Archive for January, 2008

how NOT to plan a trip

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

I picked up a timetable at the train station when we got back from London and realized I’d left one important step out of my trip planning. I’d assumed that Kaitlyn and I would be able to take a train from Peterborough to Stanstead Airport with no problem. It never even crossed my mind to check the train schedule in advance.

The first train out in the morning leaves at 7:10. It is not an express. There is no express. It stops more often than the metro. It leaves at 7:10 and gets to the airport at 8:43.

That’s probably enough time. Maybe.

But I have to drag two suitcases, a backpack, Kaitlyn’s backpack and Kaitlyn from the train to the plane. Figure 15 minutes to get from the platform to the check in area. That makes it 9am. The wait there could be any length of time. Bill has texted me from that very spot with horror stories of waits longer than two hours. Assume 30 minutes. That gets us to 9:30. Security is tight in London, so figure another 30 minutes. That makes it 10am. Ten minutes to run to the gate and board a plane without assigned seats.

I can’t decide if I should cry or scream. Or both.

Bill insists I call the front desk and ask for help. It took me a few minutes to swallow my pride and make the call. If I need a car or taxi, what will that cost? The woman at the front desk was very nice, but she didn’t know. She had to find out and call me back. The wait for her call nearly drove me crazy. Finally she had the information: 60 pounds. Fine. Book it.

I should have checked the train schedule sooner. And I shouldn’t have bothered to buy the rail pass. I bought an 8 day pass that I used three days. An expensive lesson. Oh, well, it’s not like I thought I lost our passports or something.

so there IS an express train!

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

When we got to the Kings Cross train station, I smugly looked at the departure board and told Bill I’d been right about the time our train would leave… 22 after the hour.

Then Bill looked at a different board and found the express trains. Different trains. Faster trip.

Dang it.

All this time, Kaitlyna nd I have been riding crappy old trains with no food or drink service, stops every 15 minutes, and an hour and a half travel time to London. The express trains are new, sell food and drinks and make the same trip in 45 minutes.

I’ve got to learn to read the train schedules.

Happy Birthday, Bill!

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

While we were waiting (and waiting, and waiting, and waiting) for the check after dinner tonight, I took Kaitlyn to the bathroom. On the way back, I saw a gray haired man sitting near our table and wondered where he’d come from. Then I realized, that gray haired man was Bill.

Happy 40th!

Maybe Patrick can give him some Grecian Formula usage tips.

Day of the Museums

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

Four and a half hours in the Natural History Museum is more than enough for me.

We chose the museum for Kaitlyn. I waited till the weekend because it was on Bill’s list of things to see, too.

Kaitlyn loved the exhibit on “creepy crawlies.” We spent what felt like forever reading to her about bees, spiders, scorpions and those mites that live in your eyelashes. (yuck) We rushed through the exhibit on minerals and rocks, the one on volcanoes and earthquakes (we did pause to “experience” the Kobe quake), and the area on ecology… all leading up to the dinosaurs. She’d been resisting going all day. Finally, Bill just got in the line. She was ok looking at the bones and hearing small bits about each different dino. But as we approached the t-rex, she got nervous. You could hear growling. Then we turned a corner and there he was: a life-sized very real and very mean looking anamatronic t-rex. Kaitlyn hid behind Bill. She looked scared. Bill wanted to take pictures and she begged him not to, saying the dinosaur might see his flash. I held her and led her out, leaving Bill behind with his promise not to use the flash while he took pictures.

The dinosaurs were the end of the line for me; I had enough. Oh, of course, we had to stop in the gift shop on our way out.

Next door to the Natural History Museum is the Victoria and Albert. Rick Steves describes it as a dream come true for Martha Stewart wannabes. I don’t want to be Martha Stewart, but a museum with furniture and decorating treasures was too good to just walk by. Even if all we could do was run through it. So we agreed to give that a try. I grabbed a map and realized that finding the promised treasures would require a lot more than a few minutes. We headed for the area on China (the country, not the dinner ware) because Kaitlyn loves all things China. There we stumbled upon a craft-making cart offering children (or their parents) the chance to make “festive” Chinese hats. I’d scoured the V&A’s online listing for activities I thought Kaitlyn would enjoy… to justify dragging her there… there was no mention of Chinese hats. If I’d known there were kids activities, I’d have escaped the museum next door much sooner!

Bill sat on the floor and made a hat and sent me on my way to check out the museum. The only exhibit I saw was on fashion. It was enough for me to realize I’d should have come here instead of to that lame childhood museum. Well, we’ll just have to go back.

Harder than I’d realized

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Bill joined the sightseeing today. But I don’t know if it was exactly what he bargained for.

Before we left France, Bill had told me which things on my potential to-do list he wanted to do, too. The one thing that topped both our lists for the weekend is the Tower of London.

Before we could go to the tower (the tower! The tower! Rapunzel! Rapunzel!) we had to take a detour to the same-day ticket booth. Kaitlyn saw posters for shows in the metro stations and has been begging to go to a show. (I had a chance to buy Lion King tickets, but just couldn’t bring myself to spend the money on them… with the exchange rate it just was too much at 60 Pounds a piece.) We found the ticket booth and I got in line while Bill and Kaitlyn ran around the park. Luckily, a friend of the person behind me walked up and said we were in the line for matinée tickets. So we switched to the other line. That gave me a chance to read the list of plays with available tickets. Not a single one I thought Kaitlyn would enjoy… or even understand. Bill rejoined me and we agreed that a better bet would be to convince Kaitlyn that a movie (aka: picture show) would be a great alternative to a play. Given that she doesn’t even know what a play is… and there was a big poster for Enchanted nearby… it was a pretty easy sell. We had to wait another half hour or so for the box office to open. Kaitlyn and I went in search of drinks and instead found a gellato shop that scooped up an overflowing bowl of watermelon gellato. By the time the box office opened, both Kaitlyn and I were coated in a sticky film of the stuff. It’s a good thing, though, that we waited to buy the tickets in the morning. Turns out, the theater has assigned seats.

Once that was taken care of, it was off to the Tower. I’d gotten Bill to figure out the bus route map and how to catch a bus that looked like it wound right past the landmarks like Big Ben that Kaitlyn would recognize from movies. Finding where to catch this bus was a different story. We walked and walked and walked to the spot where we should have been able to get on the bus only to find the intersection torn up and the bus route obviously re-routed. With no signs. We walked and walked and walked some more until we found the end of the route. Where you can’t get on the bus. So we walked and walked and walked some more until we found a place to get on the bus. The one at the stop wasn’t a double-decker, but it was starting to rain so we got on. We did see Big Ben briefly, but overall the ride was hardly worth the effort it took to take it. Although it did stop right by the Tower of London, after crossing over the Tower Bridge. I think I’m the only one who thought that was kinda neat.

It took so long to get to the Tower that Bill decided we should eat before going inside. We found what looked like a fast-food chicken restaurant that served you on real china. Bizarre. Bill ordered and I went to find a table. He finally arrived with our food in little styrofoam boxes. All I could think to myself was “twenty years ago when I came here with my mom, everything went perfectly… and it’s not going that well for me on this trip… “ and it made me miss her. And I burst into tears. Bill had trouble understanding why I was crying over eating out of a styrofoam box; he had even more trouble understanding why I’d sit there crying if it wasn’t over eating out of a styrofoam box. I guess I have to admit that for the past two days, everywhere I’ve gone I’ve asked myself if it was somewhere I’d gone with Mom. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Tower is someplace she took me… and it became too overwhelming. So I cried. A lot. But when I finished, I felt better. A little. At least I finally admitted that being in London was harder than I thought it would be.

Inside the Tower, I was excited to join in the Beefeater’s tour to hear the stories of who’d stayed in the famous prison. I was the only one who was interested. So Bill and Kaitlyn wandered around, looked at the ravens, and let me go on the tour. Listening to the same stories I’d heard 18 years ago standing there with my Mom was actually therapeutic. It made me feel better instead of worse… it made me happy to still be able to enjoy something my Mom had introduced me to. And I know that’s how she’d want it. She wouldn’t have been thrilled about me sitting at lunch crying when she was alive; I know that’s not what she wants now. Kaitlyn and Bill also checked out the crown jewels before I caught up with them. But they were both ok with riding the conveyor belt past the crowns again. Kaitlyn wasn’t as impressed with them as I thought she would be, but she is still only four. She really liked the weapons display where you can try to fire a crossbow (simulator) or put on the metal gloves from a suit of armor and try to pick up a sword.

From the Tower, we found ourselves back in the area of Hamley’s. We’d climbed aboard a double decker bus in hopes of finding a place where I could have tea. Yes, I am obsessed with clotted cream. But we didn’t find tea and scones. We found a place for a quick soda and snack, then Bill took Kaitlyn back to the toy mecca for another shopping spree. I wandered around the other stores, desperate to find something that I could justify buying when you double the price on the tag. I didn’t. I started to worry because I hadn’t heard anything yet from Bill, so I called. They were in the dress-up dress area and she was in the dressing room. Luckily, all the dresses were too itchy. I finally met them at Hamley’s (because I had to go to the bathroom and a store for kids was sure to have one). Kaitlyn had picked out yet another outfit for her new bear.

Time was running out to manage to eat dinner before going to our “show,” so we rushed to the tube to zip to the hotel to dump off our stuff. We were standing on the platform waiting for the train when the “mind the gap” recording was interrupted by a man telling us to “clear the station… everyone out.” And calmly and orderly, everyone just turned around and walked to the exits. In the U.S., people would run and scream and knock old ladies out of their way to get out. While we were heading to the exit, our train pulled up and actually stopped. So we (and a few others) turned back and jumped on the train. What better way to get out of the station? Bill thinks that they were evacuating because of a lone suitcase he’d noticed sitting by the turnstiles. When we got off the metro at Harrods, security wasn’t letting anybody into the station. We asked if that station was closed, too. No… “crowd control.” By the time we stopped at the hotel and walked back, the crowd was controlled and we got right back on the subway.

We’d agreed to grab a quick dinner before the movie. We didn’t have time for anything different. It was looking like our best choice for a quick dinner was the Pizza Hut next to the theater. I don’t eat at Pizza Hut in the U.S., I hate to think that’s where I’m going to eat in London. I turned up my nose, and Bill frantically looked for a realistic alternative. We spied a fish restaurant with open tables and reasonable prices. The hostess said they could certainly get us in and out in 40 minutes. So we took a chance. We were so glad we did. Kaitlyn had a wonderful plate of fish and chips. I had wonderful fried shrimp. Bill had so-so crab cakes. Ok, two out of three isn’t bad.

The movie theater was different. The multi-plex put the theaters on different floors. We were on the top floor. The theater was not much bigger than some home theaters in the U.S. Or at least on HGTV. Before the trailers, we were treated to about 6 minutes of commercials. Then the trailers. Finally, the movie. Kaitlyn loved it. She’d gotten to go to a show in London. She was exhausted, but happy. Finally, all was well. Or at least, better.

Trying times in London

Friday, January 18th, 2008

Maybe yesterday went too smoothly and I should not have expected today to be the same.

Kaitlyn and I started our day on another slow train from Peterborough to London. This time I managed to buy her a cinnamon roll she actually ate, so at least she didn’t arrive in London starving.

The slow train didn’t help the fact that today we were on a schedule. I wanted to go see the changing of the guard. I hadn’t seen it before. And I thought that since we were there for one of the slowest weeks of the year, certainly it would be easier to get a good spot and see. Plus, it’s in the Madeline goes to London book I bought Kaitlyn to help her get ready for the trip. We got there and staked out the spot that Rick Steves recommends. But Kaitlyn couldn’t see over the ledge, so we moved to the curb. The police officer on the horse would come over and tell us where to look or run to next and since there was no crowd it was really easy to just move to get a better look at the bands. Once they all got behind the palace gate, we couldn’t see anything and Kaitlyn got bored and wanted to go. I can’t really blame her, it was annoying.

Our second activity was the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood. I stumbled upon it while looking for a museum that I thought Kaitlyn would tolerate. It sounded great on the website. In person, it left a lot to be desired. It isn’t in the center of town. And it’s mostly just old toys (and I say old cautiously, since many are from the 70’s) in display cases. Whoopie. There were a few things that were interactive, but not many. And they were pretty lame. A play kitchen. A dress up box with incomplete outfits. Two rocking horses. Those were the most popular and a group of school kids on a field trip hoarded them. Kaitlyn went to play on some computer game that one of those school kids walked away from… he had the nerve to come back and say “I was playing with that.” I told him he’d left it and she was playing with it now. Obnoxious kid.

I finally dragged Kaitlyn out of there because I was bored silly. I wanted to go to the hotel and check in and dump the big back pack I’d been lugging around all day. It had my video camera with a dead battery and my digital camera with a dead battery. It had my tour book, which was heavy. And Kaitlyn’s new teddy bear. Which was bulky. The hotel is just a couple of blocks from Harrods. While I didn’t want to just take her shopping, I’d hoped to go to Harrods for more scones and clotted cream. At the hotel I realized she was just exhausted, so I thought maybe I could get her to nap. She finally fell asleep after having a wretched screaming fit like she hasn’t had since she was much smaller, if ever that bad. It was horrendous. It wore her out and she sat next to me to apologize and fell sound asleep. Until housekeeping came to turn down the bed. Who on earth turns down the beds at 4 in the afternoon? (The Claverly Hotel in London does.) She woke up as I was arguing with the guy that yes, he was indeed going to pull the pull out bed out of the couch for her to sleep on. Did the front desk know I wanted that? Who the hell cares? I booked a room for three people; he was going to make that stupid bed if it took me until bed time to get him to do it. He left and came back with another woman who seemed peeved that he hadn’t just done it himself. But all the commotion woke Kaitlyn up. So we went to Harrods.

She was enthralled by the Egyptian escalators. I was disgusted by the display with the unwashed wine glass used by Diana at her last dinner. Completely unnecessary. We wandered through the food halls (it was well past the time for scones and clotted cream, though) and bought a couple of souvenir tins. We also picked up some Harrods shopping bags.

Bill called to say he was at King’s Cross and would get on the metro to Harrods. We wandered a little more then went downstairs to wait by the metro stop. We had to keep moving around because of the women begging for money… holding what looked like a fake baby to try to gain sympathy.

He finally arrived and after dropping his bag at the hotel, we headed out to find dinner. I was really hoping to just drop into a pub and have a big British beer with some chips and a sandwich. We found one and went in, only to be told we couldn’t eat there because Kaitlyn was under 14. Like they might accidentally serve her a beer. So we went for Chinese. Again. Well, there is that Hong Kong thing….

London with Kaitlyn

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

Today was the first day that Kaitlyn and I spent sightseeing together in London. I was a little worried about how it would go… but we really had a great time.

We started on a slow train from Peterborough to London. (I should figure out how to get on a faster train!) It not only was slow, but it had no food. So the day did get off to a rough start. I’d bought Kaitlyn a pack of mini-muffins at a coffee place (how very fortunate that the fastest route is to walk through the mall from the hotel to the train station!) but she didn’t like them. I told her I’d buy her something on the train. But this train had no trolley. No food car. Just a hungry, therefore grumpy, four year old.

Once we got to London, I quickly discovered the importance of carrying change. The women’s room requires 20p to get in. And the change machine is broken. And when you’ve got to go because you drank a huge coffee on your way to the train 90 minutes ago, well, that is not a welcome discovery. I dashed to a store and bought Kaitlyn a snack, got change, and everyone felt better.

Then we were off to the metro. I bought an Oyster card to try to make travel easier. It’s like a debit card: you put 20 pounds on it and then each time you go through the tube or ride a bus, the fare is deducted from your card. And it is supposed to be a cheaper fare than if you just buy an individual ticket. Plus, Kaitlyn was free.

We figured out how to get to our first destination: Kensington Palace. I picked it for two reasons. I’ve never been. And I thought Kaitlyn would like seeing a place where a princess lived and a collection of dresses. (There is a special Diana exhibit going on.) They gave her a special guide book for little kids, but it was still for someone a bit older than she is. She still liked it and carefully put checks in the boxes where she thought she was supposed to… and each time she’d do so looking at a display and carefully saying “check!” She did like the dresses. I think she was disappointed at the princess quarters.

From there we went to the Orangerie for lunch and tea. She was so good; I was so happy for that. Her favorite part was helping me pour my tea. She would put the little strainer over my cup, I’d pour the hot tea, then she’d pour in the milk and add the sugar. I drank enough to sink a boat so that she could pour until her heart’s content. (Reminded me of a certain story of a certain someone obsessed with the new toaster.)

I promised Kaitlyn that after the palace, we’d go to a special toy store so she could pick out one thing for her birthday. Getting there was a great adventure. Outside the gates of Kensington Park, Kaitlyn saw the double decker buses and just had to ride one. I didn’t really have time to decipher the schedule when a bus pulled up and we just hopped on. We went right upstairs and just enjoyed the view. After a while, we got off and switched to another bus. After a while, I did get tired of not being exactly sure where we were or how to get where we were going and dragged Kaitlyn back into the tube…. with maps I can make sense of. I turned the wrong way when we left the metro station but finally asked for directions and got back on track to finally find it: Hamley’s. It’s like 5 or 6 stories tall and filled with toys. And employees who love kids and toys and will play and interact with them. Kaitlyn fell in love with the section of dress up dresses. I glanced at a price tag and nearly fainted. 150 Pounds! No way. We finally settled on the Build-A-Bear section. She loved the whole process of picking the bear, helping stuff it, choosing clothes. I even bought the thing it’s own passport. The clerk said if you ask real nicely, sometimes you can get the person at passport control to stamp the bear’s passport. Yea, I’ll be skipping that.

By the time we got out of the toy store and made it back to King’s Cross to catch the slow train back to Peterborough it was late. We didn’t get back to Peterborough until 8:00. It was a little uncomfortable because we were just about the only people on the train. But it was fine, nothing happened. I’ve got to find out how to ride a faster train. In London I asked for a timetable and was given the bus schedule .

Out to dinner in Peterborough

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

No one goes to Britain for the food. So I imagined some lovely meals of shepherd’s pie and ale in pubs.

Tonight, Bill called when he was leaving the office with the following suggestions: pizza, fancy fish or Chinese. Given Kaitlyn’s mood, I’d have chosen pizza. They chose Chinese. How British. Well, I suppose they do have that connection to Hong Kong.

We walked down the street to the place some people had recommended. I’d had a late snack at the mall and wasn’t starving… so imagine my dismay when I realized that this place has a set 4 course menu. I’ve never heard of such a thing: a Chinese restaurant with a four course menu. It was so much food. And with the arrival of each course, Kaitlyn asked where her rice was. All she wanted was a bowl of rice.

I did have a beer. I don’t think it was British.


Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

I think I may be the world’s worst traveler. Or at least up there on the list (if such a list were to exist).

Kaitlyn and I were on a flight out of the Grenoble airport at 1:20 this afternoon. The airport is small… really small. But the airline is a deep-discount-budget-cheapo airline that doesn’t assign seats or board by zones like Southwest. So checking in super early doesn’t really make a hill of beans difference… but their website says if you dare to actually check luggage (a practice they seem to discourage at every turn) then you really should get there two hours ahead of your flight. The airport is about an hour from our house. All this means, we needed to leave here at 10:20. 10:30 at the latest.

I finally got us out the door at 10:45.. and I still needed to go to the pharmacy. When packing the last few things this morning, I realized I had only one migraine pill left. I’m not going to get to another country and be out of a prescription that makes the difference between having to spend the day lying in the dark with a cloth on my head, or going out and having fun. Naturally, the pharmacy was packed. The whole world had to go in there this morning. Ok, maybe not the whole world. But there were four people ahead of me. So we finally got that done and were on the road to the airport at 11. Only thirty minutes late.

At first, my GPS couldn’t find me. And I have only a vague idea how to get to the airport without it. So I panicked a little bit. If it’s possible to panic only a little bit. Then it finally found me and I started to worry that somehow, it was sending me to the wrong airport. So I panicked a little bit more. It sent me to the right place and we got there just before noon. There was only a short line to check in and no line at all for security. So I guess all that panicking was for nothing.

Flying on Ryan Air was an experience. It was like a flying subway. The bulkheads were adorned with stickers for Bullseye Liquors… buy one get one free. How bad do they anticipate their flights being that they think you’ll need to liquor up? They also went around after selling us our tiny sodas offering to sell us lottery tickets… giving us hope that one day we’d have enough money not to have to fly Ryan Air. When the plane landed at Stanstead Airport in London, they played a recording of a trumpet blaring the tune you hear at the beginning of races, an announcement that you’re on yet another on-time flight, and then cheering.

I’d bought rail passes so that we didn’t have to mess around buying tickets each day. That meant we could just get right on our train. After stopping at the ticket window to have the passes validated. The train started out not too crowded. Although you’d expect a train coming from an airport to have more space for luggage. A man helped me to stuff our big duffel bag onto the overhead rack. We put the other suitcase under our little table, and sat back to take in some English countryside. The train was not an express and it stopped frequently, filling up more and more at each stop. Eventually, the train was full enough that someone had to sit with us. An older man helped shove the suitcase out of his way and sat down across from us. He took a postcard of a train out of his briefcase and slid it across the table to Kaitlyn. Now, I really didn’t know what to make of it. Other than it seemed odd. Kaitlyn didn’t know what to do, either. Finally the man asked her if she recognized the picture. Well, yes, it’s a train. She’s a kid, not an idiot.

After a while, the trolley rolled through our car, offering drinks and snacks. I hadn’t rushed past an ATM in the airport or train station, so I had not a single pence on me. Naturally, the trolley stopped at our table, while the woman pushing it chatted with the postcard man. They chatted for a good ten minutes…. all the which I tried to explain to Kaitlyn that I had no cash with which to buy food. Finally the woman shoved on to the next train car. That was when the postcard man explained that he is the railway chaplain… and part of his job is riding the trains talking with the employees. He spent the rest of our ride talking about the passing countryside, explaining how some of it is below sea level and that’s why it’s flooded, etc. Interesting. But after a while, I just wanted him to stop talking.

He got off with us at Peterbourough. I don’t know if it was where he wanted to get off, or if he only got off to be helpful. He dragged our suitcases for us off the train and through the station to the taxi stand, where he got us into a taxi and on our way. Still with no cash. Turns out, there’s an ATM pretty much across the street from the hotel. There’s also a mall. That’s where Kaitlyn and I went wandering while waiting for Bill to come home from work. Shopping with Kaitlyn isn’t a lot of fun because you only get to shop for her. I tried to look at some shoes but she just kept telling me I don’t need any. She must hear that a lot from me. Although unlike her, I relented and gave up the shoe search.

I finally just dragged her back to the hotel to rest and wait for Bill. Certainly there’d be some cartoons on tv. No. Lots of cricket, news and boring game shows. I should have just gone back to the shoe store….

15Kg ain’t much

Tuesday, January 15th, 2008

I’m about 97% finished packing for our trip tomorrow. Kaitlyn and I are going to the UK to see Bill and do some sightseeing in rainy London. I bought tickets on the low-cost, zero frills airline Ryan Air. They were relatively cheap and you do get what you pay for. (Although you do pay for more than you think at first. Everything is extra. Want to check a bag? That’s extra.)

The biggest problem is your checked luggage can only weigh 15 kilograms. That isn’t much. At 97% packed, one of our bags is already at 11.5 kilograms. The other is at about 9, but I’ll have to stick toiletries in there.

This really isn’t leaving much room to go shopping.