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?