Tuesday, November 30, 2010

London: Snow and Student Protests

I woke up to a fresh layer of snow, and much thicker this time. Put all my stuff together and made my way to the Leamington Spa train station and London. Remarkably, given the weather, my train was on time and stayed on time. By 12:30pm, I was at my youth hostel and checking in, storing my stuff, and off for an afternoon of London.

I love this city. Always have. Always will. I'm not sure why I bought a one day travel card because I walked all day. I started at my St. Paul's youth hostel and walked west to my usual first destination: St. Martin-in-the-Field's church. (For the non South African readers, did you know that somebody built a replica of this church in Craddock, South Africa because his wife was homesick....? It's true! I've seen it!) Anyways, I digress. I showed up and was shocked to see that they now have a separate entrance to the crypt. I suppose the cramped, crowded gift shop on top of restaurant on top of brass rubbing was too much. Too bad. I liked that cramped, crowded look. So, I left and went in pursuit of food elsewhere.

Ended up at Covent Garden and the snow began. Musicians were out and about. Holiday decorations are up. Oversized round balls in reds and blues. Large reindeers. Lights everywhere. Pretty in all that snow.

Then, I decided to make my way to Piccadilly Circus for a photo for my mom (who for some reason loves this busy intersection). I then thought, 'It's snowing. I think I'll go to the National Museum.' As I started walking closer, I saw the bright yellow police jackets, lots of police vans, and some serious shouting. Of course, I kept walking closer. A full Trafalger Square greeted me. Police at the ready. Students started throwing those cans with the colored smoke. I thought, 'Now is the time to back away from the protest.'

I left and walked the way I come. Two streets away, another line of students was marching to Trafalgar Square right down the street intersecting with me. At this point, I was laughing and just a little nervous (okay, more than a little). I've only protested once, and I felt like such a daredevil... I just don't big unruly groups of people.

So, I walked down another street, making my way somehow to the end of St. James Park behind the horse guards. A big empty mall, cars being diverted, the police out and ready and closing off any roads that led past Downing Street. When I crossed over to Whitehall, it was still and quiet. A handfull of police in front of 10 Downing Street (for the yanks who don't know, this is where the Prime Minister lives). In a previous protest, students actually made it to the front door. Yikes. So quiet and weird.

I walked towards Parliament and Westminster Abbey. More cops, all in riot gear. Horses in riot gear. We could walk through, but they were ready.

I found my way to the gardens beyond Parliament and it began to snow again. Beautiful large snowflakes. A think sky. Absolutely gorgeous. I spent about a half hour or more just walking all around Parliament and the Abbey taking photos. I love this city.

Eventually, I began to make my way back up Westminster and very cold. I figured, 'The protest must be over. It's dark. It's freezing.' As I got closer to Trafalgar, you could still hear the shouts. Police were encouraging us to walk around. I did, once I took some more photos of course. I felt like a tourist/journalist or something. Call me Lois Lane :)

I got back home, feet tired, and watched the news. It's all about the student protests and the bad weather that's blocking roads and airports. Let's hope I get out to Sweden tomorrow.

I've just been out to a lovely dinner with Lucy, a friend from, gulp, 17 years ago. We met way back in 1993. How does this happen???? We haven't seen each other for a few years, and much to catch up on. I haven't even met her youngest daughter. Wow.

So, back at the hostel, dreading the 4:45am wake up call to head to the airport. brrrrrrrr.

Hugs and love,


Monday, November 29, 2010

Oxford: The Nerd Paradise

What a lovely thing to be a nerd. I have only a slight desire to have the chance to go to Oxford, but I don't really want to work that hard.

The University for many other reasons is my ultimate nerd paradise. J.R.R. Tolkien studied and taught there, writing most of his Lord of the Rings during that time. The Pre-Raphaelite Artists were connected to Oxford in many ways. Scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed there (and many other films).

Put these three things together, and it's Maureen's (and many of her equally or more nerdy friends as well) ultimate nerd paradise.

The plan today was to make it into Oxford whenever I felt like it and meet Jayne at 5pm at the Covered Market when she got off the bus from work. I made it to Oxford just after 10am and made my way to the Tourist Information Office. A walking tour was about to leave, and I debated for about five minutes before deciding to give into my inner tourist. Absolutely the best decision. Ever. Our guide, Jane, was a graduate herself, and like a proper tour guide, she knew all the geeky details that make it interesting. So and so studied here. On such and such a date the first woman was admitted. On such and such a date, etc.

We went into Jesus College, Exeter College, the Bodleian Library, the Divinity School, and in and out of lovely college lanes. Jesus College was the only college founded under Queen Elizabeth I's reign. Click. Click. Tolkien and Philip Pullman studied at Exeter. That got my camera clicking faster. Old Buildings. BENCHES. Ivy in lovely fall colors. Stained Glass Windows. Street lights. Doors. Windows. Etc. Etc. Etc. Today alone I took almost 300 photos. tee hee hee

After the tour, I asked my lovely guide where a Tolkien fan and a Pre-Raph fan would go. She sent me to the Union Library to see the Pre-Raph mural. I sat in there staring at the ceiling, walking around the balcony, writing in my journal. Then, off to find Pembroke College at Oxford where Tolkien taught. Closed. But a picture outside. Then off to Harris Manchester College to see the Burne-Jones/Morris stained glass windows in the chapel. Then off to New College, where I learned by eavesdropping on a tour that scenes from Harry Potter were shot there. Then meandering and meandering. To end the afternoon, book shopping in Blackwell's!

Jayne and I then met and went to the White Horse, the pub where Tolkien, Lewis, and others would meet and discuss their work. A glass of wine, some fries and salad (for me, lol), more good conversation, and the final nerd factor of the day.

Back at Jayne's now and digesting this wonderful, wonderful day. Sad to be leaving Jayne so soon, but it's on to London for a fly-by dinner with Lucy and then Sweden on Wednesday. Only a week has passed. Three wonderful, soul-friends. Two more to go :)

Hugs and love and may you find your nerd paradise...

Birmingham, Leamington Spa, Oxford

I am overly caffeinated and suffering from jetlag. I can't seem to get to sleep at a normal time, even though I only drink one cup of tea in the morning. I have made it through half of Jayne's copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows due to my inability to fall asleep. At least it's worthwhile!

I am currently in Leamington Spa with Jayne and Scott, and I will shortly be heading off to Oxford for a day of gallavanting and Tolkien before joining Jayne for dinner. But to backtrack...

On Friday in Birmingham, having slept through our Thanksgiving stupor, Jackie and I traipsed through B'ham to Cannon Hill Park. Despite the fact that the cold was biting our noses and fingers, we had a nice walk around the park. We watched the ducks slip and slide as they emerged on the now frozen sections of lake. I can imagine it in summer with picnics and music, kids and dogs running around, flowers and trees in bloom. It's not hard to imagine in these beautiful public spaces as the Brits sure know how to do gardens well.

We spent the evening at home making another fantastic meal before enjoying a film (2012) and some more chat. I'm sure all my friends are getting tired of my incessant questions and need to hear about everything in their life. Like my brothers, they seem to tolerate this particular character flaw :)

On Saturday, Jackie kindly took me to the train station where I went south to Leamington Spa to meet Jayne and Scott. A quick and gorgeous train ride as everything is covered in the first snow of the year. It's beautiful but brrrrrrr.

Jayne and Scott flew into the car park, picked me up, and we flew home to a cup of tea and a warm house. Besides seeing my brothers so happily coupled, seeing my good friends so happy is the next best thing. I haven't met Scott, and I'm so thrilled to finally get to know him, to see how happy he makes Jayne and vice versa.

We had a lovely Saturday with cups of tea, trips to the grocery store, and a great little walk around Leamington Spa--which included the pub where J & S met, the pump rooms, the church, the town hall with a town crier in costume (he obliged me with a photo). A cute town with all the things that make it truly English: the promenade, the church, the cute bridges, the pump room, etc. Scott chose some absolutely wonderful wine, and we chatted and ate a delicious meal.

On Sunday, Jayne and I went into Oxford to see the Pre-Raphaelite exhibit at the Ashmolean Museum. Since it's closed on Mondays, it was Sunday or never. Since this is my favorite artistic movement, I was in heaven (as was Jayne). What a great exhibit, though crowded. Artists I've never heard of, artists I love. Rossetti, Burne-Jones. Really lovely. At the end of the exhibit, we both had reached our museum limit, so we didn't meander through the rest of the museum.

We then went for a meander and lunch before heading back to Leamington. Oxford was busy and crowded, people out for a Sunday stroll or holiday presents. It's been 11 years since I've been here with my Nottingham Lenton & Wortley Hall friends, so it's been awhile.

Sunday night was a great quiet evening at home with Jayne & Scott. I really just love being in everyone's homes with them, to experience the normal stuff. It's what a miss most of the time.

So, I'm off to hunt down some Tolkien history in Oxford if I can keep warm enough. It looks brutally cold out there. No blue sky today! I'm sure I can manage with some long underwear :)

Love to you all.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Just a few photos

Liverpool and Birmingham

Happy Thanksgiving!

I'm in Birmingham as I write this, recovering from an amazing vegan Thanskgiving feast. More on that in a minute...

Two and a bit fabulous days in Liverpool with Claire. I slept through a good first evening, blissfully unaffected by the caffeine. Alas, that did not happen the second night!

On Tuesday, Claire and I decided that no visit of mine would be complete without a trip to a National Trust property. Dunham Massey! Unfortunately, I've come out of season for touring stately homes and going 'ooh' and 'aah' over all the plush furnishings and traditions. That being said, we enjoyed a brisk but just lovely walk around 'Britain's largest winter garden' which involved a whole lot of comments like 'What is that?' I can imagine that this garden must be lush and nicely informal in the spring.

On our way out, we went right up to the workers sitting in the garden ticket shed and asked them about the interesting plants/berries we saw in the garden. They wrote down names, pulled newspaper clippings off the shelves to show us. It helps to be here on down season. All the lovely retired people volunteering their time have something to do.

A walk around a winter garden requires one thing before exploring the rest of the grounds: tea. We walked upstairs in the old stables to enjoy a snack and a warm cuppa before heading back out in the cold. Nothing says England to me like a cup of tea in a stately home or churh. Nothing.

Off we went through the deer park, looking for the 150 deer that supposedly hide out in the park. We managed to see about 10, so that probably wasn't too shabby. It was as close as Claire and I will get to a safari for awhile, so we did the proper stare down and photo shoot. There were gunshots in the distance, so hunting season is on. After a nice little saunter around the park (we sauntered, indeed), an obligatory walk through the gift shop before heading home.

Both Tuesday night and Wednesday night, Claire hosted dinner parties and made such great food. Tuesday night we ate with her friend Carrie and her partner Claire. Wednesday night we at with her lovely family. So, so, so nice. To hug and meet people I have heard about but never met. To hug people I love and haven't seen for a few years. To sit in a friend's kitchen and cut veggies and talk and prepare for a small and cozy dinner party.

On Wednesday, I woke up a bit late (ahem 11:30am), but luckily Claire was at work. When I got myself put together, we went into Liverpool City Centre. She ushered me to a wonderful veggie cafe, The Egg Cafe. OMG. I had vegan lentil & apricot soup with garlic bread. Claire had tandoori mushrooms and salad. Just my kind of place. Not as bohemian as the veggie restaurant Claire and I visited in Copenhagen (Morgenstedet), but delicious. The soup was so large that I had no room for vegan dessert. Tragic.

On our walk around Liverpool, we came across the student demonstration against the raising tuition fees. Policemen on horses, on foot, in vans. Claire said they were reacting to the recent demonstrations in London. I just thought they looked cute and a bit silly. As a proper tourist, I took a picture.

We walked around the Docks, admiring the new Museum being built, and the Pierman's house. The museum had a nice looking garden growing. It looked like nobody had picked the tomatoes in awhile, but I refrained. The potatoes looked pretty ready, too... Then, off we went back to Huyton for dinner with the family and a nice long talk into the morning hours.

Thus ended my stay in Liverpool. Birmingam, Huzzah!

Jackie picked me up, and off we trekked to her house. She looked quite disappointed to be missing a day off work, so we indulged in some tea, some lunch, some much needed catching up, and Julie & Julia. Jackie and Eric just returned from a trip to Morocco, so I interrogated them over dinner. I'd like to go there soon, I think. Though my head goes: Morocco, Egypt, Morocco, Egypt. Anyway, off track.

Much to my surprise, we were having a vegan thanksgiving meal! Jackie chose some wonderful recipes online, and we set to making the dinner before Eric got home. It really was a wonder of a meal! Avocado with Raspberry Viniagrette, Mushroom & Chestnut Wellington , potatoes, baked brussel sprouts, and steamed veggies, and gravy. Much more decadent than I ever make myself for the holiday! With little turkey table decorations (thanks, mom), we had quite the spread. We sat on the couches in a food coma for a few hours.

Tomorrow, Jackie and I are off around and about B'ham. Causing trouble, no doubt. Jackie and I had a whirlwind eight hour visit when she was in Chicago last July for work, so it's nice to have a full 48 hours! Aye Caramba!

It's funny to think I've known Claire & Jackie sixteen years. How did that happen?

Gobble, Gobble.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Made it once again to Liverpool, Huyton specifically.

British Airways has ruined me for all other transatlantic flights. I am used to finding my seat and greedily pulling out the inflight entertainment guide to see which films I will watch on my individual movie screen. Soon after takeoff, the lovely flight attendant will come around and ask whether we would like red or white wine with our meal. She will give me a red for my seat pocket. In a little packet of goodies on my seat, I find earphones, an eye mask, footies, a blanket. On this US Airways flight, I get what I pay for, which is a simple meal and a cup of tea (Lipton). I suppose I'd rather save a few hundred dollars then have my own movie screen. No free wine. No free headphones. I am a spoiled traveler.

Spent three hours wandering the Dublin airport, which isn't like Heathrow's shopping mall. I watched as people disembarked their budget flights in the rain, hurrying inside. I looked despairingly at the clock, hoping that the cafe serving jacket potatoes would open in time for me to order one with beans. Alas, it was only a Luna bar for me. Stepped off the plain in Liverpool to a sharp cold in the air. Winter, too, is here.

Claire picked me up (and I managed to get in the car on the correct side), and off we went to her lovely flat. I love coming into a friend's house and noticing all the new things. In this case, new momentos from Claire's time in Tanzania this year. I think I drank about six cups of caffeinated tea yesterday to ward off the jetlag. I've been cautious about how much caffeine I drink, but not yesterday. Besides, sitting on a couch curled up with a friend requires a good cup (or six) of caffeinated English tea. delicious. I even managed a small glass of wine with the wonderful mushroom risotto that Claire cooked (and I didn't fall asleep in my food).

Claire, her brother Chris, and I went out to the cinema last night to see the new Gerard Depardieu film My Afternoons with Margueritte. What a lovely film. I think the last film I saw him in was with Queen Latifah, Last Holiday. Margueritte is a gorgeous, touching, at times heartbreaking story about an emotionally abused boy who finally finds love and acceptance. Depardieu's nose is as large as usual.

Nine hours sleep. A blue sky. A cup of tea. The lovely Claire. VACATION!!!!!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

at the airport

My thumbs hurt. I've been using my little blackberry to send all the emails I forgot to send, texting people on the status of my delayed flight, wasting time. In just a few hours, I will be free of my phone, my thumbs resting.

The newspapers are full of the new security measures, but I escaped both alternatives somehow. I am always so surprised to see short lines and easy checkins. I guess I should be glad that I'm not traveling closer to the holiday.

I need every part of this trip--from the plane food and in-flight movie to the days and nights with wonderful, much missed friends. I am so grateful that I can travel like this, to journey to the homes of friends, to celebrate with them, to drink tea/wine/cider. I am so grateful.