Tuesday, October 25, 2016

London: Day 5

Roman wall 
Our last day.  Although we had crammed a lot into our trip thus far, we'd made an ambitious list for Tuesday.  And somehow, we accomplished it all.

We got up early and went out into the rain-wet streets toward the Tower.  I had done the tour years before and felt no need for another one, but I love getting off the Tube and encountering the Roman wall, 1000 years old and just sitting there in the middle of it all.

In the U.S., we 'd have cut it up into pieces and installed it in a museum, behind glass, where it wouldn't look like anything but a pile of rocks.

The skies had cleared and it was brilliantly blue, so sunny it was difficult to take pictures without the cooperation of passing clouds.

We walked for awhile around the Tower grounds and then crossed the bridge (which I'd never done before, for no particular reason) to get to our next stop, the marvel that is the Tate Modern.

Tower grounds with modern building in background

When I was last in London (fall 1995), there was only the Tate Gallery, which has now become the Tate Britain.  All the modern art has moved to this new location, a spectacularly renovated former power station with 20 foot ceilings that can dwarf even the most enormous artistic impulse and bring them down to human size.

This museum was Mario's choice, not mine; my taste runs more toward what we saw at the National Galleries, but I was very glad to have gone in the end.  Sometimes the setting really can determine how you see art, and this enhanced my experience tremendously.  I only wish we'd had time to go up to the viewing platform, but there was a line, and a schedule to keep to.

The tower (oldest building in center)
After the Tate, and a bacon roll from a street vendor (using up the last of our cash), we walked to Embankment and took the Tube to Westminster.

It was bright and sunny and we could have walked, but we were trying to fit a lot into a short period, so the train it was.  Getting off near the Abbey and coming up above ground to the push of the crowds is one of the "changes" I liked least -- having to stand in line at times to cross the street, being jostled constantly (albeit more politely) -- felt more like NYC than London.

Tower of London
This was my fifth trip to London, and my fifth visit to the Abbey (which is one of the few attractions in the city that has an admission charge).  I don't know why, but I always like to make that pilgrimage.  Even the crowds there don't bother me -- they're quieter, less camera-obsessed (since photography isn't allowed) and I can move at my own pace.

I stop in on Queen Elizabeth I and her half-sister, Queen Mary, entombed uncomfortably close together.  Hopefully in death these two sisters settled their many differences; otherwise, eternity is going to feel really, really eternal.

Traitor's Gate

 Mary of Scotland isn't too far away, adding insult to injury.  (I always did consider her a bit of an idiot).

We had visited the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery a few days prior, and agreed that the Abbey is where you get to visit all the people whose portraits you stared at a few blocks away.  

The bacon roll was wearing off, but we decided to get to our next destination before eating again.  Mario is a comic book/graphic novel fan, so we had to make a pilgrimage to Forbidden Planet for him.  Since this isn't as much up my alley, I required food and wine first to fortify myself.

Tower Bridge closer to - before we crossed
Topped off by a steak and ale pie and two glasses of wine (a happy accident in that the kitchen staff lost our order and we got a free round while we waited), we spent some time in Forbidden Planet, where Mario mingled with his people the way I do at fabric and garden stores.

A short walk brought back to Trafalgar Square, where we had an hour to kill before our last treat of the day -- and the trip.  I had bought us theater tickets to see Kenneth Branagh at the Garrick.

Kenneth Branagh is tied to London for me.  I was there in 1989, when his film of Henry V came out, and I saw it at the movies there, because I couldn't afford to go to the theater.  (I figured a Shakespearean movie was as close as I was going to get).

Modern London from the Tower area

Full circle 25 years later, grown up and with some money to spend, getting to see him live.  The whole experience at the Garrick was amazing, it's a white and gold wedding cake of a theater in the inside.  We had second tier seats, up but not too high, close enough that we could still see faces clearly, but inexpensive enough that we didn't think twice about buying tickets.  (That never happens at home).

We got in a little before midnight, having walked around London post-show, had a bit more wine, beer and the last of the cheese, and did our packing.  One thing to be said for not shopping on vacation -- packing literally took about 10 minutes for the two of us.

Recycled bottlecaps at the Tate Modern
Because we didn't feel like getting up at the crack of dawn, we treated ourselves to the Heathrow Express train the next morning from Paddington.  The Tube takes about 40 minutes from the airport and makes a lot of stops, plus since we were traveling during morning rush, it would have been packed.  But it's relatively cheap.  The Express is 20 pounds, but it's direct from Paddington to each terminal, takes 15 minutes, and runs every 15 minutes.  We decided that was the way to go.

Once again, we did online check-in, so we got through security pretty quickly, had breakfast at the airport (why are their airport restaurants priced the same as restaurants elsewhere, while U.S. airport restaurants hold you hostage and charge you double? Why?) and then only had an hour or so to wait at our gate.

Once again, the crowd was light, so after a little while, and a snack,  Mario moved up to watch movies and I read for a bit then tipped over in my seat and slept part of the way home.  I would have probably slept more, except the flight attendants were so unoccupied that they kept cruising the aisles, offering snacks, beverages, wine, facial wipes, etc., it felt rude to ignore them.

Tate Modern
Landing in Philadelphia, we waited in line at passport control and the security checkpoint, which was probably the most inconvenient part of the whole trip.  From there, we took the airport train right back to our neighborhood and walked home to greet the kitties.

Tate Modern

Tate Modern 

Tate Modern - mainly for scale.
This place is enormous.

Inside the Garrick Theatre

Understated neon at the Garrick

Sunday, October 23, 2016

London: Day 4

Bodleian Library
When planning this trip -- and there wasn't a whole lot of planning, other than buying tickets and arranging for the flat -- we talked about day trips.  With such a short time there, we only wanted to do one,m and one not too far away so as not to waste too much time on the train.

Mario's vote was for Oxford.  He wanted to see inside the libraries, look at some original illuminated manuscripts, and just see the setting for a ton of British movies.

I had been there before, but a long while back, and was happy to go again.  On the advice of a friend, we purchased our train tickets in advance (at somewhat of a discount -- if you're going, do it as early as you can).

The express train only took an hour, depositing us at the station just before 11 a.m.  We got our bearings and walked around town, fetching up at the Bodleian Library, repository of all the things Mario wanted to see.  They don't allow happy wanderers, however, and when offered the option of a tour or a solo trip down the street to the Weston Library to see the limited collection they had on display, he opted for that, figuring we could walk back for the tour if we still wanted to.

Interior courtyard
The collection was only limited in number, not in scope.  From an original Magna Carta to illuminated medieval texts to a 12th century map of Britain, along with other, more modern pieces, it satisfied his curiosity and we turned to see what else Oxford had to offer (a lot).

We spent an hour or so in the covered market, where I happily explored the butchers' and fishmongers' offerings -- things not for sale at home (pluck your own grouse, anyone?).

Mario found a cheesemonger and a nice block followed us back to our flat and got devoured that evening before bedtime.

Oxford from above
After a restorative cream tea at a pub, we headed for the Ashmolean Museum.  It was large and close to the train station, so we thought that we could fill the rest of the visit there and not have to watch the time too carefully, but alas, they were closed on Mondays.

Instead, we walked through town in the other direction, toward the Thames, encountering a 10th century tower (and climbing it -- amazing views of the city), watching a street performer with a dancing hawk, stopping in a Scottish woolens shop, where I tried on and fell in love with several pieces of Harris tweed, and finding and exploring Christ Church Cathedral and its lovely gardens.

Street musician & his hawk
We made it back to the station with 10 minutes to spare, and journeyed back to London tired and full of interesting sights.  (Plus a rainbow.  It didn't rain on our parade, but it must have somewhere).

Dinner that night was at a small Indian restaurant around the corner from the flat, only 8 tables, rather nondescript from the street, but possibly the best Indian food I've had -- at least since the last time I was in London.  **Per request, it was called the Golden Shalimar, on Spring Street near Paddington.

Afterward, we stopped at a corner shop for a bottle of beer and a tiny bottle of wine, which we consumed with our cheese, sitting cross-legged on the bed, discussing our day and catching up on the latest election news (the 2nd debate was the night before, so we indulged in a little politics before sleep, probably not the best thing for our digestion).

English gardening at its prettiest

Another view of the gardens

Pluck your own dinner

Meat pies at the covered market

The Thames in Oxford

Beautiful timbered building

Saturday, October 22, 2016

More Love

A little more love from Babble for my receiving blanket bears.  This is so cool.

Friday, October 21, 2016

London: Day 3

Sunday was a museum day.  After a full breakfast -- both in quantity and in name (a full English breakfast being eggs, sausage, bacon, beans, mushrooms, tomato and toast) -- we took ourselves toward the Tube.

Staying in Paddington, we're not at the center of everything, but we're right at three major Tube lines and the railway station.  Transportation is pretty quick no matter where you want to go.

Charing Cross lets you out at Trafalgar Square, bright sunlight, glittering fountains, humanity everywhere.  Musicians and other street performers clamored for attention -- and money -- and sidewalk artists busily chalked flags on the pavement in the hope that coins would be dropped on them by patriotic Australians, Americans, Germans, etc.

My favorite performer was outside the National Gallery, where we stood for a few minutes, waiting for them to open, watching a 10K race flow past.  He was an older black man, a dancer, yogi and contortionist of some skill, who managed at the end to fold himself neatly into a clear plastic box not much bigger than a cat carrier.  I'll never think of myself as flexible again, I thought, as I put a few coins in his hat.

This one just pulled you in.  The photo
doesn't do it justice
The National Gallery had never been a favorite before; I'm not sure why.  This time, I could have sat all day in front of their six Van Goghs, and on a wall lined with John Constable's English countrysides, you could almost smell the air.

We've got a Sunflower at the Philly art museum.  I'm not sure if the one in London is better, or if I simply like the way it's hung -- on a gray wall in a room lit from above, it practically pulses with light and drew everyone in the room toward it, even people who were saying, "I don't really like Van Gogh . . . oh, look at this one."

Never seen Van Gogh's crabs before
A breather, a snack and on to the National Portrait Gallery, which has always been my place.  I've read so much English history over the years that my first visit there was like finally meeting people who I'd been hearing about all my life.

Glowing radioactive sunflowers
We spent some time in the earliest section -- my best old pals, the Tudors -- and I ended up butting into a tour guide's presentation.  She was talking about one specific painting, that of Robert, Earl of Leicester, but due to questions had gotten off into the weeds of Tudor relations and how Mary of Scotland had any claim to the throne, and where did poor Jane Grey come from anyway?

Apparently I read too much, but we ended up having a good discussion and I don't think I annoyed her too much.

It was surprising how much London has changed in the 20 years since I've been there.  I don't mean major landmarks like the Eye and all the glass monstrosities springing up everywhere, but even small things like the interiors of museums.  I had pretty specific memories of the Portrait Gallery, and things were not where I left them.

There's a whole new section at the end of portraits from the two war eras, and they're hung on clear walls in a very bright space.  I miss the more "traditional" museum approach, but I have to admit it worked really well for the more modern paintings.  (If Richard III had been hanging out on a glass wall, I might have gotten a little grumbly).

Constable - can't you just smell the air?
I've always had a soft spot for Richard III.  (Ever read Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time?  You should).

Once we were done with culture consumption, we wandered around for a while longer, in and out of shops and along random streets, just looking at buildings and speculating what it would be like to live there.

We ended up at Covent Garden just as a brief rain started, so we ducked into the covered market, which I remembered from years ago as having a nice mix of antiques and other goodies.  Not so much anymore -- it was all pricy tat, aimed at tourists, not an aged knicknack to be seen.  We waited out the rain and moved on toward the flat, to take a little down time before dinner.

He's Henry VIII, he is!
Richard III.  (Not guilty, says I)
Dinner that night was at a place recommended by a crafting friend who spends a lot of time in London.  She said that the roasted goat shoulder at The Smoking Goat was on her best 10 meals list.  We didn't end up getting the goat -- we were both too full from lunch -- but Mario had smoked lamb ribs and I had a fish dish with Asian seasoning that was one of my vacation highlights as well.

Next time, roasted goat shoulder.  Next time.

Anne Boleyn.  My entry point into
Tudor history

Elizabeth I.  Hard-headed woman

Robert, Earl of Leicester.  The portrait
that got me in trouble with the guide

Victoria and Albert in Anglo-Saxon
garb.  They were cute.

Random Victorian gentlemen.  (Judging
V&A's costume competition?)

Thursday, October 20, 2016

London: Day 2

Pastel houses along Portobello Road
There's not much I love more than a good flea market.  Except maybe a good flea market on vacation, in a different country.

There are a ton of markets in London, but I always gravitate back to the first one I found in 1983, Portobello Road.  It's got a mix of antiques / vintage / food / junk, something to appeal to everyone.

The only problem was that on Saturday morning when we got there, everyone was there.

I'd never seen such a mob scene in my life; it felt like NYC at Christmas, just trying to look at stalls along the street.

Street performers.  Their "umbrellas" didn't do
much good when the rain started
We did manage, however.  I always manage.

What I didn't do was shop, which is unusual for me at a vacation flea market.  I think I've just gotten so used to not buying (other than for resale on Etsy -- and I'm not going to schlep stuff home from overseas for that) that nothing really called to me.

Maybe I've just gotten better at spending my money on experiences instead of stuff.

Does food count as an experience, or as stuff?  (I'm voting for experience, because food is still my number one vacation expenditure).

We had a late breakfast / lunch at a stall in the market, then picked up a bag of Belgian strawberries to nibble on back in the room.  (They didn't last that long).

Mario was in charge of food this vacation.  When I went to London before, I was on my own, and it didn't figure as prominently in my plans.  It was fuel to get me from stop to stop, nothing more.  I was also younger, and not as comfortable eating alone in a restaurant as I would be now.
Venison with mushrooms, new potatoes and
sprouting broccoli

One place that was on his list was called 10 Greek Street.  Just the address.  When we found it, there was no sign or anything, either, just the address on the window, and a small menu card.  The menu changes daily, and we were lucky enough to get there on a night that they were serving venison.  I love game of all kinds, but it's not often I can find venison at home, so I went for it.

As did Mario, because he figured out pretty quickly that I wasn't going to share mine.

Both before our meal (there were no reservations, and about a 30 minute wait) we walked around the area.  It's not far from where all the theaters are, so we looked at what was playing and wondered about the cost of tickets and I lamented the fact that we were just a bit too early to try to score Hamilton tickets.  (This has become a serious addiction -- how is an entire soundtrack an earworm?  How?)
No, we didn't go see it - but I loved the theater

There's just something about
hanging lights on a street . . . 
Ran into the theater where the Harry Potter show is playing.  I didn't particularly want to see it, but I though the lighting and decoration outside were pretty cool.

After dinner we walked some more, no place in particular, just keeping a vague awareness of where the Tube stops were so we could meander home when our wine and dinner finally sat too heavily on us.

There were hefty museum-going plans for Sunday, but after all, it was Saturday night in London, so we had to stay awake and try to see some more sights.  We also started to discuss whether or not we could fit a visit to the theater into our plans (and into our budget) before we left, and we decided to try.

Once we got back to the room, we indulged in some wifi.  I checked in on my Etsy orders, we both did a little time on Facebook (indulging in pre-debate reading, and being both sorry and glad we weren't at home to see it) and then I looked up tickets for several plays we had passed in our wandering.

Turns out theater isn't as expensive as we thought, and I picked up tickets for a show on Tuesday night (our last night in London) for far less than expected.

We went to sleep tired, full, happy and anticipating Sunday's activities.

Monday, October 17, 2016

London: Day 1

Not quite sunrise - from seat 30A
Sometimes travel can be a nightmare.  I still think about a trip from London in the early 1990s; it took 23 hours, involved Heathrow (twice), an airport in Canada and a stopover in Boston (all from what was supposed to be a direct flight), with my family and roommate freaking out because British Airways told them I'd "disappeared from the manifest."

This was not that trip.

I'm not always the biggest fan of technology, but checking in online 24 hours before our flight somehow got us on the TSA's precheck list, so despite my usual running late (3 hours? never!), we were through security and happily sitting in the Delta lounge with 90 minutes to spare, good wifi and a charging station for the Kindle I'd forgotten to plug in the night before.

The plane was nearly empty.  This was a non-stop Philly to Heathrow flight, and we were at about 1/3 capacity, so after we ate, Mario moved up a row, we folded up the armrests, buckled ourselves into the middle seats, assembled various pillows and blankets, and slept all the way to London.

Our teeny, tiny flat
What an amazing feeling, arriving refreshed and rested, instead of cramped and cranky.  Especially since we got in at 6:30 a.m. London time, a full 15 minutes earlier than scheduled.  After passing through passport control, we headed for the Tube.  There is a more expensive express train that takes only 15 minutes to Paddington, but since our flat let service didn't open until 9:30 a.m., we didn't see a reason to rush.

Once we landed in Paddington, we found the street where the office was and settled into a pub for breakfast.  Eggs, bacon, sausage, toast and a pot of tea goes a long way toward ridding you of the last of your airline fog.

When the office opened, we checked in and left our bags.  The flat wouldn't be ready until later -- 2:00 p.m. -- but they texted me at a little after noon to say they had cleaned our fiat first and it was waiting.

While we waited, we walked around Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, then along the park, down a row of embassy houses (no photos allowed), and back along Bayswater Road.

Italian gardens / Kensington Gardens
The Airbnb flat was in Talbot Square, only a half block from the B&B where I stayed on my first trip to London in 1983 ($10 a day -- a bargain even for a 4th floor closet of a room with no private bath).

This place wasn't much larger, and it was just as high up, but it was clean, secure, with a comfortable mattress, and it was everything we needed.  Okay, the bath could have been bigger -- every time I used the toilet I hit my boobs on the edge of the sink, and the shower stall was literally so narrow I couldn't put my hands on my hips -- but it was quiet at night, probably the best sleep I've ever had on vacation.

After we'd unpacked and settled in, which I'm embarrassed to admit involved a brief nap (are we old?), we went out exploring.  Not having a definite destination, we walked back toward the station and then up into Little Venice, where the canals intersect.  We found a nice little waterside cafe and had tea and a snack, which gave us the strength to venture further.

Late lunch spot
Our evening wanderings took us to the Westminster Tube station, where we walked around outside the Abbey, along the Thames, saw Big Ben, Parliament and way too many people.  Then we wandered down to Trafalgar Square, and eventually into a nice pub where we ate meat pies and fish and chips until we were drowsy again.

We went back to our flat and slept like stones, knowing that Saturday would be a long day.

It felt much later than that . . .

Sunday, October 16, 2016

It's always something

Because no vacation is apparently complete without a veterinary emergency upon return, I give you Bear.

The cat who hates me.  Who spent most of our vacation upstairs on the bed, according to our housemate who took care of them.  This isn't unusual -- Bear's not a social cat on her best days, and most of her days aren't her best days.  

Friday morning, however, I got a look at her walking (okay, running away from me, as usual) and she was limping a bit and her foot didn't look right.  I called the vet, and he was out of the office for an emergency, and had several procedures booked for Saturday, so he wasn't able to see her.

I debated, but decided to take her down to the University of Penn's vet hospital, which is only a few blocks away.  It's expensive, but really good care -- or it usually is.  This Friday, they were very busy and when we got there at 2:00 p.m., I was told she probably wouldn't get seen until dinnertime.  

Dinnertime turned into 10:00 p.m. before she was even sedated and examined.  We're not going to discuss my level of cat-mother anger; there's no point and I'm trying to get past it.

We picked her up after midnight.  They sedated her, shaved the foot so they could get a look at the thing on it, and while they were at it, clipped her nails and shaved all the mats out of her fur.  It's something, anyway.

The lump, which I thought might be an abscess because she had long nails (they clicked on the floor like a dog's) and I've had cats before whose nails have punctured their paw pads and gotten infected, is not.  It's a mass, solid tissue with a pocket of fluid in the center.  The doctor was pretty certain it was cancer, and started immediately talking about booking her for a surgical consult and doing more tests beyond the x-rays and fluid samples they had already taken.

Considering that the ten hours she'd spent there had already eaten every cent of the money I'd earned from my unexpected Etsy windfall (hey, it was nice while it lasted!) with nothing more than a manicure, haircut and vague diagnosios, I said no.  It's not that I don't want to help her, but Penn is the most expensive option in the area, and my regular vet did a great job with Annie's breast cancer surgery back in December.  I'll discuss it with him and see what we come up with.

Penn is supposed to send Bear's records over on Monday.  I'll talk to the vet and see what he says after reviewing them, whether he thinks it's something that can be removed while still giving her any quality of life, or not.  She's 11, and not generally a cat who tolerates a lot of handling.  My decisions in cases like this depend often on the cat's personality -- I'm not sure how she would cope with something as drastic as an amputation at that age, and with the level of care and handling that would go along with it.

On the other hand, either the anesthesia or her confinement in a small room (the bathroom attached to Mario's office) has completely changed her personality.  As you can see from the top photo, she was hanging out happily near my leg, and any touching of Bear in the last decade has been purely accidental, or because I've surprised her when she's asleep.  So there's that.

I'll know more on Monday or Tuesday, whether or not this is something that can be dealt with or if it's simply going to be a matter of keeping her comfortable until she no longer is.  At least if I have to let her go, she'll have had a period of time where she's allowed herself to be loved and petted and made much of.  She's enjoying the attention, and I'm enjoying giving it to her.