Christmas 1977

Cheers!

Cheers! And greetings from all of us in jolly (c)olde England! Our first year has gone by quickly, and has certainly been a year to remember — a year in which we’ve seen a lot of the world. During the spring we made several trips into the countryside, to Salisbury, to London, and a weekend trip to Wales with a stay inside the old castle walls at Caernarvon Castle; and since we were in rented quarters in Windsor, we got to know Windsor and Eton well — best of all, during the off-season when there aren’t many tourists about.

Just before we moved into the house we’ve bought in Camberley (a lovely, woodsy suburb about an hour from London), we crossed the Channel on the ferry and spent a few days in Paris. We loved driving on the right side of the road again, and the kids enjoyed the sightseeing, especially climbing the hundreds of steps up to the top of Sacré-Cœur and Notre Dame, and riding the elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower. We all enjoyed the French cuisine (a nice change from fish and chips, although Paris prices are pretty high.

The English summer was disappointingly cold and wet, and when the girls finished school the end of July, we packed up for a big trip to the continent, hoping to find somewhat more summery weather. Our first stop was Cologne where we explored the very old cathedral and marveled at the things available in the shops and stores — solid evidence of the higher standard of living the Germans enjoy. From Cologne, we drove east toward Berlin, stopping near Helmstedt to see where Larry’s old Army barracks used to be.

Entering East Germany, we expected the guard towers, barbed wire and unsmiling border patrols, but were not prepared for the condition of the roads, which had potholes big enough to swallow a Mini (almost). Traveling the highways in East Germany were fast-moving Mercedes driven by West Germans, alongside tiny East German Skodas and Moskvichs, packed with people and sounding like sewing machines on wheels. A frequent sight, every few kilometers, was one of these little cars broken down alongside the road. Due to superior Soviet marketing, it is next to impossible to get parts for them, we’re told.

Berlin is a real oasis in the midst of a gray, grim country — green, lush, the inhabitants cosmopolitan and bustling, driving Mercedes, the ladies stylishly dressed (hats, yet!), and incredibly varied goods in the shops. Seeing the wall and the barricaded no-mans-land between East and West, and the decay and utter neglect in East Berlin, was quite chilling. When we came out of a museum in East Berlin, we discovered a group of Russians gathered around our Peugeot station wagon, examining it, and we realized how limited their choices are.

After Berlin, Munich seemed much more frivolous — it must be the beer-drinking capital of Germany (we did our best to help). Sitting in the crowded Hofbräuhaus listening to an “oompah” band, we fell in with a group of Japanese tourists, whose English was only slightly less limited than our Japanese, exchanged a few bob for yen, took their pictures for them — and finally made out the question they were trying to ask: was it beer Brian was drinking? (no, apple juice!)

From Munich our route took us through Austria, though we only stopped overnight in Innsbruck, then on to Italy, to Venice, the grand, decayed old lady of the north. The kids loved riding in the vaporetti (little water taxis) along the Grand Canal, eating dinner overlooking the water as the gondoliers poled by singing, and swimming in the warm, clear Mediterranean at the Lido. We found Florence quite a contrast to Venice: old, but more refined. So much of the world’s art treasures are there; it’s a city to walk, explore galleries, sit at a sidewalk cafe for simple but delicious pasta, bread and wine, and then explore more galleries and museums, wishing that we had more time and that Brian’s legs would hold out a bit longer.

The real highlight of the trip was five days spent in Rome. The Vatican Museum is so huge one could wander there for days, and of course, we saw the Coliseum, the Forum, the Fountains of Trevi, St. Peters, explored one of the Catacombs, etc. Heading home, we stopped to see the Leaning Tower at Pisa, but bypassed the Riviera, picking up the Autoroute in southern France. Our last night on the continent was spent in a mosquito-ridden ville off the route south of Paris, with distinctly English weather — wet. By the time we crossed the Channel to Dover, it was pouring, but we felt we were coming home, after three weeks in six countries.

Since school started, the girls have been busy — Cathy, nearly nine now, is learning to play the recorder, growing tall, becoming “bilingual” — she speaks American at home, British at school. Jennifer, now seven, has a mid-Atlantic accent which we must at times struggle to understand; she reads voraciously, which is just as well, since it rains so much here there’s not much chance to play outside.

Brian just celebrated his fourth birthday and goes to playgroup with 20 or so other little blokes at the Rugby Club; occasionally he informs us he’s had a “jolly good time” at school. He will start full-time school a year from January, clad in little short pants and knee socks (even in the dead of winter these little English boys wear short pants — such a rugged lot!).

Following our trips to the continent, we realized our French needed some work, so both of us are taking classes at the adult school. Despite the long hours at work, Larry manages to stay near the top of his class, and we’ve both met lots of interesting people at school.
During the Christmas holidays, we hope to spend a week in Ireland (Christmas in Killarney, tra la!) Being able to travel as much as we have and introduce the children to a bit of the world has been one of the real delights of this experience.

While we miss family and friends a great deal, we are anxious to get the most out of the time that we’re here, and can’t help but feel grateful that we have this chance. As we dig into the Christmas pudding (or treacle tart, or whatever it turns out to be) we’ll be thinking of you all, and hoping you’ll have a jolly good Christmas, too!