Monday, April 23, 2007

London Rocks!

Well, our last trip with the JMU group was the best yet. How lucky we have been to have such a fantastic group of students. They are everything one would want such a group to be: responsible, inquisitive, adventurous, mature, and just all-around fantastic people. We will see them at a final banquet tomorrow evening (see the American Club entry for photos of the restaurant on Venusstraat) and again Wednesday with girls in tow for a pizza party and tearful goodbye. We already have plans for a reunion bbq Labor Day weekend at our house.

Sorry I don't have many photos of late - my Fuji FinePix died and my hubby treated me to a new Canon PowerShot A460, but I'm loath to load the software onto the university's laptop just for a week. I did find a nice shot of Regent's Park, where the girls spent some serious quality time over the past few days. What a beautiful place to spend a few hours.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First things first: Wednesday, we sold La Stroller and said a grateful farewell to the lovely machine that gave us so much freedom to see and do since January. The buyer was a woman who provides before and after school care for two students at the girls' school, and wants an easy, non-car way to get them from place to place. She saved a pile of money, and we actually made a small profit. Free stroller--hooray!

Thursday morning we took the tram to Antwerpen Centraal to catch a train to Brussels-Zuid, where the Eurostar terminal is. Eurostar is a high-speed train that goes through the Chunnel to London. Ever since Eurostar service began, flights between Brussels and London have dropped dramatically because the train is so enjoyable and affordable. It was very comfy, and the girls settled in to color and play their LeapPads as we glided through the countryside. What a difference from January! Back then they were so curious about all the things on the train, it was like traveling wtih ferrets, but now they know the drill and just settle in for the ride.

We got to London-Waterloo and took the Underground to Warren Street, then walked to "ISH", International Students House, our home for the next three nights. ISH is hostel-like, but it's quite nice and you can't beat the neighborhood--right in Central London, diagonal from Regent's Park! And you don't have to be a student to stay there, though you do have to be affiliated with a university. We had a room with three sets of bunk beds. One scan of the situation and we knew MeiMei would be unable to have or even visit a top bunk. No safetry rails. JieJie has never been a bed-faller-outer, so she was the only one of us in a top bunk and she liked it just fine. The shower room was private, unlike some of the other more dorm-style rooms in the facility. Some mildew in the shower, but that was the only thing about the whole facility that wasn't up to quite a high standard for a mass student residence. It was safe, well maintained, sheets were clean, beds comfortable, and best of all there was a cheap, good cafeteria right down in the basement of ISH that serves three meals a day. London is SO expensive, especially with the current 2-to-1 exchange rate, so having a cheap alternative for meals--especially when the girls so rarely finish all of theirs--was crucial.

After unpacking and resting a bit, we grabbed lunch at Pret a Manger (yum!) and it was off to the British Museum, admission free. The Great Court is quite impressive, a former open-to-the-sky courtyard that has been glassed in a la the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. The grid-like shadows from the glass roof make really cool shadows on the white stone facades of the courtyard. I took some fun photos of the girls. John headed off on the tour with the JMU students and I asked about family tour options. I was directed to the library to ask for an activity backpack. The British Museum has activity packs for about six different exhibits, two that are appropriate for really little kids like ours. We chose the Africa pack and went to the exhibit. The pack was really great! It includes a globe so you can point out different countries as you look at the various exhibits. JieJie and MeiMei got to dress a velcro/paper doll to match a chief depicted on a bronze frieze. They got to compare little plastic farm animals to animal bronzes. They looked at animal masks and made their own mask using velcro pieces and a velcro swim-cap type thing. They also were challenged to find masks depicting six different animals using photos of the real animal and clues to help them find the answer. I was really impressed with the activities.

After the pack was finished, we saw heiroglyphics, sarcophagii, big stone Buddhas, a totem pole, and various other treasures collected by (or stolen by, depending upon your perspective on this ongoing controversy) representatives of the British Empire past and present. We sat for a cold drink, some students joined us, and I left the girls in their care while I went for a quick duck into the gift shop's children's section where I got a Colorforms-style heirglyphics set for each girl, and two neat books, "All Kinds of Homes" and "All Kinds of Beliefs" about the different ways people do things in different parts of the world. JieJie has had questions about things like why the Hassidim we see in Antwerp wear their hair and clothing the way they do, things like that. It's helpful to have a book that presents an open-minded perspective on the spectrum of cultures the world has to offer.

We had dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe near Green Park. It's the original one, and still in the original location. The memorabilia was fun to look at. We were sitting right near a suit Roger Daltrey wore--he's not very tall! We also chuckled to think that the last time we were in a Hard Rock Cafe, we were with baby JieJie in Guangzhou, China (that location has since closed).

That night Mr. K (bless him!) babysat while John and I went to see "We Will Rock You," the show based on the music of Queen. I love their music, and from a music and technical standpoint the show was very enjoyable. The show's book though (script) was hundvlees--DOG MEAT. The plot didn't make sense, people's motivations morphed just plain didn't make sense. I felt like we were in the 21st-century version of one of those early musicals where the plot is a series of justifications to get to the next song (usually 'Swonderful) and I thought why have a plot at all? But then again if you don't make a story, you're lumped in with all the other tribute shows, so I understand. And Queen's music is just plain strong enough...good sauce on the dog meat, shall we say.

Friday morning: world's largest ferris wheel! We got to ride on the London Eye and it was fantastic. I highly (ha) recommend it. From the fully enclosed lobby-like cabs, you can see the houses of parliament, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, you name it. JieJie spotted a playground, so we went there after disembarking while John accompanied the students to their next rendezvous point. He came back and found us so we could get lunch together, which we did, at a place called Giraffe at the Royal Festival Hall complex. It's just east of the London Eye after you go under the Jubilee Bridge. Lunch was good but (after the exchange rate) ninety bucks. OUCH. And we're talking sandwich/salads and smoothies, not filet mignon. Anyway.

After lunch John helped me get the girls back to ISH for some rest time before heading to Westminster Abbey for his next tour. After they rested, the girls and I went to Regent's Park, which boasts four playgrounds, beautiful gardens, a boating lake, and the London Zoo. We never made it past the first playground! For two hours plus, they climbed, went on swings, merry go rounds, and seesaws, played with other kids, had an ice cream was such a great place to be with them and they really got to have their kind of fun. On the way back to ISH, we went through some of the beautiful gardens and they splashed their hands in fountains. What a fantastic park! I chatted for a while with a woman who was born in China, married a guy from India, they lived in New York for a while, and just moved to London last week to try living there for a while. I can see why. I could absolutely live there--though it's SO expensive (did I say that already?).

Dinner Friday was sort of catch-as-catch-can. I got the girls something from the cafeteria rather early as they seemed pretty wiped out. They fell asleep about 7pm. John and I did the "tag-team" thing, going out for a bite one at a time.

Saturday morning JMU was scheduled to go to the Tower of London. After looking it up in my Take the Kids to London book, I decided to skip it in favor of a trip to Covent Garden. After messing up the Underground transfers (got on the wrong line, urgh) we arrived in Covent Garden and proceeded to have one of the best mornings I've had this whole semester. Covent Garden Market is filled with performing arts treats. We heard an opera singer, saw a brass band play a great Beatles medley (how British--the medley used "Day Tripper" to connect a bunch of fantastic songs), the girls left our outdoor lunch table at Fuel (great pizza, and we got enough for the three of us for under ten pounds) to watch some men do Morris Dances (as in, "I'll be there with bells on!"--the men wear bells on their sock garters) and, the piece de resistance, A REAL PUNCH-AND-JUDY SHOW!!!!! I was so excited for them. And they loved it. All day they laughed about so-and-so getting "whacked on the head." Why is that so funny? But when puppets get angry and whack each other with slapsticks, it just is. The presenter said the first such show was presented back in the 1600's. I guess whacking puppets has been funny for quite some time.

We met John back at ISH, where he was finishing up lunch, and headed for our rendezvous with Mr. K at the Apollo Theatre near Victoria Station. The plan was for Mr. K to take the girls back to the park while John and I saw a matinee of "Wicked." It worked quite well. MeiMei had fallen asleep in my lap, but I know she is so comfortable with Mr. K by now (he's become like a favorite uncle) that I had no reservations about putting her (still asleep, mind you) and JieJie in a taxi with him for their trip to the park. And they had a GREAT time with him. He was going to take them to see the lake, but also didn't make it past the first playground.

"Wicked" was the best show I've seen in a long, long time. The script, the music, the performances, the technical aspects all came together to make a nearly perfect few hours in the theatre. I laughed, I cried, I hope to see it again with the girls when they're old enough. I hope my parents see it. I hope you see it, if you haven't already.

When we got back to ISH, we called Mr. K to tell him we were en route to the room, and he said oh no, just come to the bar, that's where we are! He had bought them sodas and they were happily sipping away, grinning like jack-o-lanterns (and that's including Mr. K). We had reservations for dinner at a Thai place called Blue Elephant out toward Wimbledon, so it was back on the Underground. Blue Elephant was a lovely place with great food. We got the girls an order of Chicken Sate and some rice and vegetables, which suited them just fine. The three adults got the Royal Thai dinner, which comes in several courses. John and I both said, as much as we loved the food, we felt that our Taste of Thai restaurant back in Harrisonburg very much holds its own compared with Blue Elephant and also Sombat, a Thai place here in Antwerp. The only thing Taste of Thai doesn't have is the dramatic decorating that Blue Elephant and Sombat have, but I find that ambeince is most important the first time I go somewhere, and after that it's the food that keeps me coming back.

The girls were well behaved enough to earn themselves praise from the couple at the next table, who said when they saw little ones at the next table they groaned, but that our girls were so good, the couple forgot we were even there! It was so great to see the girls swell with pride at this unsolicited praise. I was just glad they made it through dessert after such a busy day! They fell asleep in our arms on the Underground, and we carried them up to our room and put them in bed, the little angels. We are the luckiest parents in the whole world. Love those girlies.

Saturday morning, breakfast at ISH, then back to Waterloo Station and back on the Eurostar after a too-short trip to a wonderful, absolutely charming city that we can't wait to come back to. Not to mention the weather we had was very un-London: 70's and sunny for three days in a row. We got back to Antwerp (our apartment always seems so huge after we're all together in a hotel room) and all got to bed early.

This morning I went to Brussels Airport on the 7am airport bus from DeKeyserlei and met my parents at their 8am arrival from the U.S. Let the fiesta begin! Grampa and Gramma might as well be rock stars where our girls are concerned, and when they saw my folks after school today, they squealed and jumped and laughed and hugged and squealed some more. Dinner tonight was at the Eleventh Commandment down by Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk--what a place! It's filled with statuary and decorative arts pieces from decommissioned churches and cathedrals. It's so funny to have a beer and some nice beef stew while the saints and angels look down upon you as though they're praying for your immortal soul. They needn't; the food is so good, we were already in heaven.

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