Friday, July 29, 2011

Buckingham Palace Tour

Yesterday my friend Holly & I went into London for the afternoon to go tour the Buckingham Palace State Rooms. The palace only opens for tours once a year while the Queen normally heads north to her residence in Scotland for her summer holiday.
Since this summer season is quickly approaching the 3rd anniversary of our arrival in the UK, I was determined to see the palace state rooms before we leave the island! Scott really did not have a great interest in going to see the palace rooms and luckily Holly's husband wasn't as keen on it either, so we decided to make the journey ourselves.
We booked our tickets in advance (such a key point - allows for VERY minimal queuing) and so we were able to basically walk right up at our specific time slot and began the tour of the state rooms.

So many interesting things to learn about Buckingham Palace beyond just browsing around at the magnificent splendour inside. Buckingham Palace is Queen Elizabeth II's official residence, and has been the official London residence of Britain's sovereign since 1837. The state rooms at the palace have been opening to the public for just the past two decades, since 1993, after a fire at Windsor Castle. Initially the summer opening was a way to pay for the damage at Windsor Castle but the tours have become so popular that the Queen has continued it every summer when she goes to one of her country homes for about 8 weeks.

Buckingham Palace has 775 rooms!!! These include 19 State rooms, 52 Royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices and 78 bathrooms. Buckingham Palace is not only the London home of The Queen; The Duke of Edinburgh, The Duke of York, The Earl and Countess of Wessex, The Princess Royal and Princess Alexandra also have private offices and apartments located within the Palace. Unfortunately we did not get to see these private bedrooms and offices but the state rooms that we did see were quite lovely indeed. No photos were allowed to be taken inside the palace but I did get a few outside...
Everything from the entrance, to the exit, to the temporary restrooms and temporary gift shop were set up specially for the Summer Opening of the State Rooms.
In the gift shop at the end of the tour, mini wedding cakes from William & Kate's wedding were available for purchase. Apparently the British have fruitcake covered in fondant at their wedding for their cake. Not my choice of a cake, but then again I am not British!
The temporary gift shop at the end of the tour.
Holly & me at the end of our tour - the back side of Buckingham Palace.
The highlights from our tour of the state rooms included: Seeing Kate's wedding dress, veil, shoes, tiara, earrings, flower bouquet, and the wedding cake (I wonder if it were a replica cake though?). We also got to see the red room where many of the "official" photos of William & Kate were taken at the palace after their wedding ceremony. It's pretty cool to me to think that whenever I see that photo of them in the future, I will remember walking in that same room of the palace when I went for a visit! The other bit that stood out to me was a "secret door" that the Queen uses to enter one of the state rooms - a short cut for her from her private residence area. After taking the main tour now of the state rooms, I think it would be really cool to tour the back hallways and private residence areas of the palace....but I guess everyone else would want to do that too!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Traveling with an infant

Last week we took our first family holiday abroad. Yes, we did already go back to the US with Crosby so it wasn't her first international trip, but this last week was our first vacation where we were not going to stay with extended family, etc.
Before Crosby came along, Scott & I had been maximizing our time off of work to travel as much as we could while we have been living over here in Europe. We have grown to love traveling more than we ever thought we would. We knew our travels would not cease once we had a baby, but we did recognize that we would probably slow down a bit since traveling with an infant is not as easy as just traveling with two adults. Luckily for us, Crosby seems to be a good traveler - she is quiet on the airplane, the pressure of the flight doesn't seem to bother her too much, she doesn't have car sickness while driving on windy roads, and she seems to be interested in her new surroundings so she likes to take in the sights in new places. She is still at a good age where is "portable" and isn't eating food yet so it is a bit easier on us for now.

The one part that has changed and that is not as portable is all the GEAR that comes along with a baby. How does such a little being require so much stuff??? In reality, we do not bring that much extra "stuff" for Crosby but on this last vacation we could see the difference when we rented a car. With a car seat, stroller, baby, plus all of our luggage, we knew we would have to upgrade the size car we needed for the week.
Beyond the car seat and stroller, the other "gear" items required on this trip included: a travel cot/"pea pod" for a sleeping location (the house we rented only had one baby cot and there were two babies so we needed an extra bed for one baby - it can double as a sun shade for baby since it has UV protection), an inflatable swimming ring for the pool, baby bjorn carrier, a baby monitor, two baby bottles, bottle brush, sterilizer bags, and of course an assortment of baby clothes, burp cloths, bibs, and more.

While the gear is much greater than we have been used to for travel purposes, it is manageable and we are slowly learning what is necessary and what is not. The part of this trip that was not expected when we thought about traveling with an infant was the airport and airline issues we encountered this time around.

The day we flew to France, we went to the airport in advance of our flight and proceeded through security as we usually do. We are pros at pulling out our liquids and knowing what will set the alarms off, etc. So in advance of the scanning machine I told the security agent that I had breastmilk in a cooler - bottles for my baby. These are completely legal to bring through for flights and I have already been through three major airports (including this airport, BHX, which we were going through again!) and have never had any problems with Crosby's bottles.

After our bags and items went through the scanner, we got pulled aside for further inspection. (expected since we were traveling with milk for a baby). The security guard asked me to taste the milk. [a side note - the UK will ask you to taste breastmilk, but the US will NEVER have you taste it because since the US is such a litigious society, you could poison your own milk and then sue the airport for having them ask you to taste it! Insane.] After I tasted it and all was fine, the security agent noticed the freezer pack I had to keep the milk cool. The agent then proceeded to tell me I could not keep the freezer pack and it was considered to be a liquid so it would have to be thrown out. I questioned this response because I had already flown THREE times with this freezer pack and it was never questioned and furthermore how was I supposed to keep the milk cold for baby Crosby without it (plus it was a special pack made to keep the bottles cool)? SHE didn't care. (I really thought it was 10 times worse since the agent was a WOMAN and had to have had some compassion). She told me freezer packs were only allowed for medicine and milk was not medicine so she threw it out, in front of me. It took Scott to almost pull me away to not completely loose it over this issue. There are so many reasons I was upset about this interaction and way it was handled but I was most upset about the milk I was carrying potentially going bad before Crosby could consume it.

Fast forward to the week we returned from our trip. I was frantically searching online for information regarding the rules and regulations for taking breastmilk on an airplane. Apparently the TSA in the US has a very clearly stated policy about this topic on their website: breastmilk is considered to be in the same category as medicine, so freezer packs ARE ALLOWED. In researching this topic, many women have said it is best to print out this specific site to show to security agents if you encounter any problems when traveling. I will do so for my future trips within the US, however I could not find such information for the UK policy. Consquently I am writing a letter to the airport team to inquire about this topic. I also called Medela - the company who makes the breastpump and freezer pack - they were GREAT! I told them about my experience and they sent me a new replacement freezer pack for free and are looking into the airport guidelines for me.

As if the start to this trip didn't cause me enough of a headache with the security screening debacle, then we went to board our bmi baby flight and we surrendered the stroller and car seat at the gate to be gate checked. I inquired with the flight attendant as to when we would be able to collect the items when we landed. Her response was "at the side of the airplane when you land." Because I had a weird feeling about things, I grabbed the baby bjorn and put it in my carry on bag just in case. I was glad I did! Sure enough, we landed in France and had to board some buses and were shipped to the main terminal where we had to walk for eons to get to baggage claim....all WITHOUT our stroller for the baby! And then amazingly enough this happened AGAIN to us on the way back from France to the UK and we had the same responses from the airline staff again.

While the airline staff didn't seem to know their own policies regarding gate checked items, the airplane was also ill-equipped for babies. Unfortunately we learned the hard way that although bmi baby airplanes are always filled with families (and lots of babies!), they are not baby friendly. NO BABY CHANGE in the bathrooms. Why??? The airline attendant said to me "I know it's silly but sorry, we just don't have any." She offered me the jump seat where the flight attendants sit, which was very nice but unfortunately kept flipping up and so it was not a very secure space to change a baby.

I knew traveling with a baby would have its own set of challenges but these were not the expected kind. Needless to say, I am composing a few letters of feedback for the airport and airline to inquire about these issues encountered....

Monday, July 18, 2011

Ziploc: Why France and Not England?

We have just returned from a week's holiday in southern France and while the holiday was positively lovely (more on that later), I was surprised with a find in the grocery store in France: ZIPLOC BAGS! Why does France have them and England does not?!?!? Do the French like to store their items tightly and the British don't? I was so surprised to find actual ziploc brand bags on the shelves in the supermarket that I had to take a photo just for proof....

They had a HUGE selection - gallon size, snack size, quart size and more! Maybe someday England will catch on to this great idea too....

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Birthday for a Super Dad

This week we celebrated Scott's birthday. It was his first birthday as a Dad so I decided that the birthday cake theme this year would be "Super Dad," since of course he is a great Dad (and husband too!).
My littlest pastry chef was busy that morning icing Scott's ice cream cake! Unfortunately Crosby did not stay awake long enough to eat the cake and blow out the candles because Scott had a late night at work.
When Scott did get home, he opened his gifts. No, the big case is not a rifle gun, but a set of monogrammed grill tools from his in-laws. We will all benefit from his use of this gift!
And then we had his favorite - mint chocolate chip and homemade chocolate ice cream cake! A super birthday for a Super Dad!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Online Grocery Shopping

This past winter I embarked on a new grocery shopping. I had heard about this idea of ordering your groceries online and then having them delivered to your house soon after we arrived here in England but I never felt that I wanted to try the service because I love going to the grocery store. I could wander the aisles for a long time (and sometimes I have done so!) and I enjoy looking at all of the products, especially the British products over here. I like to see the various placements, packaging of products and more.

However, the thought of having to go grocery shopping when I was going to be home with a newborn started to panic me a bit. Before Crosby arrived I kept thinking about the out of town visitors we would be having right after the baby arrived and I kept wondering how I would manage to shop for them and for us, with a newborn in tow, when the grocery store is always such a zoo by us? Because of the driving differences, I knew our house guests were not going to be willing to drive out to the store at a moment's notice - plus, they don't know how to get around over here. So, I decided that it would be worth trying the service before I "needed" it to see how it was, and then if I liked it, I would continue on with it for the first few weeks after the baby was due to arrive.

Well, I tried it and I fell in LOVE with this service. I have been so pleased that I do not have to fight the parking lot mess at the big retail park by us on a weekly basis to do my shopping for food! (the parking lot woes with a baby in tow will be covered in another post) Plus, I don't have to spend the money on the petrol to get to and from the grocery store either! The groceries now come to me.

I order them from the comfort of my living room, I then select my delivery time slot (an hour's window), and then voila, on the day and time of my order, a nice delivery man in a fancy delivery truck shows up at my house and unloads the grocery bags for me. He even walks them into my kitchen if I want him to do so.
The nifty part is that when the groceries arrive, the bags are color coordinated so I know which items go in the freezer (Green bags), which go in the fridge (red handles), and which items are to be left out for the cupboard area (purple handles). Genius!

The one challenge with the online grocery shopping ties back to the English language. As an American shopping online at a British grocery, I sometimes cannot find what I am looking for. I have become to realize that when I was physically shopping at the grocery store I knew where the item might have been located within the store, but now when I am searching for it by name, I do not always know the proper name of the product.
Some examples:
dishwashing soap = washing up liquid
diapers = nappies
tomato sauce = passata
tomato paste = tomato puree
sour cream = soured cream (not a huge difference, but interesting, isn't it?)
popsicle = ice lollie
garlic powder = garlic granules
zucchini = courgettes
chips = crisps
french fries = chips

I know this service is one part of British life that I have already become attached to in a very short period of time. I am surprised that this concept is not more popular in the US, given that there are so many customer service centric stores there. Hopefully by the time we move back, our local grocery store will have adopted this concept because I would sign up again in a heart beat!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Red White & Blue

Happy 4th of July from our littlest American!
Although we are not having the day off and fireworks here in England, it is a nice sunny day with a bit of humidity - very fitting for the 4th of July. Thinking of everyone back home in America!