Thursday, 2 August 2007

We are in London! Our flights were delayed in Austin, we sprinted to our connecting flight in Dallas and were the last ones on (you should have seen Benji run, with a wild look in his eye as if we missed that flight, we’d miss the trip), our bags still haven’t arrived, but we are here, and we’re already having a blast! Typical of our family, we crammed a lot into the half day we had yesterday.

After a late lunch at a café, we took a double decker red bus (rode on top of course!), and visited the London Aquarium. Right outside, there were kids doing a bungee trampoline, flying high into the air with Big Ben and the huge, ornate Houses of Parliament in the background. It was a weird juxtaposition of the old and new, what you’d expect and not expect.

Late we walked to Trafalgar Square, where the kids encountered a man with rice in his pockets, feeding the pigeons. Luckily, the man shared. He would dribble a little rice in the kid’s hands, show them how to hold their arm straight out like a perch (he didn’t speak much English), whistle a pigeon coo, and the pigeons would come flocking. They landed on the kid’s arms and heads which was a total thrill. Unfortunately the camera ran out of juice, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

We headed back to the hotel, taking the subway, or “tube”. The underground hallways looked like an ant mound with people swarming every which way. We stopped at a market and grabbed some dinner, then picnicked on the hotel floor. Nothing like Pringles for a taste of home! Our hotel is in the Victoria section of London just a short walk from the tube with lots of cafes, coffee shops and a great market nearby.

 

Saturday, 4 August 2007

We’ve seen a castle, bungee jumped, watched pigs chase each other to steal coconuts, and eaten mashed potatoes for a meal. Things are going well here! Yesterday we went to Hampton Court, the country estate of King Henry the VIII. They have a hedge maze as part of the enormous gardens, the kids raced to see who could make it to the end first. We walked the grounds until our feet ached, but the kids successfully completed the little booklets they received when they arrived, answering all the questions (find a griffin, a dragon, etc., what was the name of Henry’s second wife, draw your own tapestry) to receive their prize. A little black puff ball with sticky feet that has a tag attached that says Hampton Court. This was a great treasure, they carried the little guys around in their pockets all day. The boys battled on the streets of London that afternoon, and discussed whose black puff ball could run faster or fly higher.

When we got back from the castle, we took the kids to the bungee jump trampolines right near the Thames, with Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in the background. It made for some great pictures! Later that evening we made our way back to the hotel, jumping on a crowded subway during rush hour. We were really squashed as more and more people jammed into the crowded car. Benji’s cheeks were smashed up like “baby boo-boo” between a purse and somebody’s hips, and Nate had his head thrust between a large woman’s chest. We were all hysterically laughing as a huge man pushed his way in just as the doors closed, cramming us even more. We sorted ourselves out and grinned the whole way back. Do you think anyone thought we were tourists? We’ve noticed we’re about the only people on the subway with kids. Hmmmmm.

The kids slept late this morning, until 9:30, so we got a later start. We took a cab to the London Zoo. The kids love taking cabs, they are arranged so five people can sit in the back by having two small jump seats that sit backwards, facing the other three. Of course everyone wants to sit in the jump seats so we’ve worked out a rotation schedule. While we were entertained by the gorillas, monkeys, reptiles, and meerkats at the zoo, our favorite animals were the bearded pigs. They were huge, probably weighing at least 500 pounds, but tall and skinny, not fat. They had noses kind of like a short elephant trunk, and as we arrived coconuts were being catapulted into their enclosure. These cracked against the walls, breaking open. The pigs went wild, grabbing coconuts with milk dripping down their “beards”. As soon as a pig had a nut, he ran off to hide and try and enjoy his coconut in peace. Alas, the other pigs were onto him and he was promptly chased around the pen as he frantically tried to slurp his coconut on the run. It reminded us of our dogs when they are hiding a bone from each other.

As we left the zoo we agreed to get each child a souvenir. The parameters, it had to be 2 pounds fifty or less (about $5). They each decided to get a small stuffed animal that clips onto things when its arms are pinched. These animals traveled all over London today in the kid’s pockets, and gained hats made from bottle caps, and surf boards made from sticks.

Tonight we found a restaurant called Mother Mash where the main dish was mashed potatoes. You could get sausages or a “pie” (pot pie), but the main attraction were the potatoes, made in all sorts of ways. What better dinner for the starch-loving Davises? We were thrilled, and rolled ourselves home to eat a digestive biscuit, or as Nate calls them “digested biscuits”, before bed. These are chocolate-coated cookies that Clay picked up at the market. Home again late, we keep saying we’ll slow down tomorrow. But, there’s so much we want to do! Then kids will keep our pace slower with their sleeping late. I read and wrote in my personal journal for two hours this morning, and Clay took some clothes to the laundry while the kids slept.

He met some interesting “faces in the street” at the laundry. It is frequented on Saturday mornings by the neighborhood regulars, with only him and one other tourist doing their laundry. These neighbors came by with their dogs to chat a bit with the owner, BeBe. BeBe gave one of the dogs, his name was Ben, a tangerine to eat. He gets a special treat like this each Saturday morning. Clay said the dog made a huge mess, with juice everywhere, but by the time they left the dog had eaten the entire tangerine, including the pit, and licked up the juice. Another dog came by later, Lucky, and sniffed all over where Ben had been. Clay mentioned that Lucky probably smelled the tangerine Ben had eaten, but Lucky’s owner informed Clay that Lucky smelled Ben, and she wasn’t very fond of him. So Clay met some local dogs and heard the latest neighborhood scoop.

We haven’t heard a tidey-ho since we’ve been here, but I have to say it anyway. Tidey-ho, until next time!

 

Monday, 6 August 2007

The kids decided to wear their flip flops/crocs yesterday, and by the end of the day on the London streets, we had six very dirty feet in the street. Black toenails, black toes, black soles. How did they get such dirty feet? We started at the Royal Mews, the place where they keep the queen’s royal carriages, the horses, and the Rolls Royces. The fanciest carriage is covered in gold and tritons and pineapples and crowns and lions. Nate asked, “Is that real gold? Because it looks like plastic.” I tended to agree, though it was still big and impressive. The stables made Alayna sneeze, so we didn’t stay long. So they started with horse mews on the feet.

We skipped the tour of Buckingham Palace, but were eager to see the guards with “the puffy hats”. Unfortunately the puffy hat uniforms are used during the changing of the guards. We only saw four plain looking soldiers marching across the front. What the kids will remember most about Buckingham Palace is the marble incline across the street in St. James’s park, where kids were sliding on their bellies. Our kids joined the rest of them and slid to their heart’s content.

We headed to the National Gallery next, a long dirty walk and a dirty subway ride. Dirty feet getting dirtier. Benji put a big, green booger on an original Rembrandt oil painting. Just kidding, but he could have. I was shocked by how close we could get to these priceless paintings, just a thin little rope held us back maybe two feet from delicate brush strokes. A guard did tell Nate not to touch the paintings once, when he was reaching to point something out to us. I think we probably registered danger to most of the guards stationed throughout the museum. I imagine they had a walky-talky network going on alerting guards along our path.

They need not have bothered, the kids were actually entranced. I was surprised by the interest the kids had in the paintings. Each large, fancy room had six to ten paintings in it. We’d enter and I’d let the boys pick which pictures they were interested in. We saw George and the Dragon, an outrageously ugly woman who looked like a man, Venus and Mars by Botticelli, and Biblical scenes like Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt. Alayna admired the light and shadows, she got up close and really studied them. I probably studied the kids as much as I studied the paintings, admiring their attention spans.

As we exited the museum the kids were in such a frenzy to rush and feed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square again that Nate ran straight across a beautiful chalk drawing, a copy of a Botticelli painting a woman had just completed. He didn’t even notice until we called him back. We put a few pence in her collection hat, it really was an amazing drawing. There is a lot of talent out there, sitting around on sidewalks asking for change. Then we found the pigeon man and fed the pigeons again (hope there was no pigeon poop on those dirty feet), and then headed to the London Eye for our trip above the city. This is probably the climax of our dirty feet day, as far as dirt goes. The area around the London Eye reminds us of a carnival ground, lots of dropped ice cream cones and sugary nuts scattered about. Nate and Benji were a little nervous about riding this huge ferries wheel, but by the time we reached the top they were both walking around our little capsule (each capsule held around twenty people, and looked like a pill with glass on all sides). We had great views of the city.

As we left we ran into some unusual faces in the street. Five jolly sailors in ridiculous clothes were gallivanting about with an accordion, boat oar, and other sailor things. We stopped and let the kids get their picture taken, and were willing to pay some pence for it, but couldn’t find any money collection receptacle. Apparently they were doing it for fun.

We headed home to wash the dirty feet. Clay let the kids navigate, and they found their way through two subway stations and a train change, and all the way back to the hotel without help. Everyone seems to be adjusting to being gone for a while. We’re taking a little down time each morning or afternoon at the hotel to just chill a while. The boys lay on the bed and listen to the Harry Potter book that Clay put on my iPod, Alayna reads or plays her DS, Clay and I read, write, get on the computer, etc. We had a talk about how we feel, and when we asked Benji if there was anything different about being on the trip, he said, “Well, the covers are really heavy.” If that’s the worst thing that comes Benji’s way, we’re pretty lucky!

 

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

The past few days we’ve been here and there throughout the city of London. We went to St. Paul’s Cathedral today, a giant domed Anglican church that reminded us of our state capital in Austin. Nate and Benji were brave enough to walk the 160 steps to the Whispering Gallery, where the acoustics are good enough to whisper and be heard across the huge dome, if it isn’t too crowded. When we arrived we asked the guide sitting near the entrance door how the whispering worked, and he told us to just whisper towards the wall, and you can be heard all around if it isn’t too loud. There were pretty big crowds, but we were still able to hear each other whispering from a considerable distance. Some people cracked us up by whispering into these tiny weep holes, located at intervals around the dome. They didn’t stop to ask the guide, they just assumed that by whispering into these little holes (which are actually designed to allow moisture out of the building) their voices would carry around. They would put their lips right up to these dirty little holes and whisper, and then turn around and grin across the dome at their friends, who shook their heads.

Later, we went to see a play called Mousetrap by Agatha Christie. It’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for longest continuously running plays, and we really enjoyed it. It wasn’t very splashy, no set changes, but a good mystery with some suspense. Our seats weren’t all that great, but just before the play began an usher told us we could move to any open seat, so we ran up to the second row and loved every up-close minute of it. Benji actually figured out who the killer was before anyone else. As we were leaving Clay noticed a sign on the side that said “stage door”, so we walked by to see if we could get a glimpse of the actors. It had only been about ten minutes since the curtain went down, but the actors were all standing around the door, in plain clothes, ready to head out for their afternoon (it was a matinee). What a weird life that must be!

I thought I’d share with everyone some of the differences we’ve noticed since being in London, some of the things we haven’t heard about in the guide books. Nothing earth-shattering or shocking, just different. They label their public restrooms “toilet”. When they’re telling you to “watch out”, as in “watch out for the step”, they say “mind”, as in “mind the step”, or our favorite, “mind the gap”. We hear this a lot on the underground when getting on or off. A man on the loudspeaker drones “mind the gap”, so you don’t accidentally step in the gap between the train and the pavement. On the back of ice cream trucks, it says “mind that child”. Our kids got a kick out of that.

They have these things in London called “flakes”, which are sticks of flaky chocolate. You see them all over, you can get a “Flake McFlurry” at McDonalds, a flake in your Latte at Starbucks, or a flake in your “Softee” vanilla ice cream cone that are sold on ice cream trucks. The kids are big fans of flakes. One thing they don’t have a lot of are trash cans. We’ve walked over half the city in search of a trash can, and found nary a one. We can’t figure it out. There are none in the underground stations, few in the parks. It’s very strange.

They eat a lot of tomatoes here. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you’ll often find a tomato on your plate. They also have “mushy peas” as a side dish, which are just that. Mashed up peas. Regular tap water is called “still water” (no bubbles), and you pass people walking towards you on the left, not the right. Which brings me to driving. As we’ve walked around London, we noticed that the words “look left” or “look right” are printed on the pavement at crosswalks, to remind tourists which direction the cars will be coming from. We’ll be making use of these instructions tomorrow as we head out of the city in a rented car, standard transmission, stick shift of the left hand side, driver on the right hand side. If you don’t see an update for a while, it’s either because we don’t have internet access in the small town we’ll be staying in, or we didn’t make it out of London. Say a little prayer.