Sunday, September 30, 2007

Ireland - Skellig Michael

These pictures are from our trip to Skellig Michael, off the coast of County Kerry in Ireland. Skellig Michael is a UNESCO world heritage site monastery built from stone (dry-stacked), probably in the 6th century A.D. Scholars believe a small community of monks (probably usually numbering around 12) lived there for 600-700 years. We were there on a nice day, but it is difficult to imagine living there in winter! Skellig Michael was definitely the highlight of our trip to Ireland. It is one of the most amazing places we have ever been.This first picture is of the island, taken from the boat. At the very top, you may be able to see a stone wall and small, conical structures - this is the monastery itself. (It may help to click on the picture to see a larger version.) Below you can see those "beehives" close up - where the monks likely lived.

Here is a rare family picture - just behind us is the cross and you can see Small Skellig in the background.This is a view of Small Skellig from the window of what was likely the chapel. Just outside the window is the cemetery.

This last picture is to give you an idea of how one reaches the monastery! The stairs were built by the monks and still work fine today, though they are not for the faint of heart or the faint of legs!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Historic preservation circa 1689

Hampton Court Palace was a Tudor palace (1st picture). When William and Mary became co-monarchs in 1689, they commissioned Christopher Wren to rebuild the Palace. Then, as now, public works projects are underfunded, so he was only able to rebuild part of the palace. What is most interesting is how the Wren-designed baroque portion is tacked on to the much older Tudor portion (2nd & 3rd pictures). Not much concern for compatibility! The fourth picture is of one of the Wren facades and the last picture is of some of the Tudor chimneys, just because I like them.

Wren is, of course, most known for building St. Paul's Cathedral in London. This was built after the great fire of London (1666), which destroyed the medieval version of the cathedral. Wren had proposed before the fire that the old cathedral be torn down so that he could design a new and improved version.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Life in the Big City - The Dark Side

Thursday was a different kind of getting to know London - the getting to know the police side of London. I went on line to do some banking on Thursday and discovered that some enterprising soul had recreated our ATM card and cleaned out our checking account. Not a happy discovery. Neither of us has misplaced our cards even for a few minutes - we put them in our room safe if they're not physically on us. In reporting the crime to the police, though, I learned that a fairly common trick here is to put a scanning device inside a legitimate ATM machine along with a small camera aimed at capturing PIN numbers. We think that's what happened. I asked the police officer what to look for and he said that they are so sophisticated you wouldn't be able to detect it even if you were looking.

So here's what we've learned:

1. Only use ATM machines inside banks. The one where our information was stolen is on a street corner, which makes it very easy for someone to install this stuff undetected.

2. Check your bank accounts on line at least every couple of days. I went six days without checking and that was way too long.

3. Don't keep all your eggs in one basket. Here's where we went right - while we lost way more money than I even want to think about, our savings is in accounts not linked to an ATM card.

We now have mountains of paperwork to fill out with our bank disputing the withdrawals and we are hoping for the best. The police officer was friendly and sympathetic, but said that the amount was too small to attract any serious attention. He said normally with crimes of this size it's the bank that investigates to try to recover the funds. I then heard quite a bit about his opinions of the criminal justice system in the U.K. and how much he admires the 3 strikes laws in the U.S.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Thames Festival - Night Carnival

Sunday night, there was a huge nighttime parade, followed by the most spectacular fireworks I have ever seen. The parade was a British version of Carnival (only with pastier skin on some of the dancers!), very multiethnic and very entertaining!

Thames Festival - Saturday

Also this weekend, we went to the Thames Festival, the annual end-of-summer festival in London. It was fun, and huge. Saturday evening we went to "Feast on the Bridge," where Southwark Bridge is transformed into a series of restaurants with themed areas, so the Indian place set up a Bollywood film set, the smoothie vendor (pictured) set up a beach, etc. There were tons of street performers, including a terrific juggler, skateboarders, and musicians, and, naturally, lots of shopping. The festival stretches all along the south bank of the Thames. Saturday night we saw a performance by Transe Express called "Maudits Sonnants" or "Celestial Carillon". It is an 8 piece percussion band accompanied by 3 trapeze artists, all suspended on a sort of chandelier by a crane. Very strange, but also beautiful and lots of fun to watch.

Open House London - House of St. Barnabas-in-Soho

This Georgian townhouse is on the southwest corner of Soho Square and was built in 1746 as a private residence, though it was not finished and occupied until 1754. Since 1863, it has been home to the charity of St. Barnabas-in-Soho, and a chapel was built at about that time. It was a homeless shelter for women from 1946-2006, and is now becoming a service center for the homeless.

The house has beautiful Roccoco plasterwork commissioned by its first occupant.

Open House London - Mary Ward Settlement

I have passed this building many times and always wondered about it. It is built in the arts and crafts style and was purpose-built as a settlement house. This was a popular social movement at the end of the 19th century, and the goal was to have middle-class professionals living in a house in the middle of a lower-class community in order to learn first-hand about neighborhood needs and share their skills. Mary Ward, the founder of this house, also opened the first school for disabled children next door to this house and started, in effect, the first neighborhood play center for children in the very large auditorium upstairs. Settlement houses no longer exist in the U.K. I've included a picture of the text above the residents' entrance, and it provides some insight as to why recruitment of people to live there was a challenge! The house looks modest from the outside, but inside has some very beautiful rooms, a glass-roofed gym, and a large auditorium. Each fireplace was designed by a different architect and is unique. It has been the headquarters for the national social workers' organization, but is being changed into a conference center.

Open House London - Royal Courts of Justice

This weekend was Open House London - a weekend in which 660 properties were open to the public for free tours. The goal of the event is to demonstrate good design, old and new. There were lots of older Londoners in comfortable walking shoes and it was a gorgeous weekend for it - sunny and 70s. We managed to go to 3 of the tours - I'll include each in a separate post. The first was the Royal Courts of Justice. This is a Victorian building (late 19th century) in the neo-Gothic style. It has 19 courtrooms in which judges (usually panels of 3) hear civil cases and also criminal appeals. Unfortunately they don't allow photography in the courtrooms, but they are beautiful. They had mock trials and robing demonstrations (this is a big deal because as of the first of the year they are modernizing judicial garb). We were even able to tour the cells and the transport van (also no photos). The last photo is of the "Bear Garden" where attorneys meet with their clients.

Struggling to be a good parent . This article, forwarded by Lisa Kerchinski (an I.U. friend), is a great article on the struggle to be a good parent. The author says, in a nutshell, that we should lay off the micromanaging of our kids' lives and stay focused on the values questions. It's a good and thought-provoking article.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Grateful for our kitchen

It's official, according to the Zagat Guides. London is the most expensive city in the world for eating out, with an average meal costing 39.09 pounds - that's $79.35 per person, per meal, on average. New York, just for comparison's sake, averages $39.18 per person, per meal.

That's average, of course, and we're able to eat out for less than $20 a person. Indian, Thai, and Japanese tend to be relatively inexpensive, at least in London terms!

Public Health 101

London is one of the birthplaces of public health practice. In 1854, there was a cholera epidemic in London. At that time, the cause of cholera was unknown. Dr. John Snow mapped each casualty of cholera on a street map, and deduced that many of the victims got their water from the same water pump on Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) in Soho. While most people thought his theory was absurd, he felt so strongly about it that he removed the pump handle. The cholera epidemic in the neighborhood ended shortly thereafter. The handleless pump in the first picture is a re-creation.
In 1854, water was drawn directly from the River Thames for use in drinking, cooking, and washing. Most people had access to water only through public pumps located around the city. Unfortunately, all the waste from the city was also dumped into the Thames, often just upstream of the water intake points.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

These are a few of my favorite signs

These signs seem very British to me. The first is on an admittedly ugly building right at the edge of Russell Square. The second is a temporary sign by where they have our road dug up. It seems very profound for a notice of water pipe replacement. The last is, I think, self explanatory, but I thought it was funny that it was built into the pavement.

London Eye

On Friday, which was another beautiful day, we went up in the London Eye, which is the world's largest observation wheel. Attached are a few pictures - the Houses of Parliament/Big Ben are in one picture and there's another of Bloomsbury, where we live. The large building with the green roof is the British Museum.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

First day of school!

Abby started school today! Here are a few pictures of the big day. Most schools in this part of London are in older buildings. Each school has one class per grade, with 30 kids in the class. The classroom has a teacher and an assistant. As you can see, Abby's school requires uniforms. Since she was admitted late yesterday afternoon, shops close at 7, and school started this morning, we had to hustle to get enough of the uniform for her to get to school. We'll get the rest this afternoon. We were puzzled by a couple of the items. What, precisely, is a pinafore? What are plimsolls? Luckily, we were able to find incredibly helpful shop assistants to help us at the trusty John Lewis on Oxford St. The room for school uniforms rivalled any U.S. store the day after Thanksgiving.

Abby was very excited about going to big kid school. Her school should be interesting - 50% of the kids don't speak English at home, so there's a lot of diversity.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Dinner for 15 in a 1 room flat

All the students are safely here - last night we hosted dinner for 15 in our flat (spaghetti, of course - I didn't know what else to cook for so many on short notice!). We asked them to bring their own plates & forks! For this event, Abby & I made a shopping run to a larger grocery store a bus ride away. It was somewhat less expensive, but not enough to be worth the hassle of carrying bags of groceries on and off the buses. The students are a nice group - I think Wayne will have a good term with them.

On Saturday we went to Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, the Alfred Memorial, and the Natural History Museum. It is amazing to me how much of this city of 7 million is green space. In parts of Hyde Park it feels like you're in the countryside. Unfortunately, the very cool playground at Kensington Gardens was closed, though we did find the statue of Peter Pan.
The Natural History Museum was great. They even have an animatronic T-rex - very cool. The picture of Abby looking skeptical is from when we entered the room with the T-rex growling and looking around. Plus they have a life-sized model of a blue whale. The building itself is wonderful - every column has plants or critters carved into it.

Word is there will be a strike on the Underground tonight, so I think we'll stick close to home, except to go shopping for Abby's school uniform - tomorrow is the first day of school!