Wednesday, February 29, 2012

2012 Olympic Preview: Diving

Saturday morning, Josh and I took the train/Tube out to Stratford, grabbed a quick lunch at the Westfield Mall, and then entered the Olympic Park for the first time to attend the diving test event in the new Aquatics Centre.  When I bought the tickets, I was only able to select the date and time, so we had no idea what specific diving competition we were going to see.  We were mostly just excited to see the new facility.
Through the 'gates' to the Aquatics Centre
By the time we went through the security screening and found our way into the venue, it was about 45 minutes before the start of the event, and was already starting to fill up.  If we had been there to watch swimming, we would have had fantastic seats, but we still had a decent view of the diving pool.  (It was general admission)
View from our seats
Divers were warming up on all of the various diving platforms and springboards, so I had to look in the program to find out what event we would be watching:  Women's Synchronized 3m Springboard Diving Preliminaries.
Divers warming up
iPhone self-portrait
We were happy to see a team competing from the US.  Too bad we didn't think to bring our flag to show our support, but we did try to clap and cheer loudly for them without being too obnoxious about it.  The UK team got the loudest cheers, of course, but there was clearly a Canadian rooting section somewhere to the right of where we were sitting.
The American team
Nice job!
After the first round of dives, the US team was in third place, and the team from China was in the lead.
Standings after Round 1
The Chinese team dominated the competition.  Here is a series of photos I took of one of their dives with the rapid-fire feature on my camera.

At the end of Round 5, China was the clear winner, outscoring the second-place German team by more than 26 points.  Team USA ended up in 5th place -- and finished 4th in the finals the next day -- which means they will be competing here again during the Olympics this summer.  Way to go!
Final results
I kicked myself when I took a closer look at the photo above.  If I had just aimed a little to the right, I would have snapped a photo of myself taking this picture!  See the couple at the very bottom of the video screen?  I was sitting right next to the wife, and you can even see my hands holding the camera if you look closely.  Unfortunately, I was focused on the scoreboard at the time and didn't even notice that we were on the screen.  Bummer!

On the way out, we had a chance to get a better look at the exterior of the building
Exterior of Aquatics Centre, with Olympic Stadium in the background
We couldn't get far enough away to photograph the entire building, but I did manage to get a photo from the observation lounge in the John Lewis department store at the mall across the street.  (It's on the 3rd floor, where they sell all the London 2012 souvenirs, for any fellow Londoners reading this...)

The two "wings" on either side of the building are intended to be temporary, and will be removed after the Olympics, leaving a smaller-capacity facility for community groups and schools to use.
The Aquatics Centre from John Lewis
We went back to the mall afterwards and treated ourselves to a scoop of gelato before picking up some wine at the Waitrose and heading back to the Tube station.  But the day's events were far from over.  Instead of heading back home, we made our way to the Crystal Palace neighborhood to have dinner with our friends Bethie & Jason in their new flat.  It's a bit further away, but much bigger and nicer than the place they were renting in Clapham, with large rooms, lots of natural light, and no stairs to create a hazard for their adorable 14-month-old daughter Charlotte.

Crystal Palace is named after a glass and iron building that was initially constructed in Hyde Park for an extremely successful World's Fair-type exhibition in 1851.  After it ended, the building was relocated to a park in a posh residential area south of the Thames.  But don't bother adding it to your list of places to see in London -- it burned down in 1936.  How a building made of iron and glass could burn down is a bit of a mystery to me, but it likely would have been destroyed in the Blitz a few years later had it not been consumed by fire.  So, there's no longer a crystal palace in Crystal Palace, and it's not quite as posh as it once was, but it still seems like a nice place to live.

Bethie & Jason had invited their new upstairs neighbors as well, and we had a delicious dinner of homemade gnocchi and a scrummy chocolate almond cake for dessert -- marked with an 'N' in my honor.  Fortunately, they did not have any birthday candles, or we might have seen yet another building burn to the ground in Crystal Palace.  But I was treated to an impressive rendering of "Happy Birthday to You," since Bethie and one of her neighbors are both professional singers. 
My yummy chocolate-almond birthday cake
Look at that sweet face!
Charlotte wants to know what I'm taking a picture of on the table
It was a lovely evening, and a perfect way to cap off my 3-day birthday extravaganza. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Founder's Day

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you should be familiar with the initials AWC.  Ever since I joined last summer, the American Women's Club of London (AWC) has accounted for a good 75% of my social life here in London -- and close to 50% of Josh's as well.  They have such a nice variety of groups and activities that meet on a weekly or monthly basis that participating in them all would be like having a full-time job. 

Personally, I enjoy the walking tours of London, theater and movie matinees, and the monthly cocktail party, where husbands are welcome.  I also play Mah Jongg every Friday (really!) and have signed up for a few of their day trips.  I'm especially looking forward to touring Highclere Castle in September, which is where the hugely popular TV series Downton Abbey is filmed.  (The "downstairs" scenes are filmed in London's Ealing Studios, but sadly they don't give tours.)

The AWC was founded in 1899 (as the "Society of American Women"), so this year marked its 113th anniversary.  The club holds an annual "Founder's Day" party to celebrate, which is their biggest event of the year.  In the past it has been a members-only luncheon, but this year they decided to do something a bit different by having an evening cocktail party in a fancy hotel and opening it up to spouses and friends.  Since the party was on my birthday, I thought it would be a fun way to celebrate both occasions, which is why we came back from Paris on Friday afternoon.

The party was held in the Conservatory of the Millennium Gloucester Hotel in Kensington, which turned out to be a lovely venue. It was mostly glass, and filled with large, light-covered palm trees.
An evening under the palm trees of London...
It was nice to see so many of my AWC friends all in one place, and I think Josh was a little surprised by how many ladies greeted me by name and wished me a happy birthday. 

In our party clothes
It was an eventful evening, as it also served as a fundraiser for the club and the charities it supports.  So, in addition to cocktails, speeches, and a buffet dinner, there was a raffle, a live auction, and a silent auction.  Each activity group collects donations from members during the course of the year (usually one or two pounds per meeting) and uses those funds to put together themed baskets full of goodies to be raffled off.  I wish I had taken photos -- some of them were pretty spectacular.  The book club basket included a Kindle, and the ladies who host the monthly cocktail party put together a basket full of wine and champagne with crystal wine glasses and a silver wine coaster.  Each basket had a bowl in front of it, so you could either put all your raffle tickets in one bowl or distribute them among the baskets you were most interested in winning.  I was hoping I'd win a nice birthday gift for myself, but no such luck...  :-(

The live auction included a case of wine, a Persian rug, a sailing trip, and a weekend at a B&B in the Lake District (the same one where we stayed, in fact.)  I think Josh made an initial bid on that last one, but dropped out when the bidding rose above the actual value.  Meanwhile, I surveyed the silent auction items, which included spa treatments, travel vouchers, pottery, jewelry, a massive pink hat, and a huge box full of American snack foods that are hard to find here: Wheat Thins, Cheez Its, microwave popcorn, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, pancake mix, cake mix, etc.  I bid on a travel voucher, a facial and massage at a salon in Wimbledon, and some antique London maps that Josh really liked -- all of which I won below their face value.  (The box of American food went for £90, which is over $140!)

The party was a lot of fun, and I'm looking forward to going again next year.  I heard that we raised about £9,000 (over $14,000), so it's nice to know that we were supporting a number of good causes on top of celebrating the club's anniversary and my birthday!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bon Anniversaire: 24 Hours in Paris

My friend Diana announced on Ash Wednesday that she was giving up sweets for Lent, despite an upcoming trip to Paris before Easter.  Being the wonderful, selfless friend that I am, I offered to go to Paris and eat all the sweets before she got there, so that she wouldn't be tempted.  I tossed my fat jeans in a bag and headed to St Pancras first thing on Thursday morning to catch the Eurostar to Paris.
A foggy day in Paris
OK, that's not REALLY why I went to Paris.  Josh had to attend a meeting there on Thursday afternoon, and since Friday was my birthday, we decided to make an overnight trip of it.  Nothing eases the pain of turning 29 for the umpteenth time than waking up in Paris on your birthday.  Of course, that only gave me more of an excuse to make a dent in the supply of cakes, pastries, chocolates, and other treats that might tempt Diana to stray from her Lenten dietary restrictions.

We arrived at the Gare du Nord at 11 am Paris time and took the Metro to the Hotel Baltimore, the lovely, conveniently-located hotel where we stayed on our previous visit.   Since this was a last-minute trip, and Josh's meeting was a 5-minute walk away from the hotel, we decided to wait for another opportunity to stay in a different part of town.  Josh had to dial in to a conference call as soon as we checked in, and then left for his meeting, so I was on my own for the afternoon.

So, how do you spend an afternoon on your own in Paris?  It was a cool, drizzly day, but the risk of a bad hair day wasn't going to keep me from venturing out.  I started out with a nice walk from the hotel along the Seine towards the Jardin des Tuileries.
Museum of Fashion

Place de la Concorde
By the time I reached Tuileries, I was pretty hungry, so I bought a ham and cheese crepe at an outdoor stand and ate it by the fountain.  I was immediately surrounded by a Hitchcock-sized flock of pigeons and seagulls, but after I failed to share any of my crepe with them, they eventually lost interest and wandered off in search of more generous tourists.
Jardin des Tuileries
After lunch, I visited the Orangery, a small museum affiliated with the spectacular Musee d'Orsay across the river.
Musee de l'Orangerie
The museum had a great exhibit on Claude Debussy and the artists who influenced and were influenced by his work.  There are also two large oval rooms designed by Claude Monet to showcase his massive water lily paintings.  No photography is allowed inside, but you can take a virtual tour here.  It was just the right size for an afternoon outing.  Afterwards, I headed through the garden towards the Rue St Honore.
Seagulls posing for photos
Napoleon monument in Place Vendome
My destination: Jean-Paul Hevin chocolaterie.  When my friend Lynda learned I was going to Paris, she gave me a newspaper article she had been saving about hot chocolate bars in Paris -- but only after she made me promise to give it back to her.  With such important information in my possession, I had to try at least one of them, and this one was only a few blocks from the museum.
Jean-Paul Hevin
It was hard to make it past the displays of chocolates and cakes to the cafe upstairs!
Who could resist these cakes?
I treated myself to a raspberry hot chocolate and a small chocolate tart.  Yum!
Chocolate tart and raspberry hot chocolate
On the way out, I bought myself a small box of chocolates as a birthday treat to myself.
I hopped on the Metro and met Josh back at the hotel in time to change for dinner and head out again.  We had a reservation at a restaurant that was less than a mile from our hotel, so we decided to walk, since Josh had been in meetings all afternoon.  We had some nice views of the Eiffel Tower along the way.
Eiffel Tower & Trocadero
We had dinner at Restaurant La Gare, which was recommended by another friend from the AWC who lived in this part of Paris before she moved to London.  It used to be a train station (hence the name), but has been converted into a huge restaurant.
La Gare - a former train station
At 8 pm on a Thursday night, it was still pretty quiet, but it did fill up as the evening progressed.
We had a lovely meal, although I was so full by dessert that I couldn't finish my molten chocolate cake.  Sorry, Diana!  I tried...
Chocolate dessert, of course!
Friday morning we had a nice breakfast at the hotel (including Nutella crepes, of course!), packed up our things, and took the Metro to Notre Dame.
Notre Dame

Josh and I had both visited Paris as teenagers, but I only have vague memories of touring Notre Dame way back when, so it was nice to go back as an adult, especially after just having visited St. Paul's in London.

iPhone self-portrait
Front doors
Did I mention that I LOVE stained glass windows?!

Just as we left, the clouds finally broke up and the sun came out.  Too bad we couldn't have stayed longer to enjoy it...
Notre Dame in the sun
We walked across the bridge and had lunch at a cafe near the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore before heading to the train station to catch the Eurostar back to London.
Shakespeare & Co.
This ad caught my eye in the train station.  At first I thought it was for McDonald's, but no.  It's for Quick, a French fast food franchise.  Um, OK.
Our train ride home went smoothly, although Josh had yet another conference call scheduled for the moment we arrived back at St. Pancras, so I had to leave him there and take the Tube home by myself so I could start getting ready for our evening plans.  It would have been nice to spend more time in Paris, but hopefully we'll have other opportunities to go back, and we had other commitments lined up. Yes, the trip to Paris was just the beginning of an action-packed series of adventures -- both birthday-related and otherwise -- over the past few days.   Stay tuned for the next installment...

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

St. Paul's Cathedral

Monday morning I met several fellow AWC members at the St. Paul's Tube station for a guided tour of St. Paul's Cathedral.   I had been looking forward to this ever since I signed up, since I had never been inside before.  I'm not a particularly religious person, but I can certainly appreciate the magnificent architecture, gorgeous ornamentation, and historical significance of English cathedrals.  I  also recently read London, by Edward Rutherfurd, which turned out to be a pretty good summary of the city's 2000-year history, and devotes an entire chapter to the construction of St. Paul's.
Rare blue sky in London over St. Paul's dome
As we made our way around to the front of the cathedral, we started to see signs of the Occupy London encampment.  Why are they camped here?  It's likely the only area within the square mile of the City of London -- which is the heart of the financial district -- where they have been allowed to gather.  You have to weave your way through a maze of pathways between the tents to get to the front entrance.
Tents next to St. Paul's
Occupy London sign
Sea of tents outside St. Paul's
The cathedral, which is the fifth to stand on this site since 604 AD, was designed by Christopher Wren after the previous one was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.  It is quite impressive, and imposing, from the front.  The giant door in the middle is only used by the Royal Family, so that's where Charles and Diana entered when they were married here in 1981.  I'm old enough to remember watching that global event on TV from my grandmother's house in San Francisco -- although it probably wasn't live as I doubt my parents would have let me watch TV in the middle of the night. 
Front entrance of St. Paul's
They charge a pretty steep admission fee to visit St. Paul's as a tourist.  Even with a group rate, we paid £13.50 each ($21) just to go inside.  You can enter for free during Evensong and other public services, but you probably aren't able to tour all the parts of the cathedral during those times. Sadly, photography is not allowed inside the cathedral, so I don't have a bajillion beautiful photos to share with you.  If you don't want to just take my word for it that it was well worth the price of admission,  you can see a few photos of the interior on the St. Paul's web site.

It's hard to imagine why Christopher Wren's design was so controversial when he first drew up plans for St. Paul's in 1669, but topping a cathedral with a dome rather than steeple was considered "too foreign" and he was sent back to the drawing board.  It wasn't until 1675 that he was able to produce a design that met with royal approval -- a more traditional, cross-shaped structure with an elongated dome topped by a tall spire.  His contract included a clause allowing him to make some variations, rather ornamental, than essential, as from Time to Time, he should see proper."  And so he did, which is why St. Paul's is topped with a dome, and not a spire.  The cathedral was completed 36 years later, and was the first English cathedral to be built within the lifetime of the architect.  To put this in perspective, one of the memorials inside the cathedral took over 50 years to be completed!

Highlights of the tour included the painting The Light of the World, by W.H. Hunt, the Duke of Wellington monument (which took 50 years), a massive pipe organ -- parts of which date back to 1695, the painted interior of the dome, an American memorial chapel dedicated to US soldiers who died in the UK during WWII, and the gorgeous wood carvings and mosaic ceilings of the quire.

We also went down to the crypt, which is quite large, and also houses the cafe and gift shop.  While Westminster Abbey is probably better known for all the famous people buried there, St. Paul's is the final resting place of quite a few familiar names as well.  Many military heroes can be found in the crypt, including the two biggest: Admiral Lord Nelson, and the Duke of Wellington.  Nelson is buried in an impressive black stone sarcophagus that was originally intended for Cardinal Wolsey, but remained unused for nearly 300 years after he fell out of favor with King Henry VIII.  Other names of note include the artists JMW Turner and Joshua Reynolds, composer Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan), and Sir Christopher Wren himself, who visited his masterpiece just two days before he died in 1723, at the ripe old age of 91.  The Latin inscription above his simple tomb, written by his son, says: 'Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.'

Our final stop was the Whispering Gallery, which required climbing up -- and then down -- the 257 steps of a large spiral staircase to the base of the dome.  (Add that to the stairs in the Tube, up to the entrance, and up and down to the crypt - twice - and we definitely got our exercise for the day!)  The acoustics are such that if you stand against the wall and say something in a loud whisper, it can be clearly heard by someone standing on the opposite side of the dome.  As we were on our way out, one of the security guards gave us a tip: if you take the elevator to the roof of the new shopping center and office complex across the street, you get a fantastic view of the dome.  I couldn't resist that, so after a quick lunch in the cafe, one of the other ladies and I did just that.  Great tip!
View of St. Paul's with London Eye in the background (on the left)
We also had a nice view of The Shard, which is still under construction.  When complete, this glass tower of office space, retail, luxury apartments, and a fancy hotel will be the tallest building in Western Europe.
The Shard, under construction
 The sun was in the wrong place to get a really good shot of the dome, but I tried my best...
Close-up of the dome. 
That gold ball at the top is 6 feet across!
It always boggles my mind when I encounter things that are older than the country I was born in.  Londoners had been worshiping in this cathedral for nearly 80 years by the time the Declaration of Independence was signed -- and they had been worshiping on this spot for well over a thousand years!  Mind boggled.