Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Parties & Panto

As Christmas approaches, the weekends fill up with holiday activities, and this past weekend was no exception.  Friday night we attended the monthly AWC cocktail party at one of the member's flats in Kensington.  Many people had already left town, but there was still a good turnout.  I had spent the afternoon baking Christmas cookies, so I brought a plate to share as my "holiday" themed appetizer.

Saturday afternoon we had our first outing to the New Wimbledon Theatre, which is just a few blocks from our house. 
The New Wimbledon Theatre at night
 It is a large, full-fledged playhouse, which often hosts West End/Broadway-style shows.  At Christmas time, they traditionally have a "Panto" or Pantomime play, which takes a familiar fairy tale and embellishes it with pop songs, cross-dressing actors, audience participation, and a celebrity cast member.  In this case, the show was Dick Whittington, starring Dame Edna Everage.  It was a full house, and about 50% of the matinee audience was under the age of 10, so it was quite a boisterous crowd.  We had great seats in the first row of the mezzanine, which gave us an unobstructed view of the stage without being in danger of getting picked on or sprayed by the cast (who at one point were wielding super soakers).  We weren't allowed to take photos during the show, but I did snap a couple before it started.
The sparkly curtain (and view from our seats)
Dame Edna made a grand entrance in her "possum gondola"
During the intermission (or "interval" as they call it here), they handed out special 3D glasses to everyone in the audience that resembled Dame Edna's signature glasses.
Dame Edna 3D glasses
I wasn't quite sure why we'd need 3D glasses to watch a play, but the second half of the show contained an underwater sequence projected on a screen that was right out of Finding Nemo.  The entire show was very entertaining, and while some of the singing, dancing, and choreography was less than stellar, Dame Edna was hilarious!  We'll definitely be back for next year's show, whatever it will be.

Saturday evening, we were invited to a holiday part at our neighbor's house, which they had originally planned for the following weekend, but then moved it back a week when Josh mentioned that we would be out of town.  They are so sweet!  They invited the occupants of all the adjacent houses on our street, so we got to meet several other neighbors that we hadn't seen before and get better acquainted with the few that we had.  It was quite a multicultural group.  In addition to our Kiwi/Aussie/Chinese hosts, and our Indian/American selves, there were a handful of South Africans and a guy from Sweden.  So much for getting to know more British people...  ;-)

I left all our Christmas decorations in storage in our house back in DC, but we felt like our house needed something to make it feel more festive.  I spent about $8 on a tinsel garland and a bead garland -- which I wrapped around the banister -- and some tiny red jingle bell ornaments, with which I decorated our rescued IKEA bonsai tree. 
Charlie Brown tree, UK edition
My neighbor, Anna, asked if we were getting a Christmas tree, so I explained that since we were going to be away for Christmas, and didn't have any ornaments anyway, we would have to make do with a Charlie Brown tree this year.  After seeing her puzzled smile,  I realized that while Charlie Brown and Snoopy are globally known, the animated holiday specials are only shown in the United States, so I had to give her some back story so she could understand the concept. 

Sunday we hunkered down at home and powered through our Christmas cards.  It took most of the day, but we had a great feeling of accomplishment when we were done.  If only we were so methodical about our Christmas shopping...

Friday, December 9, 2011

Welcome to Brussels! Good Luck Getting Home...

We had planned a long weekend in Brussels because we had heard that the Christmas markets there were quite nice, and it was easy to get to by train -- which is often faster and cheaper than flying.  We had initially hoped to go to Germany, which has the most Christmas-y markets of them all, but the cost was prohibitive by the time we got around to planning the trip.  But since we both love chocolate and waffles, and speak a little French, Brussels seemed like a good alternative.

We arrived at the Gare du Midi in Brussels around 5:30 pm and made our way down to the subway station underneath.  We knew which station our hotel was near, but weren't quite sure the best way to get there.  Josh bought tickets from a machine while I tried to find a map.  No sign of one posted anywhere in the station.  And when I asked one of the station attendants for a printed one, he said they didn't have any.  When I pressed him about where I could find a map, he asked, "What do you need it for?"  Seriously?  This is an international train station full of tourists.  Wouldn't it be helpful to have a metro system map posted somewhere so they can figure out how to get where they need to go?  Maybe he misunderstood -- his English wasn't great, and neither is my French -- but this was not a great start to our weekend in Brussels.  And it only got worse...

We made our way down to what we thought was the correct platform.  Once again, no map.  Just a list of train numbers and stations.  I didn't see the station we needed to get to listed there, so I asked Josh if he was sure we were in the right place.  He pulled his iPad out of his backpack and loaded the tiny Brussels metro map he had downloaded before we left and checked it against the sign.  A friendly bystander with his two small children asked if we needed any help, so we told him where we were trying to go, and he confirmed that while the trains on this platform didn't stop there (despite what it looked like on the map), we could get off at another station that was only a few blocks away and walk from there.  A train was approaching, so Josh went to put his iPad back in his backpack, which he had set down on the chair behind him.  It was gone.

After a few frantic moments trying to find it and questioning uninterested bystanders, Josh ran back up to the station to find a police officer while I waited with our luggage.  While we still had our wallets, cell phones, iPad, and camera, the backpack contained Josh's work laptop and both of our passports.  Not good.  The friendly man offered to stay with me until Josh returned, but since he had two restless little kids with him, I said I'd be OK.  He gave me his business card and told me to call or email if we needed any help before herding his kids onto the train.  Glad to know there is at least one good person in Brussels.

I waited for what seemed like an eternity as trains and passengers came and went.  Josh had to wait in line to file a police report as there were several other people who had just been robbed in the station.  Some even had their luggage stolen while they were using the ticket machines!  I texted him the after-hours emergency number for the US Embassy in Brussels, so he called them while he was waiting and was instructed to show up there first thing on Monday morning with completed forms (available online) and passport photos.  Then he had to go to the Eurostar office and change our return tickets, since we were planning to return to London Sunday evening as Josh had a full day of meetings scheduled on Monday.  They confirmed that we would not be allowed to board the train to London without passports, so we were stuck in Brussels until we could get new ones.  What a mess!

By the time we got to our hotel, we were cold, hungry, and utterly exhausted.  The people at the reception desk were very sympathetic when we told them what had happened, and said they would extend our reservation another night.  At least the hotel cheered us up a little.  It was more like a large B&B, and was literally right across the street from one of the big Christmas markets.  Each of the rooms at the Welcome Hotel is decorated in the theme of a different country that the owner has visited, complete with items he has brought back from his travels.  We were in the Zanzibar room, which was decorated in peacock blue, complete with a peacock painted on the door.
The door to our room (interior)
It was quite a contrast to our rather bland, poorly lit -- but well-appointed -- room in Paris, with colorful tile, fabrics, and lanterns and a trompe l'oeil mural on the wall above the bed.  It was small, but had all the basic necessities, plus free wifi and breakfast.
The Zanzibar room
After dropping off our luggage, we headed back out in search of dinner, which took us through the Christmas market across the street.  We weren't really in the mood for shopping, but took in some of the sights...
Santa and the Christmas Ice Monster
Ferris Wheel
Awesome steampunk carousel!
Because it was a Friday night and we were right by the Christmas market, many of the restaurants were crowded, but we eventually found a table at a pizza place and soothed our growling tummies and frazzled nerves with comfort food, Belgian beer, and Italian wine.

Saturday we resolved to put our unpleasant arrival out of our minds and just enjoy the day.  It was cold, gray, and drizzly, but we braved the dreary weather to take a walking tour of the city and enjoy the holiday decorations.
Floating men
We eventually found ourselves in the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, which is a beautiful 19th-century covered arcade full of high-end shops, cafes and theaters.
Josh braves the shopping arcade
It was bustling with tourists and holiday shoppers looking for a refuge from the weather (like us), and is a great place for window shopping for the products Belgium is famous for:
Jewelery (those are earrings on the tiny table)
Brussels was another center of Art Nouveau architecture, particularly by Belgian architect Victor Horta, so we enjoyed spotting examples as we walked around the city.  Here are some other photos from our wanderings...
Park and museum

Art Nouveau buildings
Museum of Musical Instruments
Antiques market
Palace of Justice
View from Palace of Justice
More Art Nouveau
Memorial park
Knit hats that look like baby clothes
More Art Nouveau
Near the town center is the famous Mannekin Pis fountain.  It's hard to imagine that this used to be a source of water for the people of Brussels.  Who would want to drink from a fountain that depicts a naked little boy peeing?  Nowadays, the little boy is rarely naked, as he has an extensive wardrobe of custom-made costumes.  On this particular day, he was dressed for the season, because nothing says "Christmas" like St. Nicholas taking a piss on a street corner.
Mannekin Pis as St. Nick
We found ourselves in the Grand Place just as it was starting to get dark, and were treated to a lovely light and music show.
Town Hall
Town Hall and Guildhalls
Christmas tree and snow globe
Town Hall
Tree and light posts
We had a late dinner at a traditional Flemish restaurant near our hotel, and then hit the Christmas market for dessert.
Outside our hotel, with Xmas market in background
Belgian waffle with chocolate, strawberries, and whipped
cream.  YUM!!!
Not only did the market have a giant Ferris wheel and awesome carousel, but there was a huge skating rink in the middle of the square.
Ice rink
Sunday morning we got back to business and downloaded the forms we needed to get temporary passports at the US Embassy, and emailed them to the lady at the front desk to print out for us.  Then we set out in search of a place to take passport photos, only to discover that all the local photo shops were closed on Sunday.  Doh!  Fortunately, the tourist info office was open, and the lady there suggested trying the photo booth in a nearby metro station.  For 5 euros (about $6.50) each, we got just what we needed.  Well, my first set turned out so bad (I looked green!) that Josh gave me another 5 euros to retake them -- and if you know what a cheapskate Josh is, that says a lot.  The lighting in these booths is not very flattering!
Don't smile!
With that out of the way, we headed back to the Grand Place to meet an old family friend of mine for lunch.  Twricy Hsu (pronounced "Tracy Shu") was a student of my parents when I was just 5 or 6 years old.  Originally from Taiwan, she became an honorary member of our family while she was studying at Fresno State, and my parents kept in touch after she went off to grad school and married a fellow student from Belgium.  We visited her in Belgium when I was a teenager, but we hadn't seen one another for 25 years, so it was quite a reunion!  She looked exactly the same, while I'm sure I've changed quite a bit...
Naina and Twricy in the Grand Place
We had a delicious lunch of traditional Flemish food at the restaurant T Kelderke, which is in a cellar underneath one of the guildhall buildings in the square.
In the Grand Place by the Christmas tree
Then we walked around the city center together for a little while, stopping at a cafe to warm up with some Belgian waffles and hot drinks.  Yum!
Mmmmm...  Waffle with strawberries and warm chocolate sauce...
It was wonderful to see Twricy after so many years, and we promised to plan another trip to Belgium before we left London so we could visit her in Leuven, which is just west of Brussels.

In the evening, we walked through the Christmas market by our hotel, and then wandered back towards the Grand Place to visit the other Christmas market we had seen by the Bourse (stock exchange).
Christmas market at St Katherine's Place
The Bourse, lit up, and another Christmas market
It was a drizzly Sunday evening, so the masses of humanity we had waded through the previous evening were somewhat diminished and we were able to get a better view of the festivities.
Nativity scene with live sheep
Light and music show in the Grand Place
We woke up early Monday morning, gathered up our paperwork and passport photos, and headed out to the US Embassy, which was mercifully only 3 metro stops from our hotel.  It was still dark out when we arrived shortly before 8 am, and we were the second and third people in line when they finally let us in about 20 minutes later.  We had to go through a security screening and a metal detector, and had to leave everything but our paperwork with the security guards -- no cell phones, cameras, iPads, etc. were allowed inside.  We took a number from a little machine by the door, where you push a button to indicate the purpose of your visit -- visa application, passport services, etc. -- just like at the DMV.  The guy in front of us must have been there for a visa, as we were numbers 401 and 402.  Then we sat and waited for our numbers to be called.

And waited.

And waited.

Finally, around 10:20 am, Josh asked the cashier if she had any idea how much longer we would have to wait, and if we might have time to run out and grab some breakfast, as we didn't have time to eat beforehand and we were starving.  (Our hotel didn't start serving breakfast until 8)  She was very apologetic and said the Consular Officer didn't show up for work until 10 am and went straight into a meeting, so we could probably leave as long as we were back by 11.  Then she suggested we write to our congressman to complain.  Yeah, I'm sure that would make a difference.  We grabbed some croissants from a small cafe across the street, and then came back and waited some more.

All the visa applicants had come and gone, and all that remained in the room were other Americans who had also had their passports stolen over the weekend.  We heard similar stories  -- one woman had her wallet and passport stolen out of her backpack while she was holding it in front of her on a crowded metro train.  Another man had his bag stolen from right under his feet as he was using the men's room at the train station.  A third has his suitcase stolen while he was using the ticket machine at the station. Clearly, they have a serious problem with theft in Brussels.

We started getting a little peeved as people with higher numbers got called in before us.  By the time they called #401, it was 11:30 am.  The Consular Officer was somewhat apologetic for the delay, but only because she didn't see the "Urgent" sticker on our form -- not because she didn't even start processing applications until 11 am.  She spent about 2 minutes having us swear an oath and sign a form, and then told us we would have our temporary passports within the next 30 minutes.

An HOUR later, we finally left the embassy with our temporary passports.  Apparently the US will only issue and print passports in the US, so if you apply for one overseas, you have to do it by mail and wait for them to send it to you.  In an emergency, they will issue you a temporary passport, which looks just like a real one but with fewer pages, and is only valid for one year.  During that time, you must go through the application process all over again to get a real passport, so our ordeal was far from over -- in more ways than one.

We hurried back to our hotel, where we were supposed to have checked out of our room by noon.  Fortunately, we had requested a late check-out and packed most of our things before we left, just in case, so while someone had already cleaned the room, our luggage was still there.  We left our bags with the front desk and went off in search of lunch.

St Katherine's Place, where our hotel was located, used to have a canal running through it, and was once a popular fish market.  It is surrounded by seafood restaurants, many with big red neon lobsters advertising their menu.  Since I don't like seafood, and most of them were quite expensive, we ended up getting soup and a Belgian waffle from stalls at the Christmas market instead.  Yummy, and quite a bargain in comparison.
Lobster, anyone?
We also got a closer look at the amazing steampunk carousels we had spotted earlier.  They were made in the 90's in France by Les Maneges d'Andrea, and are the coolest carousels we have ever seen.  Here are some photos of one of them.  The rocket is on a hydraulic lift that goes all the way up through a hole in the roof!

I have never used this function on my camera before, but I felt compelled to take a video of both carousels the previous evening.  Sorry about the video quality, but this is my very first attempt at taking a video and the conditions were not ideal.  (I also had to teach myself how to use iMovie and upload it to YouTube -- I'm a little behind the curve...)  Keep an eye on the rocket, and you can see it lift off.  The little boy inside was having the time of his life!

We collected our luggage from the hotel and took the metro to the train station, keeping a close eye on our belongings.  We arrived at 3:00 to catch a 4:00 train back to London, but hit yet another snag.  Although no one even asked for our passports when traveling from Paris to Brussels, you must pass through border control before boarding a train to the UK.  When the officer asked how long we intended to stay in the UK, we explained that we were resident there (we didn't think it would be wise to lie in this situation), but that our passports containing our immigration visas had been stolen.  He said he'd need to verify our immigration status, and asked us to have a seat, pointing to an area off to the side with two folding chairs, both of which were occupied. 

The occupants turned out to be a Japanese couple in the same boat.  They also lived in London, but their passports had been stolen at the Christmas market, so they didn't have their immigration visas, either.  The four of us waited for over an hour while everyone else boarded the train and left.  Finally, we were told that they had verified our status and rebooked us on the 6 pm train.  They stamped our passports to indicate we have a visa, so at least this won't happen again -- until we get our new ones.

We were very happy to finally find ourselves back in our little house in Wimbledon later that night, at the end of what would have been a wonderful trip.  We unpacked our souvenirs -- chocolates, Christmas gifts, and paranoia -- and went to bed.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


One of the amazing things about living in London is that Paris is just a 2-hour train ride away.  It's closer than many parts of England.  Even if you add the time it takes to get from our house to St. Pancras station, check in, and board the train, we can be in Paris in less than 3 1/2 hours!  Some of my AWC friends have even taken day-trips to Paris.  Why bother with luggage and expensive hotels? 

So, when Josh had to take a last-minute trip to Paris to attend a conference, I was excited to be able to tag along.  Because it conflicted with a trip we had already planned to visit the Christmas markets in Brussels, his boss covered the cost of my train ticket, and even recommended a hotel.  So, Wednesday afternoon, Josh and I took the Tube to St Pancras station to catch the Eurostar to Paris.  Yay!!!
LEGO Christmas tree at St. Pancras station
We arrived at the Gare du Nord in Paris and took the Metro to our hotel, where we dumped our bags in our room and headed right back out the door to the Eiffel Tower.  After walking for about 10 minutes, we turned a corner and were greeted with this view.  Wow!
An eyeful of the Eiffel Tower
In addition to being all lit up, the tower is covered with bright sparkly lights that go off every hour on the hour for about 10 minutes, and we had caught it just at the right moment.  We had booked tickets in advance to go all the way to the top of the tower, which required taking a 2-level funicular to the second level, and then a smaller elevator to the observation deck.  Even at night, the view is pretty spectacular.
View from the top
Blue lights and Ferris wheel are the Christmas market on the Champs-Elysees
Photo credit: random non-English-speaking tourist
Bird's-eye view of the football/soccer game
We're a long way from home!
Looking up from the 2nd level
Exhibit of tower-themed items

"Towering" high heels
Afterwards, we had a late dinner at a nearby cafe and walked back to our hotel.  The next morning, we had breakfast together in the hotel, and then Josh headed off to his conference.  I set out soon after on foot, with no particular goal in mind.
View from our room
The Baltimore Hotel

Art Nouveau Metro entrance
I walked up our street in the opposite direction from the Eiffel Tower, and ended up at the Arc de Triomphe.  I can see why Josh's boss likes this hotel!
Arc de Triomphe
I turned down the Champs-Elysees, one of the most famous streets in the world.  Like 5th Avenue in New York City, or Oxford Street in London, it is lined with shops -- many of the same ones you'd see in NYC or London, in fact.  I was a bit surprised to see a velvet rope and a long line outside this newly-opened Marks & Spencer.  First of all, I'm not one to wait in a line for the privilege of shopping in ANY store, but M&S is not exactly an exclusive, high-end store.  This is like seeing people line up to shop at a Target.
Really?  Marks & Spencer?
 Since Paris is even more expensive than London, I didn't even bother going in to many shops.  Instead, I appreciated them from the outside.  I love Art Nouveau architecture, and Paris has many lovely examples.

 I also got a kick out of the way some movie titles are translated into French, while others are completely different.  Is there really no word in French for "hangover"?
Breaking Dawn = revelation?
The Hangover = Very Bad Trip?
 Further down the Champs-Elysees, the shops were replaced with trees and holiday decorations.
Winter Wonderland?
 The Christmas market spanned both sides of the street for at least half a mile.  It was so big that they felt a map was needed.
Map of Christmas market
 Since it was a chilly, rainy weekday, it wasn't very crowded, so I was able to browse through some of the stalls.
Christmas market

Cheese and sausage

Colorful soap
I took a little detour to see the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais, which were built for the 1900 World Fair, and are now museums. Both buildings are gorgeous!
Petit Palais
The two buildings face one another across Avenue Winston Churchill, so it wasn't a surprise to see him walking through the adjacent park.
Churchill strolls down his avenue
Grand Palais
At the end of the Champs-Elysees is the Place de la Concorde.  A 3,500-year-old Egyptian obelisk stands in the middle of the plaza, where a guillotine once stood.  The obelisk once marked the entrance to the Luxor temple, and is sometimes referred to as "Cleopatra's Needle," even though it has no connection to the well-known Egyptian ruler.
Cleopatra's Needle and Ferris wheel
Lamppost, with Eiffel Tower in the background
At this point, I was pretty hungry, so I headed north in search of a place to get some lunch, passing the massive La Madeleine church along the way.

La Madeleine
I'm ashamed to admit I ended up having a burger and fries at an American-style place called Bugsy's.  This is what living in London has done to me.  I crave a decent cheeseburger and real French fries (not chips!) so badly that I will pass up eating French food in Paris just to have them.  Sigh...

I ended up in another shopping area -- where the big department stores are.  I had heard that the Printemps building was quite lovely, so I was disappointed to see it covered in scaffolding.
That is, until I saw how HUGE the store was.  It occupied at least two buildings and covered an entire city block.
Nearby was the opera house -- the Palais Garnier -- another beautiful building.
Opera House
And an even BIGGER department store: Galeries Lafayette.  The women's, men's, and home stores were each in their own building.  The original building, which included cosmetics, a food hall, and women's clothing, had an AMAZING atrium in the middle.  I actually wished the giant neon-covered Christmas tree hadn't been there so I could have a better view of the interior of the building.
Central atrium of Galeries Lafayette
Since I couldn't afford to buy anything in either store, I admired the holiday window displays instead.  Coincidentally(?), both stores used marionettes.  I guess puppetry is big in Paris this year.  The Printemps windows were sponsored by Chanel, and represented different cities around the world. 
Los Angeles
The windows at Galeries Lafayette had a rock & roll theme...
Galeries Lafayette

By then, Josh was done with his conference for the day, which happened to be a couple blocks away.  We had learned from the hotel concierge that the Musee d'Orsay was open late that night, so we made our way there.  At this point, I wished I hadn't spent the entire day walking, because I was already dead tired, but the museum was well worth the extra wear and tear on my aching feet.  Sadly, they didn't allow photos inside, but you can take a peek at the museum's web site.  They have an impressive collection of impressionist paintings, art nouveau furniture, and sculpture.  Whistler's Mother lives there, along with Van Gogh's self-portrait, and many other paintings you'll recognize from your art history books.  Oh, and the building itself is a former train station, which is in and of itself a work of art.

As we were walking back to our hotel, we came across this replica of the torch from the Statue of Liberty, which was a gift to the United States from France.  We wondered why the base of a sculpture representing the friendship between the US and France was covered with old flowers and photos of Princess Diana until Josh figured it out:  We were standing directly above the tunnel where she died.
Like a candle in the wind...
Friday morning Josh headed off to day two of his conference, while I packed up our things, checked out of our room, and left our luggage with the front desk.  I had read about another Parisian department store, Samaritaine, that had a lovely building, fantastic view, and bargain prices, so I thought I'd check it out.  Unfortunately, it was closed for renovation -- and had been since 2005!  This is what happens when you borrow a 12-year-old guidebook from your neighbor instead of springing for a new one.
Samaritaine building
Oh well, at least the rain had stopped and the sun was out, making for a lovely day.
Josh left his conference when they broke for lunch, and we arranged to meet at the Place de la Concorde.  I walked through the Jardin des Tuileries, which was bustling on this sunny day.

I met Josh by the Ferris wheel, and we had lunch at one of the cafes in the garden.
View from our cafe
And then walked back towards the Christmas market...

For some crepes!  Mmmm, crepes!
Yes, those are 10-pound jars of Nutella!
Full of crepes
We took the Metro back to the hotel to collect our luggage. Buskers are fairly common on the Tube in London, but in Paris, they actually perform on the trains, not in the stations. Over the course of 2 days, we were entertained by an accordionist, a trumpeter, and a puppet show.
Puppet show on the Metro
We picked up our bags at the hotel and took the Metro to the Gare du Nord to catch the Thalys train to Brussels.
Our train at the Gare du Nord
The train journey from Paris to Brussels takes only an hour and 15 minutes.  We passed the airport on the way.  "Plane wankers!" (Sorry, this is only funny to fans of The Inbetweeners)
CDG Airport
We had a great time in Paris, but our visit was much too short, especially for Josh, since he was at a conference for most of it.  We'll definitely have to go back for a long weekend when we have a chance.