Live like a local.
If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. And again. And again.
Sorry, this is a long one. How are you supposed to wrap up failure and embarrassment quickly?
A flood of relief washes over me after finally passing the UK’s driver’s test. Yes, you did infer correctly, I failed the first attempt at the Practical driver’s test. Like most Americans, I took and passed my US drivers test when I was first allowed to legally drive, age 16. I had no other reference since I had only driven in the US so I assumed it wouldn’t be that hard to get a license.
In the UK, Foreign residents have one year to get a valid UK Drivers license. (Many people think you can just use your USA license, nobody will be the wiser. But that isn’t true. IF you get into an accident, they won’t cover you and you’ll be financially responsible for everything and everyone) We also heard not to take it lightly because, although anyone with a pulse can get a US license, that was not the case in the UK.
I, sadly, am proof of that.
But let me back up. Let me explain the way it is here in the UK. First, since there is such good public transportation, it is not uncommon for people to never need or want to acquire their driver’s license, so wipe from your mind that all adults can drive. Secondly, it is very expensive. Remember, fewer people own cars and so most students hire a teacher that has a car you can use for the practical test. Again, an average cost from start to finish with all the theory test, licenses, rental car, few hours behind the wheel driving, the practical test etc.… average +/- $900-1500.00. If people don’t need one, they certainly don’t need to pay $900 unnecessarily.
After moving here, our plan was to rent a car multiple times to get use to driving on the left side of the road, and then within 6 months we’d take the theory test and then we’d take the practical test, and BOOM. Done.
Minor complication. Covid. We moved from the states and 2 weeks later we were in a lockdown. It felt more like a permanent lockdown. We believed everything would be fine in a few months. Not. Truthfully, we forgot all about needing a driver’s license in this country because driving was the last thing on our minds. Taking a trip was impossible and we just focused on other things. We had no idea that all the drivers tests that were supposed to be happening were just creating a huge backlog so when they finally did open, the queue to get a test would be enormous. It wasn’t until we needed to rent a car after being here one year, that we realized we were sunk, and in need of a valid license.
Whoa Nelly, let me back up even farther. One needs to pass the theory test so you can apply for a provisional driving permit. We had to hire a instructor now because it was illeagal to drive under our license. So we needed a permit to drive with the instructor. The two main differences between the US and the UK, is the size of the manual, and that you can only miss 7 questions. Statistically, most standard drivers pass within their 5th attempt. (There is no limit for the number of times you can sit for the test, but you pay each time, of course.) We weren’t too worried about this because you can study for it. And boy did we study! We spent so much time laughing at the stupid questions and hours looking up the more complicated ones!! But we did study! Then on the way to the test, David learns of something called the Hazard Perception videos? For all those old timers out there, it is no different than the simulators we had to learn on 40 years ago. You remember the kind; you’re driving down the road and suddenly, a ball bounces out into the street with a child following it and you are to slam on your brakes. You, of course, can’t see that very clearly because it all happens between two cars and there is a glare on the screen, but you wing it and hope you reacted fast enough. They keep scores and you have 14 to pass.
The UK take their theory tests way more seriously too. When I went into the test center, they asked to see the inside of my mask! I asked why and they wanted to make sure there was no cheat sheet writing inside. I also had to spread my fingertips wide so they could see that I didn’t write anything between my fingers! They give you lockers so there is nothing on your person: no purse, no backpack, no jumper, or jacket, just you and the rows of computer screens. This also means I have no cool pictures to share with you. The testing center was full of computers, and each computer stall had a camera set up filming you and they made sure you knew they were watching every move you made. NOW who wouldn’t begin to panic? How hard will this be? Why is there so much security? Do many people try to cheat to pass? Will I be able to pass? And all this worry was for naught. Again, you can study for this test, and both David and I easily passed. But keep in mind, it was more difficult than the US’s written portion. Check out some of these silly questions.... my favorite is the plaid dog coat.
Now comes the practical driving part. There was such a back log (for the last year of not giving tests) that the waitlist was long and unpredictable. We begged and begged and crossed our fingers and toes – when that didn’t work we paid a premium to the instructor who knew how to get us in. I had NEVER driven on the left side of the road until the day of my lesson, hours before my test. Note to self: probably not such a good idea.
So, the Driving Instructor, let’s call him DI, he is thrilled I know HOW to drive because the entire time he is on the phone doing business, booking people into tests, rearranging times, scheduling lessons etc. As I’d drive by something I must have not done correctly, or needed to know, he would finish his call and then tell me, “Remember a few blocks ago, you passed a sign that looked like …… well, when you see that sign you need to do……” I explain that I don’t remember what I ate for breakfast, so I most definitely don’t know what sign he’s talking about. No worries he says, we’ll pass another. Then an ambulance comes from ahead, I pull over immediately. Some things are just engrained in you! Well, that is wrong. Good thing that ambulance came by because he never would never have taught me that otherwise. All day he was full of simple but irritating information. The test giver will be looking to see if I look at my mirrors every 30 seconds. AND I’m taking the test on a manual because if you don’t take the test on a manual then you can’t drive a manual, your license would limit you to only an automatic. And in Europe you might need to drive a manual when you rent cars for vacations. Back to my instructor. He was relatively useless. Unless, of course, I made a mistake while he was off the phone, then I would learn what subtle road sign differences were. Another example is when you cross one lane of traffic to the other side. In the States you would only go out into the middle IF there was a section of the road your car could fit into. Here you can and should just move on out and block oncoming traffic if they come. So, next time I need to cross the two-lane road, I stick out into the road and he says, “what are you doing? you can’t block the traffic? “My head spins and I say, “you told me earlier I needed to go across the lane of traffic and sit and wait until I can go. And you told me to follow that car and if he can go, I can go.” DI says, “oh yes, that is true but only 2 cars can do that, you are the 3rd car and so you must stop. That is an immediate failure” Again, I am only learning by default and by making these mistakes…. Learning this way, I should have hired him for a week, not a few hours. Once again, he is on the phone, and again we pass this triangle looking signpost. Really, I have no idea what he’s talking about “a triangle” because he always points it out after we pass it and it’s long gone. But he says that I need to turn in front of it. That it’ll feel like I should turn around to its left but really it is to the right in front of it. So, I keep wanting to go back and drive by it so I know what he’s talking about, but he says it’s fine, just remember when I see it to turn in front of it. Now comes my test. The test is 40 minutes long, driving around these very narrow streets, doing the normal things like entering and exiting a roundabout, parking, emergency stops, and then … here it comes, the right turn … YES! I turn in front of the triangle post. Was that a triangle? Is that what he meant? IDK. Then she directs me back to the center. Immediate failure. Yup, after 40 years of practical driving experience, I fail a driving test in the UK. At first, I was just plain MAD, no, I was furious. I paid a lot of money to have this clown not clearly show me what he was talking about. After he and the tester talked, the DI went back to show me how that wasn’t a triangle and that I turned into the wrong lane (there were no cars so it was hard to see that since I “drove” on the left side) but regardless, you can see why driving on the wrong lane might be an immediate failure. Once my anger tempered a bit, I was just embarrassed. I also worried was I too old to learn a new trick? What if…..? and my negative thoughts got away from me. But if my child failed, what would I tell them? I’d tell them to try again. Do your best. That’s all you CAN do.
This is too long to really express my humiliation. I didn’t want to try again because what if I failed again? But today was the DAY to attempt to pass my driver’s test for the second time. I have worried myself into a knot. I have asked DI not to take calls while we are driving. I asked him to be critical of my driving so I can drive to pass the test. Once again, I must pay an enormous amount of money to schedule the test and use his car. (I am bitter about this part) The entire time he is telling me to shift into 3rd at 20 MPH. The car is so underpowered it is just strange to drive. As soon as I’d get to 30 he’d be yelling shift shift shift into 4th. (Forget a tachometer, they don’t seem to care about what that says) Then every minute he’d say, side mirror, center mirror, side mirror. You must check your mirrors every 30 seconds. Shift, mirror, mirror, mirror, be aggressive, don’t be aggressive, shift, mirror, mirror, mirror. I sort of liked him better on the phone. We practiced parallel parking, backing up, mini roundabouts, larger roundabouts, squeezing through roads that should be one way etc. I couldn’t wait to be done. Nobody drives with someone barking at you in real life. I was concentrating on so many other things, my eyes weren’t really on the road. But you need to drive like this to pass the test.
The tester gets into the car. She is lovely. A chatty Kathy. I just wish she’d have stopped talking. I just wanted to concentrate and be done. We drive, we turn, we do a zillion roundabouts, we drive some more, then we go back to the testing center. No parallel parking. No emergency stops, No this or that. I must have failed again!?#*!? She sees my complete defeat and says, “What’s wrong?” and I ask, “What did I fail on?” and she smiled, “you passed” I don’t know why I didn’t have to do all the other parts. Maybe because I had on the first test and did well? Maybe they can see that? I don’t know, and I don’t care. I was so relieved, and the best part is I won’t have to take that ever again. I now have a UK license and will only have to send in a payment and a new photo every 10 years! Boom- Done.
There are few things in England that are inspired from something from the United States. Typically, it is the other way around. However, it is worth noting that in 1903 Chicago allowed the use of their narrow gauge railroad to be used for mail service. These some odd 16 miles of tunnels underneath the city of Chicago were initially meant to serve as utility tunnels to carry a network of telephone cables, for various reasons this plan was scrapped, and they changed the plans to include rails. They were able to incorporate, George B. Armstrong’s concept of sorting mail en route to reach their destination and this increased speed and efficiency.
Here in London, there were unacceptable delays in getting mail delivered using above ground transportation. The city was too large and too congested. In 1911, the planning board decided to primarily use Chicago’s system as an example. Construction of underground tunnels began (using much of the same system that was used for the Brunnel tunneling – previous blog post). They designed these tunnels to use unmanned electric trains to go to different underground sorting stations throughout London and use these stations to drop off and pick up mail from various points. You will see some photos of examples of how they hooked mail pouches over the rails so when a train would come by the train automatically unhooks the bag and it drops down onto the train without using manpower or the need to slow down at these points in the tunnels. They employed approx. 250 employees 24/6 as engineers and mail sorters that worked in these underground tunnels for the Royal Mail.
These unmanned electric mail trains underneath London were in use from 1927 through 2003 when they were closed due to a decrease in snail mail and an increase demand moving large parcels where the train tunnels, sadly, weren’t cost effective to continue.
As with all these interesting tad bits of history, with enough digging, you can find interesting tours. We took a walking tour through the tunnels which is now underneath the Postal Museum. Overall, I found it interesting, but it was overpriced. If you choose to go, you must recognize your "donation" is keeping history alive.
Fun fact, the railway appears in the Bruce Willis film called Hudson Hawk. It is thought to be a horrible film, I have never seen it, so I cannot give an opinion. The “movie money” was used to put on some moral events for the families of the workers for a few years. At one point they painted the 12 days of Christmas on the walls of the tunnels for their children to see. Hum. But the more interesting fact to me was when they closed the tunnels and the Royal rail needed to sell off what they could. One area they sold went to a bank, but the bank couldn’t have a tunnel underneath the bank – making it a perfect making for a heist. They had to fill in the area below the bank with cement. And so the tunnels are definitively closed for any future usage ideas.
Since we were about to go into another full lockdown, we decided to get out and explore. We started with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Whatever you see or wherever you go, there are pieces of history you pick up that you didn't know before. In my case, lots of pieces.
Covid has been horrible for everyone. However, one silver lining is that there are no crowds. So we were able to go on and behind the stage! The columns that look like marble from afar are actually painted wood and the backstage is as small as it appears!
Now people have assigned seats, but in Shakespeare’s time, that was not a thing. They would cram as many people in as they could! More money! There were also no bathrooms or intermissions then. Our docent explained that most people could “hold it” and so there was no need to use the loo, but if you could not wait the two hours, you would just relieve yourself right there at your seat. Women might have had the advantage due to the long skirts they would wear.
When the play was about to start, they would raise a flag. Townspeople from London would take a barge over to get tickets and a trumpet would sound for people to take their seats. (The City of London banned any theatre INSIDE the city limits. Clearly too many undesirables.) The Globe Theatre is not “exactly” in the same spot as it was originally, but nearby. They did as much excavating and learning about it as they could and then reconstructed it exactly as it had been, which means they rebuilt it with no nails! It is something to see! Anyway, someday we will see a play there. If the theatre can stand the test of time during the Bubonic Plague (it closed 1603-1608 to slow down the spread), then it can get through Covid!
After the Globe, on our way to a quaint pub we had read about, we happen to walk by the Brunel Tunnel Museum. We would have just kept walking except I had just read about the tunnel the night before, and we were curious. It was practically the 8th wonder of the world, an amazing engineering feat -- successfully digging a tunnel underneath a navigable river! Others had repeatedly tried but failed. Marc Brunel’s tunnel was started in 1825 and was supposed to take 3-5 years. Instead, it took 16. Before constructing this tunnel, Brunel had been involved in many unprofitable engineering projects and was heavily in debt. He was sent to a debtor’s prison (where his family could join him!?*#?! Crazy, right?), but Arthur Wellsley recognized that he was too brilliant of a mind to lose, so he convinced the government to clear his 5,000 pound debt (that’s equivalent today to $724,775.00). You may remember Arthur Wellesley as the Duke of Wellington, the man who defeated Napoleon! Anyway, Brunel successfully designed a tunneling shield, a reinforcing wall in which miners could dig, and slowly the shield would be moved forward as the walls were reinforced, creating the tunnel under the River Thames. He had hoped that this amazing achievement would bring trade between the ports, but they could never find a way to get a horse and carriage down into the tunnel. Consequently, it was limited to a pedestrian thoroughfare charging 1 shilling to walk through. The news of the tunnel traveled fast and it was visited by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Within the first 4 months they had over 1 million visitors!
Today we use similar machines for tunneling, and yet 177 years ago this engineering marvel was limited to a tourist attraction. The tunnel, in Brunel’s lifetime, never made a profit or was used for what it was designed for, and so it's possible he never realized his contribution was recognized for its true importance. You can view the original tunnel, still being used, and its brickwork connecting the Rotherhithe and Wapping Stations (metropolitan line) in the rail maze of the underground called THE TUBE. This was a real find and if you have the time, I recommend the visit. Pre-Covid, concerts were performed down in the great hall. I would have enjoyed experiencing that. Maybe another day or another lifetime.
The Mayflower pub, near where the Mayflower would have taken off from, was across the street. They have a marvelous deck on the water’s edge, so we were able to eat outside. You could hear the splashing and slapping of the waves against the pilings. If you can prove you are a descendant from the Mayflower, they have a book you can sign. David should have been able to sign that book, but the documents necessary for proof were destroyed in a fire decades ago. The other fun fact is that it is the only place in England where you can buy a UK and a USA postage stamp. We did not actually challenge this fact and wonder if it is still so. We might have to go back for another pint and a postage stamp.
October 25, 2020 Latimer, Chenies & Chess Valley, Buckinghamshire.
The fun facts of history make an era come alive! Yesterday we took a train and went about an hour outside of London (very last station on a tube line) and we hiked about 7 miles. It was an easy walk, remember there are no mountains. Makes me wonder if the “hike” part comes from the difficulty I came to expect on a hike and therefore I shouldn't use the word here in England? Or if a “hike” is merely a walk for enjoyment. Regardless, it was blue skies, crisp air and we see only the occasional passerby equally enjoying nature. I could not help wondering if this would be our last gorgeous fall day this year, to do such a hike/walk. I hope not, it felt invigorating.
About halfway was the perfect stopping point, libations poured freely. I expect it might have been the case for the last few hundred years, and so we too, drank with enthusiasm. (I did regret this impulsive decision once I needed to relieve myself and there seemed to be only open fields) The Sarrett Church, and its large cemetery, was across the street from the Cock Inn.
The Church was built in 1190. William I insisted that any village that had a population of at least 100 people was to have a church built, but it was unclear if the village of Sarrett had 100 people. ”That such a comparatively large church should be built for the small community is unremarkable: agriculture had prospered during the 12th century and God was a dominant influence in people`s lives” But what WAS interesting was that there was a tunnel built between the church and the Pub/Inn. Our server told the story that during the plague there were so many deaths that the church could not handle all the bodies – or could not bury them fast enough. They would use the tunnel to bring the bodies and stack them up in the pub and bury them in the fields in unmarked graves. It is where the parking lot is today. The thought was unbelievable until I realized we are not that much different from 1348. The difference is in 2020 we use refrigerated trucks to keep the bodies until we can tend to them. “The need to find a cure for the plague also prompted people to engage in research and studies using scientific methods. Many experts believed that this helped change people’s thinking and started the momentum toward innovation and scientific research, leading to the Renaissance.” Maybe once Covid is in our past, we, too, can go back to believing in science?
The other thing that made me reflect a bit was passing William Liberty’s grave, 1777 - 52 years old. He was young, but that wasn’t so surprising, we all understand how hard life was in the day. But that having an estate that would be handed down from family member to family member. Having your grave and history stay with the estate for, well, for as long as they could imagine. Today we have nothing like it. More specifically, an ordinary person has nothing like it. David was more shocked that a brickmaker could afford such an estate. Then again, most things were made from bricks so clearly it was lucrative employment.
The walk was glorious. Weather could not have been more beautiful. The trail was a bit difficult to follow, the least helpful clues. A tree might have three directional arrows but with no explanation to where they end up. We’d cross over a stream with a current they’d mark as a "river". We even played Pooh Sticks from the bridge over the “river”.
We only had one hiccup – between the three of us we were unaware that it was daylight savings. It meant that it got dark an hour earlier than we were expecting. It allowed us to view the most peaceful time of day: when the daylight is exchanged for the moonlight. Again, I am reminded how attached I am to our electronics. We did not have an analog clock between us.
We spent the day in Greenwich. I'll start with the Royal Observatory, and how Greenwich mean time came to be. The overall theory of how critically important time and location is ... well, conceptually, it is mind boggling. There is a red ball on top of the observatory, it has been a working timepiece since 1833... It drops at 1pm because the astronomers were busy with their telescopes with the midday sun ...and it is currently no longer working. The horologist who takes care of this clock has been furloughed because of COVID. I wonder how many people have the skills required to keep this bit of history going? The museum has a fascinating collection of time pieces taking one through the process of how we got to the point we are today. I was also interested in the fact that leaders from across the globe got together to agree to have the official time -GMT, without this respect for science and facts, would this be possible today? Are all the great discoveries in the past? or will pockets of people still believe in the importance of science?
Then we went to the Queen's House to view the art collection. One painting was especially interesting, it was of John Byng. He joined the navy at age 13 and became captain at age 23 and rear admiral at age 40! The story goes that he was court martial-ed for failing to attack the French on Minorca. He and his council decided that the attack would not stop the French and it would be a waste of British manpower. He is the only Navy Admiral to be executed.
"At noon Byng came out on deck in a light grey coat, white breeches and a big white wig. He had been persuaded with difficulty to be blindfolded, on the grounds that it would not be fair to the firing party to have to see his face. He was escorted out onto the quarter deck, ‘with a stately pace and a composed countenance’ according to the Evening Post, to see nine marines in their scarlet uniforms lined up in three rows. The rear row were in reserve. In front of him was a cushion and a heap of sawdust, sodden from the rain.He knelt on the cushion, tied the blindfold round his head and held up a neatly folded white handkerchief in his right hand. After a few agonizing moments he dropped the handkerchief, the six marines fired and the admiral fell gently on his side. He was fifty-two."
I think of this leader and the moral principles he held. He sacrificed his career and life for the life of his men over a battle he knew, after scrutinizing the information he had, they didn't stand a chance in winning.
Then we continued over to see if we could charm our way into the Painted Hall, where we couldn't get a ticket. Clearly, we have run out of charm, but the chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul in the old Royal Naval College was open to the public. It was the adjoining dome and had its own captivating history. First off, you see all over Europe and the UK carved /molded - bas-relief /pediment sculptures - scenes... I always assumed they were made of marble or other natural stone but there was something called Coade Stone... "an artificial stone in the late 18th and early 19th centuries". I can't speak for all or most, but I can say that many of these pediment sculptures were made of Coade Stone. Some fun facts, marble and other expensive valuable stones were taxed heavily. Coade Stone was cheap, and it was not taxed, so became an obvious stone to use when building in this period. What was more impressive is that when you compare the artificial stone with the natural stone, after 200 years the artificial stone holds up better, "virtually weatherproof", and the details are still spectacularly preserved. Granted, I don't have a trained eye, but I would never have known it wasn't a natural material.
These buildings, like so many, were designed by the busy architect Sir Christopher Wren. Used for the longest time as a "hospital" but not like we know of a hospital today, but instead, as a place of rehabilitation and retirement for injured sailors. Closed in mid 1800's leaving it available for use as the Royal Navy college. Our U.S. equivalent would be Annapolis. This shut in 1998 and has been open for tours (pre-COVID) ever since. We could have spent more time here, it was impressive. Another fun fact, the 4 virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, and meekness - each had their own statue leading into the chapel, but they covered the statue of Meekness when it was used as the Royal Naval College because they didn't think meekness was a virtue they wanted to instill in their naval officers. HAHA
Part II Hanover, Bremen, Hamburg, Braunschweig, Germany - July 29-Aug 2, 2020
If anyone has been to Hanover, then they know about the Nana’s!! I cannot help wanting to sing the song Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye. Sarah and Michele, our niece and her husband, have lived there long enough to show us a Hanover we won’t forget. I think it is a lost city. Yes, it is the capital and the largest city of the German State of Lower Saxony, but with over a million residents it still often gets overlooked. I am glad we had a reason to stop. A super livable city! Easy connections to east/west and north/south transportation, but mostly I think we enjoyed each stopping point as its own point of interest and having a place to regroup. We had time to appreciate what we were seeing. Too often, we rush through cities quickly, you rarely absorb history and then have zero time for a visit. This trip to Germany we really felt connected to our family (Keith and Erica in Berlin and Sarah and Michele in Hanover) AND it was a bonus we were able to see so much of these cities.
Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late. – Benjamin Franklin
My Aha moment was thinking of the Bremen Town Musicians. The Brothers Grimm fairy tale's climax is about the conflict of age and growing less useful. Each animal has become too old to do what was once the core of its identity. I have no unique insight, but it does make me ponder why we limit ourselves and what more could we do if only we saw ourselves through different lenses.
Many people know Bremen for the brewing of BECK’S beer? And maybe I would have expanded my comments to more than a mention if COVID had not closed down brewery tours. Instead, we’ll move onto why one would come to Bremen… its City Hall (UNESCO). It was spared by the bombings of WWII, and still standing nearby is the Statue of Roland from 1404! It is a beautiful city with quirky medieval buildings that allow you to use your imagination as to how it once was. I say this very loosely because the “how it once was” image, must have come with a horrific stench and dirty streets, and today’s reality has you smelling freshly roasted coffee and your eyes pinned on picturesque architecture.
The Marienburg Castle is a gothic revival castle near Hanover. It is exactly the sort of the thing from which fairy tales are made. King George V had it made for his wife as a gift. They had a romance like few kings and queens do. You will need to read all about it to find out why the castle was uninhabited for 80 years. What I found far more interesting was the fact that nobody talks about King George V being blind. And that his father, the king at the time, changed the laws to allow a king to possess a physical handicap and only then could allow his son to be king. The castle was, as you can imagine, stunning. My favorite part were the carved wooden ceilings. As with any family, there are disagreements. Currently, there is a scandal over the ownership of the castle. A juicy read.
Berlin being the largest city, Hamburg is the second largest city in Germany. It is best known for being Europe’s third largest port and maybe despite its disasters and conflicts it still emerged stronger and wealthier after each set back. You can’t miss the modern shiny glass skyscraper resembling the shapes of ships sails - A.K.A. the Opera House. It’s quite impressive and allows for 360 degree view of the city all for only 2 euros. Most people think of Venice as the city of bridges, but they should think of Hamburg. No other city in the world has more bridges. Yes, there were some that were really flippin old, but none were as fun as my favorite, the public face. Supposedly, it’s mood changes based on the facial expressions of the passers-by. We could not tell from where they capture this data, nor did we stick around to see it change, but it did change from the first time we saw it to the next time we saw it.
Can you see the ships sails in the glass?
The damaged landmarks that the cities have left as-is that were bombed out and left as a memorial have really interested me. Seeing the shrapnel damage marks on buildings, seeing the walls and windows blown out, seeing the destruction that comes from war is a constant reminder to the people in these cities. I have not met a European that doesn’t show their outward disdain for our current President and the harm he’s done in terms of increasing global tensions and civil unrest. Would we view current tensions differently if we were reminded daily of what HATE looks like?
“If wars can be started by lies, they can be stopped by truth.” – Julian Assange
There really is no better a way to see a city than to meander by bike. We started our honeymoon – oh, I meant our 28th anniversary – with a chocolate croissant and coffee! Then off to see the city on two wheels. We started by the best Italian guide showing us an Italian shop full of Italian delicacies, but then it went immediately to Gin! Yes, you read that right. It was 10:30 am and we’re at a gin distillery. We asked if they did tastings and the answer was clearly, “No, because of Covid”. We went in and looked around. So many interesting infused gins, but we were not about to buy anything if we couldn’t taste it. The shop keeper says, “Oh, you can taste them”. So, either I did not ask my question clearly, or she meant there were no “tours” being offered. Either way we had fun learning about their experimentation with barrels of gin on an open sea crossings and what the sloshing, sun, and casts did to the flavor profiles. After enough tasting we couldn't really judge the gin anymore, it was time to ride. We saw beautiful huge green spaces welcoming bikers, walkers, and anything in between. We went through interesting eclectic graffiti artists neighborhoods where a self organized space was provided and hosts a youth center for social and cultural work (And of course, there would be cafe's, concerts and clubs if it wasn't for Covid). It gave me goose bumps to see an area that was created by the people for the people. We went over and under bridges, and conveniently ended at a beer garden. It was a perfect way to celebrate 28 years with an amazing man, and lucky me, I get to claim Sarah and Michele as family!
Our last day. I had hoped to see my German relatives while I had fluent speakers to navigate the language barrier, but Covid introduced too great a risk and we must hope for another future opportunity. Instead, we drove to Braunschweig where my niece spent the first 6 years of her years in Germany. These towns all look like they came out of a classic story, this town is no different founded in the 9th century with oodles of interesting history. There is an odd cartoonish building that does not seem to fit in with the cobble-stoned streets that is quite an eye catcher. Now an office building. Close by is the oldest known half-timbered house in Germany 1432! The war left its scar here and they’ve taken great pains to reconstruct the buildings as close to its original. The Braunschweig Palace was reconstructed with a new Quadriga in 2007, they did a great job making it not look a day over 1755. I understand that if you are here in November and/or early December you must come to their Christmas Market. I have it on good report, it’s one of the better ones.
…and there we have it… in the middle of a pandemic you would never realize Germany was going through the same thing the rest of the world was going through. Now back to the UK , slowly things are opening more. People are recognizing the importance of masks, and we all have a pile of masks we wash frequently. I am grateful I was able to see my niece and nephew and spouses before they all move back to the US. Wonderful time was had!
Part 1 -Here we come! Berlin, Germany Aug 23 – Aug 28th, 2020
I’m conscience-stricken by my lack of historic knowledge when it comes to the chronicle of events surrounding the Berlin wall. Yes, I can safely say I knew the wall separated the communists from the western world and that the wall came down in 1989, but that would conclude what I thought about. I conveniently packaged anything to do with “the wall” going up with WWII and Nazi Germany, when in fact, that is not the complete story. The wall has to do with the DDR, not the Nazi regime. Then to think I was starting my family and completely unaware of the impact and narrative of the re-unification of East and West Germany, makes me a wee-embarrassed. The resolve of human beings is amazing, and it gives me great hope in times of current political turbulence.
Germany has handled Covid so well, that we could travel, and the best bonus was that we were able to visit our nephew and his wife, Keith and Erica, In Berlin. From there our niece and her husband, Sarah and Michele, in Hannover, before they all move back to the US. There is nothing better than sharing a city with people who love it intimately. As with any great tour, it is a whirlwind because there is ample to see and limited time to absorb it all.
Berlin, with Keith and Erica, was our first stop. It came complete with beautiful ancient buildings that survived the destruction of WWII and/or were rebuilt, but mostly, we spent time learning about recent history. It’s crazy to think I went into East Berlin when I was 20 and didn’t recognize the impact of what was around me. History can only monopolize your interest if you’re captivated by the events unfolding, and I can honestly say, I was too self-absorbed and naïve to comprehend what was happening around me.
I found it confusing thinking of Berlin as two cities when one was encapsulated by another. I was constantly asking, “Is this the West? Is this the East?” Berlin has done a remarkable job weaving the past seamlessly into one another, and it’s now a lively, thriving, successful city. Another thing to point out is that many of these museums and points of interest are all accessible without a fee. The importance of allowing everyone to have access to learn, so history doesn’t repeat itself, hasn’t gone unnoticed, if only the US could adopt similar views regarding history.
The Parliamentary Reichstag Building (meeting place of the Federal Arm of the Gov’t) was spectacular, but you must register in advance. (Bonus: go 1.5 hours before sunset so you get to see the sunset over the city!!) Fascinating history along with a remarkable view! I can’t say enough about this, but I’m realizing I can’t say enough about Berlin, so I will stop … and show you pictures of Berlin…
The Berlin Wall Memorial, commemorates the division of Berlin by the Berlin Wall and the deaths that occurred there. Going through the museum you can feel the years of tensions growing, and one can only imagine what if must have felt like when Schabowski mistakenly improvised the immediate opening of the wall. I never realized that Chancellor Merkel came from, what was once East Berlin! She is a remarkable woman and a quick response to COVID! It helped having her background, as a Chemist, and then married to a quantum Chemist, she understood what could happen and shut it down as fast as she could.
The East Side Gallery is an open-air gallery in Berlin. It consists of a series of murals painted directly on a 1,316 m long remnant of the Berlin Wall. It has status as a heritage protected landmark. Many of the paintings you recognize but after seeing how East and West Berliners lived for years during the cold war, you come to appreciate these expressions more.
Mauer Park, The name translates to "Wall Park", referring to its status as a former part of the Berlin Wall and its Death Strip. It now seems to be a lively park with part of the wall dedicated to allowing graffiti artists express themselves. Here is a photo of a budding young artist. I took his photo and his father was quite upset, but of course, as he is rattling off in aggressive German I couldn’t understand, I didn’t realize he was worried about the content of the photo I had taken. He thought I took a picture of his son’s face. After playing charades and I showed him my photo, he was immediately calm and almost happy to see I’d be sharing the nature of their art.
The Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe...These slabs are organized in rows, 54 of them going north–south, and 87 heading east–west at right angles but set slightly askew, very disorienting. The ground was rolling and not flat, adding another feeling that takes your breath away. As recently as July 2001, “the slogan The Holocaust never happened appeared in newspaper advertisements and on billboards, under the slogan and a picture of a serene mountain lake and snow-capped mountain, a smaller type said: "There are still many people who make this claim. In 20 years there could be even more. “ It is impossible to not think about the false narratives we are currently hearing in the USA because we have stopped demanding factual statements from people in powerful positions. It’s dangerous and scary and I hope there is an end to this free-fall.
Topography of terror is on the site of buildings, which during the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945, was the SS Reich Main Security Office, the headquarters of the Security Police, Secret Service, Death Squads and Secret Police aka the Gestapo. The museum is both indoor and outdoor and is free to all. I didn’t take photos, but as with all of these installations, there was a ton to learn.
The German term, ghost stations, was coined to describe certain stations on Berlin's U-Bahn and S-Bahn metro networks that were closed during the period of Berlin's division during the Cold War because they were part of the transit line located on the other side of the Berlin Wall. You can see an old photo of armed guards in these stations that the train slowed down through but didn’t stop.
Keith works at the embassy and as one can imagine, no number of shenanigans convinced the Marines to allow me to bring in a camera. Basically, many places were off limits, but we did see how amazing the placement of the embassy’s building truly was given the view from the outside the roof garden. An interesting story that escaped my attention, in late 2019, Berlin gets an unwanted Reagan Statue. Reagan has already been recognized in the city and Berlin didn’t want, yet another Reagan statue, but still the US ambassador, Richard Grenell insisted on leaving his mark, and again, the city of Berlin refused to allow the placement IN their city. The only place left for the statue was in the US Embassy own rooftop garden. Not quite the audience Grenell imagined. Trump selected Richard Grenell as acting director of National Intelligence, but not surprisingly, he didn’t last long. I wanted to show you the remarkable round conference room opening out to this rooftop garden, but as I stated before, I was without a camera, or mostly permission to share a photo. I was given permission to share a photo Keith had taken from the rooftop (notice how close it is to the Brandenburg Gate!!) Impressive. Another interesting fact regarding this embassy is that the consulate isn’t part of this building. Most US embassies, in other cities, have both their state offices and the consulate work in the same building, this one does not.
Who’s up for a bike ride? We always are! And off we go. We ride through the city out through green spaces and even tried our luck at off roading. Let’s just say we weren’t up to the challenge. Who knew there was a hill in Berlin? In the Grunewald forest is the Teufelsberg (Devils Mountain) which is a hill made out of debris from WWII (400,000 bombed houses) on top an old Nazi military training school that they couldn’t seem to destroy. During the Cold War they made an intelligence-gathering secure listening post which was used by NSA that pretty much looks like 2 ginormous soccer balls perched on top of this man-made hill. In pre-covid times, you can go tour it. We had much more fun riding next to the tall security fences that were clearly designed to keep people out!
And we continued to ride towards the palaces of Potsdam. Here comes the prisoner exchange on the Glienicke Bridge! Well sort of. Our “prisoners" are pretty magnificent, so we ended up keeping both of them. Clearly, we wouldn’t have made good negotiators. Regardless, I know our exchange was not as dramatic as during the cold war exchanging an American Pilot with a convicted Soviet spy, but imagining it going down, was something to think about!
Finally we reached Potsdam. It’s easy to sum it up and say if you were wealthy, in the day, your life was set! The Royal Gardens and Palaces were crazy beautiful. It’s remarkable to realize that basically one family had all that wealth. You’ll need to see for yourself these beauties but do notice the Shell Grotto in The New Palace. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was pretty grand to have the Palace all to ourselves! The only silver lining with Covid.
We rode back through a small rain shower and grabbed a great bite to eat before taking the train back with our bikes! Overall, I think it was about 25 miles and a great way to see Potsdam! Then I’ve posted a few photos of us drinking beer, duh it’s Germany!! and using this really fun app called Uptapped. Download it, and play with us, It works in the USA too!
As we wrap up our time in Berlin, the boys pretend to work while Erica and I visit the National Gallery. I’d say I’m usually not a museum girl, but what fun we had slowly taking in all the stories about the paintings! My favorite was Adolph Menzel’s “Frederick the Great’s address to his generals before the battle of Leuthen”. It is the painting with unfinished people, and this was the fascinating reason that was given for it being incomplete. “…Menzel did not finish the work, The reason is that in this work Menzel gives an intense physical sense of Frederick's generals--bear-like men, stocky, strong--standing against the cold, pulling coats and pelisses over their shoulders, listening intently to Frederick (whom Menzel did not finish; he is a blank figure). Fried argues that Menzel had sought to show the hardiness of these generals, who stand about Frederick in a semi-circle, as he wanted to highlight their physical battle against the cold and the enemy. But his efforts went in a direction he did not anticipate. He likely chose not to finish the work because the contrast between these fleshy men and the slender Frederick would not have given the impression of Frederick's centrality in this historical event…”.
And we can’t forget the statue of the girl representing most of the people in the USA and U.K. wearing a mask to protect their chin. We used an audio guide and spent most of the day in the museum. I was taken away, only hunger could bring me back. Grabbed a train that night, and onto Hanover for Part II Germany!
When I see B/W photos I see a period frozen in time: Officers and Civilians, Affluence and Impoverishment, Tradition and Culture. What was and how it must have been? Who walked where? What conversations were being had by whom? Everywhere I’m surrounded by chronicles explaining the history and its rumors. My imagination runs wild until reality abruptly reminds me of the here and NOW. Where laughing or talking violates no rules, and yet it’s eerily quiet. We pass strangers in the street providing the wide berth we've all become accustom. We share nothing and yet, together, we are all experiencing what will soon be history. Full circle, it’s once again a time of black ‘n white. But it doesn't have to take away the color in our lives. I can choose the exact same scenes and pay attention to the colors along the way! There is usually a silver lining in every cloud...
Every day David and I ride a bike along a relatively deserted 6+ mile trail passing many famous landmarks then happily we’re reminded that someday friends and family will, once again, come to visit. This route has become something of an ordinary journey for us and yet I’m elevating it to a “must do” when you come to London. It is unmistakably full of stunning sights. Try to imagine that soon we'll be able to stop for a picnic or grab a beer from a local pub!
Let me virtually take you on our ride. Each individual place is worth spending more time exploring but we’ll show you our commute and you can decide what interests you so you can delve in deeper when you visit. Remember, it has two lives: Black n White of the past and vibrant Color of the present, there is plenty of beauty in each. We’ll start with The London Wall built by the Romans, ride through the city to St. Paul’s Cathedral where its dome remains the highest in the world (thank goodness, whenever I’m lost I just ride towards it to find our temporary housing). Then we meander onto a protected bike trail almost the entire way to Notting Hill, where we live. First, steer along the river Thames where you can’t help spot The Tower Bridge, The London Bridge, and the Westminster Bridge overlooking the remake of Shakespeare’s Globe. The landscape is dominated by the modern London Eye and the Shard. We continue cycling through with Big Ben towering over us, and Westminster Abbey: the traditional place for coronations and burial sites for British Monarchs. Continue onto the entrance to Buckingham Palace, where even during COVID the Queen’s guards are visible. Next we come upon Wellington Arch: proclaiming Wellesley’s defeat of Napoleon. From here it’s pretty much a straight shot through the luscious grounds of Hyde Park where you can see where past meets present because there are so many leisure activities woven throughout the statues. You can choose to go for a walk, take a bike ride, jump on a horse, swim, take your chance with a pedal or row boat, even hope for enough solar power to go on the UK’s first solar powered boat. As you continue, you won’t miss the grand Royal Albert Hall, it was originally built to promote understanding and appreciation of the arts and sciences but he died before it materialized. What a heritage! Finish up the ride through the beautiful Kensington gardens / palace and then onto our modest flat. I’m pretty sure our place won’t go down in history so you won’t see any B/W photos!
If any of this ride is of interest to you, I’d love to share some, or all, of it with you when you come. As wonderful as it’s been seeing it without the crowds, I will welcome the hustle and bustle of tourism once again. London is doing a concerted effort to make safe biking a possibility!
You can see a nimbus that illuminates from a prideful parent a mile away. I was walking through Hyde Park, minding my own business, really I was, when I saw a group of uniformed men on horseback. Oh I love me a man in uniform and then put him on horseback!! I naively snapped a picture or two assuming what I was seeing was an everyday occurrence. There was nobody around to tell me otherwise. I kept walking. I look far to my right and see a line-up of maybe 10-15 people. You bet I’m looking to see if they’re tourists, I don’t want to “BE” one of them gawking at men in uniform on horses! But something unusual is going on. You can tell by the way the onlookers were grouped and that there seemed to be a uniformed person with each cluster! I decided to, as nonchalantly as I could (Yes, of course, I stood out like a sore thumb!) briskly walk over to try to hear what was being said. I was watching a graduation ceremony of the latest graduates of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment – Corps of two regiments: the Queen’s Life Guards and the Blues and Royals. (Fun Fact: both Prince William and the NOT Prince Harry were part of the Blues and Royals) So I quickly cozied up to a prideful grandpa to get my latest information. It was obvious, he was bursting to share with someone. I was actually doing him a favor to be so interested.
Pete, his grandson second from the first row, had never ridden a horse before enlisting! It surprised them all he wanted to join. He had to go through your typical military boot camp and training as well as how to care for a horse etc. He thinks they even had to learn to shoe their horse. Only officers get their own horse, his grandson will ride a different horse almost every time he shows up for work. I was curious if a woman could be in the HCMR? And the answer is, drum roll please… after 359 years, May 2019 the first woman joined the guard! I asked him what his grandson would most likely be doing on a day to day basis. He said that they are trained to operate both as an armored reconnaissance unit and carry out mounted ceremonial duties. Then he smiled and said, “Basically he’ll be on horseback guarding outside buildings like Buckingham Palace, an hour on and an hour off " He tells me later that Pete's trained to do a lot more than just ride, he's protecting the Crown. He was glowing.
Notice there are men riding in either Red or Blue uniforms. Pete is wearing red, and is part of the Queens Life Guard. The Life Guards are wearing red tunics and white plumed helmets and the Blues and Royals are wearing blue tunics and red plumed helmets. I must mention the horses. They are powerfully large and graceful and grandpa tells me they are bred in Ireland and are a mix between Irish Draft and Thoroughbred.
So if you are ever in town, you can’t plan to find a graduation ceremony, but you can watch a scheduled changing of the mounted cavalry. It’s so very British, you don’t want to miss it. They’ve been based in Hyde Park Barracks, Knightsbridge since 1795! The Brits have down tradition!
Don't take life so seriously.
I'm Jody. I love to travel. I love to take pictures. I love to meet people and find interesting places. I also love to write about and post pix of what I've found. But, I've been told that I write like I talk - in streams of consciousness. So, if proper grammar and well composed sentences are a must for you - my posts will make you crazy. If you want to follow my journey as I learn about really cool places and offer some great tips about living abroad, read on!