I don’t work for Public Affairs, and I probably never will as they are not one of the embassy departments that commonly have direct-hire OMSs. But I’ve always thought it would be fantastic to do so. Both Public Affairs and Protocol are the fancy face of the embassy. They have all the interesting contacts and plan all of the parties.

As an entry-level OMS my presence is rarely needed at such functions. So you can imagine how delighted I was to receive an email from the Front Office last week inviting me (among others) to attend a UK screening of the third season of Veep at the Ambassador’s residence. The season had already finished in the States but was due to air this week in the UK.

I RSVP’d and immediately began an exhaustive search for a sitter as my hubby was out of town for work. I finally found one, literally, in the 11th hour…it was 5:05pm, and the event started at 6:30pm. But what a wonderful night it was!

For some reason, I originally thought it was going to be more of a work get together that might involve maybe 15 people…until I saw the guest list with 150 names. The majority of them were British journalists, relevant employees from Sky TV, and American script writers. But I recognized one name: Sally Phillips.

Sally Phillips is a prolific British comedic actress who appeared in two episodes of Veep as the Finnish Prime Minister. And any hopeless romantic from the 2001 (such as myself) would also recognize her as Shazza from Bridget Jones’s Diary…the one who liked to say f*ck…a lot.

Thankfully they were serving champagne, so after a couple glasses I finally mustered the courage to ask Ms. Phillips if she would be kind enough to take a photo with me…not wanting to be the annoying fan at the embassy party. But she was super sweet and obliged. So now I have this wonderful photo to add to my list of amazing memories of London. Thank you, Sally! :)

 

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It’s just a little bit ironic that the best Fourth of July celebration that I’ve ever been to took place in London last week. I was actually racking my brain trying to think of a close second and couldn’t come up with one. I’m sure I’ll even be hard pressed to have a better one in the future. But let me go into a bit more detail on why this one will be hard to beat.

First of all, it took place at Winfield House, the US Ambassador’s residence in Regent’s Park. I’ve been to Winfield House a couple times since we arrived, once for work and once for the Children’s Christmas Party, but what a difference between the two events! Don’t get me wrong, Christmas was absolutely stunning, but it was also indoors. So much of our time was spent trying to get our son to behave and not lick the mirrored walls in the Yellow Room.

Friday’s event was outside in the beautiful backyard…about 12 acres of it, to be precise. Winfield House has the largest private garden in central London after Buckingham Palace. So there were no antiques to demolish within 100 yards of us at any given time.

Winfield House.

Winfield House.

A lovely sculpture in the gardens.

A lovely sculpture in the gardens.

The weather was phenomenal. While the East Coast of the US was getting battered by Hurricane Arthur, and the west coast of the UK even had a nice band of rain sitting on it, London was getting some of the best weather it had all summer. The sun was shining, the breeze was warm, and the temperatures soared to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. I actually used my umbrella as a sunshade several times. Couldn’t ask for a more beautiful day!

There were bouncy castles involved…two of them. Our original plan was to arrive at 1:00pm when the event started and not to overstay our welcome. We’ve learned that overstimulation and exhaustion are not a good combination, and kiddy temper tantrums have ruined the tone of several events in the recent past. We gave it two hours tops.

Instead, we stayed till 4:30pm and ended up having a great time…our son spent two full hours on the bouncy castle with breaks for a walk around the gardens with Mommy, a nice pick-up “football” game with an embassy family from his nursery school, and a leisurely meal of hot dog and bun on the picnic blanket we’d brought and strategically placed under a lovely shady tree.

A solid accidental crack on the head from another jumper was the only thing that eventually dimmed his enthusiasm for the bouncy castle, and he was content to finish the day sitting on my lap in the shade eating ice cream.

One of the two bouncy castles.

One of the two bouncy castles.

Our little picnic blanket in the shade.

Our little picnic blanket in the shade.

We also brought a friend. After the initial round of embassy staff had signed up for the event, we were informed that we could pick up tickets for friends. So we invited another lovely family from our son’s nursery school. Unfortunately, the mom and the kids were going to be out of town on the day, but my hubby is good friends with the dad, so we convinced him to join us sans famille.

So we had the added enjoyment of great company, and every now and then the guys would watch our son on the bouncy castle, and I would sit blissfully on the picnic blanket with a plastic cup of wine and enjoy the moment.

In addition to all that fun, we got a great picture with the ambassador on our arrival. And our son even got a swag bag from a vendor tent set up by the embassy’s bank branch. I think the only thing that could’ve made it better would’ve been mid-day fireworks. But THAT might have been a bit over the top. ;)

Me...having a very American moment.

Me…having a very American moment. :)

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I’ve been to Windsor with visiting friends twice in the last couple months. Strangely enough, it doesn’t do that much for me, which is shocking considering what an awesome history it has and the fact that the Queen still lives there part time. I think having first seen the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg might’ve spoiled me completely.

But there are some fantastic rooms in Windsor and some great art. One of the pieces that’s been on my mind lately is the Massacre of the Innocent by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. According to the official description, the scene is based on a passage from the Bible: “…after hearing from the wise men of the birth of Jesus, King Herod ordered that all children in Bethlehem under the age of two should be murdered. Bruegel set the story as a contemporary Flemish atrocity so that the soldiers wear the distinctive clothing of the Spanish army and their German mercenaries.”

The Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566

The Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566.

I’m not a great connoisseur of art, but I know what I like. Always been a fan of the Pre-Raphaelites. Prefer Realism, Romanticism and Impressionism to Modernism or Abstract Expressionism. Can’t stand Picasso. While in Belize I began to appreciate Primitivism a bit more, particularly stuff by Henri Rousseau. Lately I’ve discovered a growing affection for Folk Art.

Now Folk Art is a HUGE and sweeping style and is defined as “art produced from an indigenous culture or by peasants or other laboring tradespeople” and/or “characterized by a naive style, in which traditional rules of proportion and perspective are not employed.” (Wikipedia…I know, I’m entirely too lazy and rely too much on questionable sources.)

If you skip over the tragic theme of Bruegel’s painting and the fact that he’s technically a Rennaissance painter, it very much reminds me of a particular Folk artist…Grandma Moses, which apparently is a common comparison. I don’t know how familiar she was with Bruegel’s works, but she was basically self-taught and started painting in her 70s.

Sugaring Off by Grandma Moses, 1955.

Sugaring Off by Grandma Moses, 1955.

The other thing these two images have in common is snow. So if you want to get really specific, you could say that I’m particularly fond of Winter Folk Art Scenes. If you simply do a Google image search on that phrase, you get back all kinds of lovely contemporary artists like Catherine Holman, Rene Britenbucher, Kori Vincent, Wendy Presseisen, Michele Beyar-Tetreau, and Carol Dyer.

Recently I also came across Jane Ray who lives in London and is an English illustrator of children’s books. Here’s one of her lovely illustrations from The Twelve Days of Christmas.

And don’t even get me started on how much I love Russian lacquer boxes (bottom).

From The Twelve Days of Christmas by Jane Ray, 2011.

From The Twelve Days of Christmas by Jane Ray, 2011.

Winter Troika in Moscow by Strunin Mikhail.

Winter Troika in Moscow by Strunin Mikhail.

It’s the middle of June already, and even though we don’t get summers off, it seems like most of our events the last couple weeks have been related to kids. After Belize it’s nice to be somewhere that actually has a lot of events for children.

Sports Day

Our son had his first ever Sports Day at nursery school (which goes all year instead of following the academic school year, thankfully). Being so young, I was actually really impressed at how well he did and how great his coordination was. I had never seen him do anything particularly athletic other than run around, throw himself into the swimming pool and jump off the couch.

But they had (plastic) egg-on-spoon races, sack races, three-legged races and just plain running races, and he was always toward the front if not at the front of the pack. I was very proud! Then they all got cupcakes and little medals for participation, which I think is just fine at this age.

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Summer Fayre

The following weekend was the St. John’s Wood Summer Fayre near Regent’s Park, so we went to that…and it was a madhouse. We got there right when it started at 11am, so it was fine in the beginning. But we stayed a bit too long…until 3:00. So our son missed his nap and was downright overstimulated after four hours…and ended up having a full-on screaming meltdown at the end when we tried to leave.

But he got to go on a big inflatable slide, ride on the spinning swings and the teacups, jump in the bouncy castle, eat hot dogs and ice cream…AND meet Peppa Pig, which brought a huge smile to his face. We heard early on that the Peppa event sold out quickly, so we went straight to the ticket booth and managed to get a slot.

Apparently the fair raised £50,000 for the St. John’s Wood Hospice, which is awesome.

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British born American actress Elizabeth Taylor feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square in 1948 in London, England. AP photo.

British-born American actress Elizabeth Taylor feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square in 1948. AP photo.

My friend CL came to visit us from California over the last two weeks…although technically she was only in London for a little over a week, as she wisely took advantage of the chance to pop over to Ireland for a visit as well. But it was great to have another visitor and another friend in town!

Plus we got to meet her son for the first time who was 14 months old and a total cutie…but we both expressed some shock at the amount of tube stations in London with no disabled or stroller access. So we got a bit of exercise carrying the stroller up and down flights of stairs and balancing it precariously on escalators (yikes!).

I took four days off from work, and we visited some of the usual tourist spots like Big Ben, Parliament, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, the National Gallery, Windsor and Stonehenge. But we got a few new ones in for me like the Museum of London with its great segments of Roman wall and the remains of the Roman fort across the road.

Remains of Roman fort near the Museum of London.

Remains of Roman fort near the Museum of London.

We also took a self-guided tour inside Westminster Abbey, which blew both of us away. I knew that it was almost 1,000 years old and that coronations and royal weddings took place in the abbey. And I’d read that a few important people were buried there.

But the place was practically a mausoleum crammed wall to wall with everything from elaborate memorials and tombs to simple plaques for everyone and their brother (literally), including Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Bloody Mary, Lady Jane Grey, Edwards I, III and IV, Edward the Confessor, George II, Henrys III, V and VII, Jameses I and VI, Shakespeare, Handel, Chaucer, Dickens, Kipling, Robert Browning, Laurence Olivier, David Livingstone, and even Oliver Cromwell (although they dug him up later and hung his bones on the Tyborn tree for treason). Beyond that the Cloisters and the Lady Chapel (added by Henry VII in 1503) were lovely, and we had a fun lunch in the gothic café space where monks used to store their food.

Mary, Queen of Scots (internet photo).

Mary, Queen of Scots (internet photo).

George Frideric Handel (internet photo).

George Frideric Handel (internet photo).

Speaking of food, one afternoon we stopped into the fancy ice cream parlour at Fortnum & Mason, a 300-year-old department store that started as a grocery store in 1707. It’s famous in the UK for its loose-leaf tea and luxury picnic hampers first distributed to Victorian High Society for events such as the Henley Regatta and Ascot Races (Wikipedia). The hampers can cost anywhere from £35 to £25,000…depending on what you want in them. Fortnum & Mason also claims to have invented the Scotch egg in 1738…yummy!

The ice cream parlour at Fortnum & Mason.

The ice cream parlour at Fortnum & Mason.

Sundays being made.

Sundays being made.

Another exciting new stop this time around was Glastonbury. Glastonbury is such an interesting town with its associations with Arthurian legend and Avalon and all the funky mystical shops on the High Street. Technically I’d been there once before with my mom and stepdad back in 2002, but it was great to bring my own family this time and watch the boys roll around on the grass at the beautiful ruins of Glastonbury Abbey (and run across King Arthur’s grave). We didn’t hike up to the Tor, but we did check out the Chalice Well, which I hadn’t done 12 years ago.

Glastonbury Tor.

Glastonbury Tor.

The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey.

The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey.

The Chalice Well gardens.

The Chalice Well gardens.

The Chalice Well.

The Chalice Well.

The pools in the Chalice Well gardens.

The pools in the Chalice Well gardens.

So another wonderful visit comes to an end. And we’re back to exploring London and its environs on our own. But we’d better get a move. May is already over, and the summer is passing quickly!

Signs

My hubby and I celebrated our sixth anniversary on the 3rd. Since it was a 3-day weekend for the UK, and our last two anniversaries in Belize had been pretty low key, we thought of going to Paris or some other travel destination, but nothing felt right. And we realized it would not be remotely romantic with a three-year-old in tow.

In the end we decided to get a sitter and splurge on a day out in London. So we had a decadent lunch at the Ritz Restaurant, which was a fun experience, but ridiculously overpriced, as you can imagine. One glass of champagne was more than what I would usually spend on a bottle. But the service was impeccable.

The presentation was a bit odd though, because we ordered our meal, and then random things would appear at intervals along the way that weren’t mentioned on the menu…like canapés, a side item to share (French beans), and a tiny tray of sweets since we didn’t order dessert.

But the flavor was excellent. I think I was most impressed by the salmon mousse in lime meringue. I usually hate meringue, but this was perfectly balanced and just melted in your mouth. We both ordered salads (mine was quail and his was lobster), which cracked me since they came out with a bit of green as a garnish, and the rest looked more like an appetizer.  My kind of salad! For my main, I had venison au jus, and my hubby had tournedos of beef with truffle sauce (aka steak).

The Ritz Restaurant.

The Ritz Restaurant.

Canapes: Lime Meringue and Smoked Salmon Mousse, shrimp on puffed seaweed cake, puffed cheese pastry.

Canapes: Lime Meringue and Smoked Salmon Mousse, shrimp on puffed seaweed cake, puffed cheese pastry.

Lobster salad.

Lobster salad.

Quail salad.

Quail salad.

Tournedos of beef with truffle sauce.

Tournedos of beef with truffle sauce.

A tray of sweets at the end of our meal.

A tray of sweets at the end of our meal.

We followed lunch with a showing of The Book of Mormon at The Prince of Wales Theatre. My husband has always been a big fan of the South Park boys and had wanted to see their play since he’d first heard of it. And he was not disappointed! It was as outrageous and irreverent as he was hoping.

I enjoy a bit of off-color humor as well, but, man, I still cringe at the thought of saying some of the things that were coming out of those actors’ mouths. But it was funny, and very well acted, and the music and choreography were really impressive. It was obvious that a lot of effort and talent went into that production. So I would definitely recommend it to those not easily offended.

Production still from The Book of Mormon.

Production still from The Book of Mormon.

We then capped off our day with a couples massage from a lovely little day spa near the embassy. The space was lovely and relaxing, if a little small. I think they only had two or three treatment rooms. And for the couples massage, they just open the center door between two rooms. So no hand holding or anything. But it was still a great day out for our anniversary and probably cost a third of what we would’ve spent if we’d left town with the whole family.

We went to a performance of the London Handel Festival recently. I love chamber music. I used to live in Alaska when I was younger, and one of my favorite things was the Sitka Summer Music Festival where you could listen to amazing classical musicians and watch the ocean through the windows in the background.

London is one of the most amazing places in the world for live performances of music, opera and theatre. So I was very happy to be able to catch one of the last days of the Handel Festival’s Lunchtime Series and a trio complete with violin, cello and harpsichord.

And it was really convenient!  The venue was St George’s church near Hanover Square, which is a 10-minute walk from the embassy. So my hubby and I popped over on our lunch break, and for only £9 each were able to sit together on an old wooden pew and soak up the sounds.

St. George's church, Hanover Square, London.

St. George’s church, Hanover Square, London.

I also learned a few things…like the fact that Handel actually moved to London when he was 27 and became a naturalized British citizen. And that St. George’s was his personal parish church where he was heavily involved in the music program throughout the rest of his life. And that he lived practically around the corner on Brook Street for almost 50 years until his death in 1759. There is a blue plaque on the building to identify it, if you’re ever in the area.

So it was pretty fantastic to be able to just wander down the street on a sunny day in London and listen to some of Handel’s beautiful and relaxing music in Handel’s favorite church. London truly is an amazing city.

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