Sunday, April 29, 2012

Stormy Weather

The view never changes - rain, wind, and dandelions
For a country that seems to enjoy talking about the weather, England doesn't actually get much of it.  Basically, it's either raining, or not raining.  Snow is a rarity, as are thunderstorms, hot, sunny days, and any other kind of extreme weather.  I've found the climate here to be similar to Seattle's in that regard.  When it does rain, it's generally in the form of scattered showers or a light mist, not torrential downpours.  However, the last few weeks have given us plenty to talk about.  Or rather, to complain about...

Our first month in London, April 2011, was the warmest April on record.  It was a glorious string of warm, sunny days with temperatures in the 70's.  As I spent my first few weeks here exploring the city, I found every inch of green space filled with Londoners soaking up the rays.  After a rather chilly, rainy summer, and comically short daylight hours in the winter, I understood why many locals take vitamin D supplements and suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder -- and take every opportunity to go out in the sun.  I was looking forward to another gorgeous April like the one we had last year.  Not even close. 

It has been cold, rainy, and windy for the entire month.  We've already received 165% of the normal rainfall for April, and we still have two more days to go.  Today's forecast: more of the same...
Wet and windy this morning, with rain heavy and persistent at times, possibly leading to some localised flooding. Strong northeasterly winds will ease through the day.   High 55, low 48 (F).
Over the past few weeks, we've had hail, thunder & lightning, heavy rain, and gusty winds.  I'm still wearing my winter coat, and I suspect my umbrella will give up the ghost soon after being inverted by the wind so many times.  At Mah Jongg on Friday I saw a couple AWC friends who had just returned from trips home, and both of them wished aloud that they hadn't come back to London.  Who can blame them?  Josh and I both have mild colds, so we've had very little motivation to leave the house this weekend.  Sure, there are plenty of museums and other indoor attractions to enjoy, but even the half-mile walk to the station seems daunting in this weather.  Do I sound depressed?  I'm not, really.  But I'm having a hard time believing it's almost May -- or that we're still suffering from a drought.

My aunt & uncle are coming to visit in a couple weeks, so I really hope the weather improves by the time they arrive.  In the meantime, maybe we should take advantage of this quality time holed up indoors to plan a trip to someplace warm and sunny...  The Sahara?  Death Valley?  Sounds lovely!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Member of the Board

Tuesday morning I found myself sitting in the bar at the Royal Thames Yacht Club -- a club which has been in existence longer than the United States of America -- discussing champagne with two members of the Functions staff. 

How did I end up there?  Well, that requires a bit of back story.  As I have mentioned before, I joined the American Women's Club of London (AWC) last summer, a few months after we moved here.  I have enjoyed participating in a variety of activities with the club -- day trips, London walking tours, theater and movie outings, learning Mah Jongg -- as well as the instant social network it provided me with, which has made a big difference in adjusting to life in another country.  Back in February, I was approached by a couple members of the nominating committee who asked if I would be interested in serving on the club's Board of Directors.

I was both honored and surprised by this, since I had only been a member of the club for about 6 months at this point, but due to the transient nature of the AWC's membership, it makes more sense to recruit relative newcomers rather than those who are likely to be moving back to the States or on to their next assignment before their term is up.   In fact, the position I was asked to take on was already vacant as the previous Board member had recently moved to Ireland.  After giving it some thought, I agreed to do it.  After all, I hadn't had much luck finding a job, and here was an opportunity to do something productive that would still allow me the flexibility to travel and make the most of my time in London -- and in fact encourage and enable me to do so.

So I was officially welcomed to the Board as the new Director of Programs in February, and gradually transitioned into the role over the past couple months.  What does the Director of Programs do?  In addition to serving on the Board of Directors, she's in charge of planning the AWC's monthly meetings, which includes booking venues, lining up interesting speakers, coordinating vendors, and making post-meeting lunch arrangements. 

The club President, who had also been Director of Programs in the past, had been filling in after my predecessor moved away, and our schedules and geographical disparity (she lives in North London, I live in SW London) kept us from finding time to meet so she could hand things over to me.  We eventually just had to do it by phone, after she forwarded on about 100 emails.  Two hours after our phone meeting, the speaker for the May meeting canceled on me.  Not the most auspicious beginning!  Fortunately, we regularly get emails from people who would like to give talks or presentations to our group -- often authors promoting a new book or a business owner with a primarily female clientele (party planner, etiquette expert, yoga instructor, cooking class instructor, breast cancer specialist, etc) -- so at least I already had a list of other options to consider.

One of the items I was tasked with at my first Board meeting was to compare room rental, equipment, and catering rates at the two venues where we normally hold our meetings: the Lansdowne Club in Mayfair, and the Royal Thames Yacht Club in Knightsbridge.  This is when I discovered that not only had our regular contact in the Functions department at the RTYC been "made redundant" (laid off), but the person I was directed to in his place was on her very first day on the job.  Strike two!   Hence the in-person meeting with the new Functions staff, which went fairly well...

This is not at all how I pictured myself here a year ago, but I am enjoying my new responsibilities and looking forward to meeting new people as a result.  One of the drawbacks of being part of an expat community is that you are always having to say goodbye to the new friends you have just made.  I can think of at least 10 people I've gotten to know over the past year who have subsequently either moved back to the States or on to a new assignment in another country.  On the other hand, I meet new club members at every monthly meeting and other AWC events, so there's always an opportunity to make more new friends -- and motivation to keep in touch with the old ones.  We may come from different backgrounds and disparate parts of the US, but we all share the common bond of being Americans in London, and it makes all the difference to have a group like that to share the highs and lows of this amazing adventure with.  My life here would be very different if I hadn't joined the AWC!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Saint George's Earth Day

Saturday afternoon we encountered yet another festival in Trafalgar Square.   Since Sunday was Earth Day and Monday was St. George's Day, someone seems to have come up with the brilliant idea of celebrating them both with a Garden Festival.  (Possibly due to the rather meager turnout at last year's St. George's Day festival.)  The only hitch is that Trafalgar Square is a massive, paved plaza in the middle of the city -- really the LAST place you'd expect to host a garden-related event of any kind.  The solution: cover it with AstroTurf, erect a bandstand, and bring in a few potted plants and flower boxes.  Voila!  An urban oasis.  Well, sort of...
Garden Festival in Trafalgar Square
As a nod to St. George, we did see at least one dragon, although this one seemed to be some sort of  music-making machine.
Dragon calliope
They also had people dressed as statues and trees posed in various spots around the square -- which is really no different than any other day in Trafalgar Square, except they didn't ask for money when you took their picture. 
Did she put this on her resume?
The highlight (for me), was a tent with floral creations representing London landmarks and institutions -- sort of like a mini Rose Parade.
Chelsea Physic Garden
Afternoon tea
London transport
High Street shopping
The Gherkin, Big Ben, and the London Eye
The Tower Bridge and Queen's Jubilee
I had to drag Josh out of there before he tried to eat the beautiful flower cakes, but it was a nice little detour on our way to Leicester Square to buy theater tickets.  I wonder what they'll do next year?

Monday, April 23, 2012

On a Theater Bender

In the first three and a half months of 2012, I saw one West End show and not a single movie, so I made up for it by going to two shows and two movies in the past week!

Last Wednesday, my friend Becky organized an AWC outing to a matinee of The Hunger Games.  Several of the other women who attended had read the books -- I think it was even one of the recent AWC book club selections -- and were very excited to see the movie.  I had not read the books, but I enjoyed the movie and would like to read them if they ever have any copies available in our local library.  When I asked about it, the librarian looked at me as if I had asked for a copy of the final Harry Potter book on the day it was released.  Since we already have 13 boxes full of books in storage back in DC, I'm trying not to buy more while I'm in London -- especially when there's a library within walking distance -- but I might have to make an exception.

Thursday was AWC Theatre Day, which I had missed for the past couple months, so I was eager to catch up up -- especially since it was yet another in a seemingly endless string of cold, rainy days.  I ended up going to see Blood Brothers, which was an interesting story, but I found the songs to be rather repetitive.  It got to the point where I thought if I heard them try to rhyme one more thing with "Marilyn Monroe" I was going to lose my mind.  Former Wet Wet Wet singer Marti Pellow played the role of the narrator-- his voice reminded me of David Bowie.
Blood Brothers at the Phoenix Theatre
On Saturday Josh and I decided to see a show together, which is something we haven't really done since we moved here -- except when his brother was visiting last summer.  We went to the half price ticket booth and got tickets for an evening performance of Long Day's Journey Into Night, a semi-autobiographical play by Eugene O'Neil.   
Long Day's Journey Into Night at the Apollo Theatre
The lead roles were played by David Suchet (aka Hercule Poirot) and Laurie Metcalf (aka Roseanne's sister), so it was interesting to see them in person after having seen them on TV (well, David Suchet at least -- I was never a big fan of Roseanne).  The acting was incredible, but the play itself was a bit depressing -- talk about a dysfunctional family! -- and nearly 3 hours long with no set or costume changes to break up the monotony of four people bickering and yelling at one another as they got progressively inebriated.  I think Josh enjoyed it more than I did because I had already seen two dark, dystopian shows that week and was in the mood for something a little more lighthearted.

Fortunately, I had an opportunity to make up for that on Sunday, when we met a few of my AWC friends and their husbands at the Soho Hotel for a screening of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, followed by dinner at the hotel restaurant (the Soho Hotel, that is -- not the Marigold...).  We all thoroughly enjoyed the movie, which stars every famous British actor over the age of 60 -- including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Bill Nighy -- plus Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire.  In the movie, he has a gorgeous (Indian) girlfriend named Sunaina, which is a variant of my own name, so it scored a few extra points with me!  I don't think it's been released in the US yet (nyah, nyah!), but I do recommend seeing it when it is.  It will make you laugh and cry -- but mostly laugh.

I doubt I'll be able to keep up this pace of theater-going, but I hope I'll have a chance to see some more shows and movies in the near future. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

You CAN Get There From Here, But...

After being on the "car-free diet" for just over a year, we have become pretty good at finding our way around London, England, and other parts of Europe using various combinations of buses, trams, trains, subways, boats, airplanes, and just plan walking.  For Josh, you can add cycling to the mix as well.  In fact, we have become so used to a car-free lifestyle that we rarely even take taxis anywhere, even though they are plentiful in London.

Earlier this week, Josh attended a conference/corporate retreat at a hotel in northern England located 14 miles from the nearest train station.  So did he get a ride with a co-worker?  Rent a car?  Take a taxi from the train station?  Nope.  He packed everything he needed for the 3-day conference (at which he was giving a presentation) into his panniers, slung his laptop over his shoulder, and set off on his bicycle.
Josh heads off to his 3-day conference
He rode his bike up to the train station, took it on the train with him to Chester, and then cycled the remaining 14 miles to the hotel.  That's how he rolls.

Saturday, April 14, 2012


Wednesday I met a group of ladies at the Halcyon Gallery for a private tour of the Chihuly exhibit that had been arranged by one of the AWC members.  I've been a fan of Dale Chihuly's amazing glass creations ever since I first encountered his work at the Mirage hotel in Las Vegas.  I've also seen installations at other casinos, including the Bellagio in Las Vegas, the Borgata in Atlantic City, and Atlantis in the Bahamas.  When I moved to London, I immediately fell in love with the Victoria & Albert Museum when I walked in the front door and was greeted by a massive Chihuly chandelier.  But this was my first opportunity to see his work in a gallery setting.

After the receptionist took our coats and offered us glasses of water, we were greeted by Andy, who curated the exhibit.  He gave us a little background information about the evolution of Chihuly's work and even encouraged us to touch some of the pieces! 
Color study painting

Andy tells us about the "Persian" pieces on this table
These are nicknamed "The Uglies"
These purple rods are taller than I am and were blown in a studio in Finland --
the only one in the world equipped to make pieces this tall
Golden chandelier
Vault installation
Waterford crystal wall sconce
Boat full of floats
Mille Fiori garden installation
Chandelier detail
After we had seen all the Chihuly pieces, Andy took us into one of the back offices to show us some of the other art in their collection:
Andy Warhol
Another Dylan
Who is Dylan?  Why, Bob Dylan, of course!  Yes, the singer/songwriter also dabbles in painting.

We were then brought into a lovely wood-paneled dining room where we were offered tea and coffee and each given a gift bag containing the (sizable) Chihuly exhibition catalog and invitations to preview two upcoming shows at the Halcyon Gallery.  The catalog is a gorgeous hardcover book the size of an atlas -- like one of those coffee table books that you could use as an actual coffee table.   Did I mention that this was a free tour?  Wow!
Afterwards several of us went to lunch at a nice Italian restaurant tucked away in an alley around the corner from the gallery.  What a fantastic outing! 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Touring London with Kids

We love having visitors in London.  We had been eagerly anticipating the arrival of our friends Jason & Elizabeth, but we were a little concerned about whether their two young children -- Lauren (6) and Patrick (4) -- would enjoy the trip.  It's a long flight from Washington, DC, and a 5-hour time difference.  Add to that our lack of a car or any age-appropriate books or toys, and you have a recipe for a couple of miserable, jet-lagged kids.

I'm happy to say that it went infinitely better than any of us expected.  Apart from a few minor meltdowns, everyone had a great time.  The kids were troopers, and we managed to do a lot of things that everyone enjoyed.  Our wonderful neighbor, Anna, brought over some of her kids' toys, and was happy to have Lauren and Patrick come over to play in the back garden with her son Henry, who was also on Easter break.

As expected, everyone was pretty bleary-eyed when they arrived early Sunday morning after taking a red-eye from DC, so we fed them waffles and sent them upstairs to take a nap. Lauren declared that she was not sleepy, so Josh and I took her to a playground nearby that my neighbors had recommended.  Good call!  She loved it, and climbed all over everything until we were exhausted just from watching her.

In the afternoon, after everyone was awake and showered and dressed, we all walked to nearby South Park Gardens for our neighborhood Easter egg hunt.  There are lots of young children in this neighborhood, so the park was mobbed.  We were concerned that there might not be any eggs left for the kids to find, but clearly whoever organized this knew what they were doing.  Instead of eggs, they had hidden Popsicle sticks with chick, bunny, and egg stickers on them around the perimeter of the flower beds.  Each child was instructed to find two of each kind and bring them back to the ticket booth to collect a prize.  If you found a stick with 3 chicks or 3 bunnies, you got a special prize.  We noticed volunteers discreetly re-hiding the sticks that had already been turned in.  Very clever!  Lauren and Patrick found the requisite number of sticks -- with a little help from our neighbors' kids -- and each ended up with a bag full of Easter candy.  We saw a kid turn in a stick with 3 chicks, for which he was rewarded with a giant chocolate bunny!
Easter egg hunt in South Park Gardens
Patrick & Lauren collect their prizes
After a home-cooked spaghetti dinner, we sent everyone to bed early to try to fight off jet lag.

Monday Josh headed off to work and we managed to get everyone else up and out of the house by 10 am.  I wasn't sure how well the kids would hold up, so we didn't plan anything too ambitious.  We took the train to Waterloo and saw the Southbank Centre, past the London Eye, and across the bridge to Parliament.
You'd think they'd never seen a telephone booth before...
Maybe they haven't!
After lunch in St. James Park, we walked to Buckingham Palace, and then Jason took Lauren to Westminster Abbey.  After watching the Royal Wedding on TV nearly a year ago, she was excited to see the place where it took place.  She also wanted to meet "Princess Kate" while she was here, but we didn't make any promises...
London Eye from Buckingham Palace
While Jason and Lauren toured the church, Elizabeth and I took Patrick on his first double-decker bus ride.  Because we had to use our Oyster cards to ride the bus, Lauren and Patrick called them "oyster buses."  I'm sure other people were a bit puzzled to hear them shout, "Look!  An oyster bus!" every time one went by, but it was pretty cute.  When we regrouped, the kids were still doing fine and the weather was nice, so we hopped on a bus back to the south bank and got in line for the London Eye.  I've been wanting to ride on the Eye ever since we arrived in London a year ago, but since it's rather pricey, we figured we'd wait to do it when we had visitors.  Well, so far none of our visitors have wanted to do it, but Patrick kept asking to ride it.  Yes, a 4-year-old boy is much braver than rest of you!

The London Eye was amazing!  The half-hour ride took us up to a height of 443 feet -- taller than all but a handful of London's skyscrapers.  It was a little hazy to the west, but the views were still spectacular.  I hope future visitors wont be afraid of heights, because I'd love to do this again.
Thames and Hungerford Bridge
Southbank Centre
The City of London
At the very top
We met up with Josh for dinner at the Dog & Fox pub in Wimbledon Village.  The kids had done great all day, but it finally caught up to Patrick, who fell asleep before his dinner even arrived.
Patrick's first, and hopefully only, time passed out in a pub
Tuesday we started out in Trafalgar Square, where the kids begged to climb up to take a photo with one of the lions until their parents finally relented.
Jason and Elizabeth were surprised to see that St. Martin-in-the-Fields was not, in fact, in the fields, but right off of Trafalgar Square.  We took a peek inside and had a nice lunch in the Crypt cafe underneath.
St. Martin-in-the-Fields
After lunch, we walked to Covent Garden, where a delightful surprise awaited us -- all 200+ eggs from The Big Egg Hunt had been moved there.
They liked the dinosaur egg best
We admired the eggs until it started to rain, and we sought refuge at our next destination: the London Transport Museum.  I'd heard that it was popular with kids -- and these kids happen to love all forms of public transport.  They had a special scavenger hunt for kids, which made it all the more fun.
Transport Museum
Lauren & Patrick enjoy the view from the upper deck
A REALLY old bus
To avoid another dinnertime crash, we went back to my house and ordered pizza for dinner.  Wednesday we had crepes for lunch in Kensington and then got in line to see the dinosaur exhibit at the Natural History Museum.  Lauren and Patrick are big fans of the show Dinosaur Train, so they know a lot more about dinosaurs than I do (and I worked at the Smithsonian AND the Discovery Channel!).  The line was long, but moved quickly, and the huge diplodocus skeleton and the gorgeous building kept us distracted while we waited.  The exhibit was crowded, but well done and very engaging.
Natural History Museum
Rare family portrait
Aagh!  A T. rex!
Dino videos!
We went through the mammal hall and saw the giant blue whale, and were on our way to the Darwin Centre when we spotted something intriguing outside. Raptors!  A local nature center had brought several types of hawks, falcons, and owls for the museum visitors to see.  They had a folding chair set up so you could sit next to one of the owls, and later they let some of us take turns holding the owl.  Very cool!
I've never been this close to an owl!
Lauren and the owl check each other out
Patrick holds the owl
Since we were already outside, we toured the wildlife garden, where the kids tried to rescue an injured frog, and then went across the street to the Victoria & Albert Museum for a spot of tea in the cafe.  Not only is it one of the most beautiful settings to have a meal, but on this particular occasion it was accompanied by live piano music.
In the V&A Cafe
We spent about an hour touring the museum before the kids ran out of steam.  They asked if we could take an oyster bus home instead of the Tube -- I think they found the District Line rather disappointing as it mostly runs above ground rather than in a tube-like tunnel -- so I plotted a route back on my iPhone that only involved one transfer.  It took a bit longer, but the kids enjoyed it and Jason & Elizabeth got to see some other parts of the city along the way.

Thursday was supposed to have the nicest weather, so we had reserved that day to take a trip out to see Windsor Castle.  The kids were excited to see a REAL castle -- Buckingham Palace was a bit disappointing as it looks like a fancy office building -- and Windsor is very easy to get to by train.  The weather turned out to be cold, windy, and overcast, but at least it didn't rain.  It took just a little over an hour to get to the Windsor train station from my house, and the entrance to the castle was just a few blocks away.
Windsor Castle
Not only did the castle have a special audio tour just for kids, but since it was a few days before Easter, they also had a special Easter egg hunt inside the State Apartments.  Fancy eggs were "hidden" in several of the rooms, and each child got a list of clues to help them find each one, such as a photo of a painting or object that it was near.  That was a big hit!  We weren't allowed to take any photos inside, but you can see some interior shots on their web site.  Queen Mary's doll house, with electricity, running water, and real miniature books, was one of the highlights.
Lauren & Patrick enjoyed the audio guide
This guard discreetly said "Hello" to Lauren as he marched back and forth
Even the lamps wear crowns
St. George's Chapel
Jason practices his guard skills
Josh had Friday off, so after breakfast he and Jason took the kids to the playground while Elizabeth and I ran some errands.  I needed to acquire a ham for Easter dinner, and discovered that people traditionally eat ham for Christmas dinner here, but are more likely to have roast beef or lamb for Easter.  There's no Honeybaked Ham store here, so I had to call around to find a store that had hams available in the off-season.  I ended up with one that was twice as big as what I needed, but desperate times call for desperate measures...  Meanwhile, the other parents at the playground thought Lauren and Patrick had two daddies.  Hee hee!

We all regrouped back at the house at lunchtime, and after grabbing something to eat, changed into our Sunday best to attend the Good Friday services at St. Mary's church in Clapham.  When we first moved to London, Jason introduced us to his friend Bethie, who he used to sing with.  Coincidentally, Bethie and her husband (also named Jason!) moved here from DC the same week, and we all hit it off pretty well.  When Bethie found out that Jason was going to be here for Easter, she invited him to sing at her church for her London directorial debut.  Since we didn't think the kids would last through the entire 2-hour service, we planned to arrive towards the end to hear the singing.  In the meantime, Elizabeth tried to get some photos of the kids in their nice clothes...

Oh, well.  I'm sure those pictures will come back to haunt Patrick someday...
Trainspotting on the Tube
We arrived right on time to hear Jason and Bethie singing and then we all went out for pizza afterwards so Jason and Elizabeth could catch up with Bethie and Jason and their daughter Charlotte.  Lauren and Patrick had fun playing with Charlotte, and at one point we even caught Patrick feeding her some of his ice cream.  Too cute!
Lauren, Patrick, and Charlotte
Saturday we all went to Kew Gardens.  They also had some special Easter activities for kids with a Mayan chocolate theme.  The kids made origami water lilies, learned about the history of chocolate, and decorated (and ate) special chocolate offerings to the Mayan god of chocolate.  It doesn't get much better than that!  Once again it was cool and cloudy, but didn't rain.
Real and origami water lilies
Water lily
Climbing a tree
Chocolate workshop
Lauren as Queen Isabella
Dancing trees
The sherpas take a rest
I wasn't surprised to see peacocks this time, but we were all startled to come across this beautiful bird strolling about in one of the far corners of the gardens.  It is a golden pheasant from China.  Apparently there is a small feral population in the UK, much like the wild parakeets from India.
Golden pheasant
Japanese garden
After the kids went to bed, we made up Easter baskets for each of them and Elizabeth hid Cadbury Creme Eggs in the living room, kitchen, and dining room.  (They don't have plastic eggs here!)  Sunday morning we could hear their excited shrieks as they found all the treasures the Easter bunny had left for them.  After a nice breakfast of homemade crepes, we had the kids assemble the Bunny Hut I'd picked up at the Country Living Spring Fair a few weeks ago. 
Assembling the Bunny Hut
What it is a Bunny Hut?  Well, it is similar to a gingerbread house, but smaller and with pastel-colored candies and flowers. 
Bunny Hut
Since we spent our first Easter here with Bethie and Jason, and our visiting friend Jason was the one who introduced us, we thought it only fitting that we invite them over for Easter dinner.  It was a bit comical having two Jasons and two Elizabeths in the house, but at least Bethie and Elizabeth were easy to sort out.  The kids played with Charlotte and we let them watch a few episodes of Dora the Explorer (thank goodness I hadn't canceled my Netflix subscription!) so we could eat our dinner in (relative) peace.
The kids watch Dora together
It was fun to sit down to Easter dinner with our old friends Jason and Elizabeth and our new friends Jason and Bethie.  The giant ham was delicious, and Jason brought over an amazing carrot cake and  hot cross buns that he had baked himself.  All in all, it was a wonderful evening!  I didn't take many photos because I was a little preoccupied hosting a dinner for 6 adults and 3 kids, but Bethie has some really cute ones on her blog

After Bethie, Jason, and Charlotte had left and we were cleaning up, Lauren and Patrick asked if they could come back to London next Easter.  I was so happy to hear that they enjoyed their visit that much!  It was sad to see them go the next morning.  Now we'll miss them even more!

We have more kids coming to visit this summer, and after a remarkably good week with Lauren and Patrick,  I feel much more confident that they will have a good time here, too.