Sunday, September 8, 2013

Britain Revisited: Day 9--Final Day!

Sadly, day 9 was our last day in Scotland and in the UK in general. We decided to take this opportunity to book a day trip to Glasgow, Loch Lomond, the Highlands, and Stirling (all William Wallace territory for Braveheart fans). We had wanted to do Loch Ness, but it was a 12 hour tour, and we didn’t want to arrive back at 8:00 at night when everything was closed. 
I really encourage anyone who has just a few days in a particular city or town to take one of these day tours. It really is a great (and affordable) way to see some highlights of the terrain, and especially if you’re operating without a car, it’s a stress-free transportation method. 
It was somewhat unfortunate that our tour guide was almost impossible to understand. The poor guy had a slight speech impediment, but we were still able to at least hear him until he pulled the bus over on the side of the road and changed his microphone, worried that the one he was using wasn’t clear enough. But after he changed out the microphone, we couldn’t understand a word he said--the reception was so muffled and garbled. So we settled for sitting back and watching the beautiful scenery go by.
Once we reached Glasgow, further auditory interference occurred when a woman in the front decided to use her cell phone and put it on speaker. Noise that sounded like a distant radio station filtered through the bus, and the bus driver kindly asked if whoever was currently using their mobile phone would shut it off. Everyone looked at everyone else, wide-eyed with wonderment and suspicion (and a desperate desire to let everyone else know they weren't the offender) and the noise continued. Again, the bus driver asked if the offender would shut off their phone. Eager to ensure everyone else that they were not the culprit, people’s expressions changed to annoyance, and they craned their necks to look around ever more diligently. But the noise continued. 
Finally, the bus driver pulled the bus over to the side of the road and stopped. “There’s no point in us continuing on this journey with that sort of interference.” And we all sat, feeling like chastened children whose father had pulled the car over to the side of the road because we were acting up. Amazingly, the sounds continued to echo through the bus. 
Obviously irritated, the driver stood and marched down the aisle, searching for the rebel who dared to ignore his pleas. He found her in the second row, and although we could not hear all of what he said to her, his hand motions insinuated that he was hopping mad (I actually thought he might take the phone from her), and he ended his comeuppance with: “We can all hear your conversation! It’s broadcasting throughout the whole bus!”
Because the woman was not a native English speaker, I can only assume she did not understand what he was saying when he requested the phone call discontinue (or she was too engaged in the call). At any rate, he continued the tour with words of amiable humility. "I'm so sorry about that interruption, but it is my feeling that phone calls should be done in private." 
The tour through Glasgow was definitely a snapshot of the city. We did not exit the bus, and the entire city-at-a-glimpse took no more than 20 minutes. Glasgow is completely different from Edinburgh and its well-preserved antiquity. It feels much more modern, cosmopolitan, spread out, and …well, cityish. Although the business sector was attractive enough, I didn’t feel that I had missed anything by not spending time there. 
Soon we were back on the motorway again and headed toward Loch Lomond. Loch is the Scottish terminology for Lake, so like Loch Ness, Loch Lomond is a large lake frequented by tourists. It is really beautiful and all along the way there are castles and mansions to behold. Many of these abodes are frequented by celebrities and/or owned by people with oodles of money. Stephen and I made sure to find a seat up-top so that we could look out over the water. Everyone else had the same idea, so as we began the journey, the open-top part of the boat was jam-packed. Little by little, as the hour-long tour progressed, people began to excuse themselves to the downstairs area, as they became too cold to sit in the chilly loch air. But not us! Survivor Man and Woman were prepared! (I bought an ultra-touristy sweatshirt just the night before in preparation). We wore sweaters and long pants and brought additional jackets as well. Although I did break down and buy a cup of coffee at one point, we fared better than many.
**Just an interesting tidbit: Although we did not make it to Loch Ness, we were told that there had been another “Nessie” sighting while we were there. 

We left the loch and traveled to the highlands and a little village where we had lunch at a wool center. This was a fascinating place as it was kind of a combination of a clothing outlet (lots of inexpensive sweaters and other clothing), a petting zoo, and a dog-herding demonstration. We ate quickly so we could join the crowd outside watching a Border Collie herd ducks and sheep. I’ve seen this before, but I never tire of it. My grandfather owned several Border Collies over the years, and I know how smart these dogs are. Watching them do what they’re made to do is mesmerizing. They need very little instruction in these sheep and duck games (as they instinctively herd anything), and the “creeping” that they do is a natural, inborn trait. 
Our journey continued on into the beautiful highlands where we stopped for several photo opportunities—breathtaking hills covered in heather and thistles, and no pictures do them justice. Finally, we arrived at Stirling Castle. Stephen and I opted out of going inside, as we had already seen quite a few castles and were really more interested in finding a place to have tea or coffee. Just as we started to walk into town, however, we stopped to take  photos from the castle looking out over the town. A very nice group of Scots stopped us and askedif we wanted our picture taken, and with the most outgoing man of the group, we entered into a fifteen minute conversation. (The Scots really are SO friendly!) Turns out, this man and his wife live half the year in Florida (the cold half)and half in Stirling (the nicer-weather half). He used to be with the British armed forces, and he mentioned something about doing some commando work, in which he was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. Fascinating guy. And as he said, he and his wife were “living the dream.”  He also mimicked an outstanding American accent!

Walking into the town of Stirling, it was all down hill. So it was a lovely walk down town. Once we got into the main part of town, we were shocked to find that most of the shops were already closed. “It’s only 3:30!” I said in disbelief. “How do these people make any money if they’re closing down halfway through the day?” We did find an open restaurant, however, and had our coffee there before making our way back up hill to our bus. Not nearly so pleasant.

It was an hour or so back to Edinburgh, so we arrived a little after 5:00. We had departed the city in the fog, and when we returned, the fog over the town was as thick as ever. I was very concerned about confirming our 3 a.m. taxi for the next morning, which was to take us to the airport. Again—the phone problems ensued. I had forgotten that I had only agreed to the international data plan until the 21st of the month. That left us one day in Scotland without use of mobile devices. That included cell phone calls. I tried to use the phone in our hotel room, but I learned that I would have to give them my credit card deteails first. That sort of made me angry. I just wanted to make one 30 second local call. I couldn’t even use the calling card I had bought in London without giving them my credit card details! 
Feeling very frustrated and cut off from the world, I resolved to find a pay phone. Marching down to the lobby, I tried the pay phones on the wall, only to find that they, too, only took credit cards. Nearly demented with anxiety, I was less than calm as I demanded of the concierge if she knew of a nearby pay phone. When she said that she did not, I nearly shrieked with hysteria, but instead I snarkily replied, “Thank you for your help.”
At this point, Stephen stopped me and told me to take deep breaths because I was “getting crazy.” I knew this was true, because I actually felt my brain uncoiling, as evidenced by the irrational tears springing to my eyes. 
“Let’s pray right now to find a pay phone,” he said very calmly (I was so proud that he held it together when I was so visibly losing it!). This actually lowered my anxiety levels considerably, and as soon as we walked out of the hotel and emerged on The Royal Mile—there was a red phone box. My calling card still didn’t work with this contraption, but then this very primitive idea occurred to me. Why not actually feed change into the machine? 
My hands were shaking as I put the coins into the slot; it seemed highly unlikely this would actually work. Coins? In a pay phone? Ridiculous notion! I was amazed when I actually heard a voice on the other end of the line announcing the name of the cab company. The next morning’s ride was confirmed, and we were even more pleased to know that they would be picking us up at 4 a.m., not 3 a.m. 
I couldn’t believe how upset I had gotten over this, and I was even more perplexed by the immense relief I felt afterwards. But this was our last night in Edinburgh, and we were determined to enjoy it and not let that little episode bring us down. We ate at a pub on the Royal Mile called Rabbie Burns (a little phonetic play on the Robbie Burns pronunciation). For those of you who don’t know, Robert Burns was a very famous Scottish poet who wrote “My love is like a red, red rose…” (roll your r's and you'll have it!) This pub had some 700 hundred (I’m exaggerating) different kinds of whiskey (mostly Scotch Whiskey). Stephen tried one of the more illustrious ones, whereas I settled for a beer and fish and chips. In the whole time that we were in the UK, this was the only restaurant that didn't take our debit cards. I had to run down the street to an ATM to get cash, bypassing homeless street people with dogs (my absolute weakness). It took everything in me not to give them the whole of the 40 pounds I had just pulled from said machine. 
Afterwards we wandered in and out of tourist shops trying to decide where to spend our last half hour before we needed to get back to the hotel and get in bed if we wanted at least five hours sleep. The Fringe Festival was still in full swing and it was still impossible to make it down the road without having at least ten flyers shoved into our hands. We could hear a girl behind us handing out flyers to people as she repeated “Dirty Canadian, Dirty Canadian, Dirty Canadian,” over and over again. 
Stephen finally turned around. “What are you calling me?” 
For a brief moment, she was thrilled, thinking we were Canadian—only to be severely disappointed that we weren’t. But she gave us a free ticket to the show, which she described as involving “absolutely filthy country music.” We decided we would definitely pass on the "Dirty Canadian", and head to back over to Frankenstein’s Pub instead.  
Back at the hotel, we readied ourselves in preparation for the outrageous wake-up time. Remember that money that I felt sure we’d lost back in Wales? Well, it was still weighing on my mind heavily. I had been praying to find it, because now on our last night, we knew we would need to tip cab driver, buy food at airport, etc. I went through my purse again, all of the pamphlets we had picked up over the course of the trip, the pockets of Stephen’s jackets. No money. I finally gave up and decided not to think about it. It was gone forever. Chock it up to "the expense account."
The next morning, I found the twenty pounds in the pocket of the pants I had laid out to wear for traveling. I was overjoyed but embarrassed that I had blamed Stephen for the loss of the money. Unfortunately, I also managed to donate my sweater to the back seat of the cab just as we arrived to the airport. You find something, you lose something. Isn’t that the way it goes?
Stephen and I both agreed that this was the trip of a life time. It was good for us personally, as we had never vacationed somewhere that didn't involve family visits (save our honeymoon trip in 2007). It was wonderful to have this time to go somewhere together and just enjoy each other’s company and our surroundings. It also made me so happy that Stephen loved the UK as much as I did. He found wonder and awe in all of these places that I hold so dear, and he even expressed a desire to return and spend more time in various spots.
This was also a very healing time for me, as I mentioned before. There will always be such a special place in my heart for the United Kingdom. I love the profound effect it still has on me after so many years. Maybe it’s the fact that my family’s heritage is found in this place, or maybe it’s just an ingrained adoration for all things British. I will always want to come back here and continue to discover more about this wonderful country. When I left London in 1997, my heart was utterly broken; this time, as I left, I felt an indescribable sense of peace (minus the plane ride, of course). Almost twenty years after I first arrived in the UK, I returned to find many things were changed--many were the same, but ultimately--the world was at it should be.
I will leave this blog segment with lyrics I would never have thought to include in any of my writings before now, but there you go. That's the nature of living and learning:

"There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I've loved them all

But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I'll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more

Though I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I'll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more
In my life I love you more"  -The Beatles

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Britain Revisited: Day 8

I’m sorry to say it, but this is the second time I’ve been to Scotland and endured terrible showers. When my mom and I visited Scotland in 2003 for Michelle’s wedding, my mother was so frustrated with the showers at our b&b, that when we returned to London, she insisted we stay in a hotel (some major chain like Hilton or Marriott or something) right by Heathrow Airport so she could have a decent shower.  I was really surprised to find that this situation was no better at The Jury’s Inn. Great hotel in other respects –within walking distance of The Royal Mile, very nice rooms, and relatively comfortable beds (although Stephen described all UK hotel beds as cardboard boxes with a sheet spread across them), and the most wonderful hot, British breakfasts (included in the cost of the hotel—yay!). But honestly, I just didn’t bother with the showers by the last day.

In order to get the water running, you have to turn this knob, flip this switch, rotate this dial—all without any knowledge of what any of the apparatuses are actually doing. We could get the water to maintain a relatively steady pressure, but it was ice cold. If we wanted hot water, we had to dance under a trickle that dripped down in one long stream. The worst of it occurred the second day. Stephen managed to get warm water running, but just as he was all lathered up—his eyes closed as the soap ran from his hair into his eyes—the water petered into a trickling stream (sort of resembling a leak from a faucet).

“Could you help me please?” he called desperately to me in the next room. But as I turned this knob and that knob, the water pressure changing only to unleash a freezing cold spray, I was forced to admit defeat. And Stephen was forced to finish his shower with ice-cold water. Having said all of this, my Scottish friends tell me that they have never experienced plumbing problems in all their years of living in Scotland, so maybe it’s just a conspiracy against tourists!

Our second day in Scotland was spent walking around the city. There really is so much to see in Edinburgh, and every sight is worthwhile. We decided to check out the National Gallery, but we never actually found a way to enter the building. Either it was closed due to the festival, or we simply never found the right entrance or the right building. Whatever the case, we had walked too far to backtrack and try to find it again. By 10:00 that morning, the streets were crawling with festival goers, and the ticket booth was near Waverley Station where the lines of people zigzagged back and forth and blocked a lot of the pedestrian activity.

Edinburgh has an old and a new section. The old section has the castle, tourist shops, pubs, restaurants, and gorgeous architecture. The new section is not far from the old (at least if you’re driving), and features many modern clothing stores, businesses, and some restaurants and pubs as well. We walked from the old section into the new, and as we had no particular place we were going, we ended up wandering—first up the street and then back down it. Soon it was raining, and we ducked inside Jenner’s (a department store somewhat reminiscent of Harrod’s, but on a much smaller and more manageable scale). By the time we left Jenner’s, it had quit raining, and we made our way back up the hill, into the old section of town, and back onto The Royal Mile, where we finally made our way into the National Museum of Scotland.

This is a truly interesting museum, as it has a little bit of everything. It’s mixture of natural history, Scottish origins and culture, and technological progress. The museum is multi-level (I think there are four or five floors) and architecturally open and very attractive. They were featuring an exhibition on Mary Queen of Scots, but that cost extra money (whereas the museum itself is free), so we skipped it. Actually, neither of us are big museum people (I think we discovered that on this trip), so we spent a little time looking at the old Victrolas and gramophones and paused for a mesmerizing 1:00 chiming of The Millennium Clock. This structure is hard to describe. All I can tell you is that it's impossible to stop watching it! There are four sections to the clock and each section moves independently at first, and then all of the animated characters move together. According to the museum, the clock is made up of “the best and the worst of the twentieth century.” With this in mind, there are human figures (including grotesques of Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin), animals (horses and monkeys), and all sorts of moving parts. Each of the four sections is representative of something, and apparently the piece is quite controversial amongst museum-goers, but I found I found it nearly hypnotic to behold. It reminded me a little of the huge clock in Melbourne that drops from the ceiling at 12:00 every day to play “Waltzing Matilda,” except the thematic material was much darker and less obvious in its intent.

We skipped the rest of the museum to find a place to eat lunch since we were starving (oh, I know—what else is new for us?). Much to my delight, just across from the museum was a pub called Frankenstein’s. You know I was all over that! I need to stop here just for a minute to express that I am not a huge Frankenstein monster lover. I actually find the monster sad and pitiful, and the story itself is tragic. What I love is the Victoria era, and the story behind the story. Mary Shelley (if you hearken back to my first blog entry about our trip, you will recall that I discussed Percy Bysshe Shelley’s wife and her demise in The Serpentine) wasn’t quite married to Percy Shelley at the time that she wrote Frankenstein, but they did marry later. As the story goes, Mary S., Percy B.S., Lord George Gordon Byron, and another bloke—John Polidori, were all hanging out together on a “dark and stormy night” in Geneva, Switzerland when Byron suggested they have a little competition as to who could write the best ghost story. Byron wrote the beginnings of a vampire novel he never finished, and Mary Shelley wrote a quiet little story about the horrors of science and the industrial age called Frankenstein. The novel was published in 1818. What has any of this to do with Scotland?  Well, nothing that I know of (although those more scholarly may correct me).  But this wonderful pub is there, and it is everything you might imagine from a pub with the name.

As we entered, I noted that the inside décor had been painstakingly ornamented to look like Victor Frankenstein’s lair. Electrical voltage emanated from circular outlets in the wall; green lights adorned the brown-paneled bar area; a statue of Frankenstein’s monster loomed in the corner; and two large screens simultaneously showed old black and white films of Frankenstein and some other movies involving Frankenstein's bride and the Wolfman. And as a bonus, the food was magnificent! I had a traditional fish and chips, and I can honestly say that it was one of the best I had the whole trip!

While sitting, we discussed what we wanted to do next, and I mentioned to Stephen that Mary King’s Close now had a tour affiliated with it (The Real Mary King’s Close is the title of the attraction).
A little bit of background information on that: When I first visited the UK in 1994 with Michelle (who was living in England at the time) she took me up to Edinburgh, and we spent a few days exploring the city. One of our explorations included a trip with Auld Reekie Tours to Edinburgh’s underground vaults. There is a long, long history with the vaults, but in an inarticulate nutshell, the vaults (chambers) held mostly storage and shopkeepers, tradesmen, etc. After flooding and disrepair, the vaults became a bevy of crime and squalor. Indeed, the dwellers had no sunlight, no fresh air, and no running water—so you can imagine the conditions this encouraged.  In the 1990s, the vaults were under construction, so when I toured them in 1994 and again in 1996, the vaults were partially unearthed but still under excavation. When I visited the underground city with Michelle, the ghost tour had strategically placed in the last room of the tour a man covered with a sheet. He jumped out with a “boo!”, scaring us all senseless on our way out. Yes, it was a nice thrill and we all laughed about it. When I went returned in 1996 with my friend, Lisa (who had come to visit me from America), I did the same tour, but this time, Lisa and I (and many others in the vault with us), experienced a dark presence (and when I say dark, I mean that it was not only an evil sensation, but it was a visible, dark, shadow-like entity) that slithered past us, causing mass hysteria and a near-trampling of the tour guide. This experience profoundly affected me, especially as it accompanied a room that had a pentagram on the wall, and we were told that witches often used that particular vault chamber for their coven meetings. The connection was not lost on me then, nor was it now as I suggested to Stephen that we return—not to the vaults per se—but to the underground of Mary King’s Close, once part of Edinburgh’s underground city.

With my previous encounter in mind, Stephen was skeptical about visiting this tourist attraction. After I read him the pamphlet, however, he was keen to go. Mary King’s Close (named after one of the inhabitants) is a close (or an alley) located under the Royal Exchange in Edinburgh. It’s actually one of several streets located in this area. It is 17th century and part of several alleyways that were covered and built-over in the modern age.  It was used in World War II as a bomb shelter, and it has also served as storage for the Royal Exchange over the years. Now it is an organized and commercial tourist attraction which begins with a gift shop and ends with souvenir pictures (really?). The tour guides are well-trained (most likely struggling actors), and unlike the stark, dark, primitive feel of the vaults (although quite honestly, the close feels a little ominous at certain points), this tour incorporates a touch of Disney Land, as the tour guides “interact” with talking pictures (video projections of bygone inhabitants) and special effects illuminate walls and project shadow figures as a disembodied voice tells a ghost story. If I had seen an amusement park train or car to transport us through catacombs mechanically animated with floating heads and talking mannequins, I would have howled with joy. But the Scots are a little more tasteful than we are about those things.

This was a truly well-done, professional tour that gave a nice glimpse of the underground city and what it might have been like to live down there in the 1600s (no thank you). I would highly recommend this tour, as it the tour guides are knowledgeable, and the stories that they have to tell about the underground city (and the fact that another city was built over top of it) are very worthwhile.

It was raining when we left Mary King’s Close (surprise!), we decided to head back to the hotel to rest before the very exciting event of meeting up with my long-time friend, Michelle.

Michelle and I went to high school together. We met in the 10th grade when we realized that we both shared a love of heavy metal music and long-haired men. (Thank you, God—for moving me on!). The last time I had seen her was in 2003 at her wedding when we’d only had about five minutes to talk.  It had been ten years since then! But when we saw each other in the lobby of The Jury’s Inn, it was like a day hadn’t passed. Michelle had not changed one iota! She looked exactly the same! (Stephen confirmed this later when we watched some video footage from 1994).

We walked to a local pub where we had dinner and reminisced about old times. I was only sorry that Stephen did not get to meet her husband, Keith, and I did not get to meet her daughter, Scarlett (Keith was babysitting), but I was very excited for Michelle to meet Stephen for the first time. Michelle is now the principal of a high school in Edinburgh, and I could not be more proud of her! She is such a charismatic, warm, and all-around beautiful individual, and I have always admired her spunk and her magnetism. Michelle, if you’re reading—you are a gem!

After a nice long dinner of comparing notes and catching up, we were off to the karaoke club to meet up with others I had not seen in ages—Shoena and Jane. These ladies were flatmates of Michelle’s back in the 90s, and I used to stay with them on my weekends in Edinburgh when I lived in London. Again, these women are unchanged. I complained about the plumbing, but perhaps there is something in the Scottish water that promotes youth? Maybe that’s why the hotel water is so stingy. It’s the best-kept Scottish secret and they don’t want it getting out!

Karaoke in Edinburgh was not what we expected. We were not in front of a large crowd. At Supercube, we were in a tiny room that housed around seven people. No one heard what we sang but us. We programmed the music into the computer ourselves, and it played the songs whilst broadcasting the lyrics on the wall. Wireless mics were provided, and a waiter was at our disposal—we only needed to press the call button for drinks or snacks or whatever.
We sang from 8:30 until 11:30. I sang until I was hoarse. Michelle and I reprised our “famous” recording from Virginia Beach (from 1992 or some such time) of “Hotel California.” Stephen and Shoena sang “Penny Lane.”  Michelle sang Miley Cyrus. There were renditions of Jewel, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, Barbra Streisand, Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, as well as lots of artists I didn’t know. It was SO MUCH FUN!

Alas, I had to let Michelle go home, since she had an entire school to face the next day, and Stephen and I knew that we would soon turn into pumpkins if we stayed out much longer.

But it was a wonderful night, and I went to bed feeling good about the day…and auld lang syne…and Depeche Mode… 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Britain Revisited: Day 7

As we left Liverpool the morning of day 7, the cab driver ferrying us to the train station was appalled that we had stayed such a short time and had neglected the museums, cathedrals, and marinas for The Beatles hype.

“You Americans and The Beatles!” he said with great exasperation. “I can’t understand it! I don’t even think they can sing!”

That may be so, I thought to myself, but inadvertently, they are probably responsible for some of your incoming cab fare as the tourists come in and out of Lime Street Station. I mean, let’s face it—much of Liverpool’s charm comes from its affiliation with the band. But in all honesty, we really did like the city and would definitely visit it again to stay longer and see more sights.

The train ride from Liverpool to Edinburgh, Scotland, was the longest of our train journeys, and some of the most scenic. The transition from north England into Scotland was breathtaking—sweeping hills with grazing sheep and the stone fence lines dating back to who-knows-what-century! Our journey to the north was peaceful and uneventful, and we arrived in Edinburgh Waverley Station around 2:30 in the afternoon.

Fortuitously (and just as it had happened in Wales), the station was just across the street from our hotel, The Jury’s Inn. I should also state that our visit coincided with Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival—an annual, month-long performance gala, where every type of theatrical and musical performance takes place in every possible venue. They might perform right on the street, in a Cathedral, in a pub, or even in a hotel. At any given moment of the day, there are performances ongoing. This also meant that every hotel was full, and the streets were overflowing with tourists. Basically, we were very fortunate to get a hotel. Yay for early booking!

Therefore, my heart stopped arrested suddenly when the woman at the check-in counter told me that there was no booking under my name. Immediately, my mind rolled with images of desperate and expensive international phone calls to Virgin Vacations and potentially pounding the pavement looking for hostels that might have a twin bed that we could share. I also found that I could not understand a word that she was saying. I got that there was “noa booking unda tha’ name.” But everything else she said (accompanied by giggles and smiles) was completely lost to me.
Mercifully, once she took a look at my reservation number, all was well. The booked room was simply under my middle name—Clarke. Thank heavens I had the reservation printed out, because never in a million years would I have thought to check under a long-forgotten middle name that I no longer use (but it is still on my passport!).

After dropping off our things, we immediately headed for The Royal Mile, and I have to say that this was one of the best moments of the trip (for me, at least). As we transitioned from the alley (they call them closes in Scotland) into the main street, Stephen’s face was afire with excitement. Not only is The Royal Mile lined with one ancient building after another leading up to the epitome of it all—The Edinburgh Castle, but on this afternoon—well into the Fringe Festival season—the street was buzzing with activity! Street performers were everywhere, walking on stilts, juggling, eating fire, doing ridiculous street skits, and shoving flyers into tourist’s hands—advertisements for plays happening elsewhere in the city. We swam through the excitement, happy that this section of the street had been blocked to traffic. The Edinburgh castle seemed the best place to begin our three days in Scotland, so we purchased our tickets, and joined a tour that had just started at 3:00 (or 15:00 hours as they like to say over there).

After showing the cannon that fires every day at 1:00, the tour guide, a diminutive, freckled, spunky Scot, led us to a lookout where she pointed out a stretch of land in the distance just across the water. Because it was so overcast and foggy, we could just make out the blue outline of the terrain’s expanse.

With a smirk, she said wryly: “You won’t believe this, but I have been asked if that is Norway or France. I have even been asked if that is the United States.”

The crowd roared with hilarity at such a ridiculous notion; however, I felt sure that some person in our gathering was ever so happy that he or she didn’t open his or her mouth to ask this very question just as our guide assured us that the island was, in fact, part of Scotland. (And that the United States was not accessible by row boat).

Oh, what shall I say about the castle? There are so many components to it! I could write chapters about it! But I won’t.  Nevertheless, you probably should know that the castle is so old that there is evidence of some sort of building residing on this spot as far back as 900 BC! It seems to me, however, that much of the real history began around 1018 and beyond, as Scottish kings started taking the throne. (Nowadays they do recognize the English queen, and there is no king or queen sitting on the thrones of Scotland). If anyone has seen Braveheart, this cannot fail to excite them. Many of the displays walk through the lineage of royalty, including Robert the Bruce, and the tour guides are always quick to point out any and all connections to William Wallace’s freedom fighting. The Scots are proud of their heritage and their hard-won fight to win their independence from England.

Some of the truly touching and wonderful sites to see at the castle include: The National War Memorial; the Scottish crown jewels; and the Prison of War dungeon—recreated to look as it did in the 1700s. It was interesting to me to discover as we toured the dungeon and read the informational plaques, that during the 1700s, the French and Spanish prisoners were often given generous rations (even two pints of beer a day!) and they were the first to be released, whereas the American prisoners were treated as “pirates” and given half-rations (and not released until absolutely necessary). 
I must also mention that the castle also boasts a dog cemetery on site (instated by Queen Victoria to remember the soldier’s dogs). I love that!

We left the castle and wandered through many of the wonderful tourist shops along The Royal Mile. I really have to give the Scots some props here. I think their tourist shops are the least kitschy of any I’ve seen, and the mementos within are quality merchandise! This is the place to buy Tartans of your family clan, Walker’s Shortbread, and tea towels emblazoned with the official Scottish plant—the thistle.

By this time, it was late afternoon, and the skies grayed and threatened rain. We hurried into Deacon Brodies Tavern. I had been to this pub years ago with my good friend, Michelle, and it was so much fun to return to it now and see it teeming with people, all trying to avoid the rain. Stephen was in search of genuine Scottish ale, and sadly—he never really found what he was looking for (McEwan’s Scotch Ale). We sat down at a table to enjoy our spoils and ended up striking up a conversation with an unlikely bunch of lads beside us. It turns out that these gentlemen were all dairy farmers who had turned up in Edinburgh for a Dairy Farmer’s Convention! (Who knew?) We talked to them for ages, and I learned a lot about dairy cattle. For instance, I didn’t know that “small” farmers house around 250 cows that are milked daily. They warned me to stay away from buying dairy that comes from farmers with over 2,000 cows! They said that’s where you run into the abuse, poor dairy ethics, and bad practices. More than ever, I am now convinced that I want to buy my dairy from small, local farmers.

After leaving Deacon Brodies Tavern, we were in search of food. The farmers had given us a local recommendation of a restaurant known for its steak called The Outsider. Well, apparently we were the outsiders to this establishment, as we could not step over the threshold without a booking! They were completely full all night!

As we left that restaurant, it was suddenly pouring down rain outside, and rushing along the street, Stephen paused to take a picture of a Scotsman in full Scottish regalia standing in a doorway (only to find that he was  smoking a bad sort of cigarette…)

We ended up ducking into a small two-tiered restaurant called The Cellar Door. What a gem! We both had marvelous food and even better service! It was quaint and charming and the ambiance was low-lit and romantic. It was the perfect ending to a wonderful first day in Edinburgh. Afterwards, we strolled arm in arm back to our hotel, talking of the glories of Edinburgh and how both of us could easily live in this wonderful city! Huzzah!

But back at our hotel, we were cruelly thrust into the realities of Scottish plumbing… 

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Britain Revisted: Day 6

Wales is a bilingual country of around 3 million people. In fact, Welsh was the only spoken language in Wales until the 12th century, when King Edward (also known as Edward the Long Shanks) began to induct Welshmen into his service. Of course, the Welsh had to learn English in order to be a part of the King’s service, and soon the English language spread across the land.

In modern times (1990s), fearing that the native language was dying out, the government enacted the Welsh Language Act (English and Welsh are to be treated equally) in order to protect the language. All public transportation signs are printed in both English and Welsh, and all public documents are printed in both languages. Children are required to study Welsh in schools until the age of 16. Overall, they have done a pretty good job of keeping the language alive. The most recent census showed that about 19% of the country speaks the Welsh language. 

It was fascinating to be sitting on a train bound for Liverpool listening to the woman just to the left of us talking animatedly on her cell phone—all in Welsh—with the occasional English “Okay”  thrown in. (I guess there’s no equivalent for that word in modern Welsh?) And it was actually a little sad when we left the last Welsh Station—Abergavenny (Welsh: Y Fenni) and crossed over the Welsh border into England where the first station simply read: Hereford.

We had to change trains once in Crewe, and from this point we took a city train that took us straight into the center of Liverpool’s Lime Street Station. But not before we’d had to bear nearly half an hour of badly behaved adolescent Liverpudlian boys, who were on their way to John Lennon airport dressed in what looked like long shorts and rubber galoshes. (We were soon to discover that this is apparently the newest style amongst English boys, as every youth was dressed thus once we arrived in Liverpool). I’m sure the galoshes companies are happy, but I daresay that the adult population will not fret the passing of this fad.

“We’re going to crash!” One of the boys kept screaming out on the train, soon followed by: “We’re all going to die!”

Of course, in good English fashion, no one said anything at all to them, and they were allowed to carry on as boisterously as possible. They also occupied the best seats on the train, so when they mercifully disembarked at the airport stop, whacking everyone around them with their luggage, we moved up into their seats. There, we found, they had left spoils of their journey behind them. No less than four unopened cans of Carling beer were left in their wake (boys can drink at the age of 16 in the UK), and when we exited the train, we helped ourselves to one of them. I can safely say it was the worst beer I have ever tried—virtually undrinkable, in fact.

Liverpool is a really interesting town, and I freely admit that I did not allow for enough time there (we really only had half a day). It feels very modern there—almost like New York City. There are a lot of dred-locked people walking around carrying guitar cases, and heavily pierced persons were the norm in the city center. It is also the dirtiest city I’ve ever seen in England (although I hear Manchester is much worse). Litter was everywhere! Later, whilst reading Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, I saw that he actually termed Liverpool’s trash-laden streets “The Festival of Litter.” There was a fair amount of graffiti everywhere we walked, and a generic grime covered the sidewalks. Having said that, I really wish we’d had more time there because we both really liked the place!

Not far from our hotel, we found a wonderful Mexican restaurant called Lucha Libre. There, I ate the best (and I’m not kidding when I say this)—THE BEST fish tacos I’ve ever had in my life. They were on corn tortillas and accompanied by aioli sauce and shredded lettuce and honestly…my mouth is watering as I speak…Wow!

Liverpool is full of museums, many of them free, that we never got to see. It boasts the world’s second largest Anglican Cathedral, which is stunning to behold. Again, it’s free to enter, and we didn’t have time. There is an immense shopping portal in the town, full of modern and enticing stores, and a fully renovated and beautiful situated dock area, full of restaurants and shops and beautiful views of the water. Liverpool was once one of the most important cities in Europe due to its dock and import/export capabilities.

But we were there for one reason alone—to experience the birthplace of The Beatles, and to go on The Magical Mystery Tour.   Now, let me say up front that I’m not really a Beatles fan. I know, I know…I hear the jeers –boo, hiss. In my own defense, they weren’t really part of my era of music—although I did like Paul McCartney’s music with Wings—so hopefully that redeems me in some way. Stephen is a massive Beatles fan, and again—I only feel guilty that I didn’t plan this part of the trip right. We really needed more time there, as we didn’t get to do The Beatles museum either. Our bus tour was booked for 4:00, and it was the last tour of the day, so we were on a strict schedule. We had a marvelous tour guide named Nick (at least I think that’s what he said—Liverpudlians talk so fast!), who had been doing the tours for thirteen years. He told us that he absolutely loved his job—he does three or four tours a day (they last around two hours a piece), and he’s gotten to know all of the locals in all of the neighborhoods over the years. This was obvious, as when we stopped off to invade the neighborhood where Paul McCartney was born, an elderly man walking down the street, stopped off to talk to Nick and tell him the status of his wife's health. Apparently, she had been diagnosed with cancer and given two days to live, but she had survived  six weeks and was up and about and doing great.

Later on, we stopped off in the neighborhood where George Harrison was born. “We don’t go into the cul-de-sac, though,” Nick said, stopping one woman who was plowing ahead into the circle of row houses. “We only go if we’re invited.”

Just about that time, a tiny boy who looked to be around four, poked his head out of the door of the house across from George Harrison’s boyhood home. “Nanny says it’s all right.”

“Who says it’s all right?” Nick asked him.

“Nanny says it’s all right,” the little boy repeated. “You can come through.” And with that, we had been invited.  

Someone actually lives in George Harrison’s old home now (and apparently he was born in the basement of the place), but Paul McCartney’s and John Lennon’s are museums and may be toured by appointment. As of that time however, the tours were booked up through September. At any rate, can you imagine living in a neighborhood where a thousand tourists a day traipse through to snap pictures of a house once touched by one of The Beatles? It must be very tiresome.

A great deal of the places we saw at the beginning of the tour were somewhat depressing. Multi-level apartment buildings were abandoned, boarded up, or left to be vandalized and project an eerie picture of smashed windows and darkened doorways. Many parts of the city look so dejected and dark and depressing, but then we moved off into the neighboring suburbs, and the outlook brightened considerably. By the time we had made our way into the area where the red gate for Strawberry Fields has been replicated, we were oohing and ahhing over the beautiful—and gigantic—homes.

There are many, many Beatle-themed sites that have been left to ruin, unfortunately. A bistro in the center of one of the residential areas is completely shut down, and although it is an adorable old building, it badly needs repair. The Empress—a pub that stands across the street from Ringo Starr’s old house, and where his mother worked for a time, is shut down—the letters falling from the sign. It was very sad to see, as the place has the historical plaque on the outside, so it cannot be torn down—but it has been left to decay. I guess there’s no money to keep these places up, but it sure seems like a massively missed business opportunity. I would think tourists would flock to these places. 

The tour ended at The Cavern Club back in the city. Our entrance to the club was included in the tour costs, so we decided to go in even though Stephen had been told not to bother with it. This was the second time on the trip we had been told “not to bother” with something, only to be so happy that we did! This place was great!

The Cavern Club was opened in the 1950s, and The Beatles (then known as The Quarrymen) played there some 292 times over the course of their career. The club was closed down and demolished in 1973 because of some underground railway ventilation duct that supposedly had to be built. It turned out, that they misjudged the location where the ventilation duct had to be constructed. The demolition had been all for nothing. In 1984, the site was excavated, and 15,000 of the original bricks were used to reform the place.

It is literally a cavern. You go way, way down underground to get to this place, and it is quite small and intimate. It is, of course, a tourist trap, and there is a tourist shop down there, but there is also fabulous music being played every day—many of the groups do Beatles tunes—as was the case for us that afternoon. Two guys played guitar and sang all of the old tunes, including requests by some obnoxious Americans (they claimed to be Canadians, but I had heard their previous conversations, and they were definitely Americans) sitting next to us.

So we had a beer and sat to listened to old Beatles songs, and we imagined what it would have been like in the 1960s, filled with cigarette smoke and beatniks all sitting around listening to The Beatles play. It was a pretty cool experience!

After leaving the club, I was having a sugar low and a case of the grumpies. It was quite a long walk back to our hotel, and we really had no clue where to eat. I like to think that the only time I’m really mean is when I’m hungry—and this was one of them. I get silent and peevish (I might even get snappy if I’m spoken to while in this state). Anyway, this was one of those times.  Because it was past seven thirty everything was shut down except for a few restaurants in the center of town, so we settled on an Italian restaurant. Once I started eating, normalcy returned, and I thoroughly enjoyed my dinner.  I only wish I could remember the name of the restaurant, as I would love to recommend it, but I believe it was on Paradise Street in Liverpool.

After we ate, we hoofed it back to our very nice hotel. The Roscoe House is located in old terraced housing and sits on Rodney Street. It may not be as central as some other hotels, and there is no breakfast affiliated with the stay there, but it’s a classic old building with beautifully restored rooms and bathrooms. And it had the best shower in all of the UK! There was actually hot water and water pressure! It was amazing!

Anyway, I hate to say it, folks—in fact—I probably don’t even have to say it, do I? Guess what was on the tele that night? Yes, it was Big Brother’s final show of the season! Thankfully, we were back to the hotel in time … 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Britain Revisited: Day 5

From what I can tell, there is a great friendliness in the UK toward dogs (and animals in general). While visiting, Stephen and I were thrilled to see dogs everywhere we went. It seemed that every second person walking down the street had dogs with them. Watching the BBC the morning before we left for the Gower Peninsula, I watched a segment on adopting dogs and cats from the local shelters. Yay! I salute this great effort. 

In a subsequent news segment, the BBC reported that the cost of raising a child in the UK to the age of 18 had risen by 4%, and it would now cost an average of 150,000 pounds for one child (that’s roughly $232,000). (Actually, I saw this segment several times on the news over the following few days). So curious did I find this news cast that I wondered with amusement if the UK had an anti-child campaign going on. (Interestingly enough, I researched this when I got home and found that a 2012 article from the UK newspaper The Guardian reported on a politician in Britain who suggested that health benefits only be paid out for the first two children). He (and a couple of other politicians cited in the article) claimed that Britain’s joblessness and poverty were due to all of the benefits being paid out on kids). Very interesting, indeed.

Anyway, not that this has anything to do with our trip to Wales—I just found it interesting, as it sort of coincided with a segment in Bill Bryson’s book Notes from a Small Island, where he pointed out that there was a Royal Society for the Protection of Cats long before there was any sort of protective agency for children.

Back to the trip … Stephen and I traveled to the Welsh Gower Peninsula with a small, family-run tour company called Where, When, Wales. Run by a husband-wife team named John and Jan, this was a wonderful way to travel to the beautiful Welsh coast line and see some sights we would not otherwise have been seen. In the southern tip of Wales, the Swansea Bay area and the Peninsula in general, offer breath-taking coastal sites (along with plenty of opportunities to see sheep and wild ponies wandering loosely on hillsides).

Our tour guides, Jan and John, were hilarious. Jan conducts the majority of the narration to the tour and John drives the bus, and all along the way they poke fun at each other and rib one another mercilessly. At first glance, you might think that John was quiet, but once he got from behind the steering wheel of the bus and spoke about one historical location or another, you quickly found that he was a vast fountain of knowledge on just about every subject under the sun. 
As we passed Port Talbot, Jan asked the crowd if we knew about a star that had his start in that little village. I immediately called out, “Anthony Hopkins!”

“Yes,” Jan confirmed. “That’s right. Sir Anthony Hopkins was born just up there,” she pointed to a little village nestled in the hills. And just a little further down, we’ll pass the birth place of another Welsh actor who was the highest paid actor in Hollywood in 1960. Anyone know who that was?”

Again, I couldn’t help myself. “Richard Burton!”

“Yes, that’s right. Wow, Megan you are my star today!”

I wasn’t sure whether to be proud of all of my trivial Welsh-star expertise, or horrified that this was the sort of knowledge I have retained over my forty-one years. 

Our first stop was Swansea Marina and the Maritime Museum. I had been to Swansea in 1994 with Michelle, and I loved it then. It is a beautiful town and fishing village that overlooks the Swansea Bay. When there in 1994, I remember attending an open market where fish and produce and other sorts of crafty and artsy goods were sold. Michelle and I played mini-golf in the center of town with her friend, Phil, and rode in a Lifeboat across the bay. On this day, we simply cruised through the town on our way to The Mumbles.  The Mumbles is another lovely little village in Swansea Bay that sits right on the shore. As we made our way up a winding, residential road, Jan pointed out, “We’re about to see the home of someone else you all might know. This is her hometown, and a few years back, she married a much older man by the name of—“

“Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas,” I blurted out, thereby confirming that I really do watch and read too much entertainment news. I really don’t care about any of these people…seriously, I don’t!

 Sure enough, John drove us past the home of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas—a gated monstrosity nestled in the hills just above the village. I was actually amazed at how close to the road the house was situated. If we’d wanted to, we could have hoisted one another up and looked over the stone gate into their front yard. As we passed by it, Jan remarked, “None of us ever thought that marriage would last, but apparently they are still going strong after all of these years.” (Funnily enough, as soon as we got home, the news broke on CNN that the two had split). 

From The Mumbles, we carried on to Langland Bay, where we got to enjoy a gorgeous coastal walk from Langland Bay to Caswell Bay. Jan and John picked us all up there, and we drove another twenty or thirty minutes to Rhossili Bay, where we had lunch at a little café (also the café where Stephen and I were sure we had misplaced 20 pounds—a long-convoluted story that only has relevance later), and then were given time to walk the long stretch of coastal cliffs upon which sheep roamed freely. They were everywhere! There were sheep reclining all over the ground (and you had to watch where you walked for other reasons, too), and some of them perched dangerously close to the edge of some of these cliffs. Everyone was walking dogs (all required to be leashed), and I watched as several Border Collies tugged at the ends of their leads, desperate to herd a sheep or two. We also met a couple with a Whippet and Italian Greyhound and stopped to talk to them about our own sight hound.

We left Rhossili and headed back towards Cardiff stopping off at King Arthur’s Stone. Yes, straight from the legend, this is the supposed stone from which King Arthur supposedly pulled his sword. The stone even has the cleft from which the sword was allegedly pulled. And yes, the scenery was beautiful here, and the stone was interesting, and John gave us a running stream of information about the area, the stone, etc. But to be honest, I wasn’t really listening because I was so interested in the wild ponies that were scattered all over the place! A little foal made a high-pitched whinny sound, and with his ears starkly forward and his little tail flipping in the air, he made a mad dash across the plains as fast as his knobbly little knees would carry him. He was absolutely precious, and all of us were madly trying to snap pictures to capture the moment. Apparently the government takes care of these wild horses, and Jan told us that the tour guides also keep a look-out for them—they note which horses are in foal and if any new foals have been born. They make sure that in the dead-cold of winter, the horses are directed toward neighboring barns, and yet they are allowed their freedom all the rest of the year. It’s all very heart-warming, actually.

We arrived back in Cardiff to a town that was completely shut down. It was Sunday, and it was past five o’clock, but I mean—the place was a ghost town. On a whim, we wandered past The Royal Arcade, and stared woefully through its darkened windows at the little antique bus. It seemed unlikely we would be able to purchase it since we would need to leave for Liverpool early in the morning—probably before the store even opened.

For now, our main concern was where to eat dinner, as really—everything seemed closed. We had seen a Brazilian restaurant in the bottom of the hotel, so we thought it might be open for business travelers who came through the city. I checked the times as we returned to our hotel, and yes, it would be open. We decided to wander down there around 6:30 or so.

We arrived at Viva Brazil! at 6:45 that evening, and it was then we realized where everyone in Cardiff had gone. The place was packed! Loud, festive, Brazilian music blared from inside, and we were told that our names would need to wait for a table. We were shocked! But there was nowhere else to go, and the smells inside were wonderful, so we elbowed our way up to the bar to order some drinks.
Since I had really not enjoyed but a couple of good red wines since arriving in the UK, I decided to go with a white wine instead and see if I had better luck with that. So I was completely horrified when I saw the bar tender put four ice cubes into my wine glass.

“No!” I called out, directing Stephen to get the bar tender’s attention. “I don’t want ice in my wine! No, no, no!”

Stephen swiftly grabbed the glass before the bartender turned back around with the open bottle and dumped the ice cubes onto the other side of the bar. The startled bartender looked at us.
“I didn’t want ice in my wine,” I announced.

“No, that was to the chill the glass,” he told us.

We smacked ourselves in the forehead, laughing with embarrassment.

“Are you from the states?” he asked.

We nodded, wondering if he’d had other Americans dump ice cubes onto the floor of the bar, fearful that their wine would be tainted.

Once we got seated, the eating festivities began. In case you’ve never been in one, Brazilian restaurants are gorge-fests. They carry unlimited amounts of meat around on a stake, shaving off pieces onto your plate. You eat a piece of chicken, and within two minutes they’re back at your table with ham; you finish the ham, and they’re back with steak; you finish the steak, and they’re back with more ham. It just goes on and on—it is never ending eating. This is a hero’s quest to eat as much as you can, and leave feeling utterly sick. I tried four different kinds of meat, and I was done (stick a fork in me) and ready to become a vegetarian. Actually, the meat was terrific—tasty, well-seasoned, tender—but there was just so much of it!

Finally, we rolled back upstairs to our room and collapsed on the bed in a food coma. The next day, we would be off to Liverpool for Operation Beatles.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Britain Revisited: Day 4


In my opinion, British Rail has improved over the past ten years or so. Maybe the average Briton would disagree with me, and I really only had a few days to view its workings, but it seemed a little more efficient than usual. I recall frequent and long delays, lags of service, and areas of the country where one could feasible be stranded—as there was no way to get from “here to there.” Our travel by train was relatively seamless, except for our first leg from Paddington Station in London to Cardiff, Wales.

Our train was delayed by 40 minutes, and while we waited, we sat in one of the cafes and drank horrendous coffee. The boards listed the cause of delay as “Crew and Supply Displacement.”  How do you displace a crew? What supplies were displaced, and how on earth did this displacement occur? Like any bold American would do, Stephen finally approached the service desk to ask how long the delay might be, and he was told by a snarky woman in a tone meant to send him away forever, “It will only be a few minutes!”

Once the platform of the train’s departure was announced, there was a mad rush of people all running for the train and clambering aboard. The train moved along without any further delay, and an announcement followed shortly. “We apologize for any inconvenience caused by the delay at Paddington Station. This was mainly due to an assault on a crew member and a resulting smashed window. We are in the process of finding seats for those without ones.”

Passengers on the train lifted eyes and eyebrows, pursing their lips as if to say, “My! That’s quite something!” I was simply amazed at their honesty! And sure enough, when I walked through the train later to get a snack in the food car, I saw that five rows had been sectioned off with caution tape, and bits of glass still sparkled in the seats (although the window had been repaired).

As we had already passed through several stations on our way to Cardiff, the breezeways between each car on the train were littered with bodies who had boarded with no place to sit. Some actually slept on the floor in front of the bathrooms! I had to travel through about five rail cars to get to the café, and as I entered the food car, I found that it had been transformed into a Welsh pub! It was absolutely packed with young, Welshmen all drinking beer and talking about the rugby. (I assumed these were some of the displaced passengers). I had to fight my way through to order my sausage roll, and because it was going to take a few minutes to make, the server suggested to me that I might wait in the next car. “It might be less intimidating there.”

We arrived in Cardiff’s busy, train station that afternoon, and immediately spotted our hotel just across the street! I had booked the hotel randomly with no idea where it was located. We couldn’t have been happier with our good fortune! No cab needed. We could just roll our suitcases across the road.

Of all the places we stayed during this trip, the Maldron Best Western Plus Hotel was my favorite! It was tastefully and artfully decorated, very clean, and had a very decent shower (and that is saying something in the UK where plumbing is an issue).  But we hadn’t a moment to relax, as we only had a day and a half in Cardiff, so we immediately set off for Cardiff Castle with our raincoats and sweaters.  It was actually quite chilly in Cardiff, and the skies were gray and heavy with the threat of rain.

First of all, let me just say that I love Cardiff! It is a pretty capitol city with a well-organized town center. The Welsh are patriotic people, and the streets of Cardiff are lined with the Welsh flag (half green, half white, with a red dragon in the center). There are many shops and shopping centers and places to eat and pubs and friendly people. The streets are clean and there is a feeling there that the town is alive and festive—an overall nice place to be. I think if I had chosen Cardiff as my home base in 1995, I would have liked it very much.

It was already starting to rain a little as we made our way through the town toward the castle, and we stopped off in a shopping center called The Royal Arcade to have a look at some antiques. Stephen spotted an antique toy bus in one of the stores that he really liked. It was a replica of an old tan and brown double-decker bus, and it was well-preserved, still in the box. We should have bought it right then and there, as by the time we returned from the castle, the stores were closed down. The stores close very early in the UK—in Cardiff, the shops were all closed down by 5:30. This is wonderful for their employees, of course—but unfortunate for the consumer.

By the time we reached Cardiff Castle, it was raining pretty hard! It was a strange sort of rain, though. It was coming at us sideways—a misty and thin precipitation—almost like standing in a shower mist. The wind blew the chilly damp into our eyes and against our cheeks, and we cinched our raincoat hoods closed around our faces. 

First of all, I want to say some good things about Cardiff Castle. It holds that rare sort of beauty of which only medieval ruins can boast. It began as a Norman fortress in the 11th century. Over the years, many wars (too many for me to go into here) ensued between the Normans and the Welsh. Finally in the late 1200s, Wales was under the rule of the dynamic leader Llewellyn ap Gruffydd (and this is the time frame that interests me due to a fabulous series of historical novels by Sharon Penfold. The first in the series was titled Here Be Dragons. Oh, it’s wonderful—and Llewellyn comes across like this very romantic, King David sort of character). Anyway, over the years the castle passed through many hands, and in the 19th century, a Victorian edition was added to the original fortress. Parts of the fortress were used during World War II as a bomb shelter, and finally, in 1947, the castle was turned over to the city of Cardiff as a preserved site. And it really is something to behold—both the old and the new.   I love it. But…

All of the information above was not adequately provided to us at the castle. I had to look it all up later (or think back to the information in the novels). Unless you pay to do the guided tour, you do not get a lot of information about the castle origins or any of that. We started off the tour with a 7 minute movie “about the castle.” But it wasn’t about the castle at all. It was 7 minutes of deafening music (most people were holding their fingers in their ears), images of armored warriors slashing at one another, and some completely random side plot of a modern teenage girl and boy carrying drawings of the castle and meeting up with 11th century invaders. No words and no information. It was weird. After that cryptic introduction, we walked through a portion of the castle plastered in newspaper clippings and war posters from 1939-1945. It all seemed random and disorganized, and the whole place looked like it needed a good cleaning. The cobwebs, grime, and mildewed photos were a little disconcerting.

For me, the best part of the castle was the Victorian structure. Restored in 1865 by the Marquess of Bute, it looks a little like a smaller version of Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina (see pictures). We could only view a portion of the mansion, but the library alone was worth seeing.

Cold and wet, we departed the castle and made our way across the street to The Rummer Tavern (supposedly the oldest pub establishment in Cardiff). There, we chatted with the friendly bartender, had some warming libation, and ate an outstanding baked potato stuffed with cheese and ham and sour cream, and I can’t even remember what other artery-clogging ingredients were included in that monstrosity.

Stephen and I had decided that the following day we would take a day tour to the Gower Peninsula, so we stopped off to book a tour, and continued through the town to wander past the street vendors, and check out the strange man in the center of the square charging folks to attempt to “walk on water.” He had an inflatable pool of some sort surrounded by Plexiglas siding, and we watched as some poor (drunk) soul, whacked his shin trying to jump on top of the water and “walk” across it. He sank. 

We made our way back toward the hotel, noticing that all of the shops were closed, but every pub was full to brimming with people all shouting at television screens (and each other). Wales (and the UK in general) is mad for football (soccer), rugby, and the most boring game every created—cricket (I'm sorry British friends, but I just don't get it. Why don't you have to run?) Every male in Cardiff looked as though they were players of at least one of these games.  As Stephen said, “These guys don’t look like people you’d want to get into a scuffle with.”

That night, however, we learned about another interesting Welsh tradition (actually, I think it takes place all over Britain, but I’d never before witnessed it).

After dinner, Stephen and I stopped by the hotel bar to try out some Welsh beer. We sat off by ourselves, chatting and laughing and recapping the day. Suddenly, four men approached us—one of them dressed as Wonder Woman. We had no idea what was going on, but the one in the costume asked if I would help him apply his make up before they “went out on the town.” In his hands, he held up a brand new tube of vermillion-red lipstick and cornflower blue eye shadow. Well, what could I say? I was the only female there and the only one who could help him out!

Stephen stood by, filming the whole episode, as I took on the role of make-up artist. Afterwards, all of the men thanked us profusely, (I believe one of them told Stephen he was "a scholar and a gentleman") and thinking that they must be going “down the pubs” for some weird contest, I asked what this craziness was all for.

“Oh, it’s his stag night,” one of his friends told us. “He’s getting married next week—to an American girl, actually.”

This bit of information was confirmed minutes later by Wonder Woman himself, as he told us that he was marrying a girl from LA and moving there. We wished him luck, and Stephen sent the video footage to the guys to use as blackmail as they saw fit.

We were to find out later, that this sort of thing (people dressing up in weird costumes) happens every Friday or Saturday night in Cardiff during “stag nights”. We were just fortunate enough to have been in the right place at the right time!

That night Stephen and I got to share a bed for the first night since we arrived in the UK! After all of the excitement, I couldn’t sleep, however, so I was forced to sit up watching another episode of Big Brother and wondering—how many nights a week can this show possibly be on?

Britain Revisited: Day 3

Hampstead Heath is an extraordinary place in North London. If you’ve never been there, I highly recommend it. I went there often when I was living in London to clear my head, pontificate on life, write in my journal, or just to eat a picnic lunch on Parliament Hill overlooking the city below. It is peaceful, woodsy, massive (800 acres), and quite literary (John Keats’s house is there, for instance). Anytime anyone ever visited me in London, I took them to the heath. It is worthy of several hours of time spent.

So it was, on the third day of our visit, Stephen and I decided to combine a visit to Abbey Road and, weather permitting, Hampstead Heath.

Stephen is an avid Beatles fan, so Abbey Road was a no-brainer. As first order of the day, we took the northern line to Swiss Cottage and found Abbey Road with no problem (although it is so inconspicuous that one could miss it!) Besides the road sign itself, the only other distinguishing factor marking this the crossing made famous by the four men on the cover of their Abbey Road album was the small crowd of Asian tourists running back and forth across the road and taking pictures of each other. And this is a busy intersection! Cars zoom through, and you kind of have to run across Abbey Road rather than walk it. In a brief lull, I was able to film Stephen striding back and forth across it, and he was happy.

We continued down to Abbey Road Studios, located in a white, two-storied building just next to the crossing. It is gated, so you have to stand on the outside of the gate and poke your camera through the bars to take pictures. What’s really interesting about this place is all of the graffiti on the walls surrounding it—little illustrations of John Lennon and Ringo Starr and lyrics from their songs adorn the white-washed cement. Love notes and sentiments of respect cover the entire wall in front of the studios—artwork in and of itself—all accumulated over the decades.

 Our Beatles quest complete, and since it was not yet raining (although the sky threatened it), Stephen and I consulted a map to see how best to travel to Hampstead Heath. Still energized from the whole Abbey Road experience, and because I could see the place marker for “South Hampstead” on the map, I decided it must be possible to walk from there. I was sure that South Hampstead and West Hampstead must be very close to the village of Hampstead (need I be trite and remind what happens when we assume…?). We began our walk, chatting animatedly, observing the beautiful old row houses and expensive residences all around us. Because Hampstead is a suburb (or borough as they call them there) of London, it was much quieter than in the center of the city with nary a tourist in sight! Half an hour later, we reached a more rundown area of South Hampstead. I began to worry a little then, as I realized this looked nothing like the village. It began to rain a little, but we plowed ahead, into West Hampstead—an area of London I had never entered and did not know at all. An hour and a half later, we still were nowhere near the village of Hampstead, and the cold rain was coming down hard, pelting us in the face as we struggled along. Feeling less energetic suddenly, we ducked into a shopping mall, recovering for a few moments in a bookstore where I consulted a much more up-to-date London A-Z than the one I had. To my horror, I realized that we had nearly walked a complete circle. I could actually see Swiss Cottage, the tube stop from which we had walked to Abbey Road, located just a few streets over from us. Within a few more meters, we would have walked all the way back to where we started.

Suddenly, I harkened back to my grandmother Carol, who once told me that I had inherited her terrible sense, or complete lack, of direction. I really do have serious impairment in this area. If there is a wrong way to go, I will take it. Thankfully, Stephen has excellent sense of direction, and he was able to redirect us toward our goal before we both dropped from exhaustion. We found a bus stop promising a soon-to-arrive bus headed toward Hampstead, and once it came, we took it. This delivered us to the village, but we still had to walk to the Heath. By the time we arrived at the Heath, it was lunch time, and we were both starving and desperate to sit down. This being the case, I was only able to show Stephen the sign to the heath, a pond that was just a few feet from the entrance, and some trailer park that had mysteriously materialized on the property—much less impressive  than the grand views of the city, the beauty of Kenwood House, or the tranquility of the duck-laden ponds.
Abandoning the heath idea, we made our way back to the village where we found a nice little pub called George IV, and had a magnificent (and very reasonably priced) lunch of pan-sauteed Chilean Seabass on a bed of fresh spinach, peppers, and rice. Excellent value!

Feeling somewhat refreshed and ready to set out once more, we walked to the Hampstead tube station and took it back into the city. We were just stopping off at King’s Cross Station to purchase our rail tickets for Wales the next day, when I realized that I had forgotten to show Stephen a very important tourist monument—Harrod’s! Now, if you don’t know about Harrod’s, the only thing I can say is this: imagine Nordstrom’s, Lord and Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, and any other outrageously expensive retailer, and add about 50% to the cost of every item in their stores. Then put all of those stores together on one plot of land, and add about five more stores to them. Harrod’s is absolutely gargantuan! It fills several blocks in London’s Knightsbridge area, and it is very easy to get lost in the store itself. Harrod’s is not a place where you actually buy anything, however—at least not for the average joe. It is one of those places where you observe a T-shirt that costs $150 and a pair of sunglasses for $2,500. Personally, I don’t really like to look at things I can’t buy, so I don’t even bother with the clothing sections. I usually go for the gift shop section, as there are some nice carrier bags, key chains, and decks of cards emblazoned with Harrod’s brand name, which are all affordable. The store has several restaurants, an entire food department filled with all sorts of traditionally English selections, a dog grooming section, and a pet store filled with luxurious dog beds, toys, and pet pampering products.

On this day, however, the store was packed with tourists. I hadn’t realized it, but this was the anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, and the store had erected a memorial to Diana and Dodi on the ground floor. Unfortunately, they set it up just in front of the escalators, and the tourists gathering around the display actually blocked the stairs to the next floor. Fighting through the crowd and through a moment of claustrophobia, we made it to the next floor. But in fact, every floor was overrun with people, so after about twenty minutes, we found our way to an exit and back onto the tube—both of us desperate for a lie-down before our dinner with Rebecca and Sharon that night.

We arrived at Embankment station later that afternoon and walked the footbridge over the Thames. We were to meet Rebecca before dinner for a drink at a pub on the South Bank, affording us more time to catch up and drink in the sights of the Thames and the London skyline. At the risk of sounding terribly nostalgic and cheesy, I have to pause for a moment to talk about the footbridge from Embankment tube station to South Bank. When I lived in London in the 90s, I was so in love with this spot that I went to it almost every weekend. I think it’s the best view of London, personally. At that time, my twenty-four or five-year-old desire was that I would get engaged on this bridge. And well….that didn’t happen. But something better did. I walked across it with my husband nearly twenty years later. Sniff! Okay, sappy moment over.  I’ll post the pictures…

For dinner that night, Rebecca had chosen a marvelous Italian restaurant with astounding views of the Tower Bridge in the distance.  Sharon, another friend I had not seen in ten years, was to meet us there. The Tower Bridge is an unbelievably majestic and impressive structure during the day, but when it is lit up at night, it is simply breathtaking! It was built as a draw-bridge and created in order to solve a traffic problem, and today, the bascules that lift the bridge are still operated by hydraulics as they were when the bridge was built in the 19th century (although they are no longer powered by steam as they once were). 

The view of The Tower Bridge was magnificent, but not nearly as magnificent as it was to spend time with Sharon and Rebecca—two wonderful women who have impacted my life greatly. As Rebecca so aptly pegged the sentiment—friendships that “transcend time” are so important and so sweet in a life which is ever-changing and rarely constant. It also means much to me that these friendships live thousands of miles away, yet when we are together, we pick right up again. Beautiful.

Anyway, a wild and wonderful time was had by all. In fact, we closed down the restaurant and barely made the last tube out of the East End (the last ones run around midnight). This reminds me of a story from my past with which I will close our London saga.

Back in 1996, I once left the city very late at night aboard a night bus that I realized was going in the wrong direction. Frantically, I hopped off in an area of the East End known as “The Cut.” I didn’t think it was a particularly safe area, but I knew I was going the wrong way, so I had no choice. Panicked, I called Rebecca from a pay phone (this was before cell phones, of course), asking her for the number of a cab company. 

“Where are you?” she asked.

“I don’t know!” I cried, desperately looking for a street name.

“Well, how will you call a cab company if you don’t know where you are?” She had a good point.

A drunken man in a suit staggered up the street, and I leaned out of the phone booth to call out to him: “Excuse me! Do you know what street we’re on?”

He looked up at the buildings, obviously as lost (or at least as ignorant about the street name) as I was. “Sorry. No idea,” he said.

Just then, I saw the blessed, blessed orange light of a cabbie as the car made its way up the street toward me.  “A cab’s coming!” I told Rebecca. “I’m going to flag it down!”

I ran into the middle of the street, flailing my arms. When the cab stopped, I clutched the open window like a life preserver, sniveling into the poor man’s face. “I only have 7 pounds and I’m trying to get home to Notting Hill Gate. Would you take me west, as far as 7 pounds will go?”

The man agreed. But instead of dropping me off in Central London or South Kensington or some point along the way, the dear man drove me all the way back to Notting Hill Gate—a 9 pound fare—forfeiting complete payment and his tip. I will never forget his kindness.

That memory (and so many others from this great city) was etched into my mind as we parted ways with Rebecca at her tube stop. We would carry on to Queensway station, and the next day we would move on to Wales. Our time in London had been short, but for me, it was a healing and redemptive visit. When I left London in 1997, I was an emotional wreck—filled with fears and despair that I had to leave this London life. Now, with peace in my heart, I realized that everything had worked out exactly as it should have.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Britain Revisited (Day 2)

When we awoke on day 2 in London, we were starving and very excited to have our complimentary continental breakfast in the downstairs of the hotel. I was looking forward to toast with jam, yogurt, oatmeal, and maybe lovely fruit of some sort. To my great disappointment, the continental breakfast was a choice of white or wheat roll or a croissant. Faced with choiceless choices, I chose a croissant and some watery coffee with watery milk. The croissant turned out to be very tasty, actually, but coffee in the UK has always left me cold.

Afterwards we took the tube to Westminster, relieved to not be faced with hordes of people so early in the day. As part of our Original London Sightseeing Tour, we received a free River Thames cruise. We could have taken it all the way to Greenwich, but we chose to go only to the first stop—the Tower of London. This was a really nice cruise on the Thames led by a knowledgeable seaman who pointed out the sights as we passed them.

When I lived in London, The London Eye had not yet been built, nor had The Shard, and to be truthful, I’m just not sure about either of them. They are interesting formations, to be sure, but somehow I don’t feel either of them belong in London. The Eye is a gigantic Ferris wheel (443 feet tall) built in 1999. Each “cart” (or pods as they are called) are completely glassed in, affording a view of the city. It takes roughly thirty-five minutes to go all the way around. We chose not to do this in the interests of conserving cash and time (cost: 19 pounds or around $30). The Shard is another potential observation point. It is called “The Shard” because it was built to look like a shard of broken glass (hmmmm….). It just opened to the public this year, and at 87 stories, it isn’t even completely finished, but no time has been wasted in charging people admission to see what they can from the finished portion. The view is from floors 67, 68, and 69, and it affords a 360 degree view of London.  I have to admit that The Shard’s appearance is fascinating, but I prefer the older, aged buildings that London has to offer. Anyway, we chose not to do The Shard in the interests of conserving cash and time (cost to enter: 25 pounds or around $38).

At any rate, we decided to press on toward the Tower of London, a fortress with tales to tell about horrendous and brutal torture, tons of beheadings, and imprisonment of many a noble man or woman (and even a few queens). Once there, we joined the very long queue, happy that we had already purchased our ticket with the sightseeing tour. Everyone in the line was miffed as an odd-looking couple holding hands cut through the line, pushing their way up to the front. But in proper English decorum, no one said a thing to them—they only muttered under their breaths, “What are they doing? Can you believe it?” It took some time to get to the front of the line, but once we did, we were told by the ticket taker that our tickets from the bus company were not entrance to the Tower. Shocked, we exited the line, cursing the name of the tour company, sure that they had stiffed us. “Crooks!” my husband announced. “They completely jipped us! They charged us for the tickets and then did not give them to us.”

Feeling sure that we were going to have to buy new tickets for entrance, we went over to join that line.  “Let’s look at the receipt,” I said. “Maybe we could take the receipt back to the sightseeing company and tell them they didn’t give us tickets.” Stephen began to shuffle through his wallet finally producing the receipt, and as he unfolded it, out fell the tickets. Smacking ourselves in the forehead and feeling very thankful that we didn’t pay twice for entrance, we rejoined the back of the line.

I have been to The Tower once before, but now that I had seen the entire season of The Tudors, it took on new meaning. (Isn’t it amazing how a veritable soap opera from HBO can produce such an appetite for historical knowledge?)

The Tower was built in 1080, and it has a long history with which I will not bore anyone. The main time period I find interesting (along with most people, I would think) is that of the 1500s when Henry VIII had dreams of making this a royal home for him and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Alas, Anne lost her head there and so did another one of his wives. Anne Boleyn was accused of adultery and executed by a swordsman from Calais brought especially for this reason.  Our yeoman tour guide (also known as a “Beefeater”) was only too adept at telling the stories of the Tower executions. In fact, as he relayed the story of Anne’s beheading, he finished with the punch line: “So expertly and quickly was Anne’s head removed, that when they lifted her severed head to the crowd, her mouth was still chattering.” At this grisly detail, the little girl standing in front of us, threw her arms around her mother’s waist and buried her head. Nightmares for years to come. These guys are good! They earn their pay!

There is a chapel on the property that is still used for Sunday services today, and I was very impressed at their treatment of this site. The yeoman asked all who entered to show respect. Gentlemen were to remove their hats and everyone was asked to treat it as a place of worship. It is an absolutely beautiful little chapel with lovely stained glass windows and embroidered kneeling pads for prayer. There is an empty crypt in the center built especially for a couple who wanted to be buried there but never was. And apparently when renovations for the chapel began in the 1800s, Anne Boleyn’s remains were uncovered (as she had been buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard, I’m not sure how they knew it was her, but I’ll go with it), and she was buried with a marble marker that now shows in the floor of the chapel.

The Crown Jewels are also to be found at The Tower, but the queue for that looked to be around 4,000 people long, so we imagined them in our mind and carried on. Actually, at this point, my feet were hurting so bad, and I was so regretting my purchase of these adorable shoes, that I actually had to sit down on a bench. Earlier I had purchased what the British call “plasters” (band aids) and literally plastered my feet in them, but now the ends of the shoes were attempting to push my toes towards my heels, so it seemed a hopeless case.

Limping along, I followed Stephen from The Tower, and we made our way outside where we were to meet my dear friend Rebecca for lunch. Back in 1995 when I first arrived in London, Rebecca took me in for several days while I looked for a job and a place to live. I had arrived in the city knowing no one and feeling terribly homesick. She helped me immeasurably, telling me good versus bad places to live, where to look for jobs, etc. Later, when I returned to live in London in 1997, we were flat mates, and I can’t count the number of nights she sat up with me when I cried my eyes out over a romance gone bad. It was wonderful to see her again, and I was eager to introduce her to Stephen. She looked the same and we picked up exactly where we left off, making our way into the East End of London for some fish and chips at a very nice pub called The Cheshire Cheese.

I must take a moment here to remark on how impressed I was with East London. When I lived there, it was an area of town to avoid. Run down and dirty, there was little cheer to be had in that part of town.  Now, it is refurbished, trendy, and a delight to patronize and walk.

And walk, we did. After leaving Rebecca’s good company, we made our way to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Architect Sir Christopher Wren built this magnificent building, probably sometime in the late 1600s after the original burned in the Great Fire. It truly is beautiful, but as we entered the building, we found that the fee would be 16 pounds, so we chose not to enter in the interests of cost and time. Instead Stephen walked (and I hobbled) through the East End, all the way down Fleet Street into the Theatre District. Just as we approached Covent Garden, the wind began whipping around us, and all of the tourists who had been with us yesterday in Westminster were suddenly in Covent Garden. People began to speed walk and then run, packing into every available nook and covered cranny possible. The semi-covered market-place of Covent Garden, which I had so wanted to show Stephen, was now unbearable. We couldn’t move! Stephen just wanted to find a place to sit down and have a coffee someplace, but there was literally nowhere to stand, much less sit.

We decided that this was the perfect moment to purchase me a new pair of walking shoes, so we ducked into a Skechers store, where I got a nice pair of dark grey and hot pink trainers (as they call them over there—a British word for tennis shoes). These blessed, blessed shoes were worth every penny of the 51 pounds we paid. I wore them every day (and night if possible) after that. These little bits of rubber and fabric were quite literally a God-send! I never again donned my cute Dr. Scholl’s shoes while in the UK.

From Covent Garden we walked over to Leicester Square. When I was there in 1997 and worked for Soho Theatre, I used to have to hand out promotional flyers in the square—a painful and humiliating experience, I can assure you.  Leicester Square is always bustling with people no matter what time of day you visit. In the theatre district, it consists of the Hippodrome, several cinemas, and too many restaurants to count. We plopped down in a café just on the edge of the square to have a coffee and people watch. The best part of this experience was witnessing the people flooding into the square and walk straight into one of the four guard poles at the entrance. “Oompf!” “Oh!” “Throooonnnnnnnnggggg!” (the metal pole vibrating). “Where did that pole come from?” One man asked as he walked way holding his groin. Stephen and I haven’t had such a good laugh in ages!

Afterwards, we walked over to the National Gallery of Art where we wandered through room after room until we were bored and desperately trying to find the exit (which took us close to half an hour). The exit led us back to Trafalgar Square where the Scots were still climbing the statues, waving their arms, and brandishing their blue chicken in a proud challenge to the tyrannical English. I wondered—did they camp out here? How many days did their campaign last?

But there was one place in particular that I really wanted to go. You see, when I lived in London the first time and worked at St. Thomas Hospital, I had a very dear friend name Anne (with whom I have since lost touch). She took me to a wonderful little cellar wine bar called The Cork and Bottle. It was literally below street level, but so charming and quaint. Anne and I used to go there sometimes after work, and I attended her wedding reception there as well. At any rate, Stephen and I returned to Leicester Square to find this place, and when we did—unbeknownst to me—we entered from the back (not the front) door. The room we entered looked so unfamiliar and strange, that when the hostess approached and asked if we had booked, I was suddenly rendered mute. I was processing where in the world I was, but it came across as, “I…oh, I was wondering if…Oh, I don’t know…I …”

Mercifully, the poor woman tried to help my inarticulateness. “We’re totally booked up for tables just now. But if you would you like to book for say, six o’clock?”

“No,” I replied, feeling deflated. “No, no. We’ll just ….I ….think we’ll…oh, I….”

Stephen piped up then (Oh, thank you Stephen!). “We just want to have a glass of wine.”

She smiled and motioned us toward another door. “Oh, of course! Just pop over to the bar and they’ll serve you.”

And as we walked into the second room, it all came back to me. The little tables, the beautiful bar area, the friendly and intimate atmosphere—even the little brass plaque where I sat that marked a “reserved” spot for a deceased patron.

“What happened to you?” Stephen asked as we got seated. “I thought you’d lost it for a minute. I didn’t know what you were saying…she didn’t know what you were saying,” he laughed. “You didn’t make one lick of sense with what you were saying.”

Sudden aphasia aside, I had the best glass of wine in The Cork and Bottle that I had the whole time we were in the UK.

Afterwards, we made our way to a Thai Restaurant in Soho called Patara, very near where I used to work at the theatre. There, I tried duck for the first time and Stephen had outstanding beef. I highly recommend the place. The food was delicious, the atmosphere exotic, and the service irreproachable. When we emerged from the restaurant, the streets were teeming with late night revelries (when are they not in London?), and we made our way through the crowds to my old stomping ground at 21 Dean Street.

When I came to London to work as a literary assistant for this theatre in 1997, the building itself was an old synagogue that they were planning to renovate as a four-tiered theatre/writer’s center/educational venue/bar. I had seen the blueprints in 1997, but now I saw the site in its finished glory. And it was spectacular! I only wished we’d had time to see a performance there, but generally, I was overcome with nostalgia. Sniffing and holding back a few tears, I forged ahead, back to the future where we made our way to Tottenham Court Road, caught a smelly, squashy tube to Queensway, and collapsed on our beds at the hotel. Not quite ready to sleep, I turned on the "tele", only to find yet another episode of Big Brother! I watched in fascinated horror as twin brothers were ousted from the show on this night, and in unison they blew kisses to the camera.