Vacation to England


Monday
Jun 21, 1999

 

Dropped Bella at the vet’s, and on the way back home I picked up international driver’s license. I don’t know that it is necessary but it seems like I should have one. The morning is a panic of last minute shopping, medical appointments for Amy, traveler’s cheques, and film. Namita comes over just before we leave, wishes us well. Zach is honored.

A silent Hindi driver takes us to the airport where we have a $45 dollar lunch at the North Beach Deli (basically two small pizzas and drinks). Bags are checked so we mount the plane. Kind of smallish for a cross-country flight, although we are only going to Chicago’s O’Hare. We sit three in one row and three directly behind in another. Amy, Laura, Sherry- then John, Jenna, Zachary. Perfect position for me to love and correct the little ones, particularly if they start to get too rowdy and noisy. The amount of giggles, slapping each other, and petty arguing finally gets to me and I have to use my stern voice and evil eye to persuade them to desist. Amy and Laura were also a little unruly.

The stewardess Lucy nearly adopts Laura & Amy. She spends most of her free time talking and asking them questions. Sherry gets a free glass of wine from her. Later, when dinner is served, she calls Zach by his name and he is startled, he doesn’t know if he should know her or perhaps that she had seen him perform he was now experiencing his first groupie. It was only that Laura had shared the entire family history with her just moments before.

No music, no films- cheap flight to the Mid-west.

 

Landing at O’Hare was uneventful. I had been here before during the Washington DC PromiseKeepers flight. O’Hare has a sameness about it regardless of what terminal your plane uses. The letter changes but the look is the same, Arched tiled hallways filled with people busily running in both directions. The allusion to an anthill is too easy to make. We have about 45 minutes to connect with another plane that flies on to Gatwick airport in London.

Nice big plane- we get the entire row with an extra seat to stretch out. From left to right, Amy and Laura, then an aisle, Sherry, Zach, John, then another aisle, and then Jenna by herself. The steward is a real toucher. I’m standing by my seat and he grabs me. Later on he is constantly diving at the arm controls to adjust volume or turn out the accidentally pressed call button. Another scary stewardess patrols the aisle constantly seeking to help. The staff is not particularly friendly, just very efficient.

We are enjoined to pull the blinds in order to see the movie. Movie is funny in parts but generally just a vehicle for some bad acting. I keep opening the shade looking for Ireland. Each time I do I feel if I have done a bad thing so I immediately shut the blind again. Oh yes, I have a window seat now. I take Laura’s seat and Laura sits next to Jenna. That way all the big people have an empty seat or a little person next to them. A little more room to stretch out. Except for Jenna, who had two seats all to herself. Zach tries to lie down and puts his feet up on his mother, I get sleeping Amy, who punches and kicks her way across the Atlantic. An uncomfortable ride- not rough or bumpy, just uncomfortable.

The sun comes up, but we can’t open the blinds. It just becomes very obvious when I slide the blind up to check on Ireland. Jenna opens hers and the stewardess rushes over to shut it. Zach keeps turning on the signal light for the stewardess accidentally, and then he flips it off. This happens several times and the stewardess is up and down like a yo-yo.

Coming into Gatwick under partly cloudy skies. By now we can have the blinds open. I think we have to wait until someone in first class does it. Pretty scenery, English fields, gridded by naturally curving lines, hedges following little creeks. Very few straight lines. Fences follow the hedges. Every now and then a large manor house pops up among the cottages. There on a hillside is a deserted church, the land gets closer, and we come into Gatwick from the Northwest.

 

 

 

Tuesday

June 22

Technically this is the next day but I haven’t really slept and the time jump has my clock confused. Gatwick Airport is different. First it is in England, a place I haven’t been before. Secondly, the number of money exchange places is mind boggling. It looks like the low-income neighborhood next to the factory- Checks Cashed Now! The third difference is that nearly everyone seems like they are from another country. Lots of another countries. In the midst of all this strangeness I find a familiar face. The ATM machine works the same way as in the US and my card is gratefully accepted. The money it spits out is quite different though, and I haven’t the slightest idea how much is really being deducted from my account. Well, it’s not really money, it’s just kinda fancy Monopoly money with the Queen’s picture on it. When I run out of it I can just get some more.

There seems to be a few more coins in British currency, more coins than I can keep up with. There doesn’t appear to be any pound notes but there is a two pound coin.

We get outside to the rental car courtesy phone and I realize that I have misplaced our trip notebook. The notebook that contained the instructions to John’s house in Sunningdale, plus all the hotel information and reservation numbers. I had it at the ATM but between there, customs, passport control, and getting outside, it must have dropped off the baggage. I try to retrace my steps but nothing turns up, and besides, the rental car people are on their way.

The first problem is that the rental car folks knew we were coming, but they didn’t have a clue what our needs were, or how many people we were. The main difficulty is that they didn’t have a car for six. I explained that I was at the airport and I didn’t plan to spend the next few days walking. Then suddenly he provides a nine-passenger mini-bus. Big but serviceable. And at the same rate as the four seater that he had set up for us. Fine!

The van shows up and it is big. A Ford Tourneo. The kids have a table in the back, plenty of space for the luggage, and an extra seat up front with Sherry. Okay, so it was diesel and a little beat up. It was great! I fill out some papers and then we are off.

But where?

 

I remember that John’s house is near Ascot and Windsor so we head for the M25 motorway that goes north. I’m in a strange land, driving a strange vehicle, driving with the steering wheel on the right side of the car, driving on the left side of the road, trying to follow strange highway signs, and I’m a little confused. More than a little confused. I’m clueless and driving north on the freeway, excuse me, motorway. The lanes are very narrow and this vehicle seems twice as wide. I feel like I’m threading a needle half the time. I’m also curbing the tires on the left, which isn’t good, as I was warned that spare tires for this vehicle are hard to come by. Everyone drives so fast, and even if I am a diesel I still have plenty of cars behind me, wherever I go. I hit something on the left side and fold the mirror back. No damage, but I am very close to everything.

The signage is difficult; there are no stop signs because every intersection is a traffic circle. There are no mileage signs, so you can never know just how far everything is. There are only town names and if you know the towns around you then you might have a clue where you are. I haven’t a clue.

 

I remember that the Egham turn off is very confusing, something about doubling back and going in the wrong direction. Hey, I can do that! We find Egham and the turn off. It is confusing, and we do get through it. Then I follow the signs to Sunningdale and the railroad tracks. Then there is a right turn past the train tracks. Suddenly we are in Sunningdale and there are the train tracks, we turn right and end up in the parking lot of the local supermarket. Okay, so we drive out of there and look for a right turn on Devonish road. Can’t find it near or far. We drive until we get to Bagshot or Camberley then we go back to the supermarket to try again. Two people we ask have never heard of Devonish road. But then one of them is fourteen years old and the other isn’t a local. Then I remember that one of the roads is A330, and two minutes past the tracks is a right turn on A330. Okay, then Fireball Hill, left up the hill, then stop at Inyanga House. And there it is!

 

John greets us at the front door and invites us in. We park the van in the gravel circle in front and we grab some bags on the way in. The house is brick with tile roof, it is not a palace but it is very comfortable. The living room has glass doors that open to the back yard garden and it is just lovely. John makes us promise to help ourselves because he can’t possible act as a host to all of us. There are four bedrooms upstairs and we move into three of them.  

John tells us to cancel our London reservations and our Paris hotels. We should take the Eurostar through the Chunnel on the weekend, then come back and do London. Our plan would have us traveling most of our time in Paris so we agree to change things around. Plus, staying at John’s saved us about $300 dollars a night. Roundtrip train tickets and two nights bed & breakfast in Paris cost us about $625 pounds for five of us. Pretty good deal, besides, its only funny money.

I don’t have the reservation numbers because they are in the lost notebook. But I remember the names of the hotels. The Stakis in Islington has our reservations but they only had one room with a double bed. It would have been a disaster in London. In Paris the hotels had never heard of us. That would not have been funny.

So we sign up with the Eurostar and three star hotel in Paris, and plan to spend the next three days at John’s, touring with the van in different directions. John has a meeting to go to, and suggests that we go to the village and eat at Tutti Again. He believes it to be pretty good food and something for the kids.

The village is pretty quiet; most of the shops have been closed since 5:30. It is now close to 8:00 and the restaurant is filled. There is one table in the back that can fit all of us. Small place really, only ten or so tables. Some smoke but can’t get away from it. The food is unusual but good. We have a pretty good time winding down from the long day of traveling. We pay the tab and walk around the village a little before heading back. John is back from his meeting when we arrive. Everyone goes to bed but John and I talk until about 1:00.

 

 

 

Wednesday

June 23

The next morning we try to get off early but jet lag general tiredness sets in. By 11:30 we are on the road, looking for Stonehenge, Bath, Glastonbury, Tintern Abbey and more. John thinks we will be lucky to see a couple.

 

We drive the M3 to Winchester, drive by the cathedral, but we don’t get out. Kind of a gritty village, a little too modern and busy looking. Perhaps the cathedral is much better on the inside, not much from the road. On the way to Stonehenge we go through Salisbury. It has a nice cathedral from what I have read, so perhaps we will stop there.

Salisbury is at the edge of the Salisbury Plain. The cathedral spire juts up from the countryside and is visible for miles. It was once the tallest spire in Europe, built within 95 years, around 1270.

 

It is gorgeous. I will have to look at the connection between inspire and spire. The cathedral grounds are called “the close”, and within “the close” are several private homes that are just wonderful. The main grounds are expanses of grass with gravel paths leading to the cathedral entrance. A wall built from the stones of the old Norman cathedral that this one replaced surrounds the entire “close”. Getting close to the main structure somehow reduces its size, but it is still impressive. The main entrance is undergoing a massive stone cleaning and reconstruction. We slip in the side entrance, near the open courtyard. Salisbury is also celebrating the Salisbury Festival, a two month event which includes performances and art exhibits. The sculpture exhibit features the leading British sculptors, and their work is all around us, in the grounds of “the close”, on the roofs of some commercial buildings, and even in the great cathedral itself. Not a bad venue if the quality is high enough.

 

Inside the cathedral it is truly amazing. Crypts of soldiers that fought in the Crusades, at Crecy, at Agincourt. Tombs of the bishops that served this cathedral. And in the Charter House, one of the four remaining copies of the Magna Carta. Actually, the most legible one of the four. Inspiring. We parked in a two-hour spot but we were gone nearly four hours. John was right, I can’t imagine seeing much more before we head back. Stonehenge is just down the road so we make the attempt.

 

Stonehenge is in Amesbury, but where in Amesbury is as much a mystery as the mystery of Stonehenge. I suppose I was hoping to find a few billboards to help me along. Nope. The signs weren’t of much use either, so I try to use my compass sense. No good because the roads are not trustworthy. You can start out traveling east but then the twists and turns can swing you north or south. We end up entering an RAF fighter plane base. The guard gives us directions, which I barely understand because of dialect and fuzzy reference points. I pick a road the looks good from one of the many traffic circles, and within a mile, boom, there it is. I mean it is close to the road. It is small and large at the same time. It jumps up on the small rise in the Salisbury Plain, but it is not a huge structure. We park the car and cross the road to take a look. For some years there has been a fence around the structure, so you can’t touch the stones or walk in amongst them, it has also kept the stones free from graffiti. We didn’t pay to get closer, but we ware pretty close just the same. Our visit is somewhat disturbed by rowdy German students, about twenty around thirteen years old. Very loud and obnoxious. Still, we take some decent photos and admire the standing stones and the countryside. It is a tourist sight but it would be much better without the tourists.

 

The sun is still pretty high so we think we might make it to Bath, so we try the connecting road and it goes pretty good. The small villages we pass through are delightful and the road isn’t too narrow. I‘m getting used to the signage and the route to Bath is simple enough. Within the hour we are on a ridge coming in from the south. Bath is across the vale from us and it is unusual. Nearly the whole town has the same architecture. Palladium style, neo-Roman. It is lovely, but the roads are very confusing, lots of one ways and not very forgiving. No place to stop or turn. We drive through Bath and try to absorb what we can. On the other side of Bath is Bristol, and on the other side of Bristol are Wales and Tintern Abbey. We think we can make it. John warned me to stay away from Bristol. I try but it sucks me in, and I can’t find the motorway to set me free. We drive for nearly an hour through the southern outskirts of Bristol. It was useful to see the gritty side of England. Not very pretty, but very real. I can see the bridge that leads us to Wales across the Severn, so I head in that general direction. Even with a visual clue it is hard to shake loose Bristol. We get stuck in an industrial park for a time. Finally I see the motorway and we jump on it only to go in the wrong direction. Once we get turned around, everything is fine.

 

Hello Wales. A different country, different topography. The toll taker thinks I’m French and tells me “Bon Chance.” Tintern Abbey is not far from the bridgehead so we head up a small country road, following the signs as best we can. We pass a pub that seems to welcome families so we determine to eat there on our way out. The sun is almost set but plenty of light still available. The river valley we follow is the Wye and it is mostly in shadow. The road makes a dip and a turn and then the Abbey explodes upon you. I have to seriously apply the brakes to make the parking lot. The site has been closed for several hours, and there is no chance for us to enter. But it doesn’t really matter, the fence is very close to the structure and we can see everything from three sides. We spend about an hour walking around, drinking the atmosphere and rejoicing in that we were the only ones there.

 

Dark brown stones, the shell of a great building. The stained glass windows long since gone, gaping windows like empty eye sockets. There is sadness in the destruction. Henry VIII sent troops to bring the cathedral down, but for four hundred years it has still left an impression. And a powerful one at that. We are not disappointed.

 

Eventually we head back to Chopham and the little pub that we passed. They were only serving dinner for another thirty minutes so we slid in under the wire. Nice place, friendly people. I want to try an ale but I ask for their most popular. I get a Foster’s on tap. I suppose it is ale, but it isn’t very English. It gets towards 11:00 by the time we leave. We are at least an hour and a half from John’s place, so we call and leave a message saying don’t wait up. We have a key.

 

Driving back at night is a little odd. All the headlights are in the wrong lane. I was used to the daylight sight, but somehow I still wasn’t used to the headlights. We reach Inyanga with no problem, driving by Windsor Castle with full floodlights shining. Beautiful!

 

 

Thursday

June 24

We have to return the car Friday by 12:00 so this day we plan a trip up to Stratford Upon Avon, Oxford, Broadway and the Cotswalds. We are off a little earlier, about 9:30 and the roads seem very familiar now. John tells us that we should stop at Runnymeade and take a look around on our way up to Stratford. It is very close to Windsor, King John didn’t have to travel far to meet the Barons. The field has an area dedicated to John Kennedy, but we decide to just park by the Thames and watch the river. Lots of traffic on the river, not noisy jet skis or ski boats though. I hope they are banned. The canal boats and large cruisers are traveling about 5 knots top speed and creating no wake. Very relaxing. A couple of swans come by to see if we have food. It was a pleasant stop but we need to get going. We zip up the Motorway and in no time we are in the Stratford area.

This is the definition of English country roads. We take the leisure road as it has a historical logo on the sign. I suspect that it may be the back road into Stratford. It isn’t. But it is a great road, very narrow, and it takes us past some fine examples of farmhouses, thatched roofs and all. Eventually it leads us back to the main road and we are only a few miles from Stratford.

After entering the town the road takes a sharp left and a large parking area appears on the right. Very modern two story parking structure and a very modern shopping mall across the street. Hmm, John did say that Stratford-Upon-Avon was very popular, but this doesn’t look very 17th century. We can’t figure what direction to walk; there is a large fence to keep us from going where the town center appears to be. I decide to lead everybody to the right, in the direction that we drove in.

 

After a block of bed and breakfasts, we came to a small bridge over a small river. I guess it to be the Avon, but it is actually the Avon canal. We drop down the path and walk next to the canal, going up river. About 30ft from the bridge there was a lock in operation, lowering a recreational canal boat to the next level. His was the last in a series of canal locks (at least three that we could see) and the couple looked a little weary. Quite a system of gates and counter weights. I’m very interested in these canal boats. They look very livable. I suppose we could take the canals all the way to Windsor and then the Thames down to London. Might take a month, but it would be a neat month. We climb back up some stairs to gain access to what appears to be a main road. It takes us within a block to the center of town and we find ourselves standing right next to Shakespeare’s birthplace. It is still a lovely building, typical beam and plaster construction. We pay for the family ticket and enter the exhibition area. Everyone is sort of forced into a very slow single file queue through the exhibits, which tell of Shakespeare’s parents and early life. It is very nice and the exhibits are interesting, but we still haven’t entered the actual building. We exit near a souvenir shop and then enter the garden in the back and enter the side door into the building. It is very nicely presented with helpful guides in each room, on each floor. Quite a lot to soak up. Zach spends most of the time in the birth room, trying to absorb the vibes. The little ones are up and down the stairs and can’t quite understand what we are doing. Sherry gets a good lead for lunch from one of the guides; Apparently there are lots of good places to eat. The kitchen is very interesting and reminds us that we haven’t eaten.

We are told to go to Sheep Street, but we can’t find it. The kids are willing to eat at the Snappy Pop stand but Sherry and I hold out for something a little nicer. No luck, it is about 4:30 and most of the places haven’t opened for dinner. A self-serve diner almost gets us. We actually sit down but some we are led out and across the park. There appears to be a pub across the river and we eat there. Nice place and it has a family area. It isn’t old and quaint, but it is at least English. I try to order an ale. Hoping this time to get a bonofide real English ale. I look at all the pump handles and don’t recognize a single brand name. With no clue, I guess, and order a Strongbow. I bring it back to the table and take a small sip. It wasn’t bitter. On the contrary it was downright sweet. Apparently I had ordered hard cider. Oh well. It is a good companion to my fish and chips.

 

After eating we walk over to some statues, Famous characters from Wm. Shakes stories. The kids have a good time posing. The park also has an area where the bed & breakfast canal boats are berthed. Again, I am intrigued. Approx. 4 miles an hour and 100 miles of canal/river to cover 40 miles by the crow.

 

We head to Broadway in the Cotswalds. It takes a little while driving through the countryside to get there. Broadway is a beautiful little village, very picturesque, but we don’t get out, we just drive through slowly. Up on the hill we see a tower of some sort. The road seems to lead in that direction. We are now heading back to Oxford and then down to Windsor and home.

 

The tower is a late addition to the countryside but built in the castle-style. It’s a county park of some sort but it has been closed for a few hours. No one about except a couple of yaks. At least they look like yaks, although I’m sure they are a breed of Scottish cattle. The view from up here is amazing; it is said that this is nearly the highest point in the Cotswalds. Not gigantic, but impressive. We go through several wonderful hillside villages as we come down the other side of the ridge towards Oxford.

 

Oxford is pretty big, and it has a fairly large non-college based industrial belt. We can’t find the college so we drive to the city center. It turns out that Oxford is much like Yale. The college is the city center. When we ask a bicyclist where the college is, she responds that if it’s an old building then it is probably the college. Okay, that’s Oxford. I’d like to gaze upon the Bodelian library but it doesn’t appear on our route.

 

We head back through Windsor have a late dinner with John. Sherry and I go out to pickup pizza and pasta at Carbonara’s. John hasn’t been there and doesn’t approve but enjoys the meal. We discuss tomorrow’s trip into London.

 

 

Friday

June 25

Our first responsibility is to get the rented van back to the agency before noon. Then we plan to ask the agency to drop us off at Gatwick Airport where we can take the train to London. We get rolling about 10:30 and we are at the agency by 11:15. Everything is fine with the van and we are dropped off at Gatwick just before noon. The train connection is very easy, right within the terminal, so we jump on the next train into London. We get off at Waterloo Station and our intention is to head to Charing Cross to catch the double decker tour bus. At some point we want to get off at Leicester Square where there is a 1/2 price ticket booth for London shows.  

The tour bus also sells tickets for the Tower of London, so we purchase the entire plan. I don’t think we will get there today, but what the hell. The bus is great. Our route takes us straight through the heart of London and we can see dozens of places that we would like to jump off and visit, but we stay on to get to Piccadilly Circus. Beautiful day, sun shining, very nice up on the top deck of the bus. We cruise through the diplomat sector and drive by the US Embassy and others. Eventually we get off a block or two from Leicester Square. The first thing we come to is a theater offering “Prisoner on Second Avenue” starring Richard Dreyfus and Marsha Mason. That is hard to pass up, but Zach has a friend who will be at “Buddy” during the matinee, so we try those tickets. We walk right by the National Portrait Gallery and Trafalgar Square and search the lanes behind for Leicester. It’s a busy place, lined with restaurants and the Ticket Booth is similar to NYC. It’s a long line. I send the kids over to watch some park freelance entertainers and Sherry and I wait in the line. 30 minutes later we are told that “Buddy” is available at 1/2 price but that you have to buy them at the box office at the theater. I get a little exasperated and send everybody to a pub to eat and then I’ll go get the tickets and come back.

As soon as I hit the street I think this is going to take longer than I thought so I hail a cab. This is so cool. A black cab stops immediately and off I go. It’s a little unreal, sorta like out of the movies. I jump out at the Strand Theatre and I buy pretty good tickets in the balcony. Out in the street I jump another cab back to Leicester Square. I’m back at the pub before the food arrives. In fact, as soon as I sit down my food appears like magic. There’s a table of three old ladies that are having salads right behind me. Having a spot of tea, late in the afternoon.

 

The bathrooms are downstairs. Zach tells me to “Mind the Step” and then “Mind your Head”. Eventually I head to the loo, and sure enough it’s through a door that leads to the basement. Only by the time you read the “Mind the Step” sign you have already half fallen down the trick stairs. And as you get up and hit your head on the ceiling, you can read, “Mind your Head.” Very Nice.

 

Once outside we head through the square to catch the bus tour for another hour because the show doesn’t start till 5:30. We walk toward several of the park entertainers. One fellow is dressed completely in white and is a combination mime and statue. He looks like something sculpted in the 18th century. Of course the effect is better when his eyes are closed. Another statue person is dressed in black with silver makeup and gloves, wearing dark shades. He is completely still and everyone is waiting for him to do something. He doesn’t. He just stands and you can barely see him breath. Of course his coin box is there on the ground, so I had Laura give him some money. He immediately started to animate. Very good robot moves, then reached into his coat and brought out a Starburst chew that Laura could take out of his hand. Very cool act. I gave another coin to Amy. She was very tentative and the crowd was oohhing and ahhing. Finally she drops the coin in the box and the robot goes through the exact same moves. The crowd loves it. Except at the last moment the robot doesn’t stop swing his arm and Amy can’t get the Starburst. This goes on quite a while and I was beginning to think that Amy would give up. But she hangs in there and finally grabs the swinging hand and pries the Starburst free. The crowd eats it up and claps. And we walk away pretty happy to have two Starbursts.

 

Back on the bus we are enjoying a tour that actually has a guide. We cover some of the same ground of the other tour, but I’m watching the clock and I’m getting worried that we might not be able to make it if we stay on the bus, even though the tour goes right by the Strand Theater. At 5:10 we jump the bus and find a cab. He takes all six of us and we are at the Strand with about 10 minutes before the show.

 

“Buddy” is a lot of fun. It’s more of a rock concert than a musical. Maybe a little disappointing compared to the other productions that we might have seen, but it was definitely worth the price of admission.

 

At intermission we find Zach’s friend and the rest of the Fischer family. After the show we head off to find something to eat. I think at first that we would just part after a nice chat on the sidewalk. But instead we walk all the way back to Leicester Square and we have “jackets” and Snapple at a sidewalk café. Very nice time, nice people. They are heading to Paris in the morning and so are we. Our train is at 8:30 and theirs is around 10:00. We exchange addresses in Paris but we both know that probably there won’t be time to make connection. They head back to their hotel and we have to catch the train to Sunningdale. Another cab gets us to Waterloo Station and we catch the next to the last train back. We get to Sunningdale at around 11:20. It is a full moon and I am not particularly interested in calling John to come and get us. He wasn’t feeling well with a bad back and I didn’t want him taking two trips in the middle of the night to rescue some Americans at the train station. After all, he did say that you can easily walk to the station and I believe that even with the little girls, that we could do it within 30 minutes. And it was a very nice 30 minute walk in the English night air. John was up and he seemed a little amazed that we walked home. Particularly when we had to catch a very early train in the morning. The kids go straight to bed and Sherry and I try to pack the few items that we will take to Paris.

 

 

 

Saturday

June 26, 1999

I’ve been getting up very early the last few days. Zach sets the alarm to make sure that we are up for the train. It is fortunate that I still get up around 6:00 and Zach’s alarm doesn’t go off. Somehow with lots of rushing about, we get everything packed in one rolling suitcase and a couple of backpacks, then John takes us to the train station in two trips. The train comes within minutes and John waves goodbye as we head back to Waterloo Station and the EuroStar terminal.

 

Of course we have to present passports and generally check in but our will-call tickets are completely in order and we are on the train in no time. The high-speed train doesn’t quite hit top speed until it is in the tunnel. Somewhere under the English channel we start to really move. When we pop out in France, we are probably doing 120 miles per hour. At least it seems that fast. There are no typical train noises, and it is hard to believe that we are following tracks. It has the feel of a low flying plane.

 

The French countryside is stretched out before us. This was land that men bled for 60 years earlier. The terrible hedge row country. To capture Paris was the next most important target after the port cities. Certainly the ground from here to Paris was bitter in those years. I see farmhouses that appear to be several hundred years old. What they have seen. We are in the Gard du Nord train station in Paris after 2.5 hours of travel. The station is awash with tourists from 45 nations. I can’t follow all the dialects and cultural hints. I want to find an ATM and get some francs before we hit the streets. The ATM has two screens of language choices. Fortunately English is one of them. According to the map, our hotel is not far and I think it might be best to walk in order to get a little French experience.

 

This might have been a mistake. It appears that most of the Algerians in the city were now in this neighborhood. For a least several blocks every shop had sidewalk displays with swarms of people. I felt like I was swimming against the current and against most of humanity. There were times that it seemed the little ones were sucked away from us. We had to fight to gain a little island of sanity, where I could look at the map to try a guess where the hotel might be. It took quite a while before we could walk two abreast on the sidewalk. The neighborhood was not particularly quaint or picturesque, but is wasn’t awful either. A few sex shops began to appear and I started to get a little concerned. Not the best neighborhood my guess. Then we came to Pigalle Circle and a few restaurants that were quite nice. Around the corner we found our Hotel. Three Stars next to a nightclub on one side, a sex shop on the other, across the street another night club and Dirty Dick’s. Hmmm.

 

No mistake, this was it, and it was pretty nice. Clean rooms, big bathrooms. Each room with three twin beds. One room on the third floor, the other on the fourth. Fine, we don’t have much choice so we stay. We didn’t have breakfast so we head back out to find lunch. The corner restaurant that looked so charming looks appealing. We get seated and are deep into the menu before we realize that we are in a specialty restaurant. And this restaurant’s specialty was mussels and sundaes. I’m not sure why they go together but here they were. Sherry can’t find very much to eat beyond a salad. Zach orders and eats something that he has no idea if it was animal or vegetable. I get brave and follow the French rule, “When in Paris, do what the…” Anyway I order a bucket of mussels, fries and lemonade. The Special. It is quite good, but the amount of shell refuse is worse than eating artichokes. We are having difficulty with the language and the waiter is not helping. Even our desk clerk, who speaks English, is not connecting with us. I ask her to look up our reservation and when I mutter out loud “Which Pocket” while I search my jacket, she is looking for Mr. & Mrs. Pocket in the reservation list. This waiter is even worse. Then he gets into a horrible fight with another waiter, and I am ready to throw the kids outside at the first sign of gunfire.

 

We run the gauntlet of clubs and sex shops on the way back to the hotel in order to lay down for a few minutes. Laura and I decide to walk around the neighborhood while everybody else takes a short nap. Quite the experience. Guitar shops or sex clubs, then a modern department store. We go several blocks down, cross by the Moulin Rouge and then head up the mountain. The first neighborhood is very different. Small shops, clothing, wine, crockery. Very nice cafés. Laura and I sit in a small park. She chases pigeons and I watch the people. A very good time. As we head back to the hotel I spot a small train that has a sign saying it goes to “Sacre du Couer” Okay, let’s go get everyone.

 

Within a few minutes we are all together and heading toward the little train. It looks a little like the parking lot trains in Disneyland. But it takes us up the mountain to the only landmark that is near our hotel. As we climb up I realize that we are in the Montmarte section of Paris. Very beautiful. At the top we are at the Cathedral that overlooks all of Paris. Next to the Eiffel Tower, this is the best view one can find. The stairs are filled with tourists, Parisians, and street artists. In addition to the all white statues, we see an all gold King Tut. Oh well.

 

The inside of the cathedral is quite beautiful. There is a service going on and we are blessed with the solo voice of an exceptional singing nun. Wow, the walls reflect her voice, and some of the notes circle in the air near the gothic stone arches of the apse. It is wonderful. We leave the cathedral and we catch the last light of day over Paris. We wander over to an elevator room that descends the steep stairs towards the Champs Elyses. We could just as easily walk down the stairs, but it is a long set of stairs! At the bottom we head to our first experience of the Metro. Sardines, I think Jenna fell down but it was so packed that no one let her fall. After a few stops it cleared a little and the transfer was not a problem.

 

We purchase tickets to De Gaulle Circle, which brings us out at the Arc de Triumph. Hard to find the passageway to across over to the Arc. No way could we beat the traffic. The Arc is very impressive and the crowds make it fun. We head down the Champs on the north side, looking for a restaurant. Looking for a classy, cheap, cheese and bread spot.

 

Apparently it doesn’t exist on the Champs.

 

We finally cross over to the south side and swing back and stop at a place the advertises sandwiches. They have them but we can’t eat on the sidewalk if we are only having sandwiches. Fine! We are starved so it doesn’t matter. I have a goat cheese salad and it is very good. The little ones have a bizarre hotdog in a French roll. I’m not sure about Zach, and Jenna. Sherry has the cheese plate and there is a nice selection of soft and semi-soft cheese. She can’t eat it all. Things are going pretty good until we order Seven-up all around. At $5.00 a glass (less than 8 oz) it added $30 to the meal. A little hard to believe. Oh well, It was sorta on the Champs. At least we could see people walking by, kinda.

 

We found a Metro close by and headed back to Pigalle Circle and our hotel. The neon of the night made the neighborhood a little magical. Of course the nightclubs still had their staff out on the sidewalk and it was still sleezy, but a pretty sleezy. It still seemed as if we had to flee into our hotel. Not exactly a relaxed family gathering on the sidewalk. After the kids fall asleep I wander back out to experience the street nightlife. Depressing after awhile, so I retreat back to the hotel. In the morning, we have the continental breakfast in the breakfast room. It is very small and not the best ambience. Coffee, breads and cheese.  

 

 

Sunday

June 27, 1999

Our intention is to see Notre Dame, the Louve, and perhaps the Eiffel Tower. It has to be a packed day because tomorrow we are leaving Paris at 7:30 in the morning. Unfortunately we are having a late start. Back to the Metro, and we brave the crowds to head to the river. There is a station on the island but I wanted to walk across the bridges to approach Notre Dame. It is wondrous. We pass by the book seller stalls that line the river. An old tradition that goes back almost to the time when Viking longboats came up the river to loot and pillage.

 

The line to enter Notre Dame is long, but it moves quickly. The Towers are closed for repairs and the outside is partially covered with scaffolding for the reconstruction work. We spend over an hour listening to the music and wandering around the naves. It is hard to describe. Struck by the flying buttresses and gargoyles. The weather breaks and the clarity of bright blue skies against the brown stone of the cathedral is startling.

 

We move on to the Louve, just a few blocks away. Not many people coming in the entrance we chose. We have to walk the entire courtyard, through several arches to get to the official entrance. We can see the glass pyramid and a line of people. The skies suddenly darken and a rainsquall comes through, people are scattering. The determined are still in queue, awaiting entrance to the pyramid. Suddenly, out of the mist appear several young men from Algeria. They are selling umbrellas. I’m not sure, but it appears that they follow the storms with bags of collapsible umbrellas, perhaps they have followed this storm all the way from Algiers. In any case, dozens of people in queue purchase the umbrellas. The wind takes its sacrificial victims, but several umbrellas actually survive until the entrance is reached. We struggle along with jackets and hats.

 

The museum was going to close in two hours. There was a lot to see in a very short time. Entire wings of the building had to be seen on the fly. Quick glances to the left or right as we whizzed by. The art and culture of whole civilizations fell in our wake as we sped through ancient halls. The smartest thing we did was snare ourselves a wheelchair to use for the kids. It did present problems with the variety of stairs and landings, but nothing impossible.

 

We used the map to spot the treasures of our collective hearts, and the last hour was used in a furious, floor by floor, wing by wing, attack on the museum. I missed the Venus de Milo by 5 minutes. Oh well, another year. We turned in our wheelchair and left the museum to catch the Metro to the Eiffel Tower.

 

Wall to wall people is the standard on the Metro, especially at this time of day. We ride back toward De Gaulle circle and then transfer to a train that passes by the Tower. The Metro exit is several blocks to the west of the Tower but we can easily see the direction we must take. Approaching the base, I am impressed with the height of the arches. I remember reading that airplanes had flown under the arch, flown by daredevil pilots. Tight squeeze but do-able.

 

One of the tower legs is the entrance to the elevators. You can also walk the stairs, but you must still pay the entrance fee. If we go only to the restaurant level we can pay a lesser amount. It is obvious we have to go all the way to the top, so we pay the entire amount. As the elevator car ascends we are also moving sideways, towards the center of the structure. Once we reach the restaurant level we change cars for the more vertical ride to the top. It travels quickly, and before you know it we are overlooking the entire river valley of the Seine. Of course, mostly what we see are buildings, and a few glimpses of the river. I wonder how much of Paris has been built since the first tourists gazed from this Tower. The sky is filled with rain clouds amid patches of blue. The sun strikes neighborhoods of Paris with bright white light, surrounded by the gray of overcast. It is startling to see. The older sections of Paris are obvious, with the Mansard rooflines and narrow streets. The color is phenomenal. On the hill directly to the north is the Cathedral we visited yesterday, brightly lit by a hole in the clouds, almost like a spotlight. Notre Dame is almost lost in the jumble of shadows. The Louve stands out by its size and gardens. It is a wonderful sight all around.

 

Leaving the Tower we decide to walk back towards the Arch de Triumph, looking for a restaurant that didn’t cater to the tourist crowd. It was not the best plan in execution. Considering that it was early Sunday evening, the only restaurants that were open, were the ones near the tourist’s centers. We walked for several miles without passing a single restaurant opportunity. Well. There was one, but it was not “family friendly.” We did get a very close personal view of the urban/small business neighborhood between the river and the Champs Elyses.

 

Back on “The Champs.” Looking for a restaurant here had the same problems that occurred the night before. Which restaurants met our financial range, which restaurants met our family friendliness needs, and which restaurants would sit us at a table? After walking for miles, the best choice was McDonalds. Yep, American fast food- on the Champs. It seems unfortunate, but it was the best deal, and the best food on the avenue. Kid’s Meals and cheeseburgers. Laura and Amy eat on the other side of the room, and interact with their neighbors. Night falls completely and the lights of Paris shine. We are American tourists retreating to a little bit of America, feels good.

 

We jump on the Metro and head back to Pigalle and our hotel. Everyone is dead tired and the beds are very inviting. I have this sudden awareness that this is the last night in Paris, and I slip out for another late night stroll. Unfortunately it is still the same neighborhood, so I slip back in after a quick stroll around the Circle. We have to catch the Chunnel back to London at 8:30 in the morning, so we all need as much sleep as we can get.

 

 

Monday

June 28, 1999

We get everybody up in plenty of time, but the hotel has not set up the free breakfast by the time we head out. Learning from our arrival, we jump on the Metro for Gard Nord and the terminal for the Chunnel. We are a little taken aback by the number of police and police vans that are overrunning the Pigalle. It looked like a mass arrest was going on and we did not want to be part of it. This was 7:00 am and there must have been dozens of police, some with fully automatic sub machine guns. Whatever the problem was, I didn’t want to be a part of it. We got on the Metro and didn’t look back

 

Gard Nord in the morning is a busy place. Finding the Eurostar is a little difficult. Okay, a lot difficult. It seems that we entered the terminal at the farthest point from Eurostar, but we finally twist through several corridors and find the train.

 

As we left Paris behind, there was a real feeling of relief. It was a nice visit, but all of us looked forward to England.

 

At Waterloo Station we immediately looked for luggage lockers to stash most of our baggage until later in the evening. While we were waiting for a locker the building apparent had a terrorist attack and we were told to exit quickly, then it seems it turned into a test drill and we were invited back. It made us all very nervous. It was about 10 o’clock in the morning and we intended to tour about London and then catch an early evening train back to London. John and Kate had invited Melanie over for dinner with us. The day was very overcast, with spots of rain and drizzle.  

 

We still had tickets to tour the Tower of London, so we found a double decker and heading south along the River Thames.

 

The weather was “spotty,” but for now it was bright sun with random dark clouds. The Tower bridge was a real treat to cross while on the top deck. The tour guide had mentioned that since we had tickets, that we could bypass the long line and go directly to the entrance. He was right, after we walked alongside the moat we entered without waiting, a welcomed event. I kept looking at the defensive works, trying to imagine how I would have assaulted the place. Without long range artillery I wouldn’t want to try. Casements, firing loops, and withering crossfire would have discouraged any attack. We had a map and we began our tour by walking the battlements until the inner courtyard was reached. One of the blacker clouds had settled over the Tower at that moment so we ducked inside to avoid the rain. Inside was the old armory and several exhibits of the making of the Tower. The Royal Crown jewels were stored in another building so we exited and using the map tried to find the vault. Sherry and the little ones had to use the restroom and the map provided the location down a little side alley behind the vault. The sun had come out and it was very pleasant. Zach, Jenna and I waited outside, sitting on some benches. The sun was beating down on the stone wall behind us and lit the whole area was bright light. I began counting the cobblestones and thinking that Sherry was taking a very long time. “Good grief, what’s taking so long?” I complained to Zach and Jenna. Zach was shaking his head and Jenna just sat there blankly. After about twenty minutes of waiting I asked Jenna to go in and find out what was taking Sherry so long. Jenna looked at me and said, “She’s not in there!” “What??” “She’s not in there, I saw her come out a while back with the girls. They went that way.” Stunned silence from Zach and I.

 

“Jenna, what on earth do you thinking we were doing by sitting in this back alley, if not waiting for Mom to come out?”  

 

“I dunno.”

 

So we ran out of there, trying to find where Sherry went. She knew that we were heading for the Crown Jewels, so she must of thought we went in without her. We raced to get into the building. The problem was that there was a queue that kept us from moving up the line to find Sherry. And Sherry must have had the same problem trying to move ahead to find us, except that we were behind her. So in the sacred treasure room of the British, there were two sets of pushy Americans, cutting people off and barely giving the respect due to the jewels of the Empire. We never found Sherry and exited in a panic. I positioned myself in the middle of the quad, trying to be noticed. It apparently worked because Laura spotted my beret and told Sherry where I was, and the family reunited. I traded all the gold and jewels of the Empire for the sake of my family. Well, sorta.

 

The weather seemed to take a turn for the worse, the overcast much more complete. As rain seriously threatened, we crossed Tower Bridge on foot and attempted to find a restaurant for a late lunch/early dinner. We found a nice hotel restaurant right on the river and had a decent meal. The weather really took a turn for the worse but we were comfortably inside, watching the boats being tossed about on the river. Really quite nasty out there. All in all, we spent about two hours getting served, eating, and waiting out the storm. Picking up our Paris luggage at the station we headed for the tracks.

 

By now, traveling by train or tube was old hat and we got to Sunningdale just at the right time. Melanie was at the Webb’s at came to pick us up in her car, making two trips. Kate was back from her trip up north and all of us sat down to a wonderful home cooked meal. After dinner, John took Zach and I to his local pub for a traditional pint. It was a nice time, Zach had his first legal English pint, and I enjoyed the atmosphere. We got back to the house and packed up to leave early the next morning for another day in London.  

 

 

Tuesday

June 29, 1999

John and I get up early in the morning and head over to the school district where he is a board member. We have a nice meeting with the superintendent and his technology manager. John is using me a little to establish his technical expertise. The technical toady is afraid of John for some reason. After 30 or forty minutes we head back to home. Hopefully everyone is ready to go. Melanie had said that she might be ale to meet us at Waterloo station, near the Burger King, and tour with us in London. We waited for a time but Melanie didn’t show so we headed off.

Not really having a serious tour plan, we headed in the general direction of Westminster Abbey. Along the way we spotted a long line of people and at first we thought that we had found the entrance. But it turned out that we were in the queue for the Parliament gallery. Well, why not? This was cool; the line wasn’t too long. Except that it wasn’t moving. Several times they let big chunks of people in and the lined moved up. But finally it stopped. Apparently they only let a certain amount in, and if something cool was happening then people stayed in, and the people stayed outside waiting for an opening. Scotland was gaining independence so the debate was heavy and we stayed outside in the rain and cold. Zach had tried several times to get information from the guard, but couldn’t get much encouragement. I hated losing the time to a losing adventure. We finally gave up and went in search of Westminster. What a building!  

 

And of course, the Poet’s Corner was the highlight of our tour of the building. We spent a long time walking the niches and reading the inscriptions. The vaults of so many kings and queens, history made alive, though they are dead. The cathedral was closing but they were starting a worship service so we stayed and joined in with the regular congregation. Very nice service and quite the pageant with a boys choir, vestments, and everything. We sat on folding chairs placed in the Poet’s corner. Spirit filled.

 

By now, we were very aware that we had to catch a train to get into Sunningdale by a reasonable time. We had just enough time to walk over to see Westminster Cathedral but had to skip seeing St. Peter’s. We caught a cab to Waterloo in order to get the train for Sunningdale. We wanted to go to Kate’s favorite restaurant but ended by ordering Chinese. Pleasant evening at home, planning for our trip to Windsor in the morning.

 

John had arranged for us to leave our baggage at the Guildhall in Windsor, so that we could tour that town and castle, then take the train down to London and out towards Gatwick. We were staying the last night near the airport because we needed to catch a morning flight to Boston, and then on to San Francisco.

 

 

Wednesday

June 30, 1999

We have a light breakfast at John and Kate’s and then John drops us of at the local bus stop (in two trips). John is careful to let the driver know that we are basically clueless, and he nods knowingly.

 

The bus takes us through several small villages on the way to Windsor. It really is a wonderful ride, and we are amazed at all the locals waving to us, the bus, or the other riders on the bus. The driver goes out of his way to drop us off at the guildhall before continuing on his way.

 

The Guildhall is quite a building. Designed by Christopher Wren, it has a long and interesting history. We get a private guided tour by the officers that are on duty. John is a council member representing Windsor/Ascot and we feel lucky to be able to stash our luggage so close to the castle. We catch the changing of the guard ceremony. Bearskin shakos bobbing up the hill towards the castle. Very sharp and shiny bayonets mounted on some pretty lethal looking automatic rifles. We follow the guards into the castle and we saw how the royals lived. The “private rooms” that we see are no longer used but they were used by previous royals. It’s a nice tour. We start by going around the famous doll’s house. Jenna and Laura go nuts. Inside the main quarters there are several rooms of weapons and armor, walls and walls of the stuff. In one hall hang the crests of the Knights of the Garter. Famous stuff all over. The Chapel contains the remains of Henry VIII. Another room has the bullet that killed Lord Nelson. We leave the grounds in order to find something to eat, and we shop a little at an English wool exchange. I’m a little nervous that we have to pick up our luggage before the officers close for the evening. Our train leaves at 6:00 but we have to pick our luggage up by 5:00. I sit with the luggage and the little girls, while Sherry, Zach and Jenna shop in the stores nearby. Soon we are all carrying as much as we can down to the train station. It’s a lot of luggage. Zach and I each take two heavy bags and everyone else grabs a backpack or something. The station is a long two blocks but we make it in several stages, with lengthy stops on the benches. The train takes us nearly into London but then we transfer to another train that heads back out to Gatwick. Our hotel is one stop from the airport and we depart from the train. The cab driver tells us that the hotel is just behind us so we think we will walk. It may have only been two blocks away, but they were very very long blocks. It should have been a natural thing to learn from the Windsor walk to the station. We should have taken the cab. Always take the cab.

 

Our hotel is very American looking and is very comfortable. There’s an English restaurant pub/restaurant next door so we head over for dinner and have a pretty good time, eating pretty good food.

Our last night in England is comfortable and relaxing. The next morning we have an early flight out so we arrange to have two cabs pick us up to take us in to the airport.  

 

 

Thursday

July 1, 1999

The hotel has a nice continental breakfast and we relax a little before the cabs come to pick us up. The ride into Gatwick is uneventful and we head to the gate to fly home, stopping first in Boston. We thought we should check lost and found for the missing notebook, and more importantly for Sherry’s wallet. The problem with the wallet was that we weren’t certain when we last saw it. It might have even been left in San Francisco. We asked Zach to lead the girls to the gate and we would meet them there. That was a little miscalculation on my part. I knew in the back of my mind that they would need passports to enter the international gate area, I just thought that they would wait in the general area. Zach was determined to find a gate, even if it was going to the wrong country. After waiting for some time in the line of people that were flying to Belfast, the attendant went to Zach and told him he really didn’t want to go to Ireland, or Belfast in particular. Meanwhile we found nothing in Lost and Found, and then we couldn’t find Zach or the girls when we returned. We were flying American Airlines and after hanging out in front of their check-in we finally connected. Grateful to be together again we jumped on the flight to Boston. This was to be a little shorter flight than the hop from O’Hare to Gatwick. Nothing spectacular about the flight, we watched movies and ate.

 

When we arrived in Boston we were told the we had been slowed by headwinds and our arrival was delayed by over thirty minutes. This was bad news for us. We only had 45 minutes between flights. Our connection to the flight for San Francisco was now at risk. The attendants had given specific instructions to people that were continuing on other flights. We were to get our luggage, go through customs then place the luggage immediately on the conveyor belt for connecting flights. We did this, but then when we asked where the next gate was, we were told that we needed to exit the building, cross the road, wait at the median bus stop, take the F bus two buildings to the south, enter the terminal and go to gate 19. And we had about 15 minutes to do it. We made it, just barely. We watched more movies and ate some more food. When we landed in San Francisco it was clear that our luggage was not on our flight. And the courtesy van we had arranged was nowhere in sight. I couldn’t even remember what company we had called. The phone number was in the missing notebook. Somehow an additional business card turned up in our collection of junk paper. We called, and the driver said he was at the airport looking for us. I went looking for him, found him, and we all left for Lafayette, anxious to get home.

 

The end.