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Monday
Feb072011

U.K. Invasion, Part One

2010 wasn't all bad.  Even though I didn't blog very much, a lot of terrific things happened.  I'll try to write about them in the next few days so that this e-journal of mine is a little more balanced.  Plus, I know three or four of you wanted the details on some of this stuff.  Bless you for your patience.

Last August, we once again did a house swap via Homelink.org.  We had gone on our first house exchange to a little town outside of Paris in August 2009.  It was such a blazing success that we were converted forever to a new way of vacationing.  If you didn't read my Paris posts when I wrote them, here's a link.

Our exchange family in England was harder to find.  I think we sent out about ten queries via HomeLink when we were planning our trip to France; we sent out over 35 when we were trying for England.  But we finally found the ideal situation: a gorgeous townhouse in Twickenham (about 30 minutes by train from central London) owned by an absolutely delightful family of four.

Patrick picked the English family up from the airport on the first Sunday in August.  What lovely people! We had lunch with them and showed them around our house, and then it was time for us to go.  We actually hated saying goodbye, because we had that "click" of instant friendship that we'd experienced with the French family the year before. But at 5pm, when the car service came, we loaded up and headed out.

Luckily, we got a notice on the way to the airport that our flight had been delayed by an hour. This was lucky because even though we left in more than enough time under normal circumstances, we had to get past TWO accidents to get to JFK airport.  And our driver nearly fell asleep at least twice.  That'll give you an adrenaline boost, I guarantee.

We got dropped off at the Delta International Check-In. Mega lines. And they had changed things at the airport to encourage self check-in. Which we would have been happy to do, except that the self check-in kiosk wouldn't read some of our passports. The kiosk supervisor took Patrick over to a traditional check-in line and put him at the head (which angered the other people waiting), but the check-in clerk was new, kept making mistakes, and kept having to get help from other clerks. End result? It took us 90 minutes to get to the back end of the security line.

But security moved pretty quickly. We had planned to get some dinner at the airport, so we went to the Chili's near our gate. We got seated. Everyone was perishing of thirst, because of course the Delta International Check-In area was not air conditioned. We waited for 15 minutes. Couldn't get a waiter even to glance our way. It turned out that no one was really hungry, just thirsty, so I said to Patrick, "Let's just leave and get water at the newsstand. It'll be faster and cheaper." So we walked out en masse.  We felt very empowered in snubbing them, but I don't think anyone really noticed.

We got our drinks and a couple of snacks and went to the gate. A school friend of Tess's and her family turned out to be on the same flight, so Tess and Daniel and the other family's kids entertained one another quite nicely. Which was great, because we were supposed to leave at 9pm, but ended up leaving at 11:30.

Anne, by this time, was kind of out of her mind: overtired, silly, hyper. She was fine at the gate, but once we took off, and she couldn't get her way, she freaked. I thought for sure she'd fall asleep within an hour of take-off, but she probably only slept a total of 2 hours out of the 7-hour flight. Everyone around us hated us, and passively aggressively let us know. So pleasant.

But I forgot to tell you about my brilliance. Back when Patrick was pulling out his hair trying to get us all checked in with the self-check nonsense and the newbie clerk, I had to entertain my troops as we leaned against the filthy wall in the muggy heat and chaos of the Delta terminal. In a flash, heaven handed inspiration to me. I invented The Cheerful Game.

I told the kids that we'd have a competition to see who could be the most cheerful until we got through security, and that the winner would get an Awesome Prize.  My amazing kids were all into it. We sang Beatles songs--quite loudly and in harmony. We made silly faces at Baby Anne, who was imprisoned in her stroller. If someone slipped and said, "My legs are tired," someone else would squeal, smile, and say, "Mine are, too! We have that in common! So cool!"

We all made each other laugh hard by outdoing one another with cheesy cheerfulness. It was amazing how well it worked. After we got through security, I gave everyone cold water and MnMs (which everyone agreed was an Awesome Prize), then decided to extend the competition throughout our trip.  More on that later.

So--on the plane, Baby Anne finally fell asleep. I dozed while holding her. We landed mid-morning on Monday, London time, got through Passport Control and Customs without a hitch, then went out to meet our car service. They weren't there. We called. They had no record of our reservation, even though I had emailed back and forth several times with them and had a confirmation number. In the end, we took two cabs to Twickenham, which worked just fine.

The house: so lovely. Edwardian brick in the quiet suburb of Twickenham. The street was named "Popes Grove" after Alexander Pope's villa, which once stood nearby (his grotto still exists but is only open one or two days per year). Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill is a couple of streets away. The house was very spacious and light, with big windows and simple, comfy furniture and interesting art on the walls. The bathrooms and kitchen had recently been renovated, so they were quite posh.

We just relaxed and settled in the first day. The weather was gorgeous--slightly warm and breezy. The kids played in the garden, we ate the very nice lunch the English family had left for us. P and I went to the grocery store to get a few meals' worth of food. You remember how much I love European groceries. The myth about bad English food is now completely unfounded; we bought terrific, fresh, local food for about the same as what we pay in New York (the food in France was much more expensive).

(Patrick reminds me that the grocery stores in France were a transportingly sensual experience.  This is absolutely true.  But the stores in England were just great.)

The first night, after the little kids went to bed, we cracked open Season 2 of Lost with the big boys. (They had bought Patrick Season 1 for Father's Day, and we had watched it together quite happily.)  I was so hammered from jet lag and not having slept on the plane that I fell asleep four times (for about 10 seconds each time), but we got through the episode and went to bed.

We slept in until 9:30 a.m. Awesome. We could have slept longer, but we wanted to get on the London schedule, so we got up and got moving.

Our breakfasts last year in France were: yogurt, bread or croissants, and exotic fruit juices. In Twickenham, the bakery options weren't nearly as good as they had been in France, but the store brioche and yummy KerryGold butter worked just fine.  And Sainsbury's yogurts were awesome.  As would be our tradition nearly every day, I made ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch and packed them in Anne's diaper bag.

We took the train to London's Waterloo station and walked past The London Eye and over Westminster Bridge. We took great pleasure in rounding the corner and yelling, "Look, kids, Big Ben!" which is an old family joke based on a gag in Chevy Chase's European Vacation (which the kids have never seen--it's a pre-PG-13-rated-R movie). Parliament looked gorgeous against the lowering clouds.

We walked to Westminster Abbey. I had thought we'd be there for about an hour, but the curators there have put together a fabulous "Children's Trail," like an educational scavenger hunt, for kids up to age 10.  If children complete all four pages (it was extensive and not so easy, but very fun), they get a free chocolate reward at the end.

Chocolate is a powerful incentive; we really took our time. P took charge of Anne, who was high-maintenance, but manageable with enough spirited attention. I took Tess and Daniel around looking for the answers to the Trail questions. The big kids entertained themselves quite nicely.

Westminster Abbey is so gorgeous. I got completely misty when I saw the memorials for Jane Austen, the Brontes, Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Handel, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, among others. The royal tombs were magnificent. Someone was tuning the organ for the first hour we were there, and then we were treated to a bit of playing afterward.

We followed the trail through the cloisters, where the kids were allowed to borrow child-size monk costumes to wear in the gardens. In the big college garden adjacent to the abbey, we ate our delicious sandwiches and shared some MnMs. The bathrooms were lovely. Anne amused herself by throwing dead leaves into a fountain; she could have done that all day. Then we headed back inside to finish the trail.

Tess and Daniel got giant chocolate coins for their pains; apparently only a few children who start the trail actually finish. One of the marshalls checked their answers quite carefully, too; I was glad he took the kids seriously. We got a couple of Christmas ornaments at the gift shop. It's a tradition of ours to buy a Christmas ornament as a souvenir of wherever we travel, so it was fun to find really cool ones right away.

Leaving the abbey, it was pouring rain. It was also 4pm, and Anne had had it. I had planned for us to walk up to Trafalgar Square to see the National Portrait Gallery and St-Martin-in-the-Fields, but we decided to call it a day. We walked back to Waterloo, Anne screaming her head off in protest over being tortured by the stroller's rain cover. She calmed down once we got on the train and gave her a bottle. We had an easy dinner, bathed the littles, watched another episode of Lost, and crashed.

Except I couldn't sleep.  I was in a tizzy over how much more difficult Anne was than she had been the previous year.  One-year-olds are very portable and accomodating; in Paris, Anne lived in the backpack, happily drinking bottles, looking around, and napping as we roamed about.  Two-year-olds?  Have their own ideas about how to spend their days.  I wound down by realizing this and adjusting all my plans and itineraries in my head so that we could manage Anne's needs and desires better.  I started getting drowsy, but then some foxes got into the neighbor's garbage cans and started fighting and screaming. I didn't get to sleep until 2am.

Despite little sleep, I felt pretty good the next day. We got moving and got to Windsor at about noon.  Glorious, blue-skied day! Our weather during our trip was changeable, to say the least, but most days we got at least a bit of sun, and this day was one of the very best.

I loved Windsor Castle when I first went there ten years ago, and I was very excited to show it to the kids. It's just. So. Magnificent. St George's Chapel. The State Apartments. Queen Mary's Doll House. The Moat Gardens. AND--they were giving special tours that day of the Royal Kitchens, which we took, and that was beyond cool. James in particular was in heaven.

After getting our fill of the castle (we ate our sandwiches against the Moat Wall before touring the kitchens), we went to the Windsor Wheel. It's a large ferris wheel, and we wanted to do a test run with Anne before plunking down the big bucks for The London Eye later in our trip. She loved it and didn't want to get off.

We averted a tantrum by going to feed the swans. "Observe my foresight," I quoted from A Room With A View as I pulled a bag of stale bread out of the diaper bag, but no one got the reference.

The swans were docile and happy to be fed UNTIL a giant river rat ran down the gutter along the river's edge. Oh, then the hissing and the clattering. Anne was freaked out by the birds (who were all bigger than she) and threw her new stuffed Corgi--everyone is allowed one souvenir per vacation, and the Windsor Castle shop had just the ticket for Baby A--into the river. Fortunately, Christian braved the swans' collective ire and fished it out before it sank; we dried (after having been rinsed--ewwwww) on the clothesline once we got home.

In the next few days, I'll post details of the days that followed.  Cheerio!

Reader Comments (8)

Thank you! It's lovely to read about your trip and see the pictures! Christian was brave to fish out the Corgi - swans can be really dangerous.

February 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLemongrass

I am SO glad you are getting to this! I love hearing about your family adventures!

February 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenna Consolo

Can't wait to read the rest! I've been looking forward to this for a long time!

February 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHeffalump

What a fantastic time!

February 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbc

Oh, I miss England so much. I think that you have really inspired me to check into homelink. That is so cool. And the home in Twickenham looks fabulous!

February 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKazzy

So glad you are back. i'm sorry I missed your previous posts. I'll have to catch up when I have more time. I didn't even have time to read this post, but will read it in detail because I love England and want to visit it anytime I can, even if it is vicariously. I love the name Twickenham. It's lovely.

February 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTiffany W.

Fun-fun-fun! So loving this!

February 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHeidi Ashworth

such fun adventures, I love to read this!
Never heard of the child trail at Westminster...well I guess it wouldn't have caught my attention anyway ;)

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGoofball

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