Tuesday, April 15, 2014

One year later - Boston Marathon Bombing

I am trying to limit my consumption of media today, but it's hard to tear myself away. It's the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings. One year ago today, a little before 3 PM, I saw some odd notes online from friends and started searching the news. The tweets came in fastest. Not 5 minutes after the bombings occurred, the story started: some kinds of explosions had occurred by the finish line at the Boston Marathon. A couple of people texted me about it, but there wasn't much information yet. Maybe 15 minutes later, a co-worker started walking around telling everyone there had been bombs in Boston! I was angry. No one knew yet if they were bombs or not. There was a very brief period of time when people thought it might have been gas line explosions, but now I think back on that a laugh a little. That's the kind of explanation that authorities use to cover up some other kind of explosion, at least in the movies. I think my anger was apparent when I told him, "We don't know yet." I'm sad that I was wrong, but glad that I said something. It would have been stupid to freak everyone in the office out. I'm not sure anyone got much work done for the last few hours of the day anyway.

On Wednesday of that week last year, I left work early. I realized that I had not spoken to anyone much about the bombings and was feeling a lot of strong emotions. My fiancé, now husband, and I went out for lunch in Harvard Square. He had avoided going to class the day before, not wanting to be on the crowded subway just yet, and I was more than okay with that. To go on the train with him was okay, at least we were together if something happened. I saw the armed forces that were in all of the subway stations, searching bags and occasionally patting people down. Seeing guns in my subway was more than a little unsettling. It's something that other parts of the world deal with everyday, something that may seem commonplace to them. To me, it felt like someone had ripped away my security blanket and torched it. I didn't want them to have to be there. I limited how much I was reading of the news that week. There was only so much tragedy I could expose myself to.

Thursday night, we met up with friends at the Cheesecake Factory in Boston for a birthday celebration. I don't think we talked about the Marathon much, but it was certainly on all of our minds. We saw police cars racing out of Boston, sirens and lights blaring, late into our dinner. Later that night, some of them discovered that the manhunt had begun. I found out in the morning, when my supervisor called to tell me that the office was closed. Waltham was within the large circle of the shutdown. I worked from home, watching my Facebook news feed for responses. Some of my friends were only blocks from where the chase had occurred. No cars were allowed out on main streets in my town, thought it only neighbored the shutdown towns. In the afternoon, I followed the posts of a friend listening to a police blotter as they narrowed in on the one surviving suspect, getting a nearly instant play-by-play of the capture. I don't think I felt relieved until some weeks after the arrest.

This morning, I flipped to a radio station that was interviewing people and focusing on memorials. I felt immobilized as I listened to the raw emotion in the voices. As the DJ mentioned their upcoming interview with a bombing survivor from the Marathon, a voice in the background at their station said that the interviewee was on the line now. It was an odd reminder that those are real people, (nearly) live-streaming their thoughts and reflections. It's still amazing to me that something that did not affect me directly has still had such a profound impact on my sense of safety. I feel unsafe in public, but I also feel resigned. There's nothing I can do about terrorists and wannabe-terrorists if they choose to take action around me. I can only try not to waste every day.

Boston Strong. I hope for a safe and joyous event on Monday.

I wrote previously of my thoughts on the bombings here and here.

Friday, April 11, 2014

London Honeymoon: Last Day

Our last day in London (March 14) was pretty uneventful. We headed to Hyde Park and walked down towards Buckingham Palace. We would have caught the tail end of the changing of the guards, but the crowd was pretty massive so we left.

We headed over to the Natural History museum in Kensington, which we'd passed on our way out of the city for the day trip. Apparently, the building was made to be a natural history museum, but it looks a bit like a retired cathedral. Each window (and there were many) had a little sculpture of some kind of animal below or above it. I was too tired to take pictures. The museum inside was nice, pretty friendly in terms of educational access, but some information was outdated (some depictions of the posture of dinosaurs, no mention of feathered dinosaurs at all). The layout was less confusing than other buildings we'd been to so far (cough cough the science museum), but you were mostly forced to follow paths instead of being able to wander freely in larger rooms. I was disappointed to note that a lot of the fossils and skeletons were reproductions and not the real deal, including the stuffed Dodo bird. It was a very kid-friendly place, I think.

This might have been the day that we went back to Harrods to buy treats, but I can't remember now. I got two macarons, which I've been wanting to try for a while. They were DELICIOUS. The cookie part is made with almond flour so it has a natural sweetness to it. The outside of the cookie is a little crispy, the inside is very soft. The filling between the "cookies" is made from ganache and I don't even need to explain how delicious ganache is. I mean, it's basically fudge. I got to eat the second one at the airport when we flew out. I need to find more now that we're home, they're so good.

Later in the day, probably after more reading & resting, we finally went on our trip on the London Eye. It's a massive ferris wheel right on the Thames and just a few minutes walk from our hotel in the County Hall area. We splurged for "fast track" tickets so we didn't have to wait in line to board. Definitely worth the extra cost.

We timed it a little early for sunset, unfortunately. The smog and low sunlight made for pretty terrible views! It was still fun. They had some cool interactive screens in each capsule so you could identify landmarks, but it was hard to make much out.

After, Hulky grabbed an ice cream from a vendor on the street. A friend had told us to try the street vendor ice cream cones w/ the chocolate sticks in them. It had a very rich creamy flavor and I wish we'd tried it sooner because we would have had one every day! Maybe it's best we didn't.

That night, we went to an Italian restaurant in the County Hall area. I had beef cheeks, which made me giggle when I ordered it, but it's actually the facial cheek muscles. It. was. so. tender. The tiramisu was great as well, no too rum-y and not too bland. Overall, we saw a lot more French places than Italian, especially when it came to pastries. Hulky was disappointed, but I guess we're spoiled by the Italian-laden North End of Boston. I enjoyed more than a few croissants on the trip, but could tell they weren't made with real butter. The flavor just isn't right without butter.

And so concludes our trip. On Saturday the 15th, we took the Underground back to Heathrow. We returned our Oyster cards at the end of the trip and got our deposits for the cards back, as well as some of the cash we'd put on them. The 7-day passes for zone 1 and 2 were definitely worth it, even if they were pretty pricey, since we used the Underground every day we were there, sometimes several times in one day. We checked my bag on the way home so we wouldn't have to lug it around and were able to get our seats moved together for both flights before boarding. We had lunch at the airport (had some delicious elder flower soda) and had uneventful flights home. Customs at home took an hour to get through and the desks were woefully understaffed, but at last, we were home, and the cat was happy to see us.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

London Honeymoon: Day 6

Thursday was our bus trip to Stonehenge, Salisbury, and Bath.

We got picked up at our hotel by Evan Evans Tours before 8 AM. I think the earlier pick-up time helped me finally adjust to the timezone. Of course, we leave tomorrow (this entry being written Friday), so a fat lot of good that did me. After some confusion & waiting at the bus terminal in Victoria Cross station, we got on the bus and were off to Stonehenge.

The countryside was beautifully misty, exactly the kind of weather I'd expected to have in London, but most days were blessed with mid-50s to low-60s (fahrenheit) temps. Except for evenings, we were pretty comfortable with a sweater or sweatshirt, and I carried a scarf with me most days.

Stonehenge was neat and I'm glad to be able to say I've been there, but it was a waste of money. We didn't buy tickets to enter beforehand, having been lead to believe by others who have visited in previous years that you can see everything well enough from behind some roped area. They've changed the layout since others have gone, so we paid quite a bit to walk around the stones. We needn't have bothered, as no one checked for our tickets the entire time we were there. We were a bit pissed about that, but the mile walk back from the stones to the visitor center did us both some good. The ride to the stones was slow and boring in a small vehicle pulling enclosed carts.

Hulky enjoyed some trespassing.

Next up was Salisbury, but by the time we got there, I had a raging sinus headache that could probably be classified as a migraine. I kept my head covered on the bus during the approach and eyes lowered as we walked around to find a pharmacy. With a little lunch and Ibuprofen in me (interestingly, Ibuprofen is a controlled substance here and someone had to unlock a case for us to get some), I felt better and was able to look around a little before we headed back to the bus. We didn't buy tickets for the cathedral or even go near it while we were there. The city was interesting enough on its own. We both agreed it seemed like the kind of place you might like to retire to.

Shops from the bus, so I could take at least one picture there.

Passing by more beautiful countryside and a lot of sheep (and lambs! so cute), we headed to the city of Bath. With me feeling better and a bit more time to spend in that city, we wandered the streets. Hulky bought some cookies at a place called Ben's Cookies & I had a hot chocolate. The dark chocolate chunk cookie I got was not very good, Hulky makes better at home, but he says the other cookies are very good (he also thought mine wasn't good). I got a shotglass for my grandmother, who lives near Bath, Maine, and has an extensive shotglass collection from friends & family who travel or have gone to college. I thought she might like something from her city's namesake.

The ride back to London was three hours, as we got stuck in traffic. I had expected heading into London would not be as bad in the evening, as it seemed heading out was very easy in the morning, but it was pretty awful. When we got back to the hotel, we asked concierge where to get some good Indian food. We were recommended to a place close by, but it was closed for business. Just down the street was another, that was very busy, and our service was awful. I enjoyed the food though. We shuffled "home" to read & sleep after a quick stop to a small food market or convenience-type store. I got hazelnut milk, which has been delicious in my teas at the hotel (electric kettles are AMAZING, the water boils so quickly), and Hulky got banana milk which tasted remarkably like banana milk.

Some cultural observations

There are a lot more smokers here than I'm used to. I remember that from my 10-day trip to Italy in senior year of high school. There are lots of little cans on posts & containers on the edges of buildings for people to put their cigarette butts and gum, but there's still plenty of that sort of litter on the ground. Speaking of which, there are so few public trash cans in London, but we saw lots of people hired to pick up waste. It seemed very backwards to us. We usually held on to trash for a while before we were able to get rid of it, or we'd ask someone in a shop if they could dispose of things for us. Maybe that's standard?

Some pubs & restaurants, you walk in and seat yourselves. You go up to the bar to order food or drink. Others, they seat you. There's no clear indication when you walk in either way, but I look for one of those little podiums where they check available seating and if there isn't one, we go sit down. Usually, we're right, but it's still odd. We're very used to everywhere being "wait to be seated", and if it isn't, there's a clear sign near the entry indicating that we should seat ourselves.

There seems to be no consistency for whether people walk on the right or left side of the sidewalk. That was maddening.

This is a hard one to explain, but I noticed that the masculine type folks are more effeminate than those in the United States. Let's generalize and refer to those people as "men". Women seem very into fashion here, maybe it's just because we've been focusing our journeys around central London. Men are as well, with skinny jeans/pants/leggings being in style for any gendered person, and boots with any outfit (a style of which I thoroughly approve). We saw very few people dressed as casually as we would find at home, like jeans & t-shirts. Even those seemed kind of "designer". I liked a lot of the more masculine & feminine styles though, like dark tights with short skirts & boots, and skinny jeans (men's cut, which are not as ankle-strangling as women's) rolled at the cuff with suede shoes/boots.

Friday, April 04, 2014

London Honeymoon: Day 5

Written March 14, about the events of March 12, 2014.

Ahhh, this is the problem with writing my entries a couple of days later: I struggle to remember any kind of detail. Fortunately, this is why I take tons of pictures! This day was fairly uneventful, but I think we did a lot more walking than I'm remembering.

After another nice, late, sleeping-in, we headed out to buy sweatshirts! My favorite black zip-up hoodie has developed too many holes for me to feel comfortable wearing it anywhere except at home. I am probably going to throw it out before we leave London. Hulky was in need of a lighter sweatshirt anyway, and something lighter than his pea-coat to wear here. We went to a Primark, which is some British chain department store, I think. I loved a lot of the styles I saw there, but Hulky is not one for browsing/shopping. We found our sweatshirts, got a souvenir t-shirt for my brother, and left. Overall, the prices were good, maybe comparable or better than a Target back at home. I'm not a fan of the contrast zipper on my sweatshirt, but it's very soft, fits well enough, and does its job.

After a pitstop at the hotel (more reading & putting our feet up for a bit), we headed over to the Tower of London. It was a nice easy day, we didn't press ourselves to walk too much or go anywhere that we didn't want to. As it should be on a vacation/honeymoon!

So smoggy!

The crown jewels are probably the most sparkly things I will ever see in my life. It was beautiful, but I always think of how silly it is to place such value on a kind of stone.

Dragon sculpture inside the Tower

Hulky can probably attest that I thought the ravens, which are the traditional guardians of the Tower, were the coolest thing within the grounds. I didn't get a good picture, but they are so much bigger than I ever realized! The Tower fulfilled Hulky's desire to see weaponry and armor. It was a very cool collection.

After the Tower, we did some wandering to kill time before our evening at Medieval Banquet London. It was fun, the food was good, and the entertainers were entertaining, but we were really tired and vanished after dessert, before the show was over. We took our first and only cab ride in London and Hulky was very entertained by sitting in the backwards' facing seat.

Medieval Banquet

Riding in the backwards seat in the cab.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

London Honeymoon: Day 4

Written March 12, 2014, in London.

Yesterday was the double-decker tour day. We bought our tickets through Viator and went on the Original London Sightseeing Tour. We were still pretty tired, so we only did part of one bus route, after getting English Breakfast at a place called Garfunkel's in Trafalgar Square. I skipped the toast, but the rest of the meal was pretty good. Not sure I understand the infatuation with roasted tomatoes at breakfast. And what's with the waffle thing? Seems like it's a popular dessert, whereas we fatty Americans like it for breakfast, and I've seen carts on the street dedicated to only waffle treats. We even passed by some little cafe with a waffle theme today.

The tour was fun. Had we more energy, I definitely would have wanted to go on another bus route. It took us past places in London that we probably otherwise would not have visited or seen. I didn't get pictures of a lot of what we passed, like the most well-kept 17th or 18th century storefront in London (cigars, maybe?), just down the street from a famous hatters. We drove past many sculptures, as close to Buckingham palace as double-deckers are allowed to go (not allowed to pass right in front for some reason), and saw many fancy hotels. It was interesting to hear about the redevelopment of a lot of those areas over the centuries.

Trafalgar Square

I'm so disappointed that I didn't get a picture of the giant blue rooster statue in Trafalgar Square. What was that about?!

We hopped off the bus close to our hotel, by Westminster Abbey, and read in our hotel room for a bit. Later, we headed back out and got lost in Westminster. We eventually found our way over to Harrod's and did a quick walkthrough of the second floor. The first floor, especially the food areas, was much more entertaining for us. We found the ice cream parlour and split something called a Bacio, which had Nutella ice cream in it, among other things. It was amazing.

Parliament is so cool up close.
Areas like this reminded me of Boston
Harrods Ice Cream Parlor

After, we headed back to the hotel to use the laptop. It's been interesting doing all our exploring without smartphones. I like travelling this way. It works well since we need rest periods for our feet & legs anyway. If we need directions, we write them down before we head out, or Hulky memorizes the map area & train stops. There are also a lot of area maps in London, right outside of every Underground station. Back at home base, we looked up pizza places in the area. Why not try London pizza? We went to a place called Pizza Express, which was nicer than the name lead us to believe. The American pizza, with tiny pepperonis and a thin crust, was very good. Still hungry, we both got dessert. Hulky had some Banoffee (banana & toffee) pie w/ ice cream & I had some ice cream sundae with toffee. The toffee was soft, like caramel, whereas I had been expecting something more like a Heath bar.

Another late night of reading, restless sleep (at least for me), and a late start this morning. Tonight is our medieval banquet dinner theater!

More photos here

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

London Honeymoon: Day 3

My jet-lagged brain is struggling back through memories of yesterday to see where we began. Neither of us have been sleeping well. The four hour (day light savings happened, right?) difference is too small to make the adjustment easy!

The nice thing about vacation is that you get to start whenever you want! Yesterday, I tried a hot breakfast at the hotel. It was good, and I even had a croissant. First one in ages and it was worth it. We spent some time researching and then headed off for haircuts & a wet shave for Hulky. Yes, with a straight razor! We went to a place called Groovy in Chinatown. Chinatown seems to be the same in every city, though I'm not sure why anyone would expect differently. I got my hair cut, we had lunch at a pub nearby, Hulky tried something called a Skittle Bomb, which was , and then we went back for Hulky's hair and face. I have some pictures, but I'm too lazy to upload them right now.

After that, we were both feeling pretty sore & tired from all the walking we've been doing. Back at the hotel, we read for a few hours and then went out to dinner. Hulky's mom's co-worker is from London and recommended a place called Duke of Clarence. Great ambience, not overly expensive, very friendly & helpful in understanding how pubs work here. The food was excellent. I was only good for one beer, Hulky only for two. My tolerance is pretty low post-college (hah, it's been almost 4 years since graduating so I would kind of hope so) and Hulky's is definitely affected by having been sick lately. We did some drunken wandering to another train station after that and headed back to the hotel to read more. I felt tired for a while, but not enough to sleep. Alcohol does that to me, unfortunately.

Cultural adjustments

Seeing everyone drive on the left is a trip. We're mostly used to it by now, but at turns, I still look the wrong way for on-coming cars. I'm sure that would take a while to really ingrain. I'm glad we're not driving! We haven't taken a taxi anywhere yet. My stomach still turns sometimes when I see a car on the left side of the road.

There are people from all over Europe here. I've heard plenty of French, a little Russian, and all kinds of accents speaking English. It feels a little like being in a movie. Both of us are having some brain-lag when we hear people though. I think I'm mostly adjusted to the British accents we've been encountering, but other European accents are still confusing me. It takes me more than a few moments to sort out what people are saying. They're probably used to that from tourists though.

London IS a lot like Boston. The crazy subway arrangement. The buildings, especially the townhouses. The random streets and LACK OF STREET SIGNS. I think people who live near Boston and like Boston would have a lot of fun here. I don't go into the city that often at home, but it's home so it is familiar & dear to my heart anyway. It is cool to see so much "old" stuff though. American history is so relatively new and we don't have a lot that has lasted the ages. Even just buildings that started off in the mid-1800s are so much older than a lot of what you'll find in the States. And there are so, so many of them!

Today is our double-decker tour day. Seems like another late start :). I'm ready for breakfast!

Monday, March 10, 2014

London Honeymoon: Days 1 & 2

Saturday, Day 1

From Heathrow, we realized we hadn't done a lot of research on how to get around. It's not that we thought we'd have our smartphones with us, it's just that we didn't think about how much we rely on them to get around on the fly! We found the Underground without too much trouble and spoke to someone at a booth about what Oyster card (like the Charlie Cards for the MBTA) to get. Two 7-day passes for zones 1 & 2 were bought and we got directions for what lines to use for our hotel. We had some fun giggling at the station name of Cockfosters, which was announced repeatedly as the end-of-line station.

Navigating the "tube" stations hasn't been very difficult. Either they're not that hard to navigate with all the signs, or we're just very used to the arrangement since it seems a lot like the train system back home. The major difference is that you have to tap your card out at each station so you get charged appropriately. Due to our 7-day passes, I don't think we have to worry about those charges. We also get refunded for the £5 deposit on each card when we go back to the station at the end of our trip.

The Eye of London, right by our hotel.
By the time we got to our hotel, it was somewhere around or after check-in time at 2 PM local. The hotel is not very far from Waterloo station in the Bakerloo line. The front desk let us know that they gave us a free room upgrade to a studio suite, which has a nice little sitting area. No complaints from us! It's nice to have a bit of extra space and not just a little bedroom. Sadly, our view is entirely of the hotel next door, which has a bright blue light topping it at night. Our curtains are very efficient at blocking light, however I couldn't get them all the way closed for the first few hours of sleep.

Where I wrote this blog post.
After we settled in and figured out how to activate the lights (insert room card in a slot by the door), we did a few things in an order I can no longer remember: read for a bit, struggled to find somewhere to eat using yelp.co.uk, and went down the street to look for some kind of deli. We hadn't visited an ATM yet, so there were a few places close by that we couldn't go to. We both got fish & chips at a little hole in the wall. It seemed very delicious, but we were also very hungry by that point. We went back to the hotel in a food coma, read some more, and then slept. We fell asleep sometime around or after 7 PM and stayed in bed till 11 AM on Sunday, though we woke up several times in the night.

Sunday, Day 2

After a late start, we did some more searching online for where to go today. Markets seem pretty popular, but we weren't in the mood for that kind of wandering. We decided to pick a destination and then wander in that area. Harrod's was it, so we noted down the directions and headed off. We found a much closer entrance into the crazy Waterloo station this time, by the national rail. It cut our trek from the hotel to station by about half. On the train, I noted that the subway trains are a bit narrower here than in Boston, much cleaner, much comfier, and it's a much smoother ride. They're not kidding about "minding the gap" at some of the stations: there as as much as a one foot gap between the train and platform edge in some stations, plus sometimes a bit of a step down (as you exit).

One of many pastry cases at Harrod's.
Harrod's is huge and expensive. You can find several room of the same kinds of things (like purses and jewelry). The food areas were neat, it's basically just a huge store of many different rooms. It's not all open like department stores tend to be in the USA. The booze collection on the lowest floor (one floor below street level) was pretty neat. We found some bottles of scotch that were £30k!

We headed back out into the lovely weather (a high of 17ÂșC, we wished we had brought shorts) and down the road into Victoria & Albert's Museum. To be honest, the British history stuff was a bit boring to us, being mostly religious artifacts (British Google wants me to spell this as "artefacts") & bits of architecture. The Chinese & Japanese collections were more interesting. There was no weaponry in that museum. We grabbed lunch at a place called "Eat." which was pretty good. Hulky had a hot meat pie, with beef & bacon I think, and a side of very tasty mashed potatoes. I grabbed a sandwich (gasp! I know, not gluten-free like I usually do) and a very refreshing berry juice. I wouldn't mind eating there again. It reminded me of a Panera in terms of relative price & options, but possibly better quality food. After that, we went to the Science Museum, which had a very good ground floor collection with Industrial era items, but the layout was atrocious. The map didn't make anything clear. We couldn't find stairs to use between floors as it seemed like every staircase we encountered ended with fire exit doors. They were not well signed.

It was around mid-afternoon by then, so we headed back to the hotel to rest our feet and legs. Hulky had a bath and fell asleep afterwards. I am messing with photos and preparing to rouse him so we can find food. We're thinking of catching a movie tonight, as I don't think we have enough energy to hunt down a club. I had a mocha at the Science Museum, which I hope won't interfere too much with a reasonable bedtime. We're planning on calling the front desk to wake us around 7 AM so we can get started earlier tomorrow.

Later: We went and saw the new 300 movie, which was fun. It was bloody & violent just like the last one, but this sex scene was pretty bad in our opinion. Maybe we're just not into fight-sex?

More photos can be found in my London Honeymoon set on Flickr.