Shakespeare’s Hometown

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Stratford-upon-Avon is forever linked with the famous British poet and playwright William Shakespeare. So much so that when we visited the town Natalie commented that it’s almost surprising to realize it’s a real place. Shakespeare lore makes him start to feel like a fictional character. But he’s not. He was a real person and he came from a lovely little village called Stratford which is located on the River Avon.

Only a two-hour drive from our house, we decided it was time to explore a little more close to home. Stratford used to be a tiny village with several hundred residents. Now with careful planning, it is a great small town taking full advantage of it former famous resident. I’m glad we visited in January because during the summer months this town must be packed with tourists and tour buses.

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The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has carefully restored five homes of importance to Shakespeare and his family. We visited his childhood home, where he was born, the location of his family home as an adult and his daughter’s home. We also toured Holy Trinity Church, build in 1210 and still an active parish, where Shakespeare is buried. All of the buildings were within walking distance of each other and all were in the quintessential Shakespearian style, light color houses with dark beams.

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Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare is buried.

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Original baptismal font believed to be used for Shakespeare’s baptism.

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Shakespeare’s grave in front of the church altar. The sign shows the engraving on his tomb stone.

We may think of Shakespeare as a struggling playwright, but he actually came from a well-off family and had a lot of success during his life as a writer, entertainer and businessman. His home, and the homes of his family members were very nice. Much larger and fancier than that of the common family during his time.

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The room where Shakespeare was born.

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I love these enormous old fireplaces used for cooking.

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Do you know what that wooden box with the lid is used for?

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Bedroom with the great dark beams.

We struggle choosing places to visit during the winter because of the continuous rain and cold, but Stratford-upon-Avon worked out well. After visiting the homes we stopped in a local shop for gelato and then popped into a candy shop just in time to avoid an enormous wind and hail storm that covered the street in white. Everyone in the tiny candy store just stayed put as we all watched the hail storm through the windows. Then it was a sprint to the car through the rain for our journey home.

Since we are lucky enough to have Natalie in London for the semester, she and her friend Katrina joined us for the day.

European Road Trip

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Part of us felt that we had to attempt at least one international road trip during our time here in England. When you can drive from your house all the way to Russia or Spain it is pretty tempting. Then again, laws are different, driving is different, languages are different. This will probably be our only car trip outside of England. The trains are too convenient and flights between countries are cheap.

Luckily Lance did look into guidelines for driving in France and, no surprise really, the French do have guidelines. We needed headlight deflectors since our headlights point to the left as we drive on the left side of the road. The French drive on the right. We also were required to have a reflective vest, an emergency triangle and our own breathalyzer. Yes, in France, every vehicle is required to provide their own breathalyzer if they are pulled-over by the police!

Travelling through the Chunnel was a breeze. L&G had already accomplished this on school field trips, but it was a first for Lance and I. The whole system was very smooth and efficient. As you enter the facility your license plate is scanned so they know if you have a reservation or still need to patrain1y. As we rolled up the screen said, “Welcome Mrs. Hastings” and our “boarding” card printed out. We waited for a bit in an area similar to a large rest stop with food, shops, etc. When our boarding letter appeared on a big screen we drove over to the industrial looking train and rolled right in. There are train cars for tall commercial trucks and motorhomes and two tiered train cars for the rest of us. We could drive continuously from the back of the train to the front. Then doors came down after every fourth car and we were off. There are small windows to see out of and you can exit your car to stretch a bit or use the yucky toilet. Twenty five minutes later we were in France.

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Our goal for this trip was to visit the Normandy region of France along the west coast and visit the D-day beaches and the American cemetery. We sta096yed in the city of Caen and toured their large Memorial museum. In the afternoon we headed to Omaha beach, one of the two that American troops conquered. We also visited the beautiful American cemetery which is a vast sea of white crosses and Star-of-Davids. The rain poured on us as we walked, with many other visitors, along the rows and then down onto the beach. The beach now looks like a peaceful long stretch of sand with little sign remaining of its history.

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On day three we headed south a bit to visit Mt. St. Michel. This is an incredible place to visit. If you go to Paris, you can day trip out to the coast to see it. On a large rock island just off shore, a monastery, church and small village were built over the course of 100 years. 119Just a few years ago you had to time your visit with the tide in order to access the island. Now there is a raised road and walkway that grants access all day. The little narrow street of the village was so interesting. In some spots it was about six feet wide but filled with multiple restaurants, shops and hotel rooms. Yes you can stay right on the island if you choose. A very steep and slow walk brings you up to the entrance of the church and monastery which was such a nice treat. There are still monks and nuns that live and pray in the monastery, and Mass is said every day. We toured through the church, a multitude of rooms, the crypt, the gardens, etc. And there was much more that is not open to the public. They packed a lot onto that rock and it is an incredible sight from miles away.

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On our last day we visited Rouen which is where L stayed last spring with a family for language immersion. She showed us the old (really old) cathedral and we roamed through the town a bit and had lunch. The French don’t get going until mid-day on a Sunday so not much was open.

Then the journey home began. Our last surprise was as we approached the edge of France at Calais to catch the Chunnel back. The English Channel is so narrow at that point that we could see England and the white cliffs of Dover. We didn’t expect that.

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PMQs

IMG_00000083Mary and I had the unique opportunity to sit in during the Prime Minister’s Questions, sometimes called the PMQs, before the House of Commons. It is an event like no other! For those of you that grew up in the CSPAN era, you might recall a random exchange between Labour’s Tony Blair and the Tories, broadcast from the green-hued chamber in Parliament and said to yourself… “Those wacky Brits.” And you’d be correct!

Every Wednesday, promptly at Noon, the Prime Minister subjects him or herself to various questions, barbs, and political puffery…all done with elegant English style and wit. In the fast-moving 30-minute session Prime Minister David Cameron called the Labour Leader Ed Milliband a con-man (twice!) before being warned by the Speaker of the House that those types of comments were beneath the integrity of the Prime Minister.

The House of Commons meets in a room that is smaller than you might expect. The main opposing parties sit opposite each other so they can look into the eyes of their opponent while debating. Hanging microphones are all around the room which is why you can easily hear moans, groans and complaints from members who don’t agree with whoever is speaking.

Most of the questions were softballs from Cameron’s own party, but a few were from feisty Members of Parliament seeking to discredit the ruling coalition party of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The UK is under what is called a coalition government right now. None of the three major parties (Conservative, LiberalCameron Democrats and Labour) had a majority which would allow them to choose the Prime Minister, so the Conservative and Liberal Democrats agreed to rule together. I can only imagine the wrangling that went on to choose the Prime Minister. (The PM is not voted upon by the people but is chosen by their political party similar to how the Speaker of the House is chosen in the U.S.)

As Americans this was a very interesting experience. Can you imagine the President of the United States or a cabinet member in front of the House of Representative every week having to explain what they are doing? Prior to the PMQs, we watch the Secretary of State answer questions regarding international development and what role England was taking around the word regarding humanitarian aid, sexual violence, women’s rights, and economic development. Questions are submitted in advance and must be presented in a specific order so there are no great surprises or shocks with the exception of a rude comment now and then.

As a legislative/government guy most of my life, I’ve always wanted to witness that transparent exchange of thoughts, ideals and challenges. Thankfully we had the chance due to the kindness of a Member of Parliament (MP) who sponsored our attendance. One more experience that has contributed to The Hastings’ Excellent Adventure in England!

Cheers!

Lance

Concours d’Elegance London Style

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Those who know us well know that Lance has a great appreciation for old (pre 1970) American cars. Prior to moving to England, he has never been too interested in European cars and has always loved the old Dodge, Chrysler and Plymouth. Not many people pay to put their old Plymouth Valiant in storage while they are living in another country!

Since our move to England, we’ve been watching a few fun car shows on TV and have enjoyed seeing an interesting array of cars on the road. We see a fair amount of older European collectible cars and also a lot of high-end Jaguar, Bentley and Rolls Royce. It surprises us how often we see them just out and about around town or parked on the street. So when the opportunity arose to go to a car show in London we decided to check it out. Luckily we also checked on the dress code, because just like the Queen’s birthday parade, they like you to dress up. No tank tops and cut off jean shorts for this car show!

The show was on the grounds of St. James Palace in London. Located close to Buckingham Palace, St. James Palace has been home to many kings and queens over hundreds of years. It is considered the London home of Prince Charles and is not usually open to the public which made it a little extra special to visit.

In addition to 60 rare old cars, the show was celebrating the 50th anniversary of Lamborghini with 50 additional cars on display.

We also had our first Royal sighting! In the pictures below you will see a distinguished man with a white beard. This is HRH Prince Michael of Kent. He is a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II.

On to the pictures …

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Soaring to New Heights

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This has been a year of incredible growth for all of us, but none more so than Mr. G who has grown about 7″ since we arrive in July 2012. He is officially six feet tall or at least he was a week or so ago when we measured. He has now passed up 3/4 of his family and is quickly closing in on Lance. We should take bets on when this will take place. Lance used to predict that he would be passed up in G’s sophomore year, but that is still over a year away… I don’t think it will take that long. What do you think?

We have now lived outside of the U.S. for over a year. It is a very interesting process, adjusting to a new home and a new country. At first everything is interesting and fun, like vacation. Then a little bit of frustration sinks in, wondering why things just can’t be the same. Frustration when we can’t find the same food items or when the process for something, such as paying bills, the grading system at school, driving or participating in a sport, is different. Then as more time passes, the differences are not as obvious. We get used to things and are a bit more comfortable. We’re not surprised as often and sometimes forget what is different in the U.S. Now, there are actually some things we prefer here in England. Some processes that we think the U.S. should adopt because they work better. In many ways society is a bit kinder and gentler here. It’s safer for the kids to be out and about on their own. They have freedoms that we would not grant them in California.

Our quick trip through the U.S. in August (JFK airport) on our way to Puerto Rico provided a few funny observations. While in the airport Natalie suggested we stop at the Starbucks. Now Starbucks are everywhere in England, but there are a few differences. First, England does not have iced tea. For a country that consumes so much tea it is surprising that they do not like iced tea! It is always hot. In fact, if you order “hot tea” they look at you weird because that is the only kind of tea! So, ordering an iced tea-lemonade from Starbucks was a real treat. Immediately I noticed that the venti cups are enormous and the pastries – bagels and muffins – were twice the size of those available in England. They just looked giant. Europe as a whole does not consume the enormous portions that we consume in the U.S., and we never feel underfed. This is something that would be good to change in the U.S.

While driving in busses and cabs on the islands we visited in the Caribbean, we often found ourselves on the left side of the road. Sometimes the steering wheel was on the left, sometimes on the right. Our friends from California commented on how weird it was and how it felt as if we were going to hit another car. Lance and I didn’t even notice. Now, whether we drive on the left or the right it just makes sense. We don’t have to think about it too much, it just works.

Our memories on the other hand are not working so well. How is it that street names you have known for many years can suddenly leave your brain? We couldn’t remember the name of the street that runs along side the kids’ elementary school in Elk Grove and we couldn’t even remember the names of the streets that lead to our house in Wilton! We really had to focus to get them to pop back into our brains. I’d say this was just old age, but the kids couldn’t remember either.

We do still notice some differences here in England and laugh at some funny pronunciations. Words like aluminium, regulatory, controversy, and dynasty sound completely different in American English than in British English. We also have to laugh at some of the crazy foods we find in the grocery stores and in restaurants. I will take pictures and post on the more humorous items we find at the grocery store. But it is not uncommon to find tuna and corn sandwiches here, and did you know there are about five different kinds of bacon. None of which tastes like bacon in the U.S. And yes, they do eat more parts of pigs, cows, and sheep than we do in the U.S. You know what I mean.

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So we are into year two in England. Same house, same school, same job for Lance. We will keep you posted on our explorations and we do hope to visit more of Europe this year. Some of the other countries are starting to call our names. We had quite a few wonderful visitors this past year. Lots of college students visiting Europe for a semester or the summer. Natalie had some fun visitors.

Anybody coming to visit in 2014?! We have a warm bed for you and we promise we won’t feed you any funny foods.

Tennis Anyone?

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OK tennis lovers, this one is especially for you. I have never been a great tennis fan, mostly because I am particularly unskilled at the sport, but I have to admit that my recent visit to The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, better known as Wimbledon, has given me a new respect for and interest in the game. Something about walking on those beautiful grounds and hearing the story of a little tennis club that held its first tournament because it was out of money and could not repair a piece of important lawn equipment and has now grown into a world-renowned organization was quite inspiring.

I did not take this photo, but it offers a great overhead view.

I didn’t take this photo, but it offers a great overhead view.

Wimbledon is the town in which the tennis club is located. It is only a 30 minute drive from our house. I had to use the Sat Nav in the car to find it – I would truly be lost without that little voice talking to me. I was in the middle of a regular neighbourhood when it said, “You have reached your destination.” I was thinking I am definitely lost, but then I saw the walls of the club and the stadiums rising behind them. It is truly right in the middle of a nice little neighbourhood. It started as the local croquet club and eventually became famous for lawn tennis.

The Grounds cover 42 acres and have about 60 clay and grass courts. When walking around the facility it does not feel that large, but there are courts everywhere, some with siting for spectators and others with just an area to stand and view. They are very particular with the maintenance of their grass courts. Each court, practice or competition, is cared for in the same manner and trimmed to an exact height.

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Similar to the Queen’s birthday parade, tickets for Wimbledon are requested by mail. If you are lucky enough to be chosen, you simply pay the fee between £35 and £135 per ticket and you are set. If you are not so lucky, there are other ways to enjoy the day. Every morning you can line up and for £20 your can get a grounds pass which allows you to relax on the lawns with your picnic basket and a bottle of wine to watch preliminary matches on all the open courts and view the matches in the stadiums via giant televisions screens. Many people enjoy the tournament like this every year. Here’s the interesting twist. If anyone with a ticket for a seat on the main courts leaves during the day, their ticket becomes available for resale. If you have a grounds pass, you can get in line to purchase open seats for only £10. You never know what you might get, but you may end up with a front row seat for only £10. I think it is an interesting system and it really gives more people a chance to watch high level professional tennis. This is the goal of the club. To make tennis interesting and available to everyone, not only the elite.

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So we missed the mail in option for this year. We will have to apply for tickets in the fall of 2013 for the summer 2014 tournament. We might explore the ground pass option. It sounds like a lot of fun. You can’t beat a sunny day with a picnic basket and a bottle of wine.

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Birthday Parade

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All summer long, England and especially the greater London area is filled with music festivals, village celebrations, sporting contests and traditional national events. Everyone wants to capitalize on the warm weather, although for the past several years England has had unseasonably cold and rainy summers. Then again, this is the country known for the “Keep Calm and Carry On” mantra. So, rain or shine, we are doing our best to enjoy this busy time from June to September.

Every year the Queen’s birthday, which is April 21st, is celebrated in June for the reasons stated above. Three beautiful military style parades are held in her honour. (Don’t you love how my spell check adds the “u” into certain words?) Anyone can request tickets via post to these parades and we were lucky to receive tickets to attend the Colonel’s Review of the Trooping the Colour. In true British fashion, there was a dress code for this event. It was “lounge suit” or jacket and trousers for the men with appropriate accompanying dress for the ladies. No problem for us. We all love the dressing up part.

Trooping the Colours is a beautiful military tradition that has been in place for hundreds of years. Regimental flags, or “Colours” represent the soldiers of different units. During the final parade the Queen inspects the regiments present and also takes their salute. At the Colonel’s Review several different groups of soldiers were represented: 445 foot guards, 225 musicians in a marching band, the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment, the Mounted Bands of the Cavalry (Yes a band on horseback!), and the Royal Horse Artillery.

In a beautifully choreographed parade, the regiments march into an area called Horse Guards Parade, join together in formation as a large group, stand for inspection by the Queen (or Colonel in our parade) and then in individual regiments march past to salute and present their colours. Well, that is my simplified description. I have no doubt there is more tradition and meaning than I am able to catch on to.

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It was a real treat to enjoy such a special tradition. The only drawback was the Queen only attends the third and final parade, so we missed seeing her. But if we did attend when she was there, the dress code would have been “morning dress” which is tails and top hats for men with formal dress for the women. Hmmm, the boys would have loved to get that dressed up, but having to acquire formal wear for a parade might have been a bit much.

I really wanted to post a great video I took of the marching band, but I can’t quite figure out how to do that. I can post videos from You Tube, but not from my camera. Sorry…

As you can tell by all our posts, if there is an event we can sign up for, we’re there. Some of Lance’s co-workers joke that we do more activities in England than they do. We are doing our best to enjoy every opportunity that comes our way.