UK March 2010: Galway: Home to the Ferocious O'Flahertys

Saturday I got up at a decent hour, anxious to explore Galway after resting most of Friday. The hotel does a great breakfast. I'm not really the Irish Breakfast type, but was very happy with my poached eggs, wheat toast, fruit and tea. I took an apple for later and headed out. First I decided to just walk around and get lost on purpose. Then ended up at the Galway City Museum and the Spanish Arch by accident. it was a nice stroll, looking at this exhibit on traditional Irish currach (skin boat) which is still used by some fisherman today. It went into details about the differences in the boats by area and what goes into making them. Your food, income, life were all linked to these vessels. Some fisherman carried small vials of holy water in a rope they tied to the boat and left in the water-- to bless both. Priests would pray over new boats before they took their maiden voyages.

In case any of my east coast family members have been wondering for the last 20 years what it would take to get me to attend mass again, I've stumbled on the answer. Apparently all that needs to happen is that I show up at St. Nicholas Cathedral about five minutes before service begins and I will anxiously grab a seat and sit through the service. I'm very lucky I found myself in a Catholic church so that I could follow along without prompting. Everyone was very nice, the service was short. I wondered halfway through if they were going to read the Pope Benedict XVI letter like other churches in Ireland have been doing, but they did not. The letter has had mixed results on the island from what I can gather. Some glad to have it, others wanting more of an acknowledgment of the Vatican's reported role in any cover up and more about what other countries are facing. Some felt a bit picked on, felt like more needed to be said about the survivors of the abuse, and some appreciated that there is no longer silence at the top levels. This and the American health care debate are the topics of discussion. It is interesting to have the different perspectives on both.

Galway county is where the Irish branch of my family hails. According to what I could find we have quite the reputation around here. Apparently, part of the reason Galway was walled off was because my ancestors wanted to take it back over from the English after being driven out centuries before. A plaque was placed on the city walls," From the Ferocious O Flaherty's O Lord deliver us". This plaque is infamous and mentioned to me by friends at the music pub (see below). Now, any of you that have encountered me on a bad day know that it would take more than a damn wall and plaque to keep me out. Still, it was a touching gesture. And now that you know a little more of my family history perhaps you will never talk to me like that again or give me that type of look. Thank you.So, I hear there is this thing called "Irish Music" so I decided to head out and hear some. I left the area of my fancy hotel, clogged with drunken college students and headed across the bridges (quays in Ireland) to an area where there are slightly less drunken college students. I settled in to a bar stool and ordered a glass of Guinness. A glass would be a half pint and looking around the room, I quickly realized that unlike Dublin and London, women in Galway still drank by the half pint. Where as the guy next to me averaged about 2 pints of Guinness to every half pint I had and I am not a very slow drinker. Though, luckily, not much of a drinker these days. I was done with a pint's worth. He is still there. The music was good a blend of traditional Irish and country/bluegrass. Audience members at a couple points sang there own solo ballads to the crowd. I made friends with the older crowd around me. Talked about Ireland and the US and families and travel. I also got a good recommendation for a band to see Sunday night. Hopefully my feet hold up.It was a nice night, relatively quiet in a crowded bar. Small conversation, smaller beers. I unwound my way home to the hotel and opened my window to hear the noises of the party crowd and feel the welcoming night air on my tired skin.

Sunday started with breakfast again. Like church, the way to get me to breakfast is to just put it in front of me. I went for oatmeal this time with stewed fruit and a poached egg on the side. Protein to keep me on track during the day. Sundays are quieter. You forget when you live in the US that some countries still close down at 5:00 in the evening and don't open on Sundays. I like it though. Strange for me, someone that thrives on off-time shopping trips, but it does allow people more community time. The shops close, the pubs, restaurants and cafes open. People mill about and meet up. Dinner on time with the family. Dogs get walked often. The money I save on food by eating apples, hummus and soda bread all day, I spent on an over priced massage at the hotel. My back and legs were not going to forgive me if I didn't. After the massage I took advantage of the outdoor, wooden hot tub that overlooks the bay. And now, yes, right now, I'm sitting in a pub in Galway, watching a fantastic band. Wow, that guy I met yesterday was right, they are fantastic. He says they are one of his favorite local bands ever and he is clocking I'm over 60. I like the thought of him seeing this somewhat mohawked, alternative, band in the flood of college students that make up the audience.

By now I am homesick, but still happy to have these adventures. I'm looking forward to a restful night in the Aran Islands and the journey back through Ireland to busy London.


Uk March 2010: Dublin to Galway

Let's start with a list of my favorite things about Dublin (no real order):

Chester Beatty Library
Kilmainham Gaol
The ease of having random conversations with strangers
Tea on demand
Watching television in Irish (Gaelic)
Mary Gibbon's Newgrange Tour
Learning three words in Polish (I'll forget by the time I get home, don't quiz me) from my new friend, Miarana, on the Jameson tour
The view from the gravity bar at the Guinness store house
The flood of green on St. Patrick's Day that wasn't in a green beer Boston kind of way

My last day in town was where I finished up my site seeing. I had two items on the top of my list to cover-- The Chester Beatty Museum and Trinity College. With my tendency to wander on purpose and accidentally (some people call this 'getting lost') I still had to stay on track. My hotel room fridge was stocked with food-- Indian leftovers, bread, cheese, apples, grapes, yogurt--this makes it easier to get up and go. Apparently, I've managed to eat (along with buckets of tea and pounds of cookies) 1,500 grams worth of red grapes and six super large apples. I eat some bread or yogurt in the morning, stuff my pockets with apples and grapes and face the brave outdoors.

I got to Trinity college first, easily found my way to the Book of Kells. It was just as amazing as you heard, but I found it equally amazing to walk through the other historical books on display there and ended up spending a big chunk of time in the Old Library. Lined with old books and dark wood shelves to house them from end to end, the pathway in the middle littered with glass display cases full of history, it was a tremendous experience. One of the highlights of the library itself is from the 1916 Rising-- the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. This is one of the first things you see when you walk in the doors. Housed in the college that British soldiers used at the time to fire on the rebels.

A big fan of gift shops, I browsed and browsed around the shop at Trinity until deciding on a cd rom of the Book of Kells, all of it. I figure I'll have everyone over and we can stare at my tiny laptop screen and look at it together. All around 680 pages of it. Pack a lunch.

After being set out of the shop. I wandered around the campus and then took off to do errands. I was supposed to meet the Germans around this time to do some site seeing together. I met the Germans on the small tour to Newgrange. We talked for awhile and then made plans to meet. We talked about many, many things that day but somehow, oddly never bothered with names. So, on the bus we had the French guy, the Germans, the Boston women, the two hungover girls from New York, the party people at the back of the bus, the woman that ran a small hotel in Greece and me. The Germans sat next to me, a mother and daughter team. The daughter was staying near Cork and working as a nanny, the mother was here for a visit and they were touring the island together. We chatted most and then made plans to meet and if it wasn't for my uncanny ability to get lost in a paper bag, we probably would've met up and had a great time. As it was I took a wrong turn, it took me awhile to realize it and with the back tracking I arrived 20 minutes late. Sigh. I liked hanging out with them and I really felt like my plan to stay in touch and suggest visits to each others home towns would've been well received. Now one of you will need to put me up in Hamburg and show me around town.Thanks in advance.

I still got up the energy to continue on to the Chester Beatty Library. I’m still puzzled why more visitors to Dublin don’t find their way to this nice gem. It’s in the middle of Dublin Castle, easy to find when you are looking for it. And it’s free. The library is from the private collection of Chester Beatty, an American with a penchant for world travel and Asian artifacts that made his home in Dublin. There were two temporary exhibits on during my visit. One on narrative and figurative paintings from China during the 15th-20th century. These paintings and scrolls were visiting from the Shanghai Museum. The other exhibit was about the lost religion of Manichaeism. It was a very interesting story about this religion which most people did not know a lot about since most records were destroyed. Then these books got found in the early 1900's and they were found in very poor condition. One by one the pages, stuck together by dirt and salt for centuries are being separated from each other, preserved and translated. A whole complex religion that bases itself on the duality of good v. evil and dips into Buddhism, the complexity of stars and the night sky, and links this all to Christian belief structure is being unraveled and pieced back together, page by page.

And wait, there's more. The Library is best known for the collection of ancient religious texts, from many different paths. The collection of around 260 Qur'ans is supposed to one one of the best in the world. They are amazing to look at. And there is a lot to be learned. The materials in the Library help break down the different texts and where they are from, how they were used, but also educates you on the religions themselves. And then a step further, breaks down some different paths within the religion. A broad overview of the differences in Islam between Sunni and Shi'a beliefs, the three main types of Buddhism and the orgin of each. The collections of bibles is wonderful. Biblical Papyri from the second century AD including the oldest known copies of the four gospels and Acts of Apostles. Then they explain the difference in the apostles, their backgrounds and what their writings focused on. I spent a lot of time wandering around the collection, reading the texts, staring at the illuminated manuscripts, watching the interactive videos. I am more than a little interested in going a bit further and taking some comparative religion courses when I get home. There is something about those treasured books, how much went into their creation and how important it was to have them-- the process to create the paper, make the ink, the knowledge and study it took to be able to decorate and write one. And then the way they were treasured, for the words, the meanings, the connections people had to the spiritual world through them, and the sheer beauty of the books themselves. Reverence.

And yes, to answer your question, I did go to the Guinness Tour. I was not so much looking forward to it. The hungover and newly drunk again teenagers, well that was getting old. Still, I do like Guinness and I wanted to sit in the gravity bar with my pint and stare across Dublin. It was a pretty clear day. It was pretty amazing. I managed to sift through the crowd and get a seat. I spent a very long time there, staring around the city and getting lost in my thoughts. They only problem was I was out of grapes and getting hungry. I don't care what the old advertisements say, Guinness is actually not a meal. Well, maybe in my twenties, but not now. I shifted off the seat, climbed down a million stairs and went back through the streets of Dublin to the hotel.

This was my night of relaxation. I loaded pictures on my laptop, washed out clothes in the sink and put them on the heated towel rack to dry, massaged my sore feet, soaked in the bath until the water went cold, and began to pack.

My dear friends at the world's crappiest airline, Ryan Air, had done a number on my suitcase. This is a roller bag that I was not planning on taking home. I stuffed this smaller bag inside my bigger suitcase. The plan was to use the smaller bag in Ireland and donate it to a thrift store in London when I got back to Tessa's house. I have another similar, but better bag at home. But now the handle was half broken. And then in the middle of crossing a street, it became fully broken. Let me pause and mention that pedestrians do *not* have the right of way in the London or Ireland. I am smart enough to have figured out how to jimmy the removable shoulder strap from my purse to use with the suitcase. It still sucks, but at least I don't have to carry it. Now I have to decide if I am even going to bother with taking it one to London or dump as much as I can out of it and use the small duffel bag I take with my on travels. Apparently being overly prepared does have it's occasional advantages. Of course the dream was I would stuff it full of some treasured gifts for all of you. Instead we are looking at my collection of rain gear filling the bag. Hope you all like the used umbrellas you are getting for Christmas!

So, the bus ride to Galway was simple and easy. Sit, access wifi, load photos, arrive in Galway around three hours later. Still, I looked a little torn up. Wearing my traveling attire which is marginally better than what my clothes look like after camping for three weeks, pulling a broken suitcase with a homemade strap apparatus on it, hair falling out of the barrettes. You get the picture. Then I arrive in my really, really nice hotel. Where there is a fancy, fancy wedding reception going on. And the lobby is littered with guests all in nice suits and beautiful bright jewel toned designer dresses. I could not have felt more out of place.

Still, I can clean up well on occasion. I grabbed the new dress from Dublin, fixed the hair, went downstairs and had a water in the bar watching the pretty people party.

This being my day of rest, I sat outside and stared at the people picking up groceries, pulling in to pubs and then back inside for a nice relaxing night with a long, hot bath and more confusing Irish TV.


UK March 2010: St. Patrick was not Expecting This

Monday some sites are closed in Dublin, but the enterprising young(ish) traveler can still eke out a decent day of site seeing. I started my day with more wandering, got lost, found a new dress, got on my way again. I walked across the city to Kilmainham Gaol (jail). It was one of the top things on my list to do and well worth the walk. The tour was great, we wandered through the cells and the yard, getting filled in on the history of the prison, the history of Ireland. The crux being the 1916 Easter Rising. The leaders of the rising (or rebellion, depending on your politics) where held and executed here. The popular thought is that the executions ended up helping the cause towards Irish Nationalism. The people felt torn and tired, but seeing the dead fighters, revived them into action again. Certainly this cause has had its ups and downs in Irish history, tied into waves of immigration and exodus, religious strife and resource allocation. Not that this battle is completely finished. I'm not going to Northern Ireland this trip, but still have been plagued with the torn history of the Ireland and the realization that the Good Friday Agreement partly worked out by Bill Clinton, was just not that long ago.

Needless to say, after all that, I needed a drink. Since I had lost track of time and things close early, I was running up against some limited choices. The Jameson Distillery turned out to be my next stop. Not the most exciting tour visually, but we had a nice guide, and that helped. I also was smart enough to know to volunteer at the beginning for the taste testing at the end of the tour. They lined up the scotch, Jamesons and Jack Daniels and I helped decide the winner. One guess which I picked. I know where my soda bread is buttered.

I then got out of there before I got into trouble. Not to strengthen any stereo types, but there does seem to be a bit of pressure to drink in Ireland and to do a fair amount of it while you are at it. I've been exiting gracefully with made up plans whenever possible. This day, I sort of had some. I went to the Irish Film Institute to check out the facilities and to see 'The Fading Light', a new Irish film that was playing there. Not the happiest of films, but anyone that has made the mistake of letting me pick out a movie to watch knows that besides my odd Will Ferrell obsession, most of what I gravitate to can be a downer. I finished with a nice, light dinner in the film institute's cafe and then my windy night time walk back to the hotel.

Tuesday and Wednesday I decide to tour some of the outskirts of the Dublin area. I'm drawn to crumbly ruins on my vacation trips. Tuesday I went to Glendalough in Wicklow county. This area is linked to what is known as Ireland's 'golden age', when Ireland was the seat of learning in Europe, partly due to the monastic settlements and the education they provided. Saint Kevin of Glendalough was supposed to have gotten this while thing going. After living in solitude for seven years, he came down from the cliff and started building the monastery. That's a lot of time to plan a community, even in those days. Glendalough translates to 'valley of two lakes' which kind of gives you a rough idea of the landscape. After touring the crumbling ruins. I walked the path built on the boggy land that borders the lower and upper lakes.

Then back to the tour bus. The tour started with a brief drive and history lesson about the land around us. When we stopped for coffee, the driver pulled out a bottle of whiskey and asked if I wanted a shot in my espresso. I said no, put my drink down for a second, and when I picked it up noticed it was twice as full and smelled like Jamesons. It was 10:30 in the morning. After that he stopped a car passing us and handed out shots to everyone in the car. Then answered his cell phone and read texts while driving a vehicle roughly the size of a Greyhound bus. All I'm saying is Ireland is a good place to rediscover your religion. One way or the other.

Wednesday was another tour day (originally this tour was supposed to be on Thursday, but I got bumped). This is the trip I was really looking forward to, to the ruins of Newgrange. There are a lot of these stone circle/tombs around this area, only some of them have been excavated. It is interesting to think about all the history still to be discovered. Newgrange is from the new stone age (neolithic to you smart ones out there) period. A site older than Stonehenge, older than the pyramids. Plundered like most of the sites. And carved into the stones, somewhat modern graffiti from the Victorian Era. You know 'Albert was here 1869'. Actually, kidding aside, that is not far from the truth. Apparently the need to put your name and date on things is not a new phenomenon. So kids, get out your spray point and just go. Someday, 150 years from now, others will be staring at it in wonder.

It should be noted that this was also St. Patrick's day. From slave to bishop to patron saint of Ireland, this man really had a life. He is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland; picking up the shamrock and comparing the three leaves to the holy trinity. The snakes he drove out of Ireland are thought to actually have been the druids and pagan ways. What he didn't manage to drive out of Ireland where hoards of 18 year old drunkards. Downtown Dublin, 3/17, can make you rethink wanting to lower the drinking age in America. I'm not sure we should let them join the military or vote either. I tripped over scores of them when I walked through the cobblestone streets of Grafton Street and Temple Bar near Trinity College. I did manage to randomly fine a nice, casual Indian restaurant. Ate my fill and packed up leftovers that will certainly last me through the end of tomorrow. Best six euros I ever spent.

Full and frazzled by the throngs of revelers, I headed home. I felt a tiny bit worried that I was not fully celebrating. I stopped into a random pub, had one pint of Guinness, chatted with the bartender and a six year old that was overly enjoying her new penny whistle. She was cute, her uh, talent, was annoying. But she needs to practice now. She will be able to legally drink in 12 years and will need to be able to manage to play after eight hours of solid drinking on that St. Patrick's Day.

My favorite thing about the hotel is tea and cookies on demand. I rushed home based on this benefit. In the room, I put down my bags, called for tea, ran the bath water and drank two cups while soaking in my Irish lavender bath salts.


UK March 2010: London to Dublin

Dia dhuit!

I finished up London with an art day. After sleeping in, talking a short bath and drinking a lot of tea, I wandered to the tube station and made my way back to the city center again. I got off and a short walk later was in the posh area of Chelsea/Sloane Square. And to the Saatchi Gallery and the Empire Strikes Back exhibit. I loved the exhibit. It was a collection from modern, Indian artists. The first gallery started with a piece by Jitish Kallet, who is based in Mumbai. The piece was a speech by Gandhi, spelled out in about four inch high letters that were made out of acrylic made into the form of bones. That was one of the standouts for me. The other favorite was the comic book style work of a Brooklyn based artist, Chitra Ganesh.

After my dose of art, I walked quickly back to the tube station, shielding my eyes from the array of luxe, high-priced stores found in that area. Even taking into account the free admission price at the museum I would've gotten over my head just by window shopping. Plus, I may or may not have purchased a necklace at the gallery gift shop. A piece called 'Love-o-Meter'. When I get home everyone can have a spin (family excluded) and we can see how well it works.

I grabbed lunch on the road and then found myself at the Photographers Gallery. A small, nice photo gallery. For me, the most powerful piece was by Anna Fox: My Mother's Cupboard, My Father's Words. A series of small photos of the treasured and mundane items in her mother's cupboards juxtaposed by angry, violent quotes by her father. The book from the exhibit is about 3 1/2 inches high and in a pink cover. The small pictures, clear and simple. The quotes, unadorned and jarring.

I managed to sneak back to the British Library after this and finish up where I left off the other day, circling around the notebooks of some of my favorite writers. Staring in wonder at the collection of illuminated manuscripts and religious books from a wide range of traditions. A quick walk and a quick tube ride later and I met Janetta. She escorted me through the London bus system where we found a pub, waited for Tessa and then made our way to a Turkish restaurant for dinner and belly dancing.

The next day was also nicely filled with hanging out with Janetta and Tessa. We went to a Farmers Market, strolled through some shops, found our way to a very nice tea room for a simple, delicious tea.

After a brief rest, mainly filled on my part with packing for Ireland, we freshened up and went out to see some live music. A new favorite band of Tessa's Blood Red Shoes was playing. Months ago she scored me a ticket to the sold out show so I could check them out live with her and Janetta. A powerful, two piece, they put on a great show. The space was filled, but manageable. Good time had by all. It was nice to see the night sky instead of collapsing after dinner from sight seeing related fatigue.

The next morning, I had another chance to show off my public transportation skills. I rolled my suitcase through the streets and went from tube to train to plane. After dealing with the always frustrating Ryan Air and the almost always frustrating Ryan Air employees, I briefly relaxed on an over crowded flight and found myself in Dublin. A short bus ride and shorter walk later, I found myself at my Dublin hotel. I'm in Ballsbridge (barely). It's a nice area right outside the center of Dublin. It's nice to know that I am a short run from the American Embassy in case I get into too much trouble. Though, that is just not as easy as it sounds in Ireland. Let's just say, they have a high tolerance for a lot of things.

Shops and the likes close fairly early, but I was anxious to check out the city. I took a short. relaxing bath in the jacuzzi tub and wandered about. I found my way to a pub, they are hard to avoid, ordered my Guinness and settled in on to bar stool. A band was playing, a jazz quintet, they were great. They brought up two singers to sing some American standards. It might not have seemed like the typical Irish pub music scene, but a nice blend of the two countries, easing me into it all. After awhile, the band stopped playing. I sauntered back into the Dublin night, bustling with activity, and found a falafel sandwich and walked back to my new home. I like being a little outside of the center of the city, the neighborhood is peaceful, but in a couple minutes I can be in the middle of as much St. Patrick's Day week activity that I can handle. The room is small, but well-equipped. Single bed, desk, jacuzzi tub and an in-room sauna. I don't remember the sauna being advertised when I booked the room, but what a wonderful surprise. Makes the room smell like cedar, warms up in the time is takes to get through a quick bath or shower. Blissfully silent and relaxing.

Tea and cookies are brought to my room on request. I'm not sure why I should leave. Luckily for the cleaning staff, my Dublin agenda is filled with sites I want to see.


UK March 2010: London

So, after a couple of days your hosts will start to cut the cord. Throw you out of the nest, let you test out your wings. Fight. Flight. Somewhere in between. So, the other day after eating my fill of thick, fresh, sliced and toasted bread covered in lemon curd, Tessa and I headed downtown for some sight seeing. She warned me this was it, and for the next few days I would be all alone in my sight seeing, with just me alone in the London with my tube map, a to z, and a pocket full of foreign coins. But before the cord cutting ritual, we had time together at the Wellcome Museum. It's sort of an eclectic museum-- science, art, the mind, the intersections of all of the above. We went to see the 'Identity' exhibit. Eight 'rooms' that contained artifacts, writings, photographs and videos of different people. Most of whom have dealt with identity and defining what it is to be in different ways. The small wooden rooms were made from freshly cut wood, which gave the exhibit an overwhelming IKEA-like smell, but still it held our interest. The intersection or overlap of identity, art, genes. How people define and refine who they are or how they try to categorize others. It was well worth the free admission and the tube ticket price. And between you and me, the cake in the cafe was beyond belief. When I grow up, I would like to be defined by cake. I would like my IKEA smelling room to be covered in icing and sprinkles.

To prove I am a giver as well a taker, I prepared dinner that night for my hosts. Ravioli with lemon infused olive oil, dab of fresh pesto, chopped broccoli, leeks (it is illegal to cook anything in England without leeks). I topped it off with fresh shaved cheese and toasted walnuts. The fresh bread was called sourdough by the local bakery. I guess because of the shape. I hate to get all new world and everything, but that was not sourdough. Still dinner was nice, we drank ginger beer, read stories to Patrick and threw in some cookies for dessert. Girl scout cookies, smuggled in a heavy suitcase all the way from SFO.

The next day I headed to The Tower of London, one of my favorite destinations. I like walking around the towers, listening in on the history, being dazzled by the crown jewels. The beefeater/guide (Phil) was fantastic. Very animated, chatty, witty and well-informed. Got some lesser known stories from him about the tower and an animated replay of the more commonly told ones. He ended the tour by answering the question he stated "Must surely be on the minds of every lady here." "Unfortunately, I do have plans for this evening.".

Before he broke our hearts, he took us into the chapel, my first time inside and walked along the stone floor listing out the bodies underneath our feet, all in unmarked graves, buried without ceremony. Piles of bones from centuries, too good to be put in commoner graves, too bad to be put in Westminster Abbey. Exiting, I walked gently-- half in awe of all the history and half scared that the ghost rumors were true and that I should be on my best behavior. Hopefully they will go after that one tourist that put on their hat before leaving the inside of the church and leave me alone.

It being a beautiful day, (beautiful, this time of year in London meaning not pouring down rain), I bundled myself up in gloves, heavy coat, scarf and a hat and walked along the river Thames. Taking pictures of all of the bridges. Tower Bridge (which most tourists mistakenly think is the London Bridge, because of it's ornate stone design), the London Bridge (the second, the first now residing in Lake Havasu, Arizona), Southwark Bridge, and finally to the Millennium Bridge. This bridge is not for those of you afraid of heights, but I love it. The steel slat and wire design, guiding me across the river to the Tate Modern.

The Tate Modern is another familiar haunt of mine when in London. I usually go to whatever the special exhibit is and then dance around the floors looking at favorite paintings and trying to find new ones to love. Exhausted from that much dancing, I sat for a spell in the cafe, chugging espresso and eating cookies. Eventually I filtered through the gift shop and headed down the other side of the river bank to get back to the tube. I passed by Shakespeare's Globe Theatre (not the first one, that got burned down, not the second, that gone torn down, but the third). Exhausted, I found my way to the British Library, eating a sandwich on the way. I did not do the library justice before it closed for the night and I owe myself a second look. Hopefully, there is more to come.

But wait, I'm not done. I decided to try this beer thing that the kids all talk about. Well, by beer I mean cider. I went into a decent looking pub and ordered a pint of cider. Of course, my accent makes it hard for people here to realize I am speaking their language. The bartender started to pour me a pear cider but I stopped her in time. I drank my pint, got on the tube and headed back to my three week long London home. I was getting hungry and had missed dinner, so stopped into another pub in the neighborhood for a stilton, mushroom and leek pie and chips (french fries if you speak American). This bartender asked me for the number of the table I was sitting at and he repeated the question three times but I still could not understand a word he was saying. Finally he made a sitting gesture and I said "16", then we both laughed. I told him "You should see how badly I do in France". I think I got extra chips for my wit, it was much too much food to finish. Interestingly enough even though I can't understand a damn word the English say to me, I still get mistaken for local from time to time. I gave directions twice, both of them correctly, one to someone from the UK and one where I did not even have to pull out the A to Z on my iPhone to give them accurately. I'm not bragging, I'm just saying...

The next day was about me braving the heart of one of the more touristy parts of London, Westminster. I started with a new-to-me museum (I'm trying to do that for at least half the trip, seeing what I haven't seen before, expansion), The Cabinet War Rooms and Winston Churchill Museum. You may have guessed that this particular locale had a lot to do with WWII. The museum itself is built into the bunkers that housed Churchill and his staff when things got heated up. Most of the rooms were left in tact or filled in later with furnishings from that period. There were loads of recordings and pictures of staff that had worked from there and a dazzling sampling of quotes from Churchill himself. Lots on his life, WWII and all in a fun underground setting not too far from 10 Downing Street where Prime Ministers live when not in bunkers.

After that, lunch break. I fought through crowds of tourists (damn tourists!) and school children to cross the Westminster bridge and meet Tessa for lunch at her work. We walked by that part of the River Thames and the London Eye. An area that is sort of like Pier 39 in a lot of ways. Lots of tourists, lost and scrambling about, water, and street performers spray painted silver. Alas, no sea lions here either.

Fueled by food, I plowed through the crowds on the bridge again and went into the Houses of Parliament to see how this whole two house government system is trying to work. I went for the House of Commons, desperately wanting them to yell at each other like everyone says they do. I believe the spattering of MP's in session that day were all on Valium. No one yelled, no shoes got thrown, no fist fights, boring. Like CSpan but with accents. Still, it was worth it. I loved being inside the building, sitting in my bullet proof glass perch and staring at government in "action".

I was a bit tired after all that sitting, but since Westminster Abbey was still open and across the street, it did seem insane to not peek in. I forgot how amazing it was. The sheer history, lives and deaths, wrapped up in those stones and altars. The mix of old and new. When you have been around since 960 and still a functioning church, there is a lot of time spanned. I spent the most time in the 'Poet's Corner' staring at the graves and memorials of writers that have fed me for most of my life. Some that I struggled with, some I still read on my iPhone to this day.

I like moving about the abbey at my own pace, peaking into corners, stopping when something catches my eye, checking out the flowers in bloom outside, wandering. Then I get out the audio guide and let them pace me through in the order they want me to follow. Stopping and listening, reading, more staring. Seeing what I didn't notice the first time around or hearing the history of what had caught my eye before. Layered tour taking. Try it.


UK March 2010: San Francisco to London

I should start my first trip note with a hard, firm fact. Packing light is not one of my numerous gifts. Though the great thing about packing too much is you show up in other countries with twenty pairs of shoes that you will never wear and then on the way home you have fifty pairs of shoes because 'who knows when the American H&Ms will get these in stock?'. Sadly, there is a dark side to packing too heavy. Mainly there you are at Heathrow, jet lagged, with a headache, trying to pull a suitcase that weighs more than you. And you clock in a little higher on the scale than the average super model. Luckily, I'm not a quitter. I pulled that case through the airport and to the underground station. Then things got a bit messy. Like when they told me that after four stops the line was closed due to rail work. So, I would need to get on the train, then off the train and on to the bus that was pretending to be the train, then off the bus pretending to be a train and back on the actual train. Then I would sit and then transfer lines. Hopefully at the correct stop.

I pushed back the tears, found helpers to get me up and down the stairs, pinched myself to stay awake and eventually arrived in Walthamstow.

My friend Tessa, who is American born, but as I explained to the guy in customs, she has lived in London long enough to 'count', met me there with her son Patrick. After hugs, I had buckets of coffee and cookies. The staid and true diet of travelers everywhere

Then food, baby sitting, playing dinosaurs and forcing myself to stay up to a decent nighttime hour. I watched the Spike Lee documentary on Katrina. It was shameful that the British member of the household had seen it twice and I had not seen it yet. I did manage to talk articulately about the health care debate/progress. I'll be keeping up with the NY Times online in case I get quizzed on more American topics. One thing about travel, you are responsible for everything your country does wrong in the world and expected to be a subject matter expert on all items related to your home. Pre-trip I spent my time catching up on American Idol while memorizing the Declaration if Independence. Speaking of which, do any of you have those tacky new-ish American passports? With the weird Americana icons oddly sized and thrown together haphazardly on every page? That shit is embarrassing in customs. I'm open to any kind of green card marriage one of you would like to arrange, just so I can eventually get a second passport, from another country, that is less painfully awful.

The first full day of the trip, Tessa and her girlfriend Janetta and the surly/happy three year old, Patrick took me to Old Spitalsfield Market in East London. A market that has seen some changes in its 300 hundred plus years of existence. A decade or so ago it was run down, then discovered by students and artists that needed cheap rent and now that artsy charm has led to a new found fame among the moneyed members of society. It is a blend of upscale boutiques and random market stalls. Some with hand painted ceramics, some with more-than-gently used dvds and clothes. Sort of like the 'wares' you can find for sale in the Tenderloin mixed with the shops around Fillmore in Pacific Heights. I bought a belt from a guy in a stand. He helped adjust the size to hit me, slicing the leather and redoing the rivets (or whatever you officially call rivets once they are on a belt). I was then talked into a leather bracelet, thrown in at a 'discount' and also adjusted to size. The American accent often leads to the up sell. Still, the bracelet was probably more of an essential. I have freakishly small wrists for my height/weight and it was wonderful to have one shrunken down to the right size. And it's a nice sky blue to match my new dress. The dress is sky blue with a retro pinup girl motif, trimmed in red swiss dotted fabric and black bows. They are handmade in this one small shop and amazingly well priced considering.

Of course, shopping is not the purpose of the visit. In fact I'm settled with my purchases and good until Ireland where perhaps a sweater will find it's way into my suitcase. So, as I was saying, after walking through the market, we went to the city farm in the area. Great fun for fickle three year olds and for their aunts visiting from America. Chickens, goats, donkeys, pigs, but the real scene stealer was the indoor room full of guinea pigs. I was not overly excited about the, um, guinea pig smell, but Patrick was in love with them and we spent a good part of an hour watching them eat, shuffle about, pretend to threaten each other and similar guinea pig things.

Tuesday and I found Tessa visiting her friends and eating homemade leek and watercress soup, followed by peanut butter, chocolate chip cookies. I suffer. I suffer. After that I got on the train and walked around the downtown area by myself, just like a big girl, for a few hours. I just wanted to be in the city for a bit, in the middle of a weekday, half tourists, half businesswomen and men. Fighting to get down the stairs at the tube stop, staring at cookies and scones in the window fronts. The tourist sight seeing has not begun yet, but I am wandering around the city, staring and getting the feel of everything and wandering randomly into shops. Repeat visits are nice, not as much pressure to rush to see Big Ben as soon as you step off the plane. You discover more of the city, randomly exiting the train and looking around. I know the coins and money easy enough to count out exact change in a split second. I know the basic train lines and how to use the Oyster Card to get in and out of stations. And I will still show up at the Tower of London with my camera. No worry there.

Half my tourist stop, half my old friend. Hello London.