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Operation UNunhappy Over & Out

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“And that letter hath she delivered, and there an end.”  ~William Shakespeare (Two Gentlemen of Verona, II, i)

SAVboatsnight

This will be the last entry of my “Operation UNunhappy” blog.  For those of you that have read all (or even some of) the words I’ve written over the past two and a half years through this outlet, I thank you and I appreciate your support.  I’m not saying I’ll never write or blog again, but if I do, it will be under a different guise and theme than this one.  I may keep this blog and just change the name, or maybe I’ll start a whole new one in the future…I haven’t decided yet.

What I have decided is that I have come to believe you can’t achieve happiness by constantly seeking it.  I believe that, if we’re lucky, we get to experience small moments of happiness here and there, every once in a while – sometimes they appear of our own making, and sometimes they are pleasant surprises bestowed upon us by others or by fate. I think mostly they’re just a byproduct of regular old life; hopefully just by living your life the best that you can, you have more happy moments than unhappy ones.  But to constantly be on some incredible journey to seek out this overarching, grandiose every-moment-of-life overflowing barrel of happiness – it’s just not possible.  Or advisable, in my opinion.  “Happy in that we are not over-happy,” said Hamlet, one of my favorite Shakespeare lines – even way back then, there was a cautiousness against overdoing it in the search for contentment.   

A few years ago I made some big changes in my life to try to get happier, which was the impetus for starting this blog.  Did the changes work?  In some ways, I’d say yes, definitely.  Has everything progressed the way I’d hoped it would?  I’d say no, not really.  I’m starting to feel stuck again and those feelings of wondering have come back, leading to ruts of anxiety and uncertainty and frustration.  One of the other reasons I don’t feel like continuing this blog series is because I fear it could be on the verge of becoming a constant complaint-fest about all of the many things and people I’m frustrated with – no one wants to read about that, and I don’t think it would be good for me to write about it all the time.  

I do feel like I get more easily and quickly frustrated with the daily intricacies of life than most people.  I don’t know if it’s a genetic thing or just my personality.  Maybe it’s that inner perfectionist that I keep trying to fight, wanting everyone and everything else to be perfect too.  I’ve had fantasies of just being completely 100% honest all the time with people and situations that irk the hell out of me, but I’d probably need to invest in some body armor if I wanted to make that dream a reality.  Why can’t we just say what we’re feeling and thinking of all the time?  (Or at least like 65% of the time?)  I mean, I know why, but it just seems sometimes that we’re so obsessed with being polite and non-confrontational that we’re dying inside of repressed feelings and sentiments that, if we could just free them, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all.  Maybe that’s the real key to contentment, but we’re so concerned with how everyone else feels all the time that we continually neglect our own needs of expression, and silently go on in glum survival-of-the-mediocre mode.  God I really must come from British roots after all…

I know I have it pretty good in the overall scheme of things.  Everyone has to deal with many aspects of life that are frustrating, annoying, angering, overwhelming, heartbreaking; if we’re lucky, we have family and friends and captive co-workers to be our sounding boards and help us through those tough times.  If we’re really lucky, we can afford to pay therapists to listen when family and friends get tired of doing it (or when we’re too annoyed with family and friends to talk to them about it). And if we’re broken – well, we all deal with that in different ways…some good, some not so good.  Healing is hard.

I’ve enjoyed writing this blog, and it helped me in many ways to face both past and present challenges.  It was cathartic to write about losses and traumas in my life (I still miss the smell of popcorn paws every day), and I meant every word of the heartfelt Life Letters to My Nephews; being Ant Kristi to my nephews is definitely near the top of the list of what makes me UNunhappy during the good times. Thanks for bearing with me as I waxed on (and on and on) about my trips to England and my fascination with the Tour de France.  And I apologize for those less-than-stellar posts (mediocre movie & croissant reviews, you know who you are). 

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I feel like I’ve gotten out of this blog what I needed to…and I hope it provided a moment or two of occasional entertainment, education, or value (somehow) for you too.  For better or worse, things end; isn’t that one of life’s most important lessons?  Thanks for the words of encouragement during these times of transitions over the past few years.  I’ll keep the blog site active for now and if you stay subscribed, you’ll get any new posts that may come along under a different/new blog name, but it may be a while. 

“Tis time, I think, to trudge, pack and be gone.”  (Yes, one last Shakespeare quote, from Comedy of Errors, which seems fitting for a large portion of my life thus far.  You are now freed from any more random Shakespeare quotes!)

Operation UNunhappy over and out.

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.

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

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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

Steady As She Went

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 “Quiet yourselves, I pray, and be at peace.” ~William Shakespeare (I Henry VI, IV, i)

I was just re-reading a few of my posts from this past year.  I didn’t write as many of them as I’d hoped, as I originally set out to make this a weekly blog.  But some weeks there just didn’t seem to be anything of import to write about, and I felt better once I lifted the expectation off of myself and just wrote instead when I felt like it (I also am happy to report I finally replaced my ID bracelet tag that used to read “Practice Makes Perfect,” so that expectation is now not always staring me in the face either).  Re-reading my posts from a year ago also reinforced the sensation of time passing at warp-speed – who was it that said the older you get, the faster time passes? 

Looking back on 2014, it was mostly a “steady-as-she-goes” year, I’d say.  The high point would definitely have to be my trip back to England during the summer – a solo sojourn around ancestral lands and a Yorkshire depart that gave me memories to last a lifetime.  The low points have been several months worth of annoying and nagging illness that I’ve already written about, so I won’t rehash it here, but feeling not-great for six months out of the year (or more) is not something I hope to repeat. 

A return to the mother land in 2014.

A return to the mother land in 2014.

The biggest change of 2014 for me was the self-imposed drastically revised diet that I’ve undertaken in order to improve my health; I’m still trying to get used to it and after three months, it’s still pretty difficult.  I used to love food and looked forward to a satisfying breakfast or a fun weekend treat…but now eating just seems more of a necessary chore, with not much joy in it at all unfortunately.  My revised regime is low-acid, low-fat, no-caffeine, no-tannins; this means very little tasty is left.  Not allowed is anything containing citrus or citric acid; tomato base of any kind; onions or garlic; carbonated drinks; cheese; chocolate; 99% of teas; anything with a cream base; the list goes on.  I’ve even had to give up most fruits except for melons and pears, and no juices are allowed.  I haven’t had one bite of pizza or chocolate or cheese, Mexican or Italian food, ice cream, queso, anything spicy, etc, for over 3 months now.  Office potlucks and family dinners have become uncomfortable and depressing.  Going out to eat is near impossible – so much is cooked with something that I can’t have. 

The good news is that these diet changes, along with my medication and lifestyle changes, are making a difference I believe – slowly but surely I have been feeling better, in terms of the symptoms I’d been having when all of this started in August.  It also helped that President Obama was recently diagnosed with the same issue I’ve been having (silent/airway reflux, or LPR in medical terms = laryngopharyngeal reflux); it made it more real somehow, that it wasn’t just a made-up thing I’d invented for myself. 

Getting back to the year in review – I think what was really most comforting about this year was the fact that despite some health issues and my ever-increasing debt burden, things stayed pretty steady for me this year.  I didn’t have to quit a job, or go through the stress of looking for a new one.  I like where I work at my part-time job, the people there are nice and I feel confident in my abilities.  It only pays about half the bills but it’s so nice to have an enjoyable job for a change.  Things on the flower front with my business have been pretty slow this year, but I’m not letting that stress me out too much yet.  I’ve had a few flower jobs here and there and I hope to grow the business in 2015 even further.

To that end, I branched out just a little from the actual floral design part of the business to start offering a side item:  floral art note cards.  I enjoy taking pictures of flowers, both ones that I work with when I design but also floral nature scenes or garden scenery seen on my travels.  I like editing my pictures with photo software to make them really pop, and wanted to share them with others in some fashion – so I decided note cards might be a good way to do that.  I started an online handmade craft shop through Etsy, where a LOT of other people also showcase and sell their handmade wares, it’s a great site.  If you’re so inclined, please pop over to have a look at my card designs, I’d be very grateful:  www.Etsy.com/shop/MuchAdoAboutFlowers.

(Here are a few examples of some of my designs:)

iris

“Blue and Blue” Note Cards, image © Much Ado About Flowers

hydrangea

“Shades of Hydrangea” Note Cards, image © Much Ado About Flowers

"Pink Hydrangea" Note Cards, image © Much Ado About Flowers

“Pink Hydrangea” Note Cards, image © Much Ado About Flowers

I’m grateful that 2014 was also relatively calm and steady for most of my family members, although there were some bitter personal disappointments and some extended family health concerns that are still being dealt with.  The nephews are growing up so fast – with each new week they have gone through another change or struggle or triumph, and it’s interesting to watch.  I think 2015 may be a much choppier year in terms of waves of change for all of us in my little family circle, and I hope we’re able to handle it without too much stress.

And now I’m off to a quiet, and I hope peaceful, holiday here at home.  No travels for me this year (don’t want to add to that debt).  If you’re traveling I hope you have a safe journey, and thanks for continuing to follow me along in my UNunhappy meandering over the past year.  Wherever you are during this holiday season, I hope you also can find a little quite and peaceful time for yourself as well.   

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Final Reflections on Tour de England 2014

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 “I must to England; you know that?” ~William Shakespeare (Hamlet, III, iv)

If you missed my last several posts, I recapped my recent summer trip to the sceptered isle in a series I called Tour de England 2014.  (You can start with the first one here if you missed them.)  I wanted to take this opportunity to offer some final reflections on my travel experiences and on England itself based on my time and two trips there over the past two years.

My time in England in both 2012 and 2014 was overwhelmingly positive.  For a self-confessed Anglophile, getting to spend over a month of cumulative time there so far has been very fulfilling.  I already have many ideas for future UK trips and now just need to figure out a way to financially afford them!  While I’m mulling that over, here are some of the other positives from my England experiences, in no particular order:

  • Tea, of course – and the scones that go with it; I’ve tried to make my own scones but can’t even come close to actual English ones (I’ll keep trying).  I guess tea time is more of what I enjoy – that the Brits still take time out in the afternoon (and mid-morning, and any other time they can find) to slow down and “take tea;” it’s a welcome break from whatever is going on in the middle of the afternoon and it just seems so…civilized I guess.  The buttery pastries with cream and jam are literally the icing on the top.
Taking tea in Bath

Taking tea in Bath

  • British B&Bs that give discounts beyond the normal advertised rates to solo women travelers – very much appreciated! 
  • I really liked the grocery stores in the towns I visited – specifically, their ready-to-eat meal options such as sandwiches, pre-packed salads, etc.  They’re affordable and a much easier option than a sit-down restaurant, especially for dinner when things get pretty pricey.  And they offer “meal deals” for those pre-packed options, so if for example you get a sandwich, side of pasta and a drink, the prices go down even more.  AND they always had vegetarian and vegan options, I became especially fond of Waitrose’s cheese & pickle relish sandwich.
  • TRAINS!  I love the fact that I can really go anywhere I want in the entire country without a car, although it does limit smaller side trips to more remote areas where the train doesn’t reach.  If you get your tickets far enough in advance you can get some good prices, and so far at least in my experience, the trains are almost always on time.  For someone obsessed with punctuality, I can really appreciate that.
  • On the not-having-a-car front, I really enjoyed the fact that once the train (or tube, in London) did drop me off somewhere, that meant I had to walk everywhere for the duration of my stay.  I guess I could’ve taken a taxi sometimes, but I didn’t mind the walking, and it was great exercise.  It was not uncommon at all for me to walk 5 miles or more in a day, just walking around town and seeing the sights.
  • This trip, I returned to both Stratford-upon-Avon and London, places I’d visited on my last trip.  Some people would spend their valuable vacation time in new and unfound places, but I actually really enjoyed the aspect of comfort that I felt when I stepped foot back onto familiar territory.  This was the reason I saved these two stops for my last week in England; after two weeks of visiting new and unfamiliar places, I needed somewhere that felt a little more like home to balance out the trip.
  • Other than London, the weather was perfect for my trip – and I loved that I sometimes needed to wear a jacket and scarf IN JULY.  (Those of you who can’t understand this, spend just one indescribably sweltering hot day in Austin in the summer and you’ll get it.)  Being able to just open a window and enjoy the cool breeze with NO BUGS (another unheard of aspect in Austin) was wonderful.
  • The no-bugs aspect was a big one for me – it meant I could spend all that time walking outside at any time of the day or night without the constant mosquitoes that plague me mercilessly in Austin.  If mosquitoes do exist in England I never saw, heard or felt them.  It was bliss.
  • The historical significance of, well, practically everything in England.  The British are so good at having the foresight to save, preserve, and protect things for generations to come.  The church in Thursley where my family ancestors are buried dates from SAXON times, and it plods on in stubborn but imposing fashion.  It’s comforting, knowing that what’s been there for hundreds of years (or longer) will still be there the next time I visit.  It’s such a stark contrast to what we have in many parts of America, and my own little strip-mall-laden suburb of Austin where I live feels depressingly and completely devoid of culture and historical reference in comparison.
  • The Shakespeare tube map – a brilliant spin-off the traditional tube map but everything is named after the Bard’s plays and characters.  I first saw this on a tea-tray at one of my B&Bs, and then read more about its invention (by the RSC) at the V&A Museum exhibit in London.  Especially loved the little fork and spoon icon for the Titus Andronicus station…(things get a bit messy in that play)…
Shakespeare Tub Map

Shakespeare Tub Map

Fork & Spoon at the Titus stop

Fork & Spoon at the Titus stop

A windsock for Prospero's station

A windsock for Prospero’s station

  • Sticky toffee pudding.  Why don’t we have this in America??  (Or if we do it’s probably better I don’t know about it.)
  • Swans.  I know they have a reputation for being mean but there’s nothing quite so serene as sitting on the river bank feeding a group of graceful swans.  Just seeing them cut through the water in their stylish fashion is a calming influence.
The world's best sticky toffee pudding.

The world’s best sticky toffee pudding.

The Swans of the Avon

The Swans of the Avon

I wrote about many other positives in the past few posts, including the surprise of sitting in Sir Patrick Stewart’s seat at the Royal Shakespeare Company, getting to explore the land of my original ancestors, and all the new places I visited such as beautiful Bath and medieval York.  And of course there was the thrill of being there for the kickoff of the Tour de France in Yorkshire, including seeing veteran cyclist Jens Voigt in his last ever Tour and being on the very front line for the Grand Départ.  And it was in Leeds that I saw a restored French Citroen HY Van being used as a food truck, which gave me an idea for my own business that I’m pursuing as we speak, so hopefully that turns into another positive development as well.

Seen in Leeds: I NEED one of these Citroen HY Vans for my flower truck! If you know where I can get one, please let me know, thanks!

Seen in Leeds: I NEED one of these Citroen HY Vans for my flower truck! If you know where I can get one, please let me know, thanks!

My England glasses aren’t completely rose-colored…while I do love the country, there were definitely some negatives that put a damper on things from time to time:

  • By far, bar none, no contest, the worst thing about my time in England was the overwhelming number of SMOKERS.  You’d think it would only be a problem in London or the bigger cities, but no, the puffers are everywhere.  You can hardly walk down a street without having to waft through a cloud of choking smoke, it’s very discouraging.  And hold your breath as you come out of the tube stations or the airport or any restaurant, it’s the worst at those places.  It’s such a shame that this beautiful country is marred by such an ugly habit on the part of so many people.
  • No air conditioning – now I realize that this is a typical American complaint and that the temperate climate means England doesn’t need A/C most of the time…but on those really hot days during the middle of the summer, it seems like it would make for even happier guests if lodging accommodations would invest in some small room A/C units.  Or at least ceiling fans.  I got by without it most of the time without too much discomfort, but I wouldn’t have said no to it either.  And there’s nowhere in the entire country that A/C is needed more than the tube/underground in London.  How in the world have they gone this long with un-air-conditioned tube cars??
  • It bugged me that there was a fee for entry into the beautiful riverside park & gardens in Bath, and that the gates closed pretty early in the evening.  Parks should have free public access in my opinion, open for the enjoyment of all, not just those few that can afford a hefty entry fee.
  • I’m seriously not sure I can ever eat goat cheese again after my horrible GI episode in York induced by a bad batch of the stuff…
  • I purposefully arrived in many of my destinations without much of a plan this time, other than where I was going to stay and for how long.  Two years ago I’d planned every detail of my trip down to the minute, but this time I wanted to be more spontaneous.  What I learned about myself is that I need a mix of those two styles to balance out my stress and comfort levels.  There were times I was just aimlessly wandering about with no early idea of what to do or where to go next, and instead of being relaxing it just frustrated me because I felt like I was wasting valuable vacation time.  I’m really good at planning and details and research, so I need to realize that this is not a bad thing and let that drive my experience next time.
  • On many occasions I was met with very positive reactions on the fact that I was a solo female traveler.  People in general were always very nice and welcoming to me wherever I went.  But there were definitely a few instances of bias or rudeness against me simply because I was by myself.  I’ve come to expect this sometimes but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.  It usually happened in restaurants, where it’s still apparently a very strange anomaly in England to see a solo diner (I rarely if ever saw anyone else seated/dining alone other than me); waiters would frequently ask me in surprise “No one else is joining you tonight, are you sure?” (as if I didn’t know my own dining plans) or they would place me at a “hidden” table in a corner or behind a pillar, I guess because they thought I wouldn’t want to be seen dining alone.  And on the crowded train into London on my birthday, a woman with a kid asked me to give up my seat (after asking “Is it just you?”) so she and the kid could sit there; I wouldn’t have been so bothered if it had been a baby or small child but the kid was about 8 years old, why couldn’t they have stood for the remaining 30 minute trip, why did I as the single traveler who had purchased a seat have to be the one to give up my place?  I did give them my seat (the kid sat on her lap) but it really bugged me that I was singled out for my solo traveler status.

None of these negatives are enough to deter me from future England explorations, and in a way I actually enjoy getting to know the reality of it all, not just the for-show spins put on for the tourists.  Two years ago during my 2012 trip to Stratford, I met an American woman on the city walking tour that told me she spends a month every summer in England, usually in the same place, but rents a car to go on different explorations each time for day and weekend trips; she too really enjoyed the familiarity and comfort of staying in the same place each year.  The way she described it sounded like a really enticing idea to me, although I feel there are many other regions of the UK I’d still also like to explore that I haven’t seen yet:  Cornwall, Devon, Oxford, the Lake District, the castles of Wales, even Scotland one day (although we’ll find out next week if they’ll even remain a part of the UK). 

It may surprise you to hear that the best part of my Tour de England 2014 trip actually happened about a week after I got back to the States.  I came down with a cold the day after I returned, so it was a few more days before I could see my family & nephews, which meant it had been about a month since I’d seen them.  I walked into my 3-year old nephew Wyatt’s daycare classroom to pick him up at the end of the day but he didn’t know I was going to be there – when he turned around and saw I was there, the surprise registered on his little face and he smiled and shouted “Ant Kristi!!!” and ran to wrap his little arms around my neck.  A few minutes later we picked up my other two nephews from YMCA camp, also surprising them with my return.  I waved through the window at 8-year old Truman as he stood waiting by the side of the road and his face lit up – he ran around the car to get into the backseat, threw his backpack on the floor, and then floored me with my own surprise as he reached up into the front seat to give me the biggest, tightest, longest hug he’s ever given me.  My heart and my eyes were flooded that day as I realized I was loved and missed – pretty much the best thing in the world…even trumping tea and scones.

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Thanks for reading all about my England adventures and humoring me in my Anglophile ramblings.  On to new topics again soon!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Tour de England 2014 – Week 3: London Baby!

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“Sound drums and trumpets, and to London all: And more such days as these to us befall! ” ~William Shakespeare (II Henry IV, V, iii)

At the end of the last post, I was getting on yet another train during my recent Tour de England 2014, this time leaving Stratford-upon-Avon to spend the last three days of my trip in London.  During my last trip to the UK in 2012, I also spent a few days in London and was able to see many of the sights I’d always wanted to see: the Tower of London, a play at The Globe theatre, Westminster Abbey, the British Museum, the London Eye…among many others.  But let’s face it, once could spend a lifetime in London and probably still not see everything there is to be seen, so the key to spending just a few days there is making it manageable and enjoyable – and affordable, which is not an easy feat in the most expensive city in the world.

The day I got on that train to London was my birthday, and for some reason when I mapped out my trip I thought it would be a good plan to make my birthday a transition day.  I kind of wish now in hindsight I’d just stayed in Stratford and relaxed, but there’s another lesson learned.  The day started off good with a few very nice birthday cards from my family that I’d toted around England with me (including some of the world’s cutest handwritten messages by my nephews), and then a generous ride to the train station from my B&B owners.  It’s only two hours from Stratford to London, and once I arrived at Marylebone station I purchased a familiar Oyster tube card from the machines there and assumed my London vigilant travel persona.

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From nephew Hudson, that’s me next to Big Ben! (Juggling knives, apparently…)

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A very royal birthday declaration from nephew Truman

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And from 3-yr old nephew Wyatt, that’s a birthday cake!

I went a different route this time for London accommodations, and instead of a hotel, booked a spot in a guesthouse run by a private service.  It’s like a B&B but usually these houses only host one guest at a time.  My guesthouse was located in the very (apparently) trendy Holland Park area, just adjacent to Notting Hill and pretty close to a tube stop, just a few minutes walk. 

A street in the stylish Holland Park neighborhood

A street in the stylish Holland Park neighborhood

My guesthouse in Holland Park (the yellow one)

My guesthouse in Holland Park (the yellow one)

After depositing my bags I headed back out to my next destination: a Chocolate Tour of London.  I thought this sounded good – it does, doesn’t it?  I’d booked it a few months in advance and after a few lost moments around the Tottenham Court tube stop, found our meet-up spot a few streets away in front of an Arabic coffee shop.  It was hot, hot, hot this day in London, much warmer than at any other point on my trip so far, so that made the prospect of wandering around crowded London streets in a very large tour group to un-air-conditioned tiny chocolate shops much less appealing (even with the looming reward of free chocolate).

But wander around we did, about 30 of us (way too many people for this type of tour), through high-end shopping neighborhoods and Sunday street festivals filled with what seemed like every other vacationer in London that day.  Half of the chocolate samples offered to us contained rum or tequila, so I avoided those, and the other half contained coffee beans, so out of luck there too…  But I did enjoy our short jaunt through Fortnum & Mason, which I’m told is the grocery supplier of the royal family, and savored a raspberry-and-peanut-butter truffle at the last shop that packed a cute little powerful punch of cocoa-y goodness.  I wouldn’t do the tour again, but it was interesting to see a part of London I didn’t see last time and wouldn’t have gone to on my own.

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After the tour ended I took the tube to the St. Paul’s Cathedral stop, with a few hours to kill between then and my birthday finalé planned for later that night.  I’d seen the Cathedral on my last visit so didn’t go back inside, but instead sat on a bench right outside it and Skyped with my mom for a quick birthday call, red double decker buses whizzing by every few minutes. 

St. Paul's Cathedral

St. Paul’s Cathedral

I then walked south of the Cathedral, past the College of Arms (must make it in there for my next trip), and out onto the Millennium Pedestrian Bridge to make my way to the south bank across the Thames.  I love the view from both sides of this bridge: from the south side, you look straight down and can see St. Pauls…and then from the other side, you look across and you see the unmistakeable half-timbered brown and white sides of The Globe theatre.  I made my way over to The Globe and stood outside for a few minutes to listen to the sounds of “Antony & Cleopatra” that was beginning right at that time – swords clashing and Roman soldiers screaming to the cheers of the audience, it was great.  I highly recommend you see one of Shakespeare’s plays here if you get the chance; I’d seen “The Taming of the Shrew” here in 2012 and it was thoroughly enjoyable, but those authentic wooden bleachers do wreak havoc on one’s back after a while, so definitely buy a seat cushion.

South bank view from Millenium Bridge (can you see The Globe?)

South bank view from Millennium Bridge (can you see The Globe?)

View across the River Thames from the south bank (with view of St. Paul's)

View across the River Thames from the south bank (with view of St. Paul’s)

The Globe.  Iconic.

The Globe.  Iconic.

A play wasn’t on my itinerary this time – instead, I grabbed a quick and ho-hum Pizza Cafe dinner next to The Globe and then walked along the south bank of the river,  passing through back alleys alongside the Southwark Cathedral (where Shakespeare frequented when he lived in London), and crossed back over the river on the London Bridge.  I was headed back to one of the greatest sights in London (and really in all the world): the Tower of London.  I’d sent an actual snail mail request many, many months earlier to the Tower for a ticket on this night to see the ancient Ceremony of the Keys This ceremony is where they let a few visitors inside the Tower each night at 9:30 PM to watch the Yeoman Warders and sentry guards lock up the gates of this ancient fortress.

In 2012 I visited the Tower during the daytime and hobbled through the Bloody Tower with bloody shins (story here) for one of the best sightseeing tours I’ve ever been on (led by Yeoman Warder Bill Callaghan, follow him on Twitter @BillyBeefeater), but didn’t really even know about the Ceremony of the Keys that time.  I’m so glad I got a ticket for this trip – there’s a lot of pomp and yelling and actual bayonets involved, along with a huge ring of iron keys and several tall furry bear hats, and it’s really quite a spectacle to watch; the visitors even have to play a part with a verbal response at one point in the ceremony.  So if they lock the gates, how do we get out?  There’s one more side door just for this purpose through which they shuffle us at the end, with one of the Yeoman Warders gruffly barking at us “hurry up, get out!”  It was a very memorable end to my birthday and the best part of the day!

The exact point where I bit the dust in 2012...

The exact point by the Tower of London where I bit the dust in 2012…

Our Yeoman Warder (Beefeater) leading us out of the Tower of London after the Ceremony of the Keys

Our Yeoman Warder (Beefeater) leading us out of the Tower of London after the Ceremony of the Keys

The next morning I headed right back near the Tower to meet an American college friend for breakfast (she’s lived just outside of London for many years now) and then we went on a really great walking tour by London Walks called “Hidden London.”  (Their tours do cost about $15/person but the company offers a huge array of different walking tours all over the city and they’re well worth it.)  It was so great to see a familiar face after almost three weeks on the road, I nearly burst into tears when we sat down to breakfast at the relief of spending some time with someone who actually knows me.  I don’t mind traveling alone most of the time, but that feeling of comfort you get from being around someone who knows and cares about you adds a special aspect to the trip, and I was really grateful to her for making the trip and the time to hang out with me that day.

I’d heard about a special Shakespeare exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum and so after our walking tour I made my way there via the Tube.  What a massive place that museum is, I’ve never seen so much stuff-of-a-general-nature in one place – sculptures and artifacts and jewelry and paintings and china and silver and…well, just lots of stuff.  After asking three different museum docents, someone was finally able to direct me to the hidden Shakespeare corner on one of the floors.  It was very dark and somber and the exhibit items were in these shadowboxes, it was all a little macabre and not a large display at all, but I’m glad I went.  The museum also had the most striking and vibrant purple-ly blue hydrangea in their courtyard, unreal colors I never see where I live.

Part of the Shakespeare exhibit at the V&A Museum

Part of the Shakespeare exhibit at the V&A Museum

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After exiting the museum I decided to walk down the street to the famous (infamous?) Harrods Department Store.  Everyone’s heard of Harrods, and I didn’t have a chance on my last trip to visit, so I popped in for a quick look at what all the fuss is about.  What a dizzying maze of floors and departments; I especially liked the bakery and fromagerie sections, and even decided to take a break for some tea and scones in their tea room.  (I kind of wish I hadn’t, it ended up being both the most expensive and least tasty of all the cream teas I had during this trip…but now I can say I’ve had tea at Harrods I guess.)  I’m kicking myself for not remembering to visit the Princess Diana memorial in the store…maybe next time.

Larger-than-life Beefeater Bears at Harrods

Larger-than-life Beefeater Bears at Harrods

Taking tea at Harrods

Taking tea at Harrods

The next morning was the start of the last day of my 3-week trip.  I saved one of the things I’d most wanted to do for that last day: a trip to London’s New Covent Garden Flower Market – where all of London’s top florists and designers get their flowers and foliage.  After a Tube trip across the Thames to Vauxhall station, it was just a short walk to the warehouse district and the flower market.  The small sign that said “Visitor Entrance” over one of the unassuming doors belied what I saw once I entered the chilled warehouse:  flowers as far as the eye could see!  Every color, every variety, different heights and smells, with vendor after vendor filling every corner of the huge room.  And this was even after most of the day’s business had been done – I’d gotten there about 8:30 AM, but they open at 4:00 AM (!) and so I was really seeing the leftovers that day…but they were still pretty impressive leftovers!

New Covent Garden Flower Market

New Covent Garden Flower Market

Every color of anthuriums imaginable

Every color of anthuriums imaginable

There are 20 flower vendors at the Market, six plant vendors, and a few more that specialize in just foliage.  I explored for about an hour, taking a LOT of pictures of all the different offerings, and then had some tea at the little café inside the warehouse.  I saw flowers I’d never seen before, in colors I didn’t even know that existed for certain varieties, and in the midst of it all, I was surprised that I actually started to feel a little depressed; this Market is a mecca for anyone in the floral industry, and the tiny (by comparison) coolers of the few wholesalers at home now seemed woefully inadequate and just…sad.  I’ll never see this kind of variety and quality and lower prices where I live; I’d have to move one of only about four cities in the US with major flower markets, most of which are in California or on the east coast (and there’s no way I’m living in earthquake country), and even then they’d be dwarfed by this market.  And so I left with wistful feelings, glancing back over my shoulder as I walked out and thinking how lucky the local florists were to have this amazing resource at their fingertips.

Clouds of hydrangea

Clouds of hydrangea

Gobs of gerberas

Gobs of gerberas

Midnight purple callas

Midnight purple callas, a Georgia O’Keefe painting come to life

I wanted to relax on my last day in London, so after leaving the flower market I then headed back across the river to the area around Buckingham Palace.  No Changing of the Guard for me this time (one of the most overrated sights in the city, in my opinion, and I’d seen it last time); instead, I walked the length of the very peaceful St. James’ Park, which runs between the palace and the river.  Leaving the park, I strolled past Big Ben to take a few pics for my nephews, and then took the Tube up to the Kensington area, where I got pretty lost looking for a hidden city gem called the Roof Gardens.  I’d read about this oasis-on-a-rooftop some time earlier, and after walking around in circles for a while, was finally able to find it down a quiet side street.  It was worth the journey: seven floors up and through a black door, one enters into sculpted gardens with water features, shaded sitting areas, and even real flamingos!  There are actually three different gardens, in the styles of Spanish, Tudor, and English Woodlands.  I was the only one in the entire place for quite some time; eventually a few other visitors showed up but I was amazed how isolated and quiet the gardens were.  It was a great break from the bustle of the city and I’m glad I took time to find it.

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From there I walked a mile or so up to the middle of Holland Park, another really nice green space just south of my guesthouse.  On the way there I stopped to buy a sandwich, and had a nice picnic on a stone bench under huge shade trees.  It was then I noticed I was missing my rain jacket, a new one my mom had bought me just for this trip.  I suddenly remembered I’d put it down on a chair at the Roof Gardens, so I went into a restaurant in Holland Park and a nice hostess called the gardens for me; sure enough they found it and would hold it for me.  So, back another mile I walked to get my jacket, then another mile back to the park and through the rest of it to get back to my guesthouse – but not without stopping at a gelateria for a scoop to help beat the heat (did I mention how crazy HOT it was in London this time).  After resting and packing for my journey home the next day, I walked back down the street later that evening for what turned out to be a pretty decent veggie burger.  It was a good last day in London.

I’m actually not too fond of London, although I think it has its highlights.  As I mentioned before, it’s very expensive, always crowded, and I feel I have to be on even more of a heightened alert as a solo female traveler when I’m there.  The Tube is very convenient but it’s un-air-conditioned staleness gets pretty weary pretty fast in the heat of the summer.  And as nice as the area was where my B&B was located, I unfortunately had a somewhat negative experience there with the overbearing owner.  The city is iconic, and I’m glad I spent a few days there this trip, especially since I took a less-traveled route to explore some areas that most tourists probably don’t see.  But I find more with each trip that I prefer to get out of London, into the rest of England’s green hills and diverse countrysides.  Which, with any luck, I hope to do again very soon.

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

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