Sunday, February 28, 2010

Our flat in Marylebone

It's no longer new to us, but most of you have never seen our flat in Marylebone. We moved in October 2008, although it's such a perfect fit that we feel like we've always been here. I've already described the process of finding the flat, which was serendipitous. It's a studio flat like the one in Enfield, but the main room is much, much bigger, and the ceilings are much, much higher. We're talking 14 feet or so, and we've got three windows that are about 13-feet high and lead out onto a little balcony. The center point of the main room is a (non-working) fireplace with a beautiful carved mantel, and there are carved plaster decorations on the ceiling, too. We're on the second floor of a building that was constructed in 1815, which is delightful but comes with its own special features such as sloping floors and, a few times, a mouse in the kitchen. We've gotten rid of him, fortunately, and we haven't had any other problems since we've been here.

Our landlords are wonderful, which, I gather from talking to other Londoners, is rare. We lucked out with BJ and Preeti in Enfield and the folks at Bryanston here. We even got to go to the property developer's 80th birthday party in December at one of the fanciest hotels in London. Not quite on par with the great time we had at BJ and Preeti's daughter's wedding, but still not too bad!

So in our main room we have our bedroom area in one corner by the windows, separated from the entryway by a tall, wide bookshelf turned on its side to form a short wall that holds our clothes in bins between the shelves. In the other window-facing corner is our dining table and chairs, and on the other side of the fireplace from that, leading towards the kitchen and bathroom, is our living room area, with our little sofa and our TV/game/music/computer setup. The kitchen is small but not overly so, with all new appliances, including a surprise larger-than-usual refrigerator, a gas stove, and a DISHWASHER! You have no idea how happy this last item has made us. The bathroom is quite spacious, with a nice deep bathtub and plenty of counter space. Finally, there is lots of storage space, including two built-in wardrobes, or closets, as we Americans call them, not appreciating how rare and special they are in this country.

All in all, we will be very sad to say goodbye to our flat. It has been a very comfortable home for us for about a year and a half now, and we're happy to spend a few more months here making the most of London!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

In September 2008, I had built up quite a bit of unrewarded overtime and managed to convince my boss to let me take a day off without taking it out of my annual leave. Andrew had some extra holiday time too, so we took a long weekend trip to Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire.

Andrew picked up a rental car in Enfield on Saturday morning and we loaded up our camping gear and travel CDs and hit the road. We've only rented a car in the UK a couple times because they have weird rules about not renting to Americans who have lived here more than a year without getting British driver's licenses. We must have been just over the limit even then, but no one seemed to notice, and we thrilled to the freedom of the open road. We drove halfway around the M25, which seemed to take forever, but then we got onto smaller roads through charming villages and picturesque farms. This time we paid a little extra to get an automatic, so there was much less driving-related stress than on our previous car-renting experience, and we had a great time just riding along, singing and talking and relaxing.

We made it down to the Dorset coast, near Bridport, in time for a late lunch at the campsite. There was a little cafe in the farmhouse, and they served up delicious soups, sandwiches, scones and tea in the garden. After we ate and set up our tent, we walked down through the sheep pastures to catch the footpath leading to the water. There weren't too many people around because it was too cold to swim, so we had the beach pretty much to ourselves. That section of the Dorset coastline is called the Jurassic Coast for all the fossils that have been discovered there. We didn't see any fossils, but we did see lots of different kinds of rock and soil layered in the cliffs. There wasn't much of a beach, but there were huge boulders leading out into the water that were fun to climb on. After the beach, we walked back up the hill to the campsite, past dozens more sheep and one very big, very friendly horse. We were just too late to get afternoon tea, so we got back in the car and drove to the next town down the coast, Lyme Regis, to do some more exploring.

I knew of Lyme Regis from a Jane Austen novel (Persuasion, I think). It was a popular beach resort in the 19th century, especially among people who wanted to "take the water" for their health. Walking around the town, it was easy to imagine the leisured classes of Jane Austen's time strolling along the promenade and through the gardens. Everything was beautiful and elegant and timeless. We gave up on tea and explored the town, then found a restaurant on the promenade for a seafood supper. Then it was back to the tent to discover that it was quite a bit colder than we thought it would be. Do we never learn?

We had a pleasant night, however, and got an early start in the morning. We drove through some of the nearby villages on roads that were barely wide enough for one car, much less two, but we never ran into any real trouble. In the late morning we found an apple orchard that was closed for the U-Pick season but let us pick a few bags because we asked nicely. In the next town, we stopped to get a snack and Andrew bought a winning lottery ticket for 50 pounds! By the early afternoon we had left Dorset, passed through Somerset and arrived at our destination for the night: Stourhead.

I had really wanted to go to Stourhead when we were on our big camping trip, but it was impossible to get to on public transport so we had to skip it. It looked beautiful in all the photos, it was stunning in Pride and Prejudice, and I had built it up in my mind as a perfect place. It did not disappoint. We drove onto the estate, down a lane lined with ancient trees and went to the 300-year-old inn on the property to check in. We had a beautiful room with tall windows and a big, comfy bed. After we got settled, we walked out into the property and up to the manor house. Once you've seen a few stately homes, they all start to blend together a bit, but I remember Stourhead having a particularly nice library. More interesting than the house were the gardens, which we explored at a leisurely pace, knowing that we could go wander the grounds even after they were closed to the public because we were staying at the inn.

The early autumn scenery was beautiful, and we saw the sun set over the lake, casting an ethereal golden glow over everything. We walked around the lake, stopping to look into the temples, grottoes and groves that were dotted all around. We took about a million photos, too, some of which you can see here: more impressive than the beauty, though, was the feeling of bliss that washed over me as I contemplated the beauty all around.

After our tour of the gardens, we went back to the inn for a delicious dinner and a wonderful night's sleep. Nothing gets you ready for a good night's sleep in a bed than a cold night's sleep in a tent! The next morning, after breakfast, we took a last, leisurely stroll around the lake before the gardens opened to the public. Then we got back on the road and drove to Lacock, a tiny historical village that looks like it hasn't changed in hundreds of years. A lot of movies have been filmed there, and it really did feel like stepping back in time, but not in as cheesy a way as you might think. It was lovely. Lacock is also home to a medieval cloistered abbey-turned manor house and a museum dedicated to William Fox Talbot, who used to live in the house and who was an early photography pioneer. They had a really good exhibit explaining the history of photography and how the chemical processes work. They also had a great exhibit of photographs to illustrate a special edition of Alice in Wonderland by a woman from Gainesville.

After tea and scones in Lacock, we drove back toward London, stopping for lunch and a quick walkaround in Eton. It looked a lot like Oxford, and many of the schoolboys we saw walking around in their ties and tails will end up in Oxford in a few years. It's a pretty town in its own right, too, with the swan-dotted Thames flowing through the middle. It provided a perfect ending to our relaxing weekend.

Yellowstone photo album

Here's a link to our Yellowstone photos. You don't need to be on Facebook to see them; it's a public link.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Ricke Family Vacation continued

Don't worry. We made room for food. Each couple was in charge of one night's dinner, and we gathered all our groceries from a classic vacation grocery store. You know the kind. This was no Publix. It wasn't even a Piggly Wiggly. It was a proper frontier store, mostly preserved packaged goods. The best we could find for our planned fish tacos was frozen "shrimp". But we all thought on our feet, found everything we needed, and piled back in the car, with two bags of groceries per lap, and drove to the rental house.

We drove, and drove, and drove. We had very clear directions, but they were of the landmark variety. They consisted of "drive down such-and-such road until you see the mountain; then turn right until you see Old Mr Frederickson. He'll point you to the driveway." After much doubling back and doubling back again, we found what we thought ought to be the house (they don't do house numbers in Idaho) and then spent about 20 minutes fanning out across the property to find the keys. But eventually we found them and got in, and it was awesome. There were big, comfy couches everywhere. There were seemingly thousands of rooms. There was a hot tub on the back porch. There was a huge common room with a big TV for Beijing Olympics viewing. And there was an audioanimatronic deer head on the wall. We made ourselves right at home and began our vacation in earnest.

Over the next week, we played countless rounds of flip cup and Mario Kart, watched lots of Olympics coverage, cooked and cleaned in the kitchen, played Ricke Bocce ball in the yard, soaked in the hot tub, built campfires in the fire pit, took silly pictures, played board games, channeled our assigned totem animals (Andrew and I were moose; others were wolves, bears and...beavers? pikas? I can't remember), and spent all sorts of quality time in the house.

We also spent all sorts of quality time in the parks. We drove all over Yellowstone and saw canyons and rivers and burnt trees from the wildfires. We went on hikes up and down and around and through. We saw Old Faithful and its neighbor geysers. We saw eagles and pikas and, according to Andrew, a moose, and, finally, on our last day, a bear. We went not only to Yellowstone but also to Grand Teton, where we walked around a lake and up a mountain or two. One day we took the plunge and went swimming in a glacier-fed lake. Another day we went canoeing in a very shallow river and watched a distant forest fire spewing smoke into the atmosphere. We had some good food along the way, too, including a very slow but delicious pizza lunch and a phenomenal dinner at Teton Thai. We spent lots of time in the van, which brought us closer together than we wanted to be at times but ultimately brought us even closer together as a family.

Some were sick intermittently; others lost their tempers. Such is a family vacation. But we all had a wonderful time being with each other and enjoying the beautiful scenery and the clean air. And all too soon we had to head back to Cody for one last family dinner in a frontier steakhouse, followed by one last game of flip cup, in a hotel that Buffalo Bill built. Then it was a flight to Salt Lake City, a flight to Atlanta, and a flight to Tallahassee. Then, for Andrew and me, another set of flights back to London, away from the wild west, away from America, and back to our own adventure in London.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Getting ready for back again, but making the most of being here now

Andrew and I are moving back to the US this summer (we don't know where, just yet), so I figured I ought to try to catch up on some of the highlights of our time here so I'll have a complete record by the time we leave. The last time I posted, other than a special Amsterdam edition last year, was the fall of 2008. So here, as promised then, is the first installment of our summer 2008 family vacation. It was legendary, as you'll soon see.

The Ricke family has a tradition of wholesome, adventurous, outdoorsy sorts of vacations. We have been to dozens of state and national parks, done the whole camping and canoeing thing, and experienced, many times over, the glories of the cross-country road trip. But it wasn't until this year that we finally made it to the grandaddy of all the national parks, Yellowstone. This was also the first time we all travelled together as a much bigger family, with an extra husband, a fiancee, and a girlfriend (soon to be a fiancee, although we didn't know at the time!) in tow. The only missing family members were of the four-legged variety.

Andrew and I flew over a couple days early and just had time to hang out with Zack into the wee hours of our first night back on American soil. The next day we saw Matt Cooper, Zach and Mary Frances, Owen, and the brand-new Elliott, who was nice enough to let me hold him until my arms ached. We had a riproaring time at dinner and at Black Dog, where we took over the back porch until they kicked us out. We had some high-quality time with the Marders, too, including a very nice brunch, and we crashed Diane Eaton's going-away-to-grad-school party with Matt, but then it was time for the vacation within the larger vacation.

Let me just say, first of all, that I was very impressed by the logistical efficiency of the whole trip. Getting eight people with all their luggage to the right places at the right times is difficult, but we managed it. The first leg of the trip was a short flight from Tallahassee to Atlanta, where we picked up Bryan and Christina and spent the night in a hotel near the airport that featured a pretty decent Mexican restaurant. The next morning (I guess 4:30 is morning and not night) we got up and, I don't want to say forced, perhaps facilitated, our way onto a crowded shuttle bus headed for the airport. We got to the plane with no mishaps and had two long but easy flights, first to Salt Lake City, then to Cody. Andrew and I explained to everyone the elaborate buddy system we had developed in Europe, which meant that each person had a buddy (their significant other) and each set of buddies had another set to look out for, in age order. Mommy and Daddy looked out for Andrew and me, who looked out for Bryan and Christina, who looked out for Nicholas and Katie, who looked out for Mommy and Daddy. Beautiful. And it worked; we came back with all eight people!

The flights were notable to me for two reasons: one, Katie and I discovered we brought the same silly but enjoyable vampire book to read. That Katie is a quick reader; as fast as I am. Two, the flight to Cody was on a plane about as big as the table I'm sitting at. It was a fairly smooth ride, but we were all pretty happy to get off the plane. Happy, and hungry. First we had to pick up the car, which involved estimating how much room we and our luggage would need, to determine if we needed the huge van or the ginormous van. We went with the huge van, based partly on Katie's confident guess that we would all fit. She was right, with mere inches to spare. So we piled in and drove into "town." More on Cody at the end of the trip, but at that point we needed food. We decided to try the Silver Dollar Cafe, which promised the best burgers in the West. They were not the best burgers in the West, as it turns out, but they were decent, and we all ate as if we had never eaten before. Well, maybe that was just me.

After lunch, we made for the open road and drove, and drove, and drove. One by one, we drifted off in the back seats, and I remember waking up to find that we had finally reached the eastern edge of Yellowstone, about three hours after leaving Cody. We stopped at a gift shop in one of the little villagey clusters of facilities scattered through the park, then we got back in the car to keep driving. But at that point, it was no longer a chore; it was an attraction. As we neared the very heart of the park, we started to see animals. First, a buffalo on the side of the road, then ten buffaloes, then, all of a sudden, hundreds and thousands of buffaloes, spread across a great plain. We stopped at some mud pools, and there was a buffalo there, too, not ten feet away from where we stood, not so securely, on the slightly raised boardwalk.

The mud pools were unlike anything I had ever seen. Or smelled. They were sulfurous, which doesn't really sound all that bad, but imagine a swimming pool full of sulfurous fluids, and you start to get an idea of the odor. With the breeze blowing the fumes in our faces, we felt like visitors to an egg factory gone horribly, horribly wrong. They were fascinating to look at, though. The pools had muddy water in them, and the gases rising up through the hot water made it bubble violently as if it were boiling. There were tiny cones of earth, too, sending wisps of steam up into the dry air. The landscape looked as though it should be very hot, but it was mild because of the altitude. It was dry, though. There is not enough lip balm in the world to keep me comfortable in that kind of climate.

After the mud pools, we drove through a traffic jam of cars and buffaloes. Sometimes the cars were simply stopping to let vacationers hang out the windows and take pictures of the buffaloes, but often the animals walked right onto the road between the cars, forcing them to stop. We took about a thousand pictures of the buffaloes. We saw them standing, eating, nursing, rolling, tumbling, even running. They were the perfect embodiment of nature: grand and majestic, but at the same time, completely silly and unpredictable. I would not go so far as to call them elegant creatures.

As we drove west, through the park, we saw more mud pools, more buffaloes, then rivers and waterfalls and many mountains. We stopped for a few photo opportunities, but tried to push on so we could get to the grocery store in West Yellowstone and from there, on to the cabin in Idaho. That's right, this is all still on the first day. We found the grocery store and, along with it, a quandary. We had planned to buy all of our groceries at once so we wouldn't have to go back to the store, but with all of us and all of our luggage, there was no room for food. And in our group, no room for food is a serious problem.

More soon.