Sunday, April 13, 2014

Great British adventures: Royal Air Force Museum, London

Recently we visited the London branch of the Royal Air Force Museum with some friends. We didn't make it all of the way to the Battle of Britain Hall, which I think I will consider the most interesting of all of the buildings. But what we did see was quite interesting.

This De Havilland Mosquito is part of the Milestones of Flight display.

You also can see Owen and his friend taking full advantage of the museum's technology at the lower right.

The knitter/crocheter among us -- that would be Laura -- thought this display was totally cool.

This Halifax was the most interesting thing to me.

In April 1942, it took off from Scotland to participate in an attack on the German battleship Tirpitz, which was in Norway. The Halifax was hit by German fire and made an emergency landing on a frozen lake, but the heat from its burning engine melted the ice, and it sank to the bottom. (The six crew members survived; five escaped to Sweden, but one was captured and became a POW.)

The display has some fascinating historical information and photos.

The plane was extracted from the bottom of the lake specifically to go on display in the museum because curators realized their collection of bombers was lacking. (I am paraphrasing this story in an extreme way, of course, but you can read all about it when you visit the museum.)

I was spending much of my time herding children and didn't take many photos, but I think it's a great museum. We'll go back soon to see the Battle of Britain Hall, I'm sure. This Web site has all kinds of information on the museum's London and Cosford locations.

On our way out, we visited the gift shop. There I found a coaster printed with my mantra for the day.

No, I didn't buy one. But I am glad to have great museums to distract me from the laundry.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Three years in London: Week 29

Have you ever made lasagna in Spanish?

I hadn't until this week.

Our resident Spanish student had a project that required selecting a recipe, translating approximately 20 ingredients and 20 verbs into Spanish, and labeling a set of accompanying visuals with those translations.

This whole process was made even more interesting by Laura's selection of a recipe I'd never actually prepared before, complete with ingredients not typically sold here. (This was a totally Americanized recipe, and most of my lasagna preparations the past few years have been an amalgam of Italian and American preferences.)

My role was fairly limited (and all in English): procuring ingredients, aiding with preparation and taking photos.

Specifically these:

It all turned out deliciously -- or should I say delicioso?

Friday, April 04, 2014

Great British adventures: HMS Belfast

I think the most surprising thing about the visit Kevin, Owen and I made to the HMS Belfast last week was that it was the first time we'd been. We've talked about it for ages, even on trips to London before we moved here. Finally, we were there.

Much of the ship is set up as it would have been when it was on active duty, including providing covering fire for the D-Day landings.

The ship was built in Belfast (thus the name), and its bell supposedly is pure silver (this isn't the original one).

Many of the rooms inside have mannequin "workers." This mailroom guy seemed particularly creepy.

There also were cats on board, mostly for rodent control, so there are a few fake ones of those around, too.

You can see a sliver of the butcher exhibit to the right of this explanation of one of the ship's more unusual passengers.

See London Bridge in the background? The Belfast is docked in the Thames between it and Tower Bridge.

You can sort of see Tower Bridge in the background here.

The audioguide is included with your tickets, and it's pretty comprehensive. I thought the ship was fascinating in general, and I feel sure we'll go back at some point. The admission is a little pricey for adults, but kids are free. It's actually part of the Imperial War Museum, the main branch of which unfortunately is closed for renovations until July. But you can read all about the Belfast and the museum's other locations here.

A word of warning: There are a lot of ladders and stairs to be climbed, as the passages between levels haven't been retrofitted. Kevin had to carry Owen up and down a lot of these. Smaller children and people with weak knees might have problems with all of the climbing. I didn't notice whether strollers are theoretically allowed, but even if they are, you wouldn't be able to see anything but the main deck with one.

Three years in London: Week 28

Owen was sick again this week, but luckily it was of a shorter duration than his last illness and simpler to deal with. Plus, he was fine with activities such as this:

We got a grocery delivery that same day, and I was surprised he wasn't more excited by the prospect of eating this:

(It was a free sample and not something I'd typically order. And as I write this almost two weeks later, I think only one bowl of it has been eaten.)

After Owen recovered, I made up for lost time by eating out. One morning I met some friends for breakfast/brunch at the Quince Tree Cafe at Clifton Nurseries. I had a croissant sandwich that was excellent. And after we ate, I got some great ideas for things to plant in our back yard after I finally get its scariness cleared out.

The next day I went to a gathering of parents of special-needs children at the embassy. Afterward a few of us went to lunch at Ergon, which is a great little Greek restaurant. (It looks like it's a popular chain in Greece and that this is its first location elsewhere.) We all ordered off the lunch menu, and we all agreed it was a great deal for great food.

Afterward I went to H.R. Higgins (Coffee-Man) with one of my friends from the group. I had hot chocolate since I don't drink coffee, but I did snap a photo of its Royal Warrant.

I closed out a food-centric week with brunch at another friend's house, where a group of us from church had cream-cheese-stuffed french toast. It was pretty much the best thing ever.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Customizing a bookcase

One complaint we often hear from Foreign Service friends around the world is that everyone's furniture looks the same. Furnished U.S. government posts, regardless of their geographic proximity to the U.S., tend to have similar (or even identical) furniture.

Never fear, there is a solution! And this will work anywhere: embassy housing, corporate housing, your own house when you've got freshly assembled Ikea bookcases staring back at you ...

I didn't take a "before" photo of my bookcase, but I think we all know what an empty bookcase looks like. This is the "after" photo:

(Please ignore that long, snaky cable. Our house's Freeview aerial wasn't wired to the outlet closest to our television, so we've had to do some engineering.)

You can find plenty of sets of instructions online for adding fabric to the back of a bookcase. (One example is here.) It also would be possible to use wallpaper. (You could either attach it to cardboard or, if you own the bookcase, you could install the wallpaper directly onto the back panel. It'd be easier to do it before the bookcase was assembled if you wanted to go that route.) I didn't follow any set of instructions specifically, but basically you need to:

1. Measure the area to be filled. I cut individual pieces of cardboard for each shelf, but you also could remove the shelves, cover one large piece of cardboard and insert it at the back of the bookcase, and then replace the shelves. Treating the shelves individually also would mean being able to use a different background for each one. Whichever you choose, you will want to make sure each piece of cardboard is the right size before covering it.

2. Cover the cardboard with your fabric or wallpaper. If there is a very specific pattern, you might need to make sure the pieces line up correctly. Obviously this wouldn't be an issue with a solid color or a more free-form print, and it might be less of an issue if your shelves will be very full.

3. Install the covered cardboard in the back of each shelf.

Because we live in London, I chose a lovely rendition of the Queen's Head Stamp to fill our living-room bookcase. It comes in this blue-based print and a red-based version.

If you do happen to be in London, I highly recommend The Curtain Factory Outlet for fabric. It's not in central London but is easy to get to on the Tube or bus, and it's got rooms and rooms and rooms of fabric choices.

Please note: This also appears on Hardship Homemaking, which is a great blog begun by American Foreign Service spouses. It has all kinds of tips on cooking, decorating and celebrating holidays overseas. Check it out if you haven't already!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Three years in London: Week 27

As soon as Owen was well, I got sick, so this was a pretty sparse week. Kevin and I did attend Owen's Reception assembly and then visit his classroom to see his portfolio, though.

The assembly was a presentation of a play called The Very Important Tree. Owen was part of the Rain contingent. I suppose we learned that Rain can wear a tie and keep his hands in pockets.

(I apologize for the paparazzi-quality photo, but I'd left the big camera at home. Once you crop all of the other kids from an already-zoomed-in photo, there isn't much left.)

The classroom visit was very enlightening. Owen has made big improvements in every area but still has some work to do. His religious education portfolio (it's a Catholic school) included this gem. Owen insists on coloring all pictures in this manner, regardless of subject matter.

I suppose I should be happy that he's finally shown some interest in coloring and not worry about Jesus' rainbowish characteristics.

This week I also was able to pick up the ceramic creations from Laura's birthday party. She already had taken hers before I was able to snap this photo, but I thought they all turned out wonderfully.

Those who follow me on Instagram already have seen mine.

Not following me on Instagram? You haven't missed much. I think this was only my second post.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Three years in London: Week 26

We returned from our Cotswolds adventure to the reality that Owen was sick. He had a fever the next morning, as well as a sore throat and earache, and I suspected he had an ear infection, which would be a first for us.

And I was right. A lightning-quick visit to Casualty First, the urgent care center at the Hospital of St. John and St. Elizabeth, brought a diagnosis of a middle-ear infection on both sides. We left with a prescription for an antibiotic, ear spray and eye drops (because what fun is an ear infection without some eye crust to go with it?).

And this is when the fun started.

I dropped Owen off at home (luckily our cleaning lady was working that day) and headed to the pharmacy to fill the prescriptions. The first place I went, where I'd received decent service at the pharmacy counter in the past, didn't have the antibiotic in stock but could order it. But it wouldn't have been in until the next day, and the doctor had warned that without antibiotics Owen's 102F fever would be returning as soon as the ibuprofen wore off. Obviously that wouldn't work.

The second pharmacy I visited typically is in my drugstore of choice, but I'd received iffy service at its pharmacy counter in the past. They didn't have the antibiotic in stock and didn't even offer to order it, although the woman did provide some suggestions of where to look for it after I asked.

So I went to a third pharmacy, which I'd noticed in the past but never had visited. It had what I needed but couldn't dispense anything because its computer system was down.

Seriously?!? By this point I was beyond irritated. But the guy behind the counter assured me a technician would be coming to fix the system, at which time he would fill the prescription and give me a call.

Fast-forward SEVEN HOURS, and I hadn't received a phone call. I returned to that pharmacy to at least retrieve the printed prescription, and the woman now working said she could fill it while I waited. (This was after she called the previous guy to find out where the prescription even was.)

So eventually Owen got the medicine he needed, I managed not to yell at anyone, and I'm hoping I don't have to visit a pharmacy again anytime soon.

Owen finally returned to school Thursday, just in time to prepare for the assembly the Reception classes were in charge of the following week (this week by the time I'm writing this). But that'll be another post.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Great British adventures: The Cotswolds

Last weekend we went on a day trip to the Cotswolds. It was a bus tour offered by Gemmaway Travel, a company that caters to expats in London, and it covered Bibury, Bourton-on-the-Water, Stow on the Wold and Broadway.

We weren't in any of the towns very long, but I think Bibury was my favorite. Unfortunately, our stop there was the shortest, and we had choose between visiting the church and the trout farm. Since we have a 4-year-old, feeding fish won out.

Many Cotswolds towns have lovely little footbridges crossing lovely little rivers, and Bibury is no exception.

The trout farm was interesting. We bought a few cups of food to toss, and the trout were appreciative.

But not as appreciative as they were of the farm guy in the truck who came around about the same time we did.

These poor little ducklings seemed to have wandered into this pond and been unable to find their way out. They were very vocal about it, too.

Oh, look, there I am on a trout farm.

If I wasn't the only person in our family who will eat fish, I would have bought some packaged trout to take home. (You can shop at the store without paying to enter the farm.)

Because we opted for the trout farm, we never got close enough to the church even for exterior photos. We did get a few distance photos of Arlington Row, though. It's one of the most-photographed places in the Cotswolds, for obvious reasons. It's a bit more picturesque closer up, but this sort of gives you an idea.

Then it was back to the bus and on to Bourton-on-the-Water, where we had some lunch and did some walking around. Oh, look, another scenic little river and footbridge!

It's a cute town, even with the crowds that were out in force because it was the first nice-weather weekend in a long, long time.

Our third stop was Stow on the Wold, where I was intrigued by this tombstone in the St. Edward's Church yard.

The church itself is quite interesting, too. Some Tolkien fans think this door inspired the one to Moria.

(I have seen some photos with much more picturesque stones on the ground in the entryway. I suppose it's great the door itself still looks the way it does.)

We got Laura to stand in this doorway to show how short it is.

I will be the first person to admit that British churches seem a bit bare after our years in Italy. St. Edward's is interesting, though, particularly because it's still used by a congregation and isn't just a tourist attraction. The stained glass is modern.

Despite its modern aspects, St. Edward's is quite historic. It was momentarily prominent during Britain's Civil War; in 1646, a few hundred Royalists were held captive inside after they were defeated nearby. Fans of The Who might be interested to know that John Entwistle's funeral was held there in 2002. (I don't think there is a mention of this in the church itself, but I read about it later.)

With the World War I and D-Day anniversaries this year, war memorials are an even bigger deal than usual. I read somewhere that Stow on the Wold had a population of around 2,000 in 1914, and I'm sure there wasn't a person in town who didn't know most (all?) of these 45 local men who died in World War I.

We didn't take any photos in Broadway, as the area we had time for was all shopping. Which leads to some thoughts about the tour ...

We found out about Gemmaway Travel at an embassy newcomers' event in October. (There were a few other embassy people who went on this outing, including another Foreign Service blogger whom I'd met electronically but not in person.) Our tour was one of the "free" promotional ones the company offers. I say "free" instead of free because you do pay a £15 booking fee per person. I thought it was a good deal for the bus and commentary, especially considering travel in the Cotswolds can be complicated by spotty train service. However, I think the tour could have been better visiting only three towns (Bibury, Bourton-on-the-Water and Stow on the Wold) and skipping Broadway. (Yes, I said that on the evaluation we were asked to fill out on the trip back.) It'd mean more time to explore with less time on the bus (and coming and going from the bus). I would consider another tour with them in the future, though, and they have quite a few that sound great.