Sunday, July 30, 2017

New Year's Resolutions

Today is July 30. We are a month beyond the year’s halfway mark — past time to take stock of how things are going.

How are your New Year’s Resolutions coming along? I actually don’t make New Year’s Resolutions anymore. I stopped making them several years ago when I realized (or admitted to myself… I’m not sure which) that if something is worth doing, you don’t need a special day on which to initiate the thing. Life, as it turns out, is too short to wait until January 1st to make a change that you want to make, or should make, or ultimately need to make.

I also think that change is necessary in order to grow. Change doesn't have to be drastic, and the kinds of changes/challenges I undertake usually aren’t huge upsets to my routine. Here are a few of the things I’m currently working on.


Mindfulness

I’m a very goal-oriented person. I like having a target at which to shoot, a direction in which to go. Ironically, one of my goals for growth this year has been to be more mindful of life as it is instead of as I think it should be. As such, I’ve taken to doing mindfulness practice more regularly, trying to get in five minutes a day four or five times a week. It’s a practice because our animal brains aren’t naturally wired for this kind of introspection and self evaluation. Combine that with the constant inundation of stimuli in our current environment, and most people wind up with squirrels in their heads (including me). So, five minutes a day of sitting still, focusing on something simple (like breathing), and gently bringing that focus back to the breath every few seconds has been a challenge and treat for me.


Fitness

Over the past year, I’ve taken on several fitness challenges. To be clear: Tanya and I have been trying to work towards improved health through changes in our diet and exercise for a while now. But last October, I had bilateral inguinal hernia repair surgery. Combine that with the recent annual physical that revealed that my glucose was at pre-diabetic levels, that I have slightly elevated cholesterol levels, and top it off with my deficient vitamin D levels, and I needed to focus on losing some extra fat. I’ve lived in the 210- to 220-pound range for twenty years or so, which is at least twenty pounds beyond the ideal range given my height. Changes in diet alone never seemed to get me below 205, so I finally bore down and started lifting some weights combined with running regularly and more strict adherence to healthy foods. This has required me to sacrifice sleep, which isn’t ideal, but the benefits have outweighed the costs so far. As of the time of this writing, I’ve spent the last month in the 195-197 range, which means I’ve got about seven pounds to go to hit the ideal weight (according to the notes from the annual physical). It’s strange to have plateaued there, but I think it’s an indication that I, once again, need to change something. I've said it before and will say it again: change is good!


Reading

Regular followers of this blog will know that I’ve been trying to read more for the past few years, and have succeeded pretty well. However, I noticed that last year, I was trying to “hit the number” instead of reading what I wanted to and enjoying it along the way. This year, I decided to still have an aggressive reading goal, but would not beat myself up if I didn’t hit it. I’ve found that I’ve enjoyed reading more, and have punted on stuff that I didn’t enjoy more easily as well. I’m also trying purposefully to vary my genres and authors, which has been enlightening in several ways.


Writing

Ah, so many things to touch on here.

Books. Or rather, Book

First of all, I am declaring the book I started with NaNaWriMo 2016 “done.” I don’t think it’ll ever be DONE done, but I don’t particularly want to futz with it anymore. It’s been through two simple revisions, and I think is good enough to get the story I wanted to tell told. I’m strangely unsure of what to do with it next. I think the general process would be to have other people read it, so if you’re interested in an electronic copy, let me know. ;)

Blog

Beyond the book, there’s this blog. If you’re here, you know how that’s going — I’m at roughly the same pace I set last year. The truth is that I write something here when I feel inspired, or it occurs to me that I haven’t had a post all month.

Journal

The other thing I’ve tried doing, with very limited success, is journaling. I’m not talking about typing stuff into yet another electronic gadget; I mean full-on, hand-written journaling. I made mention in a post this year about fountain pen experimentation, but haven’t actually written a blog entry about it yet. Suffice to say that I am using a fountain pen to write in a paper journal on occasion. This type of writing is the one for which I find myself making the least time. Yesterday, I was challenged by my friend Pat to change that habit. I plan to rise to the challenge, and will hopefully report back here relatively soon on successful efforts!


Travel

Tanya and I have made it a point to increase our travel over the past few years. She’s now working for a company that does quarter off-sites, one of which was in London. We took that opportunity to explore that grand city (as detailed in the London Vacacay blog series). We also typically take a summer trip with the boys. This year, we hadn’t planned to do anything, as the boys had already been on a cruise with their mom and her family, and only like our “active” vacations so-so. However, since this is the last summer Garrett will have free, we decided to get out of town at least for a few days and stay in a cabin in the woods in Broken Bow, Oklahoma. It hasn’t happened yet, but is impending. We have at least a couple more trips in the queue this year, so stay tuned for future entries about those.

So, at this point in the year, I’m quite satisfied with the way I’m growing. I sincerely hope each of you is enjoying a fantastic year so far, and encourage you to make resolutions to grow every day — you don’t have to wait until New Year’s…

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Summer Running...

For those of you that aren't aware, Tanya and I are signed up to participate in the Humana Rock 'N' Roll half marathon at the end of next March. We've been training by working up to a decent 5k, then we'll train for a 10k, THEN finally get on the half marathon program. Hence, we've been running off and on since April/May of this year.

However, now that Texas summer is fully upon us in all its hot and humid glory, we realized that it's more difficult to get good performance in those conditions. Tanya recently read an article on "running in the heat" which further validated our experiences.

The good news for us is that it's possible for a human to relatively quickly adapt to running in the heat. The bad news is that the adaptability is highly individual, meaning one person might have a harder time adapting than another, or one person might not adapt as well as another. Case in point: Tanya gets overheated relatively quickly, while I seem to be able to soldier on through more hostile areas of the thermometer.

We also learned a couple of things with regards to performance at various temperatures.

From 50 - 59F: "Most runners don't think of these temperatures as hot..." Being from Texas, these temperatures could be considered downright chilly. Tanya and I would most likely have running pants and jackets on in order to get a run done in that coolness. Apparently, we're delusional. These are pretty ideal running conditions.

From 60 - 69F: "These are the temperatures at which most start to view conditions as less than optimal." Hehe, suckers! Upper 60s/lower 70s is where I'm most comfortable while running. But, according to the article, these conditions will slow a 40-minute 10K runner down by about 6 seconds per mile.

From 70 - 79F: Sub-elite marathoners can be expected to slow down by about 20 minutes.  That translates to just under a minute-per-mile pace loss. For reference, my current level is sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-elite 5Ker, I think.

From 80 - 89F: "There comes a point where additional sweating doesn't do you any good." This is where Tanya and I typically run, even if we're out the door by 7:00 a.m. It feels like stepping into a sauna that's just getting under steam. I start sweating about 7 seconds after exiting the house, just before I start the timer for the run.

At 90F+: "The hotter it is, the harder it is to excel." OK, this entry isn't all that helpful or enlightening. The summary is about training in conditions similar to those you expect to race in.

We commonly run in the upper 70s/lower 80s with about 80% humidity, provided we start before the sun rises. Once the sun is up, the temperature seems to climb in direct proportion, as if each passing minute were somehow incrementing the numbers on the gauge.

Given all of the above, perhaps we should take up swimming for the rest of the summer...? :-D

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

London Vacacay, Miscellany!

OMG, you guys! Here we are in the last days of June and I haven't published the follow-up London post! You have got to keep me more honest about that kind of thing.

Where we stayed and why

We stayed at Atelier by Bridgestreet, which is an apartment building in the "Jewelry Quarter" of London. There are lots of reasons we stayed here, none of which had to do with jewelry.

  • Short walk to a train and underground station
  • Lots of venues, restaurants, and pubs were within relatively easy walking distance
  • It had a washer/dryer, refrigerator, and cooktop
  • It wasn't nearly as busy/noisy/trendy as most of the other places we were considering
These all fit our needs nicely, but if you want to be in the center of the action, this particular location isn't ideal. You'd have to walk ten or twenty minutes to get to the action, but that wasn't our goal. We made our own, considerably more sedate, action.


Train system

Speaking of the train system, I would like to take a moment to point out that all components of the public transportation system in London are magnificent. We took zero cabs or ride shares while we were there.

So simple and straightforward...?

We rode the tubes a lot. The tube system, in particular, was intimidating to a yank like me that grew up in a pasture in Texas. Luckily, within a few days I was able to decipher the cryptic color and station schemes without any trouble. We struggled with the non-deterministic train scheduling getting out to Windsor, but only wound up delaying our journey by about half an hour that day.

Given the above, the public transit is highly recommended, but only if you invest in an Oyster card (more on that below).

Eating

I've touched on eating quite a bit in the other posts. London has no shortage of Michelin Star restaurants, and they were all unique, interesting, and delicious. Those places were understandably delicious, but even in the less prestigious venues, I don't think we had a bad meal at any point. We used Yelp a fair amount, and the wisdom of the crowd served us well. You should not be afraid to go out to eat in London -- wherever the reputation of English food being less than good came from is completely unjustified when you pay a little attention to what other folks have said about any particular venue.

Beyond eating out, we ate most breakfasts at the apartment. Eggs, "bacon," crumpets with butter and jelly, and tea first thing in the morning really hits the spot. Plus, we didn't have to get up, get ready, and get out first thing in the morning, and that was nicer than I thought it would be.

Oyster card and London Pass

There are two things you should invest in if you plan to do a lot of sightseeing around London: an Oyster card and a London Pass. Both are worth more than the money you put into them.

The Oyster card gets you onto and off of almost any of the public transportation options in London. I flew into Heathrow, and Tanya met me there. On our way out of the airport, we picked up Oyster cards, and recharged them as necessary throughout the trip. You might be thinking "Eh, I'll just pay to get on and off. I don't want to bother with yet another piece of plastic in my wallet." Trust me here -- you may start off with that attitude, but one of a couple of things will happen: 1) you'll soon realize what a pain in the arse it is to keep a bunch of local currency handy so that you can use public transit, and then wind up getting an Oyster card, or 2) you'll stop travelling anywhere you can't get by foot. Honestly, it only costs you as much as you want to put on it, and it's ridiculously convenient to have if you're toodling around a bunch.

The London Pass, on the other hand, is pricey. However, if you plan to go on many excursions or see a bunch of the popular sights, it'll be worth it. Even if you don't punch every ticket included in the Pass, it'll still be worth it. I'm pretty sure Tanya did a break-even analysis on the thing, and you don't even have to go to one venue a day for a week to equal the fees you'd pay at the door. In addition, a few of the venues let you bypass the main queue if you had the London Pass, and it's one of the loveliest feelings you'll experience from your fourth day on.

Knowing natives/travellers helps

We were quite fortunate to have some really good advise and company going into this grand outing. Pat Tallman (yes, of Babylon 5 and Night of the Living Dead fame), runs a geek-themed adventure company, and gave us some fantastic pointers. If you have the means and the desire, you should look her up and go on an adventure with her. In addition, we had friends that hosted us for drinks and dining on three separate occasions. Socializing in a far away place makes that place feel more like you belong. It added a level of emotional content that I was really pleased to experience. Special thanks again to Pat, Albert, Daniel, Jenny, Dan, Vitor, and Sam and Frances! You guys... just... <hugs everyone>

Force rank things

Alright, now that we've come to the end of it, I'm dreading trying to do this. We saw and did so many wonderful things while we were in London that force ranking them seems almost criminal. You should figure out what kinds of things are important for you, and plan from there. For example, as much as Tanya and I like live theater and musicals, we never seriously considered going to the Theater District, because that kind of thing is pretty easily accessible near our home.

Maybe it makes sense to look at it this way: given the opportunity to go back and spend as much time exploring a venue as we would like, the ranking would be something like the following.

  • Kew Gardens, we only explored a small fraction of this, and we love naturey things
  • St. Paul's Cathedral, although we would like to attend an evensong service there
  • Evensong at Westminster Abbey (yes, it was that good)
  • All the nice food places, plus some new, unexplored ones
  • Borough Market, mainly because we did this one so late in the trip that we didn't do it justice
  • British Museum, for the same reason as above

I don't want to minimize any of the other things we did, because they were all pretty magnificent. I'd like to go back to the Globe Theatre and see a performance. The majesty and history of places like Windsor Castle and the Tower of London cannot be overstated. Even the Tate Modern had its moments, although most of them left me wondering if I should become a modern artist.

Hopefully by this point in this blog miniseries you can tell I was well and truly impressed with London, and hope that the opportunity presents itself for me to return. We want to stretch our legs a bit on the next trip, get outside the city and off through the countryside, but we will always cherish fond memories of our holiday in London.


Saturday, May 13, 2017

London Vacacay Outing 8: Borough Market, Sky Garden, and Hyde Park!


Our final outing of the holiday was a three-parter: Borough Market, Sky Garden, and Hyde Park. TL;DR: Borough Market is GREAT, Sky Garden is worth visiting, and Hyde park is neither great nor worth visiting.

Borough Market

The walk to Borough Market took us down by the Thames again, and introduced us to some interesting graffiti. This one wasn't even all that close to The Globe Theatre, but was pretty great all the same.

The original dude!
The market itself is perplexing and wonderful, and has been so for about 1,000 years. We wandered up and down the rows, looking at all the wares. And there were SO MANY WARES to see! There were several different chocolates, cheeses, and almost otherworldly delectables that we were sorely tempted to try, but we were saving our appetites for a delicious lunch at a restaurant along the Thames. The only things we actually purchased were fresh fruit and veggie smoothies, and we regretted that restraint later.

Tasty, tasty smoothie!

After leaving the market behind and making our way to the Thames, we were extremely surprised to find that every restaurant we went to had at least an hour wait. By that time, we were pretty hungry, so we wound up eating at a nice place, but not on the banks of the river. We should've gone back to the market. Oh well... On to Sky Garden!

Sky Garden

Sky Garden is located at 20 Fenchurch Street, and is worth visiting for several reasons. First and foremost, the views. I've already mentioned that we're fans of getting up high and seeing the London layout from above. Sky Garden is great for that.

"I think I see my Dad!" - Cameron, Ferris Bueller's Day Off

Secondly, you have to make a reservation or at least buy a ticket to get in. A lot of people complain about this. I, on the other hand, was all too happy to comply, as it limited the number of people up there at any one time.

Third, the venue itself is very pleasant. Situated on the 34th through 37th stories, it's surrounded by glass, letting in lots of natural lighting. There's a small garden in the middle, set up in such a way that it looks like it's cascading down a hillside. There is plenty of seating and lots of refreshment as well.

Could this be the FINAL SELFIE?!

Hyde Park

Hyde Park, on the other hand, was nothing short of dreadful, for a lot of terrible reasons. It was so dreadful, in fact, that we didn't bother to take any pictures (shocking, I know). As such, I can offer no proof of what I'm about to say (write) other than your faith in the veracity of my word.

The weather was simply gorgeous, the culmination of a week where Mother Nature seemed to be encouraging everyone in London to get outside. Seeing as how it was Saturday, they ALL OBEYED AND WENT TO HYDE PARK. Alright, I'll admit that was an exaggeration. However, the sentiment is true -- it was VERY crowded, which was astounding since Hyde Park is large, consisting of about 350 acres. For scale, you can fit about 266 football fields in that area.

The first problem was that several of the greens were cordoned off for... reasons. They looked fine to me, but I'm sure the park officials were justified in forcing everyone to wander the same small number of paths and lounge on the same small number of greens.

The second problem was that every type of non-motorized transportation imaginable was also competing for space and passage on the larger paths. We had to dodge bicyclists, skateboarders, roller bladers, even a unicyclist. Add to that the park officials in various forms of motorized transport, not all of which were small, and pedestrians had to be alert at all times.

Third, and by far the worst, was the bathroom situation. To begin with, there are only a handful that are open and operational. Because so many of the paths were closed off, these few were all difficult to locate and get to. As you can imagine, they all had persistent lines. All of that would have been bearable, had we not been denied entry because we didn't have EXACT CHANGE FOR THE USAGE FEE. That's right, friends: if you wanna pee or poo in Hyde Park, be sure and bring 20 pence per usage per person. The first one at which we stopped claimed there was a free public bathroom "down that path" (indicated by the vaguest of hand waves). We managed to find three bathrooms, none of which were of the "free" sort.

Strangely, our quest for the accessible bathroom actually did take us through most of the park, so we got to see quite a bit of it. However, since we've traveled to Minsk, which has ridiculously fantastic parks in the middle of the city, and have enjoyed lots of trips to other scenic and picturesque places (including Kew Gardens on this trip), we were left thoroughly unimpressed. Tack on to this a busride back to the flat that was slower than if we'd walked (again, because people were flooding into the theatre district and bringing traffic to a standstill), and the last stop on Outing 8 was a complete bust.

Dinner that night, on the other hand, was lovely! (Finally, more pictures!)

The Pig And Goose

Of course, our last fine meal of the trip would be taken at a place whose name matches the pattern "The [foo] And [bar]." It's hard NOT to go to a place in London that matches that pattern.

The George pub, with The Pig And Goose restaurant upstairs
Before we go inside, I want to show you one last remarkable gothic building. This one was directly across the street from The George. Feast your eyes upon The Royal Courts of Justice!

The Royal Courts of Justice
We didn't loiter around the entrance, just in case someone got the wrong idea about me wanting to be a barrister or something.

Our dinner at The Pig and Goose was a fitting finale to the trip. We had a good dark red wine, enjoyed traditional English fare, and topped it off with delicious dessert!

So full, we had to split it!
It was an amazing eight days. It felt like we did SO much and yet only scratched the surface of what London had to offer, much less the country, and Scotland, and Ireland. Our hope is to return again someday to do a more far-ranging tour. In the meantime, I hope that these entries have entertained you at least, and perhaps even encouraged you to make a trip to London for yourself. You won't be sorry! :-D


Saturday, May 6, 2017

London Vacacay, Outing 7: Afternoon Tea and the British Museum!

The theme of the day was to be as British as possible. To that end, we had a home-cooked breakfast that included tea and crumpets.

Strawberry jam on toasted crumpets with Irish butter and tea (and scrambled eggs, if you must know)
I'll tell you more about the place we stayed in another post, I promise. Suffice to say we felt British going out the door, and knew that the day would provide more opportunities to enhance that feeling.

We only had two touristy things on our agenda today: Afternoon Tea, and the British Museum. Before we got to either, however, I have to mention that we stopped in a local bookshop. I had planned to look for a travel bookshop in Notting Hill, but settled for an English Literature bookshop near the British Museum instead. This was, indeed, a proper book shop, as most of the books were in the $500 US range. In fact, the door was closed and locked. We wouldn't have made it inside at all if we hadn't been loitering there when another couple actually knocked, pointed at a book in the window, and managed to convince the cashier that they wanted to buy it, which forced him to open the door.

No, I didn't find a book that I felt was worth the price. Quite the opposite, in fact. Most of the books looked like ratty old college textbooks from the early 20th century that universities were trying to get rid of. Now, somehow, they're rare and collectible. I'll stick with the Internet for now, thank you.

Afternoon Tea

A block past the bookshop was our Afternoon Tea appointment at Tea and Tattle. Yes, you have to make reservations for Afternoon Tea. At least, that was the case at our venue. Typically, Afternoon Tea starts around 4:00 p.m. We decided to have it earlier, serving as a light lunch.

The tea consisted of several components. First was the setting itself, which wasn't as cheery as I'd hoped, and was in the room leading directly to the kitchen. The other room was connected to the bathrooms, so there was no ideal seating. We were hoping for a garden seating, but this venue doesn't have a garden at all. I didn't let it bother me.

The second was the tea set, which was made of a lovely bone china.

When in doubt, pinky out!
Third is the tea. I had a nice Earl Grey, and Tanya enjoyed a Jasmine Green. I assure you they were proper English leaves (or at least British... or at least former British Empire...).

Fourth is the food, traditionally including a sandwich and scones. Optionally, a pudding is included, and those of you that know me can guess whether or not I opted in. ;) My sandwich was a banana/walnut/honey affair, while Tanya had a slightly more traditional salmon and cucumber. Scones and clotted cream and jam were had, and a flakey dessert finished the experience.

Despite the picture above, my upper lip was SO STIFF by the time we left that I felt like I needed to prefix everything I said with "Oh, I say..."

British Museum

We entered the British Museum with great anticipation and some slight trepidation. Remember how I said the weather was good? Well, it was even better on this day.

Don't let that hoodie fool you. It was 80F.
You don't see the crowds, do you? Well, look over Tanya's shoulder here.

Time for a selfie!
That is the barest hint of the crowds we saw that day. Westminster was smaller, so it probably seemed more crowded, but I suspect there were FAR more people here than there.

The British Museum is vast, like the Tate Modern, except filled to overflowing with interesting exhibits from all over the world. We signed up for the guided tour (of course) and, after waiting for a few minutes, were underway.

As with the other guided tours, this one was quite long (more than 90 minutes), and yet only covered a relatively small fraction of everything at the museum. I'll show a few highlights, with links to more information.

The Lewis Chessmen
I've always liked chess, even though I'm not very good at it. I've also been intrigued about its origin and migration from the far east to western Europe. Our guide told us the story, but I'll let you look it up for yourself. :-)

The David Vases
No one knew how to make porcelain like the Chinese. Theirs was durable and beautiful. For example, the ones pictured here are approximately 750 years old, and the only bits that have broken off them are the handles (which were re-attached). These vases are some of the most famous blue and whites in the world.

Younger Memnon
There's a large collection of Egyptian relics in the museum. By the way, don't let the perspective of this picture fool you.

It's actually COLOSSAL!
In the most remote section of the museum, a fine collection of Japanese artifacts is on display. I couldn't not look at them, even though they weren't on the tour.

"Instructions on how to become a Samurai: 1) be born a bad-ass..." I stopped reading after that.
The most famous relic in the museum is probably the Rosetta Stone, of which we weren't able to get a good picture. There was a constant crowd of people around it. The tour took us by an exact replica that they've made so that people can touch it and get close-up looks at it. It's really interesting to consider that so much of what we know today about our past is pure luck, that if things had gone differently here or there we might never be able to understand about Uruk or the Pharaohs...

This was the last of our adventures for the day, and I must say that I felt like we'd accomplished the British Feeling goal in spades. Tomorrow's plan was pretty laid back, but included three (potentially) cool stops: Borough Market, Sky Garden, and Hyde Park. Stay tuned to see if the good times continued to roll!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

London Vacacay, Outing 6: Westminster Abbey!


Outing 6 was all about Westminster Abbey. We had been waiting for this all week. Remember that we originally wanted to go see it on Outing 4, but it was closed. It was also closed the following day, so this was the first chance we actually had to get in.

A couple of quick notes about our visit:

  1. Outing 6 took place on Thursday. The weather had been doing nothing but becoming more and more pleasant all week, so Thursday was a really nice day to be out and about.
  2. As noted above, Westminster Abbey had been closed for two days. We had planned to go earlier, but couldn't. We weren't the only people in that situation.
We arrived early (of course), and were bewildered by the lines stretching away from the entrance in both directions. There were at least 500 people in line ahead of us. At first, we thought perhaps this was the line for purchasing admission tickets, which we didn't need to do thanks to the London Pass (more on that in a future post). Nope, it was the line to get in. We took our place in the queue and waited.

Our situation, but not our picture (this one owned by "Messages from Martha Sue", https://marthasue.wordpress.com/)
We finally gained entrance and, as we were using our London Pass to get the ticket, asked about the Verger Tour. The first tour had already left, and the next was already full, so we asked about the third tour of the day. The policy is that tickets for the tour are only really available 15 minute prior to the tour, and it's sold on a first-come-first-served basis. We were slightly distraught, as we adore informative guided tours (in case you hadn't figured that out by now), and knew it would be a struggle to get into two of the ten slots with so many people in attendance that day. The kind lady behind the counter took pity on us and allowed us to pre-pay for the next tour. WHEW!

That gave us about 30 minutes to toodle around. Normally, this would have been pretty great. Today, however, it was a stressful experience, as the church was already crowded and getting moreso by the minute. You couldn't really get close to anything or linger anywhere without bumping into someone or impeding someone else's progress. This was the first time this kind of thing had happened to us on our trip, but it wouldn't be the last (note the foreshadowing... imagine ominous music played right after you read that).

We didn't wander very far from where the tour started, since it wasn't going to be worth it to fight through everyone else there. Luckily, there was a small, reserved waiting area for the Verger Tours, so about 20 minutes before our tour, we procured our tour wristband and hung out there. Our guide showed up about 5 minutes early and looked more stressed out than any tour guide we'd encountered, by far. Westminster Abbey, as it turns out, is often crowded, but today was especially so due to the closing earlier in the week and the current nice weather.

The tour started, and the first thing the guide told us was... can you guess? If you said "NO PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWED" or something similar, treat yourself to a cookie. You earned that prize! Luckily for us, Westminster Abbey realizes this is an issue, so they've created a public photo gallery. I've linked a few of the images below.

Westminster Abbey, in some form or fashion, has stood on these grounds for almost 1,000 years. In fact, it was built on the ruins of an even older church, one that was constructed in the 7th century.

One of the first stops on our tour is the Grave of the Unknown Warrior.

The original.
The above grave was the first of its kind, dating back to the end of the first World War. Other churches and nations throughout the world have taken to doing similar things, but this was the first.

Westminster Abbey is full of monuments, memorials, and graves. Everyone who was anyone throughout the history of England is either there or memorialized there. There are different sections for people of different vocation. For example, several scientists are buried together. These two guys are right next to each other:

Sir Isaac Newton
Charles Darwin
More than a few people you wouldn't expect to see memorialized in the Abbey are there. Have a look at Poets' Corner, for example.

Poets' Corner memorials, from above
The upper left memorial there is Lord Byron, who most definitely did not desire to be memorialized in Westminster Abbey (or any other abbey, for that matter).

There are a few that had ALWAYS planned to be there. Take, for example, Handel.

Staring down at the other artists in Poets' Corner
The story goes that he had always planned to be buried here, had detailed out how the memorial was to be constructed and placed, and had financed it himself. He even specified that the face of the statue be taken from his death mask. Meaning, this statue looks like Handel actually looked, at least in the face.

Everyone who was anyone includes monarchs, and there is no shortage of monarchical memorials either.

Henry VII
Elizabeth I

Mary, Queen of Scots
One of the highlights of the tour was a few minutes spent in the Chapel of St. Edward the Confessor.

The only empty place in the church!
The public is not allowed to visit this chapel -- only the folks on the tour get to see it. As such, it was the only place in the church that felt... well, like a church. Edward's tomb is actually atop the shrine (the structure with the three alcoves), and the chapel is surrounded by the tombs of other royalty. Regardless of your belief system, this is a place in which it is worth spending a few moments in contemplation.

Once the tour ended, we immediately felt like we needed to get outside for a bit. Luckily, the Abbey has a very nice garden attached, in front of some offices and apartments of the employees/residents.

A door leading to a place with no other tourists! Heaven?
The garden and day were so pleasant that we decided to have a proper preprandial turn about the garden before leaving for a late lunch.

Tanya walking. And some other folks discovering the garden.

Me walking, narrowly avoiding the other tourists. Are they rushing the garden?!
We left the garden after a while and enjoyed a late lunch of healthy foods. Seriously, it's possible to find healthy foods in London if you look for them. We like beet-based salads, and were able to find some without too much trouble. We did, however, get the picture you've all been waiting for before we left.

Gotta have the Westminster Abbey selfie!

The walk and lunch left us in the right frame of mind for our evening activity: Evensong

Evensong

On the strong recommendation of one of my coworkers, we decided to attend the Evensong service at Westminster Abbey at 5. For those of you that aren't familiar with an Evensong service, the choir sings the bulk of the service, both hymns and responses on behalf of the congregation. Your job is to sit, stand, sit, stand, and sit again as the service dictates, and otherwise remain silent. Honestly, it's a pretty glorious way to do church. :-)

Consider that Westminster Abbey's acoustics were built specifically for this purpose, with lots of stone, high and vaulted ceilings, and a massive pipe organ. Combine these with the knowledge that as you sit, silently listening to the music roll over you from all directions, you are participating in a ritual that has continued for almost 1,000 years in this very spot. For someone sensitive to all of those things, it can be slightly overwhelming.




I strongly encourage you to set some time aside at some point and listen to a bit of the above video. Or listen to all of it. It might do you some good, even if you don't believe in all the words the singers are singing.

After the service, we went on another fine-dining excursion, this time to Kitchen W8.

Kitchen W8

Kitchen W8 is a one-Michelin-star restaurant that is actually affordable (well, not ridiculously expensive, anyway). In fact, it's advertised as a neighbourhood restaurant, and it certainly has that feel to it.

To get there, we walked through Kensington. Of all the parts of London we walked through, this might've been my favorite. It's the kind of place in which I could imagine myself living -- slightly suburban, without the feeling of being a block away from one of the busiest cities in Europe.

Happy trees!!!
The restaurant's facing gives you a sense that it's a fairly casual place.

No sidewalk seating? How can this have a Michelin star?!
The inside is just as nicely done as the outside -- modestly elegant, contemporary without being overwhelmingly modern.

That's a mirror, not a porthole.
Everything about this place was delightful. The portions were rightly sized and delicious. The service was neither rushed nor neglectful.

Pork on the far plate, mullet(?) on the near
I wish I could gripe about the dessert (since I've yet to find a serving size that was too large), but I really can't. As with everything else about this place, the desserts were *just right*.

Would you have guess "parfait" for this dessert?
We lingered a little over dinner, savoring the last bites of the dessert and sips of port. Another perfect end to what turned out to be a fantastic day.

The next day, however, I became properly British (hint: you have to have High Tea). Coming soon!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

London Vacacay, Outing 5: London Tower

In my last post, I hinted that the tour of the Tower of London was "darker." In some respects, that's absolutely true, because of the tower's history. The day itself dawned sunny and bright, and we made our way early to the Tower of London.

Tower of London

There was already a line by the time we got there. There was a group of visiting students in line ahead of us, from Canada. These were not the only travelling student groups we saw in London -- there was at least one more group from Spain, and another from France. London attracts tourists of all kinds, but is especially popular with student groups because there's so much to see and study.

But I digress. We were quickly admitted to the tower and went promptly to find the guided tour (as is our wont). The first one was already full, so we decided to try again at the next prescribed time.
Tours to the left, quick exits to the right!
The good news about missing the first tour was that it gave us a chance to toddle around a bit. We decided to go see the Crown Jewels.

So small a line we never did see!
We were actually very lucky to get there early, before everyone else realized there was no line. We got to go straight in and loiter a bit at each exhibit.

The following statement should NOT surprise those of you that have been following these escapades so far: NO PHOTOGRAPHY was allowed inside. They claimed it was for copyright and security purposes, primarily. I can't imagine anyone would actually try to steal the Crown Jewels, but better safe than sorry, I suppose.

The Crown, Sovereign Orb, and Sceptre.

A collection of a tiny subset of the jewels.

Note: I found the above images on the Internet. I can't find any other notable attribution, so I will informally declare it copyrighted by The Crown, United Kingdom. As I do not own the copyright and am using the images without permission, if the Crown wants me to remove them, just drop me a line. :-)

These two photos don't tell the story at all, not by a long shot. The enormity of the collection was such that you are left with the thought "surely, these are fake... these just can't be real." Well, they are, most definitely, real, and very much worth seeing. The trick, as before, is to find a time when the line is short. We were later told that the average line to see them was an hour or two long. Yikes!

After seeing the crown jewels, we went up into the White Tower. We weren't sure whether or not photography was allowed, so we risked a couple of photos.

The Dwarf and the Giant

The story behind this was that the small armor belonged to a dwarf in one of the courts, and the large armor belonged to a very large German knight, but those are unconfirmed. It, of course, reminded me of Game of Thrones.

There's a short tour of the upper level of the White Tower that is separate from the main tour of the tower grounds. The guide confirmed that the places we were about to visit were off limits to photography. Drat. The most interesting place on that tour is St. John's Chapel.

St John's Chapel, Tower of London
If these walls could speak...

Several members of royalty spent their last evenings in prayer here, before heading to the executioner's block. Other royalty were married there throughout the ages. The chapel is still operational, as it has been for the past thousand years. This concept is simply lost on my American mind. There's virtually nothing in the U.S. that is operating almost identically to they way it was a thousand years ago that's not a force of nature.

White Tower selfie

After this, we made our way back to the main entrance for the Yeoman Warders guided tour. In case you were wondering, Yeoman Warder is the formal designation for Beefeater, which you might be more familiar with. In any case, the guided tour is completely worth the time and effort.

Picture yourself on the wall, King William I at your side...
I really wish I could remember this gentleman's name, because he was vastly entertaining and informative. He took us all over the grounds, telling us vividly engrossing stories of the history, both dark and light, of the Tower the entire time.

There is SO much history wrapped up in the Tower and in what he shared with us that I can't type it all. Here are a few of the highlights (WARNING! the last one is graphic -- reader discretion is advised):

  • The moat was originally designed such that it rose and fell with the tides. As such, it was used for waste disposal (just like every other part of the Thames). The theory was that the tide would pull all of the waste out of the moat and wash it out to sea. When the Duke of Wellington (remember the guy from St. Paul's?) finally had it drained in the 1800's, he discovered that the theory never actually worked, and that the Tower of London was surrounded by Europe's largest cesspool. They filled it in as quickly as possible.
  • The Tower of London has been many things -- defensive fort, prison, a mint, and a menagerie. There are several animal sculptures scattered around the tower to remind you of that fact, including this one.
    Wiry metal looks fuzzy!
  • Speaking of prisons, when the tower was first used to hold prisoners, it had a miserable time of it. The first prisoner held there escaped, and the second, and the third. Any guesses as to why this happened? I'll give you a hint: the tower started off as a defensive stronghold. If you're defending a tower, on which side of the doors and gates would you place the locks? :-)
  • WARNING! GRAPHIC CONTENT! Of the less than stellarly-performed executions, there's the story of when the executioner couldn't perform his duties and the local butcher was called upon in his stead. Unfortunately, the butcher was not very handy with an axe, and after taking several swipes, resorted to using his butcher's knife to finish severing the poor soul's head.
The yeoman told this last story with such detail that someone in the audience actually fainted. I never saw who, but my understanding is that it was either a young girl or her father. Delicate English sensibilities, no doubt.

One other note about the yeomen and the other guards at the other places I've mentioned so far. These folks are real soldiers, most of them veterans of some sort. The ribbons they wear are all earned. The yeomen, specifically, have a pretty long list of requirements that aren't easily achieved. You have to be a veteran of at least 22 years, be a warrant or senior non commissioned officer, and have earned the Long Service and Good Conduct medal to even be considered. That already narrows the pool quite a bit.

Here are a few more pics from the Tower, before we move on to the bridge!

That wall has stood for almost 1,000 years!

Artsy shot through old wall opening

Meta shot of artsy shot

These wiry guys were scattered at random places throughout the tower

The portcullis of the gate of the Bloody Tower. Heavy, man!

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge, as you might expect, is the bridge across the Thames that is closest to the Tower of London. It's special in that it's a bridge built in two styles: part suspension bridge, part drawbridge. It also has two towers built on it, between which is an observation area with a clear floor.

Look! A bridge with a tower! It's probably London Bridge, right?

The trip through and around the bridge is actually pretty quick. The most interesting parts for us were in the observation area, of course. There are parts of the floor that are transparent, so you can see just how high you are and what's going on below. I'll bet it's pretty neat with the bridge is drawn and some big boat is passing under.

So far above the teeming masses!
They also have mirrors on the ceiling, so that you can take pictures of more than just your feet. It was kind of amusing to watch people that were so accustomed to taking selfies try to figure out how to use the mirror to take a good picture. Most of them gave up and resorted to selfie-ing.

Mirrors are useful, especially when you don't have a selfie stick!
We skipped one part of the tour through the bowels of the bridge's machineries, but didn't feel like we'd missed very much. Plus, we needed to prepare for an evening of drinking and shenanigans. You see, I was about to get together with people that I've known for twenty years or so, but haven't seen in quite some time. In fact, one of them I'd never met in real life at all!

Horizons Reunion

Approximately twenty years ago, during the age before Facebook or Twitter or even MySpace, the way you enjoyed society on the Internet was either through IRC, or through Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs). If you're unfamiliar with what these are, reddit.com is a modern-day BBS.

I was a huge fan of the Ultima computer RPG series, and the final edition of that series was in the works. Using Lycos, the best search engine of the day, I sought out other like-minded individuals that might have started some discussion on the topic. The place I came across was Horizons Tavern.

Being a part of this social group had a significant impact on me. I met several people that became excellent friends, and that I'm still in touch with to this day. I sincerely hope that each of you has a group of friends (virtual and/or otherwise) that always provide stimulating and diverse topics for conversation and commentary, and that you can count on to be thoughtful and fun at the same time.

Ah, nostalgia. A small group of these folks live in/around London, so we had agreed to meet up at the Glasshouse Stores pub for a night of revelry. Well, not so much revelry, as drinking and chatting and laughing.

Glasshouse Stores pub. Photo courtesy of sohopubs.com
We met early, because you're allowed to start drinking pretty much as soon as you step into a pub in London, and I like beer. We sampled the wares, talked and laughed and drank until well into the evening, and eventually parted with promises not to wait another twenty years before getting together again.

Don't hate us because we're beautiful...
Drinking after a hard day of Towering was absolutely the right way to end Outing #5. It left us in the right frame of mind for Outing #6, where we FINALLY made it to Westminster Abbey. Be on the lookout for that!