Monday, August 29, 2011

The Loudshoes in Europe, Part 7: London

When we got back to my cousin's house, around 8 pm, my father called from Canada, with a worried tone to his voice: "Is everything okay? Are you all alright?" Now, you can accuse my dad of being a lot of things, but an unreasoning fusser, he is not.
We're fine, I said, why? "Because I'm watching the BBC World Service on television and there are riots in Croyden at the moment, and I know you're there. There's a huge fire and they've closed the train station." Okay, we had just come from the train station, and there had been nothing going on at all. (Turns out we were at the East Croyden station and they'd closed the West Croyden station.)
We stuck our heads out the front door and sure enough, a huge column of black smoke was rising over the houses across the street, and there must have been 5 helicopters hovering around and sirens blaring. The BBC World Service does not lie; there was a riot happening about a 15 minute walk away.
It turns out there were riots all over London that night, and a few other cities besides. There seemed to be no real reason or cause for the riots, other than hoodlums smashing and grabbing at retail stores, and criminals taking the opportunity to do whatever they wanted. The fire near to us was a furniture store...who robs a furniture store? Did the rioters plan on leaving with a sofa under their arms? And the pity is, that was a 150-year old, family run business, that had lasted through a couple of depressions and two world wars, and it was gone in one night because some twerp threw a Molotov cocktail through the window.
We were all fine though, and didn't feel like we were in any danger at all. We wouldn't have even known it was happening, had my dad not called from Canada to tell lus.
We walked down to see the damage a few days later, and it was awful. More heartening, though, was the reaction of Londoners; they were horrified and sickened, and assured us over and over that this was not the real London, and they hoped we understood that.

Before we left home, I bought us tickets to tour Buckingham Palace. Apparently, they only have the tours a couple of weeks a year, when the Queen is away, I assume to deter people from sneaking off and trying to find her and have a chat. Not that I would even dream of doing such a thing.
Buckingham Palace is huge, and we only got to see a small portion of it, and it is magnificent. The rooms are gorgeous, and I totally loved the place, even if it was, as my father reminded me, built on the backs of my ancestors. It is all red carpets and gold accents, and the artwork is incredible...I kept reminding myself that those paintings are real Rembrandts and original Vermeers right in front of me.
Kate Middleton's wedding dress was on display in the ballroom, and let me tell you, that thing is beautiful in real life, much more detailed and lovely than on tv. The veil looks like it's made out of cobwebs, it's so gossamer and light. They had a video about how it was constructed and the lace was made, which was even more interesting than the dress itself. And, the waist on it is tiny. I don't think I could fit my right leg into it.

The girls really wanted to go to Mme. Tussaud's wax museum, so we headed on up to there, to find another two hour line up. (I tell you, the Loudshoes family are expert liner-uppers by now.)
It was, again, incredibly crowded, but we had a good time looking around and taking pictures. Thing 2 was thrilled, thrilled, to be able to get her picture taken with Justin Bieber. (Ironic note: we had to go 3,000 miles to see Justin Bieber, and his hometown is only 4o miles from where we live.)
They had some statues that were uncannily like the person they were supposed to be (Helen Mirren and Russel Brand were so lifelike it was kind of creepy.) and then a few more that you suspected they let the new staff members have a go at them. I had to ask who James Dean and Drew Barrymore were supposed to be, and the Elvis looked more like Joan Collins.

It was a really beautiful, sunny summer evening, so we took another tour on the "hop-on, hop-off" bus and had a good look around. London is such a gorgeous city, and it never looks better than when the sun is low and the breeze is warm.

We decided to just grab a bite to eat at the train station, since it was getting late and we didn't want to sit very long. All along on this trip, the girls had been very good at eating whatever was there, and after 10 days of eating unfamiliar food, they fell upon the McDonald's at Victoria station like lions on a limping antelope. I went over to the Marks and Spencer food kiosk, which was only fabulous. They had all kinds of lovely sandwiches and salads and fresh fruit, all ready to go. They even had plastic glasses of wine (as well as bottles) all sealed up for you take to go! What a concept!

And the bathrooms still cost a few cents, but the attendants were a lot less intimidating than in Paris.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Loudshoes in Europe, Part 6: London

I figured the next morning was one to sleep in...we were all sore and tired from the previous day's marathon and all we had to do today was get ourselves on a train to London. Sleeping in is one of my all-time favorite things to do, so that was easy.

We packed our bags up and headed down to the breakfast buffet, and again it was magnificent and the angels themselves sang us through the waffles, brioche and cheesey goodness. Plus, and I forgot to mention this in the previous post, they showed "Tom and Jerry" cartoons on a huge screen during breakfast, for the kids, you know. You should have seen the four of us, entranced by the cartoons and chewing our chocolate croissants open-mouthed and unblinking. We looked like we needed a babysitter.

We negotiated the Paris metro system one more time, with our luggage. ("God, have these people even heard of escalators??") We got ourselves to the Gare du Nord, which looks like something out of Harry Potter; it's really crowded with possibly the most interesting-looking people wandering around there. And it had crepes, so I was happy.

It used to take days to get from Paris to London, and now it's only a few hours...that? is a miracle. I was pretty excited about taking the high-speed train from Paris to London; I thought it would be really impressive and momentous. Turns out I was wrong; it was pretty much like any other two hour train ride, except it had about 20 minutes when it was dark outside,right in the middle. I was happy enough to have a non-eventful ride, especially considering a few years ago 4 trains got stuck inside the tunnels for hours, with thousands of people on board. I'll admit I don't like tunnels that go underwater (One leak, just ONE LEAK and we're all dead!!), but I decided not to think too much about it while I was on the Eurostar.

We got into St. Pancras station (which is also the King's Cross underground station, if you are a Harry Potter fan....there really is a Platform 9 3/4, too! They've embedded a little cart into a brick wall where you can take your photo; very cool.) Then we had to negotiate another subway system and then another train ride to get to my cousin's house in Croyden, just south of London.
This time, we spoke the language, though, and the Mister and I had dealt with the Tube before, so we knew what we had to do. Still a lack of escalators, though; they really should look into that.

The train and tube system in London is pretty terrific, I think. I know the residents think it's expensive and inefficient and not so great, but I was impressed with how easy it was to figure out, and get where you wanted to go with a minimum of fuss. And beleive me, taking one look at the traffic on the roads, I was really, really happy to not be driving in that city; that would make my head explode. (I have NO idea how they are going to manage during the Olympics next year...London is already chock-a-block crowded with the most insane traffic I have ever seen. I don't know who's idea it was to drop another million or so people into that.)

My cousin, Eilish, had very generously and graciously offered to put the four of us up for the week, despite not having laid eyes on me for almost 20 years. She has a lovely, comfortable little house that is so is one of those narrow, semi-detached, early 20th century houses that you can imagine men with handle-bar mustaches and corseted women in, or having and Anderson shelter in the backyard during the war. I loved it. She was very accomodating and welcoming to the four large, loud, messy Canadians invading her space.

The next morning we got up to explore London. I love London, it's a fabulous city, full of stuff you already know about. There's the museums and the galleries, but it's also got all sorts of stuff you've seen on tv and the movies for ever, and you didn't even realize. When we went to St. Paul's cathedral, the girls were impressed that not only was this where Princess Diana got married, it's also the place where the lady feeds the birds in "Mary Poppins"! And there's Harrods' and Big Ben and Trafalgar Square and Tower Bridge. It's like seeing a book come to life.

We took a boat tour along the Thames with the best, most-deadpan tour guide I ever heard. "That is Millenium Bridge, a footbridge built in the year 2000, to commorate the millenium. A few years ago, I saw a 10 year old boy unload a strawberry McDonald's milkshake onto a tour boat much like this one. Funniest thing I ever saw." "Next year London will host the Olympics, which will cost the UK taxpayer over £9 billion, but you cannot put a price on two bronze medals" We loved him.

Dinner was at an English pub (in a basement, for some real atmosphere!) where Thing 2 had her third order of fish and chips in as many days, and the Mister had bangers and mash. You can't say the Loudshoes do not embrace the culture.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Loudshoes in Europe, Part 5: Paris

Our first morning in Paris, we got up bright and early and went down to the hotel's breakfast buffet....I LOVE good breakfast buffet, and this one did not disappoint: crepes and eggs and bacon and cheese! Oh the cheese! And the bread! Baguettes and brioche and chocolate croissants! I could have stayed there all day and been perfectly happy.

We headed back to the Eiffel Tower because we wanted to go up to the top of it, and we arrived 10 minutes after it opened to find an hour and a half wait for the elevators. (This, as it turned out, was to be a theme for the rest of our vacation.) When we finally got to the base of the tower, we had to go through the usual bag searches and other security. I managed to set off the metal detector, because I had on a heavy necklace on under my scarf. When I pulled the scarf off to show the security guard he gave the most dramatic sigh and rolled his eyes so far back into his head I thought he might lose them altogether, like he could not believe he had to put up with idiots like me day after freaking day! He must be fun to work with....can you imagine him at the Eiffel Tower Staff Christmas Party?

The view from the top was spectacular; we were lucky enough to get a clear and windy day that made it easy to see for miles in all directions. Then we lined up for another half hour to get back down.

We decided beforehand that we wouldn't go into any museums or churches, our time was just too tight; better to see a lot of things briefly than one or two things in depth. Judging from the lines at the Louvre and Notre Dame we made the right choice....I'm not exaggerating when I say there were a couple of hundred people in lines for both.

We took a boat tour along the Seine and saw all the famous buildings and some of the not so famous ones and we ate....boy, did we eat. I think we ate our way from one end of Paris to the other. Thing 1 and I particularly liked the crepes; they had these stands where they made your crepe to order every twenty feet or so and I think we stopped at every one....who knew bananas and Nutella was a combination I have been missing out on all my life??

One thing I liked about Paris and London is that there are plenty of public washrooms everywhere, and for the members of the Tiny Bladder Club, of which I am a charter member, this is a very welcome policy. You usually have to pay a little bit to use the bathrooms, but that's okay, it pays for a staff that keeps the bathrooms clean and supervised. And let me tell you, the ladies staffing the women's bathroom underneath Notre Dame take their job very seriously. These two North African women running this place did not put up with fools; you had to be right smart about doing your business, no lolllygagging, and they parceled out toilet paper like it was made of gold. And they kept yellling "Flush! FLUSH!!" every time anyone left a cubicle. But they kept that line moving and got a LOT of people in and out of there very efficiently. There wasn't a sign with the fee on it, and I was afraid of getting kicked out, so I gave them 2€ for the three of us and they beamed at me, so I guess it was enough.

I had read about a place on Ile St Louis that serves fabulous ice cream, and since I still had not quite eaten my total body weight yet, we went in search of it. And we found it! Here are Thing 1 and Thing 2 and I perusing the flavours at Berthillon, and drooling.

They had flavors like apricot and rhubarb and dark chocolate. Thing 1 had peach and Thing 2 had lime and I had salted caramel, which was out of this world and so intensely delicious that it was hard not to eat it too fast.

I have to say, the people in Paris were wonderful, friendly and helpful and very kind when I butchered their language beyond all recognition. I speak enough French to ask a question, but not enough to understand the answer. Everyone I tried my French on was very encouraging, but answered me in English, for which I was grateful. I had heard that Parisiennes were snotty and cold, but that was not our experience at all. When we were trying to find the entrance to a subway station (they hide them!) I asked at a gas station (in French) if they could tell me, and when one of the customers found out I was Canadian, he bellowed "J'adore! J'adore les Canadiennes!!" and hugged me and babbled on for a while (which I did not get at all....I thinkI heard something about being polite and then something else about Afghanistan.) and told us where the entrance to the subway was, and for a moment I thought he was about to come home with us. And then as we stumbled about for another bit finding the entrance (seriously, they hide them, they do NOT want you taking the subway in Paris!) an older couple walking down the street asked if they could help us. They could not have been lovelier.

After twelve hours of walking and eating, we were all grateful to crawl into bed and get some sleep. Because we knew that breakfast buffet would be there in the morning!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Loudshoes in Europe, Part 4: Paris

You know how you've always heard that Paris is spectacular and wonderful and the be-all and end-all in vacation experiences? Well, it's all true. It's fabulous.
We flew to Paris from Ireland and had to get ourselves from the airport to our hotel on the train and the metro; luckily, the Mister and I have enough French to be able to read signs and get ourselves on the right train and not to Poland or something.

Our daughters were a bit taken aback at a European hotel room, even one in a modern was very....compact. No ice machine, no ironing board, no free wireless. It ain't Disney World, let me tell you. But it did have a dazzling view of Paris from it's rather large window, and that was good enough for me.

We went out straight away to see the Eiffel Tower, which was #1 on our agenda, and as we strolled beside the Seine on a beautiful summer evening, we just kept turning to each other and saying "do you believe we're in Paris??"

The Eiffel Tower was way bigger than I thought it would be (I'm not sure how big I did think it was going to be, but I was surprised.) The Mister thought it was smaller than he thought it would be. Go figure. It is far more delicate and lacier than I thought it would be, too. It's really very lovely.
We wandered around a bit (and got asked 50 bazillion times if we would like to buy a cheap, plastic souvenier of the Eiffel Tower, by dozens of interchangable, sketchy looking guys who were so clearly used to being told "no" that they'd have fallen over with surprise if we had said "yes".)
Everyone was getting hungry, so we found a sidewalk cafe that looked like it would not cost all the money we possessed and we got a decent dinner from the most stereotypical snotty French waiter. Seriously, if I hadn't thought he would spit in my food, I'd have asked to take his picture. He was so full of contempt for us pitiful, non-French tourists that he'd have had to add a few inches to his nose to look down on us properly.

On the way back to the hotel, by way of the Eiffel Tower again, the heavens opened and we got full-on thunderstorm. We ducked into some phone booths nearby, Thing 1 and I in one and Thing 2 and the Mister in another. And Thing 1 and I found a cell phone in our booth! We tried to figure out if there was a number in the contacts that said "home" or some such thing, but the fact that neither of us speak French hindered us somewhat. And then it rang! It scared the bejesus out of us! We probably should have answered it to find out who it belonged to and to tell them where it was, but, again, we don't speak French and we couldn't tell them where it was anyway, we didn't even know were we were. ("Allo! Je have your phone! Here in the booth du telephone! Near la tour Eiffel! But I have no idea what street we are on or where the hell your phone is! Adieu!")

Even though I had said that there would be no sleeping on our trip to Paris, we did make our way back to the teensy hotel room and settle down for the night.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Loudshoes In Europe, Part 3 Ireland and France

When we were on the plane to Ireland, the bottle of water in my carry-on bag spilled and soaked half of my magazine of crossword puzzles. After three days of sitting on the dresser in the bedroom, it still wasn't dry enough to use. That's how damp it is in west Kerry.

After having explored the Dingle peninsula to it's fullest, it was time to move on. We got in the car and drove to Cork, a few hours to the east, by way of Fermoy, where I was born. (I've only been back there once, when I was 11....I have no real affinity for the place, but the Mister was dead set on going.)

Once we got used to driving at Mach One down roads the size of a bicycle path, with the hedges whipping the passenger side windshieild, we drove through counties Kerry and Cork without incident. We did stop in Mallow to load up on chocolate and chips. (Or crisps, as they call them over there. Cheese and onion are, apparently, the flavor of choice when it comes to potato chips in Ireland....guaranteed to make your breath smell like you've been gnawing on a skunks arse.)

The LOVE roundabouts in Ireland, like I mean, the transportation engineers would take them out and marry the roundabouts if they could. They are everywhere. And with good reason, too...roundabouts never really caught on in North America, but they should because they keep traffic moving, unlike intersections, and they they add a certain merry-go-round quality to one's trip, particularly when one has to take several stabs at getting off on the right exit.

We stopped in Fermoy for lunch and picturesHere I am in front of where I was born. I am reasonably sure it was one of these buildings, but I have no clue as to exactly which one. As I was crossing the street to rejoin my family, a truck the size of a killer whale came roaring around the corner and nearly squashed me like a bug. All my family could say (with horrified glee!) was "wouldn't that be ironic? What if you had died right beside where you were born?" Then Thing 1 opined that it would have been "even better" if it had happened on my birthday! And my 5oth is coming up!! They were disturbingly thrilled with the idea.

We made it to Cork and stayed with my mother's brother, who is incredibly welcoming and generous, and his wife, who is one of the loveliest, nicest, kindest women I've ever met. They fed us and plied us with very nice wine and it was all good. I could have happily spent the rest of my holidays right there. I saw my cousin Jennfier, who I haven't seen since my wedding, and whom I like very much. (I always envied my friends growing up who got to live near their cousins and see them all the time. I really like my cousins.)

The next day we went to Paris. I did not spill my water bottle.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Loudshoes In Europe, Part 2, Ireland

The west coast of Ireland is one of the most beautiful places you could ever see....the air is windy and fresh, the scenery is breathtaking and unique and being that close to the ocean gives it all a perspective that is hard to beat. But you do not go there for the weather.

The atmospheric conditons on the west coast of Ireland are changable, to say the's the weather equivilent of "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride". Sunny one minute and pouring rain the next, it's the only place I've ever been that the weather can give you whiplash.

We actually were very lucky in that regard. I've been to Kerry before where it quite literally never stopped raining for the entire week we were there, and my father claims that there was one summer in about 1957 where the sun never came out once the entire season. Our first day was overcast but bright, a major stroke of luck in an area that gets 2000 mm of rain a year. But the girls were outright offended by the change in temperature: we left 30°C to go to 16°C; a bit of an adjustment. ("Seriously? This is what they call "summer"?") We did most of our sightseeing that day, with me making a nuisance of myself saying "You have no idea how lucky we are with this weather!! This is incredible!!"
And then the next day, the clouds came down and it started to drizzle in the most grimly despondent way possible. And my family then understood what I meant.

Just to give you an idea, here is Thing 2 at the beach on our second evening in Kerry.
And here is Thing 1 the next evening.

The thing is, the temperatures were about the same. Go figure.

Here is the veiw from behind the house in Lispole, on a good day. (By the way, isn't that quite a sight out your kitchen window in the mornings?) See the mountain? It's a good sized mountain, no?

And here it is the next day, gone altogether. It could be part of a performance art piece called "How to Make a Mountain Disappear".

You also do not go to west Kerry for the relaxing drives. We went around Slea Head on our first day, on a road that takes you right around the west end of the Dingle peninsula and to see some of the most spectacular scenery ever. The only problem is, the road is narrow, and built on a cliff, so that the passenger in the front seat gets not only the best views, but also the uncomfortable realization that there is only a two-foot stone wall between the car and plunging headlong into the Atlantic Ocean. Do that for a couple of hours.....Makes for an interesting day. I think there might be a big market in selling Xanax at the pre-historic beehive huts.

Here is one of the typical roads around the area. Note that this road is not a one-way road, it takes traffic in both directions. And also? You can drive 60K an hour down this road. (That's nearly 40 mph.)

Both Thing 1 and Thing 2 thought that this explained a lot about their grandfather's driving habits.

At least we could see the road.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Loudshoes In Europe, Part 1, Ireland

We came back from vacation almost a week ago, and I am just now starting to feel like I inhabit my own life again. By my estimation, a two week vacation actuallly takes about 6 weeks: 2 to get ready, two to go away, and two to sort yourself out and re-enter your normal existence again. Not that I am expecting sympathy or anything; I went to Europe on my vacation, for goodness sake.

We flew from Toronto to Amsterdam, and then on to Cork on the southern coast of Ireland. It took me days to get everything organized, and I still felt like I had a million things to do as we were leaving to get to the airport. How on earth did the Mister's ancestors ever manage to get themselves on one of those coffin ships to flee the famine? I had entire Excel spreadsheets to make sure I covered everything before I left.

Our flight itself was fairly uneventful. Overnight flights to Europe are usually pretty quiet; they serve a round of drinks, they feed you dinner and then turn out all the lights and everyone goes to sleep. Except for the two young men who were sitting in front of us; they talked for 7 hours straight. And although they weren't whooping it up or being excessively loud, an airplane is a fairly contained space, and the Mister and I were privvy to their conversation for the entire flight. And they were not talking about nuclear physics or world peace. It was like flying to Amsterdam with Beavis and Butthead.

The guy in front of me put his seat back as soon as he was allowed, that made it impossible for me to see the tv screen in front of me (it was too close and I couldn't focus, because I'm old.) or hold a magazine up because there was no room. (Let me interject her to say that I think there should be a special place in hell for airplane interior designers. Either put a few more inches between the seats or don't allow the seats to recline.Or give me a golf club to knock some sense into the person in front of me.) I finally, and might I say very politely, asked them to shut the hell up. They sheepishly aquiesced, but not without giving me a bit of a look that said "jeesh, old lady". You know, what Beavis? If you don't let me sleep and you don't let me read, my only entertainment is to bitch at you.

We landed in Amsterdam and then headed straight to Starbucks because Mrs. Loudshoes - 1 night's sleep (/units of caffeine) = misery and heartache for all concerned. After a grande latte with 8 sugars, all was right with the world.

On to flight #2, to Cork, which is only an hour or so and there was nobody annoying on that flight. We land in Ireland, land of my birth, to a big, beautiful new airport in Cork city. Because it is a little, almost local flight, almost everyone on it is from Europe, and they go into the "EU Passport" line, and the other 7 of us go into the "Non-EU Passport" line. We get through customs and immigration faster than any airport I've ever been in. The Immigration man stamps the Mister and both Thing 1 and Thing 2's passports with one stamp and then mine with another..."welcome home" he greets me! "How come mom got a different stamp than we did" asked Thing 2. "Because she's allowed to stay", said the Mister.

We drove for 2 hours to the west, to Kerry, where my father grew up and my parents lived when they got married, before they came to Canada. To this little house, which my grandparents built in the 30s.

Nothing has changed in that house in my memory; it still looks and smells exactly the same. (Except it does have a phone and a shower now. Welcome to the 21st century!)

Here is the Mister, at one of my very favorite places in the whole world. I just love this beach.

It's hard not to keep taking a million pictures of exactly the same thing, since the whole place is so gorgeous and incredbly, breathtakingly beautiful.

We went to bed around 6 pm that night and slept for 14 hours. I'm not even making that up. (Thanks, Butthead!)