By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea

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Ben and I took off early on Friday for the Imperial War Museum to look over materials regarding Shanghai which we had previously requested to review. These were personal journals of people who lived there when my grandfather, grandmother, and mom all lived there as well as some memorabilia from the Japanese Internment Camp in Yangchow C where my grandmother and mom lived for 4 years. This war museum has a good system for researchers and the review room had quite a few people studying various books and papers. I identified what I wanted copied, paid for it, and now wait for the IWM to mail them to Ben in London who will forward it all to me in the U.S.

After lunch, we collected our luggage and knapsacks from Ben’s mom and dad’s apartment and began making our way for the train station. Ben was an awesome guide and help to me with my overflowing baggage due to gifts I had bought for my American family. It was pouring. Then our train was delayed for a bit because of a “trespasser on the tracks.” Other than that delay, the ride and transfer was smooth and pleasant. I do like train travel…

Arriving in Seaford at dusk, we met up with Les and Doreen at their home and were off to have the area’s ‘traditional’ fish and chips. Fresh fish and all.

Doreen and I had some time on our own the following day to take the bus into Brighton, have a pleasant lunch, and see the Imperial Palace. It’s an impressive place for a king or queen to entertain guests, that’s for sure. The dining room table was set for about 30 featuring lovely china; it was massive. Apparently, Queen Victoria didn’t really like the place. I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside which was unfortunate as it was really opulent and filled with rare and marvelous things, mostly Asian. I loved it.

Brighton Pier was a highlight for me as I’ve seen it in films and always wanted to go. Plus, there was a Ferris wheel which I hopped on leaving patient Doreen to wait (heights aren’t her thing). The view of the sea with the sunlight, hitting the water just so, was awe inspiring. And Brighton is not a small, sleepy seaside village only known in the old days for couples having trysts. It is a huge University town with even animal rights protestors passing by us. How I get these ideas about the size of some towns is beyond me.

Alfriston was our Sunday destination for a British Mother’s Day brunch. But before going there, the cab took us up to the headlands of the Seven Sisters chalk cliffs. Wow. Stunning view. The family had all walked the cliffs over the years and I could see why that walk would be tempting. For me, it wouldn’t work out well at this stage but for those stronger and healthier, it would be an incredible walk.

We were driven from there to Alfriston. Interesting little town but the chain link fence surrounding the whole center of town’s main water line didn’t help the ambiance-factor. We all had a fine time in spite of that little distraction.

My time in Seaford was winding down. The roaring evening fires were memorable as the weather was getting colder portending what was to come.

Next stop: Stoke-on-Trent train station to meet my cousin John, Doreen’s brother, who lives with his wife, Denise, in Congleton. This is not far from Manchester. I feel another adventure coming on…

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Downton Abbey Protocol

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It was an effort, but I managed to dress up enough to be passable as a visitor to the House of Lords at Westminster Palace. Doreen, Les, and I arrived by cab to the back entrance of the palace and after passing through armed guards at security, I had my photo taken and was issued a photo ID badge. We hung our coats on Doreen’s labeled hook in a low ceiling and dimly lit ‘coat closet’ which was larger in size than my condo. I was advised that no photographs were allowed within the House of Lords and it would only be at the tail-end of the day when I would be granted permission to photograph in the Great Hall, which is the medieval portion of the palace that survived a great fire. I knew that in this situation, it would behoove me to follow the rules and not try to sneak in a few pictures.

We wandered the gold laden halls and ante-chambers adorned with fabric wallpaper, amazing original portraits of kings, queens, dukes, knights and books in glass cased shelves far older than the United States,. I have to admit thinking that the drapery in various rooms were so richly made that Scarlett O’Hara would have been proud to improvise and wear them to a Southern Ball. Ha.

After a proper cup of tea in the Peers Lounge, we stood in a room which held Queen Victoria’s throne (amazing), as well as a quick visit to the House of Commons session-in-progress (Cameron wasn’t present). following all that, we had a little wait in another spectacular area to watch for the formal procession into the House of Lords. Quite a bit of pomp and circumstance, to say the least. I can only just imagine what goes on when Her Majesty drops by for a visit.

In the House, we sat through several speeches, or rather, listened to several speeches, which were in line to commemorate International Women’s Day, so that was actually very interesting. There were youngish Lords, middle-age old Lords, very ancient Lords, the newly indoctrinated, or rather a newly accepted one into the Lords, and one in particular Lord whom I noticed didn’t seem to either care about being there or even dressing for the occasion.

People watching was good but the environs were spectacular! For those who love photography, only you would understand how I longed to take photos in the formal Parliament session as well as in all the nooks and crannies during these several fascinating hours in Westminster Palace (it wasn’t until this visit that I learned it had been the palace of a king at one time). The whole place is so OTT that even writing about it tends to give me pause to consider how much is too much to say and whether I am revealing secrets better left untold. While I did not have to sign a Confidentiality Agreement, I do feel there is a certain level of protocol to adhere to when talking about being in this centuries old building, seeing centuries old staffs, thrones, etc., and with all the centuries old habits most of the Lords and Ladies still adhere to quite stringently. It’s quite interesting and really one of those “once in a lifetime” experiences.

Having lunch in the House of Lords dining room was a step into such opulence and a test of the rigors of one’s best manners taught to me by my mother and grandmother, that I give thanks to them for that. I think every child needs lessons like these so when put into a possible situation where “Downton Abbey Protocol” is in order, there is no nervous embarrassment about how to conduct oneself. The server was fully regaled in what looked like ‘butler-wear’ and saying “Yes, M’lady” to my royal cousin which just rolled off his tongue smooth as butter.

The people I met were quite kind and friendly which made being a visitor, a relative to a Baroness, and an American, much easier. There is a certain air of elegance which was easy enough to slip into (although quite a contrast from being on the beaches of Costa Rica) and then slip out of at my earliest opportunity. A bit like the days of working in management and having to dress for a board meeting or some special function. I have loads of practice. Plus, having been a drama major in school, I can improvise pretty well when the situation calls for it. Life has a way to prepare us for things we could have never imagined in our wildest dreams. Listen up, kids, math may come in handy, too, so don’t always use that calculator, use your head.

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Update: May 8, 2013. The last group of photos are from an update email sent today by the House of Lords newsletter. While the Royal Party was not present when I was there in March, this is how the chambers look and I was sitting in a section close to the floor, eye level with the throne. You can now see the opulence of the House of Lords. Also, this is the first time since 1996 that Prince Charles sat in with his mum during her speech.

Falling for St. Paul

The flight to London was sleepless but I managed to stay relatively alert after my 11:30 a.m. landing. It was amazing that there was such a short queue going through immigration at Heathrow. However, the line was growing behind me and I noticed two agents taking off from their posts (on much deserved breaks, I am sure) leaving only two other agents to handle the onslaught of the next cattle call.

Ben was nowhere to be found after I emerged from the perfume-laden-duty-free-section outside of baggage in Terminal 5, so I proceeded to look for the cabbie he had told me would be holding a sign with my name on it. I didn’t see my name but did see a sign with Ben’s last name. Luckily I stopped and mentioned that this was my cousin’s last name so perhaps there was a mixup. There was. This short delay waiting for Ben allowed me the chance to get a decent cup of cappuccino at Costa and get my bearings while doing some people watching. I noticed a lot of business people starting their week in London.

Ben arrived soon after and after the cab ride into a gray London day, we met up with his mum, Doreen, and all took a brief walk around the grounds of the large hotel and residence complex. I then managed to nap for an hour which was perfect to get that second wind for my flagging sail before dinner.

Ben retrieved me and we were off to Doreen’s and my cousin-in-law Les’ apartment for celebratory champagne toasting ‘The Internet’ for bringing us all together. There was a Spanish restaurant not far, called Goya, where we had tapas and a good amount of wine and laughter. After waiting almost a year for this trip, the Heritage Walk had begun.

Tuesday morning began with three of the four of us meeting up to catch the #24 to Trafalgar Square. I saw the back end of Buckingham Palace this time rather than the front as I had 11 years ago. There were two Coldstream Guards (which my grandfather was also) holding themselves stiff on horses half in and half out of little guard houses on either side of a gate leading onto the palace grounds (I recognized this as the vehicle passageway used after William and Catherine’s wedding last year). Good grief, what a job! And what could be worse than to also have to deal with all the lookie-loos gawking and photographing you while keeping that stiff upper lip. Wonder how long their post shifts are and whether that was part of my grandfather Sam’s job back in the early 20s. I hope his post at the palace was short before he was transferred on to Constantinople.

Trafalgar Square with those four magnificent lions, the fountains, the modern art installation recently instituted for the top of one column showcasing a local artist, this one being the golden child riding a rocking horse, and then a movie crew making a Bollywood film, was a fabulous introduction to the London I had not met before. Less was a magnificent tour guide historian telling me about each building we passed. If only I had a photographic memory. Or, any kind of memory would do, to be honest.

We walked about St. Paul’s where I took outlawed photos feeling slightly guilty, as any former practicing Catholic would feel. I imagine it could have been the Catholic God who pushed me down the front steps of the cathedral in punishment for my dastardly deed. Or, perhaps it was my not watching where I was stepping and missing a step tumbling down whilst breaking my fall on the backs of two unfortunate young woman who were just as surprised as I was. Nothing was broken but “falling for St. Paul” did not help my already achy muscles. And it is an unnerving experience to fall down stairs. While I have fallen over the last couple of years, which I think is caused by these damn “floaters” in my eyes (can I sound more pathetic?), I haven’t actually fallen down stairs since I was about six and in my grandmother’s upstairs flat in San Francisco. I can still remember that tumble.

St. Paul’s cathedral has an interesting past (doesn’t everything?), one of which is surviving the London Blitz during WWII. It supposed to be the third largest cathedral but I think it is quite dwarfed in comparison to both St. Peter’s in Rome and the Sevilla Cathedral in Spain.

After lunch in St. Paul’s, Doreen left us to get to work and Less and I went underground to take the Tube to Canary Wharf. Instead, we we landed in Greenwich to see the schooner, Cutty Sark, ending up buying tickets for the boat back to London. It was sunny and a perfect day to be on the water. Plus, what better way was there to see the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge, not to mention the Globe theatre of Shakespeare fame (made without nails but instead with wooden pegs), the Hard, and other remarkable and unremarkable London sights. I highly recommend taking a boat down the Thames on a clear day.

On our way back, we made a brief stop during rush hour at Spencer and David’s to pick up our respective meals, then went back to our respective rooms to respectively recuperate from an intoxicatingly beautiful London experience.

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