Tag Archive | nature

Beggars at the Chocolate Feast (Brussels, Part 2)

I don’t know if I have ever gotten as good of a night’s sleep as I did that first night in Brussels. What I do know is that it was desperately needed, considering the amount of walking around we did the day before and the amount that would be done today. While by far a  more leisurely day than the one before, we still had a lot we wanted to see, meaning a quick breakfast at this cafeteria/cafe thing called EXK(carrot I) was all we had time for, though it was absolutely perfect to get us through the hunt for Jannekin Pis.

Yeah like I said, the people of Brussels are obsessed with statues of peeing children; Jannekin Pis was the feminists’ response to Mannekin Pis, a statue of a squatting little girl hidden down a side street in the Ilot area we walked around last night.

Female Peeing Child Fountain

This area looked so different in the light of day. In fact, if it weren’t for the street names I don’t think I would have even realized we were in the same part of town. The awnings had been pulled back and the bright signs stored inside the restaurants. The maitre d’s were replaced by kitchen boys spraying down the cobblestones with hoses. Not at all the touristy hub of Brussels nightlife that we remembered.

We headed back towards the Place du Grand Sablon for a peruse of the antique market. We had seen the end of the market yesterday, as everyone had been clearing up their stalls, and there seemed to be some interesting things necessitating a trip back when all the sellers were open. A totally worthwhile and fascinating decision as well.

Place du Grand Sablon

As it was an antique market, with some items older than our entire country, most things were out of our price range so no souvenirs were picked up (other than yet another stop at some chocolate shops, but do those really count as souvenirs since they barely lasted a day?

Blackcurrant Cakey Yumminess

), but it was still interesting to look around at what finds people had made. Being from the United States made for some bizarre feeling comparisons: we found a coin that was minted back when our country was still made up of 13 colonies. Even some of the older, more novelty items like an ancient iron were being sold for next to nothing, and here we were completely floored by their age and the amount of history that each iron must have been privy to! But I guess that’s what happens when your country isn’t even 300 years old yet, anything historical is a novelty (ironically). I did buy one thing at the market, though. Instead of a cheap and touristy souvenir from the countries I visit that I am never actually going to use/wear, I instead buy a ring from the first city I visit in the country. So I found my ring for the country of Belgium at this antique market, which felt very fitting and special.

From there we wandered to the Palais du Justice, the Belgian Supreme Court. We couldn’t actually enter the building, partially because it is a working court and also because it was a Sunday and the courts are closed on Sundays, but we could sit there and marvel at the sheer size of the palace. Every building around it was easily dwarfed both in size and in grandeur. On the side of the building was an accordion player and an elevator. Yeah the two are completely unrelated to each other, apart from in proximity. And no, the elevator was not for the Palais du Justice, but to get to Lower Town.

View from the elevator to Lower Town

Seriously. There was an elevator to get from the Upper Town directly to the Lower Town…talk about a unique method of getting around a city? As there were no stairs, we settled for a ride down with about 10 other people crammed into this box. I hate elevators. Especially crowded ones.

Once down and safely out of the claustrophobic torture box, we sat down at a cafe to soak up some sun (for me) and drink some tea (for Dan). We also took advantage of the cafe’s WiFi network to take the opportunity for Dan to Skype home. Did you know that this was on Father’s Day? I’m assuming you all did, and that you all were extra nice to your dads. Well, I believe you should always be nice to your parents and that we shouldn’t need a day to remind us of that, but that rant is irrelevant to our Brussels trip so I’ll shelve it. Dan’s dad was away so we spoke to his mom, politely informing her that instead of Oxford–the place she expected our call from–we were actually in Brussels. That was quite the shock for her! It would be for anyone to find out that their child was in a completely different country and time zone than you were expecting I’m sure! I had told my parents, but I’m only 21 so they are generally more in the loop regarding my whereabouts than Dan’s need to be.

In a departure and contrast to the antique market, we next went to our first ever flea market. I felt like I was in an open air version of The Hob from The Hunger Games. Neither of us have ever been to a flea market so we had fun making a list of the random things we found among the mostly junk.

List of Random Things We Found Among the Mostly Junk

  • A mallet
  • TV remotes
  • 2 1/2 Lira coin
  • 10 key calculators
  • blade with a squirrel sheath
  • refrigerators
  • chandeliers
  • spray painted copper shoe mounted on a block of wood
  • South African masks
  • Wedding dress (just one)
  • neon yellow Top Flite golf ball
  • mini spinning wheel

And that was just a sampling of the treasure trove! I have no idea how all these people accumulated such…stuff. And why would you want to have all this lying around? I’d just get grossed out and feel too crowded. I believe we can safely say that a flea market seller is not in my future career goals.

Looking for a Mockingjay pin

We next partook in yet another typical Belgian fare: falafel and frites (aka fries). Well, okay, falafel may not be typical Belgian but that’s the only thing I would eat at the Pitta and Frites stand outside of Notre Dame de la Chapelle we stopped at for lunch. I had no idea that frites (again, aka fries) were so popular or quintessentially Belgian, but they are, and they are usually served with mayonnaise which thank goodness Dan also has an aversion too otherwise I’d have been utterly nauseated while we ate lunch. He opted for Brazil Sauce, whatever that was, and it was pretty good. He couldn’t figure out what flavor was so different from the fries one gets in the States, until I tried one and figured it out instantly. It tasted of potatoes! What a novel concept!

After frites, it only seemed fitting to learn more about the true point of going to Belgium, chocolate (duh). There is actually a small and quaint Chocolate and Cocoa Museum down a side street of the Grand Place. It was no more than a retrofitted out residence of three floors about the harvesting and roasting of cocoa beans all the way to processing and packaging of both chocolate bars and drinking chocolate.

Chocolate and Cocoa Museum

There were two really interesting highlights: a demonstration about how they make proper Belgian pralines and the free chocolate covered Speculoos cookies. Did I mention I’m obsessed with those cookies? Dan said my eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. The museum was actually really interesting, if small, and as Dan has been to Belize and seen the whole harvesting process first hand, he confirmed it’s accuracy. I’m big on accuracy. Fun chocolate factoid: There are actually regulations on what can be labeled as each type of chocolate (white, milk, or dark) and these include what percentage of the chocolate is made with cocoa butter. Nowadays, most chocolate is made with up to 30% of the cocoa butter replaced with some form of vegetable fat. In order for it to be labeled as Belgian chocolate, however, it is required to be 100% cocoa butter, no substitutions. This is supposedly why Belgian chocolate is so much better tasting!

Grand Place

We made a pit stop back at the hotel after stopping in a Godiva chocolate shop, just for laughs because it would have been silly to buy Godiva chocolate in Belgium when you can buy it in the States, for a power nap before heading back out to the Ixelles neighborhood for dinner. While we had already found Little Morocco down by Gare du Midi, here we stumbled across Little Thailand. There were two streets where every single front was a carbon copy Thai restaurant, much like the seafood restaurants of Ilot yesterday. Looks like we were limited to Thai food or Thai food, so we went with Thai food at Fanny Thai. We felt super European eating a long, drawn out dinner at 8:30 pm. Of course even after we finished eating the sun was still out, the sky not even beginning to turn darker. It would have been such a shame to waste the sunlight, especially having seen none for the last two weeks in England. Therefore it was the perfect night for a nighttime stroll through a garden.

The chosen garden was La Botanique, though the main gates were all closed so we had to sneak through a bar/concert location to enter the garden. By this point it was getting darker, and the garden had some well manicured hedgings interspersed with overgrown corridors of trees and bushes, making it feel like a labyrinth straight out of Alice in Wonderland. It was beautiful. And there was this adorable cat that was literally begging Dan and me to pet him. I obliged; for some cruel reason Dan didn’t. And I’m the one who is allergic to cats!

We had to sneak back through the bar area to get out of the gardens and to walk back to our hotel. Maybe it was because it was a Sunday night, the night of the penitent, but there was only one unfortunate lady of the night as opposed to the dozen we saw last night, so I felt safer even with the knowledge that our hotel had to put a chain and padlock on the door each night.

The Big 100th Post

Isn’t it amazingly fitting (and completely coincidental) that my 100th post is my leaving Oxford to return home to the States? This was never my intention; I didn’t plan out all of my blog posts for my entire year to make sure that I ended on the 100th post. I can’t even really believe that I’ve had 100 posts!

In fact, this post is truly the last part of me in England at the moment. In case no one noticed, the time stamp on this one is 4:15 pm, GMT, which means that as this is being blasted into cyberspace, my plane towards Los Angeles has just taken off and I am now in the air, eleven and a half hours of a plane ride ahead of me. Let’s hope there are no screaming children!

So as this is my 100th milestone, in typical blogosphere fashion, I thought I would do a little fun listing, an almost sum-up of my incredible time abroad. Nothing is in any particular order. Enjoy!

25 Great/Funny Experiences

  1. Meeting my amazing dance partner, Dan, is probably the best thing that happened to me here!
  2. Being pelted with snowballs outside the Sheffield competition. First time in the snow!
  3. Disneyland Paris
  4. Harry Potter Studio Tours in Leavesden
  5. Seeing Les Mis on the West End…twice
  6. Dan running into a bollard at Blackpool. This was mostly funny because of the email his dad sent him afterwards, but it’s a favorite inside joke with the two of us now.
  7. Blackpool IVDA!
  8. Thinking that Iguanadons were the same thing as Iguanas (you’ll understand this one later)
  9. Baking parties in the Acland kitchen
  10. Dan’s birthday BBQ
  11. Days spent at the Missing Bean
  12. Keble Ball
  13. Meeting up with Dale in Paris
  14. The Port Meadow Photo Challenge
  15. My family visiting!
  16. Driving in Ireland
  17. Finding Charles Brandon’s grave in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle
  18. Becoming friends with all the people on the dance team
  19. Dancing on a table in Wahoo with Ania 😉 and nearly getting kicked out
  20. Flying off to Zurich alone, completely random! Sidenote: Awesome zoo
  21. Seeing the town that  my family has lived in for hundreds of years (Harlech, Wales)
  22. Walking through horse pastures in the Cotswolds
  23. Varsity Match for OUDC
  24. Going to tutorials in a room that is older than any of the original 13 colonies
  25. Stonehenge in the pouring rain with my brother

25 Things I’ve Learned

  1. The Rose has the best cream tea in Oxford
  2. Custard, cream, and mayo might as well be their own food groups here
  3. Pants=underwear, not trousers
  4. Pimms is awesome. There is always an excuse to drink Pimms.
  5. The instant the sun comes out, expect the streets to get very, very crowded.
  6. Blackwells is the most deadly store in the world.
  7. Sometimes it is cheaper to take a train to a foreign country than to Cornwall.
  8. You can get to Brussels or Paris from Oxford faster than you can get from Oxford to Cambridge (they must have planned it like that!).
  9. Awesome words like keen, overkeen, and knackered should be incorporated into our everyday vocabulary.
  10. British people think that all Americans are gun-toting, obese rednecks.
  11. Cobblestones do not mix well with high heels.
  12. Punting is not just a type of kick in football.
  13. At a BBQ, Brits bring their own meat. Americans bring desserts and sides. Plan accordingly.
  14. Stand mixers are necessary to avoid baking catastrophes.
  15. 14lbs=1 stone. This is how they measure weight. But then they use kg? Wth?
  16. Fancy dress means costumes, not cocktail attire.
  17. Stealing ties and bow ties makes night clubs into a game.
  18. You never wait for a cross walk to cross the street.
  19. Buses will run you over and they get really close to the curbs.
  20. Salad means assorted vegetables that you can have put on your baguette at lunch or lettuce with delicious toppings. However, salads are rarely meals.
  21. You need a television license just to stream a show online.
  22. Everyone, and I mean everyone, watches and loves Downton Abbey.
  23. I know more British history than a lot of British people.
  24. Waffles are dessert, not breakfast. And for that matter, pancakes are basically crepes, not the fluffy goodness we get in the States.
  25. If you forget an umbrella, you’ve guaranteed that it will rain. If you brought an umbrella, it will still probably rain but at least you will be dry.

25 Things I’ll Miss

  1. Nightly tea parties with my dance partner
  2. My friends on the dance team
  3. Olives (the sandwich shop not the food item)
  4. Cream teas
  5. Being able to walk everywhere
  6. Saying Cheers instead of Thanks
  7. Spur of the moment day trips into London
  8. West End shows for cheap!
  9. Being surrounded by history everywhere I go
  10. My bay window
  11. How happy everyone is when its sunny
  12. Oxfordshire Public Library
  13. Free entry to museums and galleries
  14. Everyone in the Keble MCR/Acland
  15. The collective understanding when someone mentions Jamals or Park End
  16. My scouts (aka the women who clean my room every week and empty my bins. They were the nicest people!)
  17. The accents
  18. Ease of travel, unless you want to go horizontally across the country. Good luck with that.
  19. Baking for Dan’s friends and Keble events. Love easy taste testers
  20. Laughing as Dan and I attempt to Quickstep/Waltz/Jive/Cha/Foxtrot/Viennese Waltz
  21. Hearing everyone’s opinions on LA
  22. Dirty Chais
  23. All the literature and film links in the city
  24. Feeling like I’m constantly at Hogwarts
  25. My coworkers

25 Places that I Didn’t Get a Chance to Visit, But That I Definitely Will Someday

  1. York
  2. Cornwall
  3. Dover
  4. Calais
  5. Norfolk
  6. Budapest
  7. Prague
  8. Vienna
  9. Pompeii/Rome/Venice/Naples/Italy
  10. Warsaw/Other Places in Poland
  11. Berlin/all over Germany
  12. Geneva
  13. Istanbul
  14. Marrakech
  15. North Carolina
  16. Athens, basically all of Greece
  17. Slovenia
  18. The Netherlands
  19. Northern Ireland
  20. Brighton
  21. Denmark
  22. Russia
  23. Bruges/Antwerp
  24. The Caribbean
  25. Portugal

Yeah, it’s a long list, but hopefully I’ll have a long life in which to fulfill it, with wonderful friends and family by my side. Now don’t think that because I’m back in the US that this blog is ending. I’m still going to be traveling and I’m working on finding my way back to England for a bit longer of a term. So stay tuned!

And thank you to everyone and everything in England that made this the most amazing year of my life.

Puddle Prance

Yesterday was one of those days. You know the ones I’m talking about…where you are cranky and bored and short-tempered so thank goodness you don’t want to be around anyone, where even a shining sun can’t motivate you…those days?

Knew you would.

No one likes those days, least of all when you’ve just had a good week with beautiful weather, so I decided to go for a run in the hope that some physical activity was all I was really craving. I love running, weird I know, but with how much training for dance I had these past 7 months I didn’t want to overdo anything or possibly injure myself, so I hadn’t run since the summer. I went for one about a week ago to a park up in my area and it was great. Dan went this weekend on a run to Port Meadow, that beautiful countryside path to Wolvercote. While I obviously am not in good enough running shape to run the whole thing, walking there with some intermittent sprints sounded like just the ticket. So with that decision made, I packed up my iPod and water, changed into running clothes, and sent off a quick “bye” text to Dan before going out.

I may have also ignored his responding text of “You know it’s going to rain, right?” Oops.

Now I may be weird, but we already knew that, in that I actually really enjoy running in the rain. It’s surprisingly fun and I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t tried it. You just have to be cautious of slippery surfaces, but what’s a run without a little risk? (Answer: A safe one). And I figured, it’s England, it never rains that much to be intolerable, particularly after this gorgeous sunshine.

Wrong!

I didn’t realize that by rain, he meant torrential rain accompanying a thunderstorm. But he did. Oh yeah he did. I wasn’t even to Jericho when a drizzle rapidly morphed into literal buckets being dumped on me. I can honestly say that I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that much rain at one time. Thankfully, it was warm rain so I wasn’t going to chill to my bones, but I soon realized that if I wanted to protect my iPod and cell phone from irreparable water damage, I was going to have to sacrifice my shirt to save them (oh c’mon guys I was wearing a sports bra!). I hid under a tree and quickly wrapped them in my shirt before braving the storm and continuing on my path. Figured I might as well since I was going to shower anyway.

Roads here are not the most even of surfaces and I was heading towards a dirt and rocky path; puddles and mud were going to be inevitable. I saw one, a quite wide one too, directly in my path, but I estimated that the puddle was only about an inch deep, totally manageable for my mesh running shoes. I never was skilled at estimating. I didn’t divert my path and ran straight through the puddle.

And immediately sunk mid calf in rainwater.

There was no hope after that. Soaked socks and squishy shoes combined with contact lenses freaking out because they were filling with rainwater, I ended up just standing there in this pond laughing at how much I looked like a drowned rat. A few guys in a van stopped to make sure I was ok/laughing at how stupid I had been not to watch where I was running/compliment me on my beautiful accent. I just shrugged and continued. Why not? After all I was already drenched and dirty and I really wanted to run. So I did end up running to Wolvercote via the deserted Port Meadow path, artfully leaping over and around further puddles. The only person I met on my trip was this Belgium named Roan who also loves running in the rain, so much so that he swam across the Thames spontaneously to get to the other side…because there is another reason to swim across the Thames? Anyways, he was really cool and we shared running-in-the-rain stories until we parted ways at The Trout.

I chose to walk the way back to my place because the sun was out and I had the time. Unfortunately by this point the rain had soaked into the ground and turned puddles into mud, but I had already run through a pond so did any of it really matter anymore? I hated getting back into town though. Apparently the Oxfordians aren’t used to seeing runners in sports bras and shorts especially not on Cornmarket or High Street, so I received a lot of weird looks from people of all ages. No one even would have noticed  in LA.

Back home a few hours later, I felt completely rejuvenated though utterly knackered. It was all completely worth it, even having to wash my shoes in the bathtub because they were caked with mud.

Running in the rain, especially through the stunning Port Meadow, totally my best experience in a thunderstorm 🙂

Port Meadow on a sunny day at twilight

Springtime at Last?

There have been two consecutive days of sunshine and warmth, but after the teasing weeks back in March that soon gave way to England’s wettest April since 1910 (according to Danopedia) I am hesitant to bask in the perception of spring. Is it folly to put away my winter coat finally into my closet instead of hanging it on the back of my chair each day? Do I dare to wear a dress without tights or even–gasp–shorts?! Or would doing so be tempting the weather gods too much and encouraging them to drop a freak snowstorm or something? See the dilemmas a few days of not just tolerable, but enjoyable weather bring to the people of this country?

But the facts do speak for themselves: the last two days have had such crystal shades of blue skies and balmy air that I have twice ventured outside without a jacket and sweater. Sunday may not have had the cloudless atmosphere, but it was an indication that we may have broken through a cold spell. I even went for a run Sunday morning before heading off to Cuppers to support my Dancesport friends.

Cuppers is the Oxford term for intramural sporting competitions between colleges. I have no idea why they call it Cuppers (and by that sentence just opened myself up to a few long winded comments from readers regarding the origin of the term; I welcome your enlightenment!) but for ballroom dancing it works a little bit different than the other sports. Since you obviously need a couple in order to dance, college teams must be made up of at least one inexperienced dancer who has not competed in the last year. The other member of the couple is allowed to be an experienced dancer, so most of the couples were made up of one member from the dancesport team (either Blues or Beginners) and then a member of their college who learned a dance just for this occasion. It’s quite good fun, and highly entertaining to watch in some cases. As I am the only dancer from my college, and no one approached me about getting a team together, I had the opportunity to merely spectate and take pictures for the largest represented college, my partner’s, Keble College. With a good combination of Beginners and Main Team dancing on behalf of the college, their eventual victory was kind of a given, but no less fun to watch.

Cuppers was run in a typical elimination fashion, with the added addition of the first two rounds being essentially free rounds, though I’m not sure that the inexperienced dancers realized that every single couple made Quarterfinals. But doing this gave them more opportunities to dance, and since when is that ever a bad thing?  Randomly there would be a break for some general social dancing, so Dan and I ended up with a spontaneous Quickstep, Waltz, and Jive under our belts before the embarrassment of Bruce teaching us a line dance to “Stayin’ Alive” put me off dancing for the rest of the day. He should be lucky that it wasn’t forever. Dan claims that I had good fun during it and was just acting out my sullenness, but I claim that I had a headache ever since I went for my run and so I was in truth sullen. Agree to disagree perhaps?

But that is beside the point; the point being of course that Keble achieved the Cuppers win (how cool would it have been if there was a Cuppers Cup?) and Dan and his temporary partner placed second in Quickstep! And one of the other main team guys not dancing and myself correctly identified all four dance finals, down to the random people who were obviously thrown in for entertainment. Maybe I have a future as a dance judge?

Yesterday, after spending the entire afternoon beginning/finishing a book because my tutor still hasn’t emailed me an essay assignment for the week, Dan sent me a simple text: Take a walk at 5? to which I sent an equally simple reply: Sure. Easily persuaded aren’t I? I had a feeling of where Dan wanted to walk to, and at first I was determined to change the location citing bad weather, but as I already mentioned, the weather was perfect for a very long stroll while waiting for the sunset at 9 pm. I arrived at Acland and was handed a camera with no indication that he was going to take it back. I should have known then that something was suspicious, but I can be oblivious and just followed Dan out the back doors of Acland and into Jericho. Yes he was taking us down the three mile path through Port Meadow (if you have been around him for more than five minutes you know that Port Meadow is his favorite place in Oxford). Only then did I receive my challenge. With the camera OFF of auto, I had to take 150 pictures on our round trip walk to The Trout Inn. Some challenge! As soon as I learned that I was being given free range of a camera, I went giddy like a child and ended up with 237 photos (we all know I can be an overachiever). Dan found it really interesting the difference in shots I took versus the ones he would have chosen. So I may have gone a little bit overboard, but especially on the walk back, once the sun was setting, the lighting was so beautiful that taking pictures became a veritable compulsion.

We did stop at the beginning of Wolvercote and at dinner on the patio of The Trout Inn, where we questioned how one could chargrill a watermelon given its high water content. Oh and we unofficially designated ourselves the Duck Police, as there was one particularly cheeky duck that was obsessed with the potatoes of the table next to ours (and yes you did read that correctly). She must have made the leap from another table four times, knocking over the wine glasses that were thankfully empty and snatching chips directly from their plates or the bowl, whichever was closest to her landing mark. Boldly going were no duck had gone before. Because of the obsession with potatoes, I’m betting she was an Irish duck.

I can completely understand why Dan loves Port Meadow so much now. A stunning and relaxing walk that seems like it would look different every time you took it. I won’t put up a fight next time he wants to walk there! I’m thinking picnic by the banks of the stream?

Having been bitten by the photography bug yesterday and still lacking an emailed assignment today, I borrowed Dan’s camera yet again and turned it onto a few well known sites in Oxford. And finally made my way into the Botanical Gardens! While they were pleasant and relaxing to read in for a little while, they are nowhere near as beautiful as some of the other gardens I’ve seen in both this country and back in the LA area, so I didn’t spend more than an hour there. But now it is time to return the camera to Dan and go learn some foxtrot!

Hmmm, is it still okay to wear shorts at 6 pm?

A New Face; The Other Place

Wow it’s been quite a while since my last blog! Did you miss me? I hope not too much. I’d hate to think that I was letting anyone down with my sudden decrease in blog post prolificness. Is prolificness a word? Can we make it one? Awesome 😉

If I can remember correctly to the long, long time ago of my last real blog update about going to the Cotswolds, a lot has happened since then. I wouldn’t consider any of it all too exciting (hence the lack of immediate blog updates), but it has been quite the busy two weeks. After the Cotswolds, I took a trip into London to see the newly opened Kensington Palace, and to be honest and a little scathing, I wish it had remained closed. I really cannot stand when exhibits are hokey and geared for the uneducated tourist, preferring instead the historical artifacts and rooms redecorated as how they would have been in history smattered with important historical events and uses of the rooms. For a good example: Stirling Castle in Scotland, Windsor Castle in London, and Hampton Court Palace down the Thames. Excellently designed and informative, they stand out as my favorite royal homes. Kensington does not.

The King's Staircase, Kensington Palace

The exhibit on Queen Victoria’s rooms was the exception here, following more of the motif I quickly just ranted about, but the rest of the palace was filled with “whispers” in the windows and irrelevant decorations. Couple that with a cafe lacking enough indoor seating to protect from the cold and a million older ladies swarming about swooning over anything to do with the late Princess Diana, and I was getting cranky quickly. So the logical thing to do next was go back home, and I gladly obliged my logical brain.

A different trip I made into London was wholly different, though the weather remained not ideal, replacing the cold with the rain (believe it or not I prefer rain to cold!). This time I wandered through Regents Park and the Queen’s Garden, which was an absolutely stunning oasis, even in the wet, with a collection of the most vibrant tulips I have ever seen. I really didn’t know that tulips came in colors such as these!  Despite the rain, I couldn’t bring myself to seek the shelter of the trees like my fellow garden walkers, choosing instead to stand in the rain admiring flowerbeds. Simple things, right? And this is why they invented umbrellas. I kept walking through the park until I reached the London Zoo and saw a giraffe literally right on the edge of the sidewalk, but then detoured towards Primrose Hill Park and caught a taxi to the British Library.

Giraffe!

I was intending on admiring the letters sent between Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I, but they were gone! Only greatly devastated, I kept forcing myself not to cry and remember that the British Library houses umpteen written works and that they can’t all be on display all the time (okay so maybe I wasn’t actually crying, but I have a flair for writing the dramatic). After my book indulgence and tearing myself away from the library’s book store, I walked to St. Paul’s Cathedral and actually did the audio tour. Which oddly enough, in a testament to the evolution of technology, was given on an iPod Touch. Totally cool! Considering the number of times I’ve been to London and walked passed St. Paul’s, I’m surprised that I have never been inside for more than a quick run-through. And my goodness, what a tragedy, as I have been missing out on one of the most incredible architectural experiences one could imagine. So ornate and intricate, built by Sir Christopher Wren, and with an audio guide that extensively discusses the mosaics and other artwork, St. Paul’s became one of those places that I regretted only having two hours to spend inside before it closed for evening worship. Oh and its cafe in the crypt had a pretty decent cream tea though completely clueless and easily confused employees.

I’m pretty sure that apart from one further day trip, which I’ll get to later, that has been the extent of my travels over the last two weeks. The weather hasn’t really been cooperating enough to justify traipsing around the country. Trying to see new places is not as enjoyable in the gray and rain, especially when it switches every few minutes. There was a particularly bizarre day here where it was cold in the morning, had intermittent showers through to the afternoon, then a wonderful and warm hour of sunshine causing me to instantly shed my winter coat and sit outside at a cafe for tea, then cloud cover struck again and it began hailing for ten minutes, then some more sun, and another bout of intense hail before settling down back into the monochrome gray. I’m sorry, but is it really so difficult as to be consistent?! If it’s going to rain, fine, rain, but don’t tease me with these beautiful moments of sunshine and heat. I believe we call that cruelty.

Needless to say the weather has prevented me from going out too much, relegating me instead to lots of dance rehearsals and other inside activities. Dan, that wonderful dance partner of mine, and I now have FOUR new routines in preparation for the Varsity team tryouts this Saturday: a new quickstep where we run around half of the floor, skip the other half, and charleston/woodpecker/pendulum/penguin our way in the center; a waltz that utilizes my ballet training in some beautiful poses and a move that has me running around in circles for about 10 seconds (no joke), a jive so fast and goofy that I earned the nicknames of both a dying duck and a chicken trying to lay an ostrich egg, and a glorious cha cha with a Phantom of the Opera spin and backstory. All hard work to say the least, but also super exciting to be doing Intermediate routines having only a few months ago been Beginners. Bring it on Cambridge! But even if we don’t get the opportunity to dance for Oxford, it’s been two weeks full of quality time with Dan, so completely worth it.

Partners who bake together, stay together

And who is this new face I know you are all dying to hear about? Well in an odd twist of fate, it would be me. Because I actually got a waitressing job! Meaning that in the restaurant hereafter known as R (why the secrecy? 1. because I don’t want anyone visiting me haha 2. This isn’t going to turn into a WaiterRantEsque blog, so you won’t be hearing about customers or coworkers in detail) I am officially the New Girl from LA. I’m not positive if I actually have the job yet, right now I’m just considered a trainee and have only had two shifts, but I had so much fun during my first shifts so I really hope they hire me part time. And soon too, though not tomorrow morning since I have a fun surprise planned.

Which brings me to Sunday, my day trip that has been leaving you in suspense for 1180 words. Where did she go? I know you are all asking. I can’t handle the not knowing! Don’t worry, I’m putting you out of your misery: I went to Cambridge, not-so-fondly known as The Other Place to us Oxfordians. Of course to Cambridgers we are known as The Other Place, so it’s all fair game. It took me a solid four hours of traveling to get there and then another 3 hours back, so I really only had about 5 1/2 hours to spend in the town itself. Which was honestly plenty. Cambridge is no where near the size of Oxford, feeling more like one giant university campus as opposed to a bustling city centre hiding an ancient university down its back alleys. I had a mental running commentary not only about its differences from Oxford, but also its similarities to USC (what can I say? Once a Bruin, always a Bruin), and like USC to UCLA, Cambridge fell short to Oxford. Maybe I was immediately prejudiced by the fact that it was raining the whole first half of the day there, so I couldn’t really see anything on the bus tour I took and when I was walking around my line of vision was obscured by my now broken umbrella, but I just couldn’t see myself living in Cambridge full time like I do in Oxford. There seems to be more to do here outside of simply study, whereas I couldn’t really see that in Cambridge. We are also more of a centralized location to the rest of the country, making it an ideal starting point to traveling; to travel from Cambridge you need to first go into London, a natural barrier to a travel-addict such as myself.

Trinity College, Cambridge

Now once the sun came out at around 3:30 pm, the town took on a whole new facade, full of richly decorated brick buildings and cobblestone streets. The advantage to bus tour tickets is that they are good for 24 hours, so I hopped back on the nearest stop and retook half of the tour so that I could actually see what the recording was talking about. The town does have some beautiful buildings and interesting history. And I have no problem in admitting that their Trinity College is without a doubt the most beautiful college I have seen in my entire life, including those I visited in the States. No, I am not prejudiced because it was founded by Henry VIII and is one of the most prestigious Cambridge colleges, it is truly a magnificent campus, with a wide quadrangle and chapel housing many Tudor references. Famous alums? Isaac Newton, Tennyson, Edward VII, A.A. Milne (author of Winnie-the-Pooh) and Francis Bacon. If I were to go to Cambridge–which I won’t–I would be applying there for sure.

Beyond that, my time has mostly been spent working on my papers and research (yes Trinity term has officially begun and thus so has a workload) and exchanging baked goods with my partner. He made me carrot cake and double chocolate cookies, and I returned the favor with Earl Grey Banana Bread and Red Velvet Cheesecake Brownies. Hopefully I can get through a few more new baking recipes before I have to go home in seven weeks.

But what also happens in seven weeks? I get to see my baby!!!

Villages-Named-for-Their-Location

Supposedly England is all too soon going to say goodbye to that wonderful thing known as sunshine and will be struck by days of rain. As a born and bred Southern California girl, I’m obviously devastated by this potential development. What about all that vitamin D that my body needs? I need sunlight to produce that! I mean, I practically photosynthesize! Better get out in the sun as much as possible and store up those rays for the rainy days ahead (Dan frequently hears my theory that they should outfit me with solar panels that I can use the stored energy to keep me warm).

Waking up on Monday to the only day of the week forecasted to be sunny, I made the executive decision–how executive can it be when there is only one person involved in/affected by the decision?–to hop a train to the Cotswolds, those quaint villages that I visited with friends in October, for some strolling and hiking. And a few unexpected surprises as well!

The train arrives into the station at Moreton-in-Marsh, the town I explored last time, and after a brief stop-in at the Tourist Information center, I took a bus to the nearby village of Stow-on-the-Wold. Not too sure what a wold is, but I don’t think I saw any unless wold is an old word for tea room, because there were plenty of those! Just about every corner and side street had a sign advertising yet another one of those cafes frequented by octogenarians and other members of the Geritol Brigade. I’m not judging of course, because I knew that I would be joining them in probably more than one of the tea rooms as they are the best places to get nourishment in the Cotswolds.

A mere one in one hundred tea rooms

Armed with my trusty Rick Steve’s guidebook and a local walking tour map, I wandered the town, reading up on some of the historic buildings that were known for leaning at odd angles and knobbly yew trees inspiring JRR Tolkien’s entrance to Moria. It may have been only a kilometer’s tour, but it kept me out of the way of the numerous tour groups that kept being bussed in and unloading walkers and canes that sometimes seemed to have minds of their own. Nonetheless, I joined in the throngs of elderly eventually when I grabbed a spot of lunch at one of the tea rooms before heading out into the meadows for a hike.

The Mines of Moria?

Now I pride myself on my ability to follow directions and translate maps into actual locations, but finding the entryway to the footpath I was going to take was IMPOSSIBLE! The instructions were vague because everything claimed that the path was clearly marked, and if something is clearly marked with signs why describe it in detail on paper? Maybe because the sign that leads you there can only be seen from the opposite direction, so in order to see it coming from Stow, you have to get confused, walk more than twice the distance away until you reach a junction that you know is too far, then turn around in frustration and intend to give up only to then stumble upon the “clearly marked path”. Thank goodness I had the foresight to do just that!

This is what passes for "Clearly Marked"

But the footpath quickly made up for its initial angering, with its wide sweeping pastures and meadows studded with fairytale forests. Yet it was also the strangest trail I have ever followed. I was literally walking through someone’s manor/farm land, opening gates to paddocks and grazing areas for sheep and cows (which also means pooping area! Watch your step!), and the horses. Yes, some of these paddocks held the sweetest horses ever, and they just came right up to me for nuzzles and eating the buttons on my jacket. I couldn’t believe that this footpath led me straight through these animal enclosures, but what an opportunity it was to spend time with the horses. I love horses and can’t wait to go back there and go riding sometime during this next term. One of the horses whom I was formally introduced to by one of the workers name was Tiffin, and she was just an adorable ham and affection hoarder.

Tiffin hamming it up for the camera.

She kept nudging me while the worker explained to me about the horses needing help to shed their coats as they got older and other things like that. I could have stayed there for hours with the horses, but the rest of my 4 mile hike was still ahead of me and the Cotswolds closes down after the Early Bird Special hours so I couldn’t dawdle too much.

Thank you to the worker who took this photo for me 🙂

Eventually I reached the village of Lower Slaughter and then my final destination of Bourton-on-the-Water, not to be confused with Bourton-on-the-Hill which I went to last time. The two places couldn’t be more different. The latter is one street winding up a hill–hence the name–with only cottages and a church. The former is known as the Venice of the Cotswolds because of its canals, curios, and crowds. It looked like something off of a postcard for the Cotswolds, perfectly groomed for tourists seeking that charming atmosphere the region is famous for, probably because it is groomed for tourists. And there is nothing wrong with that, I just prefer my visit locations to be more natural and less put on for show. But it had one major draw besides the picture-perfect setting: a bus that would drive me back to Moreton-in-Marsh’s rail station and eventually back to Oxford.

The very definition of picturesque

Monday ended up being the perfect day to take this trip as well, as even while I’m writing this the rain is falling steadily, making it the perfect day for baking and tea and books and other creative but indoor tasks and less for hiking through a wonderland of countryside.

The Last Day of Scotland (anyone get the movie reference?)

Last day in Scotland, and although it was a little hazy, the sun was still shining and it seemed like the air would be warm, but I am perpetually frozen so it wasn’t enough warmth for me.

Having done the Royal Mile two days earlier, we decided once again to leave Edinburgh, this time going to get our Braveheart on in Stirling. I donned my tour guide hat and led the way around the city to the train station, hearing every five seconds a question along the lines of if I knew where I was going (I did) and then once at the train station if I knew what I was doing (again, I did). We took a taxi from the station in Stirling up to Stirling Castle, another imposing former royal residence on a striking hilltop. The Scottish seem to love castles on rugged hills, but they afford such expansive views that you wonder if they foresaw the tourism industry and the invent of the panoramic shot. After all, they did use fortune tellers back in those days.

View from Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle ended up being more of another stately home for royals than a defensive castle exhibit, so Mom and I were content, though we feared that Dad and Kevin would be bored. Most of the history discussed on the excellent audio guide revolved around James V and transitioning into Mary, Queen of Scots before ending with her son James VI of Scotland and I of England. The really great thing in my opinion that set Stirling apart from other royal palaces of the era is that in addition to adding the furniture and tapestries from the time period, they even recreated the painting of the walls and ceilings, really giving a sense of what these rooms would have looked like in the 1540s. With the rooms coming alive like they did, you can understand why these rooms were considered luxurious. I don’t know what you would have done if you got a migraine however; all the paint was bright and colorful to the point of being overwhelming.

There was also a really cool opportunity to watch a team of weavers recreating some of the older tapestries using the same techniques from the era. Apparently each weaver can only complete 1 square inch a day and each tapestry takes between two and four years to finish. Talk about patience.

KITTY! So cute 🙂

Leaving the castle, we walked back down the hill (I got them to walk somewhere, win!) in search of a taxi to the William Wallace Monument on the hill on the opposite side of Stirling. This time I told everyone that it was such a nice day that I was walking up to the monument and would by no means be hurt or insulted if they took the courtesy shuttle. My speech of one sentence, however, seemed to inspire everyone to walk, which I was fine with having the company. The walk was as lovely as I had anticipated.

William Wallace Monument through the haze and sun

The monument was gigantic, and to get to the top we had to climb 247 spiral stairs that were cramped and dark and only allowed one person to go up or down at a time. The climb was broken up with three exhibit rooms that I found very dull and not at all improved by the terrible audio guide. I quickly decided that I would rather go straight to the top and appreciate the view for longer than drag myself through the exhibits. And what a treat it was! The saying goes that on a clear day you can see all of Scotland from this summit. Of course this is an exaggeration but you can see quite far and it was well worth the claustrophobic stairs. Even the more frightening trip down the stairs, and that was pretty terrifying.

Top of the monument

It was about 4 pm and that seemed too early to return to Edinburgh because face it, we just would have been chilling in the apartment and we certainly didn’t come all this way for that. So instead we hopped on another train to Glasgow, just to say we went there.

Glasgow

A few hours there seemed like plenty. There wasn’t really anywhere cute to walk in the city centre and Dad’s back was bothering him too much to travel to the areas that would have been nicer. Yet the buildings were enticing despite the feeling that the town never shook off the Industrial Revolution. We “meandered” until we found the Glasgow Apple Store (something you do solely because you can) and then wandered around looking for a place to eat. After dinner it was back to Edinburgh to worry about packing everything up for our 6 am exit by taxi to the airport.

Where did we fly off to this time, you ask? Well by taxi, by plane, by bus, and by foot, we arrived back in my native Oxford. Yes, I was home! Only for half a day, but it was refreshing none the less. I noticed something about each family member and how different they each were when they arrived in Oxford and I showed them around for the first time. Kevin asked me about the history and the literature references such as Tolkien and Lewis. Mom asked about what my life was like day-to-day, where I do this and that, my favorite hangouts, etc (in case a certain person reads this, yes that included The Missing Bean). Dad asked only questions of why or how certain things were built the way they were. At least I knew the answers to Kevin’s and Mom’s questions.

In order to preserve his back for the next few days in London, Dad checked into the hotel, sending the rest of us out into the Oxford world to explore, make my day, and then take Kevin to The Eagle and Child, something he missed out on last time he was in Oxford. Then we headed back to the hotel the boys were staying at to meet Partner for dinner! Dan and I agreed that Fire & Stone, that Oxford Thursday night institution, was an excellent choice, a guaranteed hit. Then we took them to G&Ds–the real Oxford institution at this point–for ice cream. It was such a breath of relief to be back with Dan. He got along easily with Kevin and my dad, and he is good at keeping me calm when I get anxious (as evidenced by our surviving dance competitions!). Kevin and Dad joined the club of people who call him Matt Damon, secretly christening him Dan Damon, though I don’t think Dan knows that yet…well he knows now. Oops.

Partner meets the parents

Next and final stop (sad isn’t it?) on my family vacation will be…wait for it…

No, Dad, Nessy Does Not Live in that Loch!

I keep wanting to say “Oh today we did x”, but as I am relaying our travels about a week after they actually occurred, beginning a post with that introduction doesn’t really work. If I was going to start with “Today I did …” I would be obliged to talk about my making it to Summertown from my apartment in 23 minutes (those of you in Oxford will understand exactly how incredible of a feat that was), my shoe shopping, my wonderful lunch with Partner, and my walking through University Parks with aforementioned Partner discussing baseball (Magic Johnson bought the Dodgers! There is hope in the world after all!) enjoying THE MOST BEAUTIFUL DAY IN ENGLAND!!! Sorry, sunlight makes me a little giddy. But alas, I am not writing about this rejuvenating spring day, I am writing about a different, though nearly as beautiful day back in Scotland last week.

On this day, we took a ten hour bus tour up to the Highlands. Honestly, it was such a relief to not have had to plan out an entire day. Instead Mom and I got to be led around and could sit back and just enjoy ourselves. Our driver, that silent Scottish man behind the wheel, was named Gus and our actual guide was Mav. One syllable names, easy enough to remember, enabled maximum mental checking out capabilities. Mav was hilarious, as well as extremely well-versed in history so I was actually able to learn a lot about the Scottish history that I didn’t know. He also made plenty of digs at the English and Scottish alike, so we were often laughing. I became a little nauseous a few times from motion sickness; the roads were much windier than even the Ring of Kerry in Ireland.

Dunkeld Cathedral

Our first stop was a one street town called Dunkeld. There was a small path through a swatch of woods that let out in front of this cathedral, tiny compared to all of the other ones I’ve seen, which was built beginning in the 1200s and is now half ruins. The weather was one of the most beautiful days I’ve ever experienced in my time here (though definitely surpassed by today’s). And the banks of the river were so calm and warm that I wanted nothing more than to lay on the grass and rest, warmed by the sun, surrounded by the Highland mountain views.

Looks fake doesn't it?

Of course the peace was shattered by a fighter plane roaring overhead. What a way to kill a moment of tranquility. The rest of the town was straight out of a postcard. The buildings all date from the Georgian era because in 1689 a battle between the Catholic Jacobites and the Protestants destroyed most of the town.

Stop number two was a bit more north, a village called Pitlochry. On the way there we kept seeing these caws that were so shaggy I would sooner call them wooly mammoths rather than Highland Cows. Pitlochry became one of those towns buoyed by tourism, and its hydroelectric dam and salmon ladder. We walked down there after grabbing lunch (Mom and I finally got our pasties and yes, they tasted like the ones my grandfather would make when my mom was a little girl), and while the dam was just another dam, the walk there was just as picturesque as the rest of the town.

It is seriously so difficult to pick out which photos to post, they are all so beautiful!

Most of Scotland is subject to preservation laws, meaning that people who buy a property must maintain the place’s original architecture and exterior design. Therefore the villages maintain their quaint facades. Yet another reason why I love the UK! They want to preserve their history and look. We also started talking to two other people on the tour, two girls named Natalie and Cat.

Typical shot of my family

Back on the bus we headed to Aberfeldy for yet another distillery tour (so boring as they all are!), but we stopped a few times along the road so we could get pictures of Loch Tummel. I have so many pictures of gorgeous lochs, but all too soon for my taste, we arrived in Aberfeldy for the Dewar Distillery tour, just as dull as I expected and triggering hours of commentary about whisky from the boys. I am never going to a distillery again. We left too late for me and my sanity, but I regained it as the rest of our stops all revolved around nature.

Loch Tay

The first of these final stops was along Lock Tay, which is an endpoint of the River Tay, the largest in terms of water volume flowing through it river in Britain. The real stop during this final leg was the Falls of Dochart. When Mav said “falls” I pictured a short hike to a Hawai’i type waterfall in the Highland crags, but the Falls of Dochart are more accurately described as rapids flowing under a bridge and over some rocks. Not what I was anticipating but just as beautiful albeit in a different way. Unfortunately that marked the end of our tour and we headed back in to Edinburgh just in time for dinner.

A bridge over mildly annoyed water

We ate at the conveniently located Pizza Express. The two girls from earlier, Natalie and Cat, joined us and I swear that Cat was the perfect girl for Kevin. Devastatingly we didn’t exchange Facebook information so I’m pretty sure we just missed out on the love of my brother’s life. A tragedy if there ever was one.

 

Irish Holiday Weekend

And the next stop on our tour is Killarney, Ireland! Though we really spent no more than four hours in the actual town of Killarney, but I’ll get to that.

Oh, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day! (Remember that this was intended to be posted on the actual day but I didn’t have a computer. Use your imagination people!) We missed all of the festivities because we spent most of our day driving from Kilkenny to the Cliffs of Moher and then down to Killarney. It was raining when we arrived at the cliffs, and this was actual rain not spit. As in needed windshield wipers rain. Hoping that it would stop after a bit of time, we went inside the visitor’s center and walked around/ate lunch instead of going straight out onto the cliffs. Good decision too, because the rain stopped and the sun began shining (and it warmed up!).

Cliffs of Moher

Sunlight made the cliffs even more stunning that they already would have been. I would say that it was something out of Harry Potter, but it actually was used in the sixth film so that would be cheating. Again, the views are indescribable, even for me, so I can’t say anything other than it was an awe-inspiring scene. I can’t believe how lucky we were that the sun came out the entire time we were out there. Luck of the Irish strikes again!

Upon arriving in Killarney, we couldn’t remember the name of the woman who ran the place we were staying at, Margery or Marese (ended up being that one) and we basically dropped the bags and drove into town. I think the parade had just ended because the city centre was packed with people decked out in crazy amounts of green and orange and shamrocks. I kind of wish we had gotten to experience one of the parades, just to say that we did. But instead we found a girly and adorable tea shop to grab a TMO of tea and lemon cake. MIss COurtney’s Tea House was one of those über feminine places where all the china is mixed and matched and the waitresses wear pastel sundresses.

Such cute decor!

Apparently they had just been cleaned out in the aftermath of the parade by anyone who either didn’t want to or couldn’t get into a pub (every pub was already filled to the brim with people). So they only had a few cakes left, no scones, but the lemon cake was delicious so I was fine with that. And I got a picture of the boys in there for humor’s sake.

From there we just walked around Killarney, which as it was full of only pubs and shops just screamed tourist town; apparently tourism is Killarney’s primary industry. There really was nothing else to do but wander until it was an appropriate time for dinner and we picked a place.

Shopping in Killarney

The Porterhouse’s food wasn’t great but we ended up talking to the manager over a few drinks and he was a lovely man, very friendly and personable. So that made up for the food. Then it was just another early night in a comfy bed where I was wonderfully warm and toasty, finally.

Our last day in Ireland also happened to be “Mum’s Day” in the UK and Ireland, and I am so lucky that I could spend a form of Mothers’ Day with Mom. I obviously won’t be home for the American one in May, but spending this one in Ireland with my mom more than made up for it. This day we were driving the Ring of Kerry, the Irish version of the Road to Hana only with less waterfalls and more sheep. It was also less twisty and turny and motion-sickness inducing. The views were once again incredible. I know I say that about a lot of Ireland, but this is a stunning country and I have yet to see a part of the countryside that doesn’t make me gasp from its beauty. We made a couple of stops along turnouts so that Mom and I could run out and get pictures, braving the wind and the cold for that perfect shot of coastline. We also made a stop at an ancient fort that was pretty cool as well, but I was speechless at so many of the views that they win. I must have taken over 100 photos.  We also stopped at this luxury resort called the Parknasilla for lunch and tea (it’s Mums’ Day after all!), again paling in comparison to the cream teas in England.

Back in Killarney, Mom and I ditched the napping boys (I don’t understand how you can nap on a vacation like this!) and walked back into town. We walked further along one of the roads and ended up at another St. Mary’s Cathedral and actually a convent as well. I stupidly was shocked at there even being convents anymore, stupid because Mom reminded me that I’ve seen nuns before and there wouldn’t be nuns without convents. I think this alone time with Mom was the highlight of my day 🙂

Now to leave the Emerald Isle, but I hope not for long as it was a fantastic place and I am looking forward to visiting again.

A Wales of a Tale

And the cross-country travels begin! We woke up this morning and caught a car to the train station where we hit the seemingly minor snaffoo of my credit card not registering as having tickets. Chalking it up to the glitches of modern technology, we went up to the counter to discuss with an actual human being how to get our tickets. Well, turns out we had tickets…booked for yesterday (this was Saturday). Basically, my arch nemesis–that would be technology in case anyone was not aware of my long standing vendetta–attempted to foil my plans once again by inducing a website glitch that booked our tickets for the wrong day. But we were not to be foiled, not this time! The woman at the counter graciously printed us out excess cards that may have forced me to present an entire stack of stubs every time the ticket collector walked by, but at least we got on the train, off to Wales to meet our 86 year old cousin James Anwyl of Harlech.

On the road to Harlech

The day’s complications were not over yet, however. While on the first leg of our train journey, we were sitting across the aisle from these women who for some reason completely annoyed me, the American especially. I can at least partially attribute my irritation towards her being from the sheer volume of her voice. Grating and loud, they all kept shouting about dogs for an hour! As it so happens, this weekend in Birmingham is some famous dog show called Crufts that they were all (in fact everyone in Birmingham International Station) associated with in one way or another. Thankfully that ordeal only lasted an hour and the remainder of our journey by train through the Welsh countryside was peaceful, uneventful, and full of beautiful scenery.

Wales really is a stunning region. It looks exactly as I imagined it would: rugged but quaint, with craggy hills on one side and a gray sea on the other. It seems slower paced, especially as it isn’t tourist season, so everything closes at 4 pm as we found out while wandering the High Street in Harlech. To be fair, the High Street is basically the only street in Harlech, so there wasn’t much need to gather alternative evidence.

The owner of Castle Cottage where we are staying picked us up at the rail station and drove us up the Guinness Book of World Record’s Steepest Hill to the hotel. After settling in, we tried to find James. We knew which house was his, but were both a little afraid to ring the doorbell or knock too loudly. Part of that was just natural apprehension at meeting someone you had no idea existed until 2 months ago and the rest may have been utter terror that we would literally straitly him to death. Honestly the man is 86 so it was a completely valid concern! Eventually we did meet him (alive, I might add) and he told us all about the family tree of the Anwyl’s. He has so much information and kept repeating himself over and over again (he’s old) that it sounded like he was reading off of a script and if you broke this script’s run, he had to start all over. But he really was a dear old man and gave us a lot of information.

The Welsh Ladies from America

After that we walked around a lot in search of a cream tea, but every place seemed to be closed for refurbishments or some derivation of that excuse. We ended up as the last customers of this deli that only had  caramel shortcake, banana bread, or cherry almond cake, which both of us opted for along with tea (Earl Grey of course!). The cake was really tasty and the waitress was uncannily like Keira Knightley. We henceforth called it Keira’s Place.

After tea we just walked around Harlech and the surrounding hill. There isn’t much to the actual town, especially when everything closes at mid-afternoon, but we walked along some really beautiful country paths and were afforded some stunning views of the sea and valley.

Harlech Castle with the sea and mountains in the distance

We also ended up coming across a field of pastures crawling with Baaaaa-ing shell. The closer we got, the more noise they made, until we were literally almost at the gates to their enclosures when we turned and saw this SWARM of sheep running down the hill at us, practically sheep screaming at us! It was actually really scary and freaky, and I kind of wanted to run all the way back to the hotel. I’m pretty sure that I had nightmares after that. I’m never using counting sheep as a method for curing insomnia ever again. I’ll stick to my pills!

On our first morning, we had breakfast at the hotel, and it was such a good hearty breakfast that felt fit for the region of Wales. That sentence probably makes no sense, but I can’t really describe the feeling it gave us, that of being strong and hearty, ready for a day of fresh Welsh air and walking. Okay, I guess I just did describe it, though it looks better as an image in my head. Regardless of how I will fail to describe the breakfast, we headed first thing into Harlech Castle where I played Audio Guide Voice by reading off the information given in the guidebook we bought for the castle.

Fun castle history! (For what would a vacation post of mine be without the traditionally exasperating history lesson?): Harlech Castle was built by Edward I in 1283, my 34th great grandfather, as a stronghold against the Welsh warriors. The castle was sieged multiple times over the following centuries, most famously in the War of the Roses, when the Lancastrian-aligned Harlech was the last Lancastrian stronghold to surrender after a seven year siege that inspired the song “Men of Harlech”. Throwing in some of my family’s history, dating back to I believe the 1700s, the Anwyls were constables of Harlech Castle up through 1915 when the last Anwyl to rent the castle, who had been using its grounds to raise her sheep, died and the family let the castle revert back to the crown.

We spent quite some time at the castle. As we were the only ones inside, we felt free to take our time and savor not only the ruins, but also the views afforded by the turrets and the outer curtain. Castles are always amazing to me, but this one had an incredible view of the cliff below and the sea in the not-too-distant-distance. Having exhausted corners of the castle to discover, we returned to call on Cousin James, and were informed that he was taking us for a light lunch at this nice restaurant that he sometimes goes to for lunch after church on Sundays when he is interested in a change though he usually cooks lunch after church but sometimes a break from the routine is nice. Yes, he said that all in one sentence. But he was right, the restaurant was lovely, and we had soup and scones (finally a cream tea!) in the conservatory, while continuing to learn about what life was like in Harlech back during James’ life. Random fact that no one else will care about (isn’t my blog just full of those?) James still lives in the exact same house where he was born 86 years ago. As in, midwife style, actually born in, and has lived there his whole entire life. Incredible.

We took our leave from James and walked down to the beach, maybe a mile and a half away from the base of the hillside. It was so bizarre walking on a beach in the cold, bundled up in sweaters, jackets, and my boots, something that would never happen in California.

Practicing my Latin Checks on the beach!

I’m sorry that I can’t say that anything interesting happened on this walk, but it’s Harlech and I get the impression that the most interesting thing that happens there is the bank being open for two hours. Still it was a lovely, if long, stroll along the beach and back up that famously steep hill, before I went back to the hotel to read a book while Mom said our goodbyes to James. Then we had nothing left to do but lounge around in our room and eat a makeshift dinner of Welsh cheese and crackers and a flapjack before retiring (I know that retiring as a word for going to sleep is rather old fashioned, but that really felt the most apt).

We woke up to a thankfully less hearty breakfast at the hotel, and then caught the trains back on our way to Oxford. I got a ton of reading done in those 6 hours, but not as much statistics learning as I would have liked (read: none). Then Mom and I walked a bit more around Oxford, essentially killing time before meeting up with Partner at the Eagle and Child Pub for dinner. Yes, as in the pub famous for it’s associations with Tolkein and CS Lewis and all of the Inklings. But for us, it was simply the pub closest to Dan’s place that we knew Mom would like as well. And what a lovely dinner it was. The three of us get along smashingly and before I knew it, the clock struck 10 pm and we all had to run, because as I said, the cross country travels are just beginning and I have yet to pack.