Sunday, August 30, 2009

To the Market We Go… The Camden Market

Today we went to experience the Camden Market. It was the farthest I have yet to venture since coming home from the airport. We are in Central London which is Zone 1 of the tube transportation system and the market is in Zone 2. We had to take two tubes to get there and because it was Saturday the tubes run more slowly and there is generally construction so the station we came in on was only outbound and would not be making return trips into the city. Fortunately we were with Kathy and she was able to tell us how to get to the tube station on the opposite side of the market.

When we arrived I was like, well great, waste of a day. I could have done this when we were in New Orleans. It was just punk clothes, touristy things (even I Love New York shirts) and drug paraphernalia. We got to the Camden Lock and got to see a boat coming through which was nice, that part of the area was pretty and then we moved into the part of the market I really enjoyed. They had all kinds of jewelry and many other things. One thing that I am dying for actually is a scarf as cliché as it sounds. There was one booth I found that had 100% silk cashmere scarves for £12 and I will have one before I leave I am just waiting for a good shopping buddy to visit. We toured around them for about two hours and then went through the food part of the market. There were so many things that looked delicious and we settled on this Turkish place after we sampled some of their amazing chicken. It was a great meal with couscous and salad. It was supposedly super cheap but it was still £13.

When we were done at the market we meandered to our newly discovered tube stop (on the Northern line) alone and managed to find our way to the Piccadilly which brought us home. When we got home I slept about 3 hours and Trey took a walk around the neighborhood. I don’t know if it is the jet lag or what but I am still really tired even though I am sleeping all night. I have also finally been getting a little achy for my family and my dog and I can’t really think about poor Anna not understanding why we’re gone without getting upset.

We had found this burger place in a book my sister-in-law had given Trey for graduation called “Not for Tourists” (which is a great concise guide) that we wanted to try. It is called Byron’s and is across the street from our tube station. When you come to visit us and you get homesick, this is where we go. This place was pretty modern inside but it played mostly oldies, had great burgers, fries and shakes and really hit the spot. They raise their own cows in Scotland; the meat is sent to the store in cuts and ground on location. The ground beef is served within 24 hours and served on a roll, man, it was a good burger. The shakes tasted like they had real chocolate, not syrup, in them and are huge (as they should be at £3.25 a pop.) We then walked through Boots (a drugstore but it has upscale stuff like Clinique too) and a shopping center that has our closest, but not cheapest, grocery: Waitrose. In the center were some booths and shops as well as a Super Cuts. When we got home it was about time for our last orientation meeting with the students and now I am calling it a day.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Making it Feel Like Home

Here is a picture of the house, the little mark on the column is just where I erased the house number.

This morning the midwife came to our house. It was strange to see a medical professional in our home. She even drew my blood while sitting on my bed. It was mostly going through medical background and going over my health plan. I will meet with a “consultant” who is a specialist next week sometime and we will do some more blood tests there. A consultant is basically someone who specialized but did not get an M.D. prior to specializing as we do at home in the States. I will also need to get a General Practitioner, a GP, as they are the ones who received an M.D. and who coordinate your care. For instance: if you had a bladder infection and you went to your midwife, she would diagnose you then send you to your GP to get a prescription. Communicating between all of these parties and relaying the information they give you is your responsibility.

The rest of the day we spent unpacking. Trey was literally losing his mind to unpack. He spent the summer packing our belongings followed by a series of loading, unloading, packing for our road trip, unpacking, living out of suitcases at my Mom’s house, unpacking for the garage sale, packing the storage items into my closet at my Mom’s house and finally packing for London. I have never seen the man have a desire to be organized especially when I really didn’t care. I mean come on, we’re in London! We can live out of a suitcase until you start school! However, today the students went to use their London passes today so we pretty much had the house to ourselves. We didn’t leave. We ate here, rested and are officially unpacked. Every belonging has at least a temporary home and we no longer have suitcases or boxes in our room. I have a happy husband. The fun thing is, we still had conversations and interactions with 9 people as they came in and out of the house from their day’s adventures. I have been surprised at how much I am enjoying all the opportunity for social interaction. Tomorrow we go to the markets! Who wants a scarf?

Bonus Bit: Today I turned on the T.V. for the first time this morning to watch the news. We get 6 channels and only 2 of them seemed normal. One was some REALLY strange game show with people riding these funky exercise bikes and having to jump off to answer questions, the next was the same game show in German, one was a kid’s show (Thomas the Train) and the other two were like Good Morning America. That is just a summation of the 20 minutes while I was getting dressed but I don't have a good feeling…

Neighborhood Walk

When I heard we were going on a neighborhood walk with a neighbor who has lived in the house to our left since the ‘70s I thought “how nice, a leisurely stroll around the surrounding blocks of the neighborhood, we will learn the best places to take our cleaning, get a cheap dinner, maybe some back roads to the tube.” I was wrong. Although spectacular and amazingly informative, the walk began at 9:30 AM and we reached our end point… not our home… at 1:00 PM. We only went 1.9 miles; however, this seemed to be done in concentric circles. I had to stop literally moments before we were done. We have been walking since we got here and I just reached my limit. I now have shin splints. This officially ends the complaining section of this entry. On to what we learned:

The first stop on our tour was just across the street. There is a government subsidized Holiday Inn which took out about a full two blocks of homes and can be seen from the entire neighborhood. We learned how to be good British citizens abhorring capitalist driven expansion and how to literally shake our fists at the monstrosity. Before construction Holiday Inn promised to compensate the neighborhood with equal gardens to the Ashburn Gardens they removed through construction. This was not done and all of the grounds were gated off. We were instructed to deter family and friends from staying there and shake our fists from wherever we could see the building for the rest of the walk. We also saw the homes of John Lennon, T.S. Elliott (whose last wife is in her 90s and still resides there, John Stewart Mills, Charles Booth (the brother of William Booth who started Salvation Army), Lakshmi Mittal who lives across the street from the Kensington Palace on the same street as the Russian, Israeli, Romanian and Finland embassies. We learned how to detect the more wealthy homes by the fact that you only see one doorbell. We also found the nearest public gardens where you could sit and read as well as a rooftop garden you can visit when there aren’t events going on and a restaurant above the gardens with a patio area that overlooks the city which is a very rare opportunity. We toured several chapels in the area and there was one, St. Mary Abbot constructed in the 1600s with stone vaulting. The highest level of vaulting was lost in the bombing and had to be reconstructed with cheaper material but you still get a sense of the beauty. It has the tallest spire in London and is the church Princess Dianna attended.

After the walk we Trey and I stumbled to the nearest restaurant that caught our eye (called “Giraffe”) and spent way too much money on lunch. The English gave a good go at some Tex-Mex inspired meals. Trey had Quesadillas (they do not pronounce the y sound much like the South we just left) containing goat cheese, spinach and mushrooms while I had spicy grilled turkey enchiladas with corn and black beans. They were spot on with a brownie and ice cream for dessert. We will go back for dessert but it was £24.00 (about $40.00) for lunch so we won’t be eating there often. We caught the bus back to our street and a nice local taught us how to identify your stop and alert the driver you wanted to get off. It was my first ride on a big red Double Decker Bus. It dropped us right near the tube stop we had been using to travel from and we raced home because we were sending the students on a scavenger hunt while we had a meeting with Kathy and our professor for the semester.

We had rest time after that and rest we did. Trey and I both fell asleep which is why I am now blogging at 12:30 in the morning. When I got up I checked my email and found that the hospital I am zoned to had emailed to let me know that “the midwives” would be coming to my house for my appointment the next morning at 9:30 AM which will be good because the students will be gone for the day. The school gave us all something called “The London Pass.” You can buy a 1, 2 or 3 day pass which allows you into a ton of major sites. The one day pass is about £40.00 BUT if you just go to the Tower of London it can cost up to £27.00 alone and only takes two hours of your day so you get your monies worth. If you are coming to visit, I can help arrange one for you and give you suggestions on how to use it if you are interested. It also lets you line jump which I know is terrible but it is terribly awesome when you only have one day. You can find discounts on lots of popular restaurants as well. We also learned about a great guide called “London for Free” so let me know if you are coming on a strict budget and I will get you a copy. It really made a difference today just to walk around with a local and hear the history. Everywhere you go is so rich in it.

In the evening we met with the students and got their results for the scavenger hunt. They were competitive but had a great time with it. We also learned where you could get tea and scones for £5 per person (which is great compared to high tea at Harrods which is £28 per person. The students also got to meet a graduate who had stayed at the house a year ago. She is now living in London under some sort of work program. Trey and I had missed dinner so we walked to our nearest grocery that was still open, Sainsbury’s, and got dinner for a much more reasonable price than lunch. We bought a frozen pizza for £2. It was delicious and much more economical than our pricey lunch. Now we are unpacking -- and by “we” I mean I am pointing out where I want my things to go while Trey unpacks… I am one lucky woman.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

We are Tourists

We woke up late this morning. Breakfast was to begin at 8 and we were to be leaving with the students at 9 and we learned that the buzzer on our alarm is not loud enough to wake us up. We made it down for a quick breakfast and headed off for a tour of Buckingham Palace. We took our time going through it and were the last ones to finish. You can set your own pace and it took us an hour and a half. The state rooms were gorgeous and we really enjoyed all of the art collections. Both mine and Trey’s favorite room was the music room and we were surprised to see there was only a baby grand piano. The audio tour was disappointing. There wasn’t a lot of history in it. It mostly directed you through the rooms and called your attention to the details. Unfortunately you could not take pictures inside the palace so I have none to share. As you exit the palace you find yourself looking out onto the beautiful gardens. Prince Charles has said if he survives his mother and becomes King, he will open the gardens to the public and move the permanent residence of the monarch to Windsor. There was a café so we got a bottle of water and sat outside to enjoy the only sunny part of the day. (It was “spitting” – quoting a child I heard coming out of the tube the rest of the day.) We walked leisurely through the rest of the gardens and found our way home for the first time on our own.

We made it home around 12:00 and had a lunch/rest break until 2. Trey and I caught up on email and ate some of the food leftover from lunch yesterday. We met with the students and headed to Parliament. This tour is a must see if you are at all interested in European history or government. We had a great tour guide and the tour was cram packed with history with a straightforward picture of London’s democracy. One interesting thing we learned was that the word “commons” from the house of commons comes does not come from the idea that the people are common but from the from the French word “communauté” which stand for “community.”

We headed back to our house and stopped at a pub with the students on the way home. Trey had Fish and Chips and I had a “jacket” (baked potato) with cheese and a salad. (We drank water and Pepsi for those of you who are wondering.) We then walked back to the house and met with our neighbor, Roger. He is Oxford educated and taught there for a number of years. He now teaches English as a second language and has a passion for London and students. He meets with the students every semester and offers his wide breadth of knowledge of the city to those who wish to glean from it. He has won a special place in Trey’s heart by promising to arrange a private tour of Westminster and St. Paul’s libraries. They are not open to the public but he has had some of the monks in his classes who are willing to let him in. He talked about the sites to see and knew the answer to every question from where to sit when visiting the boys choir in Westminster to the best way to get in the front row at the Globe theater to where does J.K. Rowling live. The only question that stumped him, and we shot questions at him for two hours, was when a student asked where they could find a karaoke bar. After he left, we went over some housekeeping issues with Dr. Brammer and Kathy, I had a banana because a potato is just not enough for dinner when it doesn’t have some barbeque pork on it and now Trey is unpacking. (Oh the sacrifices I am making to keep you updated.) I can’t believe I have kept up until almost 11:00 and that I can’t make it another couple of hours to give my Mom a call on Skype but I MUST go to bed! Have a lovely evening to my loved ones in CST.

The Detailed Version (scroll below for the short one.)

We woke up in Houston at 5:30 AM CST on August 24, 2009, finished packing and headed off to the air port. We went in two cars. Trey rode with his parents who loaded their luggage into their SUV and I rode with my Mom. We got to bring one 50 lb bag for free but the second for each of us was $50.00. We had prepaid this when we checked in online so we were able to check in curbside and head to security where Trey went straight through but I had to get a full pat down. Right when we got to Starbucks for breakfast I realized I had forgotten my sweater so I had to promptly leave the secured area to search for it. I found it in the parking lot near the curb side check in and, thus, got to go through security twice.

We did ultimately get to have our Starbucks and made our way back to the gate in plenty of time. Our plane to Atlanta was very, very small and both Trey and I had to check one of our carryon bags each. This sent me into mild hysterics as some of you may recall I had had a piece of luggage stolen earlier that year and learned the FFA did not reimburse for any item “deemed valuable.” I carefully packed all of my jewelry, 2 years worth of contact lenses, a retainer etc. into my carryon to avoid another snafu and now they were telling me I couldn’t take it on the plane with me; thank you pregnancy hormones. I managed to pull myself together before entering the cabin of the plane but not before a Stewardess had the opportunity to see… so embarrassing. Our flight was pretty quick and uneventful after my breakdown.

We landed in the Atlanta airport – which is very spread out, about half a mile between each terminal – and road the train to our next terminal. We had about 4 hours to spend so we ate a leisurely lunch, toured around the duty free area, asked for an upgrade to business class (they were completely full, I asked if I could purchase a discounted upgrade and nothing was available) and meandered to our gate. We sat at our gate for about an hour. There was a flight ahead of us heading to Rome so it was pretty crowded. Once their flight departed it still seemed like so few people were around for a completely booked flight. Trey decided to make a currency exchange and when he walked by the desk saw there was no flight info up. He asked the stewardess where our flight was and she said it had been moved. There was no announcement, probably because we were the only people making a connection from Houston who had the old gate number. He ran over and got me and we began to hurry to our new gate. They yelled after us that boarding had begun. The gate was probably about three blocks away (we had to go back through the main concourse) and when we walked up all of the students we would be hosting along with their professor were standing there wondering where we were. Ultimately, probably due to many of your prayers, the mistake was corrected and we boarded right away once we arrived at the new gate.

Our plane to London was seated so that there were two on the outside of each and 4 across the inside. Trey and I had our own row in the back cabin of the plan about two rows from the main bathrooms in the center of the cabin. They had some movies available we hadn’t seen, one of which we had both been dying to see, Wolverine. We promptly started our movie thinking we would watch it through dinner then go to sleep. Wrong. We ate dinner which was pretty much the plane food you expect and the lights in the cabin remained on with very active passengers and the lights were not turned down until about 4 hours into the flight. By then we had watched another movie. At the end of the second movie we both wrapped up, I got my sleep mask on and we got positioned for sleep moments before a passenger behind us launched into a series of full blown sleep apnea snoring attacks and the guy in front of us decided it was the perfect time to catch up on his crossword puzzles. Between the two it was a lost cause. We gave up and watched a third in flight movie (The Soloist.) After that it was time to get ready to be stuck in your seat for descent. We got a small breakfast before landing and arrived at Gatwick 30 minutes ahead of schedule. We sat on the mat waiting for a gate until our scheduled arrival time. We grabbed our carryon bags, assembled with the students and headed to customs where we stood in line for an hour. The customs officer gave Trey the full inquisition, I guess because our visas were for three years. When I went through he didn’t ask me anything but our address so I asked “what you don’t want to hear more about my husband’s line of study?” He replied “No thank you, I almost fell asleep the first time through.” Once through customs we did a quick exchange for the cash we had on hand, bought some bottled water and headed through the second phase of customs which was quick because we had nothing to declare. We met Kathy, who would be guiding us through the orientation process so we would be equipped to guide the students by ourselves for the next rounds of trips, and loaded our suitcases onto a waiting bus. There was an enormous amount of congestion which turned the hour and a half bus ride into a three hour bus ride. I was about to come out of my chair by the time we arrived at the house. The bus blocked the street at our house so we had to throw everything onto the sidewalk and rushed it into the house. (Pictures to come soon; it is on the to-do list right after unpacking which we won’t have time to do until Saturday. I could be doing it now but my feet are tired from all the walking!)

Our room is small but large compared to the student’s rooms. It is probably about twice the size of my college dorm room. There is a queen bed with a night stand on one side and a small table on the other side of the bed just to your left as you walks in the door. Across from the door (and the bed) is a large built in wardrobe which contains two armoire sized closets for hanging clothes which flank a built in three drawer dresser, a T.V. atop that, some open shelving atop that and across the top extending the whole wall are high cabinets. They go up about two feet from the ceiling. (The room has 20 foot ceilings which do a lot to make it feel spacious.) Next to the built in is a vanity area containing more storage. On the intersecting wall there is a narrow desk below a large window. The window is barred (the bars have a lock and key so we can open them up in an emergency) and remains open as there is no central air in the house. There are nice two inch blinds as well as heavy curtains which we keep closed often as you would otherwise be able to see in our room from the kitchen. Our room opens above the courtyard which is not as poetic as it sounds because there are a lot of pipes, roofs and building we face but it is still nice and lets in a lot of light. There is a small chair for the desk and no matter where you put it, it blocks something (my hopes of getting a glider for breastfeeding are being dashed but are not yet crushed.) One of my favorite things about the room is the high ceilings which are surrounded by about a foot and a half of deteriorating but beautiful molding. In the center of the ceiling is a ceiling fan which has another set of beautiful molding about a foot and a half in diameter. (The ceiling fan was very nice to have with no AC. When we arrived Kathy had left us some beautiful flowers along with a note welcoming us to our new home and a schedule of the week’s events. It made us feel very welcomed and more at home.

Our room is on the ground floor along with the parlor, great space for reading with a large bay window and a piano, the office, the stair case, one guest room, our bathroom and our shower. To go to the bathroom, we have to leave our room and immediately after turning left the two closest doors are the bathroom and the shower. I am already missing the way my toilet flushed back home. You sometimes have to pump the toilet to get it to flush. The sinks all have the old style faucets with the hot water coming out the spout on the right and the cold coming out the spout on the left. Our shower is kind of a half shower, half tub hybrid.

We had about 45 minutes to put our things away and get settled before meeting downstairs in the kitchen for lunch which was provided by Samford. We had sandwiches and chips and, so far, I like the bread here much better. It seems denser than bread in America. We went through the first phase of orientation which included distribution of our cell phones (you can “top them off” and are like a pay as you go phone but we will probably rely mostly on Skype and calling cards as two quick calls home cost us about £3.50.), learned how to run the dishwasher and the system in the kitchen, the gate code, talked briefly about safety and the schedule for the week. We were then given about 20 minutes before a neighborhood walk to the grocery store and to the tube station to purchase Oyster cards. At this point we had been up for 24 hours and I opted out of the walk and took a 2 hour nap as I was getting dizzy and starting to get a headache. Trey went on as filling the day with activity is a tool to help the students keep from succumbing to jet lag. He came back what felt like minutes later and told me I had five minutes before we were leaving to make a practice run on understanding the tube and hit a few highlight stops.

The rest of the day I was pretty well a zombie. Trey did better than I did until dinner but at dinner was literally falling asleep at the table. We briefly walked around the outside of Parliament, took a walk down the Thames River, walked to Westminster then took the tube home. We had an hour break before community dinner at a restaurant right down the street which I failed to catch the name of but was perfect for the end of the day. I had ¼ lemon and herb chicken, corn on the cob, garlic bread and Sprite. Trey had a chicken pita, rice and Dr. Pepper. It is kind of like a fast food place but a lot tastier. You get your menu, walk down and order then they bring the meal to your table. It is one of the few places you can get free refills and all the ice you want and I have a feeling it will be a local favorite for Trey and I. It is only about a block and a half away. We ate with Kathy, the 5 undergrad students studying here for the semester, the professor and her daughter and a pharmacy student who will be here through October. Walking home from dinner there was this beautiful Porsche convertible who had turned down a two way street and a Bus who had turned down the same street going the opposite direction. There were cars lining the street so there wasn’t enough room for them to pass each other. The driver of the car was up out of his car and the bus driver was out of his seat and they were yelling at each other. Being from Texas my first instinct was to get out of there as fast as possible before someone was shot but everyone on the streets just stopped and watched… like it was a little street theater. We returned to the house about 8 PM and went to our rooms. I began typing this blog and we went to bed around 9. We slept through our alarm and woke up, late, at 8 AM on August 26th. but that’s for another entry. Sorry for so many mundane details but I wanted to remember these first few weeks so I will try to update every day. I will probably slack off as we get settled into a routine. We love friends and family back home and I am sure we would miss you if we’d been given the time to think about it!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

We’re Home! (The Reader’s Digest Version)

I am going to try to be pretty detailed in the next post for the sake of our memories and per my Mom’s request but here is the reader’s digest version: Woke up at 5:30 AM CST and left Houston 10:30 AM CST – connection through Atlanta – arrived in London 6:30 AM GMT (that would be 12:30 AM CST.) We flew into Gatwick and physically arrived at our house at 10:30 AM GMT due to some VERY bad traffic. Once at the house we unloaded, had orientation with the students and lunch. I took a 2 hour nap while Trey went around and the students found out where the bank, grocery store and other neighborhood spots as well has how to purchase an Oyster card. Met back at the house and did a practice run on the tube before letting the students loose on their own. We hit Parliament, took a walk down the Thames River, walked to Westminster then took the tube home. We are now on an hour break before community dinner at a local restaurant. I am very grateful for the two hour nap, it really revived me, and poor Trey will sleep well tonight.

Monday, August 17, 2009

One Week Until London!

One week until we move to London! We are so excited and so sad at the same time. We thought it would be a great idea to come home to Texas for a few weeks and spend time with family but after a full two weeks home, I can see why I never wanted to leave. Houston is a nice city but I just love the people here and now, after having been married to Trey for 5 years, I get to come home to a family that has quadrupled in size.

On another sad note, last night we began transitioning our sweet puppy, Anna, to her foster parents for the next few years. My two sister-in-laws are going to take care of her while we are gone. Anna will be very happy with them but I will miss her terribly. She is our little cuddly ball of fun. Whenever there is tension she runs to the source and tries to comfort them, she is always game for a walk and is by far the easiest dog I have ever known. I just keep thinking how much fun she would have had in a house full of students but really it would just be for me and that would be selfish.

Beginning now I am going to try to be better about updating this little blog on a more regular basis. The past few weeks have been a whirlwind. Our trip went better that we could have imagined. We got to see t of family old friends, new babies our college campus and TONS of oil rigs as we drove through West Texas.