Kids

As you probably know by know, we’re Mormon. And one of the rites of passage for Mormons is going on a mission when young adults turn 18 or 19 years old (it’s strongly encouraged for boys–being the fools that they are–but optional for girls). Part of the reason is to tell people about Jesus and all that traditional missionary sort of thing. Part of it is to help them learn to get outside of themselves and serve others; community service being a huge part of missions. I can’t think of many teenagers who don’t need a big fat dose of “you’re not the center of the universe”. Part of a mission is just to help kids learn to work hard, do what’s right and solidify their belief in Christ and all that’s good in the world.

Missions are paid for by the missionary and his family. It’s pro-rated by the church so every missionary pays the exact same thing ($400 per month) whether he’s living in Tokyo or a tiny village in Guatemala. The prospective missionaries do not get to chose where they will serve. They go where the Church needs them. Physical, mental and emotional  considerations are taken into account and church leaders prayerfully decide where each prospective missionary will go.  It’s always a total thrill to open the letter (referred to as “a mission call”) to find out where in the world the missionary will be going. It’s always a big joke that you’ll end up going where you don’t want to go. Or to Idaho, which is laughed about as being the lamest place to serve a mission. Although everyone I know who has gone on a mission in Idaho has absolutely loved it. But Idaho and Utah are always the butt of everyone’s jokes.

India and York have both decided to go on missions (in common Mormon parlance it’s referred to as “serving a mission”).  The paperwork and preparations take a couple of months and India had planned to go before York. But she ended up studying in London last semester and it was just too big of a pain to get everything done while she was overseas. So it ended up that York and India turned their paperwork in at the exact same time once India got back. Due to the huge amount of prospective missionaries, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll get assigned at the same time.

 

But they did get their calls at the same time! We invited a bunch of friends over to watch them open their calls. And here is my super high quality collage of the happy event. Before you watch it, let me tell you that India was kind of hoping to stay in the U.S. She was also a little nervous to learn a foreign language.  York wanted to go anywhere but Africa. Why, I don’t know. He just really, really wanted to go anywhere but there.

 

So they’ll be going to adjoining missions in Sao Paulo, Brazil! How crazy is that? They both will leave on September 9th to go to the Missionary Training Center in Brazil. If they get their visas in time; that is the big question mark right now. The Brazilian consulate in Houston seems to be one of the speedier ones, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed!

I remember when I had little kids. There was nothing quite like a Friday afternoon when I would anxiously count down the hours until the babysitter would arrive and then I would be FREE! I didn’t even care where I went as long as no children came with me.  I remember scrambling for a babsitter and wishing there were some way I could just find out who was available instead of calling a dozen girls every single week. (This was before texting, obviously, because I’m super old and so are my kids.)

Mister and I have always gone on a date every week. Always. Because if we didn’t have regular reconnect time, things would get ugly. There would be much weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. I would get pretty upset too (ba-dum-ching). We always fit it into our budget because if you think babysitters are expensive, couples therapy and a divorce cost a wee bit more.

Then came the glorious time when our kids were old enough to take care of themselves. Gone were the days of laying out pajamas and trying to make our house look a little more presentable because for some reason I feel the need to impress a 14-year-old neighbor girl. Now I could just shout, “have some cereal for dinner and be in bed by 9!” while we walked out the door. I thought my life was home-free and I saw years of leisurely weekends in my future.

Oh, how wrong I was. Having teenagers makes the weekends crazy complicated.

Instead of going out with my husband, I am now chauffeuring children to and from parties and get-togethers.  It’s possible to beg other parents for rides sometimes, but the more kids you have the slimmer the chances of finding rides becomes.  Sure, Sally’s mom would be happy to take my daughter to the birthday party. But could I bring them back home? And what do you know, it’s also my turn to chaperone the dance! And then there are the times when a bunch of kids end up at our house and I find myself making cookies at 11:00 at night because I can’t just let a pile of hormonally-challenged adolescents go hungry.

Let’s not overlook all the productions and games they have too–one of which will always be on a Friday or Saturday night. If they aren’t playing in the football game they will be cheering at it or playing in the marching band or singing the National Anthem. And of course we must go and watch and be supportive because what kind of crappy parent doesn’t watch and cheer from the sidelines? You want your daughter to end up pregnant? Or on drugs? Because that’s how it happens! When parents don’t show up wearing blinged out t-shirts that say “band mom” in Curlz font, they’re asking for it! Ok, not really, but that’s how it feels.

Maybe the kids have a jazz ensemble concert or a chess tournament or a drama awards banquet. The list of things that teenagers do is eternal.

Some weekends we scramble to find a movie that will start after 7:45 and be done by 10 because that’s the window we have after, say, dropping Arabella off at her friend’s house and picking up Finn at the bowling alley.

As if this weren’t bad enough, we now cannot go to sleep at a decent hour on the weekends either. I used to have all these fantasies of going to bed early once I didn’t have pesky kids needing a drink of water every five minutes. Yeah, that’s never going to happen. Because now I have to wait for kids to show up when their curfew is over. It doesn’t matter how tired we are, we’ve got to stay up and wait. Mister and I are fond of playing a charming game called, “who is more tired”, the loser of which gets stuck on sofa duty waiting for children to come home, hopefully without car accidents being involved. This is even more nerve-wracking once the children have driver’s licenses. We are just positive that they will die before the night is over. If they don’t answer their cell phones it’s because they are dead in a ditch. If they are late it’s because they are at the Emergency Room. Probably the police will show up at any second to break the bad news.

Basically by the time Sunday rolls around we are physically and emotionally exhausted and the fun weekend we had in mind never actually materialized.

Yes, we didn’t have to pay a babysitter anything, but I’m just about to the point where I’d like to pay my kids to spend a quiet weekend at our house.

No, no, I’m not the one getting a job. Mister likes to tell me I ought to start winning the bread around here, but I’m much too good at being a stay-at-home mother. It’s time for the children to start looking for jobs!  India has just returned from college in London (I kept meaning to write about that and now she’s already home) and the boys are running out of spending money. So now comes the fun part of filling out applications and trying to figure out how to make the most money with the least work (isn’t that the eternal struggle?).

My first job was at Pier One Imports when I was 16. I spent my days arranging throw pillows and restacking baskets. I felt terribly grown-up, especially when I had to take someone’s charge card. Back in those days we had to put the card on a slider machine that would make an imprint. We’d give the bottom copy to the customer and keep the top copy.

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It felt like playing shop like I’d done a million times as a little girl, only this time I had surly customers that were actual humans, not Raggedy Ann. Once I had a customer make so many purchases that there was no room on the counter and I had to do the card slider on a stack of crates near the check out stand. Only I forced the credit card thing back and forth so violently that the top crate tipped over and out fell a huge stack of bowls. Every single one broke. I didn’t have to pay for them, thank goodness.

I also only made $3.35 an hour. Chances are you made $3.35 as well since this was the minimum wage for about fifty years.  Payday was the only time I liked having a job.  Who remembers the sheer thrill of receiving a paycheck that was over $100? I felt like the richest person in the world.  It sure beat babysitting which generally only paid $2 an hour if I was lucky. The really cheap people would pay $1.50 and hour and they generally had the most dreadful children of all. Nowadays my girls make much more than minimum wage babysitting.

I hated babysitting. Just hated it. I’m still not very fond of other people’s children, truthfully. I love my own but find other people’s kids annoying and problematic.  But babysitting was the only choice for a 14-year-old girl. It’s still the same today.

York, in true Ferris Bueller style, got the exact job he was hoping for and started today. Finn and India are still looking but both had interviews this week.  Mister is finishing up a Masters degree at the University of Texas and will probably be switching jobs or looking for something new soon too. So basically it means that all I do is help the people around me fill out applications and resumés. it’s as scintillating as it sounds.  But my job is to make my family self-sufficient and doesn’t self-sufficient children sound like the best thing ever?

 

I haven’t posted for over a month??? Wow. I hadn’t realized. I’ve just lost the mojo or something. I feel really bad because I didn’t even post any of the cool stuff that happened over the summer. Some of it made me sad. Like this:

Somebody flew the coop.

India Trees

 

 

India Jane senior

 

India Bluebonnets

 

Baby India graduated from high school. Mister’s parents came down, despite their health being not so great these days.

India Grands Graduation

I don’t know how that happened. I mean, one minute she was starting kindergarten and all of a sudden she was putting on her cap and gown. You know how old ladies at the store tell you when you’ve got your hands full of squirming kids that time flies and the kids will grow up so quickly? And you’re like, “yeah, right. Starting when?”  Because every day lasts for a hundred years when you’re children are small. You seriously wonder if you will ever not be wiping somebody’s butt and stepping on stray Legos.

It does go fast. Not until they get into school, though. Every year goes by a little quicker and by the time they’re Seniors in high school, the year lasts about seventeen minutes.

And then they’re leaving for school and you wish you could trap every day in a bottle because it’s the end of an era: the era of having your babies in your nest. Now they’re flying away and it’s exciting but it’s also terrifying.  People keep asking me how I’m doing and the answer is, “I’m kind of blue.” Not depressed, but just unmoored. Life is shifting and even though I knew it would happen, it’s unsettling.

I tell people I’m sad that India is gone but not half as sad as I’d be if she were still living in her bedroom with a lame future ahead of her. Because India is awesome she got a full-ride scholarship to college. And she got a couple of other scholarships too that are covering most of her room and board and books. So yay for that!

We dropped her off at Brigham Young in August and Mister sobbed the whole way back to the airport.  Real, blubbering loud sobs. I finally had to remind him that India is not dying. She’s just going to college and we’d see her at Thanksgiving. But he’s the softie in the marriage. I’m the mean, heartless one. But still it was sad leaving her there.

I can’t be too sad, though, because is there any time as full of excitement and awesomeness as the first time you leave for college? She’s got a shiny, spectacular future ahead of her and as sad and boo-boo as I feel for me, I feel happiness and excitement for her.

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India Jane college

 

Plus it’s not like I don’t still have fifty million kids at home. York is in 12th grade this year so we get to do the whole thing all over again.

Here are some other milestones we had:

My baby, my littlest kiddle, turned eight. Jasper Presents

 

Because we’re Mormon we believe that little children who die go straight to Heaven. Thus we don’t baptize kids until they’re old enough to know right from wrong which is at age eight. So Jasper was baptized. Having your youngest child get baptized in another milestone. It means you’re not a young mother. For so long I’ve always had little kids and that means I’m a young mother. But with my youngest being old enough to get baptized I feel like those days of having little kids is ancient history. Again, more unmooring.

Mormons do baptism the old-fashioned way: immersion just like Jesus did. So the baptisee and the baptizer both dress in white, symbolic of being born again and forgiven of our sins.  Jasper was baptized by Mister and it was a lovely ceremony.

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We had a bunch of fun Texas Tuesdays which I’ll tell you about later. Right now I’m just trying to keep afloat. Mister has gone back to school to get his Masters degree and I’m still as busy as ever. But I’ll be a little more diligent. I’ve got some cool new tutorials in the works; it’s going to be fun!

 

Erasers

Somehow in the raising of children you oftentimes start traditions that you didn’t mean to start. Of course these traditions usually end up being a complete pain but heaven help you if you try to abandon them. Thus we ended up with the Annual Buying of the School Supplies. Think Running of the Bulls in Pamplona but with children, not bovines. And in Target, not Spain.  Back when the kiddles were first starting out they went to a lovely little private school in Salt Lake City called Carden Memorial School. It was so wonderful and I am only now realizing what a blessing it was to attend there. The school was very picky about what products the students used so the cost of the school supplies was bundled into tuition and all we did was show up on the first day with nothing but a backpack. Everything else was provided. The notebooks were lovely little things imported from France and the crayons were some kind I’ve never seen before. It was all so nice.

But then we had too many kids and couldn’t afford tuition so off we went to a Charter School. This meant buying all the supplies ourselves. So off we went with six children under age ten to Target with four separate lists of products to buy. It was mayhem, to say the least. I was probably in tears by the time we left. But the kids had  grand old time. And the next summer it had already been established as a tradition. Kids have this weird way of assuming that any activity they really like is now a tradition even if they’ve only done it once. And we sucker parents, eager to create as many magical traditions and memories as possible, completely give in. Every single time. How else do we explain naughty leprechaun shenanigans on St. Patrick’s Day, $20 tooth fairy gifts or making a fancy birthday poster every single year (am I right, Tiffany)? So now we find ourselves at Target every August, trying to navigate the bins of pencils and post-it notes. I’m so dreadfully jealous of the moms who buy those pre-made kits of all the proper school supplies that are tidily wrapped, waiting on their child’s desk the night of the Open House. I suggested those to my children last year and they were all writhing on the floor by the time I’d finished the question. How dare I suggest they not pick out their very own scissors!

So it looks like tomorrow night will be the magical night we head over to our home away from home Target. I will commence to dig through the jillions of folders to find exactly the right ones (plastic, pockets, brads) in all five colors (“gosh dangit, how are the red ones gone already???”). I will explain to my children the nuances of a Pentel Hi-Polymer eraser vs. Pink Pearl (Pink Pearls are crap. I don’t care what the list from the school says), a pencil box vs. a pencil case. (“no, a box is much better. You can open it and see everything at once. With a soft case you have to constantly dig around inside. I know it doesn’t come in turquoise but you’ll thank me, I swear.”),  and the debate which isn’t even worth debating: Crayola vs. Rose Art (spend the extra 10¢ and get Crayola for Pete’s Sake. Rose Art’s quality is an insult to humanity. I do prefer Prang watercolors to Crayola,though, truth be told.)

As someone who is not a teacher, I am flummoxed by the huge amount of dry-erase markers that are required. Why do they cost so much more than regular markers? It’s a pile of noxious chemicals. Just make more!  And what’s so special about manila paper. Are you telling me that a ream of legal sized printer paper is not quite good enough?

Now that we’ve got older kids we have to do two big shopping trips. The elementary schoolers need everything by late summer or it will all be sold out. The older kids have to go to school before their teachers tell them what is needed. So we’ve got to scrounge around the leftovers during the first week of school hoping to find the elusive five-subject notebook. If you go to the school supply section in late August it looks like the bottled water aisle the day before a hurricane. There’s nothing there but a couple of Monster High folders and a pack of highlighters.  Then we’re left to search for notebooks at places like Walgreen’s. And that just feels all wrong.

So I’m girding my loins and mentally preparing myself to run the gauntlet tomorrow evening. Pray for me.

(First of all “license” is a really tricky word to spell. I know there are c’s and s’s but I can’t ever remember which goes where. Same thing with “excersise”. Or is it “exercize”?  I’m really a good speller, I swear!)

Texas DPS

York, although being 16, was a bit of a dawdler about getting his driver’s permit and license. We signed India up for a driving school and she did all her stuff and got her license and it was not too hard. We decided to do the homeschool option for York because . . . we’re dumb and cheap. The homeschool version costs about $120 less than a driving school. The would-be driver has to do an online course but you do every speck of driving with the would-be driver.

Let me tell you, it’s most definitely worth $120 to make someone else learn to drive with your child. You eventually are the one who has to put in the major hours with them either way, but it’s nice having someone else show them the ropes at the beginning when they are know-nothing idiots. There isn’t anything more frustrating than a teenager who thinks he’s a great driver just because he’s played lots of driving video games. You can explain til you’re blue in the face that the very nature of Forza Motorsport is the complete opposite of driving in the real world (you have to obey speed limits, stay on the road and no running over pedestrians), but he’ll think he’s an expert already. Ah, the hubris of a teenage boy!

York did an online course for Driver’s Ed that was pretty straightforward. The rotten part was actually doing the driving.  Here in Texas you have to do about a million and a half hours of driving before you get your license (a bunch of it has to be done at night, too). This is definitely a great idea but it’s se emotionally taxing that I found myself giving York excuse after excuse about why he couldn’t drive. I had just been through the white knuckles with India, I needed a year or so to recover before I got to this business with York. Not to mention I didn’t want him to drive with his siblings in the car; if he was going to kill us I wanted him to take along as few people as possible. When there are six kids at home it’s quite difficult to find a time when only one person needs to go somewhere.

When you have toddlers and older people laugh and say, “wait until he’s a teenager” you look at them and think, “what’s worse than a meltdown in the middle of Target?”. You imagine a surly teenager and wonder “how hard can that be?”  The idea of not having to hire a babysitter anymore/make food other than chicken nuggets/wipe anyone’s bum makes the teenage years shine from afar with a rosy glow.

It’s things like teaching your kid how to drive that are simply too hideous to explain to a young mother. How do I communicate the frustration and terror of making sure my child understands how to not kill himself and others with this one ton mass of steel and soft Corinthian leather*.

York and I (I am the teacher of children learning to drive. Let’s just say that Mister’s temperament is not quite suited to patience in the driver’s seat. Plus I’m a better driver to begin with) muddled through our many hours of driving together until it was the magical day to get his driver’s license. Instead of getting it at the dumpy little office ten minutes from our house, everyone told us to go to the big fancy office way on the other side of town because it was so much easier to get an appointment. So York made an appointment–only a two-week wait!– to take the driving test way over there. I looked at the DPS† website to make sure we had the proper paperwork, although the website is as vague and unhelpful as possible (“Bring the Driver Safety Form”. Well, which of the eight hundred forms and papers that I’ve been given over the last few months is that? Why can’t they just say, “the form you got from the online driving school saying you finished all the lessons”??? Oh that’s right, this is the government. Why make something easy to understand when you can be cryptic and misleading instead?)

I pulled York out of school early (Of course driving tests are only given during school hours. Of course!) and toodled over to the DPS (a 35-minute drive and $2 in tolls) and got in line for his appointment. The lady who worked there was sweet but very insistent that we were missing a form. The form that I had left sitting on the table because I didn’t realize it was one we had needed. Naturally. It was too late to go get it and return before the office closed (an hour and ten minute round trip, remember!)   At this point York was about to lose it because he was not about to wait another two weeks for his driving test. The Prom was in two days and he wasn’t crazy about his mother driving him and his date around.

The sweet DPS lady assured us that if we arrived first thing in the morning we would be able to get a walk-in appointment. So we were on the road at 7:00 a.m. the next day to get to the DPS on the other side of town when it opened. We had all the correct paperwork and York and the driving instructor set off.

And they were back sixty seconds later.

Seems our safety sticker had expired a year earlier. In all fairness we were driving India’s car and I had no idea. So we drove around the surrounding area until we found a shop that could do a safety inspection. An hour later we were back at the DPS only to realize it wasn’t the safety sticker that had expired, but the car registration (which is a sticker on the dashboard so it’s very easy to tell when the date passes.)  There is no way we had time to drive over to a completely different government office to get a new registration so we decided to go back home and get my minivan.

Fast forward half an hour; we were about to get in my minivan when I realize that it too has an expired registration (really, people, I can’t be expected to stay abreast of everything). Our only other option was the giant pick-up we owned that mostly just sits in the driveway until Mister decides that he needs to take stuff to Goodwill. Only India had taken it to school that day because we’d been using her car for the driving test.

So we went to the High School and had her run the keys out to us in the parking lot. We swapped cars (registration and safety stickers were up to date!) and drove back to the DPS. York had never driven the truck in his life but that just made it all the more wonderful.

By this point it was noon. We’d originally left for the test at 7 a.m. Yay for missing another day of school!

York took his test and passed (hooray, because I really would have strangled him if we’d gone to all that trouble and he’d flunked), and it was very anti-climactic. We were just happy to be out of there. As we exited we passed a sulky teenage girl who was standing there with her mother while a DPS employee informed them that the license plates on their car were expired and they’d have to come back another day. “But I pulled her out of school for this! Now I’ll have to pull her out again!”, her mother wailed. I hear you, sister. I hear you.

So York got his driver’s license, hopped in the car all by himself and drove back for the last couple of hours of school.

The worst part of all of this is watching your child drive away alone for the very first time. Your heart has just driven off and you are sure this child will certainly die on the road. You spend the rest of the time praying every few minutes that he will be safe and not be killed. Like really, honest-to-God praying. For the first week you will nearly cry with sadness every time your boy wants to drive somewhere, certain are you that you will never see him again.

But then a few days later you find yourself making dinner and realize you forgot to buy an avocado. So you hand your son some money and have him run to the store and it’s like angels started singing and the world is bright and wonderful now that you can make somebody else run your errands.

Just like all the other things that happen when you’re a parent and your child goes through milestones, it is bittersweet. This one is the most bitter and sweet I’ve experienced, though. It’s so great to not have to pick people up from play practice at 10:00 at night. Or drive them across town at 6:30 am for the SAT. Or to have an extra set of wheels when one kid needs to be picked up from a birthday party at the exact moment when another kid needs to be at a soccer game. This is pure bliss. But now my child has the power to inflict death, whether on himself or someone else. I mean, I guess he could have stabbed somebody before but it’s not quite the same thing as a car crash. He also has the power to say he’ll be one place and be someplace else far, far away. That could mean trouble.

This parenting job, though, is all about letting go and hoping it all turns out semi-decently. It’s hard but it’s good.

Of course I’m saying all this now but let’s see how much of a basket-case I am when we take India to college next month.

 

 

 

†Here in Texas we have the Department of Public Safety not the DMV.

*You younger people won’t get this reference. But you should. I totally remember this car commercial starring the ever-suave Ricardo Montalban. Most people remember him saying “rich Corinthian leather”, but that is erroneous. Also erroneous? The leather that Chrysler used came from New Jersey, not Corinth.

I originally wrote this series of blog posts as a “look what we did” sort of thing. But I keep having people ask questions about our trip because they’ll be doing something similar and want some advice. So I’ve decided to make these posts heavy on details. I know most of you won’t care and you’re welcome to skim all the wordiness. But I am a fan of details when I travel so I will give you my opinions and knowledge and you can gloss over what you don’t care about.

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Because India is graduating this year and York is graduating next year, Mister and I decided to do a combined graduation trip and take both of them to London and Paris. Those poor kids have never been anywhere. (Oh wait, they did get that ultra-luxurious road trip around the South in my minivan last summer.) As any parent knows, the end of the school year is a complete joke and nothing happens in High School once all the AP and standardized testing has finished. May is also the perfect month to go to Europe since it’s not horrifically crowded and the weather is generally pleasant. Mister is in grad school and this ended up being the best time for him to take a little break too.

So off we went. Mister used to live in London (both on a church mission and as a student) and it is his favorite city in the whole world. It’s a great place to start a foreign trip because it’s different but not too different. You can get your feet wet with international travel without becoming overwhelmed.

We rented a flat through HomeAway instead of getting a hotel because we like a little breathing room. Also, it gets incredibly expensive to eat out for every meal, so we wanted a kitchen so we could at least make breakfast. And we wanted a washing machine (if you pack light you have to be able to wash clothes!). India and York weren’t about to share a bed so we needed at least three beds (one king-sized because there is a rule when I am asleep that I cannot be touched. I need as much space as possible. You have no idea how hard it is to find a king-sized bed in Europe.) and renting a flat can be cheaper than getting two hotel rooms. We found a great place in Bloomsbury (halfway between the British Museum and Kings Cross station). It was in a less-touristy area that had lots of shopping nearby and a tube stop a couple of blocks away. It looked like an old Victorian hospital. Maybe it used to be; I don’t know.

Bloomsbury flat

Our flight was on British Airways. They have nonstop service from Austin to London so the flight was only about nine hours. It makes such a difference, not having a connection! Because the tickets were el cheapo, we had the teensiest seats on the entire plane. It almost made me weep, walking by those spacious first class chaises longues. But when you consider that I could have bought a decent little car for the same amount of money as four first-class tickets, I wasn’t so sad. I can put up with all sorts of nonsense for nine hours. It was a new plane, which had all the bells and whistles like a USB port at every seat and tons of free movies and TV shows on our own personal little screens. (No wifi, though, which is beyond strange.)  Also the windows didn’t have shades that went up and down. They had dimmers, so the whole window got darker or brighter with the push of a button. It was a nice concept but felt really weird and didn’t work so well.

Anyway, we got to London bedraggled and cross, as is usually the case when you have to sleep sitting up. I tried out a new neck rest thingy called the Sky Siesta and I really liked it. I can’t stand those neck pillows that feel like somebody is choking me, so I tried this one. It worked a million times better than a traditional travel pillow or a wadded up sweater. I brought along ear plugs and fuzzy socks to make it a little better. I only got four hours of sleep but I think that’s about the best I can hope for.

Sky Siesta

We took the tube to our flat (it was on the same Underground line as Heathrow airport so we didn’t have to switch trains or anything. Phew). We bought Oyster cards at Heathrow Airport that were for one week of unlimited travel in zones 1-2 (which is where all the touristy stuff is). We added on one trip into London (about 45 minutes away). If you were flying out of Heathrow, you might need to add on another trip back. We left via the chunnel which is in the middle of London (close enough for us to walk to, actually) so we were set with just our travelcards. There are several electronic ticket kiosks at Heathrow where you can buy Underground tickets; however I didn’t want to buy the wrong thing so I opted to talk to a human at the huge ticket office (we were in Terminal 5. Not sure how it is in other terminals).

I was a little weirded out riding the Tube with my suitcase but tourists are a fact of life in London and people are always coming or going. There’s always somebody with a suitcase riding the tube. Nobody thinks much of it. And carrying a suitcase in the Tube is a good reason to pack light! European subways are not wheel-friendly. Whether you’ve got a suitcase, baby stroller or are in a wheelchair, good luck! The Underground was built over 100 years ago back when they didn’t give a thought about accessibility so lots of stations are completely unequipped for anything requiring wheels. There are stairs and escalators at every stop. Try to get everything in a carry-on. It really is possible!

While we were at Heathrow we got money out of the ATM. We landed with not a smidge of foreign currency on us (some people like a bit of money ahead of time. We figured that we were going to London, not Mars, so we’d get some currency when we arrived. That ended up being fine in London. Notsofine in Paris).  The worst exchange rates are at airports UNLESS you use the ATM (try to use an ATM associated with a bank. Travelex is notorious for having terrible exchange rates at their ATMs even at airports) . You will probably be charged a fee for using the ATM overseas but you’re going to be charged a fee to change your currency too, and the ATM fees are usually more reasonable.  Here is something I’ll explain in more detail in another post, but chances are your American credit card won’t work over there. 90% of the time they only take credit cards with a computer chip in them. Those are really rare in the U.S. (if you have one, you’ll know). However, your regular old American ATM card will work just fine for using at an ATM overseas but NOT for making purchases (and remember to tell your bank that you’ll be traveling overseas so they don’t wig out and suspend your card.)

Once we got settled into our flat we had lunch at a little Farmer’s Market that was going on nearby. I knew we’d be exhausted and figured a tour might keep us occupied and on our best behavior since Mister and I tend to quarrel when we’re dead-dog tired (or most anytime, really). So I arranged a sightseeing tour with London Black Taxi Tours. (Just to clarify, I booked all these tours months ago. The best tours book up fast.  Tripadvisor is really the most fantastic resource on finding things to do and whether they’re worthwhile or not.) Our driver was named Michael Churchill and he drove us around all afternoon in his honest-to-goodness black taxi.

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Mr. Churchill knows everything about everything and we knocked out a bunch of sights in a few hours. It was very interesting and he was a great guide. I particularly wanted to see lots of sights to cross off of our “been there” list that I knew we wouldn’t have time to visit in-depth (like St. Paul’s, Big Ben, Tower of London, etc).

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The weather, as you might have guessed, was rainy, cold and blustery. Spring in England is always anyone’s guess. At the last minute I threw a sweater in my bag as we were packing and I’m glad I did because I wore it–along with my unlined rain coat. Brrr!–for three days straight.

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(I was going to photoshop my face because I look a bit frightful but then I realized that I’d been up for about a million hours and had zero makeup on. So I’m just going to keep it real.)

York was particularly thrilled to count all the Bentleys and Aston-Martins around town. There were dozens! We even saw a couple of Maybachs. I don’t know how all these people have so much money, but they do. I was particularly impressed with the sweet Mercedes minivans they have over there. Why can’t we get those in the U.S.? Then maybe those snooty SUV girls wouldn’t be turning up their noses at us lowly minivan people.

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This here below is Leadenhall Market. It’s one of the earliest covered shopping areas and was where the entrance to Diagon Alley was shot in Harry Potter. We saw lots of Harry Potter sights but as I haven’t seen most of the movies, I really couldn’t appreciate them.

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One thing that makes me truly sad about churches nowadays (especially in America) is that they never have bells. Church bells are one of my favorite sounds ever. I was very thrilled to hear so many church bells in London. This is St. Clement Danes church. I wish there hadn’t been so many green trees; you can barely see the church which was quite lovely.

 

We ended up our evening in Covent Garden which is an interesting but very touristy area. It was freezing and raining and we were starving. We had dinner in a little pub which was OK, but nothing great. We were exhausted enough that we barely cared. The tube station was closed so we caught a taxi back to our flat and fell asleep quite instantly.

Let me take a moment to talk about public transportation. The London Underground (known by Americans as the subway but British people always call it the Tube) is really the best in the world. It’s super easy to navigate and figure out. When we first came to England back in the 90′s we took the Tube exclusively. As a result I really never got my bearings and had no idea where things were in relation to each other. Buses were incredibly confusing and intimidating and Mister could hardly ever get me on one. We ended up lost a lot of the time when we took them so I gave up. Back in the day you had to use this huge confusing map and I just hated it. It’s too bad because buses are usually a lot more convenient than riding on subways. And buses are great for sightseeing and getting a feel for the city you’re in. With the London Travelcard, buses and the Tube are all included in the fee (of course, you have to stay in the zones you agreed to). And once you’ve got a great app on your phone to keep you from getting lost, you’re good to go anywhere in London!

Now we are in the era of the iphone and public transportation has never been easier. There are quite a few apps to help you figure out buses and subways. My favorite, hands down, is Citymapper. It can be used in London, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, New York and Washington DC. You download the city you’re in and enter where you’re starting and where you want to end up (you don’t need actual addresses either. You can just put “the British Museum” and Citymapper will figure it out for you). Citymapper tells you exactly how to get there. You can decide whether you want to walk, take a bus, the subway or a taxi and how long (and how expensive) each option will be. It lists when the next bus/train will arrive and which way to walk to get to the stop. It takes all guesswork out of riding public transportation! And the best part is, Citymapper is free!  (You’ll need a data plan for overseas. It ain’t cheap but you absolutely, positively must be able to use your smartphone if for no other reason than to keep from getting lost.)

We started off our third day in London by eating a lovely breakfast made at home. I was particularly in love with this egg carton we got at the grocery store around the block.

British eggs

 

We then headed from our place in Russell Square . . .

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. . . to Leicester Square (I thought everyone knew it’s pronounced “Lester” but I overheard some Americans refer to it as Lie-sester. So embarrassed for them.)Leicester Square is where they have the half-priced TKTS ticket booth for a lot of the plays. Here’s how it works: many of the plays sell their extra tickets the day of the show for a discount. Sometimes they’re quite a bit cheaper, but usually it’s about 25%-40% off face value. The big name musicals rarely offer true discount tickets–they don’t need to. So if you want to see Book of Mormon or Matilda or something extremely popular, just get the tickets at the theatre box office. Otherwise, you can check the TKTS website ahead of time to see which plays they generally have tickets for. You never know what’s available until the day of the performance, though. Some theaters don’t release tickets until closer to lunchtime.

For all the less-popular shows you’ll go to the TKTS booth in the square (the back of it faces the Shakespeare fountain). There are a bunch of other little shops saying they sell half-priced tickets too but they aren’t legit. You want the stand-alone booth that says TKTS. There’s always a ginormous line. We would go most mornings so we’d be there when the booth opened at 10 am (11 on Sundays). We’d be done buying our tickets for that day’s performance by 10:45 at the latest. (A lot of shows are dark on Mondays so keep that in mind.) Some shows will sell tickets two days in advance as well. Not all of them, but some. There is a computer screen outside the booth that says which tickets are available that day and the next and how much they cost so you’ll be able to make an informed choice when you get to the front of the line. You can use that time to search your phone for reviews of the plays so you can get an idea of what’s worth seeing.

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If there is a show you are simply dying to see, it’s best to get tickets as soon as you know you’ll be going to London. If you aren’t super picky (this is London theatre, after all. It’s the best of the best–most of the time. Some plays are dumber than others) or you’d rather take the budget approach, wait until you can buy tickets at TKTS.  I knew that we’d want to see a play on Monday so I checked the box offices ahead of time to see which plays were going to be performed and made sure that we saved one of those shows for a Monday performance when the other shows wouldn’t be playing. Does that make sense? In order to maximize your show-going you need to know your options. You can check here for a master list of what plays are performed when. We generally avoid matinees since we like to sightsee during the day. There isn’t a whole lot to do at night in Europe if you don’t drink and all the museums are closed (and the shops close at 6! It’s so insane!). Better to see a play in the evening.

There are also several movie theaters in Leicester Square. One, in particular, is where they have a lot of the European premiers of big movies. While we were there people were queuing for the X-Men premier (lots of weird cosplay people) and on a different night, there was the European premier of Godzilla. And Postman Pat: The Movie. We didn’t see any of them. We can do that in the U.S.!

Soooo after that long explanation we ended up with tickets to George Orwell’s 1984. We then commenced our day of sightseeing. First on our list were the Churchill War Rooms. This is the underground area where the British ran WWII. Shortly after the war ended, this area was boarded up and left undisturbed until the 1970′s. I guess everyone was so sick of the war that it took a good long time before they wanted to think about what happened. But it was opened back up and was preserved as a museum. And it is a very good museum. Part of it is a tour of the rooms where the top people in Britain ran the war. It’s got a lot of very interesting multimedia presentations. The rest of the museum is dedicated to the life of Winston Churchill. He was quite a fascinating man and his life spans the history of 20th century England.  It sounds quite boring but it was a great museum. (Don’t take my word for it, check out the reviews on Tripadvisor!)  The museum gift shop was particularly great with a bunch of British wartime memorabilia. Love these postcards that I got!

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After visiting the War rooms we decided to do a little shopping. We headed over to John Lewis, which is the best store ever. I found the cutest children’s clothes but I didn’t dare buy too many in case they didn’t fit the kids. They have all sorts of kitchen things (as well as kitchens themselves), clothes, fabric, wallpaper, a fancy little grocery store, and of course clothes for everyone. I could easily have spent a whole day in there.

When we left the store we found that it was pouring rain beyond belief. We were trying to get down to a restaurant near the 1984 theatre and for some insane reason Mister thought it would better to find a cab. What a joke! We couldn’t get a cab to save our lives! He was convinced the Tube would be much too crowded. So instead we sat in the pouring rain for 15 minutes (we had umbrellas but still . . . ) until we realized that we didn’t have time to eat a nice dinner before our play so we just dashed into a Pret à Manger and ate some incredibly mediocre food. But at least we were starving anymore and we found a taxi immediately after we were done eating.

We ended up being plenty early to see the production of George Orwell’s 1984. Mister is an incredibly huge fan of theatre. I prefer movies myself. I like to see close-ups and luxurious scenery. But there is something wonderful about watching a play happen live. We aim to see things we can’t see elsewhere; meaning no Wicked or Les Mis. I also don’t like musicals very much. I realize that makes me a total weirdo but I just get so tired of all those cheesy songs.

We decided on 1984 because the book can be so hard to plod through and I thought it might help the kids if they have to read it at some point (doesn’t everyone have to?). Plus this production got rave reviews.  York’s been bitten recently by the drama bug and it was exciting to see him get to experience real, high-quality productions for the first time. The play was really excellent and I finally understood the story for the first time.

In 1984 the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons” is used throughout. I thought it was particularly interesting since the first line is “Oranges and Lemons, sing the bells of St. Clement’s”. And those bells of St. Clement’s? Those are the very ones I shot a video of on the first day we were here, ringing their little hearts out.  I included this YouTube video of the history of this nursery rhyme because it’s pretty interesting if you like London-y things. Kind of long but maybe worth watching if you’re sitting at the DMV, bored.

We woke up, had breakfast at our flat and hurried out to take a tour of The Changing of the Guard. This is where the guards who are watching Buckingham palace switch places with the new guards. It’s a little ostentatious and a big deal and only happens every few days. And most importantly, it doesn’t happen when it rains–what with those big bearskin hats and smart uniforms the guards wear.

Most people show up at Buckingham Palace to watch the changing of the guard but all of the interesting parts take place away from Buckingham Palace. We signed up for a tour with Matt at Fun London Tours who promised to show us everything from the best points of view. (Have I mentioned how much I love walking tours?)

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The day started out cloudy, as usual, but seemed promising as we headed over to the Royal Mall. Matt showed us a bunch of cool sights on the way there. Here’s a statue of the Queen Mum and her husband Edward VI (the king featured in The King’s Speech, which I made India watch on the flight to London. York refused, little jerk. Ironically, that king was born as the Duke of York.)

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We came across another statue of another Duke of York. This one we made York pose in front of (well, the sign at least. The statue itself is very tall). York was named after York, England (not New York which is what everyone asks him. His name is not New York so I really have no idea why they ask such a dumb question.) With there being so much York-this and York-that, it was only fitting.

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Here is the British Household Cavalry (AKA the Horse Guard). These are Irish Draft horses that have been used for hundreds of years because they look big and imposing.

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The Queen’s Guard leaves from St. James’ Palace which is down the street from Buckingham. Here you can see the cops opening the gates for the guards to exit.

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And that’s when it started to rain. And rain. Deluge is the word that comes to mind. By the end of the tour York’s raincoat was letting water through and all of us had soaking wet pants. Ah, England!

There were still some Royal goings-on, however.  The Queen was in residence and having some sort of meeting with several ambassadors. Instead of the ambassadors just showing up, the queen sends her fancy coach to go get them. Back and forth it went several times.

When the fancy  Changing of the Guard doesn’t happen, there’s just a quick, small changeover. Only a few guards come out–wearing little capes!–and it’s quite dull.

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Matt, our tour guide, took us by Clarence House which is where Prince Charles lives (The Mall–not the shopping kind–is kind of like the Royal strip. It’s all palaces and fancy royal houses everywhere.) The guard out front informed us that Prince Charles was on his way out if we wanted to stick around. Heck yeah!

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That’s his Rolls Royce Limousine. The Range Rover behind is his security. He waved at us stupid tourists as he drove by.  You can’t see him in this photo, although you can see his driver a bit. We were so close!

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Of course we had to stop by and have our picture taken with a Royal guard. What a totally boring job. I wonder how many photo albums around the world this guy is in.

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Below is one of the horse guards who is guarding the royal stables. Or something like that. These guys are actually returned fighters who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. And now they must wear preposterous costumes and pretend to guard horses (“Stop or I’ll stab you with my ornamental sword!”) Although I do have to say I like that snappy coat immensely.

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They have mounted guards as well. The horses have to get used to tourists. Like India.

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And here is Buckingham Palace in all it’s cloudy, touristy glory:

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Matt was such a wonderful guide. He felt terrible that we got so rained on but he showed us lots of cool parts of London around Buckingham Palace. He’s quite a fountain of knowledge and has a great sense of humor.  I’d highly recommend his tours. We liked him so much that we went out to lunch with him for TexMex food afterwards! (It was kind of like Chipotle which was so good after eating fish & chips for days.)

We had other plans for the afternoon but had to go back to the flat to change our clothes. By the time we were done it was time to hop on the train to Cambridge. (Mister’s company has offices in London and he spent the afternoon meeting with them). The kids and I went to see our old friends, The Staines family. They lived here in Austin for five years but because they’re from England originally, it was only a matter of time until they moved home.

It was so fun to see them again. York and Peter Staines were best friends back when Peter lived here (the pair of them were known simply as “Pork”). York was happy to hang out with Peter while his mom, Becky, and I took our daughters to see the King’s College choir. The architecture of King’s College is a Gothic delight. Towers and turrets and peaked windows galore.

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Even though Becky doesn’t live too far from Cambridge and her husband works in town, she’d never been to see the choir which is one of the best in the world. For shame! If you’re planning to go to Evensong you need to line up outside King’s College gate at least an hour early. Becky drove us there but she says that the college is quite far from the train station so you’ll need to take a taxi if you’re planning to arrive on the train.

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India is a big old choir nerd which is why we took this detour in the first place. She was just in heaven being there. The choir–which is made up of men and boys–was even more fantastic in person. I have a ton of their albums, but it’s so unbelievably beautiful being there live. Of course they were total stinkers and wouldn’t let us record anything or even take pictures. I was so tempted but I didn’t want to get tossed out.

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This is somebody else’s picture of the church. It’s quite a bit darker than this in real life. Absolutely magnificent. Gorgeous windows everywhere and the most stunning woodwork. We got to sit right up in the alter section in the fancy wooden seats next to the choir. This was one of the highlights of my entire trip.

The Choir of King's College, Cambridge

Cambridge, the town itself, was lovely and charming too.

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This scene below made me laugh because the sign reads, “Please do not lean cycles against this wall”.

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Once the concert was done (although it wasn’t really a concert. It was an actual church service) we had a nice dinner and took the train back to London. We met Mister back at our flat. After his meetings he’d gone to see the musical Once and absolutely raved about it. He’s a fan of the movie already but he said the play was even better. So put that on your lists of things to see when you’re in London if you’re fond of musicals.

After a stop at TKTS to buy theatre tickets first thing in the morning, we headed off to The British Museum. Or as I like to call it, The British Museum of Pillaging and Thievery. Due to the British having the biggest and strongest army/navy for so many centuries, they’ve stolen every antiquity across the Western Hemisphere and put it all in one huge museum. I’m not complaining; The chances of me getting to Thebes or Athens are slim-to-none. I just find it a little appalling that they somehow think that they have the right to keep all the good stuff for themselves.

At any rate there it all is in a big museum. And it’s free. Which is utterly wonderful. There is a big plexiglass case in the entry hall where you can slip some money for a donation. It isn’t necessary and nobody keeps track of the amount you donate. But it’s rather rude to not donate something.

Rick Steves has some audio tours of this place that we downloaded ahead of time. We tried to listen to them but he really is insufferable. His dorky sense of humor is not funny at all and we barely learned a thing. So back into the pocket went Rick and we chose to read the very well-marked exhibits instead.

Here’s Cleopatra’s mummy. She was only seventeen when she died and you’d think they could have found a better artist to paint her mummy. She looks like Olive Oyl.

Cleopatras mummy

 

Also on display are the Elgin Marbles. These were taken from the Acropolis in Athens because, hey, why not? And to rub salt on the wound they’re not called the Parthenon Marbles or seomthing that makes sense like that. No, they’re named after Lord Elgin (that’s Elgin with a hard -g. Which is how we pronounce the town in Texas), the guy who took took them back to England.  Supposedly Britain paid for them. But they received permission from some Turkish Sultan so how does any of it make sense?

India Elgin

This section was from the pediment. Even after all this time, that drapery still looks gorgeous.

The British Museum has things from just about everywhere. This is a statue from India called a Garuda. It’s the creature that Lord Vishnu rides around on. Personally, I think it looks like a Pokémon.

Garuda

The British Museum is a place that everyone should visit at least once. There’s quite a lot of remarkable things to see. It also has the best café of any museum I’ve ever been to.  Look at this snack bar!

British Museum Cafe

I really wanted to visit the Geffrye Museum after the British Museum, but I realized that this was our last full day in England and I hadn’t done any bra shopping yet, so this was my last chance. Yes, you read that right. Bra shopping. Ever since my eyes were opened to properly-fitting bras I just can’t bear to buy poorly-fitting American ones. British ones tend to fit me the best. In the U.S. they’re upwards of $65 a piece. So I thought I might stock up while I was in the Motherland. Surprisingly the men of the family were not too interested in this. So off they went to have lunch and ride the London Eye (being terrified of heights I was happy that they could do it without me).

I found some great bras that were much cheaper than in the US but I managed to lose my Oyster card in the process (you get your £5 deposit for the card refunded if you turn it back in when you’re done with it). Since we still had the rest of the day of traveling in London, I went and bought a one-day pass. It was over £8. Moral of the story, Travelcards are a better deal and you should try not to lose yours.

After shopping (I bought several t-shirts for the kids at Next which has lots of affordable clothes for children and adults) we met up with the menfolk at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. This Globe isn’t the original. It’s a reproduction based on the few clues about the original Globe Theatre that have been found over the years. It was built using authentic construction methods; the only differences being modern safety features.  After the Great Fire in 1666, thatched roofs were outlawed. The roof at the Globe (it was built in the mid-1990′s) was the first one to be built since then (with lots of sprinklers installed, naturally). The plaster on the walls was traditionally mixed with hair, so the Globe used hair too–goat hair. It’s such a remarkable place. When we were touring it, the crew was breaking down a set from that afternoon’s performance.

Shakespeares globe theater

In addition to the theatre itself there is  an exhibit describing what London was like back then (only technically the Globe wasn’t in London proper), how buildings were built, how costumes were made and cleaned (hint: fermented urine was used), and what musical instruments looked like.  This scene shows a typical costume workshop back in the 1600′s (but cleaner).

Globe costume making

This costume was used for a production several years ago. Talk about a complicated dress! (Make sure you read the explanation that follows.)

Queen Elizabeth costume

QE costume words

All the tour guides at the Globe are actors. As you might be able to tell by our tour guide who could not resist my camera. He was trying to give us a brief synopsis of the opening scene of Hamlet.

Mister just adores Shakespeare so you know we hit the gift shop on the way out.  I wish we could have stayed for a production but they had been sold out for months, even the standing-room-only tickets. We thought about queuing up for returns but since there was a chance we wouldn’t get any, we decided to get tickets to something we would for sure be able to see. Which turned out to be a new production of Jeeves and Wooster, the hapless rich playboy and the butler who gets him out of one jam after another.

Jeeves 2

Did you ever read the Jeeves and Wooster series of books? They were written in the 20′s and 30′s by P.G. Woodhouse. They’re so veddy uppah-clahss British; charming, witty and droll. There was a Jeeves and Wooster TV show in the 90′s starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. This production was nothing like that. I mean, it was. The story is one of P.G. Woodhouse’s but it’s a brilliant new adaptation called Perfect Nonsense.

The cast is only three men who play every single character. They’re fantastic actors who do such a great job. There’s quite a lot of physical comedy and the set is just super. It won an Olivier award (the British equivalent of the Tony’s) for best comedy a few weeks ago and it’s well-deserved. We laughed our heads off; I can’t remember a play that I’ve liked as much as this one. It’s charming, hilarious, and just perfect.

We headed back to our neighborhood just as it was starting to rain AGAIN. We had dessert in a cozy, snug pub then went home to pack for France.