Visitors Part 1 – Leeds Castle, Canterbury, and the Battle of Hastings

My parents came to visit this past month. Because the girls were in school (it is apparently almost impossible to get an absence excused if a child is not sick, and there is even the possibility of being fined for absences), the trip was planned so that we could visit with them during the weekends when my daughters were out of school.

After spending a few days getting over jet lag in Bath, my parents took the train to Margate to stay with us for the weekend.

Because of the traveling we planned to do that weekend, we decided to rent a car. With the girls at school, we picked up the rental car just in time to go pick up my parents at the train station. We immediately experienced the smallness of the roads, compounded by the fact that in order to have seats for six people we had to rent a minivan. Driving on the left side of the road wasn’t a big issue since we have been traveling via our bikes on the roads for the past several months. However, it definitely took some getting used to driving from the right side of the vehicle, as well as shifting with the left hand. We definitely almost lost a side mirror on more than one occasion. It wasn’t even a matter of making sure you hug the Center line and then knowing you are safe, because often there is not enough room for two cars to pass each other with cars parked on the side of the road, and on smaller roads there may not be room for two vehicles to pass one another period. Needless to say, driving, and being the copilot in my case, was a bit stressful.

After picking up my parents, we picked up the girls from school and took a quick tour of the surrounding towns and the sea before returning home. We had made several requests as far as things for them to bring from the US, and so it felt like Christmas to get a 32 oz Costco bottle of organic maple syrup, as well as a stock of some other supplies we have been having difficulty finding here, and a few gifts for the girls.

We set out Saturday morning for Leeds Castle. Despite the name, Leeds Castle is actually between Margate, where we live, and London, rather than near the town of Leeds in the northern part of the country. After the 1 1/2 hour drive we arrived. The weather forecast had predicted rain throughout the weekend, but we were lucky to have several hours of sunshine, allowing us to explore the grounds.

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The castle itself is beautiful, the kind of castle you think of in fairy tales. We strolled down the path to the castle next to a few ponds filled with geese, swans, terns, and a few other water birds. We watched part of a falconry show, and then my parents and I headed into the castle for a tour, and Bill and the girls went to the two massive kids playgrounds on the property. By mid afternoon the clouds rolled in and Bill and the girls met up with us in the castle when it started to rain. They were not able to explore the maze made out of hedges, we will have to do that when return again another time.

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After leaving the castle, we took a small detour on our way back so that we could quickly give my parents a tour of Canterbury. We walked up and down the busy streets and saw the Canterbury Cathedral, the old city wall, and the downtown area. An added bonus was that Bill was able to pick up some groceries from the indoor market and whole foods market that we like.

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We continued out journey back towards Margate, traveling through the adorable little villages of Littlebourne and Wingham. We stopped in the neighbouring town of Minster for dinner and returned home.

The following day we headed south for Battle Abbey where there happened to be a reenactment of the 1066 Battle of Hastings. We opted for a quicker route, though narrower and windier roads on the way there. Unfortunately, Tanager ended up getting car sick about a half hour before we arrived, and we spent twenty minutes or so cleaning her up as well as the van. Needless to say, that evening on the way back we took a longer route that involved freeways. We did not luck out with the weather that day, and had to put up with a lot of rain. The event itself was pleasantly surprisingly interesting, with over 400 people participating in the reenactment. Earlier in the day there were places to try out archery as well as walk around the “village” the reenactors had created including tents with beds, cooking food over fires, and watching people at their trades such as making flour, carving things out of wood, making bows, et cetera. The reenactment itself was a bit dramatic and drawn out, and Tanager and I ended up walking around some after she lost interest in the battle.

 

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The following day, the girls returned to school, and Bill and I dropped my parents off at the train station to continue their journey to Paris for the week where the did a lot of sight seeing, stayed in the heart of the Latin Quarter, and took a day trip to Normandy. We had a great first weekend with them. We then returned the van, and Bill couldn’t wait to hand over the keys. Luckily, ourselves and the van were on one piece.

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September Update

Fall is among us and we have continued to settle in to our new life and routine in the UK. We have made a few more trips to London, met up with an old high school friend, gone to dinner at a proper British pub in a small village close to where we live, and attended many small festivals that the surrounding towns have squeezed in before it gets too cold to spend much time outdoors. The weather has begun to turn, with it visibly colder in the evenings. It was quite a bit cooler and rainy for several weeks after the remnants of Hurricane Bertha came through, but the days recently have been a bit warmer in the upper 60’s and there has been rumour that the UK is going to have an Indian Summer.

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A nice, sunny day in nearby Ramsgate.

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Meeting up with an old high school friend in London.

 

In addition to the change in temperature, some of the leaves are starting to change.  The girls found fallen leaves in a park in London a few weeks ago that they spent a bit of time playing in.

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With fall upon us, one recent change to our daily routine was the start of school. Sparrow and I began school uniform shopping four weeks ago or so, looking for skirts, dresses, blouses, polo shirts, PE clothes and shoes, shoes, tights and sock, all in specific colours.

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School Uniforms

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Tanager began nursery school at the Manor House Nursery a few weeks ago, and Sparrow began Year 1 at Newington Community Primary School the following day. Tanager has been impressed with the bathrooms, so that made her school ok. These days, all places seem to be rated according to their bathrooms. Sparrow really enjoyed the first few days of school, but the size of the lunchroom (500-600 students compared to around 10 in her preschool class last year) has been a bit intimidating for her. While she gets used to the large number of kids in the lunch room, and the number of students in the school itself, it has been arranged for her to eat with a teacher and a small group of students. However, according to Sparrow, the other kids in the group are students who have already managed to get into some type of trouble this early in the school year.

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An added bonus for Sparrow was that she lost her first tooth on the first day of school!  She had been pretty excited about having a loose tooth and was doing a lot of wiggling of the tooth prior to it falling out. She received a British pound from the tooth fairy.

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First tooth lost on the first day of Year 1 (Kindergarten)!

Sparrow also has had a hard time with the length of the school day. Hopefully she’ll be a little more used to this over the next few weeks.  Monday she started weekly French Club after school. We have not been super excited with what she has been learning so far, it has not been very challenging, but realise it is only the first few weeks.

Bill has been cycling the girls to and from school. He calculated 16 miles of riding daily with taking The girls to and from school. The schools are in opposite directions from one another. We decided last week to look into the nursery school that is on the campus of the hospital. Bill visited the Little Oaks Nursery and was really happy with it (not like Eastside Co-op Preschool, but seems decent).  We decided to transfer her, and on Monday she started at Little Oaks where she will go every afternoon. This will be a bit easier on Bill, especially as the weather gets not so conducive to cycling.

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Celebrating surviving the first full week of school!

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My work schedule includes a half day on Monday and a 10 AM start on Thursday, as well as every other Friday afternoon off, so I am able to take the girls to school and pick them up some as well.

It is nice to get into more of a routine and to feel a bit more settled. Now if only we had the things we shipped…  The boxes as I’m the UK and cleared customs around a month ago. They are basically being held hostage at this point because the shipping company does not want to deliver them because they don’t have any other shipments to our area.  It has now been arranged that the boxes will be delivered through another delivery service a week from Friday. It will be nice to have our kitchen items, cool weather clothes, blankets and linens!  Then to figure out where to put everything…

My parents are coming to visit in a few weeks which is exciting. It will be nice to see them and fun to show them around east Kent and explore London. They plan to spend some time in Bath and Paris as well.

The girls and their bike posse outside our flat.

The girls and their bike posse outside our flat.

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Kent Beer Festival

A few weekends ago we went to Canterbury for the 40th Annual Kent Beer Festival. We hopped on a train to Canterbury and walked through town towards the bus terminal. It being noon already, and not knowing how much food would be available at the festival, we stopped off at Taco Loco, a Mexican restaurant in town. Though the meal definitely had a European twist with curry in the rice, fries accompanying each entree, and honey mustard dressing served with the taco salads, the food wasn’t that bad.

We then walked through the downtown which was quite busy and passed by several different people singing and playing the guitar. At the bus station we caught a red double decker bus that was shuttling people to and from the farm where the festival was located. Bill and I had assumed that the farm would involve a big open grassy area, maybe a place that was a venue for events. However, we arrived at a cow farm. A barn with a dirt floor had been cleared out for the festival, and there was a grassy area outside. There were about 60 kegs of beer and several ciders available to buy or taste. After choosing a beer to try, we found a place in the grass outside. As the field usually houses cows instead of beer drinking patrons, they apparently forgot to turn off the electric fence. Sparrow got a little shock when she got too close when looking at some flowers on the other side of the fence. I think it startled her more than hurt her.

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Sparrow had her first try at using a bow and arrow while we were there. For £1 you could shoot 6 arrows at a target that had been set up in front of bales of hay.

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Pretty good day. It would have been better if we’d gone with a bunch of friends, but it was nice to get out and experience a beer festival British style.

Le Tour de France

When deciding to partake in this adventure halfway around the world, one of the major motivating factors was the opportunity to travel in Europe.  An added bonus was the opportunity to see a stage of the Tour de France.  We were able to check that off our list on Monday when we traveled to London to see the end of the 3rd stage of this year’s Tour. Bill and the girls took the train to London mid morning.  Monday’s are my half days at work, and I arranged to go in extra early so that I could leave early and catch a late morning train.  Bill and the girls had an uneventful trip (as uneventful as traveling with two young children can be).  They arrived in London and camped out partway up a large golden topped statue in front of Buckingham Palace.  They luckily ended up near a family with a daughter close to Sparrow’s age, and the three girls entertained each other during the three hour wait until the cyclists finally arrived.  At one point they were able to hold and wave a large Kenyan flag with Froome’s name on it.

Waiting for the cyclists to arrive.

Waiting for the cyclists to arrive.

Waiting for the cyclists to arrive.

Waiting for the cyclists to arrive.

Rooting for Chris Froome.

Rooting for Chris Froome.

My journey was not quite so routine.  I made the train with about 20 seconds to spare, running from the bus stop to the train station, bought my tickets, and then ran down the stairs and up to the opposite platform where my train was waiting.  I enjoyed my good luck at making the train and settled in to reading.  However, a few stops later we were informed that a truck up ahead had hit a bridge that we needed to go over, and the bridge had to be examined by engineers to determine whether the train was safe to cross.  There was talk at one point of possibly bussing us to the station on the other side of the bridge, about 20 miles away.  Finally, an hour later we had the go ahead to continue on the train to London.  After another short delay at the Faversham station, we were on our way.  The rest of the trip went smoothly, though it ended up taking me three hours to get to London. I walked from London Victoria Station to Buckingham Palace and met up with Bill and the girls.  I waited with them for about an hour, during which time we had the added bonus of seeing the Queen peeking out of one of the windows at the Palace to observe the festivities.  The girls were absolutely wonderful, after almost two hours on a train and then waiting three hours for the cyclists.

Eyeing a place to watch the race - golden statue up ahead.

Eyeing a place to watch the race – golden statue up ahead.

The girls entertaining themselves before the cyclists arrive.

The girls entertaining themselves before the cyclists arrive.

Our hang out (Bill's in the red shirt in the center of the picture against the statue)

Our hang out (Bill’s in the red shirt in the center of the picture against the statue)

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The Queen viewing the race from the top floor, second window from the left.

The Queen viewing the race from the top floor, second window from the left.

Surprisingly, we had a good view of the course right at the last turn before the finish line.  There were a lot of people present, but we were high enough up on the statue the our view wasn’t very obstructed.  I was surprised by the wimpiness of the cheering as the cyclists rode by considering the size of the crowd.  It was exciting to see in reality what we had been watching on TV for the past few years.

The cyclists arrive!

The cyclists arrive!

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The peleton!

The peleton!

Afterwards, we walked through nearby Green Park where there were food vendors as well as a large TV screen showing the race.

Green Park TV screen.

Green Park TV screen.

We walked to a Japanese noodle shop for dinner, Wagamama’s, of which there are several in London.  This restaurant as well as Pizza Express saved us as far as food goes when we came to Europe in 2001.  We had just sat down when Tanager started wimpering.  I looked down and realized that she was peeing what looked like about a gallon in volume all over the bench and onto the floor.  I don’t know how that had all fit into her little bladder.  With all the excitement, she had not realized that she needed to go to the bathroom.  We had even walked by a public restroom about five minutes before entering the restaurant and asked if anyone needed to go.  I found one of the employees and asked for a rag or napkins to clean it up.  I then left Bill and the girls and went to the nearest clothing store that carried children’s clothes.  I found a swim suit to substitute for underwear and a long sleeve swimsuit coverup, and a new outfit was found!  I returned to the restaurant, took TT into the bathroom to change, and when we left there, there was no sign that anything had ever happened, both from our appearance as well as the restaurant.

New outfit!

New outfit!

We made our way back to Green Park and picked up some Tour de France swag, and then headed back to the train station for the ride back to Margate.  All in all a successful day – we saw the end of a leg of the Tour, reunited with a noodle shop we had visited in years past, and hey, we saw the Queen.  Not bad for an afternoon.  Looking forward to many more visits to London in the near future.

One Month In

Tuesday marked the one month anniversary of our adventure in the UK. This has so far been a very educational experience for us. We have been exploring a small area of a new country by bike, car, and train. Though we speak the same language, one of the big surprises for me has been the amount of difficulty I have had language wise with understanding some accents as well as different names for things compared with what I am used to. At times I feel like I am taking words in and then translating them for myself so that I can understand them. Much like all the years I studied the Japanese language, there is a slight delay in comprehension as I took the words in and translated them into English in my head.

Another big difference has been my job. Though I have a similar position in the same specialty in the UK as I had in the US, there is definitely quite a bit of change going from a private practice in the US to working for the NHS. I’m sure I will be writing quite a bit more about it in upcoming blog posts. I definitely stick out as I try to do a similar job, but am learning different names for lab tests, different units for lab values, different names for instruments. Instead of qid when reading the frequency a drug will be given four times a day, the Brits use qds. Instead of NPO for nothing by mouth, it’s nil by mouth. Instead of having bloodworm done or labs done, the Brits have bloods done.

We have started to settle down some here. We continue to live in temporary housing through the hospital where I am working. You can’t beat the convenience of a three minute walk to work. However, we can’t totally settle down yet. We will need to move in the next few months prior to our eldest daughter starting school in the fall, because the local schools do not have good ratings. We are also still waiting to receive all the items we shipped from the US. I finally broke down and bought a mixing bowl and some measuring spoons today. I have mentioned before that we have really enjoyed Canterbury when we have visited, with better access to food and a richer culture due to the presence of several local colleges. This is the area that we are focusing on now to find a place to live. Bill contacted a school today which has good ratings and open spots for the fall. We have also been looking for a furnished flat. The availability of furnished flats is fairly low, but if we could find one in a location we like in our price range, we won’t have to buy a lot of furniture that we later on would need to sell.

We have gone a month without a TV. I don’t think we miss it terribly, but this will likely change some when the weather gets colder in the fall and we are not spending so much time outside. We have ordered a TV to be here in time to watch the Tour de France which begins this weekend. Speaking of the Tour, the first three legs are in the UK. Bill and the girls plan to go to London on Monday to see some of the festivities and hopefully some of the riders as they finish the leg in London before continuing in France on Tuesday. If I am able to get work done a little early, I will hopefully be able to join them or meet up with them. There are already plans for dinner that evening at Wagamama’s, a noodle shop in London that we ate at when we visited our friend Kelly in London in 2001.

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Stay to the Left

Riding in this part of England is a challenge.  First and most important: Stay to the left.  I cannot describe how disorienting it is to have cars traveling on the opposite side of the road.  This is apparent even when crossing the street on foot.  You realize how much of the structure of vehicle movement you have internalized and do quite automatically.

The streets are narrow with no shoulders.  Often the streets are not even wide enough for two cars to pass side-by-side.  People also park their cars half-on/half-off the sidewalk.  Compound that with people driving like they are in a James Bond movie (crazy fast swerving around those parked cars).  Although this is kinda scary, I actually think that the drivers are responsive to driving around bicyclists and swerving across the center line is pretty normal.  This is unlike the US where the center line is some kind of mental barrier and drivers get mad at cyclists for being in “their way” instead of just calmly going around.

Some of the sidewalks are designated as cyclist and pedestrian, which make them 4 feet wide instead of 2 feet.

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The pavement of the sidewalks is a patchwork of different sand types in the concrete.

We’ve found a decent route from the hospital to the shopping district (corporate shopping district that we unfortunately need to access right now for lack of much local knowledge) that alternates between cyclo/ped and in-street lanes.  One of the most frustrating aspects of traffic is that they do not stop for pedestrians.  Rarely is there an intersection where cars need to yield to pedestrians and certainly not at roundabouts.  Pedestrians need to look for the few and far between stop-lighted cross walks (that allow you to cross for about 5 seconds) or the “zebra crossings” that have the more familiar white stripes in the road and also have striped poles and yellow flashing globes (pictures later).

Going carless is underway, also going TV-less for right now.

Cheers and Stay to the Left.

Excuse me, can you tell me where Whole Foods is?

We are settling in to our new long term temporary home in The UK. One of the big changes and struggles for us is the food. We have not eaten out a lot, as this tends to be expensive. We had gotten into the habit in the US of eating mostly organic fruits and vegetables, predominantly organic food in general, avoiding fast food restaurants, and had been trying to minimize packaged and processed foods. Not to say that we don’t like the not so healthy foods like pizza and hamburgers, but in general we tried to eat more healthy and eat mostly organic and non genetically modified foods.

We have found it a bit of a struggle to find organic produce in the area we live in. There is some available, but not near the varieties or selection that we enjoyed in the states.

The other thing we have noticed with regards to food is that the British seem to love to package things. At the grocery store last night, we bought cucumber, grapes, strawberries, lettuce, bananas, blueberries, onions, and apples, all of which were in some type of packaging. The only produce item we bought that was not packaged was a melon. I am not sure the cause of the packaging obsession, but it does not seem to be localized to one grocery store. We walked into a Marks and Spencer Department Store that had a grocery section a few weeks ago, and the place seemed to be entirely filled with packaged produce, meals, and drinks. The exception to this was the ability to buy bakery items in bulk.

As we have explored, we have slowly been able to find a non sprayed community garden that sells produce weekly and even has a weekly CSA, or veg-box as it is called here. There are farm stores around that we will have to investigate as well. This is a little trickier since we are commuting places by bike with our xtracycles. We are eager for the boxes we shipped from the US, especially the boxes that contain kitchen items, to arrive so that we can get into a more normal cooking and eating routine. At the moment we have one saucepan that we are using to cook, and just recently bought a all iron skillet. Unfortunately, I think all of the boxes we have shipped are still sitting in a warehouse in California, not yet having started the long sea journey to England through the Panama Canal.

A few weekends ago we explored the nearby town of Canterbury. Canterbury is larger than the town we live in, and the richer culture is apparent due to influence of the universities in the town. We enjoyed our day exploring the town, and it likely will be a place we visit often. Right next to the train station when we arrived was a place called The Goods Shed. This somewhat rustic building was filled with people selling meat, bread, organic vegetables, and an assortment of specialty and organic products as well as beer. There were also a few small cafés and restaurants. This was how I envisioned our food experiences to be when coming to the UK, and we enjoyed a delicious lunch at one of the small restaurants. After walking through the town and past the shops. We were heading back towards the train station when we passed a sign for Canterbury Whole Foods. Being cautiously optimistic that we may find actual organic products, we walked down a side street to the store. There we found a miniature version of the Olympia Food Co-op that we frequented in The US. Lots of natural products, many organic, as well as bulk foods. This will definitely be another stop on our trips to Canterbury.

As we left Canterbury Whole Foods, the woman behind the counter recommended that we visit Macknade Fine Foods in Faversham, a town about a forty minute train ride away. There was a promise that Macknade’s was similar to Canterbury Whole Foods, but much larger. We eagerly set out for Faversham last weekend to explore another town and visit Macknade’s. Unfortunately, the store, though nice, did not live up to our expectations. The store was more of a specialty shop rather than a grocery type store, and though there was a good variety of fruit and vegetables, sadly, none were organic or unsprayed.

So our adventure continues.

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