Justin’s blog – Giffords Circus

(pictures of the circus are lower down in the blog)

My family went to the Giffords Circus last week. The Giffords Circus is an old-style, one-ring circus. The circus was in a tent outside in a park. The band was mostly girls. The animals performing were horses, a small pony, a dog, pigeons, and a goose. Four acrobats stood on each other, I could not believe the bottom acrobat could hold the weight of 3 men. The clown did not have a red nose or rainbow colored hair, big shoes or a funky outfit. He had one big clump of of red hair. He was really funny. At the end of the circus, I got to dance in the ring with all the kids.

St. Peters/Broadstairs – The 4 Candles Alehouse…Ale and Song

(Written 8/14. We have did not have Internet at the house we were staying at and could not post)

Here is another pub story. I did not have to ride a bike. I did not fall down. I paced myself, and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

We are in Broadstairs on the southeast coast of England. Dover would be the closest recognizable town to most of you. There are chalk cliffs where we are, so we don’t need to go to Dover. The Folkfest Week is on here, an event that has been taking place since 1985. Our first taste of this town-wide event was last night when we had arrived and were looking for a place to eat at 9 PM. Laura, our hostess, took us down to the town center, just a few blocks total, to look for a restaurant open late on a Sunday night. The main pub/restaurant block of the town was blocked off for pedestrians, and there were a lot of young people in the streets drinking out of plastic cups. Special licensing due to the festival allowed drinking on the street, and there were at least 5 pubs within a 2 min walk from us. We ate at a Thai restaurant and then later stood outside a standard-issue pub, the Tartar Frigate, at the edge of the beach and listened to folk music streaming out the windows.

Next morning, I am reading the weekly free newspapers that have stacked up in the house – this house is only used about one week a month by Laura’s parents – and besides the stuff about Olympics and sailing and tourist events (beachside town remember) I read an article about the “newest micro-alehouse” in the area. “No TV, no music, no lagers, just conversation and good beer,” was the quote from the owner in the local news rag. It is all about the beer. I had to go check it out. As the Fates would have it, this place was directly on our walk from the house to the beach, I could stop by twice a day for a liquid break, like a marathon runner! (Gigi is pointing out that my belly is getting larger on this trip). I did stop in for a pint on the way home from the beach and found exactly what was promised. The proprietor is definitely a rookie bar owner, this project is his flight of fancy– the corner storefront was the size of my living room at home, with white painted bead board wood walls, two thick wood tables with bar stool seating, and some seating along the walls; there was no bar, no cash register, just a chalk board with the beers, prices, and descriptions of the beers by customers. A side room had 4 kegs with taps right in the kegs. No refrigeration, no taps. Only local micro-brewed Real Ale was on tap. Mike, the proprietor, said I could taste the ales before choosing my pint, then tapped me out a to-the-brim pint. Check off “good beer”. Because the room was micro-sized, I was forced to share a table with the 4 other patrons, who turned out to be a father with his 3 twenty-something kids having a pint during their little family reunion vacation. Nice. Check off “good conversation.” I was coming back after dinner.

Laura came with me to the pub after dinner. Gigi declined. She was into a good book. We were going to go out tomorrow night, and well, loud noise and drinking are not really her things. Maybe she was envisioning what we had seen on Sunday night. Not the case.

When we walked in I said to the proprietor, ‘I’m back, just had to go home for some dinner.” An old greybeard dude standing next to me commented, “You had solids? That is cheating!” I was drinking a ‘summer ale’, which only had the word ‘fruity’ describing it on the chalk board. It had just come in and the customers had not reviewed it yet. I wanted to write ‘not your average lawn mower beer.’ (I will try to do tomorrow – I know where he keeps his chalk). Laura had a choice between 6% or 8% hard cider as she is not a beer drinker. That is some strong drink. Ales seem to be around 4% alcohol here.

This room was definitely a 50 years-and-over gathering. Lots of grey beards were evident. There were a few women present. They all seemed to know one another. One man we were talking to had dark fingernail polish, black eyeliner and a single pentagram earing. He was a Morris dancer who had performed today and had not quite gotten out of his makeup. He acted as our guide for the evening, explaining what this group of people was all about. Anyway, the music was the thing tonight.

The 4 Candles micro-Alehouse had been taken over by a core group of folk week performers looking for a non-music-scheduled pub to make music in. They called it a “sing around night.”(Most of the downtown pubs have booked music every night.) Instruments present: guitar, mandolin, banjo, tin whistle, flute, Irish drum, 3 accordions, spoons. This group of people took turns taking ‘the stage’, which meant a lot of shuffling and squeezing past each other to take turns playing and singing songs. The patrons in the room knew all the songs and their voices filled the air. Laura commented that this respect it was like going to church. One bespectacled man who played guitar left-handed seemed to be the song leader. He had a homemade songbook with at least 50 pages in plastic sleeves. We found out he was a retired teacher from Sheffield. He sang a quite entertaining song about how he left his profession. He told us it was from the heart and took about 10 minutes to write. Another character could easily have been a Grateful Dead “deadhead”; tall and thin, grey goatee and mustache, bald pate with small, tight grey ponytail corralling what hair he had left. He played spoons, which really did add quite a sound to the overall music, like a high-pitched rhythm section. Our evening docent, the dancer, would jump in with his Irish drum to add the deep bass sound when multiple instruments were playing. The voice, however, was the core instrument of the night. Twice, two young teenage twins came into sing. There were many people out on the sidewalk. They looked the cream of English man stock – pale with rosy cheeks, crew cut blond hair, stocky. One had his eyebrow stud-pierced. They sang mariner songs, and after their second duet smiled so broadly and gave each other high fives it made me think this was their debut performance for the old guard of singers in this room. They were the next generation of folk singers who would carry on the old tunes.

The evening finished early at 10 PM. An “Alehouse” is not a pub, and the proprietor was licensed under a very old alcohol law that had restrictive hours. Something about getting people in the old days to not drink so much gin and preventing binge drinking – switch to a less corrosive alcohol and reduce the time allowed to consume it. This group was not finished, however, even though it was a Monday night. Folkweek is their vacation time when they can congregate from around England. Sing, play and drink. They all went across the street to the pub that was licensed to stay open until 2 AM to continue, and Laura and I headed home.

Greetings from the Center of the World

We are at the Center of the world as a vast majority of the planet’s attention is turned to the Olympics…duh. Events. We attended four events – semi-final tennis at Wimbledon, the Women’s Marathon, under 58 kg Tae Kwon Do quarter and semis, and Men’s Volleyball semis (tonight) Brazil vs Italy. Packing four Olympic events along with the normal sightseeing of such a large and interesting city has left us quite exhausted each night.

Tennis. Wimbledon was center court and Jordan got sit on his own five rows behind the “Royals Box.” Our four seats were split into 3 and 1, at first we were not happy, but it actually was a good thing. Our teenage son got to be independent and sit away from us. Justin actually fell asleep for most of the first match – Federer vs. del Potro (which went on for four and half hours). He finally woke up in the 3rd set that went to something like 19-21 games played. He needed the sleep, I guess. Justin is also not much for being a “spectator”, it does tend to put him to sleep, whether it is a concert or a sporting event. (We gave him a coke to drink prior to the TKD event as insurance that he would not repeat.) It was a chilly day, but dry, and the mere fact that we were at Wimbledon center court was a thrill. How many years I have watched Wimbledon; I remember Bjorn Borg playing in the seventies.

Pink Fingers. This was also our first encounter with the “pink fingers.” London has an army of volunteers with pink vests and sponge fingers to answer questions and help herd the masses of spectators. The whole organization seems to be quite effective. We have had no waiting for trains or subways as they open the turnstiles and just let everyone in. Car lanes are blocked off for the streams of pedestrian traffic. Olympic venues have large areas around them fenced off, so once inside the perimeter you have no car traffic at all. We did not attend events at the Olympic park, so we were not able to get into that area- unfortunately. No ticket, no access. The only new Olympic building we went to was the ExCel center for Tai Kwon Do. ExCel is a massive square box of a building that houses several mini-stadium areas of seating built on scaffolding. This is where ring/mat/small area events like boxing; wrestling, TKD and badminton were held. It was very impressive to see the development in this area East of London. We took a ski resort type gondola over the Thames from Greenwich – the Emirates Air Line (everything is branded) – to the ExCel and got a great bird’s eye view of the area. That gondola set up is interesting – part touristy entertainment, part practical transportation device. It connects the concert venue south of the Thames to the Excel sports venue on the north shore. Tonight, Volleyball will be at Earl’s Court, an old indoor stadium where Gigi went to see concerts back in ‘91/92 when she worked here.

Tae Kwon Do. TKD was just OK sports-wise. I had never watched this sport before, so I guess I did not know how to truly appreciate the Olympic level quality of the action. The actual competition was sometimes boring – too much strategy and not enough attacking – often the judge shouted ‘fight!’ to the competitors to get them to engage. I think 3 matches had that Olympic imbalance of one competitor just being so much better, and the match was called on point spread – something like a knockout in boxing to end the match. There were a few truly exciting matches. Only one match out of the 12 we saw had a last minute comeback and win by a competitor. However, this was our first event where we really felt and saw the international audience rooting for their competitors. Flags waving, people shouting in different languages. There was one particularly colorful group of Thai spectators all dressed in traditional garb that went bonkers when a Thai woman won a close match. This part of the event was truly a treat. Unfortunately, we did not get the chance to root for an American.

Women’s Marathon. Last Sunday, we woke up to heavy rain on the day of the Women’s Marathon. Undeterred, but a little tardy, we made our way down to Embankment tube station to see the event. We ended up across from Cleopatra’s needle on Embankment road. The area was quite crowded, 3 to 4 people deep along the fences, and the runners had already gone past once. The runners ran 3 laps of the route, and would pass our spot 5 more times going one way and then the next. The boys got the best view. London has these bikes for rent by credit card, and they have individual lock stands for them. These thigh-high stands were just big enough for Jordan and Justin to stand on, little pedestals that elevated them 3 feet above everyone else and gave them a clear view of the route in both directions. Gigi and I had to be content with quick glimpses of the runners between the bodies of other spectators. It was still thrilling. The rain even let off to just periodic showers and bursts of warm sunshine for the rest of the day.

Being tourists. Here are all the things we squeezed in between our Olympic events: Bob and Justin go to Natural History Museum to see the Dinosaur exhibit and the Minerals room; quick drop in to the Victoria and Albert Museum; ride the London Eye; day trip to Arundel Castle on Arun River near Portsmouth; 3 lunches with Gigi’s old friends at Southbank, Greenwich, Marylebone; bus rides to see the city; Tate Modern museum; walked across the Thames on 3 different bridges.

Visiting with Friends. We have also been able to connect with people here in London. My Swedish friend Per drove down with his family, and we spent one day with them. Gigi reconnected with 3 of her close friends from her working days here in London 20 years ago. We spent a day with the Lopacinski’s, friends from San Carlos, on a day trip to Arundel castle. Their son and Jordan have been going to school together since kindergarten. Our local elementary school is named Arundel, so we just HAD to go for a visit (will be a separate blog on this one). We even spent an afternoon with our family dentist, Dr. Plant. He is a 69-year-old Triathlete who had spent the week prior to the Olympics bicycling up and down the Pyrenees with 3 friends along Tour de France routes.

Today. Day of Rest. Justin was not feeling well so we had a chill day just sitting in the flat with the windows open watching the Olympics on TV. Then off to volleyball tonight.

Tomorrow. We are going to leave London and head for the Kent coast to a town called Broadstairs for the Folk Festival. Our good friend Laura has insisted that we come spend time with her and her girls at their beach cottage. We are going to experience a traditional English summer beach vacation.