Saturday, December 31, 2011

Time for the Panto

Take a well loved fairy tale, add in some funky song and dance numbers, some television personalities, and a "dame" in drag and what have you got?  A classic form of British family entertainment:  The Panto!

Months ago fellow expats raved about the Panto so I snapped up tickets to Sleeping Beauty at the Theatre Royal in Windsor as soon as they went on sale.

The Panto has been a Christmas time tradition in England since the middle ages and it's still hugely popular today.  Pantos are everywhere this time of year- from small community playhouses to West End theatres.  All pantos share some basic elements:

The Plot:  Pantos are based on a well known fairy tale or folk tale.  Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Aladdin, are all popular pantos.  As I mentioned, we saw Sleeping Beauty.

The Principal Characters:  The cast is made up of a principal girl, a principal boy (often played by a girl), the dame (played by a man in drag),  some "goodies" and some evil "baddies", and an animal (either real or costumed actors).  Our cast featured some pop icons from the 1960s, a former Bond Girl as the evil fairy, the third place runner up from the UK television show "Dancing on Ice", a semi-finalist from Britain's got Talent, and a chiwawa in a tutu.  There was even an appearance by the cartoon character Noddy.  As you can see, we're talking big name talent here.

Audience Participation:  Although it seems to me to be very un-British, the audience is encouraged to cheer, boo, hiss, yell, and interact with the performers.  The actors even talk directly to the audience and encourage them to participate.  It is all great fun.  We even had the chance to throw foam snowballs at the actors and catch some sweeties they threw at us.

The Action :  The panto is full of slapstick comedy, wild song and dance mash-ups, witty, relevant comments, and crazy costume changes.  My favorite bit was the dance number that was part Beyonce, part Lady gaga, and part ABBA.  Hilarious!  The lively rendition of the 12 Days of Christmas (with such endearing gifts as watering cans, wellies, and a "bra that could only hold 3") also had us all laughing out loud.  Some of the jokes were obviously aimed at the grown ups in the audience, but there was plenty of goofy kid stuff to keep our 5 and 8 year olds completely enthralled.

You know it was a good show when everyone is buzzing about it as they exit the theatre.  My sweet daughter giggled as she looked in the program and discovered that the Nurse (dame) was actually played by a "man in a frock."  We all laughed as we recalled our favourite scenes and characters.  It really was a fabulous fun day out for the whole family and the best British tradition we've experienced so far.  (Which is to say I liked it more than mince pies).

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Long Walk

After spending three days lounging around playing with new toys, we decided to drag the kids out of the house to explore part of Windsor Great Park today.  We started near Snow Hill, which is said to be the place that King Henry VIII waited for news of Anne Boleyn's execution. The straight path that links Snow Hill  to Windsor Castle is known as The Long Walk.  It is about 2.5 miles long and very picturesque.  The 1600  trees that line the entire path were originally planted in the 17th century during the reign of King Charles II.

Deer grazing near the start of the Long Walk
The road down the center was added in 1710 by Queen Anne so that royal carriages could travel on a smooth surface. 
So glad we had the scooters- it is a long walk!
The Long Walk is still used by royal carriages each year as they travel from the castle to Ascot for the races.  I've also been told that the Queen drives herself down the long walk on Sunday afternoons on her way to church.  Imagine strolling along with the family and being honked by Her Majesty as she makes her way down the path!
Although the sky was gray and the temperatures were low, the views along the walk were quite lovely.  I can only imagine how beautiful it must be in the Spring when everything is in bloom. 

The Long Walk is definitely something to see.  If you're not up for going by foot, you could always hire a carriage and travel the way Kings and Queens did hundreds of years ago.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Happy Christmas to All

My daughter was up at 5 am, too excited to sleep any longer.  She waited patiently and finally at 7:00 crept downstairs to see what was in her stocking.  Then she saw what Santa had left for her brother and she begged to be allowed to wake him up.  So we said yes.

Two of my favorite new ornaments; a corgi from Windsor Castle and a hedgehog from Liberty of London

It was a flurry of paper and squeals and laughter.

Three happy kids

Now, an hour later, we're eating fresh baked croissants, and enjoying our gifts.

Christmas breakfast

May your heart and home be filled with happiness this Christmas Day.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Frohe Weihnachten

Nuremberg, Germany is home to Europe's most famous Christmas Market.  More than 2 million people visit the Nuremberg Christmas Market every year, and this year we were among them! 

The market features over 180 beautifully decorated stalls with stall holders selling everything from traditional decorations, gingerbread, and of course, Gl├╝hwein (mulled wine) and Kinderpunsch (a non-alcholic version).

We stayed at the Sheraton, which is well located just outside the walls of the old city and an easy walk to the markets.  The hotel has adjoining rooms (hooray!) which is perfect for our family.   We found this hotel to be very kid friendly- even handing the little ones free Playmobil figurines on arrival.

We were lucky enough to be met in Nuremberg by our German friend, Wolfy.  He showed us around, translated (although nearly everyone we met spoke English quite well) and kept us company.  It was wonderful to reconnect with our old friend.
The highlight of the trip was, of course, visiting the markets.  It is often described as "The Little Town of Cloth and Wood" and the stall holders take great pride in making their stalls beautiful.  It was amazing to see.  

Gingerbread, candied nuts, mulled wine, pretzels, ornaments, Christmas pyramids, nativity scenes, sausages, toys, and my personal favorite- prune men.  These little figures made from dried fruit have been a traditional souvenir of the Nuremberg Christmas markets since the 17th century.  Following tradition, there are 14 stalls offering these little figures which can be seen wearing a wide variety of costumes. 

Much of our time was spent in the Kinderweihnacht, or Children's Market.  The kids loved the traditional rides, the Playmobil activity house, decorating their own gingerbread cookies and dipping candles.  There was even a little puppet theatre which put on a German version of Little Red Riding Hood. 

There is also a post office stall in the middle of the market where you can mail letters with a unique Christmas Market postmark and buy tickets to take a ride on a horse drawn stagecoach. 

The Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt was definitely something to see.  Walking the cobblestone streets of the old city, taking in the sights and smells, sipping a mug of mulled wine all while the snowflakes gently fall is magical.  And a wonderful start to our Christmas holiday.

Frohe Weihnachten to you all! 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lapland UK

After a disappointing visit to the Christmas Grotto at Harrod's (where Father Christmas has a lumpy pillow under his dress), we decided to take the kiddos to Lapland UK.  Located in Kent, Lapland UK is a Disney-esque recreation of a winter village where you can experience the magic of Christmas for £67 per person.

My kids all loved making toys in Santa's workshop and helping Mrs. Christmas decorate her gingerbread cookies. Afterwards we were led to the town square which was carpeted in white astroturf and surrounded by beautiful trees flocked with artificial snow.  When the lights came on at dusk the effect was quite magical.

We were all a bit disappointed with the synthetic ice rink which was very difficult to skate on.  But spending five jingles (£2.50) at the "Pixie Mixie" filling a cup to overflowing with candy seemed to make up for it.

The grand finale of the event was the visit to Father Christmas in his woodland cabin.  The whole process of queuing up, checking in, walking the path, and waiting took over an hour.  But in the end, it was worth it.  The children were greeted by name and had Father Christmas all to themselves for ten minutes.  He chatted with them about their favourite toys and best friends.  He checked his big book of good children and found their names.  I think Kate was somewhat surprised that her brother's name actually made the list!

We had been rehearsing what they would say when the jolly old man asked what they wanted for Christmas.  The replies were meant to be, "Anything Harry Potter for her, any type of fire truck for him, and anything at all for the baby."

Of course, Kate followed our script perfectly, but the little man made a few impromptu changes.  Now it seems Santa will have to rush and get an "army guy train set  I saw at the shops that my mom won't buy me."   That's one sneaky kid- he knows Santa won't disappoint!

Taken a split second after all 3 kids were posing perfectly for that once in a lifetime perfect Santa photo.

This is our consolation photo.
By the end of the night we were tired and cold and a bit muddy.  But the happiness on their cherubic little faces as they marched to the car clutching the stuffed husky dogs Santa had given them made us all feel that it had been a day well spent.  Hooray for Lapland UK!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Private School Difference

Yesterday I got a call from the school notifying me that my sweet daughter was in the health office with a fever and would need to be collected as soon as possible.  So, I hurried over straight away.  When I entered the health office I was surprised to see that it was a complete health facility with several private sick bays.  I was taken into one of the rooms where I found my little girl propped up lovingly on pillows, her shoes had been carefully removed and the nurse was holding a damp cloth to her head. 

It was such a stark contrast to the way sick kids were treated at our public school in Australia.  There, ill children were sent to rest on a plastic lawn chair behind the teacher's Xerox machine.  The front office receptionist monitored them via CCTV.

Our experience yesterday could not have been more different.  There was an actual nurse (who, by the way, has the most beautiful, soothing Irish accent) who offered medical advice, walked us out to the car, wrapped a fluffy white towel around my daughter and reminded me to call her if I had any questions or concerns. 
Of course, most public schools couldn't afford the space or staff for a complete health centre.  But it was the compassion, caring, and kindness shown to my daughter that really impressed me.  And those are the things money just can't buy.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

We have so much to be thankful for.  Dear friends who come to visit us even when we live on the other side of the world.  Healthy kids.  A roof over our heads and food on the table.  It's a good life. 
So even though today was just another Thursday here in the UK, we had our own small celebrations.
A Thanksgiving assembly at our American school. 

And later, a big dinner at a local restaurant organized by the school.  It was nice to be surrounded by Americans enjoying a traditional Thanksgiving meal. 

Even though it wasn't quite the event that our last Thanksgiving was, it was a lovely day.  I'm so truly blessed.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Bruges is for Lovers

Chocolate Lovers:
Chocolate festival in Bruges
Blind taste test at the Chocolate Festival.  I didn't quite understand all the clowns in blackface.

Waffle Lovers:
Enjoying the very best waffle ever!

French Fry Lovers:
Belgian frites
Outside the French Fry Museum

Beer Lovers:
The Beer Temple

History Lovers:
Outside the Gruthouse Museum

Scenery Lovers:
Beautiful Bruges

After an amazing weekend I can say that I am officially in love with Bruges.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Guy Fawkes Night

Remember, remember the 5th of November
Gunpowder, treason, and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot!

(My kids have been singing this little ditty for weeks).

Last night we celebrated our first Guy Fawkes night in the UK.  We got together with friends and watched the big neighborhood bonfire and fireworks show.  We listened to backyard fireworks going off late into the night.  

One of the fun things about living overseas is the chance to learn about different holidays and traditions and local culture.  This celebration is so uniquely British, and we were glad to join in the fun.

It almost makes up for the fact that Halloween barely exists and, of course, there is no Thanksgiving here.  I guess now it's full speed ahead to Christmas!  

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Lookout Discovery Centre

As part of our travel week stay-cation I loaded up my kiddos and took them to The Lookout Discovery Centre in Bracknell.

This is an easy and super fun day out for kids ages 5-12.  I even brought the baby along and he had a great time, too.

The centre features over 70 different hands on science exhibits.  There is a large water play area, plenty of challenging maths puzzles, a room with light and colour exhibits,  a sound and communication zone, human body puzzles and some exhibits about recycling.  We spent several hours touring the different areas.  There was definitely something for everyone.

After a disappointing lunch at the cafe (next time we'll bring a picnic) we headed outside to the Adventure Playground.

Wow!  Check out this castle.  Kids were having a wonderful time running through the forest and collecting branches to build elaborate tee pees.  There were separate play areas for 7-12 year olds and 3-6 year olds.  There was also an accessible playground featuring lots of unique equipment.

I think my kids would have played for hours, but, this is England.  We headed for the car when the first raindrops started to fall.  And just as I got everyone buckled in, the downpour began!

We all loved the Lookout Centre.  It's on my list of places to return to- and I'm even thinking of having our next birthday party there.  Doesn't that sound fun?

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