Friday, December 28, 2007

Seeing England

I've done more sight seeing in the last week than we had done thus far in England. Although sight seeing can be somewhat of a bother, and sometimes I feel like we spend more time in transit to sights, and dressing Lydia for the weather, finding somewhere to eat once we're at the spot, etc, etc, than we actually do seeing the sights, I know that in the long run what I'll remember is what I saw. I know this partly because after I came home from Egypt, and told Avram about places that I had been sightseeing there, it was usually punctuated by, "the Pyramids did have a toilet, which was a very good thing, but when I was in Palmyra (Jordan) there weren't any toilets, and I almost died. Then there were the marble squat toilets in Aleppo..." It was like that yesterday, but instead ran, "Our touristy cafe at lunch didn't serve tap water (grr, how un-British of them!), and we were too cheap to pay three pounds for it, and then I found some other water outside, but it was still two pounds, and inside the tower, I finally found a drinking fountain, the only second one I've found in Britain (the other one in the temple), but of course, drinking fountains are never very satisfying. Finally in the train station on the way home, Avram bought me a 2 liter of water, and I had great fun drinking out of it until Lydia backwashed carrots and PB&J sandwich into it..." But now I can actually remember the sights themselves.

On Christmas Eve, Matt and Sarah and us went to Blenheim Palace, the largest palace in England and home to the Duke of Marlborough, which family line also included Winston Churchill (his uncle was a duke of Marlborough). The palace itself isn't open for the winter, but we walked around the extensive grounds, for three pounds apiece. Shortly after we paid and entered the grounds, I noticed there were many people taking their dogs out for walks, and in a couple of instances their children in strollers (pushchairs) for walks. I was surprised that so many people would be willing to pay just to take pets/children on walks, but then I noticed a small door in an unsuspecting place, and when I came up close to it, and peaked on to the other side, my suspicions were confirmed. There is a hidden "porter's" door, that one can open from the outside, that the locals can use for free. At first I grew incensed that we had paid, between the four of us, twenty-four American dollars to walk around a palace's grounds when we could have done it for free. Gradually I grew reconciled to the noblesse oblige gesture of the current Duke, to let the common locals use his beautiful (and they are) grounds (they still have to pay to enter the formal gardens and palace). And now we've done our part to help keep up the costly place, and being that we are locals (Blenheim Palace is only four miles from our house), if we end up at Blenheim again to just wander the outside grounds, I will feel perfectly comfortable in using the porter's gate to do so. Because of course it's only for the locals.

We also visited Churchill's grave, for Avram and I the second time, and this time again Lydia screamed hysterically as we left it. Avram and I are beginning to suspect our daughter is a secret fan of the Bulldog. Either that, or she hates going back into here stroller and/or car seat after being let go to run free.

Then yesterday we went with the Purcells to London to the London Tower. Between the frailties of the train system and frailties of small children (Jonathon got tired, and Lydia got very heavy to carry around the many-staired exhibits) we only actually spent about three hours in the tower, but it was wonderful to go to, nonetheless. We saw the crown jewels, which I didn't care about seeing, but then were amazing to see, and medieval re-enacters that put my entire medieval history to shame. I desperately wanted to go up and talk to them, but their clothes were so well made, and their portrayal so convincing that I couldn't bumble up to them and stutter out, "I love your felted wool. How did you do it?" So I instead just worshipped from afar, and vowed to myself that maybe someday I could be a part of a group as amazing as they were. There was even a pair of medieval Jews, with the man wearing the Tembel cap, or the yellow pointed hat and both having the appliqued Decalogue (ten commandments) on their garments.

Also, we went through a Beefeater tour, which is a nickname given to the Yeoman warders who still live within the walls of the Tower, and do their warderly things. At first I thought that they were just glorified tour guides, but in fact they are still a military unit very much still in action. And there are, among the historical prisons and towers, whole rows of town houses inside where they live. These are historical townhouses too, this being England. Our Beefeater (so named because they were once given rations of beef), Bob, was funny and historical while still being extremely respectful, and having a carrying voice to catch over a hundred people's attention. The tour ended in a still working chapel (Bob's granddaughter will be christened there next year), where historically many of the famous people were unceremoniously buried after execution (mostly outside of the tower. Only six people were ever killed in the tower, and it was all during the Tudor's time, I believe). Lady Jane Grey, Anne Boleyn, and Catharine Howard were among those under the stones of the altar. Most of the more "common" ones, like St. Sir Thomas More, were buried underneath the stones, but then in Victoria's time they were renovating the chapel, and moved the whole lot (we're talking the whole chapel was one large mass of skeletons) into a vault next to the chapel, where they still rest today.

Even writing about the trip yesterday, the things like waiting for an hour for the train to come, because there was some train that had block both north and south traffic, and so all trains were delayed indefinitely fade into the background, and the history comes alive in my head, and I remember why I sight see, to partake of the world that is out there, to touch the stones of the White tower, which was once the largest powder storage in England, or to stand where accused traitors, both true and false, once stood, and just for a moment, to be a part of their world, their lives, that is sight seeing.

On a more prosaic note, Avram and I have decided that when my parents come in the spring, we'll return to the tower, and this time let my parents take Lydia for the tour and the jewels (both of which are stroller friendly), and we'll go into some of the more stair ridden exhibits, so we can see among other items of interest where the boy king Edward and his brother were liably murdered by the command of his uncle, Richard III, and then their skeletons were discovered in a chest a couple of centuries later by a workman during renovations, and removed to Westminster Abbey, where the kings are buried, to be buried in Innocents corner.

It's exciting and tragic enough to make even I begin to care about the royal history of England.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Leisure Time

Avram brought a computer game with him, Civilization IV, since he could only bring a couple of role playing books, so that he would have some games to play. Avram hasn't played it very much at all (actually not at all), until on Monday, when he was getting him out, and I asked him if two players on the same computer could play, and it turns out they can, so we started a game together. I had him put on the Marathon setting (determines how fast or slow the game goes; marathon is the slowest setting).

Since Monday evening when this happened, I've spent the last five days almost incessantly playing Civ. IV. And I'd like to blame my husband for this, but I really can't. Yes, it's true that for the first time since I was in eighth grade, and spent my entire spring break playing Super Nintendo's Final Fantasy II as if it were a full time job, I'm addicted to a video/computer game. We're still only up to about 1523 A.D. (the game starts you out at 4,000 B.C). This sounds like we're almost done, considering the game only goes up to around 2200 A.D. (although there are many ways to win earlier), but after the 'middle ages' are done, which depends on your rate of discovery, so ours ended about a 1000 AD, the games slows down to one turn a year, as apposed to the previous 5-20 years a turn. So this is taking forever. I should have known; it said marathon, and it was right.

I was trying to finish our game before Matt and Sarah visited us, which is today (they're coming for a layover for a couple of days on the way to Qatar), but as you can tell, this simply isn't going to happen. And poor Lydia has been parentless. I mean, we feed her, and she likes to watch the game with us, and we don't play all of the time, but she does love to mess up the living room if we let her, and so every day we've had to clean up the remains of the Lydia tornado in the Living Room. Which is our own fault, or my fault, as Avram likes to remind me, because I'm the one who wants to play all of the time.

I make myself feel better by remembering that it is Christmas break, and there's time to do such silly things, but still. Anyway, that's why I haven't posted in a week; I haven't done anything besides sapping my brains out in front of the monitor. But we're not going to play again until after Christmas, so we can properly observe the season, so maybe my brains will come back.

Have any of you been addicted to games, so that way I can feel better about my shortcomings, since I hopefully have company?

P.S. I finished Lydia's stocking before this all happened, so that's done at least.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Long of It

My faithful readers may think that I've passed on to a better world, or perhaps a different, internet-less one, at least. Truly I've been thinking of you all, and of America, and I've even been on the internet regularly. Yet for the last couple of weeks Avram has been working heavily on his doctoral applications, and so the computer time has been at a premium, and thus my computer time has been limited.

Yesterday though he finished the second application that was due by December 15, and having written two letters of intent he isn't as worried about the remaining four due in January. So now he's applied to Berkeley and Duke, which is nice to have two done, very official like.

So...now it's up to me to fill in the last two weeks. Mainly while Avram has been working so hard (editing his writing sample, writing his letters of intent, making sure all of his other materials are in) I've been learning how to knit. I learned how two years ago, but being left handed, and trying to knit left handedly, although my teacher was right handed, meant that I never got very far, because every time that I made a mistake, she had no idea what I had done, or even how to fix it. This time, my visiting teacher, Sister Rigby (now isn't that British sounding?) is teaching me; she's a lovely older lady, who's teaching both me and her companion, who is Nokuthula, about my age and from Zimbabwe, although she's lived in England for the last five years. Over all we're quite the international group, which in a small aside is really very nice. I like how international the ward is here; today, for example, our closing prayer in Sacrament Meeting was offered in Portuguese, from a sister from Portugal. And there are several families from Africa, and then of course a large American college contingent, not to mention the native British members, and Scottish members, who have the best accent ever. I really like our ward here, and I just wish that I weren't so transient, so I could feel like we were adding strength to the ward, instead of just passing through.

Now that I've moved completely off topic, let me return to the subject at hand; knitting. So this time I got over my left-centricity, and just learned to do it with the right hand, and it's gone swimmingly. I guess I can't do everything with my left hand, although I can try. I've always wanted to learn how to knit or crochet, or be industrious with my hands, but besides being left handed, I've encountered two difficulties. First, I've never been very motivated to actually work on it on my own, but here there is very little to distract me, and I really have a lot of free time, so it's been very nice and refreshing to have something to do. Second, I'm a snob. I learned this through studying the middle ages, but I have a large pre-disposition towards natural fabrics; linen, cotton, wool, and, of course, silk (could silk even be knit?). I like wearing them better, and I certainly try to only sew with natural fabrics. But knitting isn't that easy; wool yarn is very expensive compared to acrylic, and it's also hard to find. So to knit I've had to reconcile myself to using fake material, which is sad, but necessary. For one thing, there is no way I could afford to knit if I limited myself to real materials.

There are good aspects to acrylic. True, I can't think of any at the moment. But I did buy myself some acrylic yarn, and am making Lydia a stocking for Christmas. It has a green stripe at the bottom and top, and then is red for the body with a felt Christmas tree I'm going to sew on. I've finished about 2/3 to 3/4 of it, so I feel confident in my ability to finish my first project. And I don't mind an acrylic stocking at all, so that problem rests for now. I guess because I'm not going to wear it, or more accurately that it's not a garment of clothing. I don't mind acrylic in other places besides clothing. At least not as much.

And I'm proud at myself for recognizing that the word knitting must be related historically to the word knot, because all knitting is is a series of knots, and of course they look the same, and Avram checked, and I was right. This may be old news to others, but I had never thought about it before, and it's nice to have a potential folk etymology be right.

Also getting into the Christmas spirit, we bought a small (fake) Christmas tree and put it on a table in our living room. Then we also got some small wooden (cheap) ornaments and they perfectly cover the tree. Avram and I both had ornaments like these on our tree; little painted people and things like Nutcrackers and drums. I showed them to a girl from Poland, and her family has them too, so maybe they're a worldwide phenomenon. Because we live in the country, and we can, we went out on two occasions to the wilds of nature behind the manor house and cut down some every green branches and ivy. Every time we've been back there, it's been the perfect English sort of countryside experience, to the point I wish that I had tweed to wear. Or wellingtons (they would be very handy in the extensive authentic mud). We wanted some holly, but apparently because of the flooding this year they had in Oxfordshire the holly has really suffered, and particularly the birds have eaten all of the berries this year. It's actually kind of funny, because every single British person we've even mentioned holly to has gone onto this tangent about them having no berries, and it's very disappointing, etc, etc. They care a lot about their holly and berries, I suppose. Lydia helped us carry the boughs home, one bough in each hand, in a very pagan fashion. Since then she's walked around the house with the greenery, singing lalalalala. A natural druid.

We've brought the greenery home and strung it around our house; it makes me feel like we've decked the halls, although we have a sad lack of red berries (blame the birds). Last week, in our continued merriness we attended our ward party, with tons of food and games. This ward party was more decorated, more fooded, more games than I've ever seen at a Christmas party before. Just the way I like parties. Lydia met Santa Claus, and sat on his lap to receive a present (a book) from him. She didn't cry, but she wasn't exactly happy about all of this, either. At the end of the party they had signs for every day of Christmas in the song "The 12 Days of Christmas," and every one in the room, even those like the Shannons, who were being lame and sitting on the side, were made to come and join in under a day (we were under day 10). Then in order we all sang the song, while sitting down, and each day's group stood up to sing their day's blurb. If the brother in charge thought that your group didn't do a good enough job, he made you repeat your part, too. As you can imagine, by the end of the song we had stood up a lot, and we were near the end. Apparently they do this same thing every year. It was fun, although tiring.

Then yesterday we had the Purcells, another American family over for games and lunch; we played Settlers of Cataan, which I had never played before, and was very fun. Also, it was the first social activity we had planned with another couple (or even another person at all) since we've been here, so it was a nice change in our regular life. And yesterday evening we attended a stake Christmas concert, which Avram sang one song in, and then had mulled juice and hot chocolate afterwards. I liked being somewhere with Mormons, where we could actually drink any drink offered. The concert was nice, as well, for one thing, most of the songs were new to us, whether because the choir sang mostly British ones or because they have a wide repetoire I don't know, but I liked it. And they sang the Coventry Carol, accompanied by a wooden recorder quartet, including a real bass recorder. Good times were had by all.

So that brings us up to date with Christmas time and our activities. Really, this Christmas is turning out to be a very nice time, and doesn't feel wrong or weird at all. Maybe because we're here as a family, maybe because we've been so busy doing Christmasy things, but Christmas feels right this year. The previous sentence sounds a little funny, but I've found as an adult that Christmas is a much harder holiday to pull off, because one's not dependent on someone else to "make it happen." Instead, Avram and I are the ones who are supposed to bring the magic in. Oh, I forgot, in keeping with bringing the magic in, we've also been making Christmas food. We started out with taffy, which neither of us had ever made, but we wanted to do Christmas cooking. We don't have thermometor here, and so are dependent on the dropping bits of your syrup in cups of water to determine how far along we are. Either we're bad at testing this, or the sugar cooks really fast, but somehow we overcooked the syrup, and when we started pulling the taffy it turned hard instead of being soft (and I got blisters in my impatience to roll correctly). So we ended up with hard candy instead. A sad day indeed, especially because neither of us are much of hard candy people. Lydia sure loves it, though.

Yesterday we made gingersnaps, which did turn out fine, and then this coming week we're going to make soft caramels, which I dearly hope work out better, because I love caramels, and then also Gingerbread men to decorate (they're easier than doing a whole house, which we originally wanted to do). Mmm, now that I'm thinking of food, I need to go eat. So I'll turn off the font of surpressed contact, and end this post.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Lydia and Dancing

So, Lydia loves to dance. Especially to the Doors, of all bands. I thought I would try and include a video, for the first time. Avram also updated his blog with another video of Lydia dancing, but I didn't use that one because half of me is in the picture dancing, and frankly I look rather silly. This didn't stop my husband however, and Lydia is cute in it, so I recommend visiting his blog as well.
video