Friday, June 30, 2006

The Ugly American, or `Will You Shut Up Already!'

I've been to two professional conferences this week, one in Harrogate in Yorkshire Monday through Wednesday (more later). Yesterday and today, I'm in Paris. I've been to literally hundreds of conferences in my life, all of them until now in America, and not a one has ever run on time. Over here, I've noticed, however, that things run more or less on schedule: Speakers rarely talk more than their allotted time, and Q&A stays in its allotted five or 10 minutes.

Unless Americans are involved.

This week's conferences have featured half a dozen speakers from the States. In four cases, the speakers went five to 10 minutes longer than scheduled. Another point: The Americans are the only attendees who use Q&A time to make speeches, rather than ask questions. Please, folks, when in Rome ...

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Softball, London style

Some call it rounders. I call it softball, London style.

Apparently the American ex-pats around town have convinced enough Brits to create a softball league, of which I am a part. We play in Regent's Park one night a week. For me, it's become a sort of equalizer. I mean, here is one area of my life in London where I actually know the rules, and know how to play, and compared to the other ladies in our league, I am not half bad.

It's funny watching the rookies learn how to hold a bat. I was trying to explain some points to a British woman, who was looking more and more confused, when a fellow Brit chimed in, "Let me explain it to her in terms she can understand." He proceeded to compare it to cricket, and immediately a light bulb appeared over the newbie's head. But it's really not at all like cricket, to my mind. Especially when it comes to batting -- it's a different kind of swing.

What I will say in favor of the Brits who play with us -- they are good sports and eager to learn, and they bring better beer than my U.S. counterparts would. So eat your heart out, Mike Mussina! (Did I just use an exclamation point?


I was writing a letter that was going to go out to a group of European professionals, and I decided to add a "Cheers!" to the end of it. Cheers is the equivalent of thanks in English English, though I still feel like a bit of a poseur when I say it.

Anyway, I asked a colleague to look over the draft of my letter before sending it out, and this person strongly suggested I remove the ! from the end of my Cheers. Why? "It's considered very... American," I was told. "And not in a good way." In other words, in the gas-guzzling land yacht, fat child in tow, loud, obnoxious sense of American. So I deleted the offending punctuation. Does that make me un-American? NO!!!!

Friday, June 23, 2006

Friday cootblogging

Cootlings, in St. James' Park, during Oldest Kid's visit.

Coots are not a bird I'd heard much about until I moved here. In nearby Waterlow Park there are a few. There is a family of cootlings there, too.

Other World Cup anecdotes

London insurers, some of the most creative in the world, have priced and sold policies to England fans for mental trauma and other losses that could potentially result from England's 10th consecutive failure to win the Cup ("when England loses, I get upset, and when I get upset, things get broken!").

Over the border from Northumbria, on the other hand, the same insurers were selling policies to Scots for mental trauma and other losses that could potentially result from an England win.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

World Cup anecdotes

Imagine ... the Super Bowl ... except it goes on for two straight weeks. That's the only thing to which I can compare the European World Cup experience. I haven't set foot in a pub in two weeks, because they're all packed, all the time. While the matches are on, people stand on the sidewalks, on tiptoes, looking at TVs through the pub windows. It being London, however, they can have beer in hand.

Some anecdotes:

1. A week ago, I went to see my Italian (from Italy! Turin, to be exact) hairstylist, GianLuigi. He asked me if I was following the Cup, and we got to discussing the coming Italy vs. U.S. match. He did a very Italian shrug and gesture with scissors and comb in hand, and said, "Sorry!" (The joke was on him, though, as it ended in a draw.)

2. The night of the Italy vs. U.S. game, we were dining in an Italian-owned Italian restaurant in London's southern suburbs with one of Mrs. Werbenmanjensen's co-workers and his wife, both Americans. The owner dropped by our table at the end of the evening and said, "Did you hear about the game?" He told us the news, and in particular, the scuffling that ended with an Italian player red-carded. I mentioned to him that I really didn't have much hope for the U.S. team since America really wasn't yet a soccer nation. He said, "Ah, look at rugby in Italy. We only started a few years ago and now they let us enter the the Six Nations."

3. How important is it? Annie Mole reports that the Tube staff are intent on keeping customers informed.

I'm sure I'll have more.

Weather report

Mrs. Werbenmanjensen pointed me to this passage in Bill Bryson's "Notes from a Small Island," which documents Bryson's valedictory tour of Great Britain.

I have a small, tattered clipping that I sometimes carry with me and pull out for purposes of private amusement. It's a weather forecast from the Western Daily Mail, and it says, in toto, "Outlook: Dry and warm, but cooler with some rain."
There you have in a single pithy sentence the English weather captured to perfection: dry but rainy with some warm/cool spells. The Western Daily Mail could run that forecast every day--for all I know, it may--and scarcely ever be wrong.

I like it so much that it's now in our masthead. "Dry and warm, but cooler with some rain."

Thursday flowerblogging

Regent's Park, about three weeks ago.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Stonehenge solstice

We didn't make it, and now I see why the locals dislike the solstice.

STONEHENGE, England — Thousands of dancing and drumming spectators cheered the summer solstice at Stonehenge as an orange sliver of sun rose over the Heel Stone on Wednesday morning.

Cloudy skies, dense fog and spurts of rain did not seem to dampen the energy of smiling revellers who bobbed and swayed to cheerful beats with arms outstretched and shouts of "Feel the solstice!"

About 19,000 New Agers, present-day druids and partygoers gathered inside and around the ancient circle of towering stones to greet the longest day in the northern hemisphere as the sun struggled to peek out against a smoky grey sky at 4:58 a.m.

"This is the nearest thing I've got to religion," said Ray Meadows, 34, of Bristol, England. The solstice "is a way of giving thanks to the earth and the universe."

Meadows, wearing a wreath of pink carnations over long pink hair-wrapped braids, identified herself as a fairy of the Tribe of Frog.

Here's a much nicer way to see it.

Wednesday gravestoneblogging

I'm running way behind on posts. I'll explain more later. And now, a gravestone ...

Meet Isaac Watts, the father of English hymnody. What, you may ask, did Isaac Watts do for me? Why, only the best Christmas song ever!

The first time I remember hearing Isaac Watts' name, it was from an account of a skirmish during the Battle of Germantown during the Revolutionary War. During the battle, a unit of continental soldiers was fighting from inside of a church, whose pastor happened to be pro-Revolution. The soliders found that they had no paper wadding with which to pack their musket barrels. Hearing this, the pastor gave the soldiers some Watts hymnals to tear up for wadding, crying, "Give 'em some Watts, boys!"

Monday, June 19, 2006

Finnegan's Island

I promised you more on the pop culture differences, and here it is. An American lad at work was playing sound clips from some of the more famous American TV show theme songs. At one, an English person piped, "Oh, that's `Dynasty.'" (Said DIN-es-TEE, not DIE-nas-tee).

And then came a familiar sea shanty to which many of my generation know the words, because it was in syndication and you had to watch 5 episodes in a row if you were ever home sick from school. And another English person says, "I know that one. It's Finnegan's Island." To which an American replied, "Isn't that Ireland?"

What the nice English person meant, of course, was 'Gilligan's Island'. If Skipper had been there, he would have whacked the guy over the head with his hat. And, lest you think I wouldn't know anything about British TV, I was able to identify the actress who played Janet in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps at a recent Shakespeare production in Regents Park. So there.

More to come on the sports scene, and my relationship with plants.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Tourism review, Oldest Kid style

Today, we have a special guest blogger in Oldest Kid, who, after an unexpected stopover in Newfoundland, is back home somewhere in the southern United States. Take it away:

Sadly, our trip to the UK is over now. We had a great time with the W’s, and really appreciate their hospitality. Their flat was a great place to stay, very close to the tube (if you don’t mind long, long walks up steep, steep hills at the end of a long day of sightseeing) in a scenic part of London. And, their toilet lived up to Mrs. W’s earlier blog. It took us all a while to get the feel for how to get it to flush! In addition, Smitty made a great tour guide, with his knowledge of the tube and his London A-Z ever at the ready! (I’m grateful that he suggested we purchase it prior to our visit, or the cabbie might never have gotten us to their flat.)

I have to agree with Smitty on his review of the sights we saw in London and the UK. Without a doubt, Stonehenge was my favorite place. However, I think my OK and YK, while they appreciated Stonehenge, probably enjoyed Warwick Castle and Madame Tussaud’s more (and Madame Tussaud’s, while enjoyable, was probably my least favorite sight). As Smitty mentioned, we also did some touring without him. So here is my review of those other places.

1. Stratford-upon-Avon. It was easy to get to from London via the tube and train. We stayed at a wonderful bed and breakfast (The Emsley) just a few minutes from the train station. The hosts were particularly helpful in telling us the best places to eat (like the Black Swan, aka the Dirty Duck, and Russons for our before theater dinner) and how to get around their town. Since it was cold and rainy the day we arrived, we took a hop on/hop off tour bus to all of the major Shakespeare locations. Because it was cold and rainy, we only fully explored one of the sights, Mary Arden’s house. I enjoyed it but my OK and YK pronounced it boring. We also saw Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in the wonderful Swan Theatre (configured as playhouses were in Shakespeare’s day), and were thrilled to discover that Antony was played by Patrick Stewart. He was wonderful and all but my YK enjoyed the play (YK slept through much of it, once he stopped asking why Patrick Stewart would be interested in doing anything other Star Trek and X-men movies). Patrick Stewart is as good looking in person as he is on TV and in the movies!

2. Warwick Castle. We took the bus from Stratford to Warwick Castle, where we were dropped off right at the entrance to the castle. Madame Tussaud’s bought Warwick Castle a few years ago and they have done a great job restoring it. Many of the original furnishings are still there and we really enjoyed viewing the restored rooms. They also had interesting demonstrations of archery, falconry, and, most exciting of all, at least to the three men in my household, the trebuchet. Who knew you could get motion sickness from winding up a trebuchet? From the castle it was a ten minute walk downhill to the train station, where we easily caught a train back to London.

3. Tower of London. Wow, very impressive. We visited this sight with our Danish friends. There is a lot to see there, from the Crown Jewels (with the Koh-i-nor diamond, among other large, old diamonds and other precious stones), to King Henry VIII’s fat suit of armor, to the seven ravens in the yard. We spent most of an entire day there and everyone was worn out by the end. There is so much history in that set of buildings. It’s overwhelming to think of all that has happened there.

4. The Natural History Museum. Our Danish friends’ OK wanted to see the dinosaurs, so we visited the Natural History Museum. It was very well done, one of the best dinosaur exhibits I’ve ever seen. Our only disappointment was that the giant squid exhibit was closed for refurbishment! In addition to the exhibits, the museum is housed in a beautiful building. My OK and YK thought this museum was much better than the British Museum.

5. London Eye and the London Eye Thames cruise. The cruise was very informative and an easy, relaxing way to see part of the city. However, I was too chicken to ride the London Eye myself. My OK and YK seemed to like it however, and so I would recommend it for those not afraid of heights. They certainly got some beautiful, panoramic pictures of the city from their 30 minute ride. I highly recommend buying your tickets on-line before you go. We were able to avoid the long line to purchase tickets and went straight to an ATM-type machine which quickly printed out our tickets. Plus, we got a 10% discount for purchasing on-line.

6. Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Every tourist in London needs to see this. We arrived around 11 am for the event, which started around 11:15. We secured positions on the Victoria Monument, rather than right in front of the palace gates. This allowed us to see the various groups of guards as they came marching in from different directions, and also gave us a good view of the actual event, over the heads of the mass of tourists in front of the gates. It was quite a long ceremony, with two different bands playing, a horse guard, etc. While it was going on two sets of ambassadors also arrived by horse and carriage, so we got see that pageantry as well. After the event, we visited the Royal Mews where we had a great tour guide tell us all about the Queen’s horses, carriages, and cars still housed in the mews near the palace.

The British Library was wonderful, even better than the British Museum, I thought, but I’ll let Smitty post on that. And, besides all of the wonderful sights, the best part of the visit was spending time with Mr. and Mrs. W. We played some great board games, in spite of Smitty’s aversion to them, solved the problems of the world, and we were able to celebrate the kickoff of the World Cup, with Smitty and my YK each winning one bet (who could have imagined that Poland would be beaten by Ecuador!).

I think I’ve written enough for now, but I reserve the right to add more later!

(Note: Edited to omit reference to Windsor Castle.)

The best bureaucracy money can buy, cont'd

So it appears that in order to refill a prescription, I need to go back to the doctor and get another prescription slip, then return to the pharmacy, wait a day, and then get my prescription.

What I wouldn't give for mail-order pharmacy right about now.

Still, you can't beat the price ...

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Monday, June 12, 2006

Tourism review

Now that our first visitors have come and gone (bye, Oldest Kid!), and we've had a chance to be out and about a lot in London, I can do some honest early rating of some of the best things we saw during OK's visit:

1. Stonehenge: Hands-down the best thing we saw, particularly getting to walk among the stones. The coach tour was quite delightful, with a very entertaining and knowledgeable guide, and we got to see Bath (and the Roman baths therein), Lacock, and then get a good prep for our visit to walk among the stones.

2. Westminster Abbey: We stayed for Evensong last Friday, which, although it was an extra-credit prayer service, was , beautiful, moving and spiritual. The Abbey itself, as Mrs. W (or perhaps OK's Oldest Kid) put it, is a bit of an indoor cemetery, but when you look down and notice that you're standing on Oliver Cromwell, for example, it gives you a tremendous sense of the span of history.

3. St. Paul's Cathedral: Again, a bit of an indoor cemetery, but it gives you a good sense of the span of history. Also, the leg-abusing climb up to (and descent from) the Golden Gallery is worth the effort.

5. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese: Order a pint, and look past the electric light bulbs, and you see a place that looks much like it would have in Samuel Johnson's day.

6. Portobello Road Market: An amazing scene. I picked up an authentic Panama hat for 2 pounds and a guayabera shirt for 20 pounds (which have been essential in our current span of weather). What more can you say? Mr. OK said we didn't even get to the hundreds of stalls of antiques in our time at Portobello Street (he stayed extra).

7. Lindy Hopping in Hammersmith: OK and Mr. OK are avid lindy-hoppers, while Mrs. W and I are casual swing dancers. The beginners' class had us try some rather advanced stuff, while even accomplished lindy hoppers like the OKs were befuddled by some of the things the intermediate class was trying. But after that, the music was hot (although the venue was hotter without a/c).

8. Madame Tussaud's: I have to admit that it was my second time to Madame T's in two weeks. This is the sort of thing that doesn't thrill me, but it's quite popular with the kids and with celebrity hounds, so it's certainly worth the trip. I like the historical/world figures room more than I like the celebrity rooms, but that's just me. One note: If you do come, pick a day when you absolutely want to do it and buy tickets in advance, because an hour is a long time to wait in line to go in. Skip the "Chamber Live" unless you really really like haunted houses.

9. Regent's Park: Unlike my beloved Hampstead Heath, it's more manicured and garden-like, where the Heath is wild and untamed. But they have outdoor theatre there, along with tennis courts, historic houses and the like. Mrs. W plays softball here on Monday nights (she has been meaning to post on that).

The OKs did their share of other things that they might too want to report on in the comments sections here. They went to Stratford-upon-Avon where they saw a production of Antony and Cleopatra with--wow--Patrick Stewart. They also seemed to like Warwick Castle near Stratford, which is owned by the Tussaud Group (which also owns the London Eye and probably all the historic properties in England that aren't run by English Heritage or the National Trust).

I'd like to invite the entire OK family to submit their own reviews of the trip. Either email them to me and I'll post them or offer them in the comments below.

Hot time, summer in the city ...

High temperatures this week are forecast to range between 23 and 28C.

Nobody told me it got this warm here.

(Before the Arizonans and Texans chime in, there is no air conditioning anywhere. Anywhere. So there.)

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

A day of shopping

London is a city of open-air markets--strange for a place where it rains so much. We have had, in the last few days, the addition of some visitors from Denmark, friends of Oldest Kid. (They did not stay with us, for we'd have to put some people to sleep in our narrow hallway if they had). In any case, it was some incentive to try someting outdoors, such as the Portobello Road Market.

It's hard to say where the center of the market is. You get off at the Ladbroke Grove Tube station, and then see a sign that instructs you to follow a walkway under the Westway Flyover for 200 meters to get to the market. But as soon as you step into the walkway, the stalls begin. You keep following the walkway, seeing a lot of different interesting stuff ...
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... none of which you actually need (OK, I did need the brimmed straw hat for two pounds, especially since it got up to about 80 degrees F that day).

The walkway spits you onto Portobello Road, where the market extends for perhaps as much as a mile, and on a rare warm, dry Saturday in London ...
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... you can guess the turnout.

Shopping in London is incomplete, of course, without a visit to Oxford Street. I think our visitors, though veteran shoppers, were unaccustomed to the throngs on a London high street on the weekend. We took a side trip to Carnaby Street ...
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... which was a little more enjoyable this time because OK's OK and YK were able compare the relative qualities of English and U.S. board shops. And I did get a snazzy pair of Vans, which, of course, I didn't need either.

Travel advice

It is not the intent of this blog to become a travel advice blog for people traveling to London. Much of this is new to us, and we're still in what I consider to be the discovery stage--that is, we're still learning our way around by trial and error. There is a wealth of information already out there on traveling to London by people who have come here as travelers, not immigrants as we have. However, when we come upon something that we feel is good advice, we probably should offer it to our readers. So here we go.

Two words: Heathrow Express.

Two cab rides from our North London flat to Heathrow Airport have cost us 70 and 80 pounds respectively (at today's exchange rate, $131.20 and $149.94) .I've taken cabs from a lot of outlying airports to a lot of downtowns in more than a decade of flying for work, and the Heathrow fare is in a class by itself in terms of cost. In addition, with the cabs, the vaunted Knowledge is somewhat exaggerated in its coverage of any neighborhood outside of the Square Mile, as Oldest Kid discovered to her chagrin when she had to find the page in the London A-Z for the cabbie and point out our street to him.

At 14 pounds 50 pence from the ticket machine in the Heathrow terminal, the Express, however, takes you 15 minutes to Paddington rail station, with trains leaving every 15 minutes. From there, a cab ride to our flat is around 15 pounds--still substantial savings. You bypass traffic, and it's a smooth, comfortable ride--not the most scenic, but you're looking for speed, not scenery, when you step off a plane at Heathrow.

You can take the Tube, but with diminishing value over longer distances as you have to drag your luggage around the narrow Tube tunnels--even rolling bags are a pain given the number of stairs underneath the London streets--and onto crowded Tube carriages. The only way the Tube makes sense to me is if one is staying, for example, in someplace like South Kensington, with direct Tube service and no train changes. (For example, compare the 37-minute Tube ride from Heathrow to Earl's Court, with no train changes, vs. the one-hour, 10 minute Tube odyssey with two train changes to get from Heathrow to Archway.) Paying the extra fare for the Heathrow Express and exchanging Tube headaches with Express comfort is worth the money to me.

A group of four riding from Heathrow to our flat--then a cab might make sense.

Monday, June 05, 2006

More assorted photos from OK's visit ...

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OK, I ate it. But unlike Mr. OK, I did not eat ...

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... black pudding.

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Great Caeasar's head!!!!

Now, let's say you're sponsoring a booth at an environmental festival, and you want to have a kids booth, and you run out of ideas ...
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... string a bunch of plastic bags together and call it a maze. After all, kids will run around just about anything if you call it a "game."

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I have no idea what this is.

Strange signs in other countries ...

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Is this what you press when the wax dummies come to life?

Monday scooterblogging

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This shot doesn't do this scooter justice, but there were actually two seats on this classic Vespa. (You can kind of see the sissy bar attached to the front seat from this shot, and behind it the second seat.)

Unfortunately, the scooter's owner was blocking the good shot.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Friday viewblogging

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Station stone and burial mound at Stonehenge.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Wake me up so I can go-go

I don't ride the Tube much since I work at home, but when I ride it, I find its gentle rocking (sort of) and the sideways orientation of its seats (at least on the Northern Line) give you the sensation of being rocked to sleep, so it's no surprise that I often feel droopy-eyed. I'm a king-hell mass-transit snoozer when I do commute (almost daily in a similar circumstance riding the bus from Silver Spring to Bethesda, in Maryland) so I can appreciate the product that Annie Mole was pumping last Christmas: "wake me up at (my station)" stickers you can don to make sure you get home without incident. I particularly like the "anywhere but Brixton" sticker.

You know you're on Fleet Street when ...

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Fleet Street used to be the home of newspaper publishing in England, and even though the newspapers have moved elsewhere, the words "Fleet Street press" are still synonymous with the racy tabloids that are common here.

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Hodge, Samuel Johnson's cat, was "a very fine cat indeed," according to the plaque here.

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The scantily clad statues here use their clubs to ring the bells to mark the quarter hour. I glanced away for a split second, and missed it.

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St. Bride's Church is the printer's church and is one of the many Christopher Wren creations along Fleet Street.

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These dragons guard the entrances to the Square Mile, the historical center of London. Here, we're crossing from Westminister into the City.