Sunday, May 31, 2009


it's been a dream of mine, ever since i was a wee lass, to see scotland. for as long as i can remember, i've always always always wanted to travel to the land of my forebears, to see the highlands, to hear the bagpipes, to feel the misty air on my skin...

after a few days in oxford with bob and rae, the five of us took a train north to edinburgh. it took about 5 hours i think -- maybe more -- through the lake district and mountains and some of the greenest hills i have ever seen! it rained off and on the entire trip, and it seemed like every turn we took brought a new landscape and new weather. it was so beautiful!

edinburgh is one of the coolest cities i've ever seen, i think. it's just big enough to have a cool, funky, cosmopolitan feel to it. but still small enough to get around VERY easily by foot or bus -- most everything we wanted to see/do was along a strip called the royal mile -- so named because on one end of it is the edinburgh castle, and on the other end is holyrood house which is the official scottish residence of queen elizabeth and her family. mary queen of scots lived there for a time, too. and the distance is about one mile from end to end (or at least, it only seems like a mile when you're walking it. uphill towards edinburgh castle sure feels like a LONG mile, though!)

similar to our experience in oxford, we rented a flat (instead of a hotel room). this gave us the luxury of being able to all be together in the same space, and it allowed gracie the opportunity to run around and spread out if she wanted to. we ate meals together in the kitchen in the evenings, thus saving money by not eating out all the time at expensive restaurants. our flat looked over a beautiful cemetery (the philosopher adam smith was buried there!) and in one direction, on top of a hill, was a cool greek-style building with columns and everything, and in the other direction was arthur's seat, a beautiful volcanic rock that takes a couple of hours in order to hike to the top. it was such a pretty neighborhood! to get to the royal mile, we would have to walk underneath this old tollbooth tower, where they used to put prisoners back in the day (whenever that was...). now there is a pub and a museum there.

because of our close proximity to most everything interesting, we spent a lot of time pounding the pavement in edinburgh. our first full day there (the rainiest of them all) we went to edinburgh castle. according to wikipedia, edinburgh castle is:

an ancient stronghold which dominates the sky-line of the city of Edinburgh from its position atop the volcanic Castle Rock. Human habitation of the site is dated back as far as the 9th century BC, although the nature of early settlement is unclear. There has been a royal Castle here since at least the reign of David I in the 12th century, and the site continued to be a royal residence until the Union of the Crowns in 1603. As one of the most important fortresses in the Kingdom of Scotland, Edinburgh Castle has been involved in many historical conflicts, from the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century, up to the Jacobite Rising of 1745, and has been besieged, both successfully and unsuccessfully, on several occasions. From the later 17th century, the Castle became a military base, with a large garrison. Its importance as a historic monument was recognised from the 19th century, and various restoration programmes have been carried out since.

i was really hoping we could get to the castle in time to hear the "one-o-clock-gun," which has been fired every day (except sundays) at 1:00 pm precisely, since 1861. why not fire it at 12:00 noon? well, it saves 11 rounds of ammunition. easier and more efficient. it's to help the boats in the firth of forth (the bay near edinburgh) set their clocks exactly. but sure enough, we missed it. i HEARD it, but i didn't see it -- we were still outside the gates buying tickets when 1:00 rolled around. no worries, though -- by coming in after the cannon was fired, we also missed the biggest crowds of the day. 1:00 came, the gun was fired, and the crowds all went home to get out of the nasty weather. which meant we had the castle mostly to ourselves. nice!

the weather was terrible that day, with gusts and rain and fog and bone-chilling dampness that felt really authentically scottish. it was crrrrrap. but we were all in good spirits about it. gracie, especially, who didn't have a rain guard for her new fancy stroller -- we wrapped up her legs in a plastic bag instead, and pulled the sun shield as far over her head as was possible! finally we all felt so bad for her we left in search of something warm to drink, and once we went inside a restaurant to dry off she fell asleep almost immediately.

well, the weather was so awful that we pretty much decided enough was enough, and after warming up with coffee and scones, we went back to the flat to warm up completely. and wouldn't you know it, within an hour of us getting back home, the skies cleared and the sun came out. figures!

there was no way i was going to waste a perfectly beautiful scottish evening by sitting inside in my sweatpants, so i proposed to adam that we go on a walking tour of the city. i had seen several "haunted" tours advertised up and down the royal mile, so after dinner i did a bit of research to find out what time/cost/etc and we headed out for our evening entertainment!

we met our tour guide outside of st. gile's church. she was dressed in a period costume (but which period i don't know -- it was just one of those typical gothy-type black and red corset dresses that you see vampire chicks wearing at the renaissance festival). she led us around the perimeter of st. gile's church, and through some alleyways of the imposing tenement buildings of edinburgh, and told us what life was like there hundreds of years ago... throwing your toilet water out the window and yelling "gar de loo" or whatever. (it's french for "look out for the water" -- because apparently yelling it in french makes it more hygenic than yelling it in scottish. i told adam i was gonna yell "gardyloo" everytime i have to flush now. i'm hilarous.) about how it was illegal to be homeless (or sitting in the street) back then, and you'd be taken to the gallows and hanged if found guilty. she told us about the plague, and the witch burnings, and all manner of horrifying acts which were imposed upon the kind citizens of edinburgh. it was pretty gross stuff.

we spent some time on the tour down in the vaults beneath the city. the vaults were originally built in the 18th century for extra storage space and workshops for many of the businesses in that area of town, but eventually were abandoned -- eventually they became inhabited by prostitutes, the poor, and immigrants drawn to the city by the industrial revolution. the living conditions in the vaults were appalling -- no sunlight, no fresh air, no running water. additionally, the stones they were built of were porous, so all that gardyloo water would trickle down there eventually too. nasty! the vaults are famous now for being haunted, and sure enough, i actually had my own paranormal experience down there! a ghost touched my neck THREE TIMES (why doesn't anyone believe me? it's totally true!) so by the end of the tour i pretty much booked it out of there as fast as i could and got myself a beer to calm my nerves. it was soooo cool and scary and cool and freaky and omg it was cool.

so. that's day one in edinburgh.

the next day was sunday, and i wanted to go to church at rosslyn chapel (my dryden ancestors all came from roslin village, just outside of edinburgh, and i thought this would be a perfect activity to do!). i got up early, found my way to the bus stop, and waited. and waited. and waited. and WAITED. sure enough, i double check the schedule, and it says "no service on sunday." aaaargh! i came home crying cuz i REALLY had my heart set on seeing roslin!

so, instead, we got all packed up and headed out the OTHER direction of the royal mile, towards holyrood house. holyrood, according to wikipedia, is

the official (government-owned) residence of the Monarch of the United Kingdom in Scotland. Founded as a monastery by David I, King of Scots in 1128, it has served as the principal residence of the Kings and Queens of Scots since the 15th century. The Palace stands at the bottom of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, the opposite end to Edinburgh Castle. Queen Elizabeth II spends one week in residence at Holyrood at the beginning of each summer, to host garden parties and official ceremonies. She then continues to Balmoral Castle (which she owns) for her annual two-month summer holiday.

Holyrood is an anglicisation of the
Scots Haly Ruid (Holy Cross).

we went inside the palace, and gracie climbed up and down the steps until she wore herself out. it was interesting to see the inside of a working palace, especially the room where they knighted sir sean connery. i also liked seeing mary queen of scots' bedroom. that was pretty cool. but for the most part, i find palaces to be extraordinarily DULL. oooh, look at this fancyass chair where some old, fat monarch plopped his big butt 300 years ago. wow, such fascinating paintings of people i've never heard of. i admit, some parts WERE interesting to me. but mostly it was a dull museum.

however, once you finish the tour (complete with audio guides), you get to walk outside to this KICK ASS abbey, dating from the 1100's! cool! the roof had caved in and the stones were crumbling, but that just made it all the more beautiful in my opinion. to see the bright sunlight and clear blue sky when standing in the middle of this ancient abbey was really breathtaking.

beyond the abbey is the queen's garden. SOOOO PRETTY! rhododendrons, roses, flowering trees, and an unobstructed view of arthur's seat. oh my goodness, i think it was the prettiest sight in all of scotland! and it had just rained only moments earlier -- the skies had cleared, the sun was bright, and the fresh rain on the leaves and petals was truly lovely.

well that whole experience pretty much wore us out, and it was threatening to rain, so we all went back (after a beautiful lunch at the palace) to our flat and everyone took much-needed naps. gracie, especially, who hadn't had a proper nap (like, actually in a bed and not in her stroller) in several days. and with the mexican pig flu floating around out there, none of us wanted to be run down and susceptible to it! what a way to ruin a vacation!

after naptime we went on a bus tour of the city, and ended up near the scott monument with great views of the city. we went out for dinner in the "new town" district of edinburgh. bob and rae went out that night on a walking tour of their own, and adam and gracie and i went back to the flat.

that's day two. on day three we went to roslin, my (and gracie's!) ancestral village. then it was time to go on to inverness...

i really honestly could have spent another two or three days in edinburgh. i can't believe how much there was to do there! it was an AMAZING city and i really hope i can get back there someday soon! it really is one of my favorite cities in the world! so great!

Thursday, May 28, 2009


it is very important to adam and me that we raise our children to be spiritual individuals. to have a sense of the sacred. that's a large reason why we decided to create a "god squad" for gracie. it's also an excuse to bring her to the kleuterkerk at the catholic church next door...

one day gracie and i were playing on the jungle gym across the street from the church. it was almost time to go home, but before we did, we decided to go into the church to light a candle in the mary chapel (something we do regularly). on our way indoors, a very nice woman with bright eyes stopped and looked very intently at gracie. this normally happens anyway, so i didn't think much of it at first. but there was something really intense about this woman, so i just waited for her to start talking -- i felt like there was something that she wanted to say.

she began to explain to me (in dutch) that once every week there is this kleuterkerk (kleuter = preschooler. kerk = church) and that we were heartily invited to join. "is gracie too small?" i asked. "do we need to be there exactly at 10:00 in the morning?" she assured me that gracie was not too small (though when she found out that gracie was really only 13 months old at the time, she was shocked because gracie was walking and talking so easily already!) and that we can come and go as our scheduled permitted. it was very easy-going, she said. "just come, don't be shy -- we would love to have you both!"

well the very next week (and pretty much every week thereafter) gracie and i went. we've gone every week except for one because i was sick, and then of course we missed a few meetings while we were travelling in the UK recently. but pretty much, every week, we are there!

this is usually what happens: church begins at 10:00, and the mamas (or grandmamas) and the little ones meet in the parochiehuis (where gracie's creche is located on sunday mornings) for about half an hour. we drink coffee or tea, and the children get settled in with their toys and little cups of juice. there are usually cookies offered to everyone too. (about a half hour later is when gracie and i normally show up -- i know the church is right around the corner, but we are LAZY in the mornings and all three of us hang out and eat breakfast together for much longer than is necessary... it's a great way to start the day.)

by 10:30, the kids are starting to get a little restless, and most everyone has arrived, so we are all led into the sanctuary. we sit in the front of the church, to the right of the main altar, at an altar with the holy family on it. gracie and i normally arrive right at this part, and i'm always sad if we miss it cuz it's my favorite part of the morning! we say a prayer first. then we sing songs about how happy we are to be children of god, and we sing about how jesus loves all the children of the world. sometimes we read a book -- about peace, about jonah and the whale, about jesus. whatever. something fun, though!

after the prayers and the songs, we walk towards the back of the church, near a statue of jesus. it is there where we each light a candle, and someone says a prayer for the group. usually we pray for the daddies and for the grandparents. it is very sweet.

after all of this we head back to the parochiehuis. (what is the english word for this? i have forgotten it entirely! it's the house where the priest lives, and it's attached to the church. there are also a couple of offices in there too, a small kitchen, and i think there are a few nuns who live there. is there a word for this in english?) we have another cup of tea, the kids all have some juice and cookies, and i practice my conversational dutch. i admit i've been getting lazy about my dutch now that i know i only have to speak it for a few more weeks, but still, it's good to challenge myself so i do try to speak it whenever i can.

by 11:15 it's time to start packing up to go. i'm always sad to leave, but not as sad as gracie! she LOVES her friends and toys and cookies and songs and candles!

afterwards we normally swing by the grocery store and then go to the market for our mid-week fruit, veggies, chicken, eggs, bread, cheese, and the frequent bouquet of flowers. then we're usually home by about 12:30 and we make lunch (we're both STARVING at this point, even with all the cookies we ate at church!). i put the flowers in water, clean up lunch, and put a certain someone down for her much-needed nap! she's usually exhausted after playing so hard all morning long and it's never a struggle to get her to sleep on kleuterkerk days!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

oxford (with bob and rae)

we have been extremely blessed to have had so many opportunities to see bob and rae out here in europe. they've been here five times in the last three years, if you can believe it!

5. just now.

adam and gracie and i went to oxford in late april so that adam could do some networking at both oxford and at the royal society in london, as well as have an opportunity to meet his publisher at cambridge. all told, we were there for about 10 days, most of which we spent on our own exploring the city and going on picnics in christchurch meadow. oxford is a beautiful city, don't get me wrong, but i was honestly starting to get a little bored. there are only so many spires i can look at before i start to wonder what gracie is going to do for fun. i can't just go to the pubs all day and drink with my 15-month-old. and i can't climb all the cathedral towers with her either. so i was REALLY happy when oma and opa arrived with books and toys and tickles for gracie!

they arrived at breakfast time, which was AWESOME cuz that meant that we got to spend the whole day with them! and gracie, omg, she was the star of the show. that girl was showing off and flirting like there was no tomorrow! it was so nice to see that she actually remembered her oma and opa -- gracie has been going through a serious case of stranger anxiety (which is a good thing, i have to keep reminding myself), so both adam and i were nervous that she wouldn't react so nicely around the folks when they got here. but that was definitely not the case! swear to god, whenever opa sat down, gracie would RUN to him so that she could either sit on his lap, or have her squeeze her between his knees (omg she loves that). she loved showing oma how smart she was, playing "so big!" and making all her animal sounds (gracie, what does the rooster say? "biddi biddi biddi" she answers! not exactly, but close enough! gracie, what does the horsey say? "pppffffft!" gracie, what does the dinosaur say? "rrraaaawr!" ). she loves her oma and opa!

the first day was pretty chill since the folks were still jet lagged. we went to the grocery store, headed into the center, and met up with adam. i don't exactly recall what we did that first day, but i think we mostly just walked around. we went to eat at the eagle and child, which is the same pub where we ate with my friend carol a few days earlier. (remember that famous pub where c.s. lewis and j.r.r. tolkein hung out? yes, that's the one.) i think we also spent a good amount of time inside the covered market, since it was so blustery and cold outside.

the next day was our only full day together in oxford, so we made the most of it: we went to see christchurch cathedral and the famous dining hall where much of the harry potter movie was filmed.

the dining hall is still in use today, and this is the menu of what they had for lunch on the day we visited. i wonder, if you get to eat in this cool dining hall all the time, would you eventually get sick of it? like, would you be all, "oh, man, shepherd's pie AGAIN?!" or would you think that pretty much anything you eat in the dining hall is the most amazing food you've ever had? and, did you know that lewis carroll ate like 8,000 meals here? that's amazing! do you think he got sick of the bangers and mash too? or maybe he was totally inspired by the food there, because he did end up writing alice in wonderland, after all...

i had been waiting all week to do this with someone, and it was well worth the wait. i had thought about going by myself a few days earlier when adam was working, but i'm really glad i didn't: not only is it more fun to share it with someone, but also there are SO MANY STEPS that i couldn't have taken the stroller with me. (seriously, the english have to do something about all those steps -- there were very few places in oxford, and even in london, that were completely accessible to stroller, wheelchairs, or walkers. NOT COOL, GUYS! no wonder so many english pensioners move to crete -- they wouldn't be able to leave their flats if they stayed in england! yikes!)

but anyway, enough complaining about the steps. seriously, christchurch was amazing. we had already gone to church there the sunday prior to this visit, but this time i really got to take my time examining the cathedral and walking up and down the corridors of the college. and i found this one sign with a very unfortunate name on it. poor guy.

oh, and then adam and bob climbed to the top of some famous tower to get a better look of the city. adam loves doing stuff like that, so i'm glad he had someone to go with him!

then we took the train to scotland...

Sunday, May 24, 2009

oxford (day trip to the natural history museum)

another email excerpt:

dear ma,

everything is good here. bob and rae got here this morning as we were all eating breakfast. gracie is in hog heaven with all the attention she's been getting from everyone. we went to the grocery store for some lunch fixins and while we were out we all bought little presents for gracie cuz she doesn't have any toys and she's going crazy -- a puzzle (it's flat and easy to pack and she LOOOOOVES puzzles), and a long string of pearls (she loves playing with my necklaces so now she has one of her own) and a little jewelry box that rae saw at a 2nd hand store, that has a little clasp and a secret compartment in it. she loves it! this afternoon, after everyone wakes up from their naps, we'll head downtown and walk around the center, and meet up with adam after his meetings today and then we'll get some grub somewhere. tomorrow i don't know what we'll do, but it's our last day in town so i really hope i can see the inside of the dining hall at christchurch. i've been wanting to do that all week.

yesterday sure was a lot of fun. i was thinking of you the whole day, too -- did you feel it??? gracie and i took the coach down to london and met adam there (he was there earlier in the day for some meetings) and we all went to the natural history museum together. he had to leave right away unfortunately to make it to another meeting, but gracie and i stayed. she and i had a little lunch, i changed her diaper, and then we saw a couple of exhibits. we first went to the human biology one which i thought was really cool and we learned how babies were made and how they're born, and then there was this section about how babies learn and develop, with cool buttons to push and things to uncover and explore. fun fun fun! THEN we went to see the dinosaurs! WOW did she love that! she just kept running around with her arms outstretched in front of her, and her fingers pointing, and turning around and screaming and pointing and running and pointing and screaming and pointing and laughing and running. omg, she thought it was soooo cool! now i say, "gracie, what does the dinosaur say?" and she goes "roar wah wah rrrroooooaaaar (giggle giggle)!" yay! there were several animated dinosaurs with mouths that would open and arms that would wave and move, and necks that would look around, and they would growl and roar and stuff, and OMG she thought it was realllly cool.

i just kept thinking how much i wish you were there, because i just know that we would have seen every single exhibit in the museum and pushed every single button and turned every single knob and left with a bag full of toys from the gift shop. it was so much fun. we'll have to take you and gracie to something like that in dallas when you come down to visit us.

then she took a nap in the cafe there, and when she woke up adam was there too and we went to an exhibit called "creepie crawlies" which she seemed to like cuz there were a couple of butterflies and lots of little buggies for her to point at, and lots of stuff was at her eye level. then it was time to go, so we caught the bus and got some fish and chips at a little restaurant near the coach station. she SQUEALED with glee when she saw this whole plate of french fries in front of her -- that's her FAVORITE food (that's my girl!). she didn't eat any of her fish, though, because if there are french fries in front of her, she won't eat anything else until the fries are gone. and she ate all of her fries, every single one (except the one that adam put some ketchup on -- she picked around that fry and wouldn't eat it at all cuz there was something weird on it. just like her dad!). so by the time it was time for her to eat her fish, she was stuffed! too funny!

that's all the news for now... next stop, edinburgh!

amber, adam, and gracie


the following is an email i wrote to my mom when we were in the UK recently. forgive me for plagiarizing myself, but i have been tooooo busy lately to actually find time to sit down and blog properly. so, until that magical day when i find myself with time to spare, this will have to suffice... enjoy!

dear ma,

we've been in oxford since tuesday and have really enjoyed the beautiful weather and pretty spires. we walked through christ church meadow a couple of times and had a picnic there yesterday-- christ church university is the largest uni in oxford, and was where many scenes from harry potter were filmed. in fact, we went to church this morning at christ church, and there was a boys' choir who sang portions of the service in latin, and neither adam nor i had any idea that the human voice could reach notes like that. it was really cool!

(incidentally, we're here for 10 days while adam does some professional networking and meets with some people at cambridge about the book he is co-authoring. that's what brought us here to the UK. on 8 may we go to scotland and we'll spend about a week between edinburgh and inverness, just on vacation. cool!)

last night we went on a haunted walking tour of oxford along with my good friend, carol, who was my roommate when we studied together in china. she's been living in oxford and now london for the last couple of years -- she married a briton a few years ago when they were both living in beijing. anyway, she came up to see us for the day and we went out for a drink at what is supposedly the oldest pub in oxford, then ate dinner at a pub where cs lewis (or was it lewis carroll?) and jrr tolkien and someone else famous used to hang out and think up great stories. we all ordered the fish n chips and drank local ales. it was great!

after church today we went out for pizza, and after that adam climbed a church tower -- st. mary the virgin cathedral. then after gracie's nap in her stroller, we went to a park that was on the way home on the bus line. and honestly, even though we got to go to this great church service with the latin-singing boys choir, and adam got to climb a cathedral spire while i drank a cappucino in the shadows of the tower, our time at the park was our favorite part of our day today.

we've been staying in this really cozy flat a couple of miles south of the city center. it's been really nice because we've been able to eat dinner together as a family most every night instead of spending all our money and time in restaurants. there's a washer/dryer here, a great big bathtub, cable tv with english tv shows and american reruns, and a separate bedroom for mary grace. there's also a community pool just around the corner, which gracie and i explored together a couple of days ago. there was a toddler splash hour in the wading pool with lots of little toys. we of course were the last ones out of the pool!

anyway, here are some pictures of what we've been up to so far. to be honest, my first day here was pretty awful, i've had some serious culture shock here and have been dreaming all in dutch because i'm kinda homesick. but we've been having a great time, as you can see from the pics, and we're looking forward to bob and rae joining us on wednesday! woohoo!

amber, adam, and gracie