-sized model of a blue whale (It is enormous!) and above that is a blue whale skeleton.

By the time we made it out of the animal section, the two littles were extremely wiggly and wouldn�t stand for much more, all the kids wanted a snack, and I was tired. So we decided to save the rest for another day, which is really the joy of free museums. When we return another time, I�ll get to journey to the center of the earth, I suppose.

Before we made our way back to the Tube though, since we were practically right next door, I decided the best thing for squirmy children was to let them run. So we walked up to Hyde Park and played in the park. As a sometime reader of Regency romances, the words Hyde Park are somewhat thrilling, but running around in a big open space was more of a necessity for my crew than a sightseeing chance for me that time around.



Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Museum of London




Last Wednesday we went to the Museum of London. I've been reading to the kids about the city, but seeing it's history is much more fun.

A lot of the big museums in London are free, which has been a great boon, and this is one of them. Unfortunately, many parts of the museum are closed, because they are expanding the exhibits, but what we could see made a big impression on the kids. The museum also lends out family activity bags which give the kids more to do, which helped make the tour even more interesting, although I did get rather tired of being left holding the bag, when the kidlets inevitably left it lying somewhere.

We began with a trip through prehistoric London. The kids were impressed by all the tools and animal bones, but even more impressed by the skeleton and reconstruction of the face of the young woman who had been found there.

The next section was a big exhibit on the Great Fire. Judging by how much they wrote in their journals and talked about long there after, this section made the biggest impression. There was a lot to take in, but it was well presented for children the ages of my older two (5 and 8), included things to see, read, touch and do (as well as some fire safety lessons) and the red glow of the walls did much to enhance the atmosphere of the fire section.

We then moved into the Roman times. I was probably more fascinated by this section than the kids, though they did like seeing the wall of the old city (just outside the windows of the museum) and the golden coins interested them a great deal.

Londonwall.jpg


The family activities did help draw them in and all of them practiced their Roman numerals a bit and learned quite a lot about Roman kitchens.

The next stop was the Medieval Area, which is rather a lot to take in, since it heads from the early Anglo-Saxons pell mell all the way to Cromwell. They begin with a recreation of an Anglo-Saxon house, which you can sit in and touch the belongings in, but after that the space is less well organized. You can hop right over the a model of Old St. Paul's and then back to runic burial tablets and then into a movie on the Black Death and out again to a little exhibit on Thomas Beckett and slide over to some costumes the kids can try on and play at being medieval characters. There was a lot to like and a lot to do, but it became overwhelming -- or else the fact that my fifteen month old decided to wake up and want out of the stroller was overwhelming.

Either way, I was not really sorry that Cromwell was the end of the road. The rest of the museum isn't due to reopen until 2009, so I suppose we'll just have to read up on later London history, because a repeat visit at a later date seems unlikely at this time.

What Good Art Is Not

On day two of our London adventures we traveled to the Tate Modern. I don't know if you could guess it, but I am not actually a great fan of most modern art. There is some I like and I am very willing to appreciate the use of color and movement in a painting and admire what is good in even the least of realistic pieces, I do tend to prefer a good work by Reynolds or Sargent, when push comes to shove.

Still, off the kids and I went to the Tate Modern. Although they had some lovely works, a few of which we all loved, the main object lesson was indeed one in understanding what good art is not. Our tour boat guide a few days later, described the place as one to stay out of saying, "There's nuthin' but a load o' rubbish in there." I only slightly disagree.

Children are always very good judges of what I like to call the "emperor's new clothes" phenomenon. Adults pose and like to appear civilized and cultured. My five year old, when presented with a large canvas painted entirely grey, was not impressed at the "non-statement" the artist wished to make. She wanted to know why a hoity-toity museum would hang a painting up that wasn't nearly as nice as her drawings. We all thought the pile of bricks was amusing, noting that we hadn't realized we had such fine art lying around our backyard at home. And the guy who had rolled around in barrels filming his trip -- well, must art make you dizzy? My five year old was also appalled by a Jackson Pollock and thought her baby brother could scribble just as well.

My eight year old, who is very much an art lover, loved early works of Mondrian and Picasso (an artist he particularly loathes in general). He was pretty appalled that the same artist, Mondrian, who had painted one of the favorite works in the place (a church dabbled in orange light by a setting sun) would have fallen into painting squares in primary colors. We had a lovely chat about the trap of ego and the fortune of a sort that comes to some artists, allowing them to sell anything they make for large sums of money, even when it is not worth hanging.

One thing I particularly dislike about modern art museums, though this has only made an impression on me since I had children is the number of works I have to hurriedly shuffle the children past. I don't think I'm particularly prudish. I don't think there is anything wrong with viewing naked people in art, a Rubenesque nude doesn't shock us and none of us are too bothered by seeing gamboling nymphs and cupids. My oldest loves Michelangelo's David. But in modern art the art is not about nudity, nor the portrayal of the beauty of the human form. It's almost always perverse. There are some things children and even grown ups do not need to look upon -- and I don't feel any less sophisticated for believing that.

All this led round ultimately to a discussion of how we would define good art. The "I know it when I see it" definition, fits of course, but we tried to define it a little more, though not much. We decided ultimately our personal definition of good art begins with the question, would I put this in my house? There is, though, good art that falls outside this definition. The second question should be -- did this take actual talent to create or was it merely a somewhat clever idea carried to fruition?

I don't think any of my children would choose any time soon to venture back into a modern art museum, some of them would prefer to never darken the doors of any art museum, but at least one is developing a strong sense of his own likes and dislikes and was almost as happy as I was to spend another morning of our trip gazing in fondness at The Wallace Collection -- a polar opposite to the Tate Modern.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Housewife's Suffering

Although we've been traveling and on-the-go constantly, housewifery has not ceased to be part of the job description. We couldn't afford to eat all our meals out, so we pack lunches and picnic, cook at home and live a fairly routine domestic life in between sight-seeing excursions.

All this is fine. Making a peanut butter and honey sandwich here is no different from making one in the states. I can throw carrots in a bag and go here just as well as at home.

When I have to start dealing with European housekeeping machinery, it all gets much more difficult though. Europeans like labeling their machines with strange little symbols which generally mean nothing to me, or the opposite of what they really mean. No words are used, because that would cut down on the number of countries one could sell a product in.

For the first several days we were here, I mostly washed dishes by hand. Occasionally I would push some of the random buttons on the dishwasher and once in a while it would start up. If I really needed to make it work, I would call in the specialist -- my 15 month old -- who has an uncanny ability to work machinery.

The machine that has really given me fits though, is the washer/dryer combination machine. It really does wash and then dry the clothes all in one neat little package. It sounds incredibly cool. No changing the clothes from one machine to another half-way through, and it all fits in such a small little space.

To get it to dry the clothes, the machine has to be set at a 1/2 load, and they mean it. Any more than a 1/2 load and everything will be damp to soaking when it comes out. It takes about 2 hours to work through a regular wash cycle and another 2 hours to dry the 1/2 load of clothing. I throw a load in every morning when I wake up and another in as soon as we come home from our excursions and there is always more to do.

I try to convince my children to rewear clothes, but that would mostly mean convincing them that food and mud are not meant to be worn as fashion accessories.

Here are my children sitting happily in front of it, wearing clothes I will later have to wash.



Although I can't figure out anywhere else in the place that would fit a real washer and dryer and I am thankful every day that I have a washer and dryer in the flat, I hate that machine. If such things ever come to the US, stay far away. Do not be lured in by promises of ease, leisure and more cabinet space.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Traveling With Children, Day 1

My children are troopers. I can definitely say that. They aren't angels. They aren't perfect. We didn't make it out of the Tube at our stop one time, because they were too busy arguing, but they do go with the flow pretty well.

I have two excellent guide books that together make a great team for getting me out and about -- Let's Take the Kids to London (a chattier guide with longer descriptions) and Frommer's London with Kids (which has lots of useful maps, far more sections and short descriptions of a lot of things to see and do). I use them both heavily and find the first much better at telling me why I want to go some place, but the second is the one I carry around with me.

I did, however, have unreasonable expectations for how much one could do with four children in a day, at first. For the first week, my kids were quite bothered by jet lag. They couldn't fall asleep until after midnight, no matter how much they had walked during the day. They didn't wake up until after ten and we never left the house until noon. Therefore, we managed to see one thing each day. My guidebooks had nicely laid out plans for seeing the whole city in about 3 days, which I knew was ridiculous, but I also thought we'd manage at least a couple of things in a day. Of course, had we less time here, I'd have tried harder to go to a few different things in our first week, but even if we'd only had a week to spend in London, I don't think we could have gone to too many more things.

My children put up with a lot, but they can only walk so much and I don't like being out after dark or on the Tube during rush hour.



So we've done about one thing a day. The first full day, I took the kids on the London Eye -- a giant, slow moving ferris wheel across the Thames from Parliament. I'm still not sure I approve of it, since it doesn't exactly beautify the scenery, but it did make an excellent start to our tour by giving us all a sense of the vastness of the city and help us spot a lot of the important landmarks. It made a big impression on the kids too. They point it out excitedly whenever it comes into view.



I had read that one could take strollers (buggies) on it, but that's only if you have a single one. Double buggies are not looked on with a great deal of favor and I had to check mine at the service desk and carry the little one while the others walked. For that reason, I always go everywhere with both the stroller and my sling.

Having finished with the London Eye and strolled a bit along the Thames past Lambeth Castle (home of a certain Archbishop, who has been in the news for saying some pretty dumb stuff recently), we made our way home -- worn out and ready to rest.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Travel Makes My Feet Hurt

Sorry for the radio silence, but I've been unable to access the internet for the last week. I'd be going through withdrawal symptoms, but I haven't been home either.

Last week, we flew to Washington D. C. and had a lovely time meeting up with Rob the Llamabutcher, who looks nothing like a llama and sure is a snappy dresser.

Then we flew on from Dulles to Heathrow and have been hanging out in London ever since. While Justin is dining in the Inner Temple dining hall and hanging out with very, very British barristers, the kids and I have been logging many, many miles, both on foot and on the Tube.



Every day we start out with a walk to our closest Tube station, about a mile away, and then head out on the day's adventure. We're hit the London Eye, the Museum of London, the Tate Modern (an excellent chance to teach children how to separate good art from bad), the Natural History Museum, a lovely bookstore, taken a trip down the river to Greenwich and stood on the Prime Meridian. We've also wandered through Hyde Park, the Victoria Gardens and gone to mass at Westminster Cathedral (not the same as Westminster Abbey).

All in all, it's going quite well. Sadly even with all my walking, I'm not growing any thinner, because the belly is rapidly expanding. British people, generally more polite than Americans, don't comment much on my interesting condition or my already large family size, but I've gotten one or two shocked looks -- such is my lot in life.


Friday, February 01, 2008

So How Was That Cheesecake?



The cheesecake was marvelous. The sponge cake bottom was different and also delicious. The vanilla flavor was great and the texture was wonderful. I was really pleased all around.

The only complaint I had was that getting a cheesecake out of a waterbath is a pain in the neck. I kept soaking the hot pads and burning my fingers. I suppose the answer lies in silicone oven gloves, but they are something I've never gotten around to buying.

As for keeping the water out of the springform pan, one can, of course, just use a few layers of aluminum foil that overlap, but it is easier to buy a roll of the really wide aluminum foil and cover the whole thing in one fell swoop, though I will admit I used two layers anyway just to make sure everything stayed watertight.

I highly recommend the vanilla cheesecake recipe from Junior's Cheesecake Cookbook and I will need to buy it or at least check it out again before the make another cheesecake. In fact, I think I hear the cheesecake fruit tart calling my name -- perhaps I'll make it for Easter.

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