Archive for December, 2012

We had such a good time in Paris for Bear’s birthday in April that he wanted to go back for Christmas. This was before I realized how much other traveling I would be doing, so it was all booked and I had no choice. Unfortunately, I was getting sick for a fair share of it and am even sicker now, but it was entirely too much fun at the time.

Juliet figured it out and planted herself in my suitcase, which made it a lot harder to pack.

Juliet figured it out and planted herself in my suitcase, which made it a lot harder to pack.

Having taken the train to Brussels a few weeks before, we knew that this was definitely the nicest way to travel to the continent.

Waiting room for Eurostar in St. Pancras station

Waiting room for Eurostar in St. Pancras station

We also knew that, for all that it’s pretty low class in terms of what you can have in Paris, the Ibis Budget hotel is the way to go for value and convenience. (There was a bad experience with one near Heathrow, but a) that was near Heathrow and full of people who had cancelled flights, and b) it was August and they didn’t have AC so it was miserable. This was December and far from any airports.)

A nice big bed, a sink, a toilet, and a great shower with all the hot water you could want. What more do you need?

A nice big bed, Wifi, a sink, a toilet, and a great shower with all the hot water you could want. What more do you need?

We took a quick snap of the map and jotted down the room code (you don’t even get a key in this place) and then headed out to find a really fantastic, over the top, way too expensive but utterly memorable dinner for our first night.

Le Laumiere4 rue Petit, 75019 Paris, France

Le Laumiere
4 rue Petit, 75019 Paris, France

A very good sign to see outside a restaurant when your Bear loves seafood like mine does.

A very good sign to see outside a restaurant when your Bear loves seafood like mine does.

Thankfully, the impression you have of the ultra stuck up French restaurant staff was completely incorrect. Everyone was very nice and seemed to enjoy how we stumbled around.

Bear's starter of salmon sushi with a wasabi cream and apple slices drizzled with a balsamic reduction

Bear’s starter of salmon sushi with a wasabi cream and apple slices drizzled with a balsamic reduction

My starter of roasted aubergine slices (eggplant) with fresh goat's cheese, dressed salad, and a minty sorbet

My starter of roasted aubergine slices (eggplant) with fresh goat’s cheese, dressed salad, and a minty sorbet

Our table waiter even joked around with me. He tried to take my plate before I was done (I love an eggplant starter) and I didn’t know how to say that I wasn’t done yet, so I just threw both arms around the sides of the plate, hunched over and stared at him. He raised his hands and backed off with a respectful expression. When he came back much later with the dessert menu, he held it out to me then moved it back out of reach when I tried to take it and did a little tug of war. Honestly, they are just the nicest darned people.

OK, so it looks like there's shrimp in there, but if you don't know for sure what it means in French, then it doesn't count. There was also a lot of spinach and a side of rice which in that sauce was amazing.

OK, so it looks like there’s shrimp in there, but if you don’t know for sure what it means in French, then it doesn’t count. There was also a lot of spinach and a side of rice which in that sauce was amazing.

Bear's seafood platter, complete with escargot, oysters on teh half-shell, shrimp, broth, and dark bread with fresh cream.

Bear’s seafood platter, complete with escargot, oysters on the half-shell, crab, shrimp, broth, and dark bread with fresh cream.

Bear got some kind of flaming Grand Marnier crepes -- they cooked it right there at the table and set the whole darned thing on fire.

Bear got some kind of flaming Grand Marnier crepes — they cooked it right there at the table and set the whole darned thing on fire. (You can see the magician standing up wearing black behind the crepes pan.)

Finished product

Finished product

Don't know what you call it, but it was fresh vanilla ice cream on halved pastries covered in a chocolate sauce that they brought out in this tiny little copper pan. I wanted to put it in my purse. Bear said no.

Don’t know what you call it, but it was fresh vanilla ice cream on halved pastries covered in a chocolate sauce that they brought out in this tiny little copper pan. I wanted to put it in my purse. Bear said no.

During the whole night there was a large dinner party behind us. they made a few toasts and at some point seemed to be asking Bear to make sure he was drinking something to toast along. Then…a magician appeared. I don’t mean out of thin air, but he just sort of showed up and did quite a lengthy act for the table. I was half expecting him to start making the rounds to all the tables, but as it turns out the magician can be booked through the restaurant. It really is a magical city.

I’m still coming to terms with how much it cost, but Bear agreed to be much more frugal for the rest of the of the weekend and he had that “It’s all I want for Christmas” look on his face — how can you refuse that?

Tomorrow — Saint Chapelle, Conciergerie, Musee d’Orsay, and a nice freezing walk along the Seine

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My husband hates sports. I mean, he really, really, really hates sports. He gets uncomfortable when I so much as turn on the radio to catch the FSU football scores. One time we were on a weekend trip and got back to the hotel late, so I only turned on the second half of a major game. Bear didn’t sit down–it was like he was so insanely uncomfortable that he couldn’t let himself sit. I watched one set of downs and when the ball turned over, he said, “OK, what do you want to watch now?”

So flash forward and color me shocked when Bear said he wanted to go to a professional football match while we were in England. But not just any match would do, he said — it needed to be between two teams who really hated each other so he could see the whole 9 yards of the spectacle.

Enter Tottenham Hotspurs vs. West Ham Hammers.

Our friend Jon (Elaine’s husband) helped set this up with one of his friends so Bear had a little pub meetup first with his new buddies and then they drove over to take the train down into London for the Sunday matchup. (We had checked online first and made sure that Bear wasn’t wearing colors for either team, just in case.)

First stop, a pub filled with Tottenham supporters.

Then one of the guys suggested stopping at a different pub which was an Arsenal pub, but this was outvoted quickly and they made their way on to the stadium. When Bear got home, he told me that he had perfect seats, but I was skeptical at first because, honestly, what does my husband know about sports?

Then he showed me the video.

IMG_0108 (2)

When he came home, he was a converted man. I’m not saying that he’s going to be a season ticket holder and head down to the fixture every week (or even follow on the web), but he changed his computer desktop wallpaper to this:

"Flair, Style and Adventure!" (if that isn't a fitting slogan for my husband, then I don't know what is)

“Flair, Style and Adventure!” (if that isn’t a fitting slogan for my husband, then I don’t know what is)

He had such a fantastic time and I’m very grateful to our friends helping to set it up so he could have the experience which we really wouldn’t have known how to organize.

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My company has been growing into the Asian market for some time, which means trips to conferences and client contact and all the jet lag that goes with that. I hadn’t done the Asia junket before, so when the idea first came up, my initial thought was to say yes. That was still my second and third thought, although there’s not a whole lot I’ve ever thought about needing to do in the Philippines. Most of what I knew was limited to Douglas MacArthur, corn cob pipes, and guerilla warfare. (If your country hasn’t had several wars, I’ll probably know less about it than I should.)

Bear’s plans didn’t line up with my travel window, so I was booked to fly out of Heathrow and arrive the next night in Manila, have a day to recover, then hit the conference for three days. Exactly how long it takes to get anywhere was a little obscured by the changing time zones–if you leave Amsterdam at 8:45 at night and arrive in Manila at 7:30 p.m. the following day, exactly how long were you in the air? And when should you try to wake up so you can try to not be entirely screwed up once you land? I had an Excel sheet full of possibilities and never could make head or tails of it, so I decided to just leave it up in the air (so to speak) and figure it out as it went. My body clock is fairly elastic and it’s done fairly well by me so far, but I foresaw some industrial cappuccinos in my future to try to kick it only Manila Standard Time.

You would want to be my client!

By some miracle of having done this an awful lot, I managed to get everything into a carry on bag and a laptop bag. Sales Pitch: Bear encouraged me to buy a Maxpedition bag about 18 months ago and it’s my favorite travel bag. They have half a million models, but this one is specially designed to exactly fit the airline carry on specs, so I never worry — if I can pack it, then I can take it. (Presuming I remember to remove all my pocketknives. I actually had a co-worker once on his way to a two week training in Singapore who completely forgot he had a giant pocketknife in his luggage and he got stopped immediately at the first airport, although thankfully they let him go out and put it back in his car. And by giant pocketknife, I mean it was a giant Spyderco.)

Juliet had figured out that something was up, probably because the suitcase was sitting out, and began being even cuter than usual. She ran in and out of my office, trying to get me to play with her all morning on the day I was departing, which means she would sneak up on my feet and then tap my ankle with her paw and scamper off, then look back at me to see if I was following. (I was–how could I resist?) We played Hide the Birdee, Tummy Roll, Chase the Hairband, and Flop & Fluff. But it was finally time to go, and what a sad time it was.

Having to be away from these two isn’t easy, but we’re thinking of getting Juliet her own Skype account

Bear is getting really good at finding Heathrow so we were at Terminal 4 in pretty quick order (still listening to A Storm of Swords along the way, and wow did we hit a really shocking, interesting, awful turn of events…which is to say, we listened to another chapter). There was a woman at the KLM line who was actually making everyone put their carry on bags in the little bin that measured them and I’d never seen that before so I started to get a little nervous because she made one guy actually unzip it and take things out and carry them in his arms. He wandered off looking harried and she said under her breath, “I’m trying to help you!” That’s commitment! But Bear just neatly dropped my bag into the bin and it fit perfectly. The lady looked at me with slightly narrowed, approving eyes, and said, “Thank you” in a Dutch accent. So far KLM has done very, very well by me.

I was a little more reluctant to say goodbye than usual, probably because the trip snuck up on me and I had that sort of disoriented, “Oh, is that what we’re doing?” feeling about today, but Bear was sweet, carrying all my bags and waiting to make sure I made it into the Security area without incident, which is saying something for me.

Listening to the pilot’s welcome on a Dutch flight can be a little alarming Because Dutch is also in the West Germanic dialect chain, splintering off from Proto-Germanic into the Islvaeonic grouping (as opposed to English winding up as a kissing cousin in the Ingvaeonic group), approximately every 5th word is recognizable, but then linked together by a slightly hostile string of fricative consonants: “Hallo schartzen frickenunder Airplane metterklumeeizen DIE voorheeseienland Dank U.” It’s a bit like MadLibs but with your life on the line.

I really don’t know what I ate on the flights. For dinner one night, I had polenta soufflé with pureed asparagus and mint. Maybe. The only thing I was sure about was the mint. Then I had some kind of rice and tofu with a side of peas, corn and black beans which was like a strange succotash. For breakfast, I had lasagna with whole wheat cornbread cakes, which actually outdid the previous breakfast which was either mashed potatoes or scrambled eggs—I’m really not sure which.

The only strange thing is that for no apparent reason we landed in Taipei, had to get off, go through security and then get back on again. It was the same plane.

View from the InterContinental Hotel

The conference itself was nice — a little smaller and more intimate than the ones I’ve been to in Europe before. I may be flattering myself, but we had the best booth, the most to show, and the strongest presence as sponsors. My co-worker Kevin got thrust onto the stage also to give a brief speech as we were a major sponsor and he did a great job.

Kevin, the unexpected guest speaker doing a great job

Kevin, the unexpected guest speaker doing a great job

We still had some time before and after sessions to talk to clients, get food in the hotel, and one morning we walked over to the Filipino store in the mall to get presents for the office and our families.

Cops everywhere and not a speck of crime

A note about malls in the Philippines, or at least the one we were at. Very clean, very secure, very Disney. We even saw the mall staff performing a literal song and dance routine.

There was also an English language bookstore and a really nice little Krispy Kreme café where we found some doughnuts which were a nice taste of home for me, since I’m a fan of the KK and haven’t had them in ages. (We do actually have them in England in some stores and they taste just like American KK, but I don’t allow myself to get them very often because I can eat nine KK original glazed doughnuts in a single sitting and I’m not proud of that.

Don’t remember this variety in America, but it looked good.

I had the krueller thing on the right and Kevin boldly went for the Christmas design.

We saw some restaurants in the mall area that seemed to be outposts of regular Western restaurant chains, but with a little closer inspection I realized that this had a unique little twist:

Not a single slice of pizza to be seen

Not a single slice of pizza to be seen–chicken, pasta, boiled greens…but NO PIZZA. I’m sorry, but if you don’t have pizza, then you don’t get to be called Pizza Hut.

I started to notice a distinct cultural outlook, at least at a high end Western business hotel and in the Mankati district, and that was one of politeness, friendliness and helpfulness. I don’t mean that they smiled and were happy to take your money–I mean I watched a grown woman nearly impale herself on a prawn fork while trying to help the waiter get me a salad with vegetarian dressing. The waiter was in complete control, but she was absolutely fixated on the idea that I needed to have a good experience and was there anything at all that she could do to help make sure this would happen. She started grabbing every waiter who went by and quizzing them on the ingredients, then translating it all to me in a serious, newscaster-like tone, but then a minute later would break into a very good imitation of a sorority girl during Rush Week as she talked to us about life in Manila, her family, and how incredibly happy they were that we’d come to visit and they really, really hoped we would come back. In the hands of the wrong director this would’ve been a sarcastic vignette, but when every single Filipino person you meet behaves in just as nice a manner, you start to get the feeling that it’s not so much in the water as it is in the DNA.

Super polite Filipino lady trying to muffle her cell phone conversation at dinner. (I do the same thing!)

Being from the South, I like a conversation peppered with sir and ma’am, which are the little drops of oil that help grease the gears of civilized interaction. Some languages are structured such that these things are more assumed than expressed and while a native speaker might tell you that it’s implicit and understood, you will generally find that these countries do not rate very highly in Frommer’s list of most polite tourist destinations. While I don’t know if it’s true in Tagalog, the native language, it seems impossible for a Filipino citizen to go more than three words without saying thank you, please, ma’am or some variation of “good“.  I started logging it for fun, thinking it would make a nifty pivot table, and ran out of room.

We had a pretty great conference dinner out at a well known local restaurant (where the vegetarian assistance incident occurred) and I enjoyed what I ate, even though I was never really certain what I was eating, which was sort of like the KLM airline food experience.

Some kind of fried lumpia (sort of like apple?) in cones

Dessert selection

Panorama of the exhibit area

The conference wrapped up really nicely and I did a lengthy demo with a prospective client at the booth, staying over an hour past when we were supposed to break down, but that’s sort of the point of traveling to these things.

In line to check my baggage for the flight home, I found myself behind a man in his early 40s who was from the Flemish region of Belgium. He explained without any prompting whatsoever that his first wife had fallen in love with someone else, so he had gone and married a Filipino girl. “Like me,” he said, “a guy can’t get a beautiful girl in Belgium and be happy.” His little boy who was climbing on the luggage like a deflated bouncy castle was about three years old, so I took the smile on the man’s face to be one of genuine happiness and the glow hadn’t worn off yet even with a toddler. I looked over at his wife, half-expecting the stereotypical Asian mail order bride. She was filling out their paperwork, shuffling passports, and shrewdly telling the KLM gate agent exactly why they would be letting all their excess luggage on and for no extra charge or there would be blood. In the words of my mother-in-law, it was obvious that she ran the ship. “But one thing I tell you,” he said, all business now. “Filipino girls, you treat them like they treat you. If you play a game, then thwip–it’s all over.” I have long held to the theory that the older, more socially awkward Caucasian men that married Asian women were deliberately using the language barrier to their benefit and the unwitting brides didn’t realize they were in fact marrying all the men that everyone else said would have to wait in line until a zombie apocalypse had eliminated every candidate in front of them.

"is a no "Wang Wang" zone. Fall in line to avoid embarrassment."

“NAIA is a no “Wang Wang” zone. Fall in line to avoid embarrassment.” The story here is that “wang wang” is a quasi-onomatopoetic term to signify the sound of sirens and an official motorcade. When President Beningo Aquino campaigned, a major platform was that this would be a no “wang wang” administration. No special privileges, everyone has to wait their turn. Hence, this airport is a no “wang wang” zone. Too bad you have to be from the country to even remotely understand the sign that’s considerately in English for you.

Boarding is an interesting process which takes multiple employees, probably just to be sure that everyone has a job. When I finally reached the plane itself, one person looked at my boarding ticket, then passed it to the next person who looked at it and used scissors to cut off the tab and then handed it to me while very seriously saying, “God bless America” and I replied, fumbling a little, “I agree!”

While waiting for the flight, when they started announcing the rows that were boarding, a KLM agent walked back and forth in the lounge holding a sign over her head with the row numbers, like a very upscale version of a boxing ring girl sans bikini and stilettos.

Interior of Ninoy Aquino Airport–long lines not optional

After yet another disembarkation/re-embarkation ritual in Taipei for honestly no apparent reason (although the Dutch guy had told me that it had to do with airport taxes), I ran into one of the speakers from the conference who I had met and chatted with about her presentation on cultural differences in our industry. She was a very funny German (not something you often think of) and we had enjoyed talking at the reception, so we visited some more in line and sat together for a while. I loaned her my iPad plug adapter so she could get a charge before we boarded.

She told me a story about how her backpack had come by a giant hole in it. She was in Bangkok recently and had her tickets, passport and money in an outside pocket, but the zipper got stuck. She tried to open it and a little Thai lady at a food cart also stepped in to help, then asked her friend at the next food cart to help, but to no avail. They all flagged down a big American guy who didn’t have any luck either. Then the Thai ladies tried again, at which point my friend (the German) noticed one of them sneaking back up with a giant kitchen knife in her hand, at which point she sliced open the bag. “Well,” my friend said, showing me the backpack, “I must say, she was very good. She didn’t cut anything that was in my pack, and as you can see, it certainly is open now.” That was an understatement.

Tofu, almonds, cheese, rice, peas, corn and black beans — not sure what they were thinking

On board for this leg, I had an empty seat next to me and the purser asked if I would mind switching with someone who had a small child who was having trouble sleeping in their area. In return, I would get a seat in Economy Comfort in the front with extra leg room, all very nice. Imagine my surprise when I really hated that seat. Yes, there’s a ton of room in front of you and it’s all occupied by people waiting to go to the bathroom. Also, you have no seat pocket and you have to unbuckle and get up out of your seat to reach anything in the bin they provide several feet away in the bulkhead facing you. The TV screen has to be deployed and undeployed from a recessed area in the seat and the same with the tray table. Add to that, I really don’t need extra leg room–I’m short and what I had was just fine. Now I felt like I was trying to sleep in the middle of a freeway instead of tucked away in my little burrow so I wasn’t able to sleep and was pretty miserable for the rest of the trip. For all I know, I’d have the same reaction in first class!

The booth — always an outcast in the oversized baggage area

After a three hour layover in Amsterdam, I was all too happy to get home and to find Bear waiting for me in the arrivals area so we could head home. I had been in underway for 22 hours and when I got home found that I was needed at work for a full 9 hour shift, which I promptly did. The odd thing was that I didn’t feel any jet lag at all, though I did have a few coffees along the way. I took that as a genuine blessing from God and still wasn’t feeling any ill effects even three days after that. I did however feel a serious punch when I checked my credit card and found that the hotel was charging me directly instead of my company. All things considered, a great experience but I need to go submit my reimbursement forms!

(Side note: at first, I nearly had a panic attack over the hotel bill, but then Bear pointed out that the bill included the room charges as well as the food, transportation and mini-bar. I thought most of it had been food and all I could think was, wow, how expensive was that Snickers bar out of the mini-bar?? And as an addendum, I got yo-yo sick over the three weeks following the conference — almost recovering, getting sick again…but no jet lag!)

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The next day, Monday, was our last day in Belgium so Bear and I headed out on our own with Rachel and Pete’s car (thanks guys!) to explore some nearby castles and the battlefield of Waterloo.

Mound of the Lion--monument at the site of Waterloo

Mound of the Lion–monument at the site of Waterloo

It seemed sort of appropriate that it was raining at Waterloo when we got there since it had been raining before the battle in 1815 which caused muddy conditions, so I could appreciate a fraction of what the soldiers had been through.

Looking down at the building that houses the theaters for films about Waterloo and a large panoramic painting of the battle.

Looking down from the mound at the building that houses the theaters for films about Waterloo and a large panoramic painting of the battle.

Coming down the steps from the summit of the mound was a little trickier than I had thought My legs were a little wobbly and everything was slick in the rain so I held onto the railings like a very prudent person. However, my gloves (the ones that I inadvertently stole during the 2010 Gulf Winds 5 mile/10 mile challenge race) are made of absorbent material and before long they were as full as a sponge on the bottom of the ocean. I was wringing nearly a full cup of water out of them by the time I made it all the way to the bottom.

Portion of the panorama depicting one of the great cavalry charges

Portion of the panorama depicting one of the great cavalry charges

Bear’s gloves were soaked as well, so after we watched the Waterloo films and walked around a bit more, we got back in the car to head off to see two more castles, and he came up with a clever way to keep his gloves dry.

When traveling, never bring anything that only has one purpose, so in this case the turn signal is also a glove dryer

When traveling, never bring anything that only has one purpose, so in this case the turn signal is also a glove dryer

We went to a cool nearby castle but found that the site was closed, and not just because it was Monday — it was under serious renovations!

Really need to look up the name of this place...there was a nice restaurant next to it.

Beersel Castle…there was a nice restaurant next to it.

After a good lunch, we headed off to Gaasbeek Castle which also turned out to be closed but we could walk around the grounds and saw some really pretty scenery so it actually felt like we had the place to ourselves.

Approach to the castle

Approach to the castle

The Lowenbrau Castle -- just kidding, but that's what the crest looks like.

The Lowenbrau Castle — just kidding, it’s Gaasbeek Castle, but that’s what the crest looks like.

Side of the castle--the brickwork is sort of dizzying

Side of Gaasbeek–the brickwork is sort of dizzying

View from the side of the castle back to the lake/mere beyond

View from the side of the castle back to the lake/mere beyond

We had to leave all too soon for me, but I’ll admit that taking away some really good Belgian chocolate made up for having to say goodbye to good friends (and head back to work). I had promised Bear one more last stop though to make make it a little easier to get back on the train.

The Nandos by King's Cross Station -- perfect end to a perfect trip

The Nandos by King’s Cross Station — perfect end to a perfect trip

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One of the classic futuristic dystopian scifi-ish TV series was a British series called The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan. Now, in 2012, Juliet is starring in a re-make of that groundbreaking television series.

Nice promotional materials!

Nice promotional materials!

For 11 months, she was a model of good behavior–only playing in the garden, never trying to escape, happy to hide in the bushes and nap all day.

Happy and free in former days

Happy and free in former days

She even enjoyed a bit of gardening

She even enjoyed a bit of gardening

And then Juliet got the idea to try to climb the fence. I really don’t know what put it in her head — maybe a giant pigeon landing on top of the fence and mocking her — but once she started to try to climb (and really badly), we had to act quickly. First, we kept her confined inside which was miserable for everyone involved. She cried, she whimpered, she begged and then she just hid from us.

She even hid from us on her supervised field trips outside

She even hid from us on her supervised field trips outside

Finally she laid down on her hot water bottle in a depressed heap

Finally she laid down on her hot water bottle in a depressed heap

Bear devised a plan to run a line of PVC mesh around the top of the garden fence and nail it in place so she couldn’t make it over the top even if she climbed up.

DIY stores the world over all use the color orange

DIY stores the world over all use the color orange

While buying supplies, we also picked up a Christmas tree which turned out to be the weaker, inbred second cousin of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

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It didn’t cheer up Juliet as much as I had hoped. She didn’t even try to knock it over.

Juliet checking out the materials

Juliet checking out the materials

The mesh fence lying along the bushes while we get the nails and stuff together to tack it in place.

The mesh fence lying along the bushes while we get the nails and stuff together to tack it in place.

And the great thing is that it really did work…for about an hour. See video evidence below…

Then, our clever baby figured out how to scale the gate, using the cross-struts, and she squirmed out through a gap (again, see video evidence below).

Warning: I say a bad word at the end of the video. Turn down the volume if you want to preserve your image of me as a person who doesn’t know any curse words.

Now we’ve nailed the mesh to the gate so thoroughly that she can’t get through and we can’t even open the gate (probably a fire hazard), and we keep an eye on her whenever she goes outside just in case. I’m happy to say that if we catch her pawing at the gate and call her name, she looks guilty and backs off. We’ll put up more mesh after Christmas, but so far we’ve had more success than I expected.

Stay tuned for the sequel, The Great Escape

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Sunday morning, Rachel proved that she can still put on a fine breakfast spread worthy of the South, including homemade biscuits, which I haven’t seen since we left America.

Rachel also knows how to lay out a spread for breakfast, including homemade biscuits which I haven't seen since America

Ahh, biscuits…

After that, we walked over to visit their church, the International Baptist Church just a few blocks away. After meeting a somewhat dizzying number of people, all speaking different native languages, we went to see the Grand Place in downtown Brussels and do some shopping. I was unfamiliar with the Grand Place before this, but it’s listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and we’ve never gone wrong with one of those. some of the coolest places we’ve seen so far were ones I never would’ve known about except for scanning through that list for Europe and the UK.

Every few years, they decorate the Grand Place with the carpet of flowers.

Every few years, they decorate the Grand Place with the carpet of flowers.

With Pete and Rachel in the Grand Plaats (you can laugh at my hat all you want, but it was warm)

With Pete and Rachel in the Grand Place (you can laugh at my hat all you want, but it was warm)

With Rachel in the most amazing chocolate store ever (and I've been to Callebaut HQ in Calgary)

With Rachel in the most amazing chocolate store ever (and I’ve been to Callebaut HQ in Calgary)

The evil little girl helpers at the chocolate shop kept giving us free samples until I bought a phenomenal amount of chocolate to take back to the States as presents. I think that I have never dropped money so willingly and gladly in my entire life. (Note: Bear later ate a decent portion of what I thought would be presents, so if you didn’t get anything this year you know who to talk to.)

Eating fresh waffles on the street--pure bliss.

Eating fresh waffles on the street–pure bliss.

Photobombed by Abigail and Andrew while we were innocently taking a group shot

Photobombed by Abigail and Andrew while we were innocently taking a group shot

At this point things got a little interesting. We were on our way to view a famous statue, Mannekin Pis, which is (as you might have guessed) of a little boy in the process of urinating. It’s just that simple. It’s a little statue of a kid who needs to pee. For some reason, known only to God, this statue has become a major tourist attraction and a symbol of the city of Brussels.

The name says it all

The name says it all

They don’t even have one cohesive story behind the statue — you get to take your pick of several! My favorite is that enemies were trying to attack the city with explosive charges on the city walls and a little boy peed on the burning fuse and saved the city. The little guy is so popular that they dress him up in costumes–you actually have to submit the costume to a committee and they pick how they’re going to dress him.

Judo MP!

Judo MP!

All was well and good–we got to see the statue and have a good laugh. Then the marching band showed up. Right in the middle of the street, a marching band came along, swelling and filling everything until we were practically standing on top of ourselves to let them pass. If I’d been so inclined, I could’ve jumped right in.

The statue has its own marching band. Yes, it really does.

The statue has its own marching band. Yes, it really does.

That seemed pretty cool and we hung around some more to watch the festivities. There seemed to be an official ceremony going on, even though I couldn’t understand a word of what was going on. We were all clustered in pretty close, which apparently was what the evil masterminds were hoping for because at that point the statue started to, for lack of a better word, go off. See video below for a good example of what they do to unsuspecting tourists.

Then they actually hooked the darned thing up to a beer keg and started dispensing free samples! (Bear said it was pretty good.) You really can’t hold a grudge against a culture that apologizes with beer. We ate some escargot with garlic broth from one of the street vendors and wandered around a lot more before we headed home by way of Egzon, a sandwich/wrap shop run by Albanians. (I didn’t ask.) The food was really great and they have an unusual option of putting the french fries directly into the wrap with your sandwich filling.

After dinner, we had a great time visiting and playing a new board game, Wits and Wagers, that I hadn’t seen before. It really didn’t fit into the usual game categories that I’d played before. I love board games but rarely get to play, so this was an especially nice capper to the day for me.

Wits and Wagers

Wits and Wagers

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We had tried to go to Longthorpe Tower back in the spring but it was closed, like Flag Fen, so Bear felt a little doubtful but wanted to give it a good shot, and I’m really glad that we did. The tower is only open on weekends and is staffed by volunteers, a married couple well into their seventies, who turned out to be really pleasant and enthusiastic hosts.

Longthorpe Tower– not exactly a tall tower, but square!
Displays of household items in the upper floor of the tower
I’ve been told that bears are so tough they don’t usually need armor, but Bear made an exception here
Doing my best Petyr Baelish impersonation (Game of Thrones)–slime not included

Coming back downstairs, the husband gave us a very detailed tour of the central room, explaining all of the recovered paintings. (I wouldn’t exactly call them restored because English Heritage had done its best to bring them back after they were whitewashed over by a very short-sighted owner and then later, after they were uncovered someone put a shellac over it which actually sealed in the damp and the deterioration increased.

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We had a really nice chat with the couple and it turned out that they are real travelers which is a little surprising considering how many people we’ve met in England who will travel internationally but can’t be paid to go to the village down the road. They said they have a caravan and love to go all over, so they seem to be like the prototypical American retirees in an RV. They had been all over Scotland and the wife confided they had been there on their honeymoon 56 years ago and kept finding reasons to go back. They had been to all the same places we had in the Orkney Islands and I still had some pictures of the Italian Chapel on my camera and it was a funny impromptu scrapbook sharing session.

In a grouping of the apostles, this figure was female and representative of the Mother Church.

They sent us off finally up to Kirby Hall for the final stop at the partially restored remains of a great Elizabethan Hall and gardens. At the entrance hall we met a couple with two beautiful whippets who had been out exploring the grounds. The whippets had cute little fleecy jackets on and before the tour was over I would’ve given a lot for one myself.

Approach to Kirby Hall (before the wind and rain kicked in)

Outer Courtyard (you do realize I’m making up some of these names, right?)

Main front of Kirby Hall, inside the courtyard

The house’s outer courtyard was very impressive and you could still see the inner architectural structure of each flanking wing.

Looking back through to the outer courtyard

One carved motif was repeated in places, particularly around doorways and lintels, which was the loosened knot (the sign of the house of the original builder) and his initials (HS).

Initials HS visible

The wind was really starting blow severely and the temperature had dropped, so it was nice to get to the inner parts of the house.

Looking out onto the rainy garden

The rain really picked up while we were looking at the library and the billiards room, but it gave the gardens outside a really nice English look through the glass. Some of the rain turned to sleet and bounced off the sill.

Some sections of the house have been restored by English Heritage. No idea what this room does, but it did look nice

Gardens from an observational point

Great Hall/Reception area

We toured the outside gardens though even though the wind was still kicking up and the temperature seemed to be dipping.

Kirby Hall planned gardens

Exterior of the rear of the house overlooking the gardens

We figured it was time to head back before frostbite set in and I discovered a very unwelcome surprise in the car park. To understand, you need to appreciate that I once had a very unfortunate encounter with an exotic peacock in Lake City, Florida. Lake City is not exactly Peacock Central, as you might imagine. I was staying in a little cabin, doing some writing, and imagine my surprise when I walked past the kitchen window and out of the corner of my eye saw this:

I was minding my own business, and glanced out the kitchen window to see THAT on top of my car with its giant claws all over the paint. It’s not like peacocks are just wandering around Florida, willy nilly.

So I chased him off the car, then around the car, and after a while I realized that I wasn’t chasing him…he was chasing me. So I retreated to the cabin and he charged up the steps after me and waited for me outside the locked screen door. That was a pretty unsettling afternoon.

Hello!

Needless to say, I wasn’t so happy to walk up to my car in the middle of England and see THIS lurking in the bushes and waiting for me along with several of his little friends.

My stalker

Fortunately he wasn’t interested in renewing our acquaintance so I was able to slip back inside the car and we headed back for dinner at a nice warm Nandos and then home to dry off.

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