am I being pursued?

I thought I'd said all there was to say on this topic :


but no. It's still being flogged to the innocent and unwary. Don't be fooled.

style inspiration, world traveler department



at the airport - a gate agent refused to let these guys board the plane 
because their carry-ons were too heavy

those guys had a good excuse.
so does this catalog model.
she needs the money. 

Summer travels - the planning, Day One and some hints for travel with little ones

In May and June, when asked to describe our summer plans - well, really, isn't the whole point of summer not to make plans? - oh, yes, but after a short century of refusing to plan, we found ourselves planning.

The broad outline of our summer plans went like this:

Plan trip to London and Paris with two little kids

Take trip

Spend rest of summer recuperating from trip

Since we tend to be lazy when traveling, as in not climbing to the tops of monuments, the tops of castles and forts, the tops of churches and cathedrals, all of which have narrow twisty staircases with short steps, and then you have to go back down, we knew from previous trips with kids (not these two, but kids anyway) that this particular adventure would be more, um, physical than we've been doing lately. There would be climbing. So my personal readiness plan included (a) lose 10 pounds because every 10 pounds you take off takes 120 pounds of pressure off the knees and feet, and (b) test-drive shoes and remember which pair was which.

Even though our trip was in July, weather can be chancy, and so we listed indoor as well as outdoor activities and walks for each city. The kids brought plastic rain ponchos, and we supplemented these with zip-up hoodie sweatshirts when we got to London. Himself and I tend to avoid summer travel because of the crowds, but the kids could only come when school was out. So we agreed to deal with the crowds and not complain.

Rather than book two hotel rooms for the four of us, we took little apartments in each city. This let us have breakfast in, and on some days, light lunches or suppers. And we had a stash of snacks, juice, milk, and more than one bathroom.

And so, we arrived in London. The kids loved the taxi from the airport, best part was the little jump seats which were just the perfect size for little kids. In fact, after that ride, every time we stepped outside, little voices would clamor "Can we take a taxi?" "Do we get there by taxi?" "Look, there's a taxi, why are we standing at a bus stop?"

Time changes were not as tough as we had anticipated, not being sleepy at the right time was easier to deal with because the London apartment had a living/dining room with a large television. The kids loved British TV, even programs that were way too young or too old for them and some that I wouldn't have expected, like silly cooking shows. If they woke up early, they helped themselves to cereal and milk and plunked themselves in front of the TV. Did we come to London to watch television? Of course not, but they did enjoy hearing everyone speaking with a variety of British accents, and had fun imitating some of the sillier characters.

For our first day, we had booked what was billed as a Small Group Tour of Highlights - pick-up at our hotel (the apt. building was owned and managed by the hotel next door), a narrated tour of London on a double-decker bus, early beat-the-crowds entry to the Tower of London with a walk led by our Own Personal Beefeater, a boat trip up (down?) the Thames, and a reserved viewpoint to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. All at one price, and they would buy the admission tickets, scout out the lines, and so on. It seemed a very sensible way to get some important sightseeing done, leaving the next few days open for whimsy.

The night before the SGTOH, we got an email telling us that the hotel pick-up would be in front of the Ritz Hotel Casino Entrance on Piccadilly, since our place was on a one-way street. The airport taxi had had some navigation problems with this street, due to construction, so we didn't think this was odd.

So in the morning, we walked over to the Ritz at the appointed time, and waited. After a while, the casino doorman came over and asked if we were waiting for a tour. It turned out the tour people had called the doorman(?!?) and asked him to tell us and any other waiting visitors to meet the tour at Gate 15 at Victoria Bus Station before 8:30, when the tour would leave. There was, apparently, traffic. In London! During rush hour! Quelle surprise!

I wondered why the tour people just happened to have the doorman's mobile phone number, but there wasn't time for discussion. The kids were happy enough to have another taxi ride ($35), but all of us were taken aback by the mob of commuters, travellers and asylum-seekers at Victoria Bus Station, which was not as bright and well-kept as the Port Authority Bus Station in New York. In fact, it lacked only a few chickens on the floor to make me insist that we bag the tour and see if Gordon Ramsey could fit us in for lunch. I said as much to Himself, and whatever his answer might have been was drowned by cries of "Look! Pigeons!" Which of course we had come all the way from New York City to see. The pigeons were monopolizing the few remaining seats.

Squawks from the PA system directed us to an open door and after an argument with a man holding a clipboard about getting our taxi money back, and more words with a lady with large family and large dog headed for Graz (right. Austria), she got off and we got on our bus.

The bus was comfortable enough, and held - let's see, about 80 of us, but it was not a Red Double-Decker Bus. Hint: Be careful about how anything is described to kids. Any variance from the description will require repeated explanation.

The narration of the drive through London was pre-recorded. Clipboard Guy told us how to tune our earphones.

The Tower of London, for those who haven't done this, attracts throngs upon throngs, which means lines and lines and waiting and waiting. Coming with a group meant that our tickets had been bought in advance, and we did in fact move in a shorter and faster-moving line.

The kids had a scanty background, if any, in English, Western European, North American history. They attend multi-cultural schools with politically correct curricula, and that does make it difficult to explain colonialism, let alone the Reformation, heresy and beheadings. So our Personal Beefeater's brief remarks  - make that Random Beefeater snagged by Clipboard Guy - pointing out where various bloody events had occurred on the large inner courtyard and in the different buildings, had little significance. Except that Younger Child was terrified, having no concept of elapsed centuries. The Queen's jewels were a big hit. The Tower's gift shop had recently been restocked with a full line of Disney Princess merchandise and Younger Child cheered up - until she understood that we had no intention of buying her a £60 velvet princess dress - accessories were extra. Note: we'd given the kids basic books about London and Paris when the idea of a trip first arose. Oh, well.

Clipboard Guy gathered the group and we trotted across a few streets and climbed aboard for our boat ride on the Thames. There may have been narration but we didn't hear any. Off the boat, up some stairs, and we raced to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace from our Personal Vantage Point before the ceremony was over. We were in time to stand at the entry to the park and see a group of Guards marching away. Photo op. Then we tromped through Green Park, back to the apartment for late lunch and some relaxation.  The Pret-à-Manger chain - mainly sandwiches and salads -has outposts throughout London, and Marks & Spencer has little "food halls" sprinkled around, and that was where we hoped to do any necessary food shopping.

So - would I recommend doing a sightseeing tour like this? It wasn't cheap, and I had the feeling that if the bus had set out on time, the scheduling might have worked better.  Still, when traveling with kids, you want them to enjoy the experiences, and the wasted hour at the grungy bus station didn't set a happy tone for the day. The lack of informative talk along the way was also annoying. You can certainly find the Tower of London without a tour bus, and you certainly don't need the tour bus to see the Changing of the Guard, although if you want to really see it, you need to get there a few hours early and be prepared to wait. There's also a quite reasonable "Hop On, Hop Off" sightseeing bus, which is a real red double-decker bus, and you can make your own list of Highlights. I think I would do that if I were to plan the London segment again.  I was not impressed with our tour organizers and if you want to do a tour, email me and I'll tell you which group we used so you can try a different group. There are many.

Next travel post: Fish & Chips, Trafalgar Square, The Theatre.

lazy August and why I'm not spending it trying to finish War and Peace

War and Peace may not be the longest book in the world, but for a few years I believed it was. In fact,  as desperate paragraph followed desperate paragraph, I believed it was getting longer.

Disclaimer: I know that Tolstoi's writing and philosophizing were supported by the labor of serfs. I've read that he was kinder to "his" serfs than most people of his class were to "their" serfs, and in the context of the times, this was probably a radical attitude, given that the life of a serf was constrained by fear, superstition, illiteracy, and numbing labour, and was generally not as comfortable and clean as, say, the life of a cow. And not much longer, all things considered. Tolstoi wasn't what you'd call a bomb-thrower, but he did popularize compassion as a hobby.
None of that was on my mind when at age 12 I decided to read War and Peace. I didn't realize that "reading War and Peace" was a euphemism for "couldn't find a summer job," or, more precisely, "couldn't find a glamorous summer job." I thought the title sounded vaguely cynical and world-weary and less willfully symbolic than, say, Catcher in the Rye, and so I set off for the public library, hoping to find a copy in which the corners of the "hot" pages had been turned down.

The library had three copies, all with faded covers and crisp new pages, some yet uncut, inside. That should have been warning enough. That, and the weight of the book, except that a friend of Mom's was at the library changing her Agatha Christie, and she gave me a ride home.

I lugged the book upstairs and settled in.

Several weeks later, it occurred to me that it might be easier to keep track of who was who and who was doing what with/to whom if I listed or charted all of the names. This in itself was a major project, as each character had three, four, sometimes five names. I thought it was unfair to the readers to require all this extra work, but I tried. (I just googled "chart of War and Peace characters." It looks like a lot of people have had this idea, with varying negative degrees of success.)
shortlisted



 I also tried to get a perspective on the repeated and improbable journeys back and forth across Russia and to and from Western Europe, using the enormous globe in the library lobby. I concluded Tolstoi hadn't checked a globe while writing. I reached a point where it seemed that I was reading about moody Pony Express riders who had crushes on irritating girls who wore mythical feathers and corsets and ball gowns. Gallop, gallop, she had nothing to say. Canter, canter, she seemed preoccupied.
I perservered. Well-meaning relatives took an interest: "you know, to this day they don't have paved roads in Russia." Argument followed, and a compromise was agreed - there were a few roads with paving but the roads were in larger cities and the paving broke up every winter and most people didn't have cars. Or shoes. Thus - a helpful explanation for those moods.

The book became a doorstop for the rest of the summer. In the fall the library began sending me postcards, which I hid from my parents. Shortly before Christmas the book vanished. I decided not to ask questions. The book reappeared, in bows and wrapping paper, under the Christmas tree. Mom, who knew everyone, had run into one of the librarians at Gristede's market. The vague, indeed Tolstoyan, sense of guilt and pursuit that had hung around since the end of August lifted. Briefly. The expensive settlement with the library had created a sense of financial interest in my parents. There really was no Santa Claus.

From that point on, it seemed there were Russians, or people of Russian ancestry, or noteworthy Russian activity, everywhere. Every reference, however vague - a recipe for Borscht, unrest in Eastern Europe, a prize to the author of Dr. Zhivago, a school trip to the United Nations - reminded my parents that I hadn't been reading War and Peace. So much for my hopes that 9th grade would be happier than 8th grade. We were at that stage of "education" when the words "Book Report" haunted every long weekend, every break, every vacation. I had to do them in school or at a friend's house, because there was only one book I could be seen reading at home.

I considered simply telling everyone that I'd finished the book and now understood how Communism had had such appeal for the lover classes in early 20th-century Russia. I even prepared a few unpromising responses, based on overheard conversations, in case I was asked why I thought that. "A false hope, but where there was none - sort of like Hitler's early appeal." Hitler was a diabolical monster, for sure, and the mere mention of his name was a guaranteed conversation-changer, especially at dinner where the conversation would turn to being grateful for America. As I would have been had I been asked about anything other than War and Peace.

I took to daydreaming with the book open on a table before me, and thus many key points may have eluded me. I was delighted when someone pointed out that the book took place in the time of the Napoleonic Wars. I rooted for Napoleon.


As spring wore on and the empty days of summer threatened, the book and I reached a kind of understanding - an entente? We would both try to remain inconspicuous. When asked why I wasn't carrying the book around, I explained that Grandma was afraid I was developing crossed eyes and a stoop and was concerned that I'd never find a husband. This sweetly old-fashioned expression of concern for one's un-dowered female descendants was entirely fictional, I got it from War and Peace, not from Grandma.

Every child, especially every adolescent, has an admired and well-loved friend who does not attract parental approval. Whether the friend is too smart for her own good, dresses like a tart, is boy-crazy, an atheist, a slob, too sophisticated, a religious fanatic, too childish, the secret ingredient is that one's parents know she's trouble. A girl named Janet told me to buy a CliffNotes version of War and Peace, so that I'd know how it came out. "Like who dies and who gets married," she explained patiently. "Then you can crumple some of the pages toward the end," she added. Why had this way out of the labyrinth not occurred to me earlier? Two reasons. First, at least at the beginning I really had wanted to find out for myself why the book had such a great reputation. Second, the onset of puberty really does fog the brain.

This, then, is how I came to spend almost an entire summer in a tree. The big tree nearest our house had a good sitting place on one branch, I was the only one who could climb there, and in green-lit privacy I tried to reconcile the pace of the little paperback summary with the thudding prose of the doorstop. As a decoy, I sometimes carried another small paperback. All the girls in my class had been given copies of a hysterically funny little book called something like Your Developing Body, and while it didn't convey any real information, it covered the W & P crib nicely.

When school started, I refused to glory in the accomplishment of having read War and Peace. I declined the opportunity to discuss it with a visiting Russian hockey coach, who looked panicked at the very thought, as did his hosts. I slipped War and Peace into the Goodwill bag, and I refused to read Dr. Zhivago. 

Shortly before a key basketball game, I decided I was in fact finished. Napoleon had lost, and according to CliffNotes it was Russia so there were no clear winners, our team won the basketball game, and a few couples finally got together. 
The following summer, the daughter of a family friend announced that she was going to read War and Peace. I slithered out of the room before anyone could suggest that I might be helpful.

Time passed. On a whim, I signed up for Russian in college. The instructor, a charming elderly lady born in Moscow and educated in Paris, told us not to feel threatened by the challenges of starting a new language at age 20. Her family were from the last remnants of a class that insisted on speaking French, not Russian, and she had learned Russian as an adult, to please her in-laws. "Vous allez adorer Gogol," she purred. "Si comique, si insolite!" The class moved quickly, and when it came time to decide whether or not to sign up for a more advanced level of Russian, one of my classmates asked if the syllabus would include War and Peace. "Dahhlings," came the reply, "no Russian would waste the time to read War and Peace. It is long and boring."

I seized the opportunity. Admitting nothing, I asked "So why do people say it's so great?"

"Disinformation, my dear, disinformation. Invented by Russians. Not my relatives, but Russians."
Dear Readers, Blogger swallowed this post while I was trying to reply to a few lovely comments. Fortunately for my vanity, the comments were preserved on a mobile blogging app and I have taken the liberty of reposting them below, together with my completely inadequate replies. And with apologies for the "Anonymous" signatures, the app and I are still working on our relationship.