Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Her last name should be Guinness

It's fitting that a woman with a penchant for the hoppy brew
is a New Year's baby through and through

A loyal friend to all, with a pitcher of Two Hearted Ale
She arrives to every party, happy to share the bounty of her kegerator

We hoist a pint to her health and happiness in 2009

It's closing time. Best get the kids home.
Happy Birthday Anne C. We love you.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Dublin in a day

Mission Dublin: Accomplished. St Patrick's Cathedral and the Guinness Storehouse. Upon entry to the Guinness Museum (Ugh, Mom, it's not a museum-stop calling it that), I said sarcastically to the guy selling us the tickets, "We're good parents, aren't we?", pointing at the girls. Without missing a beat, he said quite seriously,"The best kind. I wish my parents would have brought me here."

The famous doors of Dublin

Dublin has a buzzing economy, especially compared to England's north, with restaurants, department stores and shops all open and full of people. The absolute friendliest people. I ran back into St. Patrick's to ask the woman at the desk about a recommendation for a pub for lunch. She was so nice that I came outside and literally started to cry. Her directions weren't great and the pub food was just ok, but it didn't matter. The English are helpful but without any warmth and after six months, I felt this release from the shackles of English formality. Chip and girls whisked me immediately to the pub for a Guinness and some food and there were no more tears after that. The girls think I'm nuts anyway and truly fear everyday that I will do something embarrassing like say....burst into tears inappropriately in public. I was probably hungry but it is delicious to let them believe I've boarded the train to Kookytown.

The Liffey runs through Dublin
St Patrick's Cathedral

Love the nans
Chip explaining beer to Allison
Complimentary pint at the Guinness Storehouse

A real department store downtown

When I was a kid, department stores downtown were glamorous places. It's nice to know they still exist in Dublin.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Stealing a signal

Fab Four

Jubilee Bridge at Runcorn

Me and John outside The Cavern

The Three Graces, Liverpool waterfront

My blogging has been hampered the past few days by not having wireless for our laptop. Although I took a little tip from a certain teenager and was able to steal a signal here and there, it wasn't enough to post many photos--here are the rest. I haven't championed the cause of ethical use of the wireless Internet this weekend--should I feel guilty? I don't.

We said goodbye to Liverpool and our friends, off on a great drive through North Wales toward the ferry at Holyhead. The drive has islands, ocean, mountains and castles. And Welsh signage which is cool and weird and right out of Lord of the Rings.

Say what now?

It occurred to me today that many people may still be going to holiday parties, returning their gifts to the mall and trying to find babysitters for New Year's Eve. We've hopped in the time machine with Dr. Who. We have no holidays--no tree to take down, no parties, no leftovers. We're citizens of a parallel universe for the next two weeks--the open road is our home. Like retirees in Winnebagos. Off to Ireland we go, in style.

Club class, baby

I get seasick easily but have today determined that complimentary white wine, Stilton and Ritz crackers keeps the beast at bay. Or was I just too drunk to notice the nausea?

Docking in Dublin

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Living like rock stars in Liverpool

We’re visiting friends from Philadelphia… old friends who remember our kids in dance leotards and Gymboree dresses and Halloween costumes.

We were some of the Penn pioneers of University City in the 1990s who bought houses in West Philly rather than downtown or in the suburbs. It had some guns and lots of theft but was filled with a mostly harmonious, diverse resident group of families and students and big brownstones that families could grow into. The university stepped in and built a school and created a security force almost larger than most cities’ police departments. The neighborhood did the “g” word and like many university towns, our merry little band of “parents with little ones” broke apart as we moved on to new jobs. But we started our families together there and I feel a connection with that place and the people that is special to me and so even in Liverpool, it feels a little like the good old days, which is what they were to me.

More importantly, I am making a public service message to tell all Americans to come to Liverpool. We’re like aliens here—bless the North, I don’t think tourists ever think to come here. People stare when we talk and try to walk closer to us to hear what we say, and giggle and tell us “Goodbye Americans….safe travels” when we leave the train. It’s good to be a novelty and everyone should come here and spend some money and check out this excellent city with its fabulous downtown shopping at Liverpool One, its Tate Liverpool and its World Museum where we spent most of Sunday checking out the “And the Beat Goes On” exhibit about the rich music scene in Liverpool. The Beatles are certainly the most famous thing to come out of the clubs here, but that’s just scratching the surface I came to learn.
Paid for by the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce.

And yes, Chip and I have been singing “Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey” the whole time we’ve been here.

We also journeyed south to Runcorn where it appears some of my family immigrated first from Ireland before making the big trip to America. We’ve found the Duffy’s in the 1891 census and more digging must be done to try and sort out why my great grandmother fled her husband in the “ought’s” with my grandfather back to Runcorn from America. Was she homesick? Was there another fella? Was it post partum depression? We don’t know. My great grandfather sailed to Runcorn to fetch her and bring her back to the U.S. and their ticket home read, “Coming soon! The Titanic!” Luckily for me, my great grandmother stayed put after that, so I live to tell this tale.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Christmas 2008

The coffee's brewed, the pastries laid out....

The darlings are into their stockings....

The sun's out and that's a gift in itself....

The vicar scurries across the quad of Christ Church for the 11am service...

This fabulous teen attended Christmas service in her fur coat and micro mini while our teens stayed home....

A game of Yahtzee and Christmas crackers during dinner....

Merry Christmas from uz all.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Pantomime

A few weeks ago, I was subjected to the English tradition of Christmas Pantomime. There is no translation into American culture except possibly regional dinner theater....without the dinner. And what is dinner in dinner theater but the only refuge and diversion from the horrible musical/comedy thing on the stage. From what I gather from the telly, "panto" as it's referred to, is generally set within a traditional nursery rhyme or story, such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Peter Pan, and made into an elaborate campy mess that includes transvestism, audience participation, drum rolls for comic effect and for adult audiences, repeated trips to the poorly cloaked penis joke well (pun intended).

Certainly don't watch more than feels right or you are likely to never want to visit England ever. I will let you in on a well kept giant secret....all washed up American actors come over here at some point to do Christmas pantos for the season, lauded by audiences and the BBC as if they are still major stars. They do nothing to dispel the myth of their relevance in interviews. Henry Winkler, Steve Guttenberg and hold onto your britches...Jimmy Osmond. All starring in their respective pantos this season. Can you believe it? They still get work, God bless 'em.

The thing is...England really does Christmas in a nice way. Every restaurant does Christmas dinners for various groupings, either work related or friends or family--ten or thirty, everybody goes out for a Christmas dinner at some point. Each dinner guest gets a Christmas cracker on his plate provided by the restaurant, and the prix fixe menu allows the party to go on with minimal interruption from the waitstaff. The tradition of hand delivered Christmas cards at these gatherings is one of the dearest things I've witnessed at a holiday. It is something quite old fashioned in the best way to see grown men and women running around a table before dinner to hand out Christmas cards like valentines, simply to wish their friends and family a very personal Merry Christmas. How wonderful it is to return home after a dinner out with your pockets or purse filled with handwritten cards. The sweatshop fashion in which cards are sent in the U.S. without even a handwritten signature, is impersonal and leaves me looking for any sign, even a ring from the bottom of a coffee cup, of some intimate touch by the senders.

So the English happily endure the panto season...where there's the requisite dude dressed up like a lady, the audience yelling "Oh no they didn't!" to which the cast yells "Oh yes they did!" (that goes back and forth about six times until you feel your fingers creeping up toward your ears to plug the bleeding from your brain) and then, there are the unceasing puns about spotted dick, melons, the financial crisis and how long Jack's beanstalk is, and finally, the all too frequent fondling of the guy in the cow costume. I can only equate it with the worst Sonny and Cher Show skit you never saw because it was too scandalous to get by the censors in 1973.

The gallant but violent prince

Audience participation

However, Christmas panto, as performed by Ella and Sammy, was an entirely different show and very enjoyable. It had a lot of violence with a foam sword, it had some singing which was operatic and tragic, and it had many laughs. We enjoyed a wonderful traditional English Christmas dinner replete with mulled wine, gammon, roast potatoes and veg, sprouts and a flaming Christmas pud. Well, it didn't really flame as Perry held back on the rum (who cares about the kids?, I yelled), but we smothered it with brandy butter and enjoyed it anyway.

A beautiful song by the princess

Serious violence with the sword

A wonderful way to usher in Christmas 2008 and a very public thank you to this wonderful family who I keep mostly anonymous to protect their privacy but to whom I want to shout a big "THANK YOU" for taking such good care of us while we've been here. It is good to have old friends who show the love.

Cast members meet with the audience members after the show

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Saturday before Christmas

Shopping and a show in London. No better way for the Hunter family to celebrate than with a pre-Christmas gift to ourselves. Chip might have done without the shopping but being the big daddy of a houseful of women, he's always a good sport about going along and holding the bags. We love him for that, truly.

The Big Man in the Red Suit made his way around the Oxford train station, as the Helen and Douglas Charity Foundation handed out mince pies and mulled wine for travelers coming and going. It is awfully nice to come out from the shadows and publicly acknowledge this very big holiday that's kind of washed out in America with all sorts of inclusive winter imagery, very blatantly ignoring the giant elephant in the room with the fur trimmed, red hat. Who wants to celebrate wind and snow and ice without the promise of gifts? Christmas is a day our particular family celebrates mostly in our hearts with family traditions of cookie making and gift giving and merry making of all kinds. There's a little church mixed in because it's only right to acknowledge the little six pound, eight ounce baby Jesus, as Ricky Bobby would agree. In America, it's all about "winter celebration"....I get it, but I don't really care to celebrate winter--it's very cold and dark and a little depressing. So, Christmas tree, carolers, twinkling lights, Father Christmas and free wine in the train station were ok by us.

Our destination was John Lewis, one of the huge, traditional department stores in London. We had to go there because their television commercials have been so awesome--slaves to the advertising industry, we are. We bought some ornaments, a few gifts and some clothing before heading out on what was a very mild day, down Regent Street, passing Hamleys, the famous toy store ("the finest toys in the world" by their report) and being sucked in the doors by the crowd. Like earthbound starlings, we ebbed and flowed with whatever actions were initiated ahead of us. The flock sucked us past the teddies, the dollies and the various store employees set up like circus barkers, demonstrating the latest toys. As you can see, the little boys were enthralled with a clunking disaster of a toy that lit up, changed direction and made horrible noise like a demonically possessed moon rover. Thankfully, the crowd surged ahead and we were belched out onto the street in short order, our feet never having really touched the floor.

We proceeded down the street to the West End for a comedy show by Bill Bailey. I can't describe him except to say you should google him and you tube him. He was quintessentially British and laugh out loud funny. Eddie Izzard, probably the only guy funnier than Bill and doing his own show half a block away, sat five rows behind us laughing his head off just like the rest of the audience. His own show was scheduled just thirty minutes after our show ended. But hey, I guess it's a job and when you're not working, you go out and have fun like everyone else.

After the show, dinner at Cafe Emm in Soho. Lots of merry making in this very crowded restaurant; fun and loud and food average to pretty good. Olivia and Allison have dined out enough times to have a sixth sense about restaurants, steering Chip and I away from "experiences" in search of fun. Chip and I have dined out enough to almost ruin it for ourselves with the maximizing of the food experience. The girls have a special withering look reserved for restaurant picking, with flared nostrils and squinted eyes, unveiled when faced with a potential restaurant choice that has zero curb appeal...a loser restaurant if you will. They don't overthink it. If a restaurant is empty, has no ketchup on the tables (in their word, "fancy") or serves dishes with ingredients like lemongrass, it is likely sucky. TGI Fridays and Chilis, by this definition, are good restaurants so there is a balance to be struck. But the shared decision is important because they are right more than they are wrong. It's not all about the food when all you eat is chicken fingers and hamburger and you think everyone is watching you. Have we been misled all these years by the priorities of food critics? Are Chip and I losers? Don't answer, we already know.