Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Nick and Sharyn are Here!

Our dear friends arrived yesterday from America, not on the flight we expected, but at a similar time, so we had no problem finding them at the airport. We rented a car and Demetrios drove us home like a professional chauffeur - in the same make and model of car we had rejected a couple of weeks ago as too big to be manageable. It is, after all, now we've had some practice.

We kept poor Nick and Sharyn up all day and all evening, showing them a little of Ormskirk and rather more of Southport, doing a lot of walking in the process, and staying out in the sunshine. We are told that is the best way to get over jet lag.

So we all slept soundly last night and no problem appeared until this morning, as none of us had showered last night. Nick and Sharyn are used to a bathroom apiece, and now there are four of us, so it took all the time until 10:00 to get us all ready in time to greet Elias, who came to tea then. My hair was still damp.

I told Nick we can solve this problem very easily: he and Sharyn shower one day, and we the next. Just teasing! He forgot that the bath towel hanging on one of the hooks behind his door was mine (only place to hang it) and took it for a clean towel and used it for his own shower. Oh, well.

Sharyn put it best; she said we were family now, observing that you can't live in such close (not to say cramped) quarters without becoming family. True enough. It really is a small flat, and to all the people I've ever invited here, I think I should suggest that you come when Demetrios and I are elsewhere, so you can have it all to yourselves.

So we're at the library now, so Nick (and I) can get our e-mail and so forth on the library computers, and then we're off to Liverpool for the afternoon. Tomorrow we are going to take a 2-day trip in the hired car, although we haven't quite settled upon where to go. Sometime today we will come up with two plans, and tomorrow choose whichever one the weather most favors - having first taken care to provide ourselves with appropriate MAPS! then we'll come back here for a night, then take the other 2-day trip. (May as well get lots of use from the car while we have it!)

So Nick and Sharyn will be here until Monday when they return to Richmond, and we're heading off for Greece on Wednesday. It means I may not have another chance to post until we're in Greece; not to worry about us, dear ones!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

England (and we) in Uproar

We didn't even know about the first night of rioting, because we were out of town and didn't watch television or see any newspaper.  We only found it out Tuesday morning, by which time all the biggest cities in England were having riots.  So while England incinerates herself, I will tell you some (but not all) of the disastrous trip we took over the weekend.

Demetrios decided it as time, at long last, to rent a car and go to Scotland. 

It was a proposition riddled with trouble from the first moment:  he 'kerbed the tyre' (bumped his tires into the curb) all the way home from the car hire office in nearby Skelmersdale.  The car, he said, was too big, and he was right.  It was a Vauxhall Insignia, no good for the narrow streets of this country. 

It was expensive, too, because I insisted we had to have an automatic shift.  Driving on the wrong side of the road was going to be difficult enough without trying to work a stick shift with the left hand.  And driving on the left isn't the biggest problem, either.  The main problem is the steering wheel is on the wrong side of the car.  Steering a car is something we mostly do by habit.  We know how far we usually are from the right or left side of the road.  But all that changes when you're sitting where the passenger ought to be.  You feel you're too far right, so what you do in reality is go too far left - and bump the tyres into the kerb. Or worse.

So Saturday morning came and the Big D. was too scared to drive.  Anyway, the forecast was nothing but rain in Scotland.  Never mind, said I, let's go south, where they're having sunshine.  Cambridge.  Demetrios once lived there for two years. 

I'll see if I can drive the car, I added.

I had been in it less than ten minutes and was sitting at an intersection, figuring out which wa to turn when a very nice policeman knocked on my door and when I opened it, he said, 'You are obviously confused.  May I be of assistance?' and I had all I could do to keep from bursting into tears.

'This is my first attempt to drive in the U.K.,' I said in the broadest American accent I could.  So he smiled and said some kind something or other and we drove off. 

It was a sign.  A portent.  I should have known then and there it would be unwise to proceed with our plan.

We took the car back to Enterprise and exchanged it for a smaller one, and somewhat less expensive, too.  A cinch, after the previous monster.

I was still choking back tears, though, as we started off for Cambridge.

And even the driving, dear hearts, was not our main problem. The agony of the trip can best be summarized in two words:  no map.  We had no map because Demetrios was confident we didn't need one.  He had lived in Cambridge, knew all its byways intimately, loved the place and could never forget it.

Where have I heard that before?

So we get to Cambridge and he has no idea where we are or where anything is.  We wander around for an hour or more looking for a hotel or a bread and breakfast.  They're all full.  Of course; it's high tourist season and this is a big tourist spot, and on top of that there's a huge sporting event taking place. 

Finally we arrive at a Premier Inn, one of our favorite places to say.  'Only' £86 for the night - budget hotel!

The main point of interest there was a bride having her hen party.  A hen party is the UK's female equivalent of a stag party or bachelor party, a pre-wedding affair.  This bride was dressed in a short white frock with a little crown on her head, to which was attached a tiny veil, as sort of precursor to the real wedding outfit.  All her friends were dressed in black, with shocking pink sashes over their shoulders, on which was written, in glitter, 'Karen's Hen Party'.

Anyway, it was a relief to be there; it was by now something like half past eight at night and we had had a stressful drive and were hungry and tired.  We had a little supper downstairs before going up to our room and crashing.

Next day was fun, I have to admit.  It was a lot of fun, in fact, just not enough fun to make up for the general misery of the whole trip.

We found the Greek Orthodox parish in Bridge Street; it shares a building with the Church of England, apparently an Anglo-Catholic Church, judging from the Latin inscription ('Via Crucis, Via Lucis'), the stations of the cross all around the room, etc.  After Divine Litury came an artoklasia, followed by a paraclesis because of the Theotokos feast coming up, plus special things for Transfiguration.  We left as soon as it was all over, not pausing to meet people, and found a little French bistro, the Cote.  Everybody there seemed to be French, too, a good sign.  Yes, the food met expectations.

Cambridge is a beautiful town, bisected by the river, quaint, full of architecture ranging from late medieval to Victorian.  Just walking the streets is great fun.

We wandered through some of the colleges of Cambridge University, King's College, associated with so many illustrious persons, Erasmus, \newton, etc., etc., etc.,  We only had time forSt. John's College, King's College, and Trinity College.  Here are some Internet photos of Trinity College, which was fairly representative.

Each college is built around several
Inter-connecting Courtyards such as this one.

The colleges are lined up along the River Cam, where
tourists and others punt in flat-bottomed boats.
Scene from Trinity College

The most beautiful sight was Trinity College Chapel. We have had, for many years, recordings of some of their choral music, Psalms. You hear their choir every Christmas, too, on NPR, doing the Lessons and Carols.

Anyway, the feature that strikes you first and overwhelmingly when you walk in the door is the stone ceiling that looks like lace on account of the fan vaulting. In fact, it is the largest fan-vaulted ceiling in the world.

And the next thing that commends itself to your attention is all the stained glass. Basically, all the walls are stained glass from a certain height all the way on up.

And the third thing that makes you gasp is all the detailed carving in both stone and wood. Fabulously intricate, highly skilled work. You can very well see that King Henry VIII succeeded brilliantly in his plan to make this the most magnificent chapel of any college, here or in Oxford.

We drove around in circles for a very long time trying to find Demetios' old house and eventually stumbled upon it purely by accident.  'Number 108,' he announced gleefully.  Well, maybe not.  Nope, it didn't look quite right.  It turned out to be #110.  Anyway, he enjoyed seeing it again and I enjoyed seeing where he had once lived.  We both regretted he had sold such a handsome house, so well located in such a gorgeous town.

By now it was after 5 o'clock, about time to find a place to spend the night, hopefully somewhere a bit cheaper than the Premier Inn. 

So as we had decided that the next day we would either tour Warwick Castle or else go to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Shakespeare's house and the Globe Theatre, we drove in that general direction (having first spent another hour driving around in circles through Cambridge trying to find the way out of it).

On the way, we passed through Huntingdon, and a place called simply, 'Tarsus'.  Tarsus!  Now there was an interesting name!  We pulled in, and found it was a hotel and restaurant, featuring, 'Greek Food, Greek Dancing, Plate Smashing'.  Perfect!  I said at this point I could do with smashing a few plates.

There was a beautiful little courtyard with outdoor tables and candles and vines overhead, and everything looked most charming.

But of course, it was closed.  Sunday night, and all...

So on we drove, with a sigh, ending up at around 9:30 in the little town called Royal Leamington Spa.  Little town, did you get that part?  Shouldn't be difficult to find a hotel there, right?  Especially in a spa town, where tourism must be a major feature of the local economy.  Right?

Wrong.  Even after we asked someone in a pub, we couldn't find the bead and breakfast places he had told us were straight behind us.  (It was a one-way street, so we had to drive around the block, which meant getting lost.)  Eventually we did find the one he had said had been a few blocks straight ahead.  It looked very nice, probably expensive, but by then we couldn't have cared less.  The neon sign said, 'Anger Hotel' and I said that was just perfect for us by this point.  So in we walked.

'Anger Hotel?' I asked the lady in reception.  'What an odd name!  But never mind, we certainly qualify.  We've been driving around forever and we are tired and hungry and frustred and cranky, and - '

'Angel Hotel,' she said.  'Angel.'

Did they have any vacancies?  No. 

It must have ben 10:00 by time we at last booked a room in the episode Hotel and spa.  I'm afraid we were too out of sorts even to be grateful.  After a drink in the bar, we just went to bed and fell asleep, all as quickly as possible to avoid a full-blown quarrel.

The Monday dawned bright and cheery, and we enjoyed our breakfast.  We decided, over breakfast, to go to Warwick, see the Castle and peek into the Cathedral.  Getting into the car, I said, 'Let us pray for good weather, good luck, and good temper.'

'Especially that last,' said Demetrios.


Well, we had one out of three:  good weather.

We weren't going to need a map or Warwick, right?  I mean the castle had to be the town's dominant feature, and everybody would know how to get there, so asking directions shouldn't be difficult.

And sure enough, the Castle was the first thing we came to.  Not that we came straight, mind you, but we got there, amid much criticism of one anothers' driving and/or navigating skills.

'You aren't parked very straight,' said Demetrios.  To which I replied, 'I don't give a hoot.'

Okay, that was it.  He wished with all his heart we had never come, and I heatedly agreed, so we walked back toward the car.

'It'll feel good to get back home,' I said, tearfully.  Then, after a few moments, I added, 'Well, it's a shame, though, because here we are, literally at the Castle's gateway...'

So we toured the Castle after all.

Warwick Castle costs a bundle to get in, £12 per person, for seniors, and that's not for all the various tours, ither, just the major ones.  But it's worth the price.  The castle is very largely intact, so more fun than the ruinedones.  We got to see the state rooms and the living quarters, as well as the basement places where armour-makers, laundresses, etc., worked.  We wanted to walk around the parapets, and that was a great adventure, as well.  Up a long staircase, along the first stretch of parapets, then up a narrow spiral stone staircase to the top of a very tall tower.  (Winding staircases, in castles, always spiral clockwise as you're going up.  That ensures that if you are an armed enemy, your right arm is always cramped, while the arms of the defenders, above, are toward the wide end of the stairs.)  From the top, you have a wonderful view of Warwick, very quaint, an an especially good view of the cathedral.  Good! We knew exactly where it was, because that was to be our next stop, just a quick peek before heading home. 

Coming down from that tower was worse, I think, than going up.  Okay, so down the stairs, out to the next stretch of parapets, up the next tower, back down to the third bit of walkway, up yet another tower, and back down again to the last stretch of parapets, then back down to the ground. It took my leg muscles two days to recover.

All the personnel at the Castle are dressed in period costume and they put on demonstrations of archery and jousting and other activities that would have taken place there.

All in all, it's a great place for a family day out.

Back to the car, in better spirits, which didn't last long.   Surely it would be a cinch to get to the Cathedral, the towns second most dominant feature, yes?  Especially since we had seen just where it was.  Wrong.  Although the Cathedral  is obvious from the top of the Castle walls, it entirely disappears the moment you get into a car.  And amid the maze of one-way streets and detours diversions for construction, we wandered around, on the wrong side of the street all the while, and dodging the left curb all the while, for a solid hour.  And no matter which way we turned, we always came back to the Castle entrance, four times in all.  Asking the way didn't help because everyone we asked was another tourist, who also didn't know.

There was no more time for the Cathedral, so the next thing was to find the road out of there, which took another half hour, putting us onto a very tight timetable, because the hired car had to be returned by 6:00. 

At long last we found the M6, the main road back to our part of the country.  by now, however, it ws nearing the rush hour, and the super-highway, always very busy, was downright clogged.  It wasn't long before we came to an entire stand-still, which lasted 20 minutes or so before we came to the next stand-still.  'There's an exit coming up that may be a good way around the jam,' said Demetrios, studying the road atlas.  (Yes, a road atlas we had, just no city maps.)  So we took the next exit onto the secondary highway -- only to find it every bit as busy as the M6. 

We crept along at literally about 5 mph for an hour or so.  Every mile or two there would be a large, red-and white sign with alternating messages:  186 COLLISIONS IN 3 YEARS or 193 CASUALTIES IN 3 YEARS  or 10 DEATHS IN 3 YEARS.  Not very reassuring to novice drivers.  In spite of being rather in a hurry, we kept the speed very low, adding greatly to our frustration.

Then, eventually, Demetrios said, 'This can't be right!' and he looked at the road atlas again and groaned.  'I didn't realize,' he said, 'that this route goes two ways.  Each way is a different color in the atlas, so I didn't see it.  We should have gone the other direction.'

I'll cut the rest of the misery short and just tell you silence reigned from approximately then until we arrived home at half-past eight.  I took a shower and went to bed.  Demetrios stayed up to watch the news, which is when we found aout about the rioting in London, worst fires there since the blitz. 

Demetrios, a week later, says, 'We did have fun.  You can't say we didn't.'

'We did,' I agreed.  'We had a lot of fun.  I just don't think the fun equalled the misery.'