Friday, June 20, 2014

Quaker country to cafes, crusty bread & luscious views

Last day in London and I had an agenda: spend us much time as necessary at the Friends Library with a book written by a Quaker ancestor in 1661, visit the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum and meet up with my family to board the Eurostar for Paris. They were gonna hunt up a tardis (blue British police box that fronts Dr. Who’s giant time-traveling vehicle).

Our London neighborhood
I’d packed up and taken my bags with me, schlepping through the tube and depositing them in a locker for 1£ at the Friends Center. I’d only had one negative experience riding the tube and that was when a man offered me “help” navigating the touch screen for topping off my oyster card, which we found the most convenient and cost-effective way to travel all over London. Never more than about 8 euros a day for travelling during peek times, a little less for non-peek. Had we been staying longer than 4 days, we would have considered the week travel card. Kids under 15 gets all kinds of discounts. Anyway, as I was working through the transaction, the man who’d approached me pushed me through the computer screens and on my way. When I scanned my ticked to enter the tube, the gate wouldn’t open. Fortunately, a patient tube worker asked me how long ago I’d topped off. We walked over to repeat each step when the unhelpful stranger emerged waving my $5. Apparently it’s a regular scheme. The man had neglected to tell me to swipe my card one last time after I got my cash. If you don’t, it negates the transaction and spits your cash back out. Saved by the patient guard, I wasn’t too annoyed at the man. Only 5 euros and, perhaps, he needed it more than I. It all happened so quickly that I had no time to think, just be on my way.

No problem this time, except lifting my bag up and down the steps and unpacking its pockets to shove in into the slender locker, so I would be free until time to collect it and meet my family at San Pancras and the Eurostar entrance.

Friends Library
Beyond the doors of a bustling international center, the Friends Library is quiet and understated. Tabitha was so helpful, telling me it would be 10 minutes before they could get the book for me. So, I lingered and looked around a bit. I fingered the actual card catalogue, fairly rare these days and, soon, she emerged with a very small book nestled on a pillow, carefully and loosely tied with muslin strings. Tabitha unwrapped the ties, showed me how to use the strand of clay weights to gently hold pages down and flip through the book using an acid-free sheet of cardstock.

Old-fashioned catalogue
It was hard to believe the actual book, the one I have heard so much about most of my life, was now in front of me. It was so small, yet a real book; not the pamphlet I had expected that is typical of Quakers. Just me, the book, a pencil, my phone and journal.

I was so very careful at first and took my time reading, then sliding the paper to turn each page. As it became more familiar, I became a little less timid and touched the edge to flip through, something Tabitha said was fine. The publication is composed in two sections: King and To the Reader.

The title was somewhat breathtaking:
To all that are
Repentance from dead works
To Newsness of life
Bu turning to the light in the
Conscience, which will give
The knowledge of God in
The face of Jesus Christ

Dorothea's book
Obviously Dorothea Gotherson was not a journalist with a knack for short headlines, yet she cuts right to the core. She was addressing King Charles II, who had been restored after the execution of his father in the English Civil War and the tyranny of Oliver Cromwell, about the state of England as well as individuals. She asked Charles to not think it below him to read the words of a woman, that she wrote out of love and concern. She begs and prays for England at all levels to turn toward the Light from Darkness.

What thrilled me most, however, were the details of her life and how she came to Quakerism. She is a descendent of Henry III and lived an uppercrust life, though which much affliction until she encountered a people “of one heart and one mind.” After she addresses the king, she calls on all others: “merchants, drunkards, clergy as grey hair judges, and all ye Ladies of England, who walk with stretched-out necks, and wanton eyes … oh, foolish sons and daughters of England.”

She genuinely wants them to be pure of heart and walking with God. I wish I could know what effect her words had. It was hard for me to walk away from her book. I know somehow, some way, some day, I will return to it.

Tabitha, the librarian estimated it would take about 200 £ to restore the book’s binding. She let it rest with me while I perused a book with a chapter on Dorothea.

Elgin Marbles
Leaving Dorothea physically behind, I walked to the British Museum for a quick peek at the Elgin Marbles. As I stood among them, removed from the Parthanon, I was uneasy, feeling they were displayed out of context, but also knowing many more had been exposed to their beauty had they not been. A sign remarked on their controversy, stating they were subject to grafitti and erosion when Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin and British ambassador, obtained them by permit from Ottoman authorities. He and his cronies stripped about half of the Parthanon’s sculpture, for which the British Parliament officially paid a few years later.

I didn’t have time to view the Rosetta Stone as my husband and one daughter did, but headed back to the Friends Center for a homey and quick lunch, then to collect my bags and meet my family for our chunnel-train to Paris.

Paris arrival at Gare du Nord/Tad Barney
Our Paris bedroom view
We had booked early enough at $65 each to earn four seats with a table. I’d grabbed cheese, bread, wine and juice at the station so we could enjoy the ride as the young Englishwomen had shown us on the last train. We zoomed out of London with one stop in Ashford to collect a handful of business men. The darkness of the tunnel zipped by and came to represent all of the time we would spend undergound riding the subways in London and Paris. As we admired the rolling French countryside, which we thought looked much like Ohio, the conductor announced a train strike would begin tomorrow morning. We blew that off thinking it wouldn’t affect us, this being our last train ride.

We grabbed a few groceries from a friendly and very small market, then opened the big blue door to our courtyard and began the 75-step climb to our pied-à-terre. Exhausted and happy, we threw open the windows to a wonderful view of Parisian rooftops and slept like logs.

Friday, June 13, 2014

London: Isle of Shakespeare, Sherlock & Selfridge's

Our London flat is up five flights in what I can envision an Irish family living in the early 1900s. It’s a cool, working-class neighborhood now very Middle eastern. The smells down the alley are heavenly. Nigel met us to hand over keys and give us a few tips. I’d rented the place on after fluke-ishly finding it almost last-minute. When I discovered it sat midpoint from Selfridge’s and Baker Street, well it was a no brainer. We are a die-hard BBC family.

Portobello Road Market
It’s $172 a night, central, just around the corner from the Bakerloo line, great amenities a bit tight, but workable for four of us. Thaere’s a separate bedroom, full bath, well-stocked kitchen with washer and compact living/dining room with sofa bed, advertised for two. No way they’d both fit, I could tell from the photos, however, the owner also has a single air mattress, so the girls are pretty comfortable. There’s wifi, satellite TV, plenty of hot water and small necessities such as shampoo, cream rinse, shower gel, coffee, tea, milk and juice. There’s a well-stocked small market around the corner and plenty of wonderful narrow, but deep shops lined with bins of feta, olives, pastries, produce and even roasted chickens. Easy to make a complete cook-free meal that’s healthy and inexpensive.

Silver at the market
Rousing ourselves our first full day in London, we headed to the Portobello Road Market with its pastel townhouses and winding streets stuffed with a riot of incongruous wares: souvenirs, silver, antiqued sporting goods, paella, pastries, cheeses, pashminas and ice cream. No rhyme nor reason to placement and such a colorful clash of cultures. We ate street food, grabbed a few cheap souvenirs and meandered through the throngs to nearby posh and quieter Nodding Hill. We hopped the tube to Harrod’s, the antithesis of the rowdy market with its opulence. I knew we had to visit the food hall and Autumn, a budding designer, wanted to swing through the haute couture.
Harrod's Food Hall
Many gowns were inspired by history and sketches hung nearby. We sipped the original, 400-year-old recipe for East India Tea Company’s Earl Grey – a bit flowery for my palate, but quite elegant. The ornate deco staircase descended to a memorial for Princess Diana and Dodo Fayed, whose father previously owned the store.
Letter to Diana

Feeling very royal after our visit, we strolled to Buckingham Palace, watched the guards do their little dance, chanced by Big Ben as he sang out 8 p.m., were awed by Westminster Abbey and St. Margaret Church, with a window created for the wedding of Henry VII and Catherine of Aragon, before heading to the Sherlock Holmes Pub for very fresh fish and chips. Somehow we nabbed a bar table on a busy Saturday evening. There’s a small museum upstairs and an authentic pub down, where we sat on high stools. We walked back through Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, which left me grateful to return to our very immigrant, non-touristy neighborhood.

Sunday, I forced myself to arise for Quaker worship at the Friends Center, just opposite Euston Station. An oasis in a bustling part of the city, worship was quiet and the perfect antidote to rushed and somewhat stressful traveling. Though I entered 10 minutes late, I was able to settle in and pick up on the flow of the silence and vocal ministry. I had a few quick, but meaningful conversations before they adjourned for their business meeting and I needed to meet my
Front-row seats @ King Lear
daughter at the theater.

My 16-year-old had set her alarm way back in April to get up at 3 a.m. our time to score 15£ tickets to King Lear. I was as excited as she. We all met up and the other two departed for a Dr. Who walking tour. We ate a quick, delicious and well-priced light lunch before the almost three-and-a-half-hour drama. We had dressed in our best and were somewhat disappointed by the Bermudas and flip flops.

Live theatre is intense and, sitting in the front row, we were reminded just how dedicated stage actors are. The guy in Bermudas and flip flops who sat behind me and two seats over said he could see behind stage. Nonetheless, we were up close and personal – a little embarrassing for my teen when there was brief male nudity. And, perhaps, when so much blood flowed. I had forgotten how bloody this play is. My daughter said she saw a poster at intermission entitled “Everyone dies” with a synopsis of how Shakespeare’s characters meet their deaths.

Bridget Jones' pub
We emerged early evening and decided to wind along the Thames, twisting toward The Globe Theatre, London Bridge and landing at the Globe Pub, which served as Bridget Jones’ apartment in the two movies. I love the books and character because she asks the world to accept her as she is. It was exhilarating to stumble on this – I had it on my to-do list – even if it wasn’t open. Along the way, we uncovered  afternoon tea and gin and tonics at the Southwark Cathedral café called The Refectory, but it had just closed. Looked like a gem quietly hidden behind the South Bank attractions. We also walked past the caged, and sadly, closed, stalls of Burroughs market. So much to do, so little time.

We located the nearest tube station, then turned the corner, trotted down an alley to order a draft bitter and fountain Coke at the King’s Head Pub. On the way home, we stopped by our local grocers (four to be exact) to concoct a multi-course course dinner: English cheddar, spinach pastry similar to spanokopita, Greek salad, roasted chicken, meat pies and baklava.

Monday, my husband and daughters were up early for breakfast at Speedy’s Café of the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes fame, while I slept in. I needed a lazy morning. Although I adore our neighborhood, it is perienially noisy. Our texting wasn’t working so I left a handwritten note that I would meet them at Selfridge’s. I am such a fan of the BBC Mr Selfridge’s that I couldn’t wait. Not as deco-decadent as Harrod’s, Selfridge’s is hip and contemporary with an artistic endeavor in every window. A simple, short cotton beach skirt was priced at 150 £, too rich for my blood, though I settled on a child’s oil cloth backpack dotted with red double-decker buses. Makes the perfect purse. The store was dotted with a variety of restaurants, an entire floor devoted to shoes and all items were grouped by designer, almost as if each had their own shop. We stopped for drinks on the Ikea-like fourth floor food court with a great view of the surrounding neighborhood.

The dinner plan was to head back to the Globe after visiting the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. The girls were hungry, so we picked up a snacking picnic and headed for Hyde Park, stretched out in the grass, then hopped the tube at Marble Arch. While debating the merits of blowing our budget on Tower of London tickets, we discovered they were only open another 45 minutes. Not enough time, we all reasoned, so we walked around the old castle, across the bridge and ambled toward The Globe Pub, which was open. It was stiflingly humid, unusual for London, and the old Globe seemed stale. One round was enough here, just for the sake of Bridget. We trudged, well that’s what the girls would have called it, to more of the central, regular part of London to Fleet Street and the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, an authentic pub (rebuilt in 1667 after a fire destroyed the original from 1538) sprawling down into the former caverns of a 13th century monastery. The ground-floor restaurant was packed on a Monday, so we climbed the ancient stairs down to a labyrinth of small rooms and snagged a long table as a small group was exiting. The girls ordered gi-normous and tasty burgers, Tad opted for fish and chips and I dared to get the fish pie, a white sauce of fish and shellfish over mashed potatoes. Our meals were excellent.
Buckingham Palace

St. Margaret's Cathedral, front; Westminster Abbey

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Ferrying our way to London

Kilronan breakfast
After the all-night flight and all-day romp around Dublin, I just couldn’t fall asleep – even at midnight Dublin time. I read a few chapters and began to doze, though infrequent street noise and a few late revelers stirred me. I knew I was in deep when the alarm rang at 6:45 am and I couldn’t rouse myself from whatever it was in my dream. But I knew we had precious little time until the taxi came in an hour and we were trying to squeeze in breakfast. I hadn’t realized the full Irish breakfast was cooked to order, so we settled on easier things and I indulged in some Irish oatmeal, a great start for a long day. We were served in the quaint dining room at the front of the inn: fresh flowers, lots of yellow, white and very European.
Stephen, ace Dublin cab driver
Stephen, our driver, was quite punctual and played tour guide as he dodged Friday morning traffic. His most popular route is the airport, so he made the most of this drive, regaling us with the time he drove a few jolly buddies to catch the boat for a soccer playoff in England. They were in such high spirits (literally) that Stephan decided to join them. Two days later, he called his wife, mustering the courage after a day in the pub, to inform her … the same guy who took her to NYC and proposed on top of the Rockefeller Center.
We loved that Dublin has no high rises, contributing to its ancient ambiance, and following the River Liffey toward the port. This drive is definitely not on the tourist map.
Club view of Irish ferry
We sailed into the Irish Ferries entrance, where our sail-rail tickets (49 euros each and a little less for those under 15) were waiting, deposited our heavier bags on the conveyor and joined the small crowd gathering. Upon admittance, we learned too late to grab seat and a table by the windows. They filled immediately, however, we secured a nice table and comfortable seats somewhere in the the middle and still with a view.
And then the crowds swelled. Friday morning and everyone was heading out. I opted not to pay extra for club level or a private cabin. The two-hour speed crossing on the Jonathan Swift seemed nice enough. Touring the Greek Islands in 2007, I learned that ferries can be a lot nicer than the rusted-out versions I’ve taken across Lake Champlain, to Canada’s Pelee Island and Vinylhaven in Maine. European versions are smaller cruise ships. This one included a bar, movie theater, game room, food service and duty-free shop. What more could you ask?
We arrived in Holyhead, Wales, 1 hour and 50 minutes later after a smooth crossing, were shuttled to a small building to collect luggage and pass through a simple customs checkpoint. The rail station waited on the other side. About a 15 minute wait for the Wales Arriva, one transfer and then we were aboard Virgin Rails. It was simple, except that no one’s luggage, save a paper bag, would fit overhead. I loved that a gaggle of 20-something woman boarded and, very quickly, uncorked a bottle of champagne into pink, plastic glasses to the cheers of the rest of the coach. They know how to travel in style. Very soon afterward, a conductor began placing “reserved” tickets all over the place. “We have 25 children boarding soon and they request to be together.”
Children, what did that mean, exactly? We’d sat through a crying babe on the overhaul flight and I wasn’t keen on doing that again for three hours.
English countryside, though it could be Welsh
Soon it was if Hogwarts students were boarding platform 9 ¾. It was such a tussle as they entered and stowed their bags. A well-toned woman about my age remarked, after forcing two bags into the narrow overheard racks, that teaching duties such as this were more than she imagined. I found the kids, especially the four boys beside me, charming. I discovered they were years 1 through 6 and the ones closes, ages 10 and 11. Perfect, I thought, exactly the ages of my Artsy Fartsy boys! We discussed their five days at the youth hostel, kind of like camp, the toys they purchased at the pier and joke shop and how much they missed home. They all had a variety of siblings waiting for them. I was very smitten with their magnet pals: troll-like skull-faces in neon colors with long hair that attached to their shorts or wherever they paced them without moving. Soon, they delved into a tough game of “Go Fish” with candy as the reward.  “How long do we have?” the slight boy across from me called. “The ride is an hour and five minutes,” his teacher responded. “So that would be an hour and five minutes.” Even my 13-year-old snickered.
They were such great energy; like talking to a handful of young Harry Potters. So polite. “Good-bye and have a nice trip,” about six of them echoed.
Aside from the adolescent entertainment, we had snacked on almonds, apples, cheese, water, celery and bread we picked up in Dublin. Later, I entered the snack car and picked up soft drink for the girls and a Grolsch to split with my husband.
Arriving at Euston
After the kids departed, another group of 20-somethings embarked and chatted the entire way into London. Apparently, they worked for a school district in business and HR and needed to debrief the entire next hour. I did not have the same patience for them as I had the middle schoolers. Go figure!
Aside from the company, the landscape – and reason for this trip – was gorgeous. Morphing from seagulls and coastline to lush farms and sheep, canals with wildy decorated boats and, suddenly, into London. We had arrived.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Ireland: spirits and the spiritual

Our flights were uneventful; sitting four across for the long jaunt felt cozy. In the wee hours, my teen daughters rested their heads on my shoulders, peacefully snoozing. Wading through Irish customs was a bit of a frenzy, ably handled by a good-natured guard, who kept us moving. “Don’t let that real estate (space in the cue) go to waste,” he’d chatter, nudging us onward. His Irish accent was disarming. Didn’t hurt that he broke open packages of bottled water so the 45 minutes were tolerable. After all, we were exercising body parts frozen with the imprint of airline seats.

The next hurdle was finding transportation. Not just any means, mind you, but the most local: the city bus. It was neither easy nor intuitive. After two attempts, I  located the airport tourism office stuck behind a sprawling, modern bar. Drink before anything, Dublin seemed to cry. The city buses were just as hidden, revealed  by an obliging Dubliner. We found they tend to go out of their way to share their city.

My girls @ Kilronan House
We eventually boarded the comfortable double-decker for 3 euros each. It was priceless to watch my girls drink in the people and scenery; opportunities they would have missed aboard the plusher, more expensive, tourist buses stationed directly outside the baggage claim.

Forty-five interesting minutes later, we disembarked, just a few blocks from our inn, Kilronan House, not quite as pristine as depicted online, but quirky, welcoming and authentic.  After a quick lesson on the virtues of Dublin, we headed out. The city has been designated a Unesco literary site with references everywhere. My goal was to please ALL of us: food first, shopping for the girls, Guinness for my husband and history for me.
New friend Alli from Austrailia in the Duke Pub
We cut through St. Stephan’s Green, which one daughter likened to Central Park and much more encompassing than on the map or Google Earth, on our way to refreshment at the Duke Pub. Highly recommended by a stateside friend, the Duke is just off Grafton Street, Dublin’s main shopping thoroughfare. Bustling with a late-lunch crowd, we plopped ourselves down next to Alli from Australia. She’s touring Europe on a four-month gap trip between discovering that nursing is not for her, but teaching is. She’s an Oscar Wilde fanatic, so I couldn’t wait to tell her that my daughter and I had fought over who was going to buy the thrift-store copy of “The Portrait of Dorian Grey” Tuesday before we left. We’re both mad to read it – especially, after Alli’s endorsement. We bonded over beers and a bit of a delight in the dark side and some conversation about sacred sights. In fact, we unexpectedly met up again just outside the Book of Kells. I had mentioned it and given her my brochure. This was the thing I wanted to do most in Dublin; well beyond sipping a freshly drawn Guinness.

My fresh-salmon sandwich arrived sans the bread as I had requested but smoked. Still, it paired well with a black-and-tan: Guinness and Smithwick’s. The rest of the clan ordered sandwiches, ample, simple and accompanied by hearty sides.

Construction at the Book of Kells
Sean, the efficient Kilronan manager, confirmed the illuminated manuscript at Trinity College was open until 5 pm, so I wanted to head there after filling our tanks. “Due to construction, we’re closing the Book of Kells early today, in five minutes,” the guard taunted me. “I am only in Dublin today,” I pleaded. “You still have time, but you have to pay. It’s up to you.” No decision, I sped up to the ticket desk and quickly texted my family to wait outside. It was not the liesurely visit I had anticipated. I even cleared space to view alone what people unmoved by other religious artifacts declare as deeply spiritual. I missed reading the subtext and accompanying material, instinctively finding the two pages at the heart of the exhibit. In my rush, it took a few minutes to warm up to what I was seeing, becoming present and beginning  to feel its energy. The pages were flipped to John 1:1
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
I was stricken. For months, I have been struggling with what this concept of word truly means to me. I understand my visit will be a clue, but only when I have time to silently contemplate its meaning Not on this trip – at least not until Paris when I have planned a one-night pilgrimage to Sacre Coeur. My experience at the Book of Kells reflects what a woman from Wisconsin told Alli yesterday: “Ireland is a place the veil thins.”

Coffe and cheap eats at the Buttery in Trinity College
We scored a coffee in Tinity’s cheap-meal Buttery cafeteria, then watched a snatch of a cricket match.

After covering sacred ground, it was time to hit Temple Bar even though a well-meaning local re-directed us to St. Patrick’s Park. “There’s nothing but bars at Temple Bar,” she noted. For us, that was the point. I can not imagine more pubs per square foot (ok, meter) anywhere else in the world. I have a nose for sniffing out authentic taverns I fondly refer to as dark bars. Not many make the mark, but I walked through four that superbly complied. I flitted through one
thinking this must be where I should have a Guinness, but my family wandered on. Then I found the Oliver St. John Gogarty Bar with live Irish music and wanted to linger, but my family marched on in search of gelato for a hungry 13-year-old. Next I was awed by the actual Temple Bar as we searched for a perch for four, but when the vocalist switched to American tunes, I wasn’t as interested. My oldest and I headed back to Oliver St. John Gogarty’s, purloining a front-row table, ordering a Guinness and a Coke, settling in to listening to the intensely talented guitarist-vocalist and accordianist. They played non-stop for a good 30-40 minutes barely breaking to breathe. I was transformed until I visited the basement bathroom, which smelled of disinfectant and stale beer. Oh, yes, this is also a hopping hostel. Had we been spending more than one night time after an all-night flight, I would have loved to treat ourselves to a novelty: the European hostel. This time, I valued a good bed and quiet.

Great Irish Music at Oliver St. John Gogarty's
Leaving the lively scene, we followed winding side streets to Christ Church Cathedral, where the faithful have worshipped for almost a thousand years. This medieval section of the city was fascinating. We continued on the trail of cathedrals, brushing past St Patrick’s on our way back to the guesthouse to rest. While others snoozed, I grabbed my laptop to recapture the day. Instead, I learned a lot about the Catholic-Protestant conflict and finer points of stag parties from a Canadian father and son on a guys’ drinking-and-golfing holiday. I had encountered the stag-and-hen party phenomena when searching for hotels. While alluring, I opted for a peaceful rest at the Kilronan Inn.  Our receptionist offered me a real Irish coffee and I settled in to start this post.
Christ Church Cathedral

After the others awakened, we journeyed out for a very late dinner. So late that the pubs were not longer serving and we settled on tasty Persian lamb and chicken at a chain, Zaytoon, then picked up a few groceries for our ferry-train trip the following morning across the Irish sea, Welsh and English countryside to London.