Sunday, June 21, 2015


In my last posting we were about to leave Scotland. I had mentioned how we really liked Stirling, and as we were leaving I discovered yet another reason to like it. I had been told that some inconspicuous doors off the pedestrian plaza were entries to a shopping mall, and we had a few minutes to spare, so I thought I'd check it out. Ha, ten minutes were not enough to even race through it. It was huge, with over 80 shops. And yet so tastefully hidden from sight that I didn't know it was part of the downtown area I'd traversed several times. Congratulations, Stirling, for camouflaging these modern stores so as to maintain the charm of the old city.

On the train trip to York, Les managed to photograph the Falkirk Wheel. This engineering marvel lifts boats from one canal to another.

We spent three days in York. It's a historic town founded by the Romans, with many attractions. We should have liked it, but somehow it didn't grab us. The main reason we went was for the National Railway Museum; it was huge and had excellent displays, the kind of thing Les usually loves, but the British trains didn't evoke childhood memories the way Canadian and U.S. trains do, so even that was a bit of a disappointment.

It probably didn't help that we were staying in a dubious hotel. We were forewarned by the reviews: some of them said it was a good value for the money, while others warned "If you're thinking of staying here—don't!" It was the Ryanair version of a hotel, cheap with a lot of extras you pay for. Want a towel? You can have that for a price. You can either make your bed and unmake it at the end, and sweep the room, or you can pay us to do that for you. It was far from the train station and the old town, so we did a lot of walking. As in other cities, we also walked many miles in the residential neighborhoods that most tourists never see. (CityMaps2Go shows pedestrian paths that don't usually appear on regular maps.)

Our luck seemed to turn sour in York. The laundromat we went to was crowded and seedy. When I used my umbrella that Les had fixed with dental floss (the umbrella that broke in the wind at Luss), it broke again. From so much tightening in the winds of Scotland, the backband of Les' cap broke, so we bought a tiny sewing kit, but the thick fabric immediately broke the needle! Several efforts at getting cash from ATMs didn't work, for various reasons. I stepped off a curb to get around a car poking out too far in a driveway, and got the finger from a motorist who had to swerve a bit around me. My hand brushed against some bushes encroaching on the sidewalk, and it must have been something akin to stinging nettle, because my knuckle hurt for an hour. You get the idea—no catastrophes, just many annoyances in York.

The Leeds librarian helped me find old maps showing where my relatives lived.
So we said good riddance to York and took a bus to Leeds. As in Denny, this was a genealogical quest. My great-grandparents moved from Lithuania to Leeds and married there, and my grandmother lived there almost thirty years until moving to New Jersey. The family lived in about ten places while working in the tailoring trade, and my quest was to find some of them. The library cheerfully provided us with a dozen maps from that period, and our new friend from the Scotland Esperanto meetings helped with research, so we traipsed around to where the addresses used to be, and found (as expected) that the locations were now parking lots, highways, and new buildings. We couldn't even visit the cemetery to look for gravestones, because it was closed a few years ago after the ground starting caving in due to a labyrinth of coal mining tunnels underneath. But lots of old buildings still remain, and I liked to imagine my ancestors passing by them.

A plaque in the Leeds City Museum describes the situation for my grandmother's family.
A stall in the Kirkgate Market in Leeds, the largest covered market in Europe; Marks and Spencer started here
We really liked Leeds. It's a gritty city, but that was part of the appeal. No tourists, it seemed. Les doesn't feel sorry anymore for my family who had to live there. We needed two trips to see even part of the Royal Armouries Museum with its huge collection of weapons from every period. Les fulfilled a lifetime dream by shooting a crossbow there. Les bought some good needles and was finally able to repair his cap. The only downsides to Leeds were lots of litter and lots of smokers on the streets.

Les shot a crossbow at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds.
OK, call me unsophisticated—this was my favorite exhibit at the Armouries.
Then came the day we've both been anxious about for months: the first time driving a car on the left side of the road. We rented a small car for two days to see the cluster of Yorkshire towns where Les' mother's family came from. (This was the last of our three genealogical quests.) Les found that he didn't mind driving on the left, nor controlling the gear shift with his left hand (from his flying years as a teenager that seemed pretty natural), but the freaky part was the narrow two-lane roads, no shoulders or sidewalks, with stone walls on both sides, and cars often parked partially in the roadway (effectively creating a narrow one-lane road). But we survived our 121 miles of driving (which felt like 500), and now know what it might be like if we rent a car while in New Zealand.

I hadn't done my research well, so we were thrown by the first town we explored: Huddersfield. I expected a small village, but it was much larger, with lots of confusing traffic. We got lost, but serendipitously ended up in the area where Les' great-greats had lived, and then got out of town as quickly as we could. The next day we ventured for an explore of Meltham, which turned out better. We saw the neighborhoods where Les' grandparents had lived, and the town is still small and unspoiled by progress. The scenery in this area is terrific: high hillsides filled with neatly organized fields of all shades of green, separated by stone walls, with the occasional town that seems to be suspended in time.

Cars trying to pass on the main street of Heptonstall
For the first time on this trip, we stayed with an Esperanto speaker via Pasporta Servo. This turned out to be the best part of the Yorkshire foray. Our new friend Michael lives in Heptonstall, a village straight out of an 18th century novel. Way up on a hill, cobblestoned narrow main street, one-lane dirt side streets, the requisite old pubs and churches, etc. Michael's house was a stone barn built in 1830, converted to a house in 1990, tastefully furnished, complete with a profusive perennial garden. The nearby town of Hebden Bridge is also charming, with not a single modern chain store. Michael told us that many visitors come to visit Sylvia Plath's grave in the vicinity. We learned a lot about Britain from talks with Michael; for instance nobody in Europe uses the term "chunnel". So between this wonderful stay with Michael, and surviving the driving experience, these two days in West Yorkshire are very memorable.

Big Ben struck the hour of 8 as we walked by on our first day in London.
Next stop was London for three nights. Neither of us was looking forward to this; I felt like I'd seen it already during my ten days here fifty years ago, and neither of us likes big cities. We didn't even download a map beforehand. As a consolation for having to spend the time here, we sprang for a luxurious place, at least by our standards: a DoubleTree in Pimlico. Another consolation was that there are several Whole Foods in London, and our big goal the first evening was the branch a half hour walk from the hotel. I bought food for three days of meals for less than one dinner at our hotel would have cost (and better nutritionally); what joy to select quinoa, grilled tofu, and steamed kale from the salad bar! Along the way on the long walk, we happened to pass by many famous landmarks: Buckingham Palace, Parliament, St. James Park, Big Ben, Picadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square. Somewhere along the walk Les discovered that he actually was enjoying the city!

The second day we went by boat to Greenwich, which had been our only sightseeing goal. It felt like a pilgrimage to Les, and I enjoyed the village. Les had fun turning on his GPS and photographing the displayed longitude of 0°0'. Getting off the boat back at Westminster, we found ourselves in the middle of an anti-government demonstration. There were about 25,000 protesters, and 7,000 police officers. The next day we went to the Tower of London and the  British Museum, and walked about six miles. We accidentally came upon a parade in honor of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. (The Royal Armouries had had a good exhibit on the battle.) More and more we're discovering that what we really like to do in cities is just walk around in the quieter areas, away from the crowds.

An anti-government protest
Unfortunately Les has developed hay fever in this past week. This was surprising, until we read that southern England is experiencing soaring pollen levels. But the symptoms responded well to antihistamines.

A new experience this week was mailing a package home. In the interests of weight, we've disposed of most papers we get at conferences and such, but some items we want to keep. Buying a sturdy envelope for the one pound of stuff and sending it by surface mail came to about $10. Another new experience was more important, because it was something we'd been anxious about: haircutting. We've cut each other's hair for more than 40 years, and I hate the idea of anybody besides Les doing mine. And yet we couldn't bring our scissors (security issue) or our clippers (weight issue). So we did haircuts with the pair of children's scissors we purchased our first week, plus the trimmer feature of Les' shaver. Amazingly, we're both very happy with our haircuts.

Oh, and that reminds me that I discovered a new way of cooking. My digestive system needs lots of vegetables; a slice of tomato and piece of lettuce on a sandwich just doesn't do it. (I miss the green smoothies I often made in Seattle.) So I buy packages of precut vegetables (carrots, broccoli, string beans, etc.) Problem is that I'm not fond of raw vegetables. I came up with a solution when I realized that every hotel in the UK (yes, even our "Ryanair" hotel in York) provides an electric kettle. I use the paring knife we bought early in the trip to cut up the veggies into ½ inch pieces, put them into a ceramic cup, add boiling water, and cover the cups. Sometimes I add a vegetable bouillon cube. After ten minutes we eat our "soup", with the al dente vegetables.

One advantage of our relatively swank hotel is that for the first time we have high-quality loudspeakers at our disposal, which means that we can hear music from the playlist on our computer. We've both missed having our favorite music playing in the background. (Earbuds or headphones just don't cut it.)

When we were initially planning our trip, Les really wanted to have a central location for several months, and do all our traveling from there. That wasn't really practical, with the conferences in such far-flung areas, so we adopted the method we're using. Les has discovered, to his surprise, that he actually likes being on the go all the time and living out of a backpack. We're just past the one third point of our trip. Tomorrow we head to continental Europe.