Archive for the 'The Misadventures: Lost in (Greater) London' Category

The Misadventures: The British Library and Hampstead Heath

For reasons beyond my ken, I woke up this morning feeling pretty knackered. I found this odd since I hadn’t really stayed up late last night nor did I participate in any kind of crazy strenuous activity like trying to stab Dave in the face. I found this feeling to be most annoying and unfortunate because I was supposed to get up much earlier than I actually did, thus I was probably going to be late meeting up with Fiona.

As it turned out, I got a call from Fiona not too long before I intended to head out. We were originally supposed to meet at King’s Cross-St. Pancras at half ten, but pushed it back to 11:00 instead. You wouldn’t know it, but half an hour really does make a difference. Especially since I arrived at the meeting place at 10:50 AM; I prefer ten minutes early to twenty minutes late.

Neither one of us knew where the British Library was actually located, but I had a chance to glance at a map before walking and for once I did not lead anyone astray. Admittedly, I thought perhaps I had since we seemed to be walking much further than I expected, but then I saw a pretty conspicuous sign for The British Library and felt considerably reassured.

It wasn’t overly difficult to figure out how the library worked since there was a sign pointing to the Ritblat Gallery; also, when we stopped by the Information Desk, a rather enthusiastic librarian explained what we would see in the gallery.

The first thing we looked at was the Literature collection. I drooled over Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and wished I could actually take a closer look at it; I enjoyed Alice’s Adventure Under Ground; and even though I’ve never read Tess of the d’Ubervilles, I wanted to do a manuscript study of the one on display because of the obvious handwritten edits (the most obvious one being the title). This isn’t to say I didn’t appreciate all the texts, but those were the ones that stuck out in my memory.

Of course, the music manuscripts were next. I couldn’t help but smile at Mozart’s Horn Concerto K.477; while it wasn’t the one I played for my audition, it was still one I had played during horn lessons. I remembered my five seconds as a music major ten years ago (dude…that was ten years ago now…) and not for the first time marveled at what these composers were able to accomplish by hand. Of course, the same can be said about all the manuscripts on display, but for some reasons full orchestral compositions seem a bit more challenging to me. Fiona had joined me by this point and we commented on Bolero. “Did you know that when a person auditions for percussion in a professional orchestra, Bolero is a common audition piece for snare?” My former music major self seemed to be resurfacing quite a lot today.

There was quite a group gathered around the Shakespeare display, so I bypassed that in favour of some of the less occupied cases. The illuminated texts were all very impressive; I once again wished I had been given the opportunity to a Classical education since the Latin and the Greek were lost on me (as was the Hebrew and Arabic). One of the things that intrigued me was a book written in the 13th century containing the word “elephant”. I think I liked it so much because the word hasn’t changed its spelling in over 700 years. (Of course, I realize the book I was looking at was written in Latin. But still, I thought it was cool.) I breezed in and out of the Magna Carta room since I had already seen a “better” copy of it in Salisbury Cathedral — it had often omitted Clause 61 included in its text. Although, to be fair, the one at the British Library may have had it as well but if it did, it wasn’t as noted as it had been at Salisbury.

I was finally able to go back and look at the Shakespeare display. There were at least three copies of Romeo and Juliet, all referring to the “O happy dagger” line. I was entertained by this for some reason. It also reminded me about Shakespeare study; I seem to recall a question or debate revolving around the folios, performances, and the publications as to which should be considered the most authentic.

For the most part, Fiona and I were done with the gallery. I was disappointed not to see Beowulf, Cantebury Tales, or Le Morte d’Arthur, but it seems these were out of rotation or were elsewhere. It is also possible that I missed them completely, but I’d have thought they would have been signposted or something.

I had a mad taste for McDonald’s fries, so I persuaded Fiona into eating there for lunch. Remembering when the Road Trippers were here, I knew where to find the nearest one. I’m really not a fan of British chicken nuggets — they really do taste different from America and even Japan — but at least the fries still tasted right.

We hadn’t really planned much else. The day was starting to look a lot better so it was decided that a visit to Hampstead Heath was in order.

Perhaps the best part of this plan was when on the way to the heath, it started to drizzle. I think one of most amusing things about weather in England is the rain; it can rain/drizzle for like ten minutes, turn sunny, then rain/drizzle whilst sunny. This was our experience today at the Heath. It was all five-by-five though because whilst we were chillin’ out on Parliament Hill we got the sun. We sat on one of the benches and had a lovely conversation. There were also plenty of dogs about; that is definitely something I enjoy about England — they seem to allow their dogs off-leash far more frequently than in America. I really enjoyed traipsing around the Heath. Fiona said that it was a very common place for films because of its view of London City.

The wind started to blow a little colder, so we took that as an indication to move on. Fiona had talked up going to The Diner in Camden Town and getting milkshakes so it was back to the Tube Station for us. It’s been a while since I had a milkshake!

The Diner amused me, but then again, most “American” restaurants do. I squealed about the menu, though. They had breakfast, like proper American breakfasts. I was wickedly excited but at the same time annoyed that I hadn’t found out about the place when I was especially homesick. I also got to explain what a Monte Cristo and Philly Cheese Steak were; Fiona seemed a bit unnerved by the Monte Cristo, though. “Like proper deep fried? How does the sandwich stay together?”

Fiona and I ended up splitting a chocolate milkshake and onion rings. I told her that when she and Dave visit Chicago, I’ll take them to Steak ‘n’ Shake. She’s pretty keen about her visit to the States and I hope to be able to take her to a few American restaurants like Lou’s, Denny’s, and Portillo’s.

It was our separate ways thereafter. Fiona and Dave were to have their mates from Australia in tomorrow and I was feeling tired again. It was lovely hanging out with Fiona; she’s definitely good people.

Maybe people should stop visiting me

It occurred to me (all of five seconds ago) that maybe people shouldn’t visit me in other countries anymore. I was going back over the post from the Road Trip and I had written: “Several months ago, VoW said she might be able to get some time off to visit me in England; Yoss Mike also expressed an interest as well. It would be like when they visited me whilst in Osaka, only without the bankruptcy fiasco five months later.”

There’s no bankruptcy fiasco and really it’s only been four months, but I once again find myself unemployed.

Seriously. Maybe people should stop visiting me. :-P

The Misadventures: Budapest Bound

(This post was composed at various points of the trip and chronicles the events of Monday 20 July 2009.)

Since I haven’t blogged in ages, I don’t know if this had been really mentioned outside the Road Trip Crew who visited me about two months ago. (Holy smokes, has it really only been two months?) My work-mate Selena had suggested to me that I join her in a tour of Eastern Europe which would cover Budapest, Krakow, Prague, and Berlin. I hadn’t really given it much thought since I’m not one to join such things with people I don’t really know. But after thinking it over and discussing it with those who visited me, I decided to take her up on her off. Phil also ended up joining the tour; the trip is organised through a company called Topdeck. Selena used it for her tour in Morocco and had been very pleased with it. Here’s hoping it lives up to its reputation as we travel on the Danube Trail.

Selena, Phil, and I split a cab this morning. I couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that I got up at the time I would have were school still in session.

When the cab driver opened the boot, I marveled at Selena’s luggage. She only has one bag; the only other person I’ve known to pull off something like that is VoW. I’m pretty impressed. I have to admit, I’m a little nervous about what I’ve brought along, but on the bright side, I think Phil’s brought more than me.

The drive to Gatwich was all of 30 min if that. Because we’re all teachers, and it’s only the first week of holidays, we did talk a bit of shop. I had to tell them about my application misfortunes after all. But then we stopped. We’ll probably drift in and out of such talk again since school is the thing that brought us together, but with any luck, we’ll meet new people on tour and be able to talk about the sights we’re seeing.

Checking-in was entertaining. We managed to be in a long-ass line, not long in terms of people so much as time waiting. I took the blame on this one, explaining to Selena that I’ve had bad luck with first experiences in England ranging from long queues to delayed public transportation. Why should my first experience at Gatwick be any different?

Once we made it through, it was pretty smooth sailing from there on out. We breezed through security, had time to exchange money (three different types!), and get a quick bit to eat. It’s the first time in a long while that I haven’t had to wait around the airport for hours on end ‘cuz no sooner had we finished our sandwiches than we were boarding the plain.

Now, maybe it’s because I’ve flown stand-by for as long as I can remember, but I had no idea that you could pick seats together check-in. I managed to wrangle the window seat; however, after take off, it occurred to me to offer the seat to Phil since the last time he’d flown was in 2001. It was a very Wedding Singer moment. It’s also been a while since I’ve flown a non-International flight. The plane was much smaller than I’m used to and full of wailing children. I can’t say it really bothered me, though, partly because one of my earliest memories of flying includes myself wailing. When the kids were calm and quiet, they were adorable There were two lovely children in front of us and behind us. You know, the ones with the bright blue eyes and the beautiful smiles.

The trip was over before we knew it. I have to say, Malev Airlines was a lovely experience. Going through the immigration (got me a stamp!) and baggage claim was pretty painless as well. We were a bit sketchy o how to get to the hotel, whether to take public transportation or take a taxi. Phil borrowed a guide book from one of our work-mates Pete and it recommended a particular taxi company so we ended up going with that.

It didn’t really cost us all that much either. I’d taken VoW’s habit of writing down expenses to keep track of things. So far, I’d spent £3 or so. Not too shabby all things considered.

Checking-in to the hostel was fairly entertaining. The reception staff seemed confused by our arrival, but it was resolved fairly easily/quickly. We all ended up in a room together. The accommodations were pretty basic; very university dorm-like. I’m glad for the towel I brought, but now I kinda wish I had a robe…and shower slippers. I think I’ll manage some how, though.

Since we arrived much earlier than the rest of the tour, we had time to do a little exploring on our own. For the most part, we picked a direction and went with it. To be fair, it wasn’t going to be that hard to navigate since we were able to get our bearing based on the Danube. And well, Phil had the guidebook if all else failed.

We wandered down along Vaci Utca, which was one of the main streets just round the corner from the hostel. It was lined with cafes and souvenir shops so it seemed like a good idea at the time. I had my fancy new camera, who remains un-named from the time being (perhaps Seven of Nine?), in my pocket of all places, so when we got to the first neat looking building, it was pretty easy for me to snap a shot. Of course, the building happened to be a Catholic church.

The interior of the Church of St. Michael was pretty cool. Selena and I went up to the alter and took a few pictures. No one else was really doing so so I only took the one of the High Alter and the Virgin Mary. I was kinda reminded of Belgium.

One thing about Budapest that appealed to me straight away was its music. There was a sign on the door to St. Michael’s advertising an upcoming concert. The program included Bach’s Toccata and Fuge (note: link does not go to traditional version, ’tis just a version I like) and Vivaldi’s Spring among other popular classical pieces. Unfortunately for me, the concert was on Thursday night, the night we would leave Budapest.

We wandered down the street a bit more then decided to cross to the Buda side of Budapest for a spell. (Apparently one side of the Danube is Buda and the other side is Pest. The things you learn…also, the Danube isn’t so much blue as it is brown.)

Whilst crossing the first bridge, we were inclined to stop for photos. I have to admit, having a much smaller camera has made snapping quick shots much easier. I took a few of the Danube and the Pest side of Budapest (all of which can be seen on facebook or flickr…as soon as I upload them). We walked along the river towards the palace (now a museum) and a few riverside monuments.

We crossed back over to Pest and took pictures of the awesome Parliament building, which was apparently modeled after the British Parliament building. The suspension bridge we crossed brought us closer to St. Stephen’s Basilica, which we dutifully took pictures of.

Since we still seemed to have time to kill, and we were all a bit munchy, we stopped at California Coffee Company for coffee and a snack. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the fact I’d never heard of the coffee chain before…and the fact that it was in Budapest. It was a delightful little respite and it made me miss afternoon coffee with my parents.

We managed to kill just about the right amount of time. I even managed to slip into a souvenir shop to purchase my mom’s refrigerator magnet. When we’d first began our jaunt, we had passed an advert for a sushi place. Jokingly, I said we should go there for dinner the following night. Apparently, this idea was taken seriously, so we walked around the corner to locate the restaurant and check out prices. It seemed far more reasonable than the sushi we would get in London so provided we had traditional food at some stage of our visit, sushi was a go.

When we arrived back at the hostel, the tour group still hadn’t arrived. Selena had been keen on finding a post office, o we thought we would go ahead and try to find one. The bloke from the souvenir shop said there’d be one round the corner, but the first time we looked we hadn’t been all that successful. The girl at reception referred to the same one but said it was much closer. Perhaps we missed it the first time around?

As we walked out of the hostel, we started to see several people gather round the entrance. They looked to be about our age so we guessed that the tour group had arrived at last. (YAY!) Since we didn’t see anyone particularly leader-y at first, Selena and I ventured forth for the post office whilst Phil smoked a cigarette. Unfortunately for us, we did not find the elusive post office. To be fair, I don’t think we were trying all that hard since we both knew the tour group had arrived. Phil had gone ahead and introduced himself to the tour group leader, whose name I would learn to be Clem, and so we just waited to get everything sorted.

It was maybe another fifteen minutes or so before we got the chance to really speak with Clem. I had the opportunity to observe our fellow traveling companions. Everyone appeared to be in their twenties; they made me apprehensive all the same. Something about the demeanor of most them reminded me too much of uni and the people I generally avoided. But, as we all know, I have incurable crazy. Perhaps I was unfairly impressing upon them a personality that none of them fit. I guess that’s what the tour would be for me to find out.

Since Phil, Selena, and I had arrived together and we’d already gotten a room, we didn’t have to worry about random room assignment. We chillaxed for a spell since we had some down time before we were due to meet Clem — she wanted to take us through a few things before dinner.

By the time we were due in reception, we were pretty ready for dinner. Clem took those of us just joining the tour down into the common room, which was all kinds of disconcerting with its creepy lighting and dilapidated furnishings She ran us through some essential information and told us we’d need to fill out a few more forms. It was during this time that we met our coach driver and fellow tour guide Seb. However, the time was too near to meet up with everyone else so we did not get the chance to properly fill out our forms.

The restaurant wasn’t all that far from the hostel; it seemed to be a cozy place called Fatál. A few of us couldn’t help but chuckle at the name and hoped it wasn’t an indication of the after effects of the food. Most people gathered in their groups, so Selena, Phil and I managed a table together. One of the other new guys joined us as well. No one was really sure how the whole dinner thing worked since there were menus all set out. Usually, for a group meal, there was supposed to be a fixed menu. This was not the cast at Fatál. Clem said that Topdeck would cover any main up to HUF 3000, but drinks were on our own. I wanted to try something “traditional”, so ’twas the beef gulyás (goulash) for me, and as it turns out, the whole table.

I wish I could say that we had a scintillating conversation…but such dialogue did not transpire. There was talk of school mostly and I felt badly for Rob since he was completely out of the loop. We managed to steer the conversation towards travel, since that was something we all had in common. Not the most stimulating topics, but it seemed to work.

Now, when we first sat down, it seemed like we were in a pretty good spot. Our order was taken relatively quickly and our drinks had arrived not long after placing the drink order. We’d even seen a few others who’d ordered only a few minutes before us have their food brought out even before everyone else even finished placing their initial orders. We waited patiently at first, but then it became pretty obvious that something had gone wrong with our food when tables who’d ordered long after us started getting their food. The waiter had to come back and check what we’d ordered, but only after Clem and Seb had to say something. At least, I think they said something because thy both commented on our lack of a main course. I couldn’t be all that annoyed, though, because I’ve forgotten to put in orders before, especially when it’s been busy with large groups. By the time the food came, just about an hour had elapsed and most everyone else had finished.

On the bright side, the food was awesome and full of flavor. Selena described it as rich, but that’s usually an adjective I associate with sweet food, not savory. Regardless, it was pretty freaking good. (Dunno if I’d say worth the wait, but it was still tasty.)

It was two of the other travelers’ birthdays, so Seb and Clem bought a birthday cake for them. I wish I could say we knew whose birthdays it was but we’d only just joined and knew all of three people by name.

Not too much happened after dinner. It was still relatively early, so Selena, Phil, and I decided to take a light stroll along the Danube in dusk. I took a few snaps of the city at night, but then we retired to the hostel.

So far, not a bad start to the trip!

The Misadventures: The Gathering

This post was written on 1 June 2009 chronicling the road trip to Germany. (I figure, if I write it in pieces, it might actually get published. I’ve had such a great track record so far this year.)

Several months ago, VoW said she might be able to get some time off to visit me in England; Yoss Mike also expressed an interest as well. It would be like when they visited me whilst in Osaka, only without the bankruptcy fiasco five months later. We’d originally shot for the Easter Holiday, but the timing didn’t quite work out. Thus, we scheduled the visit for the May half term. Although, with the date now set for later than originally hoped meant that Brad could join our trio; Toni also strongly considered coming to play but was unfortunately unable to do so.

The planning stages were mostly VoW working her VoWness. I had designs on visiting Germany, particularly Bavaria. As the planning continued, the trip turned out to be a road trip to Germany via a few other countries along the way.

As the time for the misadventure drew closer and closer, I became a bit more…”wary” is the only word I can think of. When people asked me about my plans for the half term, I frequently replied with: “My idiot friends think it’s a good idea to drive to Germany.” Seriously. What was I getting myself in to?! The last week of term, I even said to all of my classes that if I didn’t come back after the half term it will be because I’ll be dead, having been killed by my idiot friends and their brilliant plan to drive to Germany. (Clearly, I was way paranoid.)

The Thursday before our trip, I was to meet up with VoW at East Croydon Station. Yoss and Brad had fancy iPhones and hoped to be able to use them whilst on this side of the pond. It didn’t quite work out as hoped. I hadn’t heard from any of them all day so I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to go into Croydon or not.

It was a good thing I did, though ‘cuz when I walked up to W.H. Smith’s, VoW was there with a bag of goodies for me. (I’d made a few requests from home.) I was so happy to see a familiar face. This isn’t to say that the faces hereabouts haven’t become familiar, more that VoW is a person who knows me for me and not for the teacher me. I was pretty tired of being teacher me. I missed being geek me. (I finally had someone to discuss Dollhouse with!)

I showed VoW around Croydon. It wasn’t overly exciting but we did go to the Croydon branch of Forbidden Planet. We stopped by a pub for a Coke and just hung out for the most part. I was rather reluctant to part company, but I did still have to teach the next day.

Friday couldn’t get over soon enough. I’d already come into work like a senior who is done with finals — not necessarily a poor start, but not an encouraging one in my head. (I have this bad habit of taking my job too seriously at times.) The morning was spent trying to get a birthday card signed rather than over-preparing my lessons, but it all turned out well in the end.

When the last bell finally rang, I couldn’t decide who was more excited, me or the students. I suppose that’s not wholly uncommon, though. And yet, even though I knew my mates were in town, I didn’t want to pass up a chance to go to the Fox with my colleagues. (Besides, I knew that the others were doing their tourist stuffs.)

Phil had kindly offered me a lift to Osterly Station on the Piccadilly Line rather than have to make a billion transfers with my borrowed luggage (I was worried about my yellow bag being too big for the Eurostar so Phil lent me one of his smaller suitcases). Whilst in the car, Brad managed to call me on his phone. I was relieved to hear from him. I’d been unsure of arrangements since I didn’t get an e-mail or any sort of communication all day. It was another reason why I stayed at the pub as late as I did since I didn’t know where folks were.

I arrived at King’s Cross a little later than I anticipated, but it was still all good. I managed to find folks and folks found me. The four of us walked back to the Wardonia Hotel to drop off my suitcase before going forth in search of food.

We ended up eating at McDonald’s since it was close and cheap. It was so nice to see friends again. I know it’s really only been about six months since I was home last, but the lack of geeks wears on me. (In this case, “geeks” is synonymous with “friends”). There was discussion of TV shows and of course, the goings on of home.

Even though it was late, we convened in the boys’ room for a spell after dinner. We spoke of Britishisms and plans for our misadventures as well as the sightseeing the three of them got up to that day. The hour grew later and we had an early start to greet us in the morn. We bid each other good night and VoW and I made our way to our room.

Despite my misgivings, as I lay in bed that night, I was starting to feel pretty excited about our misdventure. I just hoped I survived.

The Misadventures: A week in the Lake District

I spent the first week of the Easter Break in the Lake District of Northern England. I went up with Phil to stay at his parents’ place in Carlisle.

I’d go into super great detail, but it’s come to my attention that the details are what’s keeping me from posting a lot of these entries. I guess I’ll just stick to the essentials for the time being.

Saturday: So it Begins

We started at a reasonable hour. On the way up to the North (yeah, it gets capitalized apparently), we were going to stop off in Leeds to see the Royal Armoury. I’d been to the one at the Tower of London only to discover that a lot of what I’m interested in is kept in Leeds. I’d mentioned as much to Phil and he was kind enough to make the suggestion of stopping there.

So that’s what we did. I wish I could say I was super excited about it, but it turned out to be just all right. There were more guns than swords and that was a tad disappointing. It was still all right, though. I mean, I’d planned on taking a National Express bus up, which woulda cost me a bit of coin. This saved me the trouble.

We drove through Sherwood Forest, or what was left of it, as well. Unfortunately, we didn’t really get a chance to stop. Strangely enough, Sherwood Forest isn’t really high on my list of places to see whilst I’m in England. I find that rather odd, but whatever.

Reaching the North was another couple hours, and even when we got there, we apparently had some time to kill. Phil took me to see some of the stone circles he knew of in the area, Mayburgh Henge and King Arthur’s Round Table. I’d like to say I really appreciated them, but it was pretty damn cold (thankfully I’d packed my Columbia coat) and I was more interested in staying warm than anything else. I snapped one or two pictures, though. (Yes, I know. I have to upload those since I still have all of Hastings and Brussels to put up as well.) We checked out one other site called Castlerigg as well. This stone circle was a little more impressive than Aurthur’s Round Table, that’s for sure!

It was back on our way to Carlisle shortly thereafter. By the time we’d reached Phil’s parents’ place, they were home (hence the whole needed to kill time thing). Phil’s mum and dad were all kinds of welcoming and Jess the Border Collie was definitely excited to see new people. Dinner, which consisted of lasagna, wasn’t quite ready so we took the dog out into the field and Phil showed me the general area of Hadrian’s Wall. The part that runs through the back field isn’t much to look at since it’s essentially a barely discernible mound, but it’s still pretty cool to think that it’s there. Well, it is for me.

I found dinner to be pretty spectacular. But then again, I like homemade dinners. I was pretty knackered thereafter and considering the time and the place, there wasn’t a whole lot to be done. (Most things in London close at 6 PM, as I’ve griped about on more than one occasion, I wasn’t expecting much out of Carlisle, which is a wee bit smaller than London Town.) We more or less hung out with the parents and planned what we would do during the week. When it got dark enough, we went out to go look at stars, since the chances of seeing more of them in the fields were better than trying to see them in Greater London. I wish I could say I saw as many as I did when I went up to Michigan with Tomczak forever long ago, but the skies hadn’t darkened nearly enough even at 9:00. I wish I could say I was totally up for staying awake later, but like I said, I was pretty knackered and really only wanted to sleep.

Sunday: The Wall

It was up and at ‘em at something like 8 AM. That was all fine and dandy with me since I was already awake and such. Breakfast consisted of a choice of fruit, choice of cereals, and toast plus coffee or juice. (Huh. That made it sound like a restaurant.) I passed on the fruit, but helped myself to some Muesli! Phil’s parents were off to church and the like afterwards, which makes sense since Phil’s dad is a vicar. So we were left to our own devices before we had to be back for Sunday Lunch.

It was Hadrian’s Wall for us. Phil drove out to a better portion of the wall to look at. I’d like to say I remember the name of the area, but I really don’t. I just know I got to see part of the wall, walk alongside it and trail my hands over the old stones. Not the most exciting thing for most people, but I found it to be wicked cool. After admiring the first portion, we drove to another part of the wall, Cawfields Roman Wall and Milecastle 42. This was a bit of a more difficult trek along the wall, but it was still cool. Phil took a picture of me, well…standing on the wall. For the record, it wasn’t my suggestion! But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. And besides, my shoes were runners. They weren’t going to damage the wall. At least I didn’t take part of it!

After sating my need to see Hadrian’s Wall, ’twas off to Vindolanda. This was one of the Roman forts along the wall and it is a pretty impressive ruin site. Apparently, there is still a lot to be excavated. Vindolanda is also famous for the Vindolanda Tablets which are considered amongst the Top Ten British Treasures.

We spent something like three hours between Hardian’s Wall and Vindolanda. There was even time to stop and have a coffee, or in my case a scone. It was at Vindolanda that I rediscovered my love of scones (I ate ‘em a lot when I lived in Japan of all places).

The adventures to the past completed, we were back to the present and lunch. Phil’s mum made roast pork complemented with vegetables and other outstanding fixings and for dessert key lime pie. I was definitely loving the homecooking!

Phil’s parents had another church gig to go to so that left me and Phil to our own devices. We ended up driving out to see the Bewcastle Cross. Now to be honest, I’d never heard of the cross before, but it was a piece of Anglo-Saxon history dating back to the Heptarchy so I was pretty happy to see it. It was quite a trek out to it, but it was all good. We passed many a farm with sheep along the way. (Oh yeah, that’s another thing about the North — there are loads of sheep farms around. There are probably just as many in the South, but I definitely noticed them more on the way up to Cumbria.)

On the way back to Carlisle, we took a detour through Scotland. I rather enjoyed the forested areas of the countryside more than the hills. I was actually rather keen on going for a walk. Unfortunately for me, the walk we ended up going on had no trees or cover from the wind whatsoever. When we crossed back to the English border, we passed a monument on the top of a hill overlooking one of the English towns. Phil used to walk up to see it when he was younger and so that was the walk we went on. I think I much preferred walking through forest trails. There’s less wind. It was a nice vista, however.

It was back to the house not long after. I know it doesn’t seem like we did a whole lot on Sunday, but the sites we went to weren’t exactly east to get to. There was definitely a lot of driving involved.

Monday: The City of Carlisle and Long Meg and Her Daughters

It had been decided that we would take a wander around Carlisle on Monday. When we first entered the city, I was rather keen on checking out Carlisle Castle. We were the first ones to arrive when it opened so we had the reign of the place for a while. I think the most interesting part of it for me was Queen Mary’s Tower, which was where Mary Queen of Scots was held in captivity not long before her death.

We spent something like an hour and a half wandering around the castle grounds. Afterward, we stopped for a coffee, as we are wont to do.

There really wasn’t a whole lot to explore in the town centre that I hadn’t seen before in other town centres; and I don’t men that in a rude way. It’s just like Schaumburg doesn’t look all that different from Elk Grove Village kind of thing. We found ourselves at Phil’s old place of work, Cranston’s Quality Butchers. He told me about how he used to get paid cash-in-hand and then walk around the corner to buy records at the local music store Pink Panther’s. Of course, this was all back when the butcher’s shop was much smaller and records were still sold. We stopped in to say hello to some of his old co-workers. It was all very much like when I used to stop into Crown Books or Denny’s.

It had been decided that Tuesday would be the family hiking day. We were going to go up one of the fells. Remembering how easy it was to go up Fuji-san in runners, I thought it might be in my better interest to finally get around to purchasing a pair of hiking shoes. It amuses me on some level that it took a mountain in England to decide this instead of, I don’t know, the tallest mountain in Japan to inspire me to buy shoes.

I’d have to count myself lucky in this respect. For one thing, since hiking is a pretty common hobby in the Lake District, there were plenty of stores for me to find that would sell what I was looking for. In fact, one of the towns we passed on the way to Carlisle, Keswick, it seemed that every other store was a mountaineering store of some kind. Anyway, I ended up at Millet’s, which is an incredibly common chain of sports equipment stores. It also just so happened there was a sale on women’s hiking shoes. You better believe I took advantage of it. Admittedly, I was a little wary of purchasing the pair of shoes for £19.99. I know, I have the incurable crazy. That’s an incredibly good deal considering the original price was something like £40. But it was on a brand I’d never heard of – Peter Storm’s. Being of the non-British persuasion, it’s no surprise I’d never heard of the shoes. In any case, I got around to buying them since they had a really solid grip – no tumbling down the side of a fell for me!! And let’s be honest, for £20, I got a pretty nice deal out of it. I just had to make damn sure I’d use ‘em again aside from just going up Dale Head Pike.

And what trip to a town centre would be complete without a stop at the bookstore? While it is true I’ve wandered back into Westeros (I know, I know), one never has to twist my arm to get me into a bookstore. Remember the part where I’m a bookstore whore? There was actually something of a purpose in going into Waterstones, however. One of the other things we’d planned to do on this trip was go up to Edinburgh. It was in our better interest to at least buy a city guide.

Our town purchases made, it was off to yet another Neolithic stone circle. This time it was to be Long Meg and her Daughters. On the way out of town, though, we stopped off at the Carlisle Football Club shop. See, this is how you know I haven’t been integrated into the British culture at all. I still don’t have a football club I’ve sworn allegiance to. But to be fair, I don’t care all that much about many major sports except college football; and the only reason I’m into that is because of the marching bands.

Getting out to Long Meg and Her Daughters, much like almost every other thing we’ve done so far, was quite a hike into the countryside. In fact, Long Meg is situated on some fellow’s farm property.

I think of all the stone circles and Neolithic sites I’ve visited so far, I’ve like Long Meg the most. There’s nothing particularly special about her…well, no that’s not true. She has these concentric circles carved into her and many a token left behind for her at her base. There was sage and obsidian snowflake and less “pagan” mementoes as well such as pennies and other knick-knacks. For whatever reason, this put Meg in a special place in my memory.

We had stopped off at Tesco’s before going to meet Meg. We thought to have a faux-picnic out with her, but a truck came onto the one lane road and it there was no parking anywhere. We bid Meg goodbye and ended up going into a nearby town to eat on the green.

There was really no plan after seeing Long Meg. Phil thenceforth decided to drive around through the Lake District. I’d been there for about a day and had yet to see any of these lakes the area is known for, after all. I wish I could say I remembered all the lakes we went to, but there really were a lot. Much like when we drove through parts of Scotland, I was all about stopping and taking a wander around the lake. Unfortunately for us, the weather was not all that agreeable. We made a stop in a place called Grassmere, as there was a really popular gingerbread shop that Phil wanted to patronize there.

We were in the general vicinity of another stone circle that Phil knew of. It was decided that we ought to try and find it. I’d like to say that it was an easy find, but we kinda sorta got lost on the way. So instead of seeing the stone circle, we ventured to Hardknott Roman Fort. Now that was an adventure! The thing about Hardknott Roman Fort is that it’s literally in the middle nowhere. In fact, we almost died on the way there. Okay, well, no not really. But there were quite a few sheer drops in the road (the fort was surrounded by mountains) and it was kind of like a rollercoaster ride. I was incredibly entertained by it all, but Phil was less so. I guess if I were the one driving, I wouldn’t be all that excited about the almost crashing the car thing either.

Hardknott wasn’t anything like Vindolanda, but it was something to see. If you had been a Roman soldier when the fort had been in use, you must have really done something to piss off the Emperor to be posted there. Like I said, Hardknott was in the middle of nowhere.

We traipsed around the ruins for a short spell. It was all muddy and drizzly, so we did not linger there longer than we had to. Because of our navigational mishaps, we were consequently late for dinner. It was kinda funny ‘cuz Phil thought he was gonna get in trouble by his mum for it.

All in all, it wasn’t that bad of a day out, aside from the almost dying bit and the weather of course. It was nice to come back to another home-cooked meal.

Tuesday: Dale Head Pike
As I mentioned before, there was hiking scheduled for Tuesday. We were supposed to have something of an early start, but truly, I’ve had earlier. We made it out the door at something like 9 AM or so. Jess the Border Collie was even coming along with us.

The drive out to Dale Head Pike was something like an hour and a quarter or so. There was also a stop along the way, though, so it might have been shorter than that. We had to drive through what seemed like quite a bit of the Lake District to get there.

Dale Head Pike is next to a still functioning slate quarry. Much like when hiking up Fuji-san, we were already a decent way up the mountain when we started the actual hike. The change in temperature from the bottom of the mountain to where we were was quite obvious, especially with the wind blowing. Phil’s dad had been kind enough to lend me a pair of hiking trousers to put over my jeans. At first, I thought they would be unnecessary. Then we got to the mountain and I was incredibly grateful for them.

Hiking in England isn’t like hiking in Japan. Or at least, it wasn’t like any of the hiking I did in Japan. The locations I chose to go up in Kansai were somewhat more picture-esque on the way up. Akameguchi had the 48 waterfalls, Nijozan had the surrounding forest, Arashiyama had the cherry blossoms, and Mount Fuji had…well, a typhoon, but also a forest and surrounding mountains. Dale Head Pike had wind and rocks and sheep. Again, first experiences in England haven’t been all that great for me. I might have enjoyed the trek up a bit more if it had been warmer but such is the timing of our hike.

I will say this: the view into Newlands Valley below and the Northern Fells was pretty spectacular.

We didn’t linger long at the top, though. I blame the wind for that. Phil’s dad made a joke that we should try and make our way over to the top of one of the nearby fells as well. Had the weather been better, I would have been happy to do so. But for the most part, we were all rather keen on getting back down the mountain.

After putting Jess the Border Collie back in the car, we stopped by the quarry shop for a hot drink. For all that the weather seemed bad to me, there were plenty of people who were visiting Dale Head Pike for a good hike. It was rather crowded when we got into the shop.

We were to the town of Keswick thereafter; that was the town I mentioned that had a mountaineering store across from another mountaineering store. ( “There’s a Starbucks across the street from a Starbucks!” )

Phil and I stopped into a local teashop for a spot of coffee, or in my case, a scone and a glass of milk. Like I said, I’m way back into scones. In fact, I bought four of them before we left. We still had time to kill, though, so we wandered around a little only to find ourselves at a Costa Coffee and a second-hand bookstore.

When we got back to the house, I pretty much crashed. I didn’t fall asleep or anything (I did that on the drive back), but I did chill out for a spell. Dinner that night was at a Toby Carvery, a place I’d always wanted to try because they had dead animal.

It was a grand Tuesday.

Wednesday: The Ruthwell Cross

I remember one man-to-man lesson I had back in the day at Nova where an English Professor from Kobe University told me about a cross that had “The Dream of the Rood” on it. At the time I didn’t know the name of it but I have since discovered it is called The Ruthwell Cross. And it just so happens that it’s located in southern Scotland, not too far away from Carlisle. Naturally, Ruthwell Church became one of our destinations. This excursion was much like my desire to see Hadrian’s Wall.

Since we were in the area, we also took a trip to the ruins of Caerlaverock Castle. This was one of the more interesting castle to visit because it was one of the only ones I’ve seen to be triangular in shape.

Phil took the hint about my enjoyment of walking through forest trails. He planned to try a jaunt through Galloway Forest Park. The only minor detail we seemed to be having was the weather; even as we were traipsing about Caerlaverock we were subject to a bit of drizzle. The clouds did not speak favorably and given the harsh wind from the North Atlantic we encountered yesterday…well, we thought we’d give it a go.

Okay, so Galloway Forest was definitely against us. After quite a car journey, we stopped off at one of the planning places. It was well past mid-day now so it seemed in our better interest to have lunch. There was a cafe on the lakeside so it made the most sense to eat there. I wonder vaguely if we had skipped lunch and started walking if we would have gotten more out of the stop. Probably unlikely.

In case you couldn’t tell from my exposition, walking the forest trail did not really happen. It was a bit too cold with the wind and the place where we ended up didn’t really have many trails. I blame the North Atlantic, personally.

Phil, bless him, offered to drive up the road to try and find another location or we could just pack it in and go to Wigtown, Scotland’s Book Town. I was well and truly indifferent. I had a mad desire to get some walking in…but it seemed nature was against me. It turned out to be a good thing we passed on the other location because whilst we were driving out of Galloway, the rain storm officially rolled in.

Scotland’s Book Town was pretty cool. It was all second-hand shops, but they were still pretty swank. And as you all well know, it doesn’t take much to get me into a bookstore. I was pretty good about not buying anything, too. Although, there was this beautiful copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight published by the Oxford University Press and printed in Middle English. I flirted with it quite a bit. Some part of me kicks myself for passing on it, but given my state of leisure, it was highly unlikely I’d seriously get any use out of it.

Seeing as how it was near to closing time and we’d pretty much gone into every open bookstore, we called it a day. Phil wanted to make another stop while we were in the area. This time to a place called the Isle of Whithorn, where Christianity was brought into Scotland around the 4th Century. It was also the southern most part of Scotland. In fact, we were able to see into Northern Ireland. The weather had cleared up considerably by this point and since I could not traipse about in the Galloway Forest, I decided it would be a good idea to venture out onto the cliffs around the bay. For the record, they weren’t that that dangerous. Besides, there were no warning signs saying we couldn’t.

It was back to Carlisle thereafter. We had a ginormous feast at Phil’s local pub, The Near Boot. Seriously, for the amount of money we paid and the amount of food that was brought to us, you’d think it was Americans who were running the joint.

In the evenings, we’d taken to reading in the family room. So that’ just what I did. It’s definitely a good thing I’ve wandered back into Westeros otherwise I’d be pretty bored.

Thursday: Edinburgh

Whilst in the area, it made sense to go up to Scotland. Well, technically, I’d already been in Scotland, but this time something a bit more traditional touristy.

We were on the road pretty early. The weather was once again Northern England with a good bit of Scottish thrown in. Not the most encouraging, but I have yet to develop weather controlling powers, so we were stuck with it.

I more or less passed out on the ride up to Edinburgh of course. The next thing I knew, we were at the Park and Ride just outside of Edinburgh.

I was pretty glad I was with someone who had a clue about where to go. Of course, if I had a guidebook of my very own I’d probably figure something out. However, I would have also taken the train in…I’m getting off-topic.

Anyway, the first thing we did was go to Edinburgh Castle. We spent a good hour and a half walking around the various rooms. After walking through, though, I was starting to think I liked ruins a bit more. This isn’t to save that Edinburgh Castle didn’t have its charms. Much like the Tower of London, Edinburgh Castle is home to the Honours of Scotland and there’s alsothe one o’clock gun. I could definitely see Edinburgh Castle as an impressive fortress when it had been functional.

After visiting the various museums and exhibitions in the castle, we took our leave of the might fortress in favor of finding some food. On our way, we stumbled upon The Writer’s Museum. It was only natural that so we made a brief stop to admire the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Burns before sitting down to burgers at Wannaburger.

It was a relatively good thing we stopped for food when we did ‘cuz I was starting to feel a headache settle in. At the time, I thought ’twas merely a hunger headache. Of course, I later discovered it was more ofa caffeine headache. (Yeah, I know, probably a psychological thing, but it was still there.) But hey, the burger was pretty damn tasty.

We decided to go to the National Museum Scotland after lunch. There really hadn’t been a lot of forethought to this excursion despite the purchase of a guidebook and a facebook message to Steve prior to arrival in the Scottish capital. Phil had hopes for some things on Medieval Scotalnd and I just generally like going to museums. Little did I know there would be more to see at the museum than I anticipated.

We started on the ground floor, which started at the formation of Scotland; you know, like back in Pangea. I wasn’t quite expecting that. It’s been a really long time since I’ve had the opportunity to explore that part of history, so yeah, I spent quite a while looking at each display.

The aforementioned headache, however, was starting to make another special guest appearance as we started through Neolithic Scotland, though. I couldn’t handle it any longer and begged leave to find caffeine. It wasn’t like we paid anything to go in, so we decided to retune after a much needed coffee fix. (Yes, there was a cafe in the museum, but if I was going to pay that much for a coffee, I at least wanted something a little more known.)

We managed to find a Caffe Nero attached to the Blackwell we were going to anyway. The way we figured it, kill two bids with one stone. The coffee wasn’t particularly brilliant, but the beautiful, beautiful books made up for it. Again, I had the Starks to keep me company so I had no need to buy anything…but I never pass up a chance to look at pretty, pretty books.

I was starting to feel better, so we made our way back to the museum. We had the rest of the Neolithic and Medieval Scotland to get through. Seriously, this museum was quite a pleasant surprise. We had some other things we wanted to do in the city as well, so we contented ourselves with only the first two floors before taking our leave.

We returned to Royal Mile. Steven warned me about the tourist traps, but I actually did have some souvenirs to buy. My mom collects refrigerator magnets from different countries and I didn’t think she had one from Scotland. Also, I wanted to get Phil’s parents a little token of gratitude for their hospitality. It was on the way to Holyrood Palace (one of our destinations), so it all worked out rather well. It only took me something like forty-five minutes and five souvenir shops to find the two things I was looking for. Heck, we also passed the Scottish Parliament Building, which I dutifully took pictures of for Rich. And we still had time for Holyrood! In sooth, both Phil and I were more interested in seeing the ruins of Holyrood Abbey, but you couldn’t go to one without seeing the other. It was all right though ‘cuz the price of admission included the audio guide, which, by the way, was the best audio guide ever. I mean, without its incredibly helpful instructions, I would have never figured out that if I wanted to enter the palace and the door was closed, I was supposed to turn the handle. Seriously mates, I would have just wandered around the quadrangle trying to figure out a way to bust in and get my £10 worth.

Okay, okay, so after my initial amusement, the audio guide was actually pretty cool. I didn’t know much about Holyrood so it was interesting for me to find out the history. I didn’t know the palaces was actually still in use for when Queen Elizabeth makes her annual visit to Scotland. The tour took us through the procession Her Royal Majesty usually takes. All in all, I didn’t regret having to go through the palace first. But of course, I took the most pictures of the ruins of Holyrood Abbey. Clearly, I’ve developed a love affair with ruins.

It’s a good thing we’d gotten to Holyrood when we did for not long after we returned our audio guides did the place close. (Again, that grammar convention. Anyone know if I used that correctly? Rich and I have debated that sentence formation many a time.) Holyrood is situated beside Arthur’s Seat, a hill just under 1000 feet. Naturally, I wanted to go up.

The hike was rather pleasant, but as we reached the top, the delightful North Atlantic winds made their presence known once again. I had to take cover behind the monument to take out my camera lest I get blown away. On the way up, I noticed the ruins of St. Anthony’s chapel. We didn’t stop to see them on our ascent, but you better believe I wandered over on the way back down. Like I said, I seem to have fallen in love with ruins.

Most things were closed by the time we descended Arthur’s Seat. I was kinda holding out hope that we’d stay in Edinburgh long enough to take a haunted walk…but I knew Phil wasn’t too keen on such things and there was still the drive back to Carlisle to contend with.

We pretty much called it a day after the hike. We managed to catch a bus back to the car park and were on our merry way back to England. It was something like half nine by the time we made it back into Carlisle. We ended up stopping in at a Burger King for dinner.

‘Twas quite a bonny day out in Scotland.

Friday: Manchester

It was back South for us on Friday. Lucky for me, we didn’t have to leave ridiculously early or anything. We had breakfast with Phil’s parents, as we’d done every morning with the exception of Thursday, and leisurely packed up the car. We were to be on the road by 10, as Phil wanted to drop into Manchester and visit his brother who lived there. After heartfelt gratitude and good-byes, we hit the road.

The weather was as it had been almost all week: cloudy with a strong chance of wind and rain. Such is the North of England it seems. We made a quick stop at the Tesco’s on our way out of town for a few bits and pieces as well.

We made a brief stop at a roadside stop with a Caffe Ritazza attached. We vowed never to drink at a Caffe Ritazza again if we could help it. It had such an interesting aftertaste.

Despite our coffee mishap, we made it to Manchester in good time. Phil’s brother Simon and his wife Clare were having us over for lunch. I was quite entertained by Simon and Clare — they both have a wit I can totally savvy. There was definitely some good laughs over home-made fish and chips. It was quite a lovely lunch despite the consistent rain. I was actually surprised we didn’t stay longer.

The drive back to London was long. Yeah, I fell asleep for part of it, but not as long as I expected to. We were back in the Greater London area round six or so. We stopped for dinner at the Bullfinch, a pub we discovered on one of our many misadventures that had really good rib-eye and chips.

It was quite a lovely holiday to the North. I was definitely glad to have gone.

****

Clearly, my attempt to forgo attention to detail failed miserably.

The Misadventures: One Short Day in the City of Brussels

Okay, so we didn’t quite wake up as early as we would have liked. Well, technically we did, but then went back to sleep. We ended up leaving the hotel around 10:00, which was when I’d hoped to be starting our tour.

The first place I wanted to check out was the Musee du Cacao et du Chocolat. Whilst my mom got ready, I had pored over the map trying to find the best way to get there. At first, I figured we would just go to Gare Centrale and walk to it from the station. However, after I talked it over with my mom, since the Musee des Instruments de Musique & Old England building was on the opposite side of the Gare Centrale, it seemed better to take the tram to Bourse Station and walk to The Chocolate Museum that way instead of needing to backtrack.

It turns out, the transport I took the first day to get to Horta Station was the tram, not the underground. You can understand my mistake since access to the tram was underground. Anyway, we hopped onto the tram to Bourse Station.

After exiting the station, it was to the maps. The landmark I was using was the Scientastic Museum, which was easy to find. From there, I had to find Rue Henri Maus, and again, it was pretty easy to find. So far so good. In fact, I was feeling really good about my navigation skills. (I shouldn’t be all that proud since the route was a square.) Once we were on the Rue de Tabora, we just had to find the Rue de l’Amigo. On the way there, however, my mom got a bit sidetracked by a souvenir shop.

We milled around the shop for a spell, but Mom didn’t really find anything overly worthwhile. I figured we’d pass another shop somewhere in our wandering, so my mom was content to pass on by. Stopping by the shop kind of threw me off my navigating, and we ended up walking all the way down to Rue du Lombard. We weren’t that far off course, though, and it was quite easy to turn around.

I had originally planned to find the Rue de l’Amigo, but it just so happened that we passed the Rue de la Tête d’Or, the very street the Musee du Cocoa et du Chocolat was on!

One of the best parts about navigating a heavily tourist city is all the signs. I remember reading on Dave’s blog (Fiona’s husband) that the museum itself it actually quite hard to find since it doesn’t look like a museum. Lucky for us, a crowd of tourists had just exited the museum, so that made it wicked easy.

The Chocolate Museum was not at all what I was expecting. I guess when I think “museum”, I think like the British Museum or something like that. This was more like a little shop, a rather expensive little shop. Admission for my mom and me was €9. This did get us a tasting of melted chocolate on a biscuit, so that all right. I started to look at some of the items on display; a lot of the information cards were things I kind of already knew. The chocolate sculptures were pretty cool, though. Still hadn’t felt like it was worth the Euros, though.

There was chocolate demonstration that I was interested in seeing. Unfortunately for us, the chocolatier was in the middle of her demonstration. There was a Chocolate Process DVD playing in the area in front of the kitchen that we were watching. It was because of this DVD that I decided I want to be a cocoa harvester. I mean, you get to use a machete.

The woman who sold us our admission reminded us that we could take a look upstairs as well. We weren’t sure how much longer the demonstration would take, so we thought we would kill some time wandering around upstairs.
Even with the additional displays, it still didn’t feel like it was worth the Euros. Again, the information that I read about was things I either already know or could have looked up online. (I realize it’s about the experience, but when you’re trying to spend money sparingly, every Euro counts.)

When we went back downstairs, the place had exploded with people. When we first arrived, there were maybe ten people put together. Now there was hardly room to walk around. I wasn’t going to leave without seeing the demonstration, though. I wanted to get the most out of my money, after all.

As we went back up to the kitchen area, we discovered that the DVD was in the same place it was when we had left. If we had stayed where we were, we could have gotten into the demonstration and then gone upstairs. Oh well.
We were lucky that we pushed our way to the front. The chocolatier was already talking to some of the other people in English, so that was something of a relief to us. The bajillion other people who showed up whilst we were upstairs also crowded into the demonstration area.

Once there were enough people, the chocolatier started her demonstration. Since there were more French-speakers who joined us, she used both English and French. I wish I could say that I remember everything she said, but I really can’t. Much like the DVD, the demonstration caused me to want to work with chocolate. It was still cool and it was finally worth the €9 (€5 for me, €4 for my mom). We even got another sample.

Leaving the Chocolate Museum, we managed to meander down to the Grand Place surrounded by Musée de la Brasserie (Brewery Museum), the Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles (History of Brussels), and the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall). Naturally, we took pictures of the architecture.

Since we were already in the square, and there were things to see, we opted to take advantage of our location instead of going across town to the Musical Instrument Museum.

It was to the Musée de la Ville de Bruxelle, which was, incidentally, the most elaborate building in the square. It was probably why we decided to check it out.

The entry fee wasn’t as expensive as the Chocolate Museum, only about €5 for the two of us. There was a weird rule about my backpack; I had to either carry it around in my hand or wear it on the front.

The first room we wandered into had a lot of Christian artifacts, paintings, statues, and carved doors. The part I enjoyed about this place was that all the information panels were either in French or Dutch. I could suss out more of the French panels than anything, but that’s ‘cuz I studied it at school. I think I could have guessed my way through the Dutch since English and Dutch are cousins.

The next room was one my mom was more interested it; it contained porcelain dishes and tea services. Next to that one was a room full of tapestries.

We ascended the stairs to the top floor, figuring it would be easier that way than stopping off at the second floor and then climbing to the top – a trick picked up from Japan’s Osaka Castle. (I’m sure there are other places that do the same kind of method but I’d never practiced it until Braden and I visited the castle.)

On the top floor there was the History of Brussels and the many costumes of the Mannekin Pis. I thought all the different costumes were pretty cool; he pretty much had something to wear from every country! Some counties had multiple representations like the States, England, and France. The History of Brussels portion was pretty cool, but there wasn’t anything overly captivating for me I’m sorry to say.

The second floor was more about the changing faces of Brussels from its founding to modern times. There was a pretty cool model of the city from its medieval days (then again, of course I would think that was cool). There were also architectural drawings and the like.

So far, our misadventures in museums weren’t taking us nearly as long as I had expected. We’d seen two museums in just about two hours or so.

Since we were in the square, and the streets that led to it were full of souvenir shops, it seemed logical to do a little browsing. There were more shops to choose from instead of just the one we’d passed on the way to the Chocolate Museum, so we never did backtrack to it. I think in total we spent around an hour browsing, or rather, my mom did. I wasn’t really looking for anything overly touristy other than chocolate.

It was well past the lunching hour by this point, so yeah, we were pretty hungry. We wandered past a whole bunch of restaurants, but unfortunately, none of them were really in our price range. For what the signs were advertising, it didn’t seem worth the Euro. On Boulevard Anspach, we found a McDonald’s and a Pizza Hut, both establishments I refused to set foot in. We passed a kebab place called Sultan of Kepab, and we ended up eating there. All my mates in London are always telling me to try a kebab, so I figured I would. (Although, I think they meant kebab places in London, but I figured it was all the same.)

Considering how much we spent, it was a pretty good value. And it wasn’t something I normally eat! It wasn’t particularly Belgian, but it was consumed in Belgium.

By the time we’d finished eating, it was getting closer to 3 PM; the Musee des Instruments de Musique & Old England Building closed at 5 and we were still a bit far away from the museum. I admit I was a bit disappointed to not be able to go; I mean, it didn’t take us that long to make it through the two other museums, but my mom didn’t think it was worth the Euro for only two hours.
It was decided that we ought to stay in that general area rather than try and make it to the other part of the city. We headed back towards the square and passed yet another church.

The Church of St. Nicholas was actually pretty cool. I was mostly impressed with the altars dedicated to the different Christian figures and saints. Whilst my mom prayed at the altar of St Nicholas, I wandered around a bit. I’d been incredibly reluctant to take pictures whilst we’d been in the cathedral, but I got over that when we were in St. Nicholas. (That and everybody else was doing it!) One of the other things I liked about the church was the English pamphlet numbering all the different artifacts and pictures with the titles. I snapped pictures of the altar dedicated to St. Nicholas, the altar dedicated to Our Lady of Peace, and of St Theresa of the Child Jesus.

Afterwards, we ended up going back to a few of the souvenir shops. I went into Dandoy’s Biscuiterie, a famous Belgian biscuit shop (it was shown on $40 a Day with Rachel Ray!). In retrospect, I really shouldn’t have spent the Euros for the bag of butter biscuits I bought (what is up with me and alliteration?), but not much to be done about it now.

Since we had effectively gone off the itinerary, I had a look in the guidebook as to our next course of action. We’d seen and read about the little guy, so it made sense to try and see the Mannekin Pis. It wasn’t that hard to figure out where he was since there were signs everywhere. We retraced a lot of the steps we’d taken to get to the square in the first place. When we finally got to see the little guy, there was already a bit of a crowd around him but it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. He’s actually much smaller in person. I snapped a picture of him and my mom and I even got to a picture with him together. Of all the sights we’d seen together, the one we pose for is the one of a little boy peeing. Hmmmm…

Another Brussels attraction was off our list. I suggested going to the Palais Royale next. I read in the Lonely Planet book that they allow visitors inside but only until 4:30 PM. We had enough time to try and make it there, so that’s what we did.

We hopped on the tram again instead of trying to take the Metro. It was a short ride up to De Brouckère Station (also a Metro station) where we caught the 1A/1B going to Parc Station. There was another way we could probably have gone that would have brought us closer to the palace, but I figured it would be nice to stroll through the Parc de Bruxelles.

Oh winter. How you mock me with your winds and cold. My idea to walk through the park probably would have been more pleasant in Spring or Summer. And if we had come to Brussels at those times, we probably would have actually been able to go into the palace. I misread the information in the guidebook and apparently, they were closed in winter. We got some nice pictures of it, though.

Whilst we were walking up to the palace, I noticed what looked like the Palais de Justice. Referring to my handy map, I discovered that it was indeed what I thought it was. Rather than go to the station, I suggested just walking it.
We passed yet another church along the way. Since it was something to see, we went inside. The Chapel of the Madeline was very simple. There wasn’t anything really ornate about it at all, but it was nice to see. And yes, my mom took the time to pray at this one as well.

After leaving the church, we continued our way towards the Palais de Justice. I noticed one of the streets was marked “Sablon”, and I remembered reading that name in the guidebook. I referred to it quickly and told my mom that we were near the antiques area. That definitely got my her attention so we took a side trip down into that area. Most places were closed, but we did eventually wander into one of them. I kinda laughed about it in my head because most of the things we were looking at were things we’d probably have seen in a museum but we’d have paid a lot for an entrance fee. This was nice and free.

We didn’t spend too much time in the antiques area, though. It was pretty uphill from that point. (No really, we had to walk back up on an incline.) Walking towards the Palais de Justice, we stumbled upon Notre Dame du Sablon. Now this church impressed me greatly. Where the last church we visited was simple, this one was ornate. It was styled in the gothic tradition and featured stained glass windows. Of course, I snapped several pictures. It isn’t very often that I see stained glass windows in a gothic church.

The visit to Notre Dame du Sablon completed, the walk back to the Palais de Justice resumed. I’d wanted a waffle all day but unfortunately for us, there weren’t any quaint waffle vendors along the avenue as there had been in the main square. We resorted to Hagaan-Daaz. It was still incredibly tasty, though! The guy even warmed them up on the griddle so they were nice and hot while we ate them.

Not too much happened once we got back to the hotel. We’d spent just about six hours in Brussels and we still hadn’t seen everything! (It probably didn’t help that things closed at 5.)

Even though there was still so much to see, we decided that we were to Bruges the next day anyway.

The Misadventures: Bienvenue a Bruxelles

I’m not sure if that’s the right usage of “to”…but then again, my French is absolutely atrocious.

(written from the Four Points by Sheraton Brussels)

I made it to Brussels in one piece, or should I say “not dead”. The start of the trip wasn’t overly inspiring. Then again, I am under the delusion that England is out to get me.

I took the Eurostar over here. My train was scheduled to leave St. Pancras at 9:57 AM. The website said that boarding would take place half an hour before the departure; so I figured I should try and get to the station wicked early. I calculated that I ought to be able to get there in time if I left the flat at 7:30 AM.

I really should have known better. The bus wasn’t particularly punctual, but that’s really nothing new. I also had the misfortune of trying to travel on a day that they were doing roadwork, which added to the time it took to get to East Croydon Station. I made it there a little after 8:15.

I was strangely in luck when I bought my train ticket, though. I even managed to catch the 8:30 train to London Victoria. I could have sat down on the train, but thought against it because of my luggage. (Sitting down on the train isn’t always a guarantee.)

‘Twas a little before 9:00 when I got to Victoria. In my head, I had enough time to top-up my Oyster card since I’d be traveling in Zone 1 of the London Transport and I wanted to make sure I had more than enough credit to do so.
Yeah, that was a mistake on my part. I have this particular talen of picking the wrong lines to queue up in. The machine that I selected decided it only like certain coins; and here I’d thought the person in front of me was just not so good at working the machine! Hence, it took a bit longer to top-up than I first anticipated.

Perhaps my favorite part of trying to get to St. Pancras was when there was some kind of delay on the Victoria Line from the station. There was quite the crowd gathered by the ticket stalls. I considered re-routing, but I was reluctant to do so because the Victoria Line seemed to be the most direct to St. Pancras. So I stuck it out.

We were eventually let through and the trains were coming and going just about every 3 minutes. The carriages were only super full until Oxford Circus, when it seemed everyone and their brother got off the train. There were even seats available! (Again, not always a usual occurrence.)

There were only a few more stops to St. Pancras and it looked like I was going to make it in decent time. I followed the pretty, pretty signs to the depot and even managed to find the ticketing area. I thought it would be easy to print my ticket with the self-service machine, but again, I have that talent of picking the wrong machine. I ended up needing to stand in line anyway.

Target acquired. I mean, ticket acquired. I went to go through check-in. Here’s the part where I’m a moron. Since I was taking the train, I didn’t really think about going through security. That’s always been an airport thing to me. I forgot that technically, I was traveling Internationally. Thank God I remembered my passport! So maybe I should have left the flat at 6:30 like I originally though.

After using my amazing talent to pick the slowest line possible thought the checkpoint, I finally made it to the trains.

The train ride itself was pretty good. I wished I had a window seat, but maybe I’ll be lucky on the way back.

Now here’s the part where I think I’ve grown up a bit. Five years ago, the thought of trying to make it through a city on my own would have sent me into a fit. Trying to navigate a foreign city? Yeah right.

Well, I somehow managed to get myself lost in Brussels and still made it on my own in one piece.

The hotel my dad set up for my mom and me was one called Four Star by Sheraton Brussels. The minor detail my father failed to notice was that it was kind of on the outskirts of the city center. No matter. I decided I would be able to figure it out using the Metro. I managed to find a station that seemed relatively close to the hotel and then I used Google Maps to try and navigate by foot. This way, I wouldn’t have to spend too much on a taxi. Brilliant plan, right?

Yeah…about that…

After purchasing two three-day travel passes, I managed to find the underground. I was able to find Horta Station, the one I deemed close to the hotel, and I managed to board the train with no more trepidation than usual. According to my directions, once I exited Horta Station, all I would have to do was find Ierlaandstraat.

Forty-five minutes later and after circling Waterloostraat at least five times, I was out of luck. The time was fast approaching ridiculous, so I said screw it, I’ll pay for the damn taxi and headed back to Gare Midi.

There are two parts to this misadventure that kind of irritate me. The first part was finding out it only cost around €8. Not nearly as expensive as I thought it would be. The second part that got me was discovering that Horta Station was in fact NOT the closest Metro station to the hotel. If I had gone to Louis Station instead, it would have been a fifteen minute walk straight down the boulevard.
Oh well. Live and learn, or something like that.

I was glad my mom wasn’t expecting me at 2:30 when I originally thought I’d make it to the hotel. (It was closer to half three by the time I made it the hotel, and I’d arrived in Brussels at about 1:45.) In fact, she was surprised to see me when I arrived. The original thought was that I wouldn’t get to Brussels until 5:00 PM.

Anyway, it was a quick stop in the hotel room and then my mom and I decided to explore the city a little. We stopped at the front desk to ask for directions, which is when I discovered that I should have just gone to Louise Station, and then we were on our way. We decided to walk rather than take the tram.
It wasn’t overly exciting, but it was a good jaunt. We wandered down to the end of Avenue Louise where we saw the Palais de Justice. We turned around from that point to take the Metro into the city centre.

Here’s a thing that kind of surprised me. I expected my mom to be all kinds of annoyed that I didn’t have a plan. In fact, she was pretty easy-going about whatever we did. She was perfectly content to just wander around with me as I would do on my own anyway. Of course, we had a map and the Lonely Planet so it wasn’t completely aimless.

Looking at the Metro Guide, I thought perhaps it would be good to see St. Catherine’s. I mean, it had its own station, so it must have been something to see. (Of course, I was actually thinking of the Cathedral of St. Catherine’s, not the church.)

We took the Metro to Arts-Loi and then transferred to the 1A/1B Lines. While looking at the Metro Guide again, I noticed that we weren’t that far away from Gare Centrale. I suggested maybe seeing that area instead, figuring it was close to a lot of the major sites, but we ended up going to Sainte-Catherine first.

It wasn’t difficult to find the church once we got out of the station. We wandered up to the building and found it still open, so naturally, we went inside. My mom prayed and I just kind of took in the sight. It wasn’t the best looking church, but the guidebook said it was a place of note because it was designed by Joseph Poelaert, the same person who designed the Palais de Justice. It also had an open-air urinal on the side of the building. That was definitely something you don’t see on the side of a regular church.

While walking around a little, we found La Mer du Nord, a stranding room only fresh seafood place that was listed in the Lonely Planet. We thought maybe we’d sample some of the fare, but unfortunately for us, they were closing. (The guidebook said they close at 6, but I wasn’t going to argue with the guy. He even spoke to us in English. Oh yeah, wandering around the city is brushing up my French a bit.)

We went back to the Metro and stopped at Gare Centrale instead. I wanted to maybe trace a rout to the Musee du Cacao et du Chocolat. But instead, we got distracted by the Cathedral. We were lucky again in that it was still open.
The Cathedral was far more impressive than the church, but then again, it’s a cathedral. There was a beautifully carved oak pulpit that was on display. I read the panel explaining about it and it was pretty detailed.

I took a picture of the cathedral and of the sunset.

My mom and I wandered around a little bit more, but it was getting cold and dark, so we decided to just go back to the hotel. Instead of buying an expensive dinner, we opted for a Panini from the station. (Hey, it was better than McDonald’s.) We also bought some pop from the little corner grocery store that was a stone’s throw away from the hotel. (We’re on a budget.)

So far, not a bad first day in Brussels. We managed to do a lot considering we didn’t get a chance to start seeing things until late afternoon, right when most places are closing.

Tomorrow, we plan on going to the Musee du Cacao et du Chocolat and the Musee des Instruments de Musique & Old England Building. Also, and perhaps the most important item on the itinerary, we plan on eating some waffles.

The Misadventures: Chinese New Year London

I didn’t come to this country solely to work. Unfortunately for me, it seems to be all I’ve really done.

With the Lunar New Year, and knowing that London has a China Town, I decided I would go and see the celebration. I was incredibly lucky to find out that the celebrations take place after the official New Year day.

I was supposed to meet up with one of my colleagues in Trafalgar Square, where the main stage was going to be. I briefly considered not attending because of the HMI inspection that was scheduled for Monday and knowing there were still a few things I needed to get done. However, my inner Chinese won out and I went to meet Fiona and her cousin at half one.

I’ve been to events and places with lots of crowds before, but in general I avoid them like the plague. But this was an experience I’d resolved to have.

I think I got to the steps of St. Martin-in-the-Fields earlier than the appointed meeting time. That gave me a chance to watch the stage from a distance as one of the lion dances took place. I’d never seen one before, so I was pretty happy to catch it.

After meeting up with Fiona and her cousin, we went down to the main stage area. I’ve never actually been to China, but wading through the crowd I feel like I got a taste of it. Especially with all the Chinese being spoken. All that was really missing was the haggling and smog cloud.

I was incredibly entertained to discover that the red envelopes for lucky money were being distributed. At first, I thought they were just the envelopes, but after receiving mine own, I discovered there was actually 10p!! Okay, so that didn’t make us rich, but I thought it was brilliant that they were really giving them away to everyone.

It was pretty cold out yesterday. It was kinda hard to really get into the celebration and enjoy it. But it was still pretty damn cool. We got to see traditional dances and hear singing, which made me laugh a lot ‘cuz it reminded me of family parties with my dad’s side. We bought some street food that was overpriced, but it was hot and so it was pretty acceptable.

After hanging around Trafalgar Square for a spell, we decided to move on to China Town and see what was going there. We happened to arrive as the lion was making its rounds…which translated to not being able to move. We started to follow him, but then figured it was silly to try and just waited for him to come back around. We happened to pick the perfect spot for it too ‘cuz he totally came by the shop we were standing in front of. Now, I’m sure Darya will school me on the traditions of New Year (I only really remember lucky money, wearing red, and eating oranges). So the lion came by the shop and ate the bok choy that was hanging outside the window. Then it spit something back onto the store. My guess is that this is some sort of blessing, but what it means I’m not too positive on.

We got our kicks seeing the lion and his followers so we moved on. There really wasn’t much else to see, though. I wasn’t too busted up over it ‘cuz I was feeling wicked guilty for blowing off planning to attend New Year celebrations, and I was also getting pretty cold. We decided to warm up by getting some hot chocolate.

It was whilst sitting round a table at a Costa Coffee that we actually got to chat. It was nice to not talk about school, like AT ALL. Instead we talked about traveling. Fiona’s husband is in Japan right now and he’s bringing back some Balance Up bars for me (I hope) and it turns out Fiona’s friend visited Japan as well.

*sigh* It always comes back to Japan.

Anyway, after we’d finished our drinks, we all parted company. And, as my previous post pointed out, it was a good thing I left when I did otherwise there was a chance I could have been stranded because of snow.

Gong hei fat choi! Xin Nian Kuai Le! (I just wish I knew it Fujian as well.) Happy Year of the Ox!!

SNOW DAY!!!

I haven’t had a snow day since the winter of 1999…holy smokes, that was ten years ago!!

Let’s see if I can put this post together without getting over-excited and putting everything in caps. All right. Where to begin…

It started snowing yesterday afternoon round 5 PM. I was lucky to have just made it back from London after having gone in to see the Chinese New Year celebration in London China Town (more on that later, this news was just too exciting to not write about right away). Not too long after I’d made it home, it started getting bad out there and people were stranded on the streets or some such.

I watched the snow fall steadily as I finished up all the stuff I needed for the HMI inspection (yes, another one, which was probably the reason I was in such a down mood). My landlady kept popping in to let me know it was still coming down and that there was a possibility we wouldn’t have school. I didn’t want to get my hopes up (yes, that’s right, “hopes up” — it’s hardly a secret that I’m struggling at school) so I carried on planning and prepping and filling out excel sheets.

This morning, I went through my routine, albeit half an hour earlier than usual. I wanted to get into school super early to get everything set.

Shelby called as I was getting ready to step out. She was stranded in Tonbridge. All trains canceled. I couldn’t help but laugh at that. I don’t really like school as much when she’s not there. It’s not like she’s my only friend, but she’s definitely the person I’m most comfortable with. I told her I’d keep her posted on the school status.

When I stepped out onto the stoop I was greeted by more snow. It reminded me of home. Part of me was getting really excited about it. Dude, if it’s this bad, there’s no WAY we’re having school today. But again, I figured with my luck, we’d still be in. (I’d gotten another call from another colleague whilst I was walking to the sidewalk. Yet another person unable to make it in because of the snow.)

London isn’t like Chicago. We’re used to this kind of stuff. We have snow plows and snow tires and all the fixin’s for this weather. London SO does not. You could hardly tell the streets from the pavement (sidewalk to us Americans). I don’t have any snow gear here so I had to walk in the tracks of the few brave cars that had gone on ahead. I passed a couple and one other fellow. The fellow said, “Don’t even bother. Buses aren’t running.”

“I only work up the road at the school.”

“School’s probably closed.”

“With my luck, it will be open.”

And I carried on walking.

Of course, when I got up to the school, the gates were wide open. With only a slight sigh, I trudged on through. I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t see any cars like I usually do. My tracks seemed to be the only set to be going anywhere.

I saw the caretaker and asked him if he knew if school was still open. He said until we heard from the principal, we’d carry on like normal.

Only it wasn’t so normal. He hadn’t opened up the area where my classroom was. I figured I was earlier than usual so I wasn’t gonna harass him about it. I tried really hard to carry on like normal, but as the time got closer and closer to 7 AM and only one other teacher came in, I started to not bother with class prep. Deep down I knew it: School was canceled.

Can’t say I was really broken up about it. I’m hardly a fan of more observations letting me know I’m not up to the standards of this country. (Yeah, that’s right. I’m officially discouraged.)

One of the assistant principals made it in. It was official by this time: there was no school to be had. So he, the other teacher, and I started putting Operation Snow Day into effect. We made phone calls as well as sent out e-mails, text messages, and got in touch with local news sources. Some other staff members who lived locally started trickling in and we all took messages or spread the word about the lack of school. It was a pretty smooth and easy operation.

I think one of the best things about the whole sitch was overhearing my two colleagues talk to their kids. “The only thing we’re doing today is playing in the snow.” And, “When daddy comes home we’ll go and play together shall we?” I was just so…”Awww…” That really made me smile. They were both so keen on spending time with their children and making sure they made the best of this snow day.

Everyone who had managed into work packed up round 9 AM. Operation Snow Day was successfully executed and Operation Play In the Snow was on its way.

So yeah, my day isn’t too bad so far. :-P

Election Day not just for Americans anymore

This is my first time living abroad during Election Day and I have to say the Brits, or maybe just my colleagues, are really psyched about the elections. It was even a partial focus of our Year 7 assembly today. Students and colleagues alike have asked me if I was excited about today and I’m not gonna lie, at first I had no idea what they were talking about. I honestly thought they were asking me if I was excited about our first day back from half term holiday. I really think everyone else is more enthusiastic than I am! It kind of makes me wonder if I’m really an American (despite the blog title).

Can you believe the fate of the world hangs in the balance because of these elections? I never thought of it that way, but that’s the way one of my colleagues put it to me. He was like, “Whatever happens tomorrow affects everyone, not just your country.”

It appears I’m not going to be the only one at school tomorrow anxiously awaiting the results.