New Digs

We are soooooo excited to learn today that we'll have a new place to call "temporary home" for the next 12 months. The place we are in now in Hammersmith has been great for the summer -- Peggy could walk to work, Chloe and I could get to the city highlights easy. But there aren't a lot of kids around and we thought we'd something a little bigger that the current 750 sq.ft.

Our new flat is in Twickenham (pronounced Twick-n-um, not the way it looks), which is about 4.5 miles west of our current location, and also happens to be right along the Thames. We'll be moving in 7 August.


Fin de semaine à Paris

We packed up the bags again last Friday, this time for a weekend in Paris. Foregoing the hassles of flying, we opted instead for the convenience of traveling by train, taking the Eurostar from central London right into central Paris, a 2h 15m trip from train station to train station via the "Chunnel." It was a great way to travel at that... comfortable seats, quiet and smooth ride (especially considering the trains can travel up to 186 mph.)

Upon arriving in Paris, we checked in to our hotel, dropped off the bags, and began our tour of the city. The first stop (after lunch) was the Arc de Triomphe, which was a mere 3 blocks from our hotel. We got to the top by walking up its 284 steps, and got a good glimpse of some other the city's other landmarks... Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, the arc at le Defence, the Louvre.

We strolled leisurely to the next stop (Paris is a great city to see by foot!), the Eiffel Tower. Thanks to a suggestion we received from a Iraqi woman we met at the shuttle stop for Chloe's day camp earlier in the week, we bought our tickets online and avoided the very long queues. Well, avoided the queues at ground level, which were quite considerable. Upon reaching the 2nd platform, everyone must get off the elevator and board another one to get to the top. There was a queue for this, so we got in line. After standing in this line for 25 minutes, it was our time to board, but were promptly told the ticket we had isn't for the top, it's just for access to the 2nd level only. Thankfully, the ticket agent was very nice and allowed us to step out of line, buy the appropriate ticket and come back directly to him and avoid requeuing. Once that little hiccup was dealt with, we found ourselves at the top, a little over 900 feet above the ground below. We weren't visiting on the clearest of days, but we still got a good view of The City of Light.

On Saturday, it was off to visit Notre Dame. Put simply: Awesome. The audio tour isn't the greatest, but the sculpture, space, and my goodness, the stained glass windows, are absolutely amazing. After Notre Dame, we just strolled along the Seine for a while and ended up at the Jardin de Tuileries, which is adjacent to the Louvre and happened to be hosting a small street carnival at the time. We spent some time there doing rides, and playing the game "Would this one make Peggy sick?" Dinner tonight was on one of the long and narrow boats that cruise the Seine, during a 90 minute riverview tour of the city. To cap off the day, we hung out in the Parc du Champs de Mars in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, waiting for the lights to go on. And when they did at 10:00 pm, the look on Chloe's face was great.

Sunday's itinerary was even simpler yet: Le Tour. We are breakfast, left the hotel, and looked for a place along the barricades for a spot. We initially squatted at the point near the Arc where the cyclists would turnaround and head back down the Champs Elysees, but we were about 4 people-deep (and this was at 10:30 or so in the morning, and the riders weren't due to come through for another 3-4 hours.) Peggy and Chloe noticed during a time-killing stroll that there were spaces available right along the barricades a couple of blocks down, so we relocated there. While waiting, we realized that we weren't too far away from the spot where we watched the Tour in 2004... basically just right across the street.

With no American vying for the podium, I can honestly say we weren't as excited about this final stage as we were 6 years ago, but it was still a great time... the festive atmosphere that exists along the route is a great experience. During the awards ceremonies (which weren't near our location and unable to be seen), we grabbed a quick dinner at a sidewalk cafe, then jumped back out to the barricades to watch the parade of teams. It is then a brisk walk back to our hotel to pick up our luggage, hail a cab and hope for no traffic problems on the way to the train station as we were cutting things close. We boarded the train with just 10 minutes to spare, settled into our seats, and put the cap on another great weekend here in Europe.

Misc. tidbits about the weekend
- At dinner one night, the waiter asked where we were from. We said from Colorado in the United States. And he replies "Near South Park?" He confessed he is a big fan of the show.
- One (very) slight disappointment from the weekend was no fellow Steelers fans along the Champs Elysees. In 2004, we ran into 4 or 5 people with Steelers gear on. I wore my Steelers hat anticipating the same this go-around, but no luck.
- During the cab ride back to the train station on Sunday, we were pulling away from a stoplight and a pedestrian looks into our cab, sees us, and then excitedly proclaims to his buddy that "Lance Armstrong was in that cab!" I put my hand out the window to wave, and he waved back.

Pictures from the weekend:
- Travel / touristy ones can be found here.
- Artsy fartsy ones can be found here.


Expanding Vocabulary

In addition to seeing and doing the things we've been seeing and doing (e.g. see previous posts), we've also been able to notice there are words and phrases that aren't necessarily commonplace back in the States. Below are some of them.

Adverse camber: seen on a road sign for an approaching turn. For example, if you're making a turn to the left but the road slopes to the right on that turn, that turn has an adverse camber.

HTFU: an acronym imploring someone to not be so thin-skinned.

Armitage Shanks: not a word or phrase, per se, but a company. A company, though, that must have a monopoly of sorts, for their ceramic products are in almost every single bathroom I've been in (the UK's "American Standard").

Chin Wag: an informal chat, like in "After the bike ride, I joined my fellow cyclists at the cafe for a chin wag."

Pay at the till: pay at the cash register.

Lovely: a word that is often sprinkled in everyday-type conversations.

Brilliant: see Lovely above.

Mind the gap: anyone who has ever ridden the Underground (London's subway system) has almost certainly heard or read this phrase. It's a gentle warning to passengers, both those boarding and disembarking, to be aware of the vertical and/or horizontal gap between the platform and the train.

Rocket: what us in the States call Arugula.

Knackered: tired, exhausted.

Whilst: while.

Top up: to replenish something, monetarily. For example, if you have a phone card and it is low on funds, you need to top up.

Single track road: another road sign, letting you know the road ahead is wide enough for just one car going in either direction.

CCTV: closed circuit television. Man! This place is loaded with it, as there are few establishments or streets or whatever that don't have it.

Order at the bar: few pubs have table service, so this is what you do to get your food and drink.

Take away: your options for where you want to eat your food at certain restaurants are "Dine In" or "Take Away."


Recent Goings On

It dawned on me this morning that I haven't been updating you all about what we've been up to lately. A large part of that is due to a pre-occupation of sorts, which I'll get to later. The other part is, well, general forgetfulness. But on with the show...

Since Geneva, Chloe and I continued on our museums tour, visiting both the Natural History Museum (awesome!) and the National Gallery (awesome for me, I think so-so for Chloe.) We also checked out the Tower of London (home of the Beefeaters and Crown Jewels, among other things)... a very cool place and one I might like to revisit as we had to deal with large crowds and passing rain showers.

Yours truly also got to do some bike riding out in the English countryside with one of Peggy's coworkers. He rides as well and invited me out for a spin... it turned out to be a pretty long spin, 63 miles or so. But it was a beautiful ride, going down "single track" roads (wide enough for one car, basically), through tiny villages, and up and down hillsides (FYI: England isn't flat!)

This past week, we had Peg's sister Cathy visit us, and together we went to see "Legally Blond, The Musical." Review: good, not great, "Oliver!" was better in my opinion, Chloe thinks otherwise; and the song "Gay or European?" is hilarious, and we had the added benefit of enjoying amongst a bunch of Europeans. This past week also saw Chloe starting her 1st week of day camp. Review: she's coming home dead-dog tired, so GREAT camp!

The big recent "pre-occupation" news, though, is that we are staying on in London until July 2011 -- or as Peggy likes to refers to it, the Schrammel's Shock and Awe Tour continues. Peggy's company asked to her to extend her stay and head up European operations for a while to continue the "stabilizing" part of her work, as well as work on finding and grooming a long-term replacement. It wasn't an easy decision for Peggy professionally, or one for us as a family, but a big portion of the decision making was: when will be ever get another opportunity to spend a year in Europe?

So another activity of this past week was finding another place to live in for the next 12 months. The one we are in for the summer has been great, but it's kind of small for a year-long stay and we need a neighborhood that is more family-friendly. We put an offer in on one, and hope to hear about it soon. We'll be heading back to Colorado as planned on August 10th, staying there for about 10 days, then heading to Pennsylvania for a couple of days, before heading back to London. Our "return for good" date to Colorado is late-July 2011.

Things upcoming
- We're heading to Paris this weekend via Eurostar (the high speed train that goes through the "Chunnel") to see some of the sight and watch the last stage of the Tour de France.
- Next week will be spent contacting and/or visiting and/or applying to schools for Chloe. The school system is a little different than what we are used to, both in terms of how kids are admitted and how the school year operates. I think we're all in for a bit of an education.

(Pictures, top to bottom: Chloe and Diplodocus at the Natural History Museum; and with the Blue Whale model; and brainstorming with Chucky Darwin; listening to the audio tour at the Tower of London; an unlikely sight at the Tower of London. Click on pictures to enlarge them.)


Our Time In Geneva

We were in Geneva this past weekend, initially because Peggy had to go there for a business trip. But as luck would have it, the Tour de France was passing nearby on Sunday, so we added that to our agenda. (It was tough for me to do, but I suffered through it.)

We arrived this afternoon, and little did we know that there was some kind of Lake Geneva Festival going on this weekend. From what we could tell as we walked around, it was some kind of Mardi Gras/Carnival kind of event, which you can take to mean a lot of people walking around drinking, smoking, wearing all manner of questionable fashion, all with a twist of blaring euro-trash music. Now, I like to think that Peggy and I can co-exist with fringe elements pretty well -- hell, you got to if you want to live in Boulder -- but this... this we found to be just down right annoying. After strolling around (and away from the festivities), we found a grocery store and picked up some provisions for our Sunday morning and afternoon along the Stage 8 route of the Tour, and then made our way back to our hotel to drop them off and get some dinner.

Recalling our experience from 6 years ago, we knew that if we wanted to get a good spot on the mountain climbs for the race, we had to get there early to get a spot as a) they fill up fast and b) it's not uncommon for roads to be shut down 5+ hours before the riders come through. With that in mind, we got an early jump on the day with breakfast at the hotel, and then off to get the rental car. It is only about a 30 mile drive to where we wanted to be -- on the Col de la Ramaz -- but about an hours drive. But that last metric assumes the cue sheet you get online doesn't completely suck. We weren't even out of Geneva and we were already calling audibles on how to get to a motorway that we needed to get on. We eventually found it, and had smooth sailing for a whopping 8 km. But almost as soon as we got off, the cue sheet ventured from reality again and we were once again driving blind. Luckily, when we pulled in a parking lot to get our bearings, we noticed a small bike tour getting their things together for their ride (along the Tour route, we safely presumed.) So I got out of the car, asked the one cyclist (who happened to be from NJ) if I could see his cycling cue sheet, and was able to piece together our next steps.

Back on track, we eventually started driving up the Col. Our plan going into this was to get as high up on it as we could -- the whole schadenfreude sensation of seeing them suffer is one that is hard to ignore. On and up we drove, passing by spots that would easily give us a place to park and set up our blanket and food/drink, but they weren't high enough. Must. Keep. Going.

A couple of miles later, a variation of the law of diminishing returns began to kick in, because the further we went, the fewer parking spots we found. We gave a good look-see to a couple but didn't think we'd be able to pull the car completely off the road (a condition the gendarmerie insist on.) Nervously trudging onward, we eventually spotted an opening between a car and a post that we could fit through, and pulled the car in to park. It was on a grassy hillside, so I tried to position the car off the steeper sloped portion and onto an area where I could feel comfortable in actually being able to get back on to the road. After some minor tire spinning and sliding (and hence, marginal damage to the farmer's field) we got the car in a good position and set up camp, happy to be roadside once again at the Tour. Only after an exploratory walk along the road did I realize where we were... about 75m from the summit! Yes!!!!

Several hours, a chance meeting with some other Yanks setup directly across the road from us, and some wine, grapes, bread and cheese later, the festivities began. First, the "caravan" came through, which is a parade of sorts, whereby sponsors use floats and various forms of funny vehicles to drive along the Tour and from which they throw their swag. (I'm not sure what Peggy was doing to get it, but she definitely got her fair share!) There was a slight lull in the action for a little while. But then more and more official vehicles came through, and then some announcement that had to do with "Rabobank" (a team in the race) and next thing we know, a rider (from Rabobank) who was out on a breakaway came through to thunderous cheering and applause. We thought for sure this was the kick-off to stage 2 of the festivities -- the arrival of the peloton -- but apparently this rider was having a strong day thus far as it was 20 minutes until we saw the next riders. And once that happened, it was about another 20 minutes for the rest of the riders to make their way past.

Once they did, we gathered our belongings, said farewell to our fellow Americans, joined the long line of cars making their way down the mountain, and made our way back to Geneva. Getting mildly lost along the way, of course.

Peg set off to her business meeting, leaving Chloe and I to explore on our own. We've had little problems finding outlets for this while in London, but surprisingly, there isn't a whole heckuva lot that is kid-engaging in Geneva. I was able to find a cable car ride that went up to the top of a nearby mountain, so after a leisurely morning and late breakfast, we made our way to the bus that would take us there.

I should point out that ever since we've been in Geneva, it's been hot and humid... low- to mid-90s, so not the best out-and-about conditions. Even though we broke a mild sweat going to and waiting for the bus, we thought the ride to the cable car stop would provide relief. Wrong! Apparently, air conditioning isn't a widely used technology on the buses there (nor is it in restaurants.) But if that wasn't bad enough, only very small portions of the windows could be opened to provide ventilation, so we essentially had a 20 minute ride in a mobile easy bake oven.

We got off the bus, walked to the cable car station (crossing into France along the way) and got our tickets. I had hoped to pickup a map atop the mountain about trails and whatnot, but none were available. So, Chloe and I found a trail and started walking. Unlucky for us, it was uphill, but it was shaded (and much better than aimlessly wandering the streets of Geneva.) The trail eventually terminated at a paraglider launch site; had it not been so hazy, the views would have been tremendous. We didn't bring our paragliders with us, so we headed back down the trail to a snack shop to get a drink and a snack. After a little bit more exploring, we both had had enough of the heat, and decided to make our way back to our hotel (via the cable car and oven/bus) to collect our luggage and head to the airport (via oven/bus) where we were pretty sure cooler climes awaited us.

Misc. Tidbits
- while at the Tour stage, I saw a man wearing a "Triple Bypass" jersey (it's a popular bike ride in CO.) We got to talking, and I found out he's from Aspen, but spends a fair amount of time in Boulder... enough to know Dakota Ridge, Lee Hill and Olde Stage.
- I can't say we came away from the weekend as big fans of Geneva. I guess it's OK if you like to shop (especially for the wares of Gucci, Rolex, etc.), like uninspiring architecture and overpriced dining, and don't mind being amongst a fair number of people who, at least based on our experience, tend to be unwelcoming and boorish.

For pictures from our visit, visit here.


Haggis, Bagpipes and Kilts, and Aye!

Wow... what a weekend!

Our planned trip to DisneyLand this summer was scrubbed due to this London thing, so we instead treated ourselves to a long weekend away in Edinburgh, Scotland. We picked up our rental car (a Chevy Matiz, 4 cylinders of internal-combustion-fury... NOT!) around 12:30p and headed north. Our hope was that by leaving before rush hour, we'd have a relatively easy drive up. Apparently, half of metro London had the same plans as us, as it was hellish for a good portion of the trip. (We were told by Peg's coworkers that it usually about a 7-hour ride - it took us 10, including a stop for a sit-down dinner.) After we cleared the Liverpool-Manchester corridor, we were treated to both lighter traffic and some great vistas of expansive sheep pastures and stone fences on rolling hillsides near the Lake District. We eventually crossed into Scotland, got off the Motorway and headed east towards Edinburgh along a 2-lane highway that took us through some small and quaint villages. As alluded to above, we reached our hotel around 10:30p, tired, but glad to be there.

We got up on Saturday relatively rested and, after taking in some breakfast, walked up to Edinburgh Castle to take a tour. And on our approach, we can see why this was a formidable castle to attack by the enemies of old – there is a pretty shear rock cliff around 270 degrees of it, and a well-fortified wall on the remaining 90. I won't bore you with all we saw and heard, but we were able to see the "The Honours of Scotland" (aka the Crown Jewels of Scotland), tour the Royal Palace within the castle (there's another Royal Palace we visited, so read on), the Scottish National War Memorial (boy, they have had a few scrapes in their past!), St. Margaret's Chapel (the oldest building in Edinburgh), and the firing of the one o'clock gun. As to this last item, it's a near-daily-ritual started in 1861 that was done in concert with a ball drop on a nearby tower to provide both a visual and audible time signal to ships in nearby waters.

After the tour and some lunch, at which we all gave haggis a try, we strolled the Royal Mile - a stretch of road that connects the Castle with the (other) Royal Palace - for a bit, and then took a bus tour ride of the city to rest our feet. We got to see some more of the Old Town (the area of the Castle and palaces) and what they call New Town, the part of the city built in the 1700s as overcrowding took over the original old section. Post-bus-tour, Chloe and Peg headed back to the hotel to swim and rest (respectively), and I stayed at a nearby square to watch a bike ride that happened to be taking place.

Sunday's plans were to visit the other royal palace in Edinburgh, the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Having some indoor plans worked out well, as the morning's weather was windy and rainy. This palace acts as the official Scotland residence of the Queen, or whoever happens to be England's monarch. As it turns out, the Queen was coming to the Palace in two days' time to begin her official visit to Scotland, so we were glad we visited when we did as public tours are halted during her stay. We were able to see several rooms, including the Dining Room, the Great Gallery which contains portraits of Scottish kings, and the bedroom of Mary, Queen of Scots. Thankfully, the weather improved as we ended the interior portion of the tour, and we were able to visit the remnants of the nave of the monastery that once stood on the grounds, and the gardens.

It was then back to the other end of the Royal Mile (near the castle) to check out a camera obscura stationed there. A simple technology, it provided a great 360 degree view of the area, and allowed Chloe to play around with the image a bit. The organization that runs the obscura show also houses a couple galleries of other optical oddities, like funhouse mirrors, many optical illusions, holograms, etc. which kept us entertained for a while. After lunch, a visit to the Museum on Childhood (pretty boring actually!) and some obligatory ice cream, it was back to the hotel to relax (for Peggy and me) and swim (Chloe.) And after a nap for some (a-hem), it was off for a nice dinner to celebrate a wonderful mini-vacation in a great city (and of course, ponder our next trip back!)

We left this Edinburgh this morning to make our way back to London, this time using the eastern route, the upper stretches of which took us along the coastline of the North Sea. It was an uneventful ride back (thankfully so) and we rolled into Hammersmith right around 4:30p.

Next stop: Geneva (next weekend).

Quirks and Tidbits
- There's a skiing hill near Edinburgh, and it's pretty unique in that it is on an artificial surface. Ironically, though, when it snows, one must still ski on or above the artificial mat due to ski area policy.
- Why is the gun from Edinburgh castle fired at 1 o'clock and not the expected 12 noon? We were told during our tour of the castle that the Scottish, being a practical and frugal people, felt it was too expensive and wasteful to fire 12 salvos, so opted for the more economic one salvo instead.
- There are some great pub names in the city. The one we ate haggis at was called The Last Drop. One may think this refers to the last drop of beer or scotch in the place, but actually it is in reference to the last hanging that took place at the gallows that stood outside its doors many years ago. (Apparently like Salem, MA, witch hysteria was pretty big here.) Another pub with a great name is The World's End. This one is located at the site of a former gate that used to separate the medieval city of Edinburgh with the rest of the world. At that time, one would have to pay a toll to not only enter the city, but to leave the city as well. These tolls were too much for the poorer residents, and they could never leave the city's walls. So that part of the city was essentially the end of their world.
- At breakfast on Sunday morning, there was a guy sitting next to us with a Colorado State University shirt on.
- Haggis review: not bad at all. It's easy to be turned off by reading what's in it and how it's made, but if you can get over that, you'll find that it tastes like a meatloaf/sausage amalgam. Chloe and I also happened to try - and like - black pudding.
- MAN, does it stay light late up there! Because of its latitude, the sun wasn't setting in Edinburgh until around 10:00p.
- Visually, both the Old City and New City are just stunning. It doesn't appear that either were harmed to any great extend during World War II, so there is plenty of old architecture to soak in.

For pictures visit here and/or here (artsy fartsy.)