Saturday, March 31, 2012

One Year Later...

Today is the one-year anniversary of our arrival in London.  It went by fast!  I still feel like we just got here, but at least that "stranger in a strange land" feeling is wearing off.

When we first arrived and I was dealing with all the hassles of figuring out how everything works and trying to get our house set up, I had a lot of complaints.  I probably still do, but there are some aspects of living here that have certainly grown on me...
  • Public Transportation:  We didn't use our car much when we lived in DC, but not even owning a car is a whole new ball game.  Getting around London (and England) by bus, train, tram, tube, and even boat can be complicated and expensive, but you can always get where you need to go.  And it's often still a lot faster and cheaper than driving, especially when you factor in parking, fuel, and insurance, all of which are much more expensive here.
Wimbledon Tube/Train/Tram station
  • Walkability:  Most public footpaths in England pre-date the roads, and are considered sacrosanct, even if they run through the middle of someone's property, a farm field, or an exclusive neighborhood. You can see some amazing things traversing the countryside on foot that you'd miss entirely from a car.
  • TV Dramas:  Downton Abbey.  Need I say more?
  • Supermarkets:  Between grocery delivery and yummy ready-to-cook meals you can just pop in the oven, food shopping has become a whole new experience.  I don't know how I'd survive without Marks & Spencer's £10 meal deal -- main course, side dish, dessert, AND a bottle of wine!
  •  Dairy Products/Chocolate: Speaking of food, I've found that the dairy products here -- milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, etc -- taste much better than their American counterparts.  The same goes for chocolate.  So. Much. Better.
  • Travel:   The departures boards at Heathrow and Gatwick are laden with airlines I've never heard of flying to places I've never heard of.  You can go to Europe for the weekend with no jet lag.  In the past year, we've been to Paris (twice!), Brussels, Vienna, and Innsbruck, and have taken several day-trips to cities all over southern England. 
Notre Dame in Paris
  • Architecture:  Almost any building that survived WWII is worth taking a picture of.  They don't build them like that anymore...
The Churchill Arms pub
Watts Chapel
  •  Festivals:  There seems to be a festival or celebration of one kind or another in London nearly every weekend.  We probably average one per month, if not more.
  • History:  Coming from a country that's less than 250 years old, my mind is constantly blown by how far back history goes here.  A book I recently read about the history of London starts out nearly 2000 years ago.
Tower of London - built nearly 1000 years ago
  • Afternoon tea:  Who doesn't feel a bit peckish in the late afternoon?  Freshly-brewed tea with scones, clotted cream, and jam are a much better snack than anything you can get out of a vending machine.  This is a tradition we have wholeheartedly embraced -- although the scones and cream are an occasional treat, not a daily indulgence.  I always enjoy catching up with my neighbor over a "cuppa."
  • The AWC: I've made a lot of new friends, learned how to play Mah Jongg, and explored parts of London I never would have known about through the American Women's Club.  It has really helped me feel at home here and find ways to fit in.  In fact, I was recently asked to join their Board of Directors, so I'm sure you'll be hearing more about the AWC from me.

So, yes, I do like living here, despite the drawbacks.  What do I still miss?  Besides my friends and family, there are a few things...
  • Clothes dryers:  We have a small washing machine, but no dryer.  In the summer, when it's not raining, we hang our laundry out to dry on a clothesline in the back yard.  In the winter, we hang them on a drying rack by the radiator in the guest room.  If it's not warm and sunny out, or cold enough to have the heat on, it can take 24 hours for our clothes to dry, and our towels feel like sandpaper.
  • Refrigerators:  The refrigerators here are tiny, and the freezers even smaller.   They are designed to be installed under a kitchen counter, like a dishwasher.  They have no space for large or tall items.  Ice maker?  Forget it!
Fridge on top, freezer on bottom
  • Mixer taps:  Yes, they have finally adopted mixer tap technology here, but apparently some people still find separate hot and cold taps charming enough that they insist on installing them even in new sinks -- like the one in our bathroom.  Many public restrooms have them as well, which means you have the option of washing your hands in either ice cold or scalding hot water.
Our bathroom sink
  • Sandwiches:  I don't care how freshly made they are, I am not a fan of pre-made, pre-packaged sandwiches -- but that's the norm here.  I will occasionally go to Subway just to enjoy a sandwich that has exactly what I like in it.  No onions, no mayo, no rocket (arugula).  Ahhhh.
  • Mexican food:  Indian food is the Mexican food of England.  Not a lot of Mexicans in London -- I think the few Mexican restaurants here are owned by Americans.
  • Ice tea:  They love tea, but not ice.
  • Customer service:  "Are you alright there?" is not quite the same as "May I help you?"  
  • Water pressure:  I have yet to take a shower here with consistently pleasant water pressure and temperature.
  • Window screens:  We do get nice weather here, but when you open the windows you end up with a house full of flies and bees.
  • Bargains:  Everything is more expensive here, to the point where I do most of my shopping during visits back to the States.  The same pair of Levi's that I bought for $45 costs £80 ($128) here.  The IKEA lamp I paid $20 for in Virginia sells for £20 ($32) here.  I've learned to stop converting pounds into dollars, but I still have a hard time paying £30 for something I wouldn't pay $30 for.

I'll have to read this a year from now and see if I still feel the same way, or if there's anything I want to add or subtract from these lists.  

Ham House: Fit for a King, or a Movie

We were especially glad that it was a beautiful, sunny day when I met up with a group of AWC ladies at the Richmond station Thursday morning, because we still had to walk a couple miles before we reached our destination.
This way to Ham House & Gardens
The walk took us along a lovely path beside the Thames, with gorgeous views of boats, manor houses, and the river.
Lovely views along the Thames
Before we knew it, we had arrived at Ham House, which was built in 1610 and given as a gift to William Murray by King Charles I in 1626.
Ham House
Why?  Well, they were childhood friends.  William had served as Charles' "whipping boy," which meant that whenever young Charles misbehaved, William was punished in his stead, since no one was allowed to lay a hand on the crown prince.  It was a much better position than it sounds, as William and Charles were educated together and became close friends.  Unlike some royal heirs I can think of (I'm looking at you, Joffrey Baratheon...) Charles did not want to see his friend punished for something he had done, so he tended to keep his behavior in check.  And when Charles became king, he rewarded William with this fabulous house and estate.  Not too shabby.

William left the house to his daughter, Elizabeth, who married the wealthy Duke of Lauderdale and transformed the house by building an addition on the back filling it with lavish furnishings.  The house remained in her family for 300 years before being turned over to the National Trust in 1948 with many of the original 16th-century furnishings intact.

Our tour began in the basement, where we saw the wine/beer cellar and the original kitchen.
The kitchen, with the original table
We also got to peek into a more "modern" kitchen across the hall.  In fact, we all stood in line to take a photo of this room.  Why?  Does it look familiar?  It was used as the filming location for the kitchen in the Crawley's house on Downton Abbey, where they set up a soup kitchen in season 2.
Scenes from Downton Abbey were filmed here!
As the tour continued, we learned that Ham House is a popular film location for movies and TV, thanks to its lavish 16th-century interiors, formal gardens, and stylistically different front and back exteriors, which can appear to be two different houses.

In the 2009 movie Young Victoria, Ham House doubled for Kensington Palace, and many scenes were filmed both inside and outside the house.  As a child, Victoria was required to hold someone's hand every time she went up or down the stairs, and all of those scenes were filmed on this amazing carved wooden staircase.
Carved wood staircase
Staircase detail
Other recent films made here include Never Let Me Go (2010) with Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan and a 2008 BBC adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.  Tellingly, most of us were much more intrigued by this information than that King Charles I himself had visited the house.

On with the tour... 
The bathroom, where the Duchess would have bathed in ass's milk
View of formal "Cherry Garden" from the house
Gallery with Grand Foyer below
Drawing room
Molding detail
Ham House is also known for its collection of beautiful curio cabinets.  Because of their age and fragility, they are only opened for one week each year, and we were fortunate enough to be there during that week!  I asked the woman who organized the tour if she had planned it that way, and she told me it was a happy coincidence.
Ivory cabinet
Lacquer cabinet
Inlaid wood cabinet
A few of the cabinets were displayed in the Long Gallery, along with the family's portrait collection.
The long gallery
Van Dyck self-portrait
King Charles I by Van Dyck
Just off the Long Gallery, the Green Closet contained an impressive collection of miniatures - and more cabinets!
The Green Closet
The original books from the Library had been sold by the family long ago, but the National Trust has re-stocked the shelves with books from another estate.
The Queen's Closet
Dining Room
Bed Chamber
Our tour guide took us outside and handed us off to another guide who gave us a brief tour of the gardens.  We started in the formal Cherry Garden, which consists solely of neatly-trimmed boxwoods and lavender.  So why is it called the Cherry Garden?  There are a few cherry trees around the perimeter.
The Cherry Garden
That's a lot of work!
At the back of the house were 8 squares of lawn surrounded by gravel paths which lead to the "wilderness" beyond -- which consists of trees, hedges, gazebos, and more naturalistic planting beds.  The gardens have been carefully restored to the way they were when Elizabeth Murray lived in the house.  How do they know what it looked like back then?  They have detailed inventories of the house and gardens -- and a painting.
View of the house from the wilderness
Painting of Elizabeth Murray and her husband in the garden,  c. 1675-9
It was early in the spring, but there were already some flowers to enjoy.
Daffodils and snakehead fritillary
Our tour guide left us at the Orangery, which has been converted into a cafe.  The kitchen garden out front not only demonstrates how large estates like this once grew their own produce, but the fruit, vegetables, and herbs from the garden are used in the cafe year-round.  We had a nice lunch in the cafe -- tasty carrot & coriander soup! -- and then had some time to explore the grounds on our own.
Orangery and kitchen garden
Fancy tulips
On the way back to the Richmond station, we stopped at Petersham Nurseries, a gorgeous garden center with a renowned cafe and tea shop.
Petersham Nurseries
It was such a beautiful day!  We wandered around a bit and then stopped in for a spot of tea.
Lovely salads
Irresistible cakes!
I was tempted by all the flowering plants, but didn't have a good way to get them home, so I admired them in the nursery while I enjoyed my tea and carrot cake with my AWC friends.

It was a perfect day for a perfect outing.  I hope there will be more to come...

Thursday, March 29, 2012


Josh and I have done a fair amount of traveling during our first year in London, but apart from visiting our families at Christmas, they were all business trips for Josh, so we decided it was about time we take a real vacation.  Since Josh has always wanted to ski in the Alps, we decided on a long weekend in Innsbruck, Austria.  And what a great decision it was!  I took over 300 photos during the four days we spent there, so it's going to be a challenge to fit this all into one blog post, but I'll give it a try...
Gorgeous! We knew we chose well the minute we landed at the airport
En route to our hotel
We stayed in a historic hotel right in the center of the old city.  It has been completely modernized, but still has lots of charm and character. 
The Goldener Adler Hotel, ca 1390
The rooms were all named after famous people who had stayed there.
We were in the Mozart room
We must have been given an upgrade - our room was HUGE!
The view from our room!
Late lunch in the town square
Our hotel was right next to the Golden Roof, a balcony built in the 15th century for Emperor Maximilian to watch tournaments in the town square below.  It is one of the big tourist attractions in Innsbruck
The Golden Roof
Innsbruck is the capital of the Austrian state of Tyrol, and is named for the bridge ('bruck') over the Inn river, which flows through the middle of the city.
The Inns'bruck: Bridge over the Inn River
On our first full day, Josh took a free shuttle up into the Alps to go skiing while I toured the city.  My first stop was the Stadturm, a lookout tower just across the square from the Golden Roof.  I walked up the 150 stairs to enjoy the view.
Stadturm - the city tower
Graffiti in the stairwell
Ski jump and hot air balloon
Inn River valley
Next stop was the Hofkirche, which was built in the mid-1500s to house the tomb of Emperor Maximilian.  There was an antiques market outside, so I paused to take a look before going in.
Hofkirche plaza
Antique teacups
Maximilian designed the memorial himself, and commissioned larger-than-life bronze statues of his ancestors, immediate family, and important historical figures to form the funeral procession.  Ironically, he is not actually buried here, but it is an impressive memorial nonetheless.
Hofkirche interior
That's one fancy knight!
King Arthur
View from above
These statues were incredibly detailed!
Marble carvings on the tomb represent important events in the Emperor's life
Since I knew Josh would have no interest in this, I also took a 20-minute bus ride to Swarovski Crystal World, which is not a factory outlet, but a surreal museum of the sparkly.

giant chandelier
crystal tree
WTF?  Trapped in a Herbie Hancock video?
Taj Mahal
LED jellyfish
And, of course, the massive shop
I thought it would be fun to buy a souvenir at the shop, but everything was ridiculously expensive -- definitely NOT an outlet store -- so I just browsed until it was time to catch the bus back to the city center.  I suspect that even the Swarovski store next to our hotel had better prices than this one.
Crystal duckies
Crystal dragon, only $23,000!
The next day, we took a cable car up to the village of Hungerburg, and from there, a series of gondolas to the top of the Alps.  It was mostly sunny and in the 60's in Innsbruck, but there was still plenty of snow up in the mountains.  We picked the only hazy/cloudy day to do this, but we still enjoyed some spectacular views.
Cable car station in Hungerburg

Gondola full of skiers and sightseers
Skiers big and small
Watching planes take off & land at the airport, from above

The Alps!
On the way down, we stopped at the Alpenzoo, with 150 species of animals that are found in the Alps.  It also has a pretty spectacular view.
River otter
Bald Ibis

Bearded vulture
Feeding time: otter eating baby chicks.  Ick!
Brown Bear!
Cable car
We took the cable car back down to the city center and visited the big cathedral before heading back to the hotel.  It was much more impressive on the inside...
Cathedral interior
Ceiling detail
 What was the name of this cathedral?  Well, it depends on which language you speak:
Cathedral pamphlets
 We had dinner at the Cafe Sacher, so I'm sure you can guess what I had for dessert!
Sacher torte
The next day was another beautiful, sunny day.  We started out in the Hofburg (Imperial Palace), which was quite impressive, but does not allow photos inside.  You can take a virtual tour on the web site if you visit the Imperial Apartments (under Museum).
After touring the palace, we went across the street to the Tyrolean Folk Art Museum, which was much larger and more modern than I expected.  It had a huge collection of vernacular architecture in the form of Stuben (parlors) from a dozen different houses, all of which had been carefully reconstructed inside the museum.  Each room had elaborately hand-carved wood paneling and was dominated by a massive stove in one corner, often with a bedframe built around it.
Josh in one of the many Stuben
Carved ceiling
Another stove
Another Stuben
Because people visit Innsbruck from all over Europe -- and beyond -- they have overcome the language barrier at this museum by giving each visitor a hand-held scanner.  Each object and descriptive label has a bar code, and when you scan it, the information appears on the scanner in your language of choice.  Very cool!
More cowbell!
Carved cabinets
Elaborate clock!
Traditional costumes
Just an ordinary towel rack...
Despite the gorgeous weather, we seem to have picked a quiet time to visit Innsbruck, as we only encountered a handful of other people in most of the tourist attractions we visited.  It was a bit creepy being the only people in the Folk Art Museum, as it had an eerie soundtrack of voices, bells, and other random sounds that played as you made your way through the exhibits.  By the time we were done there, we were ready to spend some time outdoors in the sun, so we hopped on a sightseeing bus and went to the Bergisel ski jump.  It is one of relics from when Innsbruck hosted the winter Olympics in 1964 and 1976, and is still used for ski jumping competitions.  The view from the new observation tower and restaurant at the top is pretty spectacular, although I can't imagine wanting to jump off of it!  Ironically -- or perhaps fittingly -- there is a cemetery just beyond it.
Ski jumping stadium
View from the top
After taking a scenic tram ride, we visited Ambras Castle, which is now a museum.  I didn't get a lot of photos as we had to rush through before it closed, but you can visit the collections online.
Schloss Ambras
The Armory
The Spanish Hall
Inner courtyard
Trompe l'oeil window
Beautiful gardens
Peacock and harem
Did not expect to see peacocks here!
We caught a few more sights on the way back to the city center.
Triumphal Arch
Beautiful art nouveau building
Olympic Stadium
Sunset over the Inn River
We had dinner at a Thai restaurant that night, having sampled enough Austrian food to be craving something a little lighter.  My dessert -- green tea custard -- was so elaborately presented that I had to take a photo.  LOVE the footprints!
Who's been walking across my dessert?
Our last day we walked around the city center for a bit before we had to head to the airport for our flight back to London.  We came across a bookshop that sold Latin translations of popular books, and stopped at a grocery store to pick up some souvenirs (chocolate!).
Harrius Potter?
Easter candy!
Oh, Heinz, you have been holding out on us!
It was hard to leave such a beautiful place!  How often are you captivated by the view from the airport tarmac?

Auf Wiedersehen, Innsbruck!
Goodbye, Alps!

Our trip home went smoothly until we reached Gatwick airport.  As we were going through passport control, they didn't like the looks of our temporary passports, or the stamped-in visa information from our misadventures in Belgium and France back in December.  They put us in a holding pen with a snoring African man while they confirmed our details.  It was mortifying, but mercifully only took about half an hour.  Of course, by the time we reached the baggage claim, it was already disgorging bags from another flight.  I found my suitcase sitting off to one side, but Josh's was nowhere to be found.  This was particularly upsetting as he had packed all the souvenirs (chocolate) in his bag.  He filled out some paperwork at the lost luggage desk and we took the train home.

Fortunately, the bag was located and delivered to our house the next night.  We did not get any explanation as to where it had been for the previous 30 hours, but it seemed to be in good condition, and all the chocolate was still inside.  Whew!