Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Kid Fun: What to do in London with your children

Unfortunately, this scene was from last summer, when you could ride in a leaky plywood boat on top of the Hayward Gallery and get this phenomenal view of Big Ben and the Eye. But I liked this photo so much-- and I never posted it last year-- that I'm using it here, since it does tie into this post.

My friend Kavita, who I haven't seen in forever, is coming to visit us with her family in August. She wanted some suggestions for things to do during their five-day visit. I prepared this last year for another friend who was visiting London with her 13-year-old daughter, so I'm posting it here, so I can share my tips with those trolling on the Interweb. My knowledge for the following is hard won: having been a London resident for more than 10 years AND the mother of two boys who have done everything on this list. But I don't know everything. If you have any suggestions, or places I have missed, please add them in the comments section.

Quinessentially British: Things Every Tourist Should Do
1. See Big Ben. Every time I see this, and from every angle, I get a thrill. But one of my favourite ways to see it is by boat, which you can take from Greenwich up the river to Embankment, which will leave you right next to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.
2. Go to the Tower of London. Yes, it's full of tourists and it'll be very crowded at the height of tourist season in August. But where else can you see the Crown Jewels, not to mention the place where they beheaded Anne Boleyn and the tower where they kept the little princes?
3. Ride the London Eye. Built for the Millennium, this is a great place to get a bird's eye view of Big Ben and the rest of the city. You only go around once, but the ferris wheel moves pretty slowly, so you get your money's worth.
4. See the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. I guess I am not yet "quinessentially British" since I still haven't gotten around to seeing this properly, even after 10 years here (though I did see a bit of it from the back of a black cab in September 2001). But I understand that it is pretty cool, but only if you like parades and uniforms.
5. Visit the British Museum. I think they have one of everything here, but the highlights are easy to list: the Rosetta stone, the Elgin marbles (see them before Greece convinces the British to give them back and put them in the new museum), the mummy collection, an Easter Island statue ("Hello, dum-dum. Got any gum-gum?") and more. They say this is one of the best museums in the world, and I believe them. (Great Russell Street, WC1, Tube: Holborn, Russell Square or Tottenham Court Road)

Best Free Museums
1. Science Museum (Exhibition Road, SW7, Tube: South Kensington) Fantastic hands-on exhibits. You absolutely should go to the Launch Pad on the third floor. The best thing for kids to do in London.,
2. Natural History Museum (Cromwell Road, SW7, Tube: South Kensington) Dinosaurs! Natural disasters! Animals! Fantastic and free.,
3. Tate Modern (Bankside, SE1 Tube: St. Pauls, and then walk over the wobbly bridge to the museum). Lots of fun big modern art. The boys love this place. There’s a family activity pack that’s free and available on Sundays from Level 3.
4. Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) (Cromwell Road, SW7, Tube: South Kensington) Girls in particular will love this museum because they have a fantastic costume/fashion collection. Beautiful. On Saturdays they have kids activity backpacks that you can borrow that have things you can do around the museum.
5. Royal Observatory/National Maritime Museum (Greenwich Park, SE10) The Royal Observatory is free, and they've got several rooms full of interactive exhibits for children explaining space. The Peter Harrison Planetarium at the Observatory isn't free, but it's got great shows that are well worth a visit. The National Maritime Museum has some interesting exhibits about the changing environment and the history of maritime exploration.

Best Parks for Kids
1. Greenwich Park (Obviously! But I'm biased) Paddle boats near the playground are really fun. Also, the Observatory at the top of the hill is free. If you go all the way to the top corner, you can see deer in the deer enclosure. Impress your children by telling them that Henry VIII used to joust here. Also, the presence of the Meridian Line allows you to gracefully cross from the Western to the Eastern Hemisphere easily, not to be mention to truly be able to site GMT (Greenwich Meridian Time).
2. Kensington Gardens: Beautiful lake in the middle populated by swans. Also home to Kensington Palace (very pretty) and the Diana, Princess of Wales Playground, which is great fun and free.
3. Hyde Park: Great for a hot day, as there are paddle boats, but also the Diana Memorial Fountain. You’re allowed to put your feet into the fountain (but not walk around it), which would be good for a hot day. You can also swim in the Serpentine for a small fee.

Shopping! (Even if you don’t buy anything, these shops are legendary)
1. Top Shop on Oxford Circus (Tube: Oxford Circus) Allegedly Kate Moss shops here. Apparently, a teenage girl’s version of heaven.
2. Hamley’s on Regent Street (Tube: Oxford Circus) Seven floors of toys, and lots of demonstrations throughout the store. Even if you don’t buy anything, it’s worth seeing.
3. Harrod’s: (Tube: Knightsbridge) Perfectly ridiculous shop, but when I took my brother here, he couldn’t believe it—and he still talks about it. The food hall is something to see.
4. Portabello Road Market: Saturday flea market in Notting Hill. It will be heaving with people, but it's still worth seeing. (Tube: Notting Hill Gate)
5. Covent Garden (Tube: Covent Garden or Charing Cross) Again, lots of tourists go here, but there’s always a load of street performers to make it interesting.
6. Borough Market (Tube: London Bridge) Foodie heaven, which is held weekly from Thursday to Saturday.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Seeing Pure Pride and Joy

This picture probably best represents Great Happiness, but not Pure Joy and Pride. Pure Joy is the next step up from Great Happiness, and Pure Joy and Pride is the ultimate.

My mother has a brilliant photo of Thing One, aged about two. In it, he is pointing to something off camera, but his face is one of Pure Joy. What, pray tell, did he happen to spot? It was a DLR train coming down the track. Any parent of a two-year-old boy will understand why such a sight would provoke a look of Pure Joy.

Today, I got to see the ultimate expression: Pure Joy and Pride. Thing One, who has been taking cello lessons for almost two years, took his cello exam on Monday. Here in the United Kingdom, people who are studying musical instruments occasionally take exams. Each exam is a "Grade", starting with Grade 1, and going up to Grade 8. The students are graded by an independent judge, who compiles the score and then determines if it's a pass or a fail. This is all very official and systematic, unlike the system I grew up with, where you practiced when nagged, had a weekly lesson, and then finally abandoned all efforts once you discover boys (or girls, as the case may be).

Thing One had been waiting to see if he had passed since Monday. He was as cool as a cucumber leading up to the test, professing that he wasn't nervous. Upon leaving the examination room, he declared that he had done "brilliantly." But he was still waiting for the official word.

Today, he got it: He passed.

Thing One ran out of the school doors with the biggest smile of pride and joy you could ever imagine. He was justifiably proud of his accomplishment, which was entirely his. Once we shared a (very long) celebratory hug, he ran around the playground, looking for his friends to tell him the good news.

I'm just sorry that I didn't think to take a picture of it. Pure Pride and Joy doesn't come along nearly enough in life.