Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Moonrise with Curlews

Dave and I finally went to see "Moonrise Kingdom" yesterday. It's been on my list for a while but with all our visitors we haven't had much theater time. What a terrific movie! Quirky, a bit bizarre, but beautifully made and really original. (Dave liked it too, and we often don't agree on movies -- he tends to like explosions, and I like talky and cerebral.) I suppose with Bill Murray and Frances McDormand it's hard to go wrong, but the real magic comes from the precisely retro sets and costumes, the sense of a simpler past, and the overall vision of Wes Anderson. I loved Tilda Swinton as a fussy bureaucrat known only as Social Services.

I also rediscovered another movie yesterday. Back in 2008 I wrote about "The Last of the Curlews," an animated TV film about the extinction of the eskimo curlew that I watched to traumatic effect as a child. Yesterday I discovered several reader comments waiting in my comment moderation queue on blogspot -- including one on that entry. After approving the comments I reread the entry, and decided to look on YouTube to see if I could find the movie. Of course, it's there, in five parts.

So the ever-indulgent Dave and I watched "The Last of the Curlews" last night. It seems anthropomorphizing and heavy-handed now, and dated in its narration style, but still sad. (I didn't cry this time!) It's funny how some images were burned so precisely into my brain -- the female bird with the red spot of blood on her breast, and the mustached face of the farmer who shoots her. I remembered it all clearly and accurately.

Apparently bird experts aren't sure whether the eskimo curlew is extinct or not. The last confirmed sighting was back in the '80s in Nebraska, according to a recent Reuters article.

(Photo: A fruit vendor at Covent Garden, on July 9.)

Monday, July 30, 2012

Capital of Strip Clubs?

The New York Times had an article Thursday about strip clubs in my hometown, Tampa, gearing up for the Republican National Convention. Apparently Republicans spend nearly three times as much at strip clubs during their conventions as Democrats do at theirs -- at least, according to the rather loose research cited by the Times. Somehow I'm not surprised. Aren't Republicans wealthier?

Anyway, one line of the article said, "Tampa cannot shed its national reputation as the strip club capital of the country." To which I say, really?

It's true that Tampa was in the news periodically over the years as Joe Redner, an owner of several strip clubs, fought local government over regulation and free speech issues. But is Tampa really considered the national capital of stripping? I suspect that's quite an overstatement.

By way of example on an international level, here are two strip clubs I photographed on Lothian Road in Edinburgh. See? Even Scotland has its share of pole dancing and, according to the window on the Sapphire Rooms, "stag shows."

Still, overstatements aside, the Times article isn't bad. It quotes one dancer, who's saving her money for nursing school, vowing to discuss her economic travails with her convention clients. You go, girl!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Breathing Space

Dave's parents left for their cruise yesterday morning. We piled them into a taxi and sent them off to Waterloo Station to catch a train to Southampton, where their ship docks. They seemed to think they'd be fine making the trip themselves, and I assume they were, since they didn't show up on our doorstep again later.

I. Am. So. Tired.

After they left, I cleaned the house and kept the washing machine running with sheets and towels and some of their laundry and all of ours. I vacuumed and dusted and generally tidied up. We're working on eating the stray leftovers in the fridge, and gradually, the place is feeling like ours again. Don't get me wrong -- it was nice to see them and have them visit -- but a return to normalcy is always welcome.

This is a brief return to normalcy, because our friend Adam from New Jersey arrives in a matter of days! But he'll be relatively low-maintenance, I think.

Dave went to get his hair cut yesterday and I enjoyed the time alone, cleaning and working in silence. When he came home, I told him I wasn't ready to have the television on. So he plugged into YouTube with his headphones and I kept silent all afternoon, listening only to the wind in the trees and the hum of the washing machine. It was fabulous.

A few side notes:

-- When we got back from Kent almost two weeks ago I promised to post those photos to Flickr. I finally did it yesterday. That's one up above. If you're interested in more British wilderness and countryside shots, click here.

-- When we went to Edinburgh, our plants were left to fend for themselves on the balcony during our hottest, sunniest days yet. Our horseradish, unfortunately, got completely fried. Its leaves were crispy. It looks like it may come out again, though. And our tomato plants are inexplicably turning yellow -- Dave thinks it's because they were planted too close together. (They undoubtedly are, but I wonder if we're also not watering them too much -- or too little. Who knows?) I just hope they hang on long enough to give us some ripe tomatoes.

-- Our golden arachnopet was back yesterday morning, looking bigger than before. I tiptoed around her/his web most of the day, but inadvertently destroyed it while harvesting our drying laundry. Oops!

-- The New York Times has weighed in on the Olympics opening ceremonies, calling them "weirdly and unabashedly British."

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Bells and Booms and Vapor Trails

Did any of you watch the Olympics opening ceremonies?

We did. Dave's parents didn't make it all the way through, because the show started so late and they have a train to catch this morning. But Dave and I stayed up until 12:30 a.m. and watched every moment.

I enjoyed the show. I haven't read any reviews yet, so I'm not sure what the pundits who are paid for their opinions have to say, but I thought it was very entertaining and quite a spectacle. I loved the depiction of England's evolution from rural society to industrial power.

My only complaint is that it was heavy on British social and pop cultural references. Would people in Tanzania or Myanmar really pick up on a reference to "Trainspotting," or the Sex Pistols? I think even Dave's parents were bewildered at times. (And once his dad learned the ceremonies were directed by Danny Boyle, who also directed "Slumdog Millionaire," he packed it in -- he frequently calls "Slumdog" the worst movie ever made. I disagree, for the record.)

Anyway, just to give you an idea of the national scope of the buildup to these games, here are some shots of the Olympic rings that have been erected in cities across Britain. Top, of course, is London, seen from a river ferry on the Thames. (If we're Facebook friends you'll recognize that as my current cover photo.)

Above are the rings in Edinburgh, with the castle in the background.

And here are the rings suspended from one of Newcastle's many bridges, snapped from our speeding train.

We had an Olympics-themed dinner last night, deploying a tea towel from Dave's parents as a tablecloth. Not a particularly sophisticated table design, particularly with those silly napkins, but it was fun. Dave made a pork roast.

As we ate, we watched the buildup to the opening ceremonies. When a group of RAF jets (I think) flew over the stadium on TV, I thought I'd look outside, just in case we could catch a glimpse.

Well, the planes flew practically overhead, still in formation and close enough that I could see each one clearly. "Camera!" I yelled to Dave and his parents. "Camera! On the table!" They searched frantically and said they couldn't find it, and I realized it was in my pocket. By that time, the planes were gone, and I was left with only vapor trails.

I ran to the other side of the flat and got this shot of them flying away to the north.

Later, we heard the booming of the stadium fireworks as the Queen, looking a little grumpy and bored, officially opened the games.

And early yesterday morning, at 8:12 a.m., we heard the chiming of church bells in our neighborhood, part of a coordinated event meant to signal enthusiasm for opening day. (We had to look online to find out what was going on.)

All in all, an exciting opening to the games. I still don't think I'll watch much of the competition, but we'll see.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Olympic Torch

Yesterday Dave and I went with his parents to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. You know that David Foster Wallace book titled "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"? Well, that describes the changing of the guard. We knocked elbows with hordes of people beneath a broiling sun to get to a place near the palace fence where we could kind of see guys in red marching around, as a brass band played somewhat incongruous music like "We Are the Champions" by Queen. I'm just not into paramilitary showmanship. All I could think of was Monty Python marching up and down the square.

We walked back through Green Park and Hyde Park via the London 2012 Olympics shop, where Dave's parents blew some money on t-shirts for their grandchildren. They wanted to buy Dave and me t-shirts too, but Dave declined. He told them to buy him a nice French bottle of wine instead. I found a shirt featuring the Olympic mascots from years past, which is about as close to a sporting theme as I would ever wear.

We took the tube from South Kensington, and lo and behold, when we emerged at Notting Hill Gate, thousands of people were lining the street, holding cameras ready. Some police officers told us the Olympic torch was about to pass by. And sure enough, within a few minutes, Mr. A came past, holding it aloft. (As you can see in the photo at top, the accompanying truck was driven by the Queen herself!)

We marveled at our lucky timing, and I realized this was the second time I saw the torch. I also saw it in 1996, before the Atlanta games, when it passed through West Florida. Here's a photo from that day, when I stood with a friend and her now ex-husband beside the Tamiami Trail in Bradenton. I have no idea who that torch bearer is -- if I ever knew, I failed to write it down, and the best I could find on the Internet today was a list of the 1996 bearers from the Sarasota area. He must be one of them.

Today we'll watch the opening ceremonies from the comfort of our own living room. Probably with wine.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Favorite Photos from Edinburgh

We made it home from Edinburgh yesterday, after wandering a bit more in the morning and then catching our afternoon train. I think we've just about worn Dave's parents out. They're sleeping as I write this.

I thought you might like to see a view of the city. That shows Edinburgh Castle in the center, several churches, and the Royal Scottish Academy art museum in the lower right (with a dance performance out front). This was taken from the top of the Sir Walter Scott Monument, a 200-foot-tall gothic structure in the Princes Street Gardens that looks like a disembodied church spire. We climbed it yesterday -- 287 steps up an extremely narrow spiral staircase. It was so narrow that at the very top, my shoulders were bumping both walls -- a surprisingly alarming sensation.

Dave and his dad made the climb too, but his mom chose to check out a nearby department store.

I mentioned yesterday that I had a great photo walk that morning. Here are some of my favorite Edinburgh shots:

I found this in an alley off Thistle Street. How appropriate!

The graffiti on that black door says, "Graffiti is for those to pussy to steal cars." And I love Winston's exuberant hats, skateboard and yes, genitalia.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I am fascinated by the things people choose to write on walls.

On the way home, I saw some great graffiti beside the train tracks outside Doncaster: "Albert the kid is ghosting," written in heavy black letters. Sadly, it flew by too fast for a photo. I'm sure it's describing the side-effects of too much pot, but still...it's urban poetry.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Bog Oak and Mary, Queen of Scots

We planned our whole day yesterday around the weather forecast -- rain in the afternoon. We caught an open-top bus tour early in the morning to learn our way around the city, and rode up to the castle, which sits high on a rocky outcropping. After exploring there, we continued on the bus to Holyrood Palace, the home of royalty in Edinburgh.

That's where these photos were taken -- in the ruined abbey adjacent to the palace.  If I understood my trusty audioguide correctly, Its earliest parts date from the 1100s, and it collapsed sometime in the 1700s.

It was scenic enough for this kid to spend time sketching the ruins.

Inside the palace itself -- where photography is prohibited -- we stood in the bedroom of Mary, Queen of Scots, and saw the place where her secretary David Rizzio was murdered by her jealous husband. We also saw an elaborate chair made of "bog oak," or hard oak wood unearthed after spending a thousand years in a peat bog.

Then, in the afternoon, an unexpected bonus -- no rain! So I set out to photograph some storefronts and street art I saw from the bus, knowing that Dave and his parents would want no part of that expedition.

Last night, we had a terrific seafood meal in a very humid restaurant around the corner from our hotel. (Few places in Scotland, or England for that matter, are air conditioned, so things tend to get a bit close in the summer.)

This morning I had another phenomenal walk, so lots more photos are on the way! Our train back to London is at 2 p.m.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


After a scenic but somewhat airless train trip, we arrived in Edinburgh yesterday afternoon. Unfortunately we haven't been able to see much yet. We ventured out for an early dinner and only made it a few blocks in the pouring rain. We wound up at a neighborhood pub and then had a loud dessert at the Hard Rock Cafe, across the street from our hotel. (The extent of my Edinburgh sightseeing: A jacket worn by Ringo Starr and a sombrero worn by Elvis.) Then we scampered back inside and watched television. Kind of pathetic, I know.

Fortunately, we found a new "Absolutely Fabulous" TV special devoted to the Olympics -- so that kept me amused. You just can't go wrong with Edina and Patsy for company. (As long as you're not following their example.)

Now, in the early morning light, the seagulls are making a racket outside our window. They seem really big and noisy. Maybe that's because otherwise the city is so quiet at 6 a.m.

(Oh, I just heard my "Scotsman" newspaper plunked down at the hotel room door!)

The train ride, as I mentioned, was scenic. At one point I was watching dark forests slide past, carpeted with an understory of ferns, and I thought, "That looks like a forest where Robin Hood might have roamed." Then I realized we were just north of Nottingham!

We saw the ornate cathedral at Durham and the bridges over the River Tyne at Newcastle -- decorated with huge Olympic rings, just like Tower Bridge in London. (There are rings here in Edinburgh, too, on a hill above town.) North of Newcastle, the weather began to get gloomier. Dark castles stood silhouetted against the gray sky, beside towns built above the rocks and crags of the North Sea. We were right next to the water at a few points.

Hence those big, loud seagulls!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Off to Scotland

The sun finally came out yesterday -- not timidly or tepidly but full-on, warming the city and drying out the damp sogginess of the past several weeks. We seized the opportunity for an outdoor activity, and took Dave's parents on the same open-bus sightseeing tour that I took with Jennifer and Jesse a few weeks ago.

Dave actually got a little bit sunburned. That's how bright it was. Can you believe it? And we're supposed to have more of the same today and tomorrow -- or we would be if we were staying in London. But as luck would have it, we're going to Scotland. Where it is, of course, raining.

We're off this morning, taking a train to Edinburgh from King's Cross. Don't get me wrong -- I am very excited to see Scotland, even though it's a brief trip and we'll be back home again on Wednesday. I'll just bring my trusty Beatles umbrella, which now seems as familiar as a prosthetic limb.

I plan to blog as usual. Meanwhile, I'm not going to spill the beans yet on yesterday's photo. I'll give another day for guesses -- not that there's a prize or anything.

(Photo: Yesterday at Bank, London.)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

An Atheist Morality

I was reading an article in Harper's about the quest by atheist thinkers to reframe morality in a secular, rather than a religious, context. In other words, as the article asks, "Granting that there is no God, what now?"

You know how I feel about existential philosophy. It's needless agonizing over pointless, unanswerable questions. I've never understood people who ask, "Why are we here?" The fact is, we are here, and there doesn't need to be a reason.

In fact, I think our existence arose purely accidentally -- through chemical combinations and subsequent evolution governed by the powers of physics, chemistry and biology. I think I'm incredibly lucky to be writing this sentence.

(I was amused by another recent article about an Italian town that appointed a municipal philosopher. In this era of austerity measures and government cutbacks, how was that post approved?!)

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for some philosophy, though, I found the Harper's article interesting -- perhaps because it wrestled with more pertinent questions about how to live, rather than why we're living. Author Christopher R. Beha reviewed three books -- by Alex Rosenberg, Sam Harris and Alain de Botton -- exploring the motivation for and construction of morality without religion.

Obviously our religions dictate much of our moral code, but I don't see humanity descending into an immoral lawlessness without religion. So much of morality also seems like common sense. Don't we have an internal guide that tells us not to needlessly harm each other, not to inflict unnecessary pain, not to steal or kill? Obviously people do those things, but I think they first have to overcome their own natural instincts not to. They have to become incredibly deluded by anger, greed or ignorance.

Buddhism -- a philosophy or a religion, depending on who you ask -- teaches that we're all Buddhas. We just have to recognize and cultivate our Buddhahood through practice. (That may seem like a somewhat religious approach, but technically Buddhism doesn't preach the existence of an external God. Can you be an atheist and a Buddhist? I'm not sure.)

Anyway, food for thought.

On a completely separate note, I took the photo above while in Kent. Can you tell what it is?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Smoky Kangaroo Tea

As I've mentioned, Dave's parents are visiting us now. They'll be here until next Saturday, when they leave for a Mediterranean cruise to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Then, when they return in August, they'll stay with us another four days before returning to the states.

What this means for us, of course, is another round of sightseeing and tour-guiding. We went down to Greenwich and up in the London Eye, and I'll spare you more about that since I've written so much about both places already. I couldn't resist showing you these photos from the Eye, though -- the sunset shot above includes the distant looping arch of Wembley Stadium to the left. Remember when I walked there back in May?

I was amused by this woman, who paid £19 to ride the Eye but devoted her attention to her cell phone.

Yesterday we went to tea at one of the swanky hotels in Mayfair. I chose a smoked tea called Lapsang Kangaroo, or something like that, and it was terrific and really unusual. We had champagne, crustless sandwiches, scones, clotted cream and an assortment of cakes -- and by the end of it all I was ironically so thirsty! I think my body wanted to dilute all the sugar I'd consumed. I came home and drank about four big glasses of water.

Tea still isn't really my thing. I'd much rather have a cup of coffee and a peanut butter sandwich, complete with unsightly crusts.

Speaking of anniversaries, I just have to point out that today is the second anniversary of my Civil Union with the terrific and ever-patient Dave, who has changed my life in so many unexpected and amazing ways! Love you, HB!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Sissinghurst Castle

This is Sissinghurst Castle, one of my final stops during our stay in Kent. It consists of a couple of Tudor-era buildings and a few later structures, the remains of what used to be a much larger stately home with a courtyard. The home was used to house French prisoners during the Seven Years' War and then used as an almshouse for the poor, which left it in such a dilapidated state that it was eventually torn down. This is all that's left.

The grounds include incredible gardens, created by British writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson, who lived here from the 1930s onward. When they died, the house went to the National Trust, and it's now available for public visits. When I was there, it was abuzz with several busloads of German tourists.

I don't know much about Sackville-West, except that she and her set were notoriously sexually adventurous. She was pals with Virginia Woolf and the rest of the Bloomsbury Group. Her book-lined study is in the tall tower structure at Sissinghurst, and she and Nicolson converted a stable in the adjoining long building into a beautiful library.

I took tons of photos in the gardens, which I'll put on Flickr. Included among the interesting plants was pink chicory -- something I'd never seen before. I'm more familiar with the blue variety.

Visitors can climb the narrow, twisting staircase up the tower and view Sackville-West's study. Unfortunately, interior photography is not permitted -- but I snuck a picture of this windowsill on the stairs. After all, it's almost outside.

This is the view of the gardens from the roof of the tower. The gardens are grouped into planting areas based on color, and bounded at the far end by a moat that dates back to the Middle Ages.

As you can see, we actually had sunshine on this particular day! Believe me, that was unusual.

Aside from the gardens, there's an old barn, an oast house (once used to dry hops for beer-making, but now an exhibit space), a gift shop and restaurant, a plant shop and a cafe. I walked out behind the barn and found this field littered with big white blobs -- which turned out to be sheep! ("Surely they're not dead," I thought, and then they moved and twitched and one stood up. I had no idea sheep lie down when they sleep, but I suppose that makes sense.) Sissinghurst is on fairly high ground, with the countryside sprawling away in all directions.

Dave unfortunately couldn't go with me to Sissinghurst, because he was working that morning. But he and his coworker Gordon joined me for lunch at a nearby pub called the Three Chimneys -- probably the best pub we've been to so far in England. That night, Dave had his final concert and we drove back to London -- through rain, of course -- arriving home around midnight. Thus ends our Kent idyll!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Wrecking My Shoes (Almost)

As I mentioned yesterday, I spent some time during my stay in Kent exploring the local walking trails. This sounds like a wonderful, peaceful way to enjoy the bucolic English countryside -- but only if the weather cooperates. Which, in this case, it didn't.

England, I am told, has a strong tradition of maintaining public walking paths that criss-cross towns, fields, back yards and farmland. Some of the paths date back to a time before private land ownership. In Kent, I chose to follow the High Weald Landscape Trail, which runs near the school where we stayed.

The first day we arrived, I set out in the evening and followed the trail in one direction, past the aforementioned cows, across a road and through fields that got increasingly dense with underbrush. I turned around when it began raining and the path looked like that top photo. I wasn't really dressed to swashbuckle my way through wet thistles and brambles. Besides, it was getting dark.

(That's a trail marker in the photo at right -- and no, it's not sideways. It's just saying the trail goes to the left.)

The next morning, I went in the other direction.

The path was promising at first, cutting across a field of tall grass and Queen Anne's lace. I met a woman and her ornery dog. ("He doesn't really like men," she said, as he barked furiously. I gave him a wide berth.) Otherwise, I was alone, marveling at the lack of mosquitoes that often make hiking in Florida such a drag.

I had a great time photographing bugs and flowers. Soon, though, the path ventured into the woods, where after days and weeks of rain, things took an ominous turn:

Holy mudbath, Batman! I negotiated this slippery slope as best I could in my Merrills, which I'd bought only a few weeks earlier. Lemme just say, I see now why British people wear "wellies." I trudged along, encrusted and shellacked around the ankles, until I came to a huge puddle sandwiched between two fences and could go no further.

The puddle was right next to this house. Doesn't it look like something out of Hansel and Gretel?

I turned around and made my way back to the school, just in time for it to begin pouring rain. Happily -- as I mentioned yesterday -- I was ultimately able to save my shoes.

Among the cool stuff I found along the trail, and on a later walk in the nearby Hemsted Forest, were mushrooms -- including the puffball mushroom above, nestled in the grass like a big lost golf ball.

Love was in the air -- at least among insects and slugs.

And wildflowers were everywhere -- like these thistles. I'll spare you my zillion photos of flowers -- at least here. They'll eventually be available on Flickr!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

In Baronial Splendor

Dave and I are back from Kent, scrambling to get our laundry done and give the house a last-minute touch-up before the arrival of his parents today. Our adventure in rural England went well -- Dave managed to squeeze exceptional musical performances from his students in just under a week, and I got my fill of woods-wandering and wildflowers.

These photos show where we stayed -- the Benenden School, a girls' school of which Princess Anne is reportedly an alumnus. (Though Benenden physically hosted the music program, it's organized by Kent Music, which is affiliated with local government.) The school is housed partly in a Victorian mansion built on the site of a homestead dating back to the Middle Ages.

It had extensive gardens punctuated by intriguing statuary, and beyond them, acres and acres of green parkland, pastures and forests criss-crossed with walking trails.

This was the view from the terrace overlooking that parkland.

The oldest parts of the mansion were like something out of Brideshead Revisited -- grand staircases, stained glass, high ceilings, plaster friezes around the tops of the walls. I felt like I should be dressing for dinner.

The weather was almost entirely hideous, with pouring rain on several days. I went out on some of the walking trails and got my shoes muddy and soaked, but fortunately I was able to spruce them up and dry them on the windowsill during our brief sunny moments.

One evening we went up on the roof of the mansion with one of the music program employees. We had a sweeping view across the Kent countryside, and also a good straight-on look at the house's elaborate conjoined chimneys.

The local cows were very curious. As I walked past one day, they ambled over to get a better look at me. One let out a low moo right in my face, which I am ashamed to say scared me a little bit. Cows seem very big and loud when you're standing right in front of them. When I put out my hand, though, the cow was skittish and backed away -- so there seemed to be mutual mistrust.

I kept thinking about that line on customs forms that asks about wandering around in agricultural areas. I suppose if I travel internationally anytime soon, I'll have to mark yes!

This was our one visible sunset, after our one clear afternoon. You can see how the cows have gnawed the bottoms of the trees in a level line. They're quite efficient tree groomers, actually!

Anyway, I'll fill you in more tomorrow and Friday on my walks and adventures. I'm also going to put a set of Kent photos on Flickr -- as soon as I get those up I'll give you the link.

It's good to be home!