Monday, October 19, 2009

Back on the Bus: Day 5, Scotland

Six-fifteen came as early as it sounds, actually 6:07 am to be exact. We put our bags outside our hotel door by 6:15 am. Ughh! I snapped this beautiful photo of N. about 6:23 am as we scurried to try and have some breakfast. She screamed in horror. For some reason, I was wide awake, laughing, learning to stay away from the eggs and sausages, I grabbed some yogurt and granola, in my opinion a very good decision. We learned we weren't the only people having trouble sleeping, many a bus traveller told me of their bouts that morning, popping Excedrin PM, Tylenol PM or stronger. Ok, I guess we aren't alone, however both of us did actually sleep in a beautiful and comfortable room. After all, five hours is five hours.

We boarded the bus, yes at the ungodly vacation hour of 7 am, but none of us would be able to sleep, the first stop only an hour away, a tour of Medieval Chester, England awaited us, a mere two miles from the Welsh border, many of us protesting that we cannot at least step over the border. I swear N. started to chant: "I am not going to make this." On the way, I thought that soon I will be in Scotland, nearing the end of the day, a place I heard about my whole life, the place my grandmother was born. My great grandfather fought for the French in World War I, was killed in 1915, only a year after nana was born. My great grandmother, alone with five children sent her oldest daughter, Jean and Ina (my grandmother) to America and our American story was born. Today, on this bus I would enter Scotland for the first time, a near spiritual experience, searching for our family's story.

But, not yet, first we toured medieval Chester, quite frankly the best part of the trip so far. The tour guide's accent was melodic, she pointed out the Chester Cathedral, dating back centuries and even more impressive in my opinion was the Roman amphitheater, recently discovered dating back to the 1st century, well before the English rooted the Romans out of England, passing the torch of skulduggery and oppression to the English. Case in point, our tour guide kept close to the vest a not so subtle lowly opinion of the Welsh maligning them with wit and humor. She pointed out the Chester clock faced in three directions, but not Wales because: "We won't give the Welsh the time of day." "Ok, so that's how it's gonna be?" as my friend Liz might say.

Chester was delightful and charming, nonetheless, a beautiful tiny city in the English countryside. I took a few pictures of the clock and the shops and the architecture of this darling little city, of course once N. took control of the camera the photos stopped. Probably a good thing, since toward the end of the trip we were choosing which pictures to save on our digital camera, eliminating the Chester amphitheater. Before departing I ran to the Welsh coffee shop, since we were told "Englanders won't step foot in there." My kind of place, I thought and acquired me a coffee for the ride to Grasmere, William Wordsworth's hometown on the way to Scotland.

Grasmere was cute and we actually ate a nice little meal here, N. stuck to the soup and I chomped a great sandwich, pretty impressive since we hadn't had much of a meal outside of London yet. Although, N bought a dessert, some sort of fudge or cake concoction that tasted neither like fudge nor cake and ended up in the waste basket. We toured the town afterward and looked in the shops and it remained pretty impressive sitting at the bottom of beautiful foothills, we took several pictures and even made a trek to Wordsworth's grave. It stilled the long day on the bus awhile and we enjoyed ourselves through the lake country.

Back on the Bus I trembled at the notion we were headed to Scotland, part of the land of my ancestors birth, deep within the Scottish highlands. When we crossed over into Scotland, my heart jumped, Robert yelled to everyone to "get out your passports ladies and gents." I knew he was kidding, Scotland still swears her allegiance to the British crown, though not without some tension as we were about to find out. We stopped first at a woolen mill, the first in a long line of woolen mills. I looked up my family name, Barnes, and as it turned out the name Barnes, is a derivative of Burns and is part of the Campbells of Argyle, a bloody, marauding clan who single handedly saw to it that the Macdonald clan would not survive. Yikes, with no thanks to my ancestors the Macdonalds did survive. Robert said: "This is why today you can't get Campbell soup in a MacDonalds." Pretty funny stuff Robert.
It took another hour to arrive in Edinburgh, we arrived almost at dusk. We were excited to finally be at our destination and in my opinion, I anticipated Edinburgh as one of the highlights of the trip. She did not disappoint, she is beautiful, stunning really and N. immediately put her side by side with Paris as her favorite city. Though the sun was setting you could see her beautiful architecture, different than London, a soot covering all of the buildings giving it a rusty feel, a working city with beauty. In the morning we planned a long exploration. But, for tonight we needed some food and Scottish ale.

Our group now, fully in the mood for some new culture set out for "The Tass." She lay a block from our hotel that overlooked Edinburgh Castle. We might have been in a dream it was so beautiful, on the "Royal Mile." The Tass is everything we wanted it to be, a little Scottish Pub with Scottish music about ready to begin, we ordered pints, mine straight out of Glasgow. After a long day on the bus, it was just what the doctor ordered. We also ordered meals, most of us fish and chips. N. ordered the mac and cheese and I ended up with Shepherd's pie which was actually decent, a little too salty, but it made me thirstier. Mmmmmmm. We listened to some genuine Scottish music, though my American counterparts were a bit too rowdy for some of the patrons. "Stupid Americans." I know I heard someone say.
Our group bonded that night through taking pictures of one another drinking ale and sharing our stories. "How long have you and N. been married?" A. asked us. "Too long!" we both said at the same time. We told them our story of not wanting to be married, no one seemed to understand, but it didn't matter we were all so merry. We scurried off, passed the Royal Mile and went to bed, asleep in Scotland a return to the homeland. I looked out our window in the hotel, a view of Edinburgh Castle where my great grandfather's service with Blackwatch is memorialized. I heard the bagpipes in my mind playing at his funeral almost 100 years past. "Sleep tight til morn." I said.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Back on the Bus, Day Four, Bleinheim Palace and Jacked up Potatoes

Day four came early, 7 am to be exact. I woke up in the middle of the night again, but instead read my new book: "Slavery By Another Name" one of the most brilliant and heart breaking books I have read in some time. It explains a lot about what we don't know that happened after slavery, that quite frankly it never really ended. We ran to breakfast, after placing our bags outside our door, for runny eggs, sausages that make you sick and more "brown toast." At least the coffee has caffeine.

After breakfast we boarded the bus for a trip to the England countryside, Bleinheim Palace, where the Duke of Marlborough lives and where Winston Churchill was born and on to William Shakespeare's hometown, Stratford Upon Avon. On the bus at 8 am I thought, "sleep will come easy." Not so fast. From the moment we left our hotel in downtown England, our tour guide Robert began the "tour." Every piece of landmark would be described to us, which would be interesting if I wasn't fighting for sleep. Before we boarded, however we looked on the door to see where we were "assigned" to sit. Almost the front row, "we hit the jackpot" I screamed to N. She glared, "not now."

The ride to Bleinheim Palace was quick, just to the northwest out of London near the beautiful town of Oxford which we skirted, onto Woodstock where the palace lay. Though I was tired I couldn't sleep and listened to the description of many sites we were seeing on the way, where Manchester United plays, horse farms, nothing exciting. Two friends in front, however had a beautiful map and I commented on it, "Dawn" and "Sue Ann." They were older (obviously), but spry, seemingly new to retirement, they told us they had just been to Tanzania and loved every minute of it, "we love to travel." We asked them what they did in London on our last day. They went to the National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery, a couple of other museums, went back to the hotel to change, immediately set out for dinner, onto Piccadilly Circus in the theater district and saw "Billy Elliott" the musical at a "magnificent theater." "We didn't want to leave" they ranted. N and I thought to ourselves, "damn, these retirees have some energy." We were barely standing at 8 o'clock. I whispered to N, "I think they might be liberal -- I hope" with a sense of awe, almost begging for someone to talk to about our world. N smirked, rolled her eyes and said: "maybe."

We arrived at the Palace before 10:00 am, "the facilities are on the right" Robert proclaimed, an echo that would reverberate for 11 more days. Like sheep we all rushed to the bathroom, like school children we tried to be the first in line. We entered Bleinheim Palace shortly thereafter, and were told to look around the grounds before entering the actual palace. It was stunning, a magnificent landmark with beautiful grounds. N. commented, "well if you want to know what Versailles looks like, this is pretty close." In Paris we were unable to visit Versailles because of the train strike. We flashed our cameras, took hundreds of pictures amongst ourselves, though N was being quite conservative with the digital camera. Winston Churchill was born here, which I found a little shocking. Arguably, Britain's greatest Prime Minister was also born into royalty? Bleinheim is the Duke of Marlboro's residence, first built in the early 1700's as a gift from Queen Anne to Sir Churchill (Winston's distant ancestor) as a gift for his heroics in the War of Spanish Succession against the French. Winston Churchill is a nephew of one of the Dukes. The Duke and Duchess still live here today.

We entered the marvelous structures, which were visually stunning, the very cool art on the ceiling as you passed through the large doors, viewed many a monument to Sir Winston Churchill, a self-guided tour, it seemed hundreds of people, and scores of tour buses descended upon the Palace within minutes. Some of the rooms were jaw-dropping, marvelous looking, opulent, but a glorious past of thievery from Europe and its own people, a monument to feudalism. Impressive nonetheless, we took a glance at the current Duke and Duchess, gloriously throwing parties and overseeing horse and dog shows. Gag. N. and I went outside to the gardens which were also beautiful, some Italian gardens that were off-limits and we sat and rested, took pictures and laughed at the absurdity of being stuck with 22 unknowns, our family for two weeks. So, far four people are nice, 20 more to discover. As we walked toward the cafe and gift shop, a woman approached with a dog in the gardens, I looked at N., " What's up with this lady, you think they allow dogs in here?"

She passed us and smiled at us, impeccably dressed, and attractive. She walked the dog to the end of the garden, we stopped noticing her and sat on a bench, but when the dog peed all over the bushes, we stopped and were incredulous. Then, it hit me: "That's the Duchess of Marlborough, sweetie. I saw her in one of the pictures. This is her fucking house!" Eloquently I spoke. "You're right," N whispered much more serene in her viewing of a royal family member. A descendant of Sir Winston Churchill and a descendant of the first Duke of Marlborough. It was hard not to be impressed. N and I seemed to be the only one that noticed, she passed us again with her beautiful Golden Retriever and smiled at us, understanding we knew something was up, though not another soul in the gardens did. The tourists around her taking pictures as she strolled gently through the gardens of her own home, oblivious to the Duchess walking among them. Back on the bus we headed out.

Next stop was Stratford upon Avon, quite the name of William Shakespeare's home. Kind of like the town in Massachusetts near where I grew up, but life times away, called: "Manchester By the Sea." Here is where we stopped for lunch, excited we were given a couple of hours alone to explore, we searched for a lunch place for a while as we strolled the town square, we noticed the food seemed to be getting worse as we travelled north, the alcohol more available. After 20 minutes we settled in a little place, that was very busy, and disorganized. Their specialty: "Jacket Potatoes." The impression I interred from these potatoes was how many different kinds of food can you pile on the top? Cheddar cheese, bacon, sour cream, anything you put your hands on, shove it on top. We started referring to the delicacy as "Jacked Up Potatoes" which seemed appropriate. We strolled around the town, had some very good ice cream, but were less than impressed, a bit of a cheesy stop along the way. N and I ended our tour of William Shakespeare's hometown at a Belgian coffee shop, read the paper and relaxed before departing for the Welsh border in Shrewsbury.

Shrewsbury was beautiful, breathtaking really, our residence for the night was at a former school for the blind on a beautiful piece of land in the lake district of England, we felt like we were royalty and were treated that way. The rooms were beautiful and gracious, but as we found out we wouldn't be spending much time in them: Bags out at 6:15, breakfast as fast you can stuff it down your throat, and bus leaves at 7 am. "Are they fucking kidding!" was my response. N's response was more subdued, but her eyes alarmed, "I'm not going to make it," she seemed to say as she looked at me. "I can't do this," she would say several times over the coming week. We placed our bags in the room that we spent only ten hours in and quickly walked the beautiful grounds, went to the bar and ordered a Bulmers cider, our drink of choice for the next 11 days, we shared a pint calmly on the grounds of this comforting Shrewsbury hotel. We sat at tables overlooking the grounds, a serene pond immediately staring at us, next to a couple from Dallas, we aptly dubbed them: "the Dallas Connection." They were wary of us, we were wary of them, so we sat at the next table and exchanged pleasantries. "Beautiful, isn't it?" "Gorgeous." "What a nice night?" "Tru Dat" I almost exclaimed to break the monotony. We tried to stir up conversation to no avail so we slowly enjoyed our Bulmers, N enjoying it as much as me.

Our other 20 cohorts soon joined us, they looked at the "Dallas Connection" and looked at us, and invariably everyone chose the "Dallas Connection" table, couple after couple, "Uh-oh," I whispered to N. "We might be shut out." Then, an older couple, a sort of May-December couple sat down. He was 91, she was in her early 60's probably and they were so pleasant, from Los Angeles as, "Coast people, just like us." He was a theater professor, dressed so dapper, she was very attractive, with a regal and familiar air about her that she was somebody. I said this to N., "She seems like she is from good stock" as my mother used to say. We had a nice conversation with them and we nicknamed them "John Huston and his midnight flame." All in all, it was a very pleasant drink by the beauty of the night in England. Called to dinner, we saw our friends Paul and April, dove for their table with another couple sitting there, and introduced ourselves; they were from Massachusetts, Red Sox fans. We have to have something in common, right?

I speak to the gentleman mostly before the dinner arrived, he was a lawyer, I tell him I am one too. We smile, "U.S. Marine Corps" he tells me. Uh-oh. "I work for the Public Defender," I spout out. A pause, I stab the tension with a question, "What do you practice?" It turns out, his long career began in the JAG corps, at many oversees bases, wherever they sent him. Recently, he was in Iraq early just after the invasion in 2003 to help set-up the sovereign government of Paul Bremer, the Coalition Provisional Authority; he oversaw the writing of the new free zones of Iraq, meaning pure capitalism, one of the only places in the world that this was practiced. He helped write the legal system of the new government and when that was done, he departed. A liberal he is not, but I was enthralled, and as a military man, he was respectful and kind. He also helped repatriate Haitians found on the high seas between Haiti and Florida, until the U.S. abandoned them and he oversaw their re-patriation in other countries, Suriname, Guatemala and El Salvador. I told him I did appellate work and he liked that and wanted to do that himself.

Suddenly, I hear April at the table ranting about Obama, "he is wrecking the country." I saw that I was needed in this conversation, she had been trying to get us to show our hand where we were, "these young people." "He is sending the country into socialism." "He is not a socialist!" I said incredulous, but respectful. "He is trying to---" she interrupted, "well I don't know one person who supports him, where he is going." N. looks at me, I see her out of the corner of my eye. "I support him." It seemed not just our table quieted, but the entire room, eerily silent, all eyes on this "young" 41 year old. "In fact, it was so important to me, I quit my job to work for him in Florida, registering voters and helping people vote. After the last eight years of horror we have seen I am going to give him a chance. He isn't perfect by a long stretch, but after Bush he is certainly welcome." I heard rumblings, grumblings about "be careful what you wish for." It was freedom though, finally I said what is on my mind. The U.S. Marine Corps Colonel echoed my opinion about the last eight years, weary of Obama, but understood he said to me privately.

We were back to our meals which were wonderful, April laughing and goofing off, N. speaking to Paul about his ex-wife, "the love of his life" who died suddenly of a heart attack eight years ago, tears in his eyes, N. and he shared a beautiful moment. After he found April, however he found love again, April who is a pistol, most certainly has a story and she intrigues me like no other, how she talks about her children with such pride and joy. I spoke to the Colonel, who actually lives in D.C., his wife in Massachusetts, they have two kids and it seems, though they never said this, they were "working things out." His wife, annoying, but as they say in Boston "wicked smaaht" with a harsh Boston accent.

N. and I walked the grounds of Shrewsbury after dinner, not wanting to go to bed, unapologetic in taking this tour, we finally felt, "this might be ok." It might test our spirits, our psyche, and we might need rest afterwards, but these Republicans are kind of interesting, not hateful and maybe we might show them liberals aren't so bad. Off to bed, it was nearly 11:00 PM and we needed to be up at the crack of dawn to embark on our next adventure in medieval Chester.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Back on the Bus: Day Three, London Calling

Sleep on Day 2 lasted until 2 am. We slept for five hours, but at 2 am I am wide awake joined by N. We are giddy, laughing at anything, silly, I try to read, but can't. Barbara Ehrenreich, my political soul mate keeps my interest for a little while, but instead I turn on the television and alas, the Europeans have magic on the teley. The Wire, the single greatest television show to ever grace the small screen is on the BBC. We watch as Michael turns the tables on Snoop and becomes a killer. By 4 am Nicole is asleep and I am back to Barbara. I finally fall asleep at 5 am and am awake at 6:30, realizing I will not be successful at sleep, I shower for the first time in Europe. We rush down to breakfast at 8:30 and most everyone has already eaten. We see April and she is so glad to see us, we have already become best friends. "I thought you had gone and abandoned the Tour. Thank God."

We sit down for breakfast, "coffee or tea?" "Both," we answer, tea for N and coffee for me. "Toast?" Yes, I answer. "White or Brown?" "Excuse me?" I say though the question is familiar. I answered this question, brown or white toast the first time at Cafe Rio, I am not sure what I said because I didn't understand, though I ended up with a white bread sandwich. She sees us pause and she says, "mixed?" Yes, exactly. Before the mixed toast is brought to the table I explore the buffet style breakfast, scrambled eggs, sausages, fully cooked tomatoes (?), their bacon - our ham and a whole host of fruit. Nicole sticks to the cold cereal and I go for the hot. Average, but on the whole not terrible, the coffee is decent and I am somewhat satisfied. Am I desperate? The mixed toast arrives and indeed it is white toast or brown toast, your guess is as good as mine just what the brown toast is made out of, I stick to the white. We rush to the tour bus waiting outside.

We enter the front of the bus, which is the opposite side you enter in the states, we say hello to Robert, unsure if he is happy to see us, we continue on, as I pass seat after seat I notice, there is no one on this bus without grey hair, row after row of elderly folks, "is this elder hostel" I ask myself. When we booked the tour, we could have booked a "55 and smiling tour," but of course chose another tour. Are the rest 65 and smiling? We enter the last seat behind our new friends on tour, we sit, me by the window, N stares in at me with a wry smile, without saying a verbal word she says: "Well, look what we got ourselves into." Are we being ageist? No, I don't think so, we aren't like that after all, we don't want to be the odd people out, the different ones, stand out because after all, we stand out in our lives enough. I peruse the bus and say to Nicole, "I think I saw someone up there who might be 50!" This doesn't displease her. But, our friends Paul and April sit by us and we smile at them, newly retired they are by all intents and purposes in our median age group. And by all measures wonderful people.

We are told by Robert after entering the bus, tomorrow there will be assigned seats because we don't want people hogging the front seats, it is getting worse, we are being treated like kindergartners. "So please all of you check your assigned seat tomorrow before boarding the bus." In horror, I think does that mean N and I might not sit together? Of course it doesn't mean that, but I am still horrified, and when I feel rules begin to cramp me, I begin a vicious rebellion. Uh-oh is N's only response. "Please control yourself." Before Robert departs, we are told "tour guides request that you tip, so please do so at the end of the tour." She greets us with a "brilliant" English accent and are instructed we will be seeing London and Westminster, the tour will end at the "Tower of London" and a viewing of the "crown jewels" of which I have no interest whatsoever, nor am I sure what exactly she is talking about. I don't admit this of course out loud until later, to N. I am excited to see this marvelous city, however. A city I have heard about since "London bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down, London bridge is falling down, my fair lady."

We pass by Westminster Abbey, view Big Ben from a far and stop for a photo, we stop at Buckingham Palace and pass by Trafalgar square, of which N and I vow to come back to, to see the National Gallery. The architecture is overwhelming, hailing from the states the term old has a different meaning. William the Conqueror declared himself the King of England in the 11th century beginning England's dastardly deeds on the planet and commenced the construction of the famous "Tower of London." We see the famous people who were tortured and executed here and do visit the "crown jewels" a pretty amazing sight. We watch a video of Queen Elizabeth II crowned as the Queen in 1953 as a young girl, Paul turns to me and says: "I remember this on television as a kid" It was a world wide event." The Royal family fascinates me, why the English would rather be "subjects" rather than "citizens" confounds me. But, after visiting here, one begins to understand their perspective. They can no more abandon the Royal family than we can abandon our Constitution. We take several pictures of the Thames, the Tower Bridge and are ready to move on to Trafalgar Square.
Before walking to Trafalgar Square, we enter a 7/11 type store for some British candy, N goes bonkers for this stuff, for good reason I might add. I sit by myself for a while and worry about the tour, "what were we thinking?" I thought about doing it ourselves, but that would have taken some planning, time of which neither of us had, so we went with the tour, but I am worried if I can handle these AARP Republicans. After a photo stop, I decided to wander into a coffee shop, I talked to some of the locals, making conversation, ordered myself a latte, just to see if Cafe Rio is the norm in tasty lattes. N. came running after a couple of minutes, "the bus is leaving, hurry up!" Again, the rules, "this is not good." I try and justify myself to the tour guide.

The rest of the day we visit the National Gallery, a similar feeling I had at the Louvre. We are viewing nothing, but original paintings by the masters, I am a bit awestruck. The Italians of course are the best, but N is partial to the French. She still will not admit to me she is a francophile! We eat a very good lunch at the National Gallery, I am exhausted and tell N we need a nap. We decide to walk home through Picadilly Circus, an appropriate name for Broadway, the Times Square of London. It is just as ridiculous, but the architecture is splendid, so how bad can it be?
We nap, are blown off by our corporate lawyer landlord who we were trying to meet for dinner. We thought we might receive a nice flavor for the local scene somewhere, but she blew us off, so we are on our own for the evening. We'll see if rent is on time in October. We roamed the streets of Fitzrovia, Soho, Bloomsbury, the Public Gardens, Marleybone and on to the West End, we ate at a Lebanese restaurant that was not so good, N knew it, but she was too tired to tell me. After all, I ordered Beef Stroganov, what kind of Lebanese restaurant serves Beef Stroganov? The neighborhood felt like those cheesy restaurants by NYU, not very good, but popular with people who don't know New York.

We struggled afterward to find dessert in London, in New York there are countless dessert options on every corner, hell in Jersey City and Hoboken they are everywhere, but in London if you want a pint throw a dart, if you want a piece of cake, take the Chunnel to Paris! We found a little chain restaurant serving crepes and it was decent, but by this time all we really wanted was a bed. We roamed a bit more, thought about jumping on the tube for the last time, but decided to walk home, dream about our assigned seats on the bus and whether the next two weeks of our lives will be a mistake. Tomorrow, our luggage has to be at the door by 7:00 am, breakfast is at 7:15 and we need to be "back on the bus" at 8:00 am to be at our first stop in the morning. Did we really choose this?

The People's Senator

Bernie Sanders answers the question, what is wrong with American capitalism? He responds with an overview of what a social democracy is about and what that might look like here in America. Senator Sanders is the people's Senator, easily my favorite politician working today. I haven't been a true democrat for a long time and after working so hard for this President and Congress and watching them wash their power down the drain, I am not calling myself a democrat any longer. I am a Social Democrat.