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Tour de France 2015 Croissant Comparison

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“This is the excellent foppery of the world…” ~William Shakespeare (King Lear, I, ii)

The 2015 Tour de France is just over one-third of the way through its 23-day jaunt around the French countryside, having started on July 4th in the neighboring Netherlands and slated for its traditional finish in Paris on July 26th.  One cannot profess to be a serious Tour de France fan without consuming at least a few handfuls of croissants (and/or baguettes) during those three weeks, and so, as a pure service to fellow French pastry fans (of course, there was no personal gain in this for me whatsoever, ahem) I have conducted a thorough comparison of some of the rumored-best croissants in the Austin area.

Stopping for a bite to eat on my trip to the Tour in 2010 (this was near Alpe d'Huez).

Stopping for a bite to eat on my trip to the Tour in 2010 (this was near Alpe d’Huez).

I did some of my own croissant research ahead of time to find out the highest rated and most popular bakeries in the area to help me decide where to go.  I decided to compare both plain butter croissants as well as chocolate croissants from each source, because, well, they’re both very delicious options.  (In French we say “pain au chocolate” instead of chocolate croissant, and it’s important to know this doesn’t mean it’s made from chocolate dough, but rather there is supposed to be a bit of chocolate piped into the middle of regular pastry dough.)  I also did limit myself geographically to central and north Austin (to save on gas $$$), and I put an upper spending limit on what I’d buy: no more than $3 per croissant (because anything more than that is just crazy talk).

The reviews are also listed in the order in which I purchased and tried them, not necessarily in ranked order.  Croissants were sampled from:

  1. Upper Crust Bakery
  2. La Madeleine Country French Cafe
  3. San Francisco Bakery & Cafe
  4. Quack’s 43rd St Bakery
  5. Tous Les Jours Authentic Bakery

You now have two more weeks of the Tour to take full advantage of this very important information, so allons-y, read it and eat:

1)  Upper Crust Bakery (4508 Burnet Road, Austin 78756; cocktail/small size Plain Butter Croissant $1.45, cocktail/small size Chocolate Croissant $1.90)

Upper Crust Bakery & Cafe

Upper Crust Bakery

I’d heard about Upper Crust for quite a while now but for some reason I’d never been there since moving to Austin.  It’s both a large full bakery and a cafe with quite a bit of seating for those wishing to dine in.  When I arrived around noon, they were already sold out of their regular-size croissants so I had to settle for their “cocktail” size options instead, which was fine because they were still a decent size and less than $2.00 each.

The plain croissant had nice layers inside but no flakiness of the crust (which I consider essential to a croissant), the bottom was nicely browned but not too much, I could taste the butter (and visible yellow egg layer) inside, and it had very nice “pull-apart” action from the ends with a decent chewiness.  I thought it was good but not great.  The chocolate croissant had a cinnamon-sugar topping which I didn’t care for at all (it made it too sweet in addition to the chocolate), and a decent amount of chocolate inside that was not overly sweet (which is good).  However it had a soft donut-y cake-y type texture instead of typical croissant layers; for that reason and because of the topping, it was my least favorite of the chocolate croissants in this review.

2)  La Madeleine Country French Cafe (9828 Great Hills Tr, Austin 78759; Plain Butter Croissant $1.89, Chocolate Croissant $2.79)

La Madeleine

La Madeleine

La Madeleine is a chain-restaurant mostly in the south and southwestern US that also has within each location its own small bakery, focusing on French-themed pastries.  The butter croissant was a great size for the cost and had a very buttery taste indeed; the color on the outside was a little too brown in my opinion, but it had good pull-apart action, a very good chewiness on the inside, and its taste overall was very good.  My main issue with this croissant was that it had too much space/air inside of it and not enough substance (see picture below).

The chocolate croissant had a really nice flakiness on the crust and decent layers inside, and its butter flavor was good and not too strong.  The chocolate was a nice dark-tasting chocolate but unfortunately there was just hardly any of it – as you can see from the picture below, the chocolate “tunnels” inside were near-empty; my other issue with this one is that they gave me an extremely small size croissant from the bakery rack, which was probably half the size of the ones in the display case – I had to hand it back and ask for a regular-sized one instead of a mini-one.  The baker seemed miffed at this and said “well they all proof to different sizes.”  Ok then, if you’re going to give me a mini-one, charge me for a mini-one ($.99); if you’re going to charge me nearly three times the cost of a mini-one, then give me a decent-sized croissant.  Thank you.

La Madeleine - near empty chocolate "tube"

La Madeleine – near empty chocolate “tube”


La Madeleine - big empty space inside butter croissant

La Madeleine – big empty space inside butter croissant

3)  San Francisco Bakery & Cafe (2900 W. Anderson Ln, Austin 78757; Plain Butter Croissant $2.09, Chocolate Croissant $2.39)

San Francisco Bakery & Cafe

San Francisco Bakery & Cafe

I’ve been to San Francisco before for lunch with a friend but hadn’t tried its pastries before.  They have a small bakery case up front by the register but the place is mostly a cafe.  I thought their butter croissant had a great butter taste and smell, excellent dough-y layers and chewiness, and great flakiness of crust.  It was a good size, not too large or too small, and although the bottom of it was a little too browned, in my opinion this was the best of the bunch that I reviewed.

Unfortunately the chocolate croissant was not the best of the bunch, mostly due to the overly sweet and too-rich chocolate inside – there was a decent amount of chocolate but it had way too high of a sugar content for my taste.  The crust was also too dark and the croissant part itself tasted a little bland; however there were good layers inside, good crust flakiness outside, and it wasn’t at all cake-y.  My biggest issue at San Fran was the prices – for the size of the croissants, I thought they were pretty expensive.  Many of the chocolate croissants in the display case were literally half the size as some of the others, yet they were charging the same price for all of them.  Ask for a larger-sized one and they’ll give it to you.

4) Quack’s 43rd St Bakery (411 E. 43rd St, Austin 78751; Plain Butter Croissant $2.25, Chocolate Croissant $2.99)

Quack's Bakery & Cafe's HUGE croissants

Quack’s HUGE croissants

I’d never even heard of Quack’s before I did the research for this post, but I’m glad I know about them now.  They had a LOT of fantastic-looking baked goods in their multiple display cases, and when I saw the croissants I had to ask them “are those the giant sizes, do you have any regular or mini-sized ones?”  (They don’t.)  Their croissants are HUGE, which is good because they’re also expensive, but really it’s like you’re getting two croissants in one so it’s not so bad.  Their plain butter croissant had amazing flaky crust layers outside and a good color, while the inside was very airy (almost too much so); it had a good chewiness but there was a lack of a real buttery taste inside.  It was very good but not the best I’d had.

Airy layers of Quack's butter croissant

Airy layers of Quack’s butter croissant


Impressive flaky layers of Quack's chocolate croissant

Impressive flaky crust layers

However the chocolate croissant – oh my WOW.  The best layered croissant by far that I sampled (see picture below), both outside and inside.  Excellent layers.  The croissant was a bit flat and not raised like some of the others, but I’m assuming that’s because all the butter in those layers weighed it down a bit.  This croissant was also humongous, way larger than any of the other chocolate ones I tried, but unfortunately its chocolate tunnels were tiny in proportion to its size and there was a minimal amount of chocolate inside.  The chocolate that was there though tasted high quality, dark-chocolatey and not overly sweet.  The non-chocolate part of the croissant tasted just ok, but it was really the layers that made this one shine.

The unending layers of Quack's chocolate croissant.

The unending layers of Quack’s chocolate croissant.

5) Tous Les Jours Authentic Bakery (6808 N. Lamar, Austin 78752; Plain Butter Croissant $2.00, Chocolate Croissant $2.00)

I’d also never heard of Tous Les Jours before this project.  They’re a Korean bakery that also makes French and European pastries and apparently it’s a chain with 30 US locations; the atmosphere inside the Austin location is nice and they have trays and trays of breads and pastries laid out in the non-cafe area; you’re supposed to grab a tray and some tongs, pick your pastries, and then the cashier goes through this elaborate ritual of putting each pastry in its own swanky little plastic bag and sealing it with a gold twisty tie.  I’m not a fan of breads and pastries being out in the open air, where just anyone (most of the trays are right at kid eye-level) can put their germy hands and fingers on them if they want or flies with poopy feet can land on them if they make it in through a door.  I guess I like it better when they’re in pastry cases or behind the register where the baker can hand you your baguette if you will.

touslesjours1

Tous Les Jours Authentic Bakery

My first impression of the butter croissant selection was that most of them were pretty small for the $2.00 price.  On the other hand, I thought that the same price of $2.00 that they were charging for the pain au chocolate was reasonable.  They did also have teeny-tiny mini-versions of each of these too, literally maybe two bites max, for $1.00 each.  (They were the smallest chocolate croissants I’d ever seen, I didn’t even know you could make them that small.)  The butter croissant was probably my least favorite out of all the ones tried – it was almost completely flat, as if the doughy layers inside were just too heavy to hold themselves up.  There was a decent flakiness to the outside crust, but inside there was a yeasty rather than buttery smell and taste; in fact, I couldn’t really taste any butter in it at all, although the inside was very greasy.  Overpriced for the quality.

Unfortunately their pain au chocolate was not much better.  It had a strange shiny, sticky glaze over the outside top layer which did not smell or taste good, and glued down all the flakiness; I actually had to peel off the top layer because I found it very unappetizing.   This croissant was also very flat, the dough layers were good but too heavy, and there was a very minimal amount of chocolate inside (I had a hard time even tasting it).  I couldn’t detect any butter taste at all, and like its companion, I wished it had been more airy and less heavy.

One bakery/cafe I can highly recommend that I’ve been to before but did not include in this review is Baguette et Chocolate Authentic French Bakery (12101 Bee Cave Rd, Bee Cave TX 78738), it’s just too far for me usually.  I did go to a few other bakeries that had been recommended but didn’t get croissants for them for different reasons:

  • Texas French Bread (2900 Rio Grande, Austin 78705) wanted $3.75 PER CROISSANT (!!!)…and they were about half the size of Quack’s bigger croissants; when I asked why they were so expensive I was told “we use real butter and cream.”  And?  Are those particular cows dipped in chocolate and rolled in gold shavings?  Sorry, those prices are way too high for me (and probably for most university students in the area, but they tend to cater to Austin’s “celebrity” clientele I hear, *coughlancearmstrongcough*).
  • Phoenicia Bakery (4701 Burnet, Austin 78756) told me they only make/offer croissants three days a week, but the guy behind the counter couldn’t tell me which specific days.  There were none available when I was there.
  • Bee’s Knees Bakeshop (109 Cypress Creek Rd, Cedar Park 78613) is gluten-free only, so they don’t make bread items like croissants.

Well, my job here is done.  I do believe I’ve eaten my last croissant for the next 12 months or so, and I may have to fast now for the rest of the Tour.  Next year’s Tour de France food review, I’ve already decided, will be the Battle of the Baguettes.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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Lay ee Odl Lay ee Odl Lay Hee Hoo

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“Sound, music!” ~William Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, IV, i)

Today I’m going to write about something that might not appeal to some people, but it certainly makes me UNunhappy so we’re going to go with it.  Many of us have movies from our childhood that we remember and that make us feel nostalgic: a few blockbusters that stick out for me were ‘The Black Stallion’ (I was a typical horse-crazy little girl), ‘Star Wars’ (my brother and I had every single action figure), ‘E.T.’ (which I want to believe started me on the track to future X-Files super-fandom), and of course ‘Grease’ (I wanted to be Olivia Newton-John).

Other lesser-known film gems that I saw as a kid also bring back fond memories, like:

  • ‘The Cat from Outer Space’
  • ‘Escape from Witch Mountain’
  • ‘The Shaggy D.A.’
  • ‘The Rescuers’
  • Any of the ‘Benji’ or ‘Herbie the Love Bug’ movies
  • (I’d include Wizard of Oz but I firmly blame it for my phobia of tornadoes, sorry Lisa.)

But there’s one movie above all the rest that made a life-long impression upon me, and I wasn’t even born yet when it was released in 1965.  The first time I remember seeing it, I was 8 years old and in the third grade, when our teacher Mrs. Martin asked us to watch it at home because we were going to be putting on a play in class using goat puppets made out of milk cartons and popsicle sticks.  She also taught us how to yodel for our singing parts in the play, which we all thought was great fun.  Yes, the movie is of course ‘The Sound of Music.’

You may think it’s sappy or cheesy, with all those singing nuns and curtain-clad kids running around Salzburg.  I just think it’s pure happiness.  It’s one of those movies that if I see it while flipping the channels, I’m stuck for the next few hours singing every word to every song – which I, along with millions of others, know by heart since I’ve seen the movie an estimated 42 times now.  (Other movies I’m obligated to watch if I catch them while channel surfing:  ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ ‘Love Actually,’ ‘The Holiday,’ ‘A Christmas Story,’ ‘About a Boy,’ and yes, I admit it, ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.’)

I really have Mrs. Martin to thank for my love of the movie and its songs, as a good portion of that third grade year was spent rehearsing “The Lonely Goatherd,” which is definitely the funnest song in the entire movie.  But it’s not my favorite song of the film – that honor goes to “I Have Confidence.”  I relate to the words in that song – I’ve been known to sing it as I’m sitting in my car about to go into a big job interview, or to boost my morale before major meetings or speeches or projects.  Just listen, how can you not love this, especially when sung by the indelible Julie Andrews?

I also love her outfit in that scene and I wish I could pull off Maria’s simple but chic hairstyle that was unmussed by that fantastic hat.  She was confident, despite being faced with an overwhelming and uncertain challenge.  Everyone in this movie is facing challenges of one kind or another, which is the main draw of its appeal for many fans (and that all of those challenges get resolved in neat packages by the end, tied up with string) – that, and the fact that it’s based on a true story of course.  Though the screenwriters took a few liberties with the storyline, the basic tenets are all there, and I’ve read in-depth accounts of the actual Von Trapp family (it’s an extremely interesting history).  This past fall my father and stepmom visited the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont and brought me back a family anthology book signed by one of the actual grandchildren of the real Maria Von Trapp.  It’s a treasure and I enjoyed reading every word of it, and hope to eventually visit the Lodge myself sometime.

I also have thought of visiting Austria one day to go on a Sound of Music tour, and yes of course those really exist.  A few years ago, right before I moved to Austin, I bought tickets to the now-famous yearly Sound of Music Sing-a-Long at the Hollywood Bowl outdoor amphitheatre in Los Angeles.  (By the way, the best ‘Will & Grace’ episode ever was “Von Trapped,” where all the characters get stuck at a Sound of Music Sing-a-Long, it’s hilarious & well worth a watch!)  But, I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to go with me, and I didn’t want to travel there by myself, so I ended up selling the tickets; maybe I’ll try again this year, the 50th Anniversary year of the movie’s release, what better year to go?  Everyone dresses up for the Sing-a-Long in their favorite SOM-inspired costume and it’s hosted by actress and comedienne Melissa Peterman – what it must sound like for 18,000 fans to be singing all the songs together at the same time!  It seems to me that must be what pure joy sounds like.  (I wish they would also do one for ‘Mary Poppins,’ another one of my favorites; Julie Andrews can do no wrong.)

I have many favorite scenes in the movie: when Maria and the Captain are dancing on the patio outside the ball; when she comes back (after leaving) to face her feelings and is reunited with the children, only to find out the Captain is engaged; the scene at the end of Do Re Mi when Julie Andrews hits the highest note in the history of the world; and of course the wedding scene – that train!  As a young girl watching both The Sound of Music and Princess Diana’s wedding, it’s what I wanted my future wedding to be like: in a grand cathedral with a wedding gown train the length of the aisle and a handsomely-uniformed man at the end of the aisle (some dreams are meant to remain dreams I guess).

MariaDress

SOMwedding

I read a Vanity Fair interview last week with Dame Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer – she’s 79 now and he’s 85, it’s hard to believe.  They have very different memories and opinions of the movie these 50 years later, but it’s still a thrill to see them together in photos and tributes after all this time.  It’s truly heartbreaking that she can no longer sing due to throat surgery gone wrong many years ago; I told my mom as we were watching the Oscars last week that I would have given anything in the world to see Julie Andrews walk out on that stage and sing those songs herself (during a tribute to the movie during the show).  They must both know by now the love that fans the world over have for the film and for them – watching ‘The Sound of Music’ takes me right back to third grade and the goatherd milk carton puppet I made for our class play, and reminds me of happy times.

And I can still do a pretty mean yodel.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

 

Whose Influence is Thine and Born of Thee

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“Surprise me to the very brink of tears…” ~William Shakespeare (Timon of Athens, V, i)

As I sit here writing today I’m feeling a bit off – maybe a touch of stomach virus or something – but the blog must go on, as they say (helped along with a pot of ginger tea).  Plus, I have a really good story to tell you!  A story of true surprise, which is so rarely experienced as an adult isn’t it?

This story took root 27 years ago, in a barrack classroom at Manzano High School in Albuquerque NM.  I was a senior and for some unremembered reason, signed up to take a Shakespeare class as an elective in my final year.  Yes, all Shakespeare all the time, and no, I wasn’t the only student in the class…I think there were about 25 of us or so who took that brave plunge into the world of the Bard.  And I’m so glad I was part of that class, as it would open up new doors that I’m still walking through today.

Our teacher that year for that class was a woman named Clara Sanchez – Mrs. Sanchez to us.  And I’ll just apologize right now for not being able to adequately surmise or praise her teaching abilities…which were astounding, by the way.  It was obvious to me that she not only loved Shakespeare, but loved teaching it to us, and that made all the difference in the brain of a 17-year old struggling to understand what was basically a foreign language to us all.  Yes we did the typical high school classroom thing of taking turns reading different parts of different plays, trudging through the themes and trying to grasp why this character wanted revenge on that other character…  But the highlights for me were always when Mrs. Sanchez would then translate the scenes for us and reveal the hidden meanings behind the words – it was like a whole other world was there in those words if you just looked and worked hard enough to find and understand it.  A literary puzzle with meaningful rewards of learning and understanding.

I remember very well working on our year-end research project – I chose the topic of “The Dark Lady of the Sonnets.”  Which I absolutely cannot believe when I go back and read that research paper now – let’s just say the subject of The Dark Lady is more than a bit risqué and is one of Shakespeare’s most revealing pieces of work, both literally and figuratively.  But I remember at the time having tons of research and papers spread out all over my bedroom floor, pouring over every sonnet and reading everything I could get my hands on to help me understand why this character of his poetry was so intriguing.  Who was she, what was her purpose, why was Shakespeare writing about her?  (She was based on a real person, most literary scholars believe.)  It was my teacher who inspired me to go to these depths, to find the missing pieces of the puzzle.

At the end of that year, Mrs. Sanchez came to my high school graduation celebration at our house, and gave me a wonderful little book called ‘Shakespeare Soliloquies,’ with a lovely personal inscription inside.  I had a sonnet engraved on a thank-you plaque that I gave her as a token of my deep appreciation for her guidance and dedication.  I continued my Shakespeare education at my university that next year, getting special permission to take two senior-level Shakespeare courses as an incoming freshman.  A few years later, Mrs. Sanchez attended my first wedding as a guest.  A year or two after that, I paid her a surprise visit to her classroom when I was at the high school as part of my university recruiting job.  It’s ironic that this surprise visit was the last time we saw or talked to each other for the next 20 or so years.

My interest in Shakespeare came and went over the next few decades but it was always there in the background, like an old friend (you can read about my other blog posts on Shakespeare here if you’d like).  Life happened; I packed and unpacked several times in those next decades, moving into different apartments, houses, cities and countries.  But the little gray book of Shakespeare’s soliloquies always had a place on my bookshelf.  And when I decided on a whim during the summer of 2012 to fly to England for the World Shakespeare Festival that July, I took that little gray book with me.  It seemed only fitting to take with me a tangible reminder of the teacher who inspired me as I made my pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s birthplace.

I carried the book with me as I visited all of the sights in Stratford-upon-Avon.  Below you can see some pictures of me holding the book of Soliloquies at some of the town sights (and those of you who read this blog will know how extremely RARE it is for me to put pictures of myself in the blog, but this was one exception I’m glad to make) – one tourist who took my picture asked about the book, and I willingly told them the story of my inspirational high school Shakespeare teacher.  I’ve been back to Stratford since that time, but that initial visit will always stand out in my mind as a dream fulfilled, with one awestruck moment after another – seeing the room where Shakespeare was born, visiting his grave site, walking the cobblestones he used to walk.

IMG_3420 - Copy

Me & my soliloquies in front of the famous Gower Shakespeare Memorial on a rainy day in Stratford-upon-Avon, July 2012.

IMG_2979 - Copy

Me & my soliloquies with a sculpture representing The Tempest, found in the beautiful New Place Gardens, Stratford-upon-Avon, July 2012.

Ok, now for the rest of the story…after that 2012 visit to Stratford, I decided to try to find and re-establish communication with Mrs. Sanchez.  I wanted to tell her about my pilgrimage and show her the pictures with the book she gave me, and to thank her again for setting me on this journey that started so long ago but that was taking me to such wonderful places.  I had moved to Austin in 2009, and figured she was probably still in Albuquerque, but a thorough internet search didn’t turn up any location or contact info for her.

I called my old high school as well as the other high school after that where she taught (where I’d paid her the surprise classroom visit), but staff at both schools didn’t know how to find her.  I put a search query out on Twitter, and in a Facebook group called “Remember in Albuquerque When…”  No one came forward.  I messaged Mrs. Sanchez’s son Joseph through a high school reunion website (we had graduated together) but I knew it was a long shot that he would get the message and I never heard anything back (I looked for him too through other avenues but couldn’t find him either).  I began hesitantly checking obituary listings going back several years, but thankfully didn’t find anything through that route either.

In December 2012 I made a short trip back to Albuquerque for a few days to visit old haunts and eat the good food I miss so much, and I even went by Mrs. Sanchez’s old house; with my little gray book and printed England photos in hand, I knocked on the door, thinking it would be too good to be true if the door swung open with her standing there.  I knocked again and waited for a long time.  No one answered.  It was a cold snowy day, and as I got back into my car, a neighbor walked out of his house and flagged me down, offering to help – I told him who I was looking for, and he said yes he remembered them living there, but that they had moved away and no longer lived there.  As I drove away, I felt like that was my last shot at finding her.

Meanwhile, my horrible job got more horrible and as all of my energy and attention were sucked up by the negative environment in which I worked, I let my search for Mrs. Sanchez fall by the wayside.  I was sad but resigned to the fact that I probably would just not see or talk to her again.   I thought she probably moved away to another state. Every once in a while my parents would ask me if I’d every found Mrs. Sanchez and I’d say “still no.”

Fast forward another two years.  Life is happier, I’d quit that miserable job (the impetus for this blog by the way), the holidays were approaching.  I didn’t get the pots and pans I wanted for Christmas, but a Lego Shakespeare book set, a Star Trek hoody and new brakes for my car quite made up for that, thank you.  Then on Christmas morning, my mom gets all dramatic and says there is one more present I have to open – and then brings out THREE packages (my mom likes to go overboard at Christmas).  And then she says she has to videotape me opening them and tells me to not get annoyed – at which of course I immediately get annoyed.  (I’m one of those people who has always hated their voice and hearing mine on tape makes me cringe.)

I open the first one – and it’s a copy of the Albuquerque Journal newspaper from November 19th.  Huh?  It had a picture of boys sledding on the front with their Husky dog and a bunch of other random articles.  “Read it carefully, the clue is in the paper,” she says.  My annoyance level starts to go up – I’ve never been good at riddles and they make me feel stupid most of the time because I can never get them – but I scour and skim the articles for a clue.  I still have no idea what’s going on.  “I can’t believe you can’t get it from that,” she says and I finally get to move on to the second gift.

It’s two essays I wrote in my university Shakespeare class.  One of them was really bad; I got a B- and it was so marked up I could barely read it (the other received an A I’m proud to say, on the topic of Prince Hal’s SOLILOQUY no less [how’s that for foreshadowing]).  Hmmm.  I start to have an inkling of what’s going on, mostly because of Mom’s not-so-subtle Cheshire grin behind the rolling camera, but also from her card that she made me read out loud that talked about a “labor of love” and a surprise to equal the Paul McCartney tickets I gave her for Mother’s Day a year ago.  Mom was saying something as I start to open the third package but I don’t really remember what she was saying, as I was then starting to notice details – an Albuquerque return address on the box and an unfamiliar name of “C. Castillo.”  Castillo, I thought, what?  I had a sudden fear that it was someone related to Mrs. Sanchez that was sending me a memento in her memory, meaning the worst had happened.

I opened the card first that came with the third package.  “Read it out loud!” my mom directed.  I refused, asking for a little privacy.  I don’t think I could have read it out loud anyway; I was already on the verge of some pretty severe emotion (for me anyway) – because I had seen the name at the bottom of the before I saw anything else:

Clara.

It was her!  Little did I know that over the past year, someone else had also started looking for Mrs. Sanchez.  A very sneaky someone who goes by the name of Mom.  Yup, my mom had begun her own search when she learned that I couldn’t find Mrs. Sanchez.  My mom, who has a pretty hard time keeping a secret, kept a pretty monumental secret for many months as she did the impossible (ok, not impossible, just very difficult) and FOUND Mrs. Sanchez!  Except she’s been Clara Castillo for a while now, which is probably why I couldn’t ever find her.  A new name for a newfound old friend, it fits!

The card was written with love, and I read it several times before then opening the package that came with it.  Now let me say that I am not easily overwhelmed; I’m not overtly sentimental, I’m not a touchy-feely kind of person, and I don’t really show a lot of emotion.  I wish sometimes that I were more openly emotional, but I’ve just learned over many years that that is not who I am, and I’ve come to accept it for better or worse; maybe it stems from being so shy as a young girl, I’m not sure, but it’s just the way it is.  But what was in that box floored me emotionally and is one of the most meaningful, touching true gifts I’ve ever received (and yes I cried).

I opened the box and unwrapped Clara’s teaching copy of her Complete Works of Shakespeare.  A 34-year old treasure that she used during her entire teaching career in multiple schools and for affecting untold numbers of young lives.  It’s taped heavily to hold the well-worn bindings together, which I love, and page after page is filled with her handwritten teaching notes, research findings, and personal observations; for example, on the first page of Twelfth Night and the Duke’s famous “If music be the food of love” speech, she wrote “Violets = emblematic of: faithfulness” – a floriography note in a Shakespeare text, it’s a true melding of my worlds.

My new (old) favorite book

My new (old) favorite book

TwelfthNight

A wealth of info for Twelfth Night

And most meaningful:  on the title page of the book, a handwritten letter to me from my mentor, titled “Shakespeare: The Mirror Up to Nature” (from the mastery lines of Hamlet), recounting our meeting twenty-six years ago and bequeathing this marvel to me with love and affection. 

I know that I’ll use this as my main Shakespeare source for the rest of my life, and plan to spend the time it deserves to go through each play and sonnet again – only this time with the words of my teacher literally in my hands and mind, and perhaps daring to add my own notes here and there as I continue to learn.  It’s worth more to me than if I’d been given an actual First Folio, and I will keep it and guard it forever.  Thank you Clara.  You were the best teacher I ever had, and I value you.  I look forward to our in-person reunion this year!

I was apparently the only person in my family (and in central Texas) who had no idea what my mom was planning (she told a few people).  She didn’t give up on the search for Clara and when she finally did make contact (through an administrative assistant at third Albuquerque high school), she and Clara plotted this Christmas surprise for quite a while.  Thank you Mom.  I think you topped Sir Paul with this one.  What a special memory and friendship you’ve given back to me, and that’s beyond any value.

In closing, I’d like to encourage all of you reading this, if possible, to reach out to a former teacher.  If they inspired you, if they took extra time to help you, if they made you feel special and capable – let them know.  I could never be a teacher – I don’t have the patience or the guts or the germ-resistant immune system, quite frankly.  But those that do have those qualities can have a lifelong influence, as you’ve read here, and they deserve to know what an impact they had on your life.  Thank you to all the teachers out there that have made a difference!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Should We Search for Happiness?

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Happy thou art not; For what thou hast not, still thou strivest to get, and what thou hast, forget’st.” ~William Shakespeare (Measure for Measure, III, i)

A few weeks ago I saw a movie at my local art-house theatre called “Hector & The Search for Happiness.”  It had gotten extremely poor critic reviews but, being the author of a blog with the title ‘Operation UNunhappy,’ I felt somewhat obliged to shell out the $8.50 (for a matinée no less) to see what Hector’s search turned up.

I had high hopes since it is a British film and stars Simon Pegg, but unfortunately the critics got it right on this one: it was a pretty bad movie.  The main character of Hector is a psychiatrist living a perfect life in London with a perfect apartment and a perfect girlfriend and perfectly-neurotic psychiatric patients in his practice, when he suddenly starts to feel that all that perfection has left his life devoid of any true meaning or happiness.  And so he predictably goes on his own eat-pray-love journey under the Tuscan sun, except he decides to go not to Italy but to China (those Tibetan monks always have good insights)…and then to Africa (to a non-specified country, as if everywhere in Africa is exactly the same)…and then finally to Los Angeles (for a head-rattling visit with Captain Von Trapp), before finally heading back to London for a tidy movie happy ending.

Along the way he throws caution (and wisdom) to the wind, naively placing himself into stereotypical tourist-trap predicaments that endanger his life but supposedly make him a happier guy in the end.  At each lesson-learning turn we see a handwritten entry flash on the screen from Hector’s travel journal:  “Happiness is sometimes not knowing the whole story;” “Happiness is feeling completely alive;” and the ever-helpful “Happiness is sweet potato stew.”  Most annoying in the movie however was the plot point that his perfect girlfriend was also miserable simply because she and Hector had decided not to have children, but that by the end of the movie she changed her mind and decided becoming a mother would magically provide her with the ultimate contentment – which of course brought Hector home from his soul-searching journey and they lived happily ever after.  (Insert much eye-rolling here.)

There was one tidbit in the movie that was familiarly thought-provoking, which claimed that we can’t find happiness by trying to avoid or outrun unhappiness.  And at one point in the movie Hector says “The more we focus on our personal happiness the more it is useless.”  I’ve read this train of thought many times – that it’s pointless to actually and actively pursue happiness, because one you begin to search for it, it will naturally evade you.  Can this be true?

If you start looking at happiness proverbs and quotes by those apparently deemed to be experts on the subjects, you start to see a trend to this topic:

  • “The bird of paradise alights only on the hand that does not grasp.” – John Berry
  • “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
  • “Perfect happiness is the absence of striving for happiness.” – Chuang-Tzu

But if the pursuit of happiness is so useless, then why did our American founders write a Declaration of Independence that guarantees our right to just that?  It’s ingrained in our cultural core to do what makes us happy, and if we’re unhappy, to take steps to rectify it (many very wealthy therapists out there depend on this inherently human struggle).  I think that happiness and the hunt for it is – even if tangentially – what drives every single one of us in all of our actions, whether or not we want to admit that. 

A few weeks ago I was asked to be one of two guest speakers to a university class on the subject of blogging – what is it, why do people blog, what makes for a successful blog, etc.  Our audience was a group of ESL students – people from all over the world that are studying here in America and trying to make a better life for themselves.  The other guest speaker is a coworker of mine in the same office, we’ve worked together for over a year now, but we did not discuss our own personal blogs with each other before the class presentation.  Imagine our mutual surprise when we discovered that both of our blogs deal with the subject of happiness – what is it, why and how do people look for it, what makes for a happy life, etc…  We had to convince the professors and students that we hadn’t planned it that way!

After the class, a young man with a thick foreign accent approached me and wanted to know if my blog story was true: that I had quit my miserable job that was making me sick and consciously left bad things in my life behind in an attempt to be more fulfilled and yes, happier.  He seemed very anxious to know if it had worked – did I feel better, was I happier, was that a good decision?  I could tell he was going through something in his life that was putting him at a crossroads – a place where we have all been at one time or another, no matter what corner of the globe we are from.  Finding our way out of unhappiness is a universal denominator.

I think there is some truth to the proverbs above.  I think if we focus too much on finding happiness that the search ends up being a possible antithesis to the final objective.  But I don’t think pursuing goals and dreams that could possibly make you happier is a bad thing.  Yes we should be happy with and grateful for what we already have, and for the experiences that have shaped us, but is searching for contentment – no matter how one defines it – really such an exercise in futility?  We can’t be happy all the time, that’s completely unrealistic – I know I’m not.  I’m not unhappy all the time either.  Maybe striking the right balance between both states is the real goal?

Or maybe, as American journalist John Gunther once said “All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast.”  Bon appétit.

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 À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Tour de England 2014 – Week 3: Shakespeare Country and The Cotswolds

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“How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank” ~William Shakespeare (Merchant of Venice, V, i)

At the end of the last post detailing my recent trip to England, I’d overcome several days of unfortunate GI distress just in time to board a train back to the midlands region of the country.  I traveled from York through Birmingham to land in familiar territory and my personal favorite, Stratford-upon-Avon.  I’d visited the birthplace town of the Bard back in 2012 for the World Shakespeare Festival (just prior to the London Olympics) and really loved it, so I carved out three and half more days on this return trip to relax and enjoy this pretty little town on the river once again.

By the way, do you know why some towns in England have “on” in their name (like Bourton-on-the-Water) while others have “upon,” such as Stratford-upon-Avon?  Those with “on” find the towns built mostly or entirely on one side of the river, while those with “upon” are built on both sides of the river…or so I’m told…and there’s your English geography and name-origin lesson for the day.

For this trip to Stratford I chose to stay at Moss Cottage B&B, which I can highly recommend if you ever find yourself in that corner of the world.  I’d gotten to know the proprietor (hi Bill!) via Twitter over the past year prior to my trip, so it felt a little like meeting an old friend, and the accommodations were very lovely. The B&B was located a healthy 1-mile walk from the center of town, so I got in plenty of exercise during my stay – which simply meant I could indulge in daily cream teas and/or a wonderful sticky toffee pudding at The Opposition, another one of my favorites I discovered on my last time there.

My first afternoon back in Stratford, I strolled up to town via Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried.  There is a bench on the church grounds that I like to sit on – it faces the river and is situated on a gravel pathway, with a huge weeping willow overhanging the short stone wall in-between, and the church just behind.  Sitting there, I can watch people strolling along the riverwalk on the opposite side and rowers making their way down the water.  It’s shady and peaceful and feels like “my spot.”  It’s especially nice with a light drizzly rain coming down and dripping off all the trees.

My Stratford-upon-Avon Spot

My Stratford-upon-Avon Spot

After a nice decompression session on that bench, I continued on the walkway up the river, past the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre and into the adjoining gardens, with all the canal boats and swans and Bard-inspired flower features.  It really is the loveliest town I’ve come across so far during my England travels; I know I’m a little biased (I’ve been a Shakespeare fan since the age of 16) but the town council & local businesses really do a good job of keeping everything in beautiful condition.  I stopped by a grocery store to buy a sandwich for dinner and a discounted bag of day-old bread, and found a spot to feed the Queen’s swans.  Then I was able to catch a small theatre production of “Sense & Sensibility” at the Lazy Cow, walking back by moonlight to the B&B later that night.

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Stratford’s Swans

Flower gardens inspired by Shakespeare's words

Flower gardens inspired by Shakespeare’s words

Boats on the Avon at dusk (Anyone recognize these??? :)

Boats on the Avon at dusk – Anyone recognize these??? 🙂

Moonlight on the Avon

Moonlight on the Avon

After an immense breakfast the next morning (complete with vegetarian sausage!), I set out on a walk to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, the home where Shakespeare’s wife was born & raised.  They have really beautiful sweet pea exhibits there during the summer that I’d seen last time, and so I wanted to return to visit them again.  From there I headed back into town (I did a LOT of walking that day) to visit some of the other Shakespeare houses.  I especially like New Place, which is the site where Shakespeare returned to live at the end of his life, after he’d finished writing and acting in London for many years (the house no longer exists but they know this is where it was, and it was also where he drew his last breath).  When I was here in 2012, there was an interesting and extensive archeological dig happening onsite at New Place, with labyrinths and pits and dirt everywhere; but this time, it had been filled completely in and was covered with a perfectly level green lawn.  I enjoyed standing on the site where his house had once stood and looking out at the exact view across the street that Shakespeare would’ve looked upon: the Guild Chapel, the schoolhouse where he attended classes as a boy, and the timber-framed Falcon Hotel.  I also especially like the gardens at New Place, with the old mulberry trees and the view through the flowers of the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre just down the street.

Anne Hathaway's Cottage under brilliant blue skies

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage under brilliant blue skies

View of the theatre peeking through the flowers in the New Place garden

View of the theatre peeking through the flowers in the New Place garden

Looking toward Guild Chapel through the sculptures in New Place garden

Looking toward Guild Chapel through the sculptures in New Place garden

The room where Shakespeare was born, at Shakespeare's Birthplace House

The room where Shakespeare was born, at Shakespeare’s Birthplace House

The view Shakespeare himself would have had from his final home site.

The view Shakespeare himself would have had from his final home site.

From there I headed back down a side street to the antiques store where I’d found a special silver charm there two years ago; I lost the charm after coming home, but after sifting through a few trays this time, I was able to find a replacement…not quite the same, but similar, and it felt nice to have it with me again.  I migrated towards Shakespeare’s Birthplace House and decided to go through it again; I’m glad I did, as there were new exhibits to see and new people to meet.  I spent the rest of the day just wandering and relaxing, buying some souvenir gifts, and visiting old haunts.  I admit to looking at more than a few real estate office window postings as I walked along that day, of apartments and businesses and country homes…ah, “perchance to dream.”

ONLY $827,580.00 - a bargain!

ONLY $827,580, a bargain!

The following day was Friday and I’d booked a trip ahead of time with a brand spanking new company called “Go Cotswolds,” for a day tour out southwest of Stratford to see this designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  During my trip here two years ago I’d actually mapped out a route to bike from Stratford to the Cotswolds, but it rained so much then and many roads were flooded so I played it safe and didn’t go.  So I was pleasantly surprised to find this new company (again, on Twitter), and as it turned out I was their very first official (paying) customer!  When the owner Tom picked me up at the B&B that morning about 9:45, I learned I was to be the sole client that day, so I felt pretty special getting a personal tour on their first day out.

The Cotswolds are quite famous throughout the UK, and the towns throughout the region, all their houses built of the same honey-colored stone and many with storybook thatched roofs, do get their fair share of tourists.  It’s the region itself that is the draw rather than one specific attraction – the rolling hills dotted with sheep, the tranquil streams flowing through the quaint villages filled with lovely tea rooms, and the untouched-by-time sense of peacefulness that pervades the countryside. We made about 10 stops during our 8-hour day, getting out of the mini-bus to walk around some of the towns and see some of the sights (rookie mistake: I wore new shoes I hadn’t broken in completely, without any socks, so I had a few unwelcome souvenir blisters by the end of the day).  I was surprised at the end by the ring of Rollright Stones, like a worn-down mini-Stonehenge that I’d never heard of but enjoyed seeing.  I’m glad I took the whole day to explore the famous Cotswolds, even if it was a bit of a whirlwind outing.

Good view of the honey stone buildings that make up the Cotswolds - here, in Chipping Campden

Good view of the honey stone buildings that make up the Cotswolds – here, in Chipping Campden

The most perfect "chocolate box house"

The most perfect “chocolate box house” – can actual humans really live here?

Lavender is everywhere in the Cotswolds

Lavender is everywhere in the Cotswolds

The Rollright Stones

The Rollright Stones

Saturday was my last day in Stratford, and I made the most of it with a peaceful river cruise up and down the Avon, which I wasn’t able to do in 2012 due to the flooded waterway.  As I waited for the boat to show up at the mooring, I had a nice conversation with a very elderly German woman, despite the fact she didn’t speak any English at all; she did have an electronic translation device and through gestures and smiles and a lot of typing on her part, I learned she was there with a group from Germany for the whole week.  She was 84 years old and it was her first time to Stratford, but she too had been a Shakespeare fan her whole life – another testimonial to his worldwide reach and influence.  I sat next to a couple from Wales on the boat and treated them to free drinks with some coupons I had.  We even got to witness some boat races on the river that day as we sailed gently past the theatre, church, and butterfly farm.  (If it all sounds incredibly quaint, it is, it’s like a fairytale town in many ways…)

River cruise past the RSC theatre

River cruise past the RSC theatre

River cruise down the Avon

River cruise down the Avon

You simply can’t go to Stratford without attending at least one show at the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre (or at least I can’t), and I’d purchased my ticket for Two Gentleman of Verona months in advance as the main birthday gift to myself.  I was lucky actually because this was the opening preview night of the play and was my last night in Stratford, the only chance I’d have to see a production this trip.  I’d read the play a few months prior in my weekly Shakespeare reading group in Austin, and was eager to see the RSC version since this was the first time in 45 years that The Two Gentlemen of Verona had been performed in full production on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage.  (It’s not one of the more popular Shakespeare plays, has the smallest cast of any of the plays, and is generally recognized by many as perhaps his first-written work.)

View out upon the town centre from balcony of RSC theatre

View out upon the town centre from balcony of RSC theatre

A light rain began to fall just as I made my way from a pre-show dinner into the theatre and found my seat high up on the first row of the second balcony.  It was really a perfectly-located seat with a prime vantage point, and as I turned around I glanced down at the seat and drew a sharp breath at what I saw:

What?????!!!

What?????!!!

I was sitting in the seat of SIR PATRICK STEWART!!  Yes that Patrick Stewart – the one I share a birthday with, the one who makes it so, the one who is without question one of the preeminent Shakespearean actors of all time.  I’ve been an uber-fan of Patrick Stewart for over twenty years now – I’ve seen every movie, TV episode and play he’s ever done, I’m pretty sure.  This random seat selection bestowed upon me by the RSC ticket office was completely unplanned, but it felt like a sign, and I stood there for a good two minutes just staring at it.  Yes it may have just been a tribute seat given to him by the RSC in honor of his magnificentness (and probably generous theatre support on his part), OR – and I choose to believe this option – this is his actual designated seat that he sits in when he takes in a show.  I pointed at it while I gaped at the couple sitting behind me, explaining my awe: “Do you see what seat I’m sitting in??  Do you see that?  I can’t believe this.  Look, his name is right on it!  I can’t believe this.  I didn’t plan this.  Do you see that?” 

It may have been the best single moment of my entire three-week trip.  And after that, how could it not be a great last night in Stratford?  The set decoration of the play was fantastic and the real dog who played the canine character of Crab was a huge hit.  I continued the birthday tradition I set during my first visit two years ago by treating myself after the play to a heavenly sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream, my self-proclaimed birthday cake without the candles.  It was a little bittersweet – both the pudding cake and the fact that I was celebrating alone, but I know how lucky I was to even be there and so I was grateful.

Set of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" inside the RSC

Set of “Two Gentlemen of Verona” inside the RSC

The world's best sticky toffee pudding.

The world’s best sticky toffee pudding.

The next morning – Sunday and my actual birthday – I set out early to catch the train to London for my last three days in England.  I was sad to leave Stratford-upon-Avon but I will be back again someday, of that I’m sure.  I’d actually really love to be there during Christmas one year, I hear it’s even more beautiful during the holidays, if that’s possible.  London is only a two-hour train ride south of Stratford, but it’s a whole other world unto itself, which is why I’ll save the details of those days for my last Tour de England post.  Stay tuned and thanks for reading!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Tour de England 2014 – Week 2: Yorkshire and Le Tour de France

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“I pray you, do not push me…”  ~William Shakespeare (The Winter’s Tale, III, ii)

Welcome to Part 2 of my Tour de England series, accounting my recent three-week trip to the sceptered isle.  This week’s post is a sporting one, describing my time in the Yorkshire region of England to see and be part of the world’s biggest and most beautiful bike race, Le Tour de France.  If you missed Part 1 of the series last week (recounting my time in Windsor, Surrey & Bath), you can read it here.

On my 7th day in England, I boarded a train in Bath and settled in for the 3.5 hour journey north, to Yorkshire county and its biggest city of Leeds.  Home to famous windswept moors and dales, the largest county in England was a magnificent choice to host the first two days – the Grand Départ – of the 2014 Tour de France.  From there the race moved south, starting in Cambridge and finishing in London, before the teams then flew back to mainland France for the duration of the Tour.

Yorkshire county, England

Yorkshire county, England

Many people are surprised to find out that the Tour forays quite frequently into other countries, having started outside the French borders on at least 20 occasions now.  It’s a great opportunity for cycling fans of other lands to participate in the spectacle that is the Tour, and Yorkshire did not disappoint.  I’d seen the Tour in France in 2010, during a fantastic turn around the Alps region, but when I heard the announcement that the 2014 version was starting in England – well, let’s just say I started planning this vacation a long time ago, over a year in advance.  For an admitted Anglophile and a longtime fan of the Tour, this was a kickoff not to be missed.

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I arrived in Leeds on a Wednesday afternoon, with the Tour slated to start on  Saturday morning.  I wanted to give myself plenty of time to become familiar with the area and also have time to explore before the big day.  Yorkshire had been planning for this for over a year, and the Tour spirit was in overload from the moment I stepped off the train:  huge banners in the train station welcoming the Tour crowds, visitor centres overrun with Tour merchandise, and the color yellow everywhere you looked.  (For my non-cycling fan readers, yellow is the color of the jersey that the leader wears during the race and is the coveted final prize at the end for the overall winner.)

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Even King Richard got a yellow jersey.

The Tour itself is a virtual traveling city, with 2,500 people moving each day from stage to stage in different cities, including not just the teams and their management (and huge team buses) but all of the hundreds of journalists & media personnel, the staff who set up and take down all of the start and finish sets, course marshals, security & police personnel…it’s really quite amazing to see it all up close.  I’d seen it before in 2010 and I was in awe again this time to see the magnitude of this daily transient grand operation.  But the other thing this means is that any hotel room within several miles of the start/finish points is reserved well over a year in advance, and any that aren’t are accompanied by shockingly high nightly rates.

So I considered myself lucky to find a fairly nice secluded hotel 2.5 miles away from the city centre for not much more than my allotted nightly budget.  This meant however, negotiating the bus system from the train station to the nearest drop-off point and then walking almost another mile (uphill) to get to the hotel.  The outside of the hotel was beautiful, with lovely gardens, but unfortunately came with a bed that was a spring-laden miniature torture chamber (so no they did not get a great TripAdvisor review).  That night I ventured back down the hill for some adventurous Algerian food for dinner, and tried to get some sleep (but without much success).

The next morning I took the bus back into the city centre and examined the square where the race would kickoff on Saturday.  The Town Hall and Library were rolling out the yellow carpet, literally, for that evening’s team parade prior to the opening ceremonies.   I stood on the starting line where the cyclists would roll out on Saturday, and walked the length of the street where they would ride on their way out of town.  Leeds is apparently known for its elaborate shopping “arcades” or covered-lane mall-type areas, so I walked up and down all the pedestrian-only streets, not so much to shop but just to absorb the atmosphere.  Leeds is a big city anyway, but hosting the Tour meant extreme crowds everywhere you turned, so I felt I had to be extra-vigilant at all times.

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I headed back to the city centre to wander through some special cycling exhibits at the Leeds Public Library and then the Leeds Museum before grabbing an afternoon tea.  By this time I’d scoped out a good spot to watch the team parade on a grass planter and went to stake my spot around 4:00.  The parade wasn’t due to start until 6:00 but already a huge crowd was massing.  The English woman sitting next to me was a Tour Maker, one of the tens of thousands of Tour volunteers for the Grand Départ and very visible in her bright blue official shirt, and for the next several hours we formed an impromptu friendship (as one must do, especially for spot-saving when one has to run to the loo).

The team parade was great!  All of the 198 cyclists from all 22 teams rode past us at a relaxed, leisurely pace, followed by their team cars, before continuing onto the coliseum up the hill for the evening ceremony events.  I had contemplated going to the opening ceremony but tickets were about $85 for just the cheap seats, and I figured I could see all of them anyway during the two-hour parade.  Some of the cyclists were taking pictures of their teammates with their phones while they rode, others were waving to the fans, and of course the crowd favorites were treated to huge unending cheers all along the parade route.  Marcel Kittel’s hair was in perfect form of course and got its own cheers.

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One of my favorite teams, Orica Greenedge from Australia.

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The crowd favorite Team Sky & defending Tour champion Chris Froome.

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British sprinter & crowd favorite Mark Cavendish

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Team selfies & Marcel Kittel’s perfect hair

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Shut Up Legs

The next morning I decided to take the train for a day trip to Harrogate, the finishing town for the first day of racing the following day.  Even though I would be going back to Harrogate on Saturday to see the finish, I knew it would be extremely crowded and impossible to really move around or see the town like it would be if I went a day ahead.  And I’d heard Harrogate was really lovely so I wanted to take that time to see it.  I’m glad I did!  (If I haven’t mentioned yet how much I love England’s train system, let me do so now – it’s really a marvel and so easy to get around…except when it’s not, which I’ll cover a little later.)

Some of the green Yorkshire hills between Leeds & Harrogate

Some of the green Yorkshire hills between Leeds & Harrogate, as seen from my train window.

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It was a 1.5 mile walk from my hotel to the Burley Park station north of Leeds, but a short 30 minute train ride to Harrogate, (for what would take the cyclists 5 hours the next day to get there on a long roundabout loop) and when I arrived I was even more impressed with the Tour spirit that I saw in this much smaller quaint town (72,000 people compared to Leeds’ 750,000).  There were yellow bikes displayed EVERYWHERE!  Restaurants, hotels, offices, pubs – every single house and place of business had a sign or a bike or something displayed related to the Tour.  And thousands of feet of bunting strung up everywhere, made up of little baby knitted cycling jerseys.  And a huge Fan Park with big screen TVs and cycling history exhibits.  And trees carved into Tour de France works of art.  Fantastic effort by Yorkshire, chapeau!

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Sir Bradley Wiggins, 2012 Tour winner & Olympic champion but not chosen by his team for this year’s race, was missed by his British fans.

After I got a pretty good drenching from a brief British bout of rain (of course this happened right after I lost my umbrella but before I could dart to buy a new one), I met up briefly with a contact who works for French TV and the Tour.  He’s a retired French pro cyclist but now is the one who calls all the TV shots for what is broadcast to the rest of the world covering the Tour.  He also owns the travel company with which I traveled in 2010 to see the Tour then, so I’d met him before and had stayed in touch a little over the past few years.

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FranceTVsport truck with it’s huge telescoping TV screen

He agreed to meet up in Harrogate to say hi and was nice enough to take me behind the crowd barriers to give me a brief tour of the inside of the FranceTV media truck where he works, as well as the other broadcast stations where sports commentators from around the world sit and call the shots for their home telecasts.  He also walked me over to the NBC American broadcast truck; he knows Paul Sherwen and Bob Roll so he introduced me as they walked out and we chatted for a few minutes, which was great!  I was super surprised to see recently-retired American Christian VandeVelde also walk out a minute later (I didn’t know then he’d been hired for the commentating team!) so I met him too.  Actually I’d met Bob Roll once before in 2010 when he was broadcasting then and he signed my Texas flag, which I reminded him of, but it was great to meet and talk with him again.

NBC Sports Network broadcast truck

NBC Sports Network broadcast truck

After another afternoon tea on the sidewalk of a Harrogate cafe and a stroll around the shop-lined streets to scope out where I thought I could watch the finish the next day, I boarded the train back to Leeds.  That evening I ate in a little cafe run by a Romanian couple and had a nice time chatting with the wife about how they found themselves in Leeds, England of all places.  I was continually struck during my entire time in England about the diversity of peoples you find nearly everywhere in the country, from all over the world.

I knew the next morning would be an early one.  Foregoing a free breakfast at the hotel, I was standing outside waiting for a taxi at 6:45 AM to take me to the train station, where I dropped off my luggage at a holding area and then walked the few blocks back up to the city centre where the Tour would start.  By 7:15 AM I had found a spot right against the barrier on the sidewalk of the main street, right at the corner where the riders would turn in to go sign in on the race podium before heading back out to line up for the start, which was about 50 yards up the street.  It was a primo location…but also a receptacle of back-aching pain.  The race wouldn’t start until 11:00 AM, which meant 4 hours of standing in one very crowded, very small spot of concrete.  Many people around me had been there since 6:00 AM or earlier to get a good spot.  It takes a serious fan to queue for a Tour de France viewing location!

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My vantage point of the sign-in podium on a rainy morning.

Standing right next to me were a father-son pair from Lincolnshire who’d made the trip to Leeds and who were among the many Team Sky superfans there to support their team.  They were very nice and agreed to save my spot when, around 9:30, I decided I should try to find a bathroom.  A much-scaled-down version of the publicity caravan had already passed by on the route, but the riders weren’t due to show up until 10:00.  Leeds did a great job of organizing the Grand Départ with one notable exception:  NO PUBLIC TOILETS.  Anywhere.  What the heck Leeds???  I was forced to run several blocks over to a mall, then up 4 escalator flights to a pay-toilet, and by the time I sprinted back, it had been about 25 minutes.  By this time the start-line crowds were 10-deep or more on both sides and crammed in like sardines.  I squeezed and pushed my way back through to my spot, which now was half the tiny patch of concrete it was before, and was actually boo’d by those I bypassed…the father-son companions had genuinely-scared looks on their faces as I professed many thank you’s to them, telling me “You almost caused a riot, everyone was yelling at us for not moving your backpack and letting someone else in your spot!”  There was a particularly mean-spirited very short grandmotherly woman standing right behind me who shot dagger looks at me the rest of the morning and kept shoving me into the barrier (which I thought was very un-English of her).  So this begs the question:  how does everyone else do it, how do they stand there for hours upon hours without bathroom breaks, and especially after drinking all that TEA?  Adult diapers?  Severe self-dehydration starting the day before?  I still don’t get it.

My favorite souvenir from the Publicity Caravan's prize buckets.

My favorite souvenir from the Publicity Caravan’s prize buckets.

Well anyway, at 10:00 all the riders started rolling up to sign in and do interviews on the grandstand, still in relaxed and festive moods.  And then they started lining up right in front of me in the Neutral Zone area, awaiting the 11:00 rollout.  The father-son duo went gaga when Team Sky & British defending Tour champion Chris Froome stopped right in front of us to make some bike adjustments, and it was fun to see their pure joy reaction at getting a little smile from him when they shouted “Good luck out there Chris!”  I watched British sprinter-star & stage-winner favorite for that day Mark Cavendish give an interview about two feet in front of me, multiple microphones thrust in his face, none of us knowing that it would be his first and, sadly, last day of this year’s Tour (more on that later).  I could’ve reached out and touched controversial Alberto Contador as he cleaned and twisted his bright yellow sunglasses.  I could hear Fabian Cancellara laughing as he joked (in Fabianese) with the riders sitting next to him. 

The riders start to appear for the sign-in.

The riders start to appear for the sign-in.

Canadian champion Svein Tuft

Canadian champion Svein Tuft

One of my favorite riders, Welshman Geraint Thomas (on R in white sunglasses)

One of my favorite riders, Welshman Geraint Thomas (on R in white sunglasses)

Cavendish rolls up to sign in and talk with fans

Cavendish rolls up to sign in and talk with fans

Chris Froome tweaks his bike computer

Chris Froome tweaks his bike computer

Cavendish conducting some last minute interviews

Cavendish conducting some last minute interviews

Cancellara shoots the breeze with Frank Schleck

Cancellara shoots the breeze with Frank Schleck

The rider on the right just wants to get going already...

The rider on the right just wants to get going already…

Alberto Contador in his unmissable neon yellow-green kit.

Alberto Contador in his unmissable neon yellow-green kit.

Cycling fans love cycling because you can get that close to your favorite riders – at the start, the finish, on the rest days, and on all the roads in-between.  It’s a true fan’s sport, cycling, with so many nations represented and so many different dramas going on within the race.  Yes it’s had its obvious struggles and challenges and it’s been tough to not get disheartened over the years, but cycling is changing, and the fans know this, so they stick with it, even if that means standing in one spot for hours until you can no longer feel your feet or lower spine.

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The official start line for the Grand Départ

I’d never been right on the start line of any Tour stage before, much less the Grand Départ, and the atmosphere was absolutely buzzing.  I’ve heard that there were 280,000 people crammed into that start area with me that morning in Leeds – it seemed like more.  With the last rider signed in, the final countdown started and with a cacophony of pedal clips they were off, slowly making their way through the massive crowds and into the distance to begin their 3-week adventure/sufferfest.  We cheered them off and then cheered some more as each multimillion dollar team bus rolled through the start line after them, those impeccable imposing team refuges that harbor the riders before and after each stage and transport them around the Tour.  The bus that got the biggest cheer though wasn’t Team Sky’s shiny black “Death Star” – nope, it was the tiny little cartoonish camper van bus at the back of the pack, belonging to the wildcard team NetApp-Endura, who had never been to the Tour before and whose entire team budget is a meager one-eighth that of the juggernaut Team Sky.  With barely any windows and no chance of getting stuck under a finish line gantry, they became immediate crowd favorites for their underdog status.

The riders were on their way to Harrogate that day for the finish, and so was I.  But this blog post is already crazy long so I’ll continue the tale in the next entry.  Stay tuned to hear about the world’s longest train lines and glimpses of royalty (specifically, their feet).  More Tour de France up-close-and-personal next time!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Tour de England 2014 – Week 1: Windsor, Surrey, Bath

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 “I dare meet Surrey in a wilderness…” ~William Shakespeare (Richard II, IV, i)

I’m in tea-and-scone withdrawal as I write this, having recently returned from a wonderful, exhausting, memorable three-week solo vacation to England.  I organized my trip around another fantastic opportunity to see the Tour de France, with the rare occasion of the three-week race kicking off in the beautiful Yorkshire region of the UK (before then heading back to France).  Before too much time passes, I wanted to write down the details of my trip in an anglophile account of my own personal Tour de England.

Tour de England 2014

Tour de England 2014

(Disclaimer: Tour de England posts shall be longer than my usual rantings, there’s a lot to cover!)

This is post 1 of 3, and the series will cover my itinerary as follows:  Week 1- Windsor, Surrey & Bath; Week 2 – Leeds, York & the Tour de France; Week 3 – Shakespeare Country & London.

When I went to England last time in 2012 for the World Shakespeare Festival, just prior to the 2012 London Olympics, I stayed for 9 nights/10 days, which sped by in the blink of an eye.  I told myself then that I wanted to go back to England for a longer amount of time, to see more of the country than I had before, and to go at a time when the rest of the entire world wasn’t there at the same time (like they were for the very-crowded Olympics).

Because I was able to use my frequent flier miles to get a free airline ticket this time (well, $192 in taxes & fees which is pretty much a free ticket to London in peak July), I was able to budget to stay a little more than double the time of my last trip.  Three weeks is a very long vacation, I discovered, both in terms of time and expense.  I think it may be longest “real” vacation I’ve ever taken, and if I had to do it over I’d probably decrease it by just a few days – maybe.  But I realize how lucky I was to be able to even go on this trip at all, so I’m not complaining!

(The price I paid for that “free” ticket was unfortunately the smallest, most cramped economy seat I’ve ever been in, on a Virgin Atlantic flight, setting very close to a brand-new college graduate on a celebration trip to Europe who was on his ways to run with the bulls in Spain but who smelled like he’d already done so.  The service on Virgin was also unfortunately really bad, so I won’t be flying that airline again unless by some miracle I have a first-class fold-down.)

I wasn’t able to sleep at all on the flight over, so by the time I got to London Heathrow I was already pretty tired.  I’ve always heard though that the best way to combat jet lag is to not go to bed when you get there from an overnight flight – that you should stay up the rest of the day and then go to bed at the new-country time.  Trouble is that means you’ve been up about 36 hours straight by that time.  That didn’t work out for me too well on my 2012 trip when I spent my first day on a blurry trip to Stonehenge, and it didn’t work out this time either so I didn’t learn my lesson apparently.

My plan this trip was to head directly from the airport to Windsor via bus, drop my bags at my B&B, then head to Windsor Castle to walk off the jet lag on a transitional day.  The first part of that plan went well, and after a short 30-minute bus trip west of Heathrow, I was at the Castle by 10:00 AM.  Because I was traveling alone and not part of one of the huge bus groups snaking around the block, I was told to bypass the lines & go right in.  I immediately caught a warder-led tour of the grounds and I was the only one to show up to the meeting point, so I got my own personal tour which was very nice.

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However, by this time as I wandered around the rest of the castle grounds on my own, I started to feel not-great.  I hadn’t had anything to eat in a while, I know I was dehydrated, but mostly I was just sleep-deprived.  As I walked through an archives exhibit in one of the castle towers, I started to feel very lightheaded and fuzzy, spacey.  I sat down for a while, but after only two hours I decided to go back to the B&B.  It was unfortunate, since it cost $32 to get into the Castle (which I think it pretty pricey for what you actually have access to , which is not much, including a very underwhelming Henry VIII tomb), but jet lag seemed to be hitting me much worse this trip than the past few times over the ocean.

I succumbed to the sleepiness, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a better nap than I did that afternoon at that B&B – in a second floor room with the window open, a cool British breeze blowing in, overlooking the sights and sounds of a cricket practice field session.  I felt much better a few hours later, good enough to venture out to a pub down the street for some dinner and then a walk around the neighborhood, including down by the riverside.  I followed that same river walking path the next morning as I ventured back into the town; Windsor is actually a nice little town, overshadowed by the Castle of course but with some other quaint aspects too.

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A floating flower/plant canal boat shop! (In Windsor)

After a relaxing river cruise through the waters of Windsor and a stop at a coffee shop with a castle view, I got on the train for my next destination: Surrey.  Surrey is a county in southern England, just slightly southwest of the greater London area.  It’s very popular with London commuters for its proximity, and is said to have the highest percentage of millionaires who live there over any other county in England (and therefore the highest property values outside of London proper).  It’s also the most wooded county in the country, with almost a quarter of its land covered by forests, heaths & woodlands, which make it a very beautiful place.

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Surrey County, England

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Surrey County map – my base was Godalming

Many of you reading this may have never heard of Surrey, or the town of Godalming, which was my base for 3 days while visiting the county.  When looking at the map above, you won’t see any world-famous tourist towns within those county lines (although true fans of ‘The Office’ will notice Slough, hometown of the original British series).  So why was this region on my itinerary?  It was actually perhaps the part of my trip I was looking forward to the most, as I was on a genealogical quest to explore the part of England from where my family surname originated.

Through some web research several months earlier,  I’d found a man who is a genealogical and historical researcher in his spare time and maintains the British website for that research pertaining to our common family name.  I reached out to Martin to let him know I’d like to visit the area during my trip to see the land of my ancestors, and he graciously offered to be my tour guide for a day.

And what a day!  Martin drove down from Woking to pick me up from my B&B and we set off as new-found long-lost cousins; over the next several hours we drove through lush Surrey countryside and impossibly perfect English towns.  We stopped in six different locations to view some of the earliest existing tombs and graves of our family ancestors (at incredibly ancient churches in Thursley & Lynchmere that date back to Saxon times, that’s 450-800 AD people), peek through fences at some of the original property sites and homes of the earliest family members, and my favorite: visiting the actual site of the spring well pond after which our family is named.  The pond (located next to the petite hamlet of Bowlhead Green) only fills during the winter, so I was actually able to stand in the middle of the dry spring well bed and think of what it was like to live there almost 800 years ago (yes you read that right – the first recorded mention of our family name was in the year 1235!).  I like to imagine a hardworking agricultural laborer taking a break from his work for a nearby estate owner, relaxing by the welcoming banks of this still, clear, well-spring in the shady glade, and deciding to make a fresh start with his family by forming a new name for all of them.

(By the way, my Marvel-crazy nephews will love finding out that the small village of our ancestors, Thursley, draws its name from Old English Þunres lēah meaning lea of the god Thunor or Thor [in his northern guise], and was probably a site where he was worshipped).

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Saxon-era church in Thursley & tombs of some of our earliest family ancestors

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It was a fantastic memory-making day with my walking-history-book guide Martin, and I was very appreciative that he was willing to share his research with me and drive me around his beautiful Surrey lands.  After our visit Martin began a new quest to enlist the help of nearby residents in restoring and rebuilding the pond to its former glory days, which gives me a great reason to return one day and sit by the banks of our namesake’s nature retreat.  I feel as if I’ve made a very real connection to England now, both in terms of existing family members (distant though they may be) and historical links to the land to which I’ve always felt drawn.

I spent the other two days of my time in Surrey exploring the towns of Godalming and Guildford.  I walked the town streets, perused the street market stalls, and strolled along the river paths and through castle gardens.  I talked to locals about what it was like to live in this area (and learned what a Scotch Egg is).  I attended a play in Guildford called “The Other Shakespeare,” about the Bard’s wife Anne Hathaway and her reaction to being left by him for much of their married life.  My gracious B&B owners invited me to accompany them one night to a special exhibit at the Watts Gallery, which was amazing; before this trip I’m embarrassed to say I’d never even heard of the artist George Frederick Watts, but I’m definitely a fan now of his gargantuan sculptures and evocative paintings. (The exhibit by the way was about his young wife Ellen Terry, one of the earliest Shakespearean star actresses in silent films.)

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The town church of Godalming; perhaps my favorite picture of my whole trip that I took peeking through the garden roses.

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Guildford castle grounds

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Godalming’s famous “Pepper Pot.” (By the way, Godalming was the first city in the world to install a municipal electricity supply!)

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My time in Surrey was definitely the most meaningful segment of my entire journey.  I’m so glad I got off the beaten path and chose to take the non-tourist road less traveled.  I was sad to leave Surrey for my next stop of Bath, but…I LOVED BATH!

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  • That wasn’t my first reaction.  In fact, the afternoon I arrived in Bath and walked around the city to gain my bearings, I thought “Ugh, every building looks EXACTLY the same, how boring.”  But then I saw the gothic Bath Abbey, and Pultney Bridge over the river, and the buildings of the Roman Baths…and then on a fantastic free walking tour the next day, the famous Circus and Royal Crescent buildings, the Assembly Rooms where Jane Austen danced & socialized…and the beauty of the city really began to grow on me.  Every building (by law) is indeed built out of the same famous Bath sand-colored stone, but the uniformity and symmetry and Georgian architecture is actually quite mesmerizing after a while.

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I really enjoyed the tour of Bath Abbey, where I climbed the 200+ steps to the windy rooftop and peered out at the sand-colored city below.  I chose to explore the Roman Baths by torchlight at dusk, once the crowds had died down, and was struck by the history and significance of the structures surrounding the waters (and yes I drank some of the sulfuric pump water, you have to try it at least once).  I regularly exercised my Bath-given right to daily afternoon tea and scones, the best of which were at the Jane Austen Centre Regency Tea Room.  I popped in to the Tallulah Rose Flower School to introduce myself as a longtime Twitter follower.  And after exploring the stately Holburn Museum and adjoining garden grounds at one end of the city, I walked the long way back to my B&B through real (non-tourist area) neighborhoods, which I like to do whenever possible in order to see what’s on the other side of the curtain.

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Oh and I practically brushed shoulders with actual royalty in Bath: Prince Edward was at Bath Abbey the same day I was to oversee the university graduation there in his role as chancellor, I saw him walk out at the front of the procession; and then he was apparently just a few minutes behind me at the Baths that evening (I was told when I bought my ticket not to mind the police dogs and bodyguards inspecting the site in advance).

I would definitely go back to Bath, and would like to see some of the surrounding countryside next time, which is supposed to be breathtaking.  I’m really glad I budgeted three days there and that I gave it a good chance – next time I may even splurge to swim in the healing bath waters.

Stay tuned for the next post when I cover Leeds, York & the Tour de France kickoff in England!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

 

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