Monday, November 14, 2016

Day 3: My Trip to London and Ireland

Charming London street
My sister Lisa and I had planned all along that we would go to a West End (British version of Broadway) play while in London.  On Tuesday, we headed out to find a place where we could supposedly get a good deal on tickets.  That done, it was on to more sightseeing.

Westminster Abbey

Our agenda for the day was Westminster Abbey, Churchill's underground bunker, and Buckingham Palace.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey was another site that had been on my bucket list forever, and it didn't disappoint. We were given a gadget to listen to a guided tour of the facility.  Again, because it is a church, we weren't allowed to take pictures.  Sometimes that's a good thing.  You're able to completely be in the moment and not be preoccupied with photo opportunities.

The abbey is a place that's rich in history.  Since 1066, British monarchs have been crowned here. Prince William and Kate Middleton were married here. Princess Diana's body lay in state here.  Over three thousand people are buried here, including Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, George Frederick Handel, Sir Isaac Newton, and many, many more.

Words can't express how awe-inspiring this place was.

I did take some pictures in the outer courtyards of the building, and as no one stopped me it was apparently acceptable.

One of the oldest doors in Europe...ordered built by Edward the Confessor in  the 1000s

A lovely courtyard at Westminster Abbey

Churchill's War Rooms

From Westminster Abbey we made our way to Churchill's War Rooms,  the underground bunker where the famous prime minister and his staff stayed during intense bombings of London during World War 2.

While I found it fascinating, about halfway through the tour, my claustrophia kicked into high gear.  Anyone who suffers from similar phobias will understand how intensely I wanted to get out of the place and back into daylight!  This actually gave me empathy for the people who had to live in this small, stuffy space.

I was so glad to walk out of that place and back into fresh air!

St. James Park & Buckingham Palace

We decided to walk to Buckingham Palace, and our walk took us through the lovely St. James Park.
Lisa and I were charmed by this park, which included the picturesque Birdkeeper's Cottage.

Birdkeeper's Cottage at St James Park

Buckingham Palace was everything we expected it to be, and it was thrilling to see yet another place where so much history had taken place.

We opted not to take an indoor tour of some of the rooms, opting instead to enjoy the iconic landscaping and gates.

In front of Buckingham Palace.  I only bought one article of clothing in London...this top from Marks & Spencer.  It's become one of my favorites! And despite the fact that it looks like I'm matching everything in the picture, there is no filter on it.

At some point, Lisa and I had a tasty lunch at a charming Italian restaurant on Haymarket Street called the Spaghetti House.. We had Italian twice on our trip, once in London and once in Dublin, and found it measured up quite well to the Italian food we were used to in the States.

After a day of much walking and sightseeing, we headed to our hotel room to get ready for Les Miserables!

Both Lisa and I had seen Les Mis previously, but we really enjoyed our West End experience of one of our very favorite musicals.  What a wonderful way to cap off our next to the last day in London!

To be continued

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Day 2: My Trip to London and Ireland

In front of the famous Eros Statue in Picadilly Square

Lisa and I woke up refreshed and ready for a full day of sightseeing.  After a continental breakfast, Job One was finding out exactly where to get on the Hop-On Hop-Off bus.

That done, we set out in a light mist. (The very light rain didn't last very long, although the skies remained mostly overcast that day.)  I loved how the guide filled us in on important sights we were seeing on the way to St. Paul's Cathedral, where we would exit the bus.

(By the way, I STRONGLY recommend the Hop On Hop Off bus! It's definitely the best way to see a big city when you have limited time.  We enjoyed our experiences on the buses in both London and Dublin.)

St. Paul's Cathedral

On the steps of St Paul's Cathedral

The iconic dome of St Paul's
This iconic London church, designed by renowned architect Christopher Wren in the late 16-hundreds and early to mid 17-hundreds, had long been on my bucket list.

I had read many books in which St. Paul's featured prominently, including Connie Willis' fantastic time-travel books, Blackout and All Clear (read my review here.)

The building has served as a timeless reminder of the courage and resilience of Brits.  Parts of it were even bombed twice by the Germans in World War 2, but it still stands, full of dignity and historical significance.

We were taken around the cathedral by an informative, humorous guide.  Pictures aren't allowed inside the sanctuary, as it is still a place of worship to this day, but our tour was truly fascinating.

St Paul's Cathedral

Our first fish and chips

After a fairly lengthy tour of the cathedral and some souvenir-shopping, we were ready for lunch.  Remember I told you about our bad eating experience the day before?  We weren't sure what to expect when we sat down at Joe's Kitchen near St. Paul's.  But we were more than pleased.

This was our first experience of eating fish and chips in London, and it was delicious! In fact, we enjoyed it so much, we ended up eating fish and chips two more times during our trip.

The Tower of London

The Tower was another landmark that I had always longed to see.  What an experience! One of the amazing things for an American visiting Europe is the sheer age of everything.  America is comparatively a very young nation.  But in London, you are surrounded by things that were functioning as far back as the 1000s, some even earlier.

Parts of the  Tower of London were built as far back as 1078.  It also features prominently is many historical novels I've read.  Just about anybody who was anybody in British history was imprisoned there, including wives of Henry the 8th.

We were given a tour by Billy the Beefeater, a guide who is a member of the Yeoman Warders.  Apparently they were called Beefeaters because at one time, they were paid in beef.

Bill was hilarious, energetic and very informative...he helped make the tour a truly amazing experience.

One part of the tour that I can't show you, because photos weren't allowed, was the Crown Jewels.  The room full of incredible sparkle and shine was awe-inspiring!

The tour ended up in a small chapel in which services are still held today.  Once again, we were awed by the historical significance of this place.

River Thames Tour

Just after our tour of the Tower, we stepped onto a boat for a tour of the River Thames.  Another informative guide kept us informed about all the sights we were seeing....the Shard, the Globe Theater, the Tower Bridge and several other bridges, the London Eye (the huge ferris wheel), and much more.

Aboard the Thames River cruise

The Tower Bridge from our Thames River cruise

Seeing the sights of London from a boat on the River Thames was a truly memorable experience that I highly recommend.

I'm ending my recounting of Day 2 in London with this picture.  I literally have dreamed of having this very picture taken...standing by a red London phone booth with Big Ben in the background.  A dream come true!

After a very long day of sightseeing, most of it on our feet, we headed back to the hotel for a much-needed night's sleep.

To Be Continued

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Day One: My Trip to London & Ireland

On September 3, 2016, my sister Lisa and I set out on a journey I had dreamed of most of my life, but never really thought would happen.

We were off on a 10-day trip to first London, then Dublin, which would be our home base for some amazing day trips into the Irish countryside.

The trip was a Christmas 2015 gift from loved ones, so we had been planning it and talking about it for months.  Finally, the day was here!

The first leg of our journey took us from Chicago's O'Hare airport to the Charlotte, North Carolina airport.  We decided to exchange some American money for some British cash.  This was really starting to feel real.  We had money with Queen Elizabeth on it!

We thought we were prepared for the overnight flight to Heathrow.  We wore our most comfortable clothes and took Xanax, which normally makes us sleepy.

Turns out, there's no real way to be comfortable for eight hours on a plane.  We estimate that we each got about 3 hours at the most.  But when we woke up, we were in England!

Off on the tube

We reclaimed our baggage (they call it baggage re-claim, not baggage claim!) and went through customs fairly easily.  Our next step: getting an Oyster Pass for transportation, and finding our way onto the right train in London's underground that would take us all the way to Picadilly Circus, where our hotel was located.

Not all of the trip is underground, and we were charmed by the British neighborhoods we zoomed past.  It was so obvious we were in a different country.

When we arrived at Picadilly, our first problem was lugging our luggage (no pun intended) up the stairs to the outside.  We were doing this rather awkwardly and with difficulty when two men came along to help us! This wasn't the first time we would be charmed by the gallantry of British men.

I'll never forget our first glimpse of London when we emerged from the tube station.

We were smack in the middle of Picadilly circus.  We were awed. Lisa says if someone had taken our picture at that moment, our mouths were probably wide open.  London looks like no other place you've ever been.  It's hard to explain. We were gobsmacked.

After one scary moment when Lisa thought she lost her luggage (it had simply rolled away from her while we were getting our bearings), we made the very short distance to our hotel, Le Meridien Picadilly.

Pretty sure this was my first London selfie.  Any Dr. Who fan will get the significance of the police call box!
Off to explore!

The hotel staff couldn't have been more gracious and welcoming.  Even though it was a good bit before check-in time, they said our room was ready for us.

Oh, the joy of a shower when you've been on a plane all night! We were refreshed, though tired, and ready to head out to the streets of London.

I hadn't really planned any sightseeing for that day, because I knew we would basically be exhausted.  However, everyone had told us NOT to go straight to bed.  They said it's best to just keep going, and then go to bed at a fairly normal time.

Trafalgar Square
Looking for the London Pass Office

Job One was to find the office home of the London Pass.  We had bought our passes before leaving the US, but you had to go to the office to get your voucher.  (This pass turned out to be one of the best decisions we made for our visit, and we highly recommend it.)

The office was supposed to be somewhere right off Trafalgar Square.  We found Trafalgar with no trouble, and were both blown away by it.  Finding the office was a bit more of a chore.

I couldn't use GPS, because I could only use the internet on my phone if I had WiFi.  Lisa was supposed to be able to use hers, but it never worked correctly throughout our entire trip.  We have no idea why.

Going around in circles looking for this office while we were jetlagged, exhausted and by now, hungry, was an exercise in frustration.  FINALLY we found it and got our vouchers.

We had no idea where to eat, and stumbled on a place called EAT that looked a little like a British version of Panera Bread.  Alas, neither of us (even though we're not really picky eaters) were pleased with what we got.  In fact, we were very disappointed and ended up eating only a few bites.

Also, I had picked up a bottle of "spring water" thinking it was just regular bottled water.  No, it was more of a seltzer, which I'm not a fan of.  Turns out if you want regular water you have to look for the ones labeled "still water."

This did not bode well for our meals in London.  But we needn't have worried.  That was pretty much the only bad eating experience we had on our trip.  We had some truly delicious meals in the days to come.

To bed!

I think we visited a few shops, including Boots, a drugstore somewhat like our Walgreen's. We got some soft drinks and snack items and headed back to our very nice and comfortable hotel room.

It was still fairly early in the evening, but I was soooo ready for bed.  We turned in early (probably the wisest thing we could do....we were so exhausted by this time), excited about what the next day would bring.

More to come!

Friday, July 01, 2016

What if you weren't allowed to appreciate beauty? (Thoughts on a movie)

Christian Bale as John Preston in Equilibrium 

Recently I watched a movie called Equilibrium that made a huge impression on me.

Wikipedia sums it up:

The film follows John Preston (Christian Bale), an enforcement officer in a future in which both feelings and artistic expression are outlawed and citizens take daily injections of drugs to suppress their emotions. After accidentally missing a dose, Preston begins to experience emotions, which makes him question his own morality and moderate his actions while attempting to remain undetected by the suspicious society in which he lives.
You know how some movies just really make you think? That's what Equilibrium did for me...I found myself thinking about it long after I finished watching it.

Feelings and emotions were outlawed because emotions can lead to anger and hate, which can lead to war.  But suppressing all feeling came at such a cost!

No feelings or emotions allowed

Living in a society where any feelings were outlawed has so many implications.  The characters had to have opaque screens over their windows, so they couldn't even appreciate the beauty of rain falling.

No books.  No music.  No artwork of any kind.  Just a bland, dark, colorless, emotionless existence.

 When Bale as John Preston makes the decision to stop taking the injections that allowed him to be emotionless, it was extremely interesting to watch the changes that began taking place in him.

He went from stoic sternness to being affected by things.  At one point, dogs are being slaughtered (apparently animals might cause emotions in the humans).

A dog runs up to Bale, and Bale picks him up.  You can see in the picture that he doesn't know what to do with the emotions that the puppy produces, especially when he licks Bale trustingly.

Bale gives some excuse and keeps the dog, saving him from the slaughter.

When exploring a hidden apartment full of normal (read: contraband) things, Bale becomes overwhelmed when listening to a recording of a classical composer (I forget which one.)

Can you imagine hearing music for the first time? Can you imagine NEVER being allowed to hear music?

The leaders of that fictional society were right...feelings and emotions cause hate and anger, which leads to war.  But they also cause beauty, charity and joy.

No spoiler intended, but thankfully the movie ends on a hopeful note.  It really affected me and made me ponder on some things.

And it literally made me glad for all the countless incidents of beauty, feeling and emotion I'm allowed to experience on a daily basis.  Thank you, God, for giving us such an incredible, rich and amazing treasure trove!

(Note--if you decide to watch this movie yourself [it's on Neflix] there is quite a bit of violence in it.)

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Five of My Favorite Hymns

photo source
My musical taste is wide and varied, but I confess, I do love hymns.  There's something majestic and soul-stirring about the great old hymns.  I believe they lend themselves to worship in a very real way.

Like many Christians, I'm concerned that the hymns are being lost in the avalanche of modern praise songs.  While I have nothing against those, I believe we still need to be singing the hymns.  Children need to be familiar with them.

Yes, the language can sometimes be a bit archaic, but it's worth it to delve into the meanings.

(Joni Eareckson Tada has written a book the encourages parents to introduce the great hymns of the faith to their children.  You may want to check out Hymns for a Kid's Heart if you're interested.)

Here are five of my favorite hymns...

And Can it Be?

This is definitely my favorite hymn of all time.  The words, by John Wesley's brother, Charles Wesley, paint a vivid picture of a prisoner set free.

"Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused a quick'ning ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth and followed Thee."

In  The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study, J.R. Watsons
 said of Wesley:

“Charles Wesley's hymns are forceful because they contain so many words which are physical: for him the life of a Christian was to be experienced in the body as well as in the soul.” 
Here's a pretty arrangement of the song.

Great is Thy Faithfulness

photo source

Here's a beautiful rendition of this stirring hymn.

Be Thou My Vision

This hymn can claim honors as being one of the oldest hymns in existence, as its roots go all they way back to 6th century Ireland.

It has a haunting, Celtic feel to it that I love.  The words are also wonderful:

"Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.
High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all."

Here's one of the many beautiful versions you can find on YouTube.

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation

There's just something about this hymn that I love, especially to sing with a congregation.  I love the tune, but also the words:

"Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,
  the King of creation!
O my soul, praise Him, for He is thy
  health and salvation!
    All ye who hear,
Now to His temple draw near;
Sing now in glad adoration!"

Here's a really, really beautiful a cappella version.

It is Well with My Soul

photo source

Last on this list, but definitely not least! This confident assertion of faith in God, no matter what your circumstances, is a song every Christian should know (in my humble opinion.)

I love lifting my voice in worship with this hymn along with a congregation at church.  Few things are more soul-stirring!

The lyrics by Horatio Spafford are even more meaningful if you read the story behind them

Check out this beautiful rendition by David Phelps...

This is by no means an exhaustive list of my favorite hymns. That would make for a very lengthy blog post.  However, that's just of a few of my favorites.

Do you have any favorite hymns?  Please let me know in my comments section.

Also, if you aren't familiar with hymns, I encourage you to give them a chance.  Step out of your box for a bit, and I believe you'll be blessed.

Monday, May 23, 2016

5 Reasons You Should Go to Washington, DC

Probably my favorite of the pics I took in Washington DC on my recent trip

For many of us Americans, the phrase "Washington DC" leaves a bad taste in our mouths.  We picture big government encroaching on our lives and sleazy, dishonest politicians.

If that's your image of Washington DC, try pushing it to the side.  If you've never gone, you need to go to Washington D.C.  I recently returned from my fourth trip to our nation's capital, and I'm more in love with it than ever.

Here are five reasons you need to go, in no particular order.

1) To experience the beauty. The capital is simply beautiful.  The incredible architecture, the landscaping, the grace and dignity of the buildings and vistas and bodies of water.  If you love beauty, you need to see Washington DC.

At one of my favorite monuments, the Thomas Jefferson
The Washington Monument by night

2) The monuments and memorials. I would have a hard time pinpointing my favorite monuments in DC.  The Lincoln Memorial may be at the top of the list.  There is a palpable serenity in viewing the statue of Lincoln up close, taking in the grace of the man and his writings. And everyone should sit on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gaze at the reflecting pool leading to the Washington Monument.  

I visited the World War 2 Memorial for the first time this trip, and I was bowled over.  We went at night, when the fountains and architecture were spectacularly lit.  We sat in awe for some time, giving honor to those who died to insure our freedom. 

Visiting these monuments and memorials gives one a deeper, personal appreciation for the philosophies that formed our nation.  As for the men who are memorialized? Their belief in God is there...literally engraved in stone.

The World War Two Memorial with the Washington Monument in the background

3) Arlington Cemetery.

Tomb of the Unknowns

Garden of the Arlington House, once owned by Robert E. Lee

If you are any kind of a patriot, you need to see this vast expanse of land, dotted by the small white tombstones that guard the final resting places of so many people who gave their lives for our freedom.  It's impossible not to be moved.  

While there, you must see the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.  The military precision and quiet dignity of the rite is remarkable.

A glimpse of the gorgeous architecture at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

4) The Holocaust Museum. I believe every American needs to experience this incredible museum.  It chronicles the Holocaust from beginning to end, and it's truly an emotional experience.  Going through this museum, it's ludicrous to think that there are some who believed the massive slaughter of a race of people didn't really happen. You'll never look at the Holocaust, or World War Two itself, in the same way.

5) The Smithsonians. You would probably need weeks to do justice to this group of museums and galleries.  We hit only a few of them, but were impressed and educated.  Best of all, admission is free (ditto the Holocaust Museum and of course, all the memorials.)  The array of knowledge and culture on exhibit in these museums is simply stunning.

At the National Gallery of Art

*All pictures (except the ones I'm in) taken by me.*

Sunday, April 24, 2016

10 Things About Those Home Renovation Shows

Drew and Jonathan, the charming Property Brothers

I have to admit, I'm a big fan of home renovation shows.  I just recently blogged about my addiction to Fixer Upper.  I've been known to binge-watch House Hunters Renovation, Property Brothers and Love it or List It, too.

Having watched so many episodes of these shows, I've learned a thing or two.  I thought I'd just share some of my observations...maybe you've noticed these things too?

Here we go...

1. Granite countertops and stainless steel appliances are going to go out of style at some point, and in fact may already be doing so. I'm amazed when prospective buyers on these shows literally make fun of, and call "dated," kitchens and bathrooms that would have been considered gorgeous just a short time ago. 

I don't know if I'll ever be able to redo my kitchen, but if so, I'm going to be so nervous about spending a ton of money on something that will look dated in a few years.

2. Whenever I see wallpaper being added to a home, I inwardly groan. Even though some of it is truly beautiful . You would too, if you've ever had to remove any. And it's going to feel dated in no time. Please, just step away from the wallpaper!

This is fairly close to the wallpaper border I had on the soffit in my kitchen.  Cute idea in  2005, then it began to remind me of the kitchen on TV's "The Middle." It was murder to take down!

3. Same with people who commit to surfaces in bold colors, like a massive amount of green marble I saw on one kitchen reno. You WILL get tired of that color.

4. On "Love it or List It" and "Love it or List It Too," Hilary or Jillian need to tell the homeowners right off the bat, "I'm going to need at least 50-thousand dollars more than you're giving me for renovations. Because there WILL be a catastrophic problem. Termites, dry rot, asbestos, leakage, faulty name it, there WILL be a massive problem that will threaten the entire renovation, so just fork it over right now."

5 After the Catastrophic Problem is revealed to the home owners, they will always walk away saying "I just don't trust Jillian to be able to handle this" and/or "This is why we need to move out!"

6. If I had a dollar for every time someone says "Oh my God" during the dramatic reveal, I'd have enough money to renovate my home. Even after Jillian finds the Catastrophic Problem.

7 These shows are SO formulaic! Especially Love it or List it. Show after show, it's almost like they're reading from the same script .

8.  Who EVER thought popcorn ceilings were a good idea? How did that become a thing?

9.  It's interesting to watch the dynamics of the married couple on the shows.  You can almost always tell who is going to get their way, and who is going to concede.

10. The Property Brothers are adorable . End of story.
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