Monthly Archives: July 2012

Ray’s 19th Anniversary of his 21st Birthday

Well, it happened.  Ray is officially over the hill!  (And I’m not too far behind him)  It’s really hard to believe that he is 40.  I mean, we were in our 20’s when we met!  Has time really gone by that fast? Yes it has!   I was racking my brain as to how to make this one a memorable birthday.  After all, we are in a brand new country, don’t know too many people for a big birthday bash, and heck…we only have four plates to eat off of in the kitchen!  So while I drummed up a surprise plan for Sunday, I also decided to make it into a weekend of surprises and celebration.  Zachary was in sports camp for the week, so it was a perfect opportunity to sneak down to Leicester square to the half price ticket booth for theater tickets.  ‘Those who visit us…this will definitely be a place we”ll recommend you to go. Show up the day of, or in my case, even the week before a show, and this official half price booth will sell you tickets at, well, HALF the price that the theater is currently selling them.  It’s very similar to the half price booth in NYC.   I was able to get $90 2nd row seats to WE WILL ROCK YOU for $45 each.  Pretty good deal!   Throughout the week in the evening, Ray would be searching the web for theater tickets to that show, but each website was more expensive than the other.   I acted quasi interested in his query, but suggested to him that perhaps we should check it out later in the year when the summer crowds die down…;)

Friday evening afternoon arrived and I decided to let Zachary in on the little secret, knowing that it would be far less difficult to hold in the surprise for one night versus had I told him at the beginning of the week.  As a result, Saturday morning came VERY early, as someone was very excited to jump in bed and give daddy his present. Ray was quite surprised indeed and we had a great day (matinee show) at the Queen tributed musical.

So as far as Ray was concerned, that was it.  That was his “ROCKIN” birthday.  Little did he know that I had secretly made plans for our dear  friends Selina and Paul to come over to the house on Sunday to celebrate at a local pub for lunch. (YES, HE WAS SURPRISED.)   He also didn’t know about many of our wonderful family and friends sending him personal notes and photos to be included in this music video he viewed on Sunday afternoon.  Thanks again for all those who participated and sent him good wishes.  We are grateful for all the special folks in our lives!  May the next 40 years be even better.

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Categories: London | 1 Comment

Beefeaters are Cool

If you’re looking for cool Autumn-like weather, and the sight of flourishing English gardens from the masses amount of daily rain, then the Whitehouse-London annex is the place to visit in July!  Seriously, I didn’t think it was possible to have summers cooler than Massachusetts, but then again the “New” England weather pattern probably originated from England so I guess it would make sense…or something like that.  Mind you, I love rain.  In fact, some of my best work (writing, cleaning, cooking) is done when it rains!   However, I’ve just never seen so much precipitation (on a daily basis) as we have experienced here.  We’ve come to the decision to trick our minds into thinking that it is a rainy brisk October so we won’t be disappointed with cold “summer” weather.  (average daily high is about 60 degrees)

Sunday was the third sunny day since we arrived on June 29th, and it was a beautiful day indeed.  Our outing selections that we talked about for the day were to either go to be The London Zoo or the Tower of London.  Since the London Zoo would have run our family of three an $85 entry fee (no groupon discounts at the moment), we chose the Historic and fascinating Tower of London instead.  Sure, there’s a price to pay for anything in this city, but yesterday’s deal (you know we love deals) was a real winner.  For the small price of 83pounds(approx $120), we were able to buy a family season pass to enter 5 historic palaces as many times as we want in a 15 month period.  (The actual deal online states the pass is good for 12 months, but if you pay with your local London debit card, which we now have, they offered you an extra three months….no brainer!  The palaces included in the “scheme” are:  Tower of London, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace, Hampton Court Palace, and The Banqueting House.  It is a fantastic deal!  Oh, and since the family pass was good for two adults and up to six kids, we now have 5 kids on paper.  As an incentive for those of you with kids–come visit us, and the admission price for your children to any of the above castles is on us 😉

As you disembark from the Tower of London tube station, the massive stone tower sits among the hustle and bustle of the city streets and right on the north bank of the River Thames.  It’s amazing to think of the long and grim history of this powerful fortress.   We entered the Tower just in time for one of the famous Warder tours that run every hour.   Red and gold historic uniform wearing Yeoman Warders, otherwise known as Beefeaters guard the tower’s walls and give fabulously animated tours.  Our warder’s name was Steve, a boisterous Scotsman who gave a riveting guide that captivated even the youngest journeyer.  Interesting factoids about the famous warders: to become a warder, one must have served in the British Armed forces for at least 22 years and earned long service and good conduct medals.  They also must learn the Towers 900 year history.   They live in the tower rent free.  Royal Navy members are not eligible to apply.

The most famous tourist attraction at the Tower of London is the Crown Jewels which have been on display since the 17th century.  We went through that exhibit and Zach found it quite hard to believe that all the jewels were REAL!  Afterwards, we climbed the many stairs up to the White Tower, the oldest part of the fortress and walked around the armory section.  We continued out journey along the walkway closet to the Thames, with beautiful views of the London Bridge. (Notice the Olympic rings suspended from the bridge in the pictures below)

As you walk amongst the property, you will notice perfectly tame ravens.  These ravens have an interesting history.  King Charles II decreed that six ravens be kept at the tower at all times, to prevent disaster.  Legend has it that the kingdom and the tower will fall if the ravens ever leave the fortress.  Today, the tower houses 7 ravens (six plus a spare) and one of the head warders is responsible for feeding them on a daily basis.

As we were heading out of the tower and walking through the crowded square towards the tube, I glanced over and saw the very familiar face of who I thought to be a little boy who I had in a class.  I had no idea what his name was but he just had very recognizable features .  My curiosity go the best of me and I just had to see if it was him.  Walking up to his parents, I asked the boy if he attended Walsingham in Williamsburg and his face lit up.  He even remembered me, which I couldn’t believe, given the fact that I only substituted for his class once–two years ago!

As with Ray’s daily commute, our touring came to an end as we hopped aboard the infamous “Hopper” bus to head home.  Once again, another familiar face.  It was the bus driver who bought a cup of lemonade from Zachary last week.  We reminded him who we were and a big smile came across his face as he glanced down at Zach.  Responding in broken English (what appeared to be an Eastern European accent) he said that he came back around on the hopper to get another cup of lemonade, but Zach had already disassembled his stand.  “Next time, I buy two,” he exclaimed.

It was a great day of history with some added bonus of sunshine!

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Hopper Buses, Tube Stations, and Pedestrian Walking Paths

(Posting by Ray)

Public transportation is like a soup recipe — you have to find the right amount of each ingredient to make it taste just right–Kind of like my commute.  Here are my options:

— Walk to Tube Station (traversing relatively large bodies of water on the foot path); take two trains; walk to office
— Take Hopper (known as “hopping”) to Tube Station; take two trains; walk to office
— Take Hopper to Tube Station; take one train; walk loooonnggggg wayyyyy to office
— Take Hopper to Tube Station; take three trains; walk to office
— Walk or Hop (your choice) to Tube Station; take one of two different buses (your choice); take train; walk to office
— Take mini cab from house to Tube Station (approx $7.50);take two trains; walk to office
— Stay home or just stay at office

As you can see, I am still experimenting with the “right mix” to find my secret commuting sauce.  The bus is a real trip, let me tell you.  Imagine getting whipped around like on an amusement park ride, except really early before you’ve had your morning coffee.  I haven’t mustered up the courage to actually “stand” on our Hopper bus while it makes it’s circuit through our neighborhood.  Imagine hanging on tight, not strapped in mind you, while the local bus does about 50 mph down your neighborhood side streets with oncoming traffic on what amounts to pretty much a one lane road and you get a good visual of what I talking about.

People do their own thing on the train — you can read, eat, play with your iPhone, stare at your feet, or people watch.  There are lots of interesting people to watch on the train and bus to go around for an eternity.  Interestingly enough, no one talks to anyone no matter what the mode of transportation.  Like “Omerta” to the Mafia, silence is the code of the commuter.  Interestingly enough, a young fellow struck up a conversation with me on the train last week.  Recognizing the “sweet spot” when I saw it, I quickly made my way to rear of the Tube car — near the window.  It gets incredibly stuffy and hot on the train.  Although to be near the only open window (and ventilation) on the train you must stand, it is a trade off worth making.  Think real estate — even with the Underground, it is location, location, location that matters most.  So much so that this fellow actually acknowledged my chess like maneuver to occupy the coveted spot at the rear of the car.  I was proud of myself that through observation, I had at least mastered this small, yet coveted piece of the puzzle.  “Got the best spot in the car” he said to me in a matter of fact tone. “Yep” I replied.  He looked rather puzzled by my American accent, so I engaged him in friendly small talk.  Upon departing, he had a big grin on his face.  “I’ve taken this train for three years and this is the first time I’ve ever spoken to anyone.  Usually when people talk to you on the train they are nutters.”  Enough said.

Today, I actually had a conversation with a guy on the train about the “secret sauce” — he knew what I was talking about.  He explained to me how he has a specific spot where he stands on the platform to catch the train every morning — this affords him the quickest route on/of to make his way to the escalators.  Similar to billiards, “training it” is a highly competitive sport where you need to think tactically — set yourself up for your next shot.  I sense that I am facing some serious competition out there.  If you do manage to find those “sweet spots” on the platform, and the bus, and sense when to hop on/off at the right moment, you can shave what amounts to precious minutes off your commute.  For me, I find that usually I do a swell job at closing my eyes on the Tube and every day and I come pretty close to totally missing my stop altogether — so much for competition.

Categories: London | 4 Comments

“Business is Booming!”

With the success of the Lemonade Kids stand that Zach and dear friend Ana set up in Williamsburg last month, Zach was eager to get his subsequent pursuit up and running in London as well.  Keep in mind, in an effort to help launch the Lemonade Kids business across the pond, there were numerous props and supplies that were consciously packed in our outgoing 700-pound allotment of air freight back in Virginia, including a large beverage dispenser, lemonade powder, and of course, the handy-dandy cash register–hey we’ve got our priorities straight 😉

This morning we woke up to a rather unusual weather morning–IT WAS SUNNY in North London!  And with that, Zach’s first words that came out of his mouth were, “Mom, we’re doing the lemonade stand today!”  While I tried to convince him that maybe Saturday morning might be a better day than a Thursday, this determined (and observant) young impresario quickly pointed out that it was sunny today and that we might not be so lucky on Saturday.  Surely he had a point, as we have barely seen a dry spell since we arrived, so with that, the set-up began.

Zach’s business sits on the corner of a fairly busy main road connected to a small dead-end side road (what the British refer to as a “close”.) right in front of our house.   A permanent wooden bench is conveniently situated right behind his stand, which allows tired legs to rest when business gets slow.  He is outfitted with a yellow markered “Lemonade Stand” t-shirt, and a hand-made sign taped to our embassy-issued coffee table reads, Lemonade! Stand! 20p (that’s 20 pence which is equivalent to approximately .30cents.)

The first ten minutes was slow-going.  Mind you, we are in the U.K. and I quite honestly think that this just isn’t something they see very often, if at all, much less on a Thursday morning!  After all, this is an American past-time for sure. Cars whizzed by with no sign of stopping, ladies ran by in their spandex and Ipods, and then…. along comes Mr. Scottsman and his Labradoodle dog named Murphy.  “Lemonade for sale.  Would you like a cup?” Zach hopefully vocalizes from across the street.  “Why SURE, I would LOVE a cup of lemonade, lad!”  “20p?” he questions. “Is that all?  I might as well take two please!”  In a blink of an eye, 7-year old Lemonade Kids founder, Zach White, had successfully launched his new franchise in Hampstead Garden Suburb.

It was as if it was all he needed for that boost of confidence;  a stroke of luck and that first interested customer…becasue after Mr. Scottsman’s purchase, the stream of customers was virtually constant.  Amazingly, cars slowed down, glanced over, and STOPPED, one by one! Each time a person stopped, a stream of business followed.  Rob, husband of Jackie who organized a lovely neighborhood get-together on the green last Saturday, slowed down in his convertible and yelled out remembering our names, “Hey Krista!  I love to see this American entrepreneurial business spirit that Zach has!  I’ll have a cup of lemonade please, sir!”   A few more people walking their dogs, two gardeners in their company van, Interlink Express-a global service parcel company, all stopped to support the Lemonade Kid. (see corresponding photos below)  And then, the BIG shocker…..no sooner did the infamous”hopper bus” stop in front of our house to let off a few passengers (who also bought lemonade) than the driver, yes the hopper bus driver, put the passenger filled bus in neutral, got our his wallet, and requested some lemonade from Zach!!!  My mouth dropped…Zach quickly dispensed the beverage into a cup and delivered it up the red bus stairs.  A Hungarian lady named Annie, who was already more than amazed and intrigued at this foreign business concept, was in awe.  Even the passengers on the bus were cracking up.  It was an absolute riot!

“Business is booming!” exclaimed Zach with a huge smile on his face.  And indeed it was.  In the end, Zach made about 7 pounds..equivalent to a little over $10.00 in about an hour. It was great fun and a real hoot to observe from my VIP seat on the bench behind his stand.  With part of his earnings, he plans to purchase some sort of Ninjago lego toy which I happened to deny buying for him the other day in Hampstead.  At the time, he wasn’t too happy about my refusal of his desire for instant gratification. But as the old saying goes….”When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  And SO HE DID!   Now go enjoy yourself a glass today, too 🙂

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Categories: London | 7 Comments

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Congestion Zone”

London is known for its “schemes”, which in their mind translates to “bargain”–But in this sense of the word it is more like the American definition of scam–an attempt to swindle 😉  The London congestion charge is a fee charged to enter central London with your car between the hours of 7:00am and 6:00pm (Monday-Friday only).  The charge aims to reduce congestion, and to raise investment funds for London’s transport system.   The standard charge is £10 for each day a car travels within the zone.  For conversion purposes, this translates to about $15 each drive into central London.  (a weekly charge to someone who commuted by car into the city would therefore be $75)  with a penalty of between £60 and £187 levied for non-payment. ($90 and $280).

(The below paragraph is directly related to the above paragraph 🙂 )

I was talking to our Australian/British friends the other night over a gin and tonic, explaining the benefits (to us) of the Embassy having a working U.S. post office, which by the way we have received mail in a record three-four days from the east coast! (Thank you Sue Sue and GoGo and The New Orleans Brennecke cousins for the mail and packages so far!)  Of course, laughing bellowed throughout the house when I told them we had to be sensitive to the amount of boxes being sent at one time, as Ray is currently the only courier we have at the moment to hand-deliver mail via the infamous “Hopper bus” he takes home from work.  I continued by saying that once we get our car, it will be easier to pick up the packages becasue I can drive down and meet Ray outside the embassy to load up from any internet shopping sprees.  Our friend Simon quickly replied that it could get quite expensive to drive into the congestion zone too often.  It was then that I said these famous last words, “We don’t have to pay the congestion zone…It’s free for Diplomats.”

The next day, Simon’s wife Kate, forwards me an email that Simon sent with a link to that days BBC news.  The email was entitled, “This is Why they think the Congestion Charge is Free.” 

Needless to say, I laughed and laughed, until my stomach hurt.  Read the link below, and you’ll see why, in light of the previous evening’s discussion, we got a charge out of the article!!!!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-18725937

As you have probably already figured out, being a Diplomat definitely has it’s perks.  For example, Ray just brought home a “uniformed services identification and privilege card” which allows us to shop at any military commissary here in Europe.   In fact, the large black print on the front of the card boldly states “OVERSEAS ONLY”.   Now, to the average American, this may not be such a “perk”, but you see, when you are paying $15.00 a pound for chicken at the local market…(hey, that’s no perk), then you too, would be jumping on the commissary bandwagon.  One thing that is quite peculiar is, that with this “privilege card”, we also receive a supplemental U.S. forces ration card for coffee solubles.  Call me crazy, but I double checked on Wikipedia, and it plainly states, “In the UK, 1954 was the year when all food rationing officially ended. Meat and cheese were the last things that were rationed.  In the US, rationing stopped in 1946.”  Ok, so maybe one of the privilege perks as a Diplomat is that we are “privy” to rationing?!   I can handle that, as long as my congestion charge remains “Free”.

Categories: London | 4 Comments

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