A Tale of Two Cities

July 12-July 18

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

OK, I’m not going to continue with the whole thing, but I thought quoting Dicken’s opening sentence to the book that I used to title this post would be a fun way to start since I’ve learned so much about London and Paris over the years from reading. To highlight something more recent, here was a fun moment for James during our brief couple of days in London:

After some deliberation, we’ve decided he’s a Ravenclaw. We just finished reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (book 5).

For me, the highlight of London was Bletchley Park where I took this picture of Alan Turing’s desk:

He probably could have used more light.

Turing gained more attention recently through the 2014 film, The Imitation Game, which one reviewer called “one of the most important stories of the last century [and] one of the greatest movies of 2014.”

For me, besides the opportunity to learn more about arguably the most impactful work in all of WWII, I enjoyed learning more about Turing in particular (there were thousands of other people involved in codebreaking, but he was the most famous) because it recalled phrases from my Electrical & Computer Engineering days like “Turing Complete”, “Universal Turing Machine”, and “Turing Test”. The museum didn’t cover those concepts, but Turing certainly left a legacy far greater even than the codebreaking work to which he was central. (It’s long, but if you’re on the nerdier side, you might enjoy this novel by Neal Stephenson, half of which is a historical fiction centering Turing and the events around Bletchley Park. “Long” and “nerdier side” are qualifiers for most of his books, so I’ve of course read all of them.)


Besides those highlights, after arriving in town very late the night before via a delayed train from Scotland, we only had a couple of days in London. Knowing we were planning to spend the second one at Bletchley Park, we spent the first rushing through some of the big sights. First, here’s a before and after of James being punched by an ancienct Egyptian fist:

I checked and he wasn’t seriously injured, but “the punch” does foreshadow how everyone was left feeling after a day of rushing from place to place after a too-short night of sleeping. The pictures above are taken from the astonishingly packed-with-historic-relics British Museum, and on the day we visited, it was equally packed-with-British-schoolchildren and other tourists. (Including us!) To illustrate, here are Charlie and James in front of the Rosetta Stone:

Sure, it’s maybe the most famous thing there, so you might expect that part to be crowded, but look behind–every nook and cranny was equally full of people!

Here are the rest of us, exhausted by all the people right before we left after an hour:

Henry, briefly, was able to find a quiet section on the top floor, but was then quickly inundated by schoolchildren. They weren’t the data-stealing Dutch kind, though, so he was able to text us an update and arrange a rendezvous.

After evacuating from the crowd, we tried to raise our spirits with some excellent ice cream, but as you can see from this progression of pictures, the boys were getting tired:

Picadilly Circus!
Buckingham Palace!
Hyde Park (the original)!
Natural History Museum!
End of Natural History Museum! (About to fall over!)

At this point everyone was exhausted, so we took the tube back to the hostel. It was rush hour, though, so we experienced even more crowding, which explains why the boys had no interest in leaving after dinner to join me and Karen in another walk around to see the city:

River Thames and The Eye! This is also the point where Karen stopped acquiescing to my concerning selfie habit.
Obligatory picture of Big Ben, after which we had another solid hour of walking to reach over 24,000 steps for the day.

Bletchley Park

I said that the Bletchley Park trip was a highlight for me, but the entire family enjoyed the second day in the London area more than they did the first. Here are a few more pictures of the experience:

The British spy service purchased this entire mansion and grounds for the work. Somebody needed better purchasing controls.
The boys were given these really great “spy” assignment books to guide them through the museum. The staff seemed unconcerned when I informed them that the kids were German citizens, which seems like a real problem with operational security to me.
Listening for codes
One of the work areas for officers
“The best tomato soup outside of Beye School.” (He said it started to taste less good at the end.)


The next morning, we took the Eurostar across the chunnel to Paris. James was extremely excited because it was his birthday and he’d planned out the day:

  • Special train to Paris, where they’re celebrating Bastille Day for my birthday
  • Eat a baguette (one of his favorite foods)
  • Eat a crepe (one of his other favorite foods)

He has constructed a mission for himself to eat a pancake (or similar) in every country we visit, so he checked that off the list on the first day in Paris:

The rest of us had burgers. Also, Orange Fanta in Europe began our trip with near mythical status, but has since lost its shine a little.
From the top of Montmarte! With Lemon and Sugar.
He toyed with eating non-bread foods: here’s dinner, but the “steak” he and Charlie ordered from a kids menu, was actually a dry ground beef patty and generally disappointing.
Speaking of disappointing, these are all over Paris and we also spotted “French tacos” in Belgium and the Netherlands. We’re not sure why they exist, but felt offended for our North American brethren.

We spent the next few days visiting some of our favorite sites without going too fast–this was my fifth time to Paris and similar for Karen. In fact, because we would prefer to see things that are also new to us, we weren’t planning to stay for 5 nights, but we found a nice (and affordable!) Airbnb so thought we could rest a bit. Here are a few highlights from our trip. (Not captured is Charlie’s macaron cooking class, which included normal sweet ones as well as blue cheese and foie gras, which he made me eat.)

The boys dubbed this Rodin classic, “The Why”, because it reminded them of this internet meme. (Actually “Jean de Fiennes” from “The Burghers of Calais”)
Henry called me a weirdo for trying to take pictures of butts. (“The Mature Age” by Camille Claudel.)
He had similar concerns about “The Kiss”.
So of course one correct answer is, “a teenager who is frequently embarassed by his father.”
Karen and I caught an excellent concert at Sainte-Chapelle, which somehow I had never visited in those four other trips. There was a string quartet, mostly accompanying a really great soprano.

The first image is by the River Seine right after the concert and the second from the next morning from the same spot facing the other way. We stayed 5 miles north of here, so it was a long but memorable run, although I could have done without having to climb up and down Montmarte at the end. (I went around to follow a canal on the way in.)

We visited the Conciergerie because Marie Antoinette was kept there prior to her beheading and we were trying to cover some interesting French Revolution facts with the boys. They had this cool augmented reality tablet, though, that mostly focused on medieval history which they really enjoyed.
Charlie approved of Whistler’s Mother, but found the audioguide for kids “annoying” and generally did not enjoy the Musee D’Orsay because “it was full of art”.
James appreciated this old train station clock, but was similarly unimpressed.
James was instead obsessed with getting a great picture of the Eiffel Tower. (He thought I did a good job with this one from our river cruise.) He’s our most prolific photographer and I’m really glad we thought to give him Karen’s old iPhone for the trip.


For our final day in Paris, we split up, with Henry and Charlie opting to stay at the Airbnb (ostensibly to at least partially do homework) while Karen, James, and I took a very long tour to UNESCO World Heritage listed Mont-Saint-Michel, which was probably the number one site Karen wanted to see in France. Until the day before we went, we’d been planning to travel to Rennes and see it from there, but rearranged our travel plans in Paris, so the 14-hour bus tour from Paris was our only chance to make the trip.

I was skeptical that it would be worth it–it’s a tourist magnet and the day was over 100 degrees, but we had a great time and several weeks later James still rates it his favorite day of our trip. Here are a few pictures of the day.

Approaching the island from our tour bus. (I sat next to Sharon, an intrepid world traveller and recently retired banker from New York City who gave us advice for our Africa leg and, surprisingly to me at least, has seen Pearl Jam in concert all over the world almost 40 times. She was going to catch them two nights in a row in Amsterdam the next week.)
Crossing the bridge to the island. Picture taken by Drew, a Virginian recent college grad who left his family in Portugal and decided to tag along with us for most of the day.
Being by the sea, we of course saw these guys again. Charlie was safe at home in Paris, though.
Karen made all her dresses for this trip because (a) she’s awesome and (b) she wanted pockets.
See? He had a good day. (The two stops for ice cream probably helped.)
View from the top
The interior is full of this cool gothic architecture. Which makes sense, because it’s over 1,000 years old.
This big wheel was used to raise food up from the shore.

Two last views from looking up:

After adding France, here’s our family country count:

  • 7th country of our trip
  • Me: 57 countries (including 30 eating McDonalds) (no change)
  • Karen: 55 countries (no change)
  • Henry: 22 countries
  • Charlie: 16 countries
  • James: 13 countries