Tag Archives: Spring Break

It’s Hard to be Grumpy in London


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Daffodils blooming and Albert Memorial in background in Hyde Park, London, March 23, 2018.

Well, not if you’re a kid and you got up way too early, I suppose. And I guess my travel companions would argue that there were times Friday when I was a bit frayed at the edges, so maybe the title should be “it’s hard to stay grumpy in London.”

I like visiting large cities. The museums and shops of Minneapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans, Vancouver—I’ve been there and would willingly go back. New York City is prominent on my list of places I want to go, and if you’re planning a trip to D.C. any time, I would love to be with you.

In particular, I hope to get back to San Francisco.

But though I love all the cities on my continent, London seems like a special place. It’s so steeped in the world—more of an international crossroads than any American city. It bears the marks of its sometimes volatile, violent history. It seems a bit cleaner than many North American metros. Despite its vast size—London is a huge, sprawling city—it is also human in scale, with narrow walkways, bike paths and streets.

It’s a city of glittering, ugly new skyscrapers. But in other areas, the buildings are only 4 or 5 stories high—creating a crowded cityscape that is nonetheless more light and airy than many central urban areas.

We were lucky this year to spend spring break in England. Friday was our full day in London. We arrived Thursday and depart Saturday, and I am thrillingly awaiting my first visit to the British Museum today. Thursday was the Science Museum, an accidental stroll through Imperial College, Hyde Park and a pretentious museum in the Greenwich neighborhood that was actually a extensive advertisement for how self-consciously cool the real estate in the Greenwich Peninsula is.

The underground is loud and crowded and smells of oil and age, and I love it. As my wife and two granddaughters were on our own for the morning, my son-in-law had specified the route—take the Jubilee Line to Green Park, and switch there to the Victoria Line for the tube to South Kensington Station.

I was a little paranoid about riding the wrong way, but as Audrey pointed out, if that happens you just hop off the train and take one headed the other way.

The Science Museum, when we got there, was crowded and noisy. I spent my time chasing after grandchildren rather than strolling through the technology exhibits, which would have been my choice. Still, playing with grandchildren is a pleasant way to while away a morning, and it was a prelude to a glorious afternoon.

March in Iowa is a transition month, a mix of winter and spring that will bring 10 inches of snow today. While England saw a rare snowfall earlier in March, and the weather has been cool, it’s still very much spring here, with flowers in bloom and green grass, even if the trees have not yet woken from winter slumber. Friday afternoon was strolling in Hyde Park.

If I came here with just adults, I would be tempted to rent bicycles to see more of the park, but what I did experience on a pretty spring afternoon convinces me that one of the glories of Britain, besides the Beatles and Monty Python, is parks. Their playgrounds tend to be wood and metal and sturdy and old-fashioned, with swings and teeter totters and dangerous things that would not ever be built today in North America, where playgrounds are plastic and padded and safe and dull by comparison.

The day was also filled with food. We had lunch at a quick food shop that defies description. With its rice base and spices, I considered it Asian, but my son-in-law says it was a French fusion place. Whatever. It was filling and good and definitely not McDonalds.

And when we grew tired in the afternoon and had the early rush hour Underground journey back to our temporary apartment by the Thames, there was a stop for sticky toffee pudding. If you haven’t, perhaps the expense and time of a flight to London is worth your while to experience that dessert. I liked it, although, in full disclosure, I know from personal experience that my daughter and son-in-law can whip up an even tastier version of this treat.

The Brits don’t have a great reputation for culinary genius, but in my experience, eating in England features delightful dining. True, they invented beans on toast as a meal, but they also created fish and chips and sticky toffee pudding.

Well, God save the Queen and all of her subjects. I visited a pub in Norwich earlier this week and hoisted several pints. Cheers to England and to London, which right now is about my favorite city in all the world.

Of course, my opinion may be tainted. We’ve been hosted by my delightful oldest daughter and her family. There are two active, bouncy girls to play with and a baby boy to cuddle. That and Hyde Park—what more can one ask of a great city?

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California City Life by the Bay in San Francisco


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First day–we visit the Golden Gate Bridge.

If you come to San Francisco, it turns out, flowers in your hair are not required.

For spring break this year, my wife and I jetted to the left coast to visit the city by the bay. Our son and daughter-in-law have tech jobs in the computer capital of the universe, which is not exactly San Francisco, but nearby, south of the city.

For one week, we sampled quite a variety of experiences. We ate and ate and ate—prime rib, and Chinese dumplings and Korean Chicken and burritos in the Mission District that are the kind of burrito angels in Heaven order when they get a hankering for some Mexican.

We walked through the peninsula to the larger part of Golden Gate Park and toured the Botanical Gardens. We partly crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on foot. We saw the Sutro Bath ruins and the remains of a federal fort and prison at Alcatraz.

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It was a thrilling whirlwind, and our gracious hosts assured us there is much more to see, which I fully believe. We didn’t see wine country nor the big redwoods. We only spent significant time in two museums—the Cable Car Museum, cool because the machinery that actually runs the cable car system whirs away before your very eyes; and The Computer History Museum which was just cool. So we got to see technology that was the height of 19th century cleverness as well as 21st century wires and silicon chips. And, yes, we’ll be back again, I’m sure.

Of course, most of all we got to spend time with our son and daughter-in-law. Jon and Nalena, thank you for being such gracious hosts. Thank you for putting up with the slow walking speed of an old man with a failing left knee—and, honestly, the many miles of walking each day seemed to do me some good, although I could skip the stairs.

The weather forecast for the week called for clouds and rain most days, and I suppose there was some rain more days than not, but it often fell at night, and we were blessed most days with sunny skies that made me regret not brining an Iowa baseball cap (probably one that says “Diocese of New Orleans,” but that’s another story) and some shades. In particular, our Alcatraz Island tour was favored by sunshine—and although it turned cloudy at the end of the day, by then, who cares?

San Francisco was warm and green compared to Iowa. We’re warming up here, but are still 10 degrees or so behind central California. There will come a time, in June or so, when Cedar Rapids, Iowa, starts being hotter than San Francisco, California, for the Midwestern summer—and an Uber driver assured us the green we saw was a bit misleading. “We forgot what green looks like” during recent drought years, she said.

We engaged in some competitions while in the Bay Area. One minor high point of my trip was defeating my very intelligent oldest son in a game of chess at the headquarters of Facebook. However, I will make no further mention of the two chess games played earlier in the week.

We had a Facebook-based photo contest—my wife, son and I each chose 10 photographs of San Francisco to post in a “Seen in San Francisco” gallery, and used scoring based on “likes,” “loves” and comments. My son and wife are close in the scoring, but my wife seems to be winning. Me, I’m way behind. Besides overall points, there is a competition for best photo, too—and it’s a tie right now, between photographs I did not take. And let’s not talk about Bananagrams—come to think of it, I didn’t do well at any of our competitions this past week.

Oh well. I was still winning. I was in San Francisco. See the competition images here, and more of my SF pictures here.

The Bay Area, while a bit crowded, busy and dirty, was nonetheless also quirky, interesting and full not just of pigeons and trash, but also charming Victorian houses, street art and restaurants.

Restaurants! San Francisco is not much larger in population than Des Moines, Iowa, but the Bay Area has Iowa beat to Sunday and back in the food area. Yes, it can be pricey, but I had the best Korean, Mexican and even American (prime rib) food that I think I’ve ever eaten. There is just one Puerto Rican restaurant in San Francisco, as far as our son knows, but even it serves food that makes you think you needed to walk six miles a day just to make up for that lunch.

Some people have left their hearts in San Francisco. I can see that—but me, I think I would leave my stomach.

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Playing with Photoshop at The Computer History Museum. Bad Hombres in SF.

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On the Bucket List: Return to London


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On walkway across the Thames, looking back towards St. Paul’s.

I’m sure it’s not a shock that there was too much to see and do in London that it would not fit in a one-day visit.

Last week, my wife and I were hosted in London by our daughter and son-in-law. We took a train from Norwich Saturday morning, visited two museums that day, walked about central London Sunday morning, and returned by rail to Norwich Sunday afternoon.

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Sunshine Sunday morning.

Along the way, we had a very nice Easter dinner in a local restaurant. It was a very pleasurable visit, and I thought about all kinds of things I would like to do now in London that 24 hours would not accommodate:

•    Visit the British Museum. I was in the same town as the Rosetta Stone, but didn’t stop by to say hi.
•    Ride the Eye. Easter weekend was a busy time at any tourist attraction in London anyway, so not standing in long lines for a giant Ferris Wheel was, all things considered, a good move. But it would be nice to spend a few days in London and maybe ride that thing on a random Tuesday or Wednesday morning when the crowds and lines are merely large and not hugemongus. This particular ambition, by the way, may come as a surprise to my kin and friends because I have a well-deserved reputation of being terrified of heights in general and Ferris Wheels in particular. But just as I can fly to London despite the clear irrational nature of the activity (you want me to strap myself into a pressurized metal tube that flies 10 miles high and trust it will both ascend and descend safely?), so I think I could screw my courage to the sticking point and ride in the London Eye, stealing brief glances at the city in between shutting my eyes or staring fixedly at my feet.
•    Do art. I would have to research which museums to stop by, but I generally love art museums, and didn’t stop in any during my brief, first visit to London.

Not that London is paradise. There is a thing called “weather” and it doesn’t play to the city’s strengths. There is a saying in Iowa that if you don’t like the weather just wait 10 minutes—in our volatile climate, the same week or day can feature warm sun, cool rain and snow, as this week testifies.

London, based on my small sample, is more so. We were blessed with sunshine Sunday for our stroll along the Thames, but we were also cursed with sudden, nasty cold rains that had us scurrying for shelter in doorways or under bridges. We saw sun, wind, rain, hail, and, briefly, snow—all in the course of one three-hour stroll.

At least we had some sun.

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Granddaughter peeks out at cold, heavy rain. We are sheltering in a church doorway.

Also, London is also not the cleanest of cities. It’s not drab and black and smoggy as it used to be, by accounts I’ve read, and I’m grateful for that, but the Brits could learn to use the waste bin a bit more efficiently. Then again, to be honest, I’m not sure London is as dirty or dirtier than any large American city, where there are plenty of litterbugs, too. Maybe Norwich, a much smaller place, spoiled me a bit.

London is also full of Londoners. You have to get used to being in a crowd most of the time, which an Iowan isn’t. I didn’t’ find that to be a nasty or unpleasant experience, just a bit of a new sensation.

Of course, we were visiting the Natural History Museum and the Science Museums on Easter weekend, as was, apparently, most of the inhabitants of the small island nation were London is located. So crowds were partly an artifact of where we were when we were there—and on many parts of our walk—the journey back from the Easter restaurant, for instance—we had the narrow, inadequate sidewalks of the old imperial capital mostly to ourselves.

London! Dinner at the Chop House, dinosaur bones and old planes, fantastic architecture and a pleasant tidal estuary to stroll along and over—you are, all in all, a wonderful city. It didn’t hurt that I was surrounded by family during the visit either—it’s always nice to be in a strange place with familiar people who know their way around, and I am grateful to Matt and Amanda (and Lizzie and Juliet and Audrey) for sharing the experience with me.

I will treasure many memories. I was very enchanted by the underground and the rail system in Britain—it’s a country that makes traveling without a car an easy thing, something that the U.S. should look into sometime. The museums that we did visit were fascinating, especially the Natural History Museum where we got to say hello to Charles Darwin who was taxidermied and placed in a hallway there (not really, it’s just a statue, but this is April 1).

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Charles Darwin, stuffed, mounted and placed on stairs landing.

At one tube station, there were lifts to take you to the street. While Amanda and Matt and family wisely rode those lifts, my wife and I walked up the stairs.

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Looking back at many, many stairs I have just ascended. Way down there is a tube station. Way, way down there.

The sign warned us that the number of stairs was the equivalent of a 15-story building. I don’t know about that—maybe British stories, which, like everything else in Britain besides museums are smaller than their American equivalent—but it was a hike. Better to look back on than forward to, I’ll give it that. We made it, and frankly we enjoyed the long hikes—and were very impressed at how well our young grandchildren did doing much of their London adventure on foot.

London! I hope to see you again.

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