TBT: A Lucky Moment at the Tower Bridge, London

Raising the Bridge: London
Raising the Bridge: London

Here’s a lucky moment for Throwback Thursday:  the summer of 2008, on the Tower Bridge of London.   They say it brings good luck to witness the bridge opening (it doesn’t happen frequently)–and we were standing right on the bridge for the opening on this gorgeous summer day.

The bridge is iconic, but people often confuse it with “London Bridge”:  Tower Bridge is the visual you get when you think of London bridges, but the London Bridge (actually, a series of bridges over the centuries) originally stood about a mile west of the Tower Bridge. (More importantly, London Bridge continues to stand and fall, over and over and over again, on every children’s playground, everyday, in the Western world.  The origins of that nursery rhyme undoubtedly lay in some historical happening, but that’s a story I haven’t delved into.)

tower bridge wiki commons
Tower Bridge–the view we all know, courtesy Wiki Commons


The Tower Bridge  was opened 1892–at a time when London’s population was growing exponentially and a Thames River crossing bridge that could accomodate more traffic was desperately needed.

Tower of London
Tower of London

The beauty of the bridge lies in its appearing  to be made of stone–making it the visual twin of the Tower of London (just beyond it, on the shore).  However, the bridge is actually formed of tons (and tons and tons) of steel. After the steel structure was formed,  granite and stone were added to cover the exterior and create the signature look.

So there you go–a little history and a lucky moment.  Happy Thursday!


Engineers and Van Goghs–The Cogs and Brushstrokes of Language

m twain awful german lang


Another chapter in my struggle with the German language–a tragicomedy.

I’m back in a rudimentary German class and progress is slow.  I am learning. . . just not quickly.  And it doesn’t help that I spent the first two months sitting next to a Scotsman who looked like a young Paul Newman.  Honestly, Deutsch can’t compete with that.   So I’ve moved seats.

I sit closer to the back of class now, and I find it very interesting how different people react differently to class exercises.  There are only a few of us left in the class–where we started out with 25 or 30 in October.  That number was cut in half by Christmas, and has shrunk even more now.  (Apparently, I’m not the only one who finds German difficult.)  But here’s what I’m seeing:  Some people take nary a note and just listen to the exercises and explanations. Other people write down every syllable spoken in class, never lifting their heads from their notebooks.  Some fall in between (like me)–but each with their own quirks.  One classmate has made copious “cheat sheets” to refer to to help him with articles in various cases (nominative, genitive, accusative, dative); one has written down every vocabulary word we’ve ever spoken and highlighted the genders of nouns; one rocks back and forth slightly whenever trying to remember the gender of a noun.

Me?  I fall in the middle ground lot–writing and pausing to listen; listening and then trying to catch some notes on paper after the fact.  But my quirk is spacing out.  Now that Paul Newman is less of a distraction, I’m people watching my fellow students’ classroom habits.  But I’m also constantly pausing over the whimsy of the language.  I lost a good ten minutes in class the other day after learning the word “Fernseher“–TV set.  The minute it fell from my teacher’s lips, my hand shot up.  “How does that translate literally?”  “Far see-er.” she said.   How fabulous and retro!  The TV set, that box in the corner of the room that opens a window into other people’s worlds or other cities’ news–the far see-er box.  I was consumed for a few minutes by images of people sitting around the earliest TV’s, like characters in a sci-fi B-movie, gazing at far away places through static and wiggly lines.  Magic!   How great is that?!  I suddenly liked the German language again. . . and then I started wondering about other funny words.   There’s the stuabsauger (dust sucker–the vacuum).  And , oh–Kindergarten!   That would literally mean “children’s garden.”  A place for all of the little buds to grow tall and bloom!  How funny–perfectly logical and spectacularly whimsical and visual all at once.   And then, I started wondering about other words in English that I’ve never really thought about.  Well, “television,” for one.  I suppose that means “seeing from a distance.”  Well, there you go.

And there I went–having missed 5 or 10 minutes of what was going on in class while I pondered the whimsy and logic of language.  And while my classmate studiously referred to his charts and cheat sheets on cases and declensions, while the person to his left concentrated and rocked slightly.

And so it seemed crystal clear to me that there are two basic types of people in a language class:  the engineers and the Van Goghs.  The engineers get the specifics down precisely and probably become very efficient at running the language in the direction and at the speed that it should best run.  They build their language skills cog by cog.    The Van Goghs are a different beast.  We enjoy the broad brush strokes of language.  We are intent on communicating, and would like to do it well–we are just less geared (excuse the pun) toward the efficiency of communication and more toward the bright colors, the swirl and flow.  I tend to fall into the structure of German fairly well (okay, rudimentarily well)–the crazy, slipperiness of German verbs that like to come first, last, or middle of a sentence, depending on the sort of message you convey.  I get that on an intuitive level.  But noun genders, and German cases and article and adjective endings, they are less intuit-able to me.  They take a chart, or a precise cog in the brain (cut to measure and carefully placed just so).  They take a mind that sticks to its charts and does NOT slip, trip, and travel over the whimsy of a word in the middle of class.

It might be nice to have an engineer’s mind when you are trying to communicate with the travel agent or sort out your power bill at the municipal power office, under the stern gaze of the German office worker.  But, all in all, I wouldn’t trade it for the slips, trips and whimsy of the brain I have.    Efficient?  Hardly!  Amusing?  To me . . . and that’s enough to keep me happy, and to keep me going back to German class for the time being.



Ripon–you’ve heard the name on Downton Abbey.  It’s a beautiful, small market city in North Yorkshire, England, and it was my home for four fabulous years.

Walking down Kirkgate toward the cathedral.

I’ve found myself backing up old photos this week, and feeling nostalgic about life in Ripon.  It was ideal.  My children were young and came to believe that they were actually Brits, accent and all.  They attended British school, we spent our days in beautiful environs and living with a decidedly British/European sensability.  We walked to school, to swim lessons, to church, to the grocery store; through rain, through snow, through days of unending summer sun or unending winter dark.    We walked a few blocks out our front door in one direction, and we were in the market square; another direction, and we were in sheep pastures; yet another direction, and we walked the river banks.  We enjoyed Michaelmas and Bonfire Night in the autumn, Candelmas in February, and Shakespeare performances outdoors all summer.

Ripon Market Square, Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.
Ripon Market Square, Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.
Ripon Spa, where my children swam, and still largely unchanged a few years ago.
Ripon Spa, where my children swam, and still largely unchanged a few years ago.
Wakeman's House
Wakeman’s House

As a home base, Ripon was lovely.  I think she’s equally engaging for the passer-through too. The market square is the center of town–literally and figuratively–and  Daniel Defoe called it  “the finest and most beautiful square that is to be seen of its kind in England.”  If you go on market day, the space is bustling.  You might enjoy coffee and scones at one corner of the square, in the old Wakeman’s House (which, I hope, still houses a tearoom. . .and possibly a ghost).  The cafe there is fabulous, and the house is a landmark dating back to the 14th century, and once belonging to the last “wakeman” of Ripon.   The wakeman set the town watch at night, meaning that he was the watchman, entrusted to keep the town safe from villians and marauders.

Ripon still observes  the Wakeman’s Ceremony (dating back to 866).  Each night at 9 pm, the town Wakeman strides to the center of the market square (by the obelisk) and blows his horn to let the people know that the night watchman

George Pickles, the Wakeman, photo courtesy of the BBC
George Pickles, the Wakeman, photo courtesy of the BBC

is on duty to keep them safe. Of course, the town’s safety is in the hands of its police these days, but George Pickles, who performed Wakeman duties and set the watch while we lived there (and may still) did a fabulous job keeping the tradition alive and speaking with townspeople and tourists about the history of Ripon.

There is certainly history in abundance on show at the cathedral.  The crypt dates back  to the 7th century, and the cathedral to the 1100’s;  the misericord carvings are said to have inspired Louis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland; and it’s one of the few places on earth that still celebrates Candlemas on February 2nd (thousands of candles, and candles only, light the cathedral to celebrate the purification of Mary, and also the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox–you know this day as Groundhog’s Day!).

Ripon Cathedral
Ripon Cathedral


If you ever find yourself in N. Yorkshire, near Harrogate, give Ripon a look.  The walks are beautiful, the Workhouse Museum and Police Museums are interesting, and the people are fabulous.  For pubs, I recommend The One Eyed Rat and The Water Rat.  For dining, The Royal Oak, Lockwoods, and Balti House (right there on Kirkgate by the cathedral).   I also recommend that you take me with you.  Ahhh, I miss Ripon some days.  .  .


ripon poster