There Was a Crooked Man and He Walked a Crooked Mile

When planning out the second night of our trip through Europe, we decided upon the German city of Ulm (Try saying this local tongue twister six times: In Ulm, um Ulm, und um Ulm herum.) Not only would it be just a short two hour drive to our six night stay in the Alps, but where else can you lodge overnight in the world’s crookedest house? I mean really, why WOULDN’T you want to sleep on an angle in Ulm?!

Albeit in the late afternoon/early evening when we started on our venture to Ulm, we drove through the peaceful French countryside. As we approached the French/German border, remnant of the not too distant past, sat on the side of the two lane country road, the abandoned old border crossing building. Krista hopped out of the car and posed for a picture of our arrival into Deutschland!

Alas, our arrival in ULM! As Dad’s French boutique country manor pick was a huge hit with Zach last night, the pressure was now on Mom, as Ray and Zach’s skepticism grew with her wonky lodging choice–a crooked house, really?!?! As we drove up to the empty hotel side parking space, seemingly reserved just for us, Zach’s eyes lit up as a placard adorning the entrance to the hotel read–“Guinness Book of World Records 1997–Worlds Most Crooked House”.

 “I’ve been Vaiting fah you,” responded the young German innkeeper as we made our way to the small front counter to check in. “Your vroom is number two– ztraight up zee stairs. Breakfast is included in the Blau river view dining room in the morning. Gutenacht and enjoy your stay.”

Zach led the way up the creaking wood stairs of the small 12 room inn (only of which four of the rooms are crooked beyond belief.) Our first observations, aside from the obvious uneven wood floor, was the LEVEL that was conveniently nailed into the top of the bed…just in case you had any apprehension that you’d wake up dizzy! Zach was amused as the suitcase with the rolling wheels kept sliding across the sloped floor. Ray’s wake in the middle of the night to use the bathroom found him sliding towards the windows, before he gained enough footing to climb his way back up the “kinder hill” 😉

Sunday morning brought sunshine and a delicious European breakfast (including cold deli meats, fresh fish, cheese, beer hall pretzels, and poached eggs) The Frau kindly made two additional scrambled egg orders for Zach and Ray and before you knew it our tummy’s were full and we were ready for some historical adventure after our eccentric and crooked night sleep. Before heading out however, only a few hundred shots were clicked as Krista sought to capture the angular glory of this 15th century rarity.

What a quaint town!! (Again, no English language spoken or Americans in sight) One of the highlights included the town square’s Munster Cathedral, celebrating the world’s tallest steeple at 161.5m high. The only chance of fitting the entirety of the spires into one photo, was to lie down on the cobbles–exactly what Ray did. Zach attempted to secure our buy-in to climb the 768 spiral stairs to the 143m high tower, but we took into consideration that we might need to save our walking/skiing legs for the Alps over the next few days, and that Ibuprofen can only do so much. (Maybe next time!)

Oodles of bridges line the waterway canals throughout the old city and colorful half timber German houses dot the streets. It was a great out-of-the way stopover with a lot of character, charm, and crooked memories that were made!

Next stop….Garmisch-Partenkirchen!

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Categories: Cool Pics | 2 Comments

Bonjour!

Bonjour!

The words “February vacation” had a new meaning for us this year.  After moving to London, Zach was able to experience his first ever week-long school break, a break that didn’t exist in Virginia.   It was a welcome treat for all of us.

Crossing the English Channel onto mainland Europe is literally a hop, skip, and a train ride through the Eurotunnel. Who would think it would be so easy? Within 2.5 hours of leaving our house in London, we had arrived into Calle, France on Friday afternoon to begin our great 10 day school/work free adventure. Our ultimate destination was another 10 hours away into the heart of the German Alps, but since getting there is part of the fun, we decided to make a few stops along the way to break up the trip. The first stop was Metz, France. Metz is about a five hour journey from Calle–an easy first day of driving. It is a city of historical significance to Ray’s family, as during World War II, Ray’s grandfather, served in the 95th division, 379th Infantry regiment as a Lieutenant of a rifle platoon. He was one of four men in his platoon to survive the battle of Metz, one of the fiercest battles of the Rhine Campaign. These allied forces, who punched a hole through this strategic series of fortifications occupied by the German special forces, were referred to by General Patton as “The Iron Men of Metz, the bravest of the brave.” As a result, he received a liberators medal from the government of France. Ray has a copy of his grandfathers’s original 1954 invitation to attend a medal ceremony at the town hall in the city center. This would be our ultimate information quest in the city, however our first goal was to settle into our surprisingly unexpected treat of a hotel on Friday evening–La Grange de Conde in the small town of Marselle, ten miles east of Metz.

It's so easy to cross the English Channel to France!

It’s so easy to cross the English Channel to France!

Our "spa evening" in the hotel... rotating between the hot tub, the sauna and the steam room

Our “spa evening” in the hotel… rotating between the hot tub, the sauna and the steam room

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Steam RoomMetz is a charming town. Not surprisingly, our first item of order was to seek out the WWII connection. Standing in the center of the city square was none other than the “Hotel de Ville” (the town hall) as well as a liberators statue honoring the soldiers. Although the tourist office was unhelpful, when we inquired whether there was anyone we could talk to who might know some WWII history inside the Town hall, the location where the medals were awarded to the liberators. Ironically enough, there was a World War II exhibit in the atrium (albeit in French). After stumbling into a quiet dark room in the rear of the building, we approached and showed the French speaking town hall administrator and accompanying police man the copy of the medal invitation in French. The two word response was, “WOW, WOW!” The French duo proceeded to enthusiastically converse in French for about five minutes and then eagerly referred us to the another administrative office for War records. Unfortunately, it was closed as it was Saturday, so we continued our meandering around the old part of the city for a bite to eat.

Our stop at a cafe simply named, “Paul”, was a gastronomic treat of extraordinary proportions. Zach’s order of a croissant and Evian water was totally French! Ray learned the French phrase for Gastro-goodness – Chaisson de Pommes – a honey covered apple-filled pastry, and Krista’s tastebuds were delighted with sheer joy through a colorful fruit tart. Nobody spoke an ounce of English and there were no Americans to be seen.

The Cathedrale St. Etienne is a beautifully constructed Gothic cathedral ,complete with golden spires and flying Buttresses. Laced with 13th-20th century stained glass and towering 137ft from floor to ceiling, it was a delightful stop after our jaunt through the grand Marche Couvert, a covered market lined with fresh produce, fish, cheese, and meats.

It was about 1:00pm when we decided to head out of the city and make an impromptu stop at the largest single Maginot line bastion. What is that you ask? For those who are not in the know, it is one of history’s biggest military failures. After World War I, the French built a fixed line of defense, complete with underground tunnels spanning from the Belgian border to the island of Corsica to prevent a future German invasion. It’s slogan was: IIs ne passeront pas–“They won’t get through”. The words held true, as in the end, the Germans went around The Maginot Line and invaded France through Belgium! The tour guide explained with conviction that Belgium would not allow the French to continue the Maginot line across Belgian territory and thus, if only the Belgians would have allowed construction, then the Germans would have been stopped and World War II averted! ha Our very thorough three hour tour (you the reader, sparred the details) included a walk through three km of tunnels, a comprehensive tour of the diesel motors, air filtration system, and water holding area for the facility, as well as a gallery of arms, medals, and uniforms and other large weaponry. The cherry on the sundae was a mile long high speed train ride (terrifying for Ray) through the depths of the fortification to an underground bunker complete with an anti-aircraft gun. In the end, one German junker crashed in a farm field nearby and one German was captured after he got lost in the surrounding hills. Ultimately, the Germans captured the fort with little resistance, and fired 90 seconds worth of artillery rounds at the oncoming American tanks. The Americans bombarded the facility for an hour straight before capturing it. As you can imagine, Ray was in his glory. It was a very THOROUGH tour to say the least…but cool nonetheless. Zach’s FAVORITE part of the tour was when the guide told us about the “End of the World 2012 party” that he and 100 others attended in the fort this past December.

Next stop ULM, Germany…..

Categories: Cool Pics | 4 Comments

Thanksgiving with Family

Once again, it’s a month later than the actual month I’m blogging about.  This time, we find ourselves in mid December as I’m just getting around to blogging about Thanksgiving.  Ahh, better late than never.

We had an absolute fantastic first Thanksgiving in London, mainly because we had out first set of visitors!!!….Mom and Dude, aka, Barb and Luke or… Mita and Gopa, as Zach affectionately calls them.  Arriving on Wednesday, November 21, the day before Thanksgiving, one would think that the new visitors would be able to get deplane in London after an overnight flight from Baltimore and come back to our home for a two-three hour power-nap.  NOT THE CASE!  When they originally gave me their flight info, I wrote down that they were arriving on Tuesday.   Early in October,when I was wondering about the West End one afternoon, I excitedly picked up five tickets to see the critically acclaimed musical, “Wicked” for none other than the Wednesday November 21st afternoon matinee!  I figured that by then, our house-guests would be well-rested and ready to set out on the town since they were arriving the day before…….OOPS!

So it turns out that Mita and Gopa arrive at 9am on Wednesday morning.  As I had never driven to the airport in rush hour traffic before, we thought it might be best to have an experienced driver pick them up at the airport.  They arrived at the house by 11am and we had nearly two hours to welcome them to the neighborhood, show then around the house, and wallaa…No rest for the Wicked…. LITERALLY! ha  It was off to the critically acclaimed musical, “Wicked”…..I must say, they were real troopers.   Not only did we not see any peepers closed during the performance, but they were willing to venture out for dinner after the show!  (A spectacular show of music and costumes indeed…anyone who sees this show, however, will never look at the original Wizard of Oz the same again!)

The following day was Thursday…time to celebrate Thanksgiving 2012!  It was nice to not only have mom and dad visiting, but also 4  local British friends over to celebrate none other than the pilgrims successfully leaving this land to find a new life in America!   How ironic 😉  We got a lot of laughs out of the irony and our British guests were actually very intrigued about the history and story of the pilgrims landing in Plymouth.

Friday was more a less a day of relaxation, saving up for a night of a private tour of the Tower of London for the Ceremony of the Keys…a tradition of locking up the Tower of London that has taken place on each and every night, without fail, for 700 years.  Ray was able to use his work contacts to hook us up for this special tour.  Not only were Barb and Luke able to join us for the tour, but Ray was able to get two extra tickets for our good friends Simon and Kate, who just happen to also be our neighbors!  It was a fun night of touring the Tower, witnessing the ceremony, and enjoying the company of one another while having a few drinks in the private Yeoman Warders Club–interesting note:  The men are NOT ALLOWED to even step foot in the bar unless they have a coat and tie on.  Good thing Ray, Luke and Simon got the memo!

Saturdays big highlight was heading downtown for a magical mystery tour of the city on Professor Quantim’s Magical Bus tour.  It was a fun, quirky, way of seeing the major sights of the city in the freezing cold sunless temps of London (luckily it wasn’t raining!) It kept the young audiences entertained and us over the hill ones happy as well!  Barb and Luke quickly became pros at navigating their way around  London on the underground tube system.  One thing is for sure….you don’t find many elevators down there so everyone was hard at work exercising their calves.

I honestly can’t remember what we did on Sunday.  ??

Monday was the last full day of Mita and Gopa’s all too short visit.  Although Zach’s class was back to school after Thanksgiving break, we decided that grandparents don’t get to visit everyday, so Zach played “hookie” and we ventured out of the city 90 miles to Warwick castle.  Warwick is one of our favorite medieval castles to visit built by William the Conqueror in 1068.  The neat thing about Warwick castle is that you can come back anytime during the year and they always have different themes, battles, shows, and live entertainment.   This visit we saw a great presentation on Birds of pray and ancient weaponry.  We have a year family pass that we bought over the summer when we arrived.  With the purchase of our annual pass, we received 16 free visitor entry tickets to bring guests.  Who wouldn’t love Warwick castle?!?

Tuesday morning came all too fast and it was off on the school bus Zach went at 7:15am.  With lots of hugs and kisses Mita and Gopa bid Zach farewell as he did the same to them.  It was a great visit–our first visitors in London.  We can’t wait to welcome more.  Come on over!

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Categories: Visitors | 1 Comment

A HALLOWEEN TO REMEMBER!

It’s November, and while many have already moved on to the next holiday, the White house in North London is still talking about Zach’s favorite holiday and the  flurry of  Halloween excitement this past week, especially last night!

In an effort to paint the fullest picture of the “highlight activity”, it will help to explain  the on-goings of the past few weeks.  First let me say that while the Brits are intrigued (to say the least) by Halloween, it is still very much an American celebrated past-time….except at Jonathan Ross’ house (the Jay Leno of the U.K.)

The first weekend of October (the 6th and 7th) Zachary was begging to start putting up Halloween decorations.  Thinking that this would not have been out of the norm to start adorning the house with cobwebs and pumpkins in the States during that  October Fall weekend, we pulled out the box-loads of spooky trimmings that grace the attic floor.  Within minutes of hanging up the cobwebs and ghouls, we had neighbors stopping and gawking.   Not only would they stop….by quite often they would look at their watches, look back at us, and say, “When is Halloween again?”  9 times out of 10 they would follow up their questioning with, “If you love Halloween this much, you will just LOVE Jonathan Ross’s house!  Do you know who Joanathan Ross is?”  At the time….NO….we didn’t know who Jonathan Ross was.  But when I started noticing him on billboards and buses throughout London,  it quickly became apparent that he was a big name in London!

Fast forward to Wednesday, October 24th–one week prior to Halloween.  Still, folks continue to drive by our house, stop, take pictures, and say…”Do you know….?  Before they could blurt out anything else, Zach was finishing their sentence….”Yes, I know what you’re going to ask me.  Do I know Johnathan Ross?”  Finally, Zach said to me, “Mom, WE HAVE GOT to go to Johnathan Ross’ house!.  I have got to meet him and challenge him. ”  Not wanting to discourage his confidence, I went along with his game plan. When we stopped by his house, two streets over from ours, Zach insisted on getting out of the car.

Mr. Halloween Jr. knocked at Mr. BBC’s door and no answer….He rang the doorbell and no answer…after a third time of a knock/ring combo and me trying to convince him that no one was home, the door slowly opened.  There, stood a blonde haired teenager who suspiciously said, “May I help you?”

ZACH:  HI!! I’M ZACH!  WE’RE YOU”RE AMERICAN NEIGHBORS AND I CHALLENGE YOU TO A HALLOWEEN DUAL!

A wide smile comes across the teenage boy’s face and he says, “Hi zach.  I’m Harvey. Where do you live?.”  After a few minutes of conversing back and forth, Harvey reveals to Zach, “The Challenge is on!”

Whether he just thought we were just friendly naive Americans who hadn’t a clue whose house we were at, or we were simply ballsy Americans who weren’t deterred from knocking on the door of  his famous TV personality dad, he greeted us with a big smile and went along with Zach’s challenge! ha

Harvey proceeded to invite us over on the 31st for an evening of  Halloween spirit, courtesy of his dad footing the bill 😉  We could only imagine what was about to be revealed on Halloween night!

Dusk came upon Hampstead Garden Suburb about 4:30pm last night and Zach, adorned in his Harry potter costume was ready to hit the streets.  Beforehand however, he headed over to a friends house for some pre-trick or treating festivities.    Ray and I hired Zach’s regular sitter to man the house and candy bowl and the 16 year old British girl was thrilled to bring over a friend, get dolled up in their costumes, and get paid to hand out candy!!! SCHWEET!!!!   This way, Ray and I could both enjoy the exhilaration of watching Zach trick or treat.  After all, these precious years wont last much longer–no sense in either of us missing it!

Before hitting the streets we were given a quick run down of the rules of the neighborhood.  Unlike in America, where a light on the front of the house is a green signal for trick or treating, that is not necessarily the case here in the U.K.  There must be “some sort of decorations” nearby–whether it’s a pumpkin on the front step or cobwebs attached to the hedges…anything IN ADDITION to a light on the front porch.  OK!  Got it..

After meandering in and out of the neighborhood collecting “sweets” as they call them, we finally made it to  Jonathon Ross’ house and it was UNBELIEVABLE–unlike anything we’ve ever seen or experienced on Halloween.   As you will see in the pictures below, the house was literally transformed into a Haunted Castle (all done on Halloween day by a professional company called AREA 51 who started transformation at 7 am )  A manned trolley making free cotton candy for the kids all night long (In England they call Cotton Candy “Candy Floss” and so hence, you will see that the sign is called “ROSS FLOSS”) beasts, monkeys, creatures on stilts, and the paparazzi all flurried about the hundreds and hundreds of people milling about. (By the way, knowing that they are fully capable of taking a good photo, Ray asked the paparazzi to take a photo of the three of us seen below)

As we walked passed the front of the house, Zach spotted Harvey in the front door, the boy who he had met just days before…the boy who happened to be famous Jonathon Ross’ son.  Zach ran up to the door and Harvey got a big smile on his face.  Zach proceeded to stay, chat and work his way inside the front door.  Meanwhile, Harvey invites Zachary in the front foyer of their house while Ray and I remain standing behind the security guard!)  Harvey’s mom, Jane Goldman (who I later learned from Wikipedia is an English screenwriter, author, model and tv presenter) , comes down the stairs in her costume as Harvey says something to the effect of, “Mom, here’s the boy I was telling you about the other day.”  She was so sweet.  She came and introduced herself and gave Zach a BIG handshake, hug, and a handful of candy for his cauldron.  (Ray and I and the swarms of onlookers watch Zachary–the only person at this moment personally interacting with the family, and continue to stand behind the security guard)

After about an hour or more of walking around, getting two spools of candy floss, and playing “catch me if you can” with the bloody skeleton, we proceeded to head home with some neighbor friends we ran into along the way.  While Zach conceded that Mr. Ross had “won” the Halloween dual, he also proclaimed that is was one of the coolest bashes he has ever been too.  Of course, the real question is “How do we get on the invitation list for the BEHIND closed doors party ?!”  Meanwhile, can’t wait until what next year’s theme will bring.  This time, we know what we have to do, to be real contenders in the Halloween “dual”.  (I forgot to mention the Jaguar Hearse!)

P.S. Pics below the slideshow include photos of our house as well as from The American School in London’s Halloween parade.  Rock on for no politically correct “Harvest festivals”!

Happy Holidays to all!

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Here’s a Daily Mail news link with more pictures at our neighbor’s Halloween Extravaganza!

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2225775/Happy-Halloween-Jonathan-Ross-goes-decorations-annual-house-party.html

Categories: London | 4 Comments

All Things Harry Potter

How many people know that Zachary was about 3 minutes shy of  being named “Harrison” when he was born?  Yep, it was a high contender (final 2) until the very last minutes (even after he made his appearance)….  Can you imagine if that close call name choice had come true?   As it stands now, with his round shaped glasses and slight zigzag scar on his cheek, our little U.K. living wizard practically dresses the part on a daily basis anyway.  Ahh well, HARRY is certainly Zach’s alter-ego, and it fits him well.

Who would imagine that we would end up living a mere 15 miles from where all 7 Harry Potter movies were filmed right outside London.  That’s right!  The Making of Harry Potter Tour is practically in our back yard.   With the tour already fully booked through November, we thought we would take advantage of the American school’s Professional Development day on 8 October. (how ironic this day off for the children happened to fall on Columbus Day!)

As the tour is already sold-out through the November weekends, it worked out perfectly that we were able to attend on a Monday, when nearly all British schools were in session.  I booked the tickets on-line and the earliest slot available for that day was 1pm.  Our 20 minute drive brought us straight into the massive parking lot of The 200 acre Warner Brother Studios where we arrived about an hour early.  How convenient……while you wait (and of course at the end of the tour) the ALL THINGS HARRY POTTER gift shop was alive and booming.  It was neat, I must confess!

The (condensed amount of) pictures in the slideshow below will give you a virtual tour of our day, but basically the website says to allow three hours for the tour….we were there for nearly 6!  The tour is divided into five sections after the   introduction movie and interviews.

The GREAT HALL–one of the first ever sets created for the Harry Potter films, does not have a roof.  Next time you watch the movies, pay close attention–you will never see a completed ceiling inside the great hall. (it is scaffold)  One of the unique features of the Great Hall is the fact that the floor is actually made of real York stone. It is said that this was very sensible suggestion made by production designer as he realized that although initially more costly, it was the only way the set would stand the test of time and the trampling of thousands of small feet.   The Great hall can fit 22 London double-decker buses inside.  It’s HUGE!

Main lot (J lot)–this is where most of the sets and props are.  You can also try your hand at Quidditch.  One of my favorite parts in this section was learning about the animal actors.

  • There have been 250 animals used across the Harry Potter film series (not including insects).
  • The largest amount of animals on set on any given day was 60 animals for a scene in Professor McGonagall’s classroom.
  • Robbie Coltrane, who plays Hagrid, once got a fruit bat stuck in his beard during a scene in Hagrid’s hut.
  • The largest animal to be brought on set was a hippo.
  • The smallest animal to be brought on set was a centipede.
  • After filming 40 kittens to go on moving plates in Umbridge’s office, the kittens went on to be domestic pets, with their new owners unaware of their famous origins.

The “Back lot”– This is where we saw Privet Drive, Harry’s House, Life size chess pieces, the “Knight bus”,  The Weasley’s flying car, and Hargrid’s motorbike and sidecar.  This is also the section where you can try the infamous “butter beer” (which ironically tastes exactly like a root beer float!)

K Lot (The Creature shop and Diagon Alley)   Monsters, makeup, and prostheses spooked the section of the Creature shop and walking the shop lined cobblestone streets of Diagon alley was at least a 40-minute treat in itself.

Hogwarts Castle Model:  The final section housed a 360 degree, 1:24 model of Hogwarts castle (60 x 50 x 30 ft high), the jewel of the art department.  This model was originally built for Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone  and was rebuilt and altered many times for the next seven movies.  The detail of the castle are amazing…all the doors are hinged, real plants are used for landscaping, and to make the model appear even more realistic, artists built miniature versions of courtyards of Alnwick Castle and Durham Cathedral where scenes from the first film were shot.

This tour is not part of a theme park like at Universal Studios, Florida.   These are the actual studios, sets, props, drawings, you name it…from the  filming of the movies.  If you ask our little Harry what he liked best about the day he will consistently say “EVERYTHING!”  It was truly a “magical day” and we are so glad we did it.  For those of you planning to visit us, think about whether you’d like to add this tour to your Bed and Breakfast stay at the White house 🙂  Enjoy the photos!

Categories: London | 2 Comments

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