Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Dear Old London - Day 4

The next day was a "free day", meaning we had nothing planned. In the words of my kids, we just wanted to "meme" around. We had a leisurely breakfast and headed out to Trafalgar Square.
Traffic near Trafalgar Square (which is to the left)
As the name indicates, the monuments in Trafalgar Square were erected to commemorate the victory of Britain over the French and Spanish forces at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Nelson's Column - in memory of General Nelson who led the British to victory at Trafalgar
Trafalgar Square is also home to the National Gallery, which contains about 2500 paintings from the 13th to the 18th centuries.

National Gallery - forms the backdrop of Trafalgar Square

Sadly, this was another place that we didn't have time to visit. I do think that visiting a gallery (or a museum) requires study and preparation, especially if we want to fully appreciate a foreign culture and their history. As you had guessed by now, we were woefully unprepared! The gallery's french counterpart across the channel, The Louvre, by contrast, is the world's largest art museum having more than 35,000 objects on display.

London Eye - we decided to pick up where we left off yesterday
Next stop before lunch was London Eye, because we already had tickets! It was the tallest ferris wheel in the world when it was constructed twenty years ago. Today, it is surpassed by the ones in China, Singapore and Las Vegas.

A view from the Eye - a few buildings decided to show off more color
A view from the Eye - barges on river Thames
The ride in the London Eye was smooth and comfortable. The car had enough space and seats for everyone. Covered by glass, it offered a 360° view of Greater London. Thames looked clean, but muddy.

As an indicator to the early river valley civilizations, many of the cities in the world are situated on river banks; Washington DC on Potomac, New York on Hudson, Rome on Tiber, Paris on Seine, New Delhi on Yamuna, and Kolkatta on the banks of river Bhagirathi.

On the way to the Waterloo station (the closest to London Eye), we picked up sandwiches for lunch. We hopped on to the Jubilee line, and before we could assess the quality of the sandwich, we arrived at the Westminister station, our next destination.

Before joining the line at the church entrance, we decided to pay a quick visit to Mohandas, who was waiting for us at the Parliament Square garden nearby.


Westminister Abbey
Westminister Abbey is a gothic church that was built in the 13th century. It still baffles me that a church can be a location of worship, marriages, coronations and burials. The last coronation was of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, the latest royal wedding was of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011. Issac Newton, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill and Stephen Hawking are among the 3000+ people buried in the church.

Westminister Abbey - the more photographed entrance
After appreciating the now familiar architecture of massive arches and tinted glass windows, we took a short rest at the gift shop, to formulate the plan for the rest of the day.

We took the Jubilee line to Green Park station. My son decided to go back to the hotel, because he thought their wifi was underutilized. Rest of us decided to take the train to Piccadilly Circus. The place was crowded, with big digital bill boards and blaring music. Jostling in the crowd reminded me of Ranganathan Street, Mambalam, in Chennai, India. I'm sure the residents of Chennai can empathize with me.

My wife and daughter wanted to spend more time exploring the famous Soho district, especially the shops in Regent and Oxford streets. I knew that Lush was on their itinerary.

I took the train back to Green Park station and walked to the Buckingham Palace. After parting with £27, I was let in to the waiting area. Prince Charles was on the TV talking about an art program he was patronizing. He looked tired and uninspiring. Have you watched the Lion King movie? Remember Simbha singing with his friends at the beginning? I wonder why this song Can't wait to be King came to my mind. I digress!

The State Rooms were stately, with huge chandeliers, polished and unused dining furniture decorated with ornate plates and tea cups, and everything flanked by large murals on the walls. But I did get the feeling that an old house will always remain an old house. I noticed the dusty corners and chipped paint at a few places, and thought to myself that the place could have been maintained better.

Sorry folks, photography was not allowed inside the palace. Here is a view of the palace grounds!
On the way back to the station, I popped in to Hyde Park, and strolled through the speaker's corner, a place designated for public speaking. Anyone can supposedly talk on any topic. This concept was borrowed as the opening scene in the Tamil movie "Ratha Kanneer" (loosely translates to Tears of Blood), where the protagonist will be speaking in a park.

One of the entrances to Hyde Park
I called up my wife and daughter and arranged to meet outside Harrods, claimed to be the world's largest departmental store.

Harrods - covers an entire city block
The store was so big that it did not fit in to my 10mm wide angle lens. It was owned by Al-Fayed until 2010. If you think the name sounds familiar, yes, he is the father of Dodi Fayed, who had romantic relationship with Princess Diana.

The goods in the store were highly expensive, I'm guessing, even for the top 1%. Did anyone actually buy anything there? It did make me wonder about the real purpose of the store. See the price tag of a rug below.

130 sq. ft. of hand-woven carpet - only £77,000
That was the last photo we took in London, next day we were heading to Paris!

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Dear Old London - Day 3

Next day was the tour of London, a city that is estimated to be at least two thousand years old. No wonder the locals call it "the City". Our first stop was St Paul's Cathedral.

Visit St Paul's
The church was originally built in the early part of 7th century, and then rebuilt in the late 17th century after it was destroyed in the the great fire of London. This was my first time stepping in to a christian church, and I was appalled to find that it is a burial ground for eighty people, almost all of them English aristocrats, including its own architect Christopher Wren. This is in complete contrast to our Hindu culture, where places of worship are considered divine and holy. I was looking down at the names and dates engraved on the stone beneath my feet worried that trampling on the dead bodies might be considered a mark of disrespect, but the rest of the visitors appeared blissfully unaware; they were looking up and admiring the massive arches and the multicolored tinted glass windows. I realized, we are also colored by our perspectives! Anyone who needs some exercise can climb the stairs all the way to the top of the dome, and will be rewarded with a spectacular view of the city. The stairs open only at 9:30 AM, hence time your visit appropriately.

The bus took us through a winding route showing us the Somerset House, and London School of Economics, then dropped us in front of The Mall, the street leading to the Buckingham Palace.

The Mall, with the Buckingham Palace visible at the far end
Visit Buckingham Palace 
We saw the palace only from the outside, since we had other stops on the tour. The State Rooms have to wait. The weather was fantastic (as you can see in the blue sky above), which brought out thousands of visitors, who packed all the prime spots to view the Changing the Guard ceremony. Fortunately our tour guide directed us to a location on the right side of the palace (on Spur Road), which provided us an unbridled view of the guards marching in to take over the duty.

The more pompous and more popular Changing the Guard ceremony
After taking umpteen unsatisfactory snaps, we boarded the bus. Off we went to the Tower of London.

Tower of London, home to Kohinoor and the crown jewels
The tower is a 11th century castle that served as a prison until 1952. Today it is a heavily guarded fortress, home to the monarchy's crown jewels. Though there was a long line, it was moving fast. Once inside, we saw a dazzling array of ornaments, jewels, swords, and other regalia. Except for the 105 carat diamond, the Kohinoor, which was stolen from India, the other items didn't capture much of our attention. One can spend a lifetime studying the history of the objects on display. Since we were not that desperate to know the English history, we moved along in a brisk pace.

Right outside the tower is the Tower Bridge (hence the name) across the river Thames. It is a museum by itself, hosting the Engine Rooms, that showcase the machinery used to lift hundreds of tonnes of materials during the construction of the bridge. Again, we didn't have time to visit the museum.

Tower Bridge
I used to be a fan of digital photography review site DP Review, founded by Londoner Phil Askey. He reviewed all of the digital cameras of the day. I stopped visiting the site soon after the shopping behemoth Amazon acquired it in 2007. His most frequent test subject was the tower bridge. I must have looked at hundreds of beautiful tower bridge photos in his site. Weather god decided not to cooperate, hence my click above looks a little gloomy.

We boarded the Thames Clipper for a forty-five minute boat ride to Greenwich Village.

University of Greenwich
We saw the Cutty Sark, University of Greenwich and the Greenwich market, but the biggest regret of the trip is not visiting the Prime Meridian. Ours was a guided tour that didn't provide much time for self exploration. If we had visited the meridian line, we could have claimed that we straddled the globe. Oh well, there is always a next time!

We hopped on the boat again for our trip back, but this time we crossed the Tower Bridge and went all the way to Coca-Cola London Eye, the giant observation wheel, which has become one of the modern landmarks of London. The tickets were included as part of the tour, but it was raining heavily; more importantly we were tired. Since we had the tickets, we decided to come back the next day. The nearest tube station was Waterloo, which was only a 10-minute walk from the wheel.

Waterloo Station, the busiest terminal in London
I'm a great fan of Bourne trilogy, in the third film a nerve-wracking scene takes place at this station. I was so glad that I was at the same location. Both inner city trains and long distance trains leave from Waterloo. We took a train back to the hotel, ordered room service and crashed in to the bed.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Dear Old London - Day 2

We woke up, had dinner at the hotel restaurant. They had a surprise waiting for us, brought out a cake with dessert, to celebrate our Wedding Anniversary! Apparently our travel agent had mentioned it to them. Very sweet!

Day 2 was our first pre-booked tour, and stop uno was Windsor Castle, the residence of the British Monarch!  It was about an hour's ride from London. We arrived at the castle 30 minutes early (they open only at 10:00 AM), only to find a long line snaking thru' the outside roads already. It was cloudy, and a slight drizzle had started. We joined the line a little disappointed. In one of the street corners we saw another well-known symbol of England, the red telephone box.

The red telephone box (K6 model)
We were admiring the outsides of the castle, and before long, it was ten o' clock.

A partial view of the castle from outside, with Union Jack fluttering high atop!

The same tower, viewed from inside!
We went through the State apartments, Semi-State rooms, moat room, and Queen Mary's doll house. The doll house was designed by one Edwin Lutyens, who, incidentally, was also the architect of India's capital city of New Delhi (aka Lutyens Delhi).

Windsor Castle hosts a Changing the Guard ceremony on certain days of the month, conducted by the British Army. (a more popular one is hosted by the Buckingham Palace). One was happening that day. We stayed and took a few snaps.
Changing the Guard
As soon as the ceremony ended, it was time to board the bus. We crossed St George's Chapel on our way out, which is also situated in the lower ward of the castle. It has been the location of many royal weddings, most recently of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, in 2018.
St George's Chapel

Have you seen the movie Ice Age? Below is one of my favorite scenes, in which Manfred exclaims "Modern architecture. It will never last!" I have always wanted to see Stonehenge since I heard this line. And that was our next destination, about ninety minutes away from the Windsor castle. We spent the time productively, eating our lunch; a veggie sandwich, chips and cookies. Fortunately, the tour operator also supplied a water bottle.

"Modern architecture. It will never last!"

We reached the visitor center, and then a shuttle bus took us to the actual site. It was about half-a-kilometre away. Situated in the Salisbury plains, it is dated to be more than four thousand years old, belonging to Neolithic or Bronze age. There were many debates about the purpose of Stonehenge. Today, it is widely accepted to be a prehistoric temple.
Stonehenge - prehistoric temple, aligned with movements of the Sun
If you are an avid photographer, you can request special access to the stone circle. You can click the photos up close. Visiting hours are either earlier in the morning around 7:00 AM or later in the evening after 7:00 PM.

Next stop was The Roman Baths. As the name indicates, it is a Roman site used for public bathing. On the way, we crossed the Bath Abbey. We had time to marvel at it's gothic architecture only from the outside. (If we go inside, we may have to spend a few more hours, which we didn't have)

Bath Abbey
Then we reached the actual baths. We saw a main pool, surrounded by several smaller pools and a maze of rooms constructed below the street level. Natural hot springs supply water to these baths.

Roman Baths
A trip to Roman Baths is not complete, without visiting the Grand Pump Room, a 19th century building that serves refreshments. We ordered the famous English scones and clotted cream, and finished it up with a hot cup of tea.

On the way back to London, we got down at the Baker street station. We had one more stop to make. Since we had watched all the Harry Potter movies, we were determined to find that entry way to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. We took the Circle line from Baker street to Kings Cross station. At Platform 9 3/4, our day was complete.

Entrance to Hogwarts
While we were spending an excessive amount of money on small pieces of Harry Potter memorabilia, our bellies grumbled to remind us that we haven't had the dinner yet. One of our friends had recommended the Dishoom Restaurant which was, fortunately, only a 10 minute walk from the station. It was a Friday night, and even at that late hour, we had to wait more than 30 minutes to get seated. Carbohydrate filled naan-breads and creamy indian curry was what our bodies needed. We devoured the food like hungry wolves, and caught the next tube back to our hotel.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Dear Old London - Day 1

Our long and much-awaited trip to Europe finally happened this year. We were nervous about the short layover in Amsterdam, but much to our surprise, we arrived at the London City Airport (LCY) a full fifteen minutes ahead of schedule! Our tour operator, who, more often than not, must have been used to delayed flights, came in late to pick us up.

The first thing we noticed in London is that everything is, at least one size, smaller (when compared to America); narrower lanes, smaller cars, and densely packed apartments. Sometimes cars were parked on both sides of an already-narrow street, and our chauffeur skillfully maneuvered the mini-van between them. Our adventure had already begun!

Driving to the hotel, THE SHARD is reaching for the sky in the background
Before reading further, watch a few clips of the namesake travelogue, a documentary made in 1934!

The really narrow streets, the hidden side lanes connecting busy thoroughfares, and the zig-zag roads indicated that this city has been around for sometime, and has grown organically without much of a planning. Most of the buildings in London wore a tired and old look (yes, because they are actually old!) I wish they had maintained it better! The newer office buildings and shinier apartments in Central London provided a relief to the sore eyes.

New buildings indeed!

Soon after we arrived at The Chesterfield Mayfair, our abode for the next four days.

The Chesterfield Mayfair

Our rooms were not ready yet, and hence we stowed the baggage at the hotel and took off to get lunch. Thanks to our friends back home, we knew how to buy the Oyster card, the pass required to travel in the Tube (the underground train system).

Oyster Card

The vending machines at the airport (and all over the city) can only top-up (i.e., add money to) an existing Oyster card. You can buy a new card only at the “big machine” in one of the underground stations. And a new card requires £5 as deposit.

The Green Park underground station was only about a five-minute walk from the hotel. We took the Piccadilly line to Leicester Square, our first stop was Saravana Bhavan, the famed South Indian food chain (though I read reports that this particular restaurant is not part of the chain!) The food was very good. We ordered thali, sambhar vadas and various dosas. After the ravioli and pretzels on the airplane, this food was heavenly.

Leicester Square — what is a photo of London without the red double-decker bus?

The Leicester Square was only semi-busy, even though it was lunch time.

Zig zag road (really!) near Leicester Square
Near Leicester Square

The London underground train system is truly an engineering marvel! Even though it was built in the 20th century, it still serves the ever growing population and the expanding metro of London and Greater London. I believe other cities in Europe such as Paris and Lisbon also have the underground train system.

Baker Street Station
A train pulling in

Our next stop was the Sherlock Holmes Museum, at the world’s most famous address: 221B Baker Street.

Sherlock Holmes Museum

The house itself is about a hundred and fifty years old (it croaks and creeks when you walk) reflecting the times when Arthur Conan Doyle was actually creating the fictional Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson. Being fans of the great detective, we thoroughly enjoyed the depiction of various scenes from different stories.

Then our hotel called. Our rooms were ready. Suddenly, we lost our will power to look around any further. The jet-lag caught up with us. We went back to the hotel and crashed in to the bed straight away.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

(The Unpredictable) Continuous Evaluation System In US High Schools

It is that phase of my life. My kids are in high school. You might have guessed it from the title. Being an immigrant to US (from India), I constantly compare my life in high school with my kids', and they cannot be more different.

The education system in India operated differently. Each grade had one final exam at the end of the year, and that's what counted! Every other test that we took or the home work that we did, such as class test, mid-term test, monthly test, quarterly test, etc... didn't count. They were just practices for the final exam. This is true from first grade to twelfth grade. Colleges provided admissions based on the final exam scores of the twelfth grade (and optionally a nationwide test for certain courses such as engineering and medicine was conducted by the government). It was a one time evaluation. We crammed for the final exam, but that's about it. In fact, the same methodology was followed in many colleges as well!

I was introduced to the continuous evaluation system only when I entered post-graduate degree course. Our university followed the semester system. In each semester, for each course, we had three assignments (or projects), three tests, one lab and one final exam. The schedule was given to us ahead of time. We had seven courses each semester. It was hard, but the hard life was at least predictable. We knew ahead of time when an assignment was due, or when a test was looming. We were able to prioritize and plan. The number of tests, assignments, lab is standardized across the university, for all courses. All colleges in that university followed the same continuous evaluation methodology.

Now, let me compare that with what's happening in my kids' lives. They are introduced to continuous evaluation in middle school, and it gets really serious in high school. They have six courses per semester and each teacher hands out varying numbers of assignments, projects, and tests. When I look at the "StandardScores Progress Report" of the Lake Washington School District, I do not see much standard. Grade for each course is comprised of different number of line items. Some of the courses have only five to ten line items, while some of them have more than fifty! Each grade is a weighted average of home work, assignments, projects, class participation, labs, tests and final exam. Each teacher has his/her own weightage system. Some teachers club home work and assignments together and give the weightage of 10%, while others combine assignments and projects together and give a weightage of 20%. Some teachers conduct pop quizzes, some don't. Some teachers provide for extra credits or retries, some don't. Imagine six different courses with varying number of tasks to complete each day! Yes, I know, this keeps the kids on their toes, but believe me, the amount of hard work a kid has to put in, just to maintain a reasonable grade is huge.

Sometimes I wonder if this is making them better citizens, may be or may be not. May be such a grueling schedule is required to make them knowledgeable, prepare them to compete in this dog-eat-dog world, or may be not. I don't know. Can this be standardized, with set schedules and make everyone's lives easier? Yes, I believe so, but I'll leave that one for the experts to answer.

Of course India doesn't want to be left behind. India's central board of education has introduced continuous and comprehensive evaluation system. See here: Based on Wikipedia's information, I see that it is more standardized, with respect to number of assignments, quizzes and tests.

Feel free to give me feedback. Am I getting this high school system wrong?