Archive for the ‘UK’ Category

Hello again from London!

Friday, August 31st, 2007

Wow it’s been ages and I’ve missed gobs of stuff. But, hey, I’ve been traveling, and there’s lots of laundry to do…and, frankly, I’m lazy and hopelessly addicted to Facebook. I figured I’d better just fast forward to where we are now and catch up later on!

I’m sitting in a fancy schmancy hotel on Park Lane in London. Everyone is tired out from a big night out last night so I have a few moments to make some sort of blogging attempt here. Thankfully, we got a very very good room rate so we can actually afford to stay at such an up market hotel. We do get a few odd looks trekking through the lobby of fancy hotels in our jeans and sandals with backpacks slung over our shoulders and me tipping the stroller backwards so our peanut butter smeared four year old can sleep comfortably in the non-reclining cheap ass stroller we bought….but I digress.

The past few weeks have been pretty eventful. We arrived at Heathrow tired and stressed out after almost missing our flight out of Moscow (long story…I’ll get to it eventually) What I had remembered to be a lovely shopping paradise now seemed like a run down, crowded, poorly planned nightmare compared to some of the wonderfully designed and sparkling new Asian airports we’ve been through recently. We followed the masses of people down what seemed like a million miles of corridors, sailed through passport control with our handy Canadian passports and then found ourselves in the most crowded, dingy, and poorly designed baggage collection we’ve encountered since we left home a year ago. Forlorn and forgotten-looking bags were piled by the dozen in every available corner and luggage carts with broken wheels were piled high with what I imagined must be misdirected luggage awaiting discovery. Hundreds of people were jockeying for space round dilapidated baggage carousels waiting not-so-patiently for the luggage to appear.

Eventually our luggage arrived, much to my great relief after half an hour of staring at all the weird piles of random stuff just sitting around. We headed straight through to the British Airways desk to get our Round the World ticket sorted out. We’d had to make some flight changes because the travel agent had accidentally booked us to fly to San Jose, California instead of San Jose, Costa Rica! The travel agent in Canberra who sorts all this stuff out for me via email (bless her!) had warned me that re-ticketing would be somewhat costly and complicated but best accomplished at Heathrow. The BA agent looked a bit uncertain when I handed over the six feet of printed tickets we carry round with us, but said she could probably sort it out within an hour.

Here I saw further proof of the changes since I’d last flown through Heathrow five years ago. Police armed with machine guns stalked through the milling crowds, guarded the exits, and scrutinized us from on high. Armored vehicles were parked in front of the doors and paramedics made rounds inside the terminal on their bikes. Some of this was in response to the protesters (apparently they don’t want a new terminal built…although I say they bloody well NEED one!) but I got the feeling that this was the way of the future for Heathrow. They have also instituted the strictest carry on rules that we have yet to encounter.

Unfortunately for them, our friends Michelle and Neil who were picking us up were already en route. We found a (reasonably) quiet corner and waited for them to arrive – stowed the bags in their car, and headed off for some mediocre and overpriced airport food while we waited. Amazingly, the BA agent had the tickets sorted before our food even arrived and then didn’t even charge me for the changes! Woo hoo!! The food was better than expected, Jessica was kept amused building towers out of ketchup and mustard packets, we dined with good friends, and I saved $450! Things were definitely looking up.

A short drive later we arrived at Michelle and Neil’s new house in Egham; an adorable little three bedroom Victorian home. Having previously experienced their miniscule London flat, I was amazed at how big the house actually was. Obviously, Michelle’s interior design course has paid off because I instantly fell in love with her small home, and all the wonderful details that really give it charm and character…and the instant I stepped out the back door I had massive garden envy! You can grow SO many wonderful things in England. I’ve been goggling at everyone’s flowers since I’ve arrived and supposedly they’re crap this year because of the bad summer they’ve had.

After so long on the road it was simply wonderful to hang around in someone’s house again. Michelle had thoughtfully stocked up on all the Jessica-essentials (even including a booster seat for the car!) so all we had to do was put our feet up and get started on the laundry. She was even kind enough to borrow a very girly set of bedding for Jess to sleep in and made her a birthday cake! Of course, Jessica didn’t like it, but she had a lot of fun helping with the icing and sticking on the sugar princesses.

We spent three days at their house and got caught up on laundry, doctor’s appointments, hair cuts, etc. We did manage an evening out with Michelle’s family and an afternoon exploring Windsor and Windsor Castle, but that was about as much ambition as we could muster. It was a wonderful break, and I was secretly thankful that it was rainy so I didn’t feel too guilty about spending a few days indoors just hanging around. Unfortunately, Michelle managed to lose her voice the day after we arrived so we couldn’t catch up on QUITE as much gossip as we normally would have…but we managed.

Friday morning we caught an early flight to Paris. Once again, I had to throw away a few packages of perfectly good apple juice only to buy them again the other side of security. I’m beginning to think the beverage industry has had a hand in some of the recent threats, just to boost sales! Of course, Easy Jet doesn’t have a beverage service or carry enough change to break a 20 so Jess had to wait until we hit Paris to have another drink. Good thing it was a short flight.

The hotel I booked was in a wonderful location a few blocks from the Arch de Triumph, but for $575 Euro a night (regular price – we got a much better deal thankfully) you’d expect a LOT more than we received. The carpet in the room was shabby and the paint was peeling in the bathroom; Michelle and Neil had a massive rip in their wallpaper. The ancient TV was perched atop the mini bar, and the one chair in the room was stained. There was no duvet on the bed, only a blanket and a sheet, and the bed itself was two singles pushed together when they had offered us two doubles. The worst bit about the bed was the bloodstains on the box spring – which were fully on display due to lack of a bed skirt. The bathtub was so filthy that once we’d had a shower you could see the clean bits where the water had run down the sides. UGH! We ended up asking for a new room with two beds because Jessica had to sleep with us the first night as there were no extra blankets to make her a bed on the floor. The next morning we were moved to a new room that had been recently renovated. We didn’t get two beds (they just made up the pushed together twin beds separately) but the refurbished room was nicely appointed with no bloodstains or filthy bathtubs! (Yes we’ve been sleeping on twin beds pushed together all along, but they DID say double at reception!)

Aside from the minor issues with the hotel, Paris was spectacular. We lucked into a wonderfully hot weekend and we went with good friends. The first evening was spent exploring the Louvre and Jessica has decided that she really likes statues but that paintings are boring. Her favorite sculpture was one of Hercules, and, of course there was the inevitable: “Why are their penises hanging out Mommy?” at the top of her lungs.

After the Louvre, we wandered through the Latin Quarter (didn’t know it at the time but realized the next day when I said I wanted to see the Latin Quarter that we’d already been.) and found a small piano bar overlooking the Seine to while away a few hours in. I had some snails that tasted vaguely of dirt and a Pepsi that cost more than Grant’s beer! I was kind of disappointed that the escargot was on the menu as “snails,” but perhaps that’s code for “with dirt.” Michelle and Neil headed off to find a new place at about 11pm, but in our wisdom, Grant and I decided to walk back to the hotel rather than figure out the Metro or call a cab.

Ten minutes into our walk Grant realizes that he needs to use a toilet. He didn’t bother to stop right away thinking he’d hold out until the hotel. By the time we’d made it back to the Louvre, we realize that a day of wandering had taken us far further from the hotel than we’d anticipated. I stopped to take some night shots and Grant decides he’s going to duck into the darkened park area and find himself a tree to water. I’m making the typical wifely: “you can’t PEE in the garden of the LOUVRE you philistine!!” comments…but he’s off and running.

I saw him walk down the hill, so I thought – ok – he’ll be back in a moment and I’ll just take a few pictures of the Ferris wheel all lit up. Hopefully he’s back soon though; I don’t like to be alone with Jess in this darkened area with all these men walking by. When I looked up from the camera, I see Grant at the far end of the park heading rapidly away from me! Uh-oh, did he tell me to meet him somewhere and I didn’t hear? What’s he up to? He’s too far away to shout at without waking Jessica up, so I follow along as quickly as I can with the stroller. Man, is he moving though. I finally start to shout his name as he’s almost a city block ahead of me and about to round a corner – all without looking back. Am I even following the right guy? Yep – that’s his hat and his bag, must be him. Why hasn’t he noticed I’m not around? Surely he didn’t expect me to walk back on my own? FINALLY he turns around and walks back about a quarter of a block holding the front of his pants and I’m close enough to yell at him:


As he dashes towards the fairgrounds, I realize that he’s managed to stumble into a meeting place for gay men. Now I’m almost ready to pee my pants too, but only because I’m laughing so hard I can barely see straight. That’ll teach him to pee in public parks!! The remainder of the walk back to the hotel was punctuated by hysterical laughter on my part and shudders on his.

The next day we did a lot of walking (Grant hates the Metro), took in Notre Dame and the South Africa versus whoever Rugby game down at the Irish pub (I went shopping).I managed to resist all the tempting shops, however, and we actually came away with absolutely no souvenirs of Paris. That evening we ended up missing dinner to make it to the Eiffel Tower in time to get the elevator to the very top. After two hours in the queue, we were disappointed when they closed the top level ten minutes before we made it to the front of the ticket line. Oh well, it was still spectacular! Grant and I walked down with Jessica rather than wait in an hour long line at midnight for the elevator. We jumped in a cab and got back to the hotel exhausted and sore from carrying Jess for hours. Jessica managed to stay awake (and amazingly cheerful) for the whole thing and she wanted to go back the following evening but strangely enough nobody wanted to accompany her!

Our final day was nice and relaxing. We wandered around a few shops and then took Jessica to the fairgrounds to jump on the trampoline. Then we headed into the Latin Quarter again to eat dinner. We found a little place where we could eat outside and the atmosphere was just perfect: little twisting cobbled streets, tiny outdoor tables crammed together onto the sidewalks, a violinist and an accordionist working the crowd in turns, a balloon blowing clown named Sandro on the corner, crowds of tourists milling around gawking and shopping for tourist tat at the souvenir stalls, French men in banana yellow pants and French women impeccably made up in their little sundresses, scooters and bicycles parked haphazardly all down the street, red wine flowing like water….perfect. THIS is Paris.

It took us something like three hours to make it through dinner but nobody was complaining or trying to move us along. Sandro the clown made Jessica the most intricate balloon rocking horse: “But I WANTED a tiger Mommy!” I took tons of photos of the early evening light and the sunset reflecting off the shop windows. Then we caught the metro back towards our hotel to the James Joyce…yet another Irish Pub in Paris. I seem to be cursed with them – we ate at an Irish pub my first visit to Paris years ago as well. Took a great photo of Jessica up at the bar, balloon rocking horse in hand, with two very big pints lined up in front of her. I took Jessica back to the room sometime around 11 and the rest of them carried on until the wee hours.

The final morning was a mad dash to get packed and hurried goodbyes to Michelle and Neil in the hotel lobby. We headed to the airport and the exceptionally nice taxi driver helped us to ensure that we had the correct terminal. Apparently a lot of people get it wrong and there’s six km between the two of them. The BA flight we’d booked was a code share with some small airline I’d never heard of (and can’t remember the name of!) who’s computer went down just as we got to the front of the line. We stood there for ages, completely blowing my last chance to buy some French perfume and foiling all our best intentioned plans to eat breakfast. We finally made it through security and managed to forget Jessica’s little backpack at the security check. Of course, nobody came looking for us during the 20 minutes we spent waiting at the gate and we didn’t notice until we were actually sitting on the plane. I had to dash back through security as they were boarding – forgetting to get my boarding pass from Grant, of course – and retrieve it. Worse still, this was the smallest plane we’d flown on yet so EVERYONE on board saw me running across the tarmac like an idiot!

We made it to Manchester and hopped on a train to Huddersfield where we were met by Grant’s family: his Mom, Auntie Jo, and Cousin Neil. Jessica promptly burst into tears as we were mobbed by what seemed to her to be strangers. It took her a little while to warm up, but she got over it very quickly – especially once she met her two year old cousin Lara and had someone to boss around! From the train station we headed straight to Cousin Mark’s for a lovely meal and ANOTHER birthday cake for Jessica.

Jo’s house was much larger than I had anticipated from the descriptions I’d heard prior to our visit, but with Grant’s mom and us both staying there she ended up staying at Neil’s every night. We felt horrible kicking her out of house and home, especially as her smiling face was there every morning in the kitchen making us the bacon sandwiches I’m now entirely addicted to! Auntie Jo – you’re the BEST!

We had a wonderful four days catching up with family, and exploring the beautiful Yorkshire countryside. My garden envy kicked in again and I began to dream of retiring to the country and living in a wee little stone cottage perched high on a purple heather-covered hill criss-crossed with stone fences and dotted here and there with fluffy white sheep and black and white cows; spending my days puttering amongst the roses, picking blackberries, and drinking tea. Sigh. Heaven.

Grant and I took full advantage of the free Grandma babysitting service to catch a football game in the local pub and then to see a fantastic stand up show in Leeds with his cousins. Of course, we ended up sitting up front and the comedian picked on Grant – poor boy! We also took a steam train ride out to Haworth to see where the Bronte sisters lived, and to take loads of photos. The boys got cinders in their eyes from sticking their heads out the window…so a very authentic experience!

Our visit was over way too quickly and we’re really sad to wave goodbye at the train platform. Our train ride into London was fast and easy but we arrived to a city mobbed with people and half the streets around our hotel shut down for the Princess Diana memorial. I couldn’t talk Grant into leaving the hotel – too much beer last night!