Monday, August 27, 2007

Overwhelmed in London

We've experienced so much English history in the past couple of days that I don't know where to start. Though I'm Chinese-Canadian, I grew up with the stories of English Queens and Kings and read all the greats of English literature, so being in London was a thrilling experience.

This morning, we went to Westminster Abbey and I was overwhelmed ... so many tombs and monuments, and each one of such significance. My favourite place was the Lady Chapel, containing the tombs of Elizabeth I, Mary I, Mary Queen of Scots, Henry VII and his wife, Elizabeth of York, among others. A close second was Poet's Corner, containing tombstones and memorials to England's most famous writers and poets.

We spent the afternoon at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The museum is immense and we had to keep our tour kid-friendly, so we didn't even see a fraction of the treasures available for viewing. Even so, I managed to see, among other items, the William Morris tapestries, several outstanding pieces from the Tudor era including portraits of Henry VIII, and the Raphael Cartoons. The word "cartoon" here is used in its original sense, and these cartoons were studies for tapestries destined for the Sistine Chapel. Julia enjoyed viewing the fashion collection, while Kate donned one of the children's backpacks prepared by the museum and went sleuthing among the British antiques with a giant magnifying glass.

Yesterday, we visited the Tower of London, a very popular site for tourists. It was rather chilling to visit the Beauchamp Tower and see the graffiti left behind by the famous prisoners. The crown jewels were impressive too, but I had really wanted to go to see the place where Sir Thomas More had died and Elizabeth I had been imprisoned. Below is a photo of Traitor's Gate, where many of the prisoners had entered during the Tudor era.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Trains and Stations

We've been taking trains everywhere, and even though the locals occasionally complain about the service, it is wonderful compared to train service in Canada. I love riding on trains, but even hanging out at the stations is fun, as long as the wait is not too long.
This morning, we left from Reading Station, and it was packed with teenagers heading to the Reading Festival. This is a music festival where hordes of people camp out in muddy fields, and the fields were muddier than usual this year as a result of the recent floods. The look for young women seemed to be T-shirt, mini-skirt and Wellingtons in all colours and patterns. Julia seemed rather envious of the Wellies; it is hard to get fashionable rainboots back home.
When we arrived at Paddington Station, we finally got to experience YO! Sushi. This is a chain of Japanese restaurants where a variety of prepared items go past you on a conveyor belt and you select what appeals. The dishes, which are colour-coded according to price, are counted at the end. The idea, not unlike Chinese dim-sum, is fabulous and I so wish we had such restaurants back home, though I'd also prefer to pay the prices the sushi restaurants charge at home. This photo shows Kate and Julia enjoying lunch at the counter.

Warwick Castle

When we were planning our trip to England, Kate requested that we see a "real" castle, and so yesterday, Tim and Kimberly took us to Warwick Castle, pronounced "Worrick". We had been informed by Tim's neighbour that many English names are pronounced as if one letter is missing; the trick is to figure out which letter is the one that's dropped.
Warwick Castle is large and fascinating. It is particularly well set-up for children, with many kids' activities available, though our kids liked climbing into the creepy dungeon best. As Todd put it, "It's like Disneyworld, except it's real."

Friday, August 24, 2007

Cruise on the Thames

We had a relaxing afternoon today, as Tim and Kimberly rented a boat at Henley-on-Thames and took us on a leisurely tour of the river. We enjoyed the views of the majestic homes along the route. We enjoyed even more the fabulous picnic lunch Kimberly had packed for us that included duck salad, cold rare roast beef and champagne for the adults, and jam sandwiches (Kate's request) for the kids. This was indeed a civilized way to travel!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Salisbury Cathedral

We visited the famous cathedral on our last day in Salisbury, joined by Kimberly, Lily-Ann and Alexandra. The kids were very patient as we followed our guide on a lengthy tour of the many treasures found here. The cathedral is extremely interesting architecturally, but most people come here to see one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, housed in the Chapter House.

Another item of great interest to me was the tomb of William Longespee, 3rd Earl of Salisbury and illegitimate son of Henry II. When I was a teenager, I'd read the entire Plantagenet series by Jean Plaidy and thus learned all about Henry II's life story (accurate or not). We were told that a preserved rat carrying traces of arsenic was found with William Longespee's body. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see the rat, though it was on display at a nearby museum.

Todd took these photos of the cathedral and the 800-year-old doors, with Julia and Kate, and their cousins Alexandra and Lily-Ann in front.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


We spent the day in Bath, walking through the city centre and riding the open-air double-decker tour bus through the city and countryside. We first stopped at the Museum of Costume, and then walked through the Circus, a circle of Georgian townhouses. At left is a photo of Kate, Todd and Julia, next to this great example of Bath architecture.

We also spent a couple of hours at the Roman Baths and the Bath Abbey. I continued reading Antony and Cleopatra on the train ride to Bath, so I was in the right frame of mind for looking at Roman architecture and artifacts. The Roman Baths museum was excellent, though it was so crowded that it was difficult to view carefully and appreciate all the displays. We liked the availability of three different commentaries on the audio-guides. There was the regular commentary, the entertaining Bill Bryson version which Julia enjoyed, and one designed for children that was perfect for Kate.

It was forbidden to drink or touch the water, but it didn't look all that appealing anyhow. We were allowed to drink treated water from the hot springs from a fountain but decided to pass, as we'd heard from more than one source that it tasted disgusting. We resisted the temptation to buy a souvenir from the gift shop (I didn't even bother to look for the Roman Baths snow globe though we did see one at Stonehenge), but Todd just had to take a photo of the Harrius Potter books, for those fluent in Latin.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Stonehenge and Salisbury

This morning, we took the train to Salisbury (pronounced Solz-bree, as I'd been taught by a work colleague before arrival). From Salisbury, we took a bus to Stonehenge, which was on my list of must-see sites in England. My vision of Stonehenge had been shaped by Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and reinforced by the glorious scenes at the end of Roman Polanski's film adaptation. I should have expected but was still surprised by the hoards of camera-toting tourists like myself, the parking lot full of buses, the bustling gift shop, and the roar of the traffic from the highway that had brought us here. All these marred the beauty of Stonehenge for me ... but only slightly. It is still a wondrous sight and I was glad I'd travelled to see it.

We are now back in Salisbury and staying at the Red Lion, which was originally a 13-th century inn. Fortunately, we did not have much luggage, as this made it easier to manoeuvre the many narrow and winding staircases to get to our room. The room itself is quite comfortable and it is always nice to have 21-st century comforts like a wireless network. We had a good pub dinner and Kate ordered real English macaroni and cheese, not that plastic Kraft Dinner stuff we get at home.

Monday, August 20, 2007

First Day in England

Today was our first full day in England. We'd arrived mid-afternoon yesterday and were immediately treated by Kimberly and Tim to fabulous roast lamb at a nearby restaurant. We then spent the remainder of the day enjoying their very beautiful and unique home, a converted barn that's been thoroughly modernized. The girls are having a great time playing with their cousins, while Todd and I have been mostly eating and drinking, at the urging of our gracious hosts, while catching up on family news. The photo above shows Todd with Kimberly and Tim, in their lovely backyard.

We spent the afternoon in Oxford today, accompanied by my niece Lily-Ann. Not only was she a pleasant travelling companion, but she was also very helpful, as she knew her way around the train station and was able to give the cab driver directions to her house!

We took a tour of Oxford on a double-decker bus, but most of our time was spent at Christ Church. The cathedral was magnificent, but the girls most enjoyed seeing the spots where the Harry Potter movies were filmed. The grand dining hall was a highlight of the visit.

It was a wonderful experience, walking through the narrow streets and seeing the college buildings where so many well-known men and women had resided and studied. I'd always wanted to visit Oxford, as it is supposedly the setting of one of my very favourite novels, Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. Todd reminded me today that it is also the setting of the Inspector Morse series by Colin Dexter, another favourite of mine. Today, we explored the hallowed halls of academia, but next time, we'll have to do a pub tour of Morse's Oxford!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sunday Craft Update - August 19

Today's craft update is coming from England! We are here visiting Tim and Kimberly, and the kids are thrilled to be with their cousins. I'll have photos for the next blog post.
This was a good scrapbooking week. I finished two layouts for the Scrapping Turtle weekly challenges. Here is one that features my nephew Oliver. I love that photo of him lying on the steps. I also found out this week that I won the Scrapping Turtle July Mystery Kit challenge with this entry!
I did some knitting as well this week. I put in a few hours on the Philosopher's Wool sweater for Todd and a new sweater for me using Kabir from Needful Yarns.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Violin Camp

This past week, Kate attended the Southern Ontario Suzuki Institute summer camp. Todd and I took turns taking days off work, as they expect the parents to accompany the younger children. Kate's violin teacher encouraged her to attend the camp, and we had heard very good things about it. We'd also heard that it can be overwhelming and exhausting, and one can feel out of place if one is not passionate about the Suzuki philosophy, which we're not.

Because of these concerns, we decided to limit our participation. Kate attended three hour-long classes each day: a music reading class for orchestra preparation, a group class, and an individual instruction class shared with three other students. She also played her solo piece ("Witches' Dance" by Paganini from Suzuki Book 2) in a recital and played with her group class in the final string concert. There were lots of optional classes (fiddling, opera, percussion, etc.), as well as parent discussions, but we decided to pass on all of these. If Kate returns in following years, we may sign up for more, but these classes turned out to be enough for the week.

The instructor for the music reading class was positively frightening, shouting out orders like a drill sergeant and demanding total attention from the kids. Once Kate got over the initial shock, she did enjoy the class. Actually, I thought the instructor was terrific and wish I could have taught like her during my teaching days. She was intimidating, but boy, did she cover ground and get results! The group class was less intense, and the kids had a lot of fun with this instructor. It was interesting to see all the subtle ways of getting the kids to learn how to follow a leader.

The individual class was terrific, and coincidentally, the instructor happened to be the sister of an old friend from my undergrad days. Each of the four kids got individual instruction, but the students not called upon were still expected to watch and listen carefully and were asked to critique. Kate's usual violin teacher is wonderful, and Kate has made incredible progress with her, but it's always helpful to get another perspective.

We ended the week with the final string concert. It started off badly, as we arrived and realized that no one had remembered to bring Kate's violin! So we went back home for it, and Kate got on-stage just as the concert was starting, without having had time to tune up and without her shoulder rest, which I'd forgotten to give her in my haste. Nevertheless, she managed to play the pieces with her group and the concert was a success. Todd and I enjoyed the concert, and Julia tolerated it. It was quite exciting to see 100 young violinists and violists, with another 30 cellists, all playing (mostly) in unison. We hope Kate is willing to go back to the camp next year.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A New Member of the Family

My new nephew, Martin, was born yesterday night!! You can see photos and read all about his birth on Joe's blog or Jill's blog. Julia and Kate are very excited about their new cousin and we can't wait to meet him!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Kate has discovered Asterix, and it's wonderful to see members of the next generation enjoying these stories as much as I did. I used to call these "comic books" but now they're "graphic novels". I did a major double-take the first time I saw the sign, "Graphic Novels for Children," over a stack of books at Chapters, before I learned the meaning of the term.

I have to confess that most of what I know about Gaul and the Roman Empire I'd learned from the Asterix books. Recently, Todd and I had a discussion about the geographic region that Gaul encompassed during the Roman Empire, but he looked rather dubious when I cited Asterix as a reference. Needless to say, these books were not a part of his childhood.

I loved all the books in the series, but I think my favourite is Asterix and Cleopatra, mainly because it provided such a plausible explanation of how the Sphinx lost its nose. Speaking of Cleopatra, I started reading Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra a few days ago, so now I'll get to contrast the Bard's view of this fascinating woman with Goscinny's and Uderzo's.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Sunday Craft Update - August 12

I really detest the finishing work associated with knitting a sweater, but I forced myself to do it this week, and my sweater is now done! This is a design by Louisa Harding that uses her Kimono Angora yarn, and it took between 40 and 50 hours to complete. Julia took the photo.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Kitchen Help

Good help in the kitchen is hard to find, or so Todd thought until recently. I cook on weekdays, but "cooking" usually means rushing a meal (often leftovers) to the table in 15-20 minutes so that we can make it to a skating or music lesson in time. Unlike my brother Joe, I did not inherit my parents' passion and talent for cooking, though I do enjoy eating good food and am occasionally opinionated about how things ought to be prepared (well, no more opinionated than I am about other matters).

Todd, on the other hand, loves cooking and makes very good meals that can frequently be labelled "gourmet". Lately, Julia has been helping out with weekend meals, which means that I no longer have to play the role of reluctant sous-chef. (I am still on dishwashing duty, unfortunately.) Julia makes a very good cucumber-and-tomato salad, which we enjoy regularly these days as the vegetables are in season. I still have to convince her to use my lemon tomatoes, which have just started to ripen in our garden. Today, she looked at the yellow tomatoes suspiciously and then rejected them outright. I didn't try to change her mind. In our house, we live by the rule, "If you don't cook, you don't complain!"

Thursday, August 9, 2007


Work has been overwhelming lately, but yesterday I took an afternoon off and went to the Stratford Festival with three friends to see Othello. I'd studied Othello in Grade 11 but had never seen a stage production. Let me state the obvious: reading the text of a play is a poor substitute for seeing it performed by top-notch actors. Everyone in our group is enthusiastic about Shakespeare, but Othello is actually a terrific play for people not terribly fond of Shakespeare. It is tense and exciting and has a bit of everything: jealousy, racism, madness, anguish and a decent body count.

We all enjoyed the performance, though not nearly as much as the young women ("younger women", I should say) sitting behind us, who had truly cathartic experiences. The sobbing, which continued intermittently for over half the performance, was a little distracting at times, but it was gratifying to see customers really get their money's worth. Philip Akin's performance as Othello got mixed reviews but all agreed that Jonathan Goad was superb as Iago.

Going to see Shakespeare with English majors makes for thought-provoking discussion and we had lively debates during the car ride home. I erroneously claimed that Shakespeare wrote four true tragedies, i.e., ones that featured the classical tragic flaw in the protagonist. It turns out I was wrong. First, the four tragedies I had in mind (Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet) are called his "major tragedies" and they are not distinguished from the others by the tragic flaw characteristic. I guess I should have paid more attention in Grade 11. Makes me wonder what makes Romeo and Juliet a "minor" tragedy ....

If you want to introduce your kids to Shakespeare, Usborne Books publishes two terrific books: Stories from Shakespeare and World of Shakespeare. My kids like reading these, but it'll be a few years before I attempt to take them to a Stratford production of Shakespeare. In the meantime, I'm having fun going with my literary and literate friends!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

An Afternoon at the Park

Our weekends had been so busy lately that we hadn't had much time to enjoy the simple things, like an afternoon at the park. So on Sunday, I suggested the outing to Kate. She happily agreed but insisted on doing it right, with a picnic lunch. I packed up food and drinks, and she very carefully chose the perfect tablecloth for the picnic table.

Julia is away at camp again, so it was just the three of us. We had perfect weather -- it was the one pleasant non-humid day this past week. Kate had a great time on the playground. Todd raced her up the climbing ropes but I chose to be photographer instead. We then went for a leisurely walk around the park which ultimately ended with a giant Freezie for Kate (Todd's doing, of course).

It was a lovely day, made even better afterwards when Todd cooked cedar-plank salmon on the BBQ for us. I enjoyed the moments, knowing that there aren't too many lazy Sundays left to us this summer.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Sunday Craft Update - August 5

I had a very good knitting week. Apart from finishing the Gryffindor hat, I also finished all the knitting for the Louisa Harding sweater and am now in the process of sewing it up. I should have a photo before too long. I didn't have time to do any scrapbooking layouts this week. However, one that I'd posted a couple of months ago was yesterday's Daily Toot on the Scrapping Turtle bulletin board. This layout was about my nephew Oliver and it was a paper version of a digital layout I'd made earlier. It's easy to have my layouts noticed when I have such a cute subject!

Friday, August 3, 2007

Engineering and Science Camp

Kate just finished a week at an engineering and science camp at the university. This is an extremely popular camp that fills up quickly, not surprising in a high-tech town populated by geeky parents raising equally geeky kids. Kate's particular camp section had an architecture theme, and there was definitely a civil engineering bent to the projects. Here is a photo of Kate with her air-hockey table. It even has a fan tucked underneath.

The photo below shows the roller coaster she made with three other girls in her group. The goal was to get a marble to roll from one end to the other without having it fall off. Julia did this same project several years ago, and all the project groups demonstrated their coasters during the showcase for the parents, which Todd had attended. He made an interesting observation at the end. The boys all made very complicated coasters, with many loops and curves, but none of them worked correctly. The girls, on the other hand, had very simple models, but all of them worked. It's food for thought, but the sample size was probably too small to draw any statistically valid conclusions.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The First Gryffindor Hat

Here is the first Gryffindor hat I made from the Charmed Knits book, modelled by Kate's bear, Caramel. This was intended to be a test hat, so I could check gauge and sizing, and I plan to donate it to the Warm Woolies charity.

I'd ordered the yarn on-line and when it arrived, I was concerned the colours did not match exactly what I'd envisioned as Gryffindor colours. However, when I showed the red and gold yarn to my friend Sharon without telling her of the intended project, her first response was, "Oh, you're making a Gryffindor scarf!" Well, it's a hat rather than a scarf, but I was happy she recognized the house colours.

Kate has now asked for a hat, mittens and a stuffed Errol from the book, so I will be kept busy for a while.