Friday, May 20, 2011

High St. Kensington

14 n' 15 May 2011

The weekend, ah the weekend. It was quiet and enjoyable. A time of rest and relaxation as we recouped for another week ahead. To be honest I cannot say much about the weekend as we truly just enjoyed the quiet and the being in London. Friday night, which I should have mentioned after our Holy Rosenbergs experience was a trip to the pub. Our first yet! Pubs and most places close early here, but we were able to enjoy a drink till midnight where we had many adventures in learning the culture. 

First off, no one sits in a pub, or it is rare, there is much milling about and finding an open table to stand at (which may be normal in America but I am not really a bar type), and we found out through our own error; women do not buy men drinks here. As it was our first night out at a pub (and for many of the girls, their first time being able to drink in a legal setting) a few wanted to get their picture taken and they asked a few guys at another table to do so. It was pointed out afterwards that they looked unhappy to be bothered so Cat decided to be nice and bought them a round. As she brought it back to them all they could manage to say was "this is highly unusual" which at the time we thought nothing of, but this morning Cat asked one of our British friends about it and her response was "Wait, girls buy guys drink in the US? We don't do that here, we're British!" Which obviously explained a lot, not to mention was just quite amusing in general. 

Nothing quite so epic has been said since, but it has been an interesting weekend. We needed an Orange store--which is a mobile place that I got my phone at and Cat got her new sim card at, to do what is called a "top-up". Since they are pay as you go phones you have to add minutes on and she had run out. This meant a trip to High Street, only we learned that the tube was closed for the weekend and we had to do a lot of walking. On our way we ran into a protest, that in light of The Holy Rosenbergs was quite interesting. It was, on either side of the street, Jewish people yelling across to Palestinians. It was all very civil as far as protests go, but still quite interesting.
We couldn't find the Orange store, but I did find the H&M and we did a little shopping there which was our first true shopping experience here in England. It isn't much different then the US except the sizes. It was a bit interesting to work out sizes in comparison from the US, but I think I've figured out that I am about a 12 to 14 in UK sizes and wear a size 4 to 5 in shoes. So not too different but enough that it was a pain to figure out. 

After we had lunch at a great little place called Wagamama, which Cat and I had gone to with Shelby and Kayla earlier in the week and keep finding that their food is ridiculously delicious. They are a sort of Japanese restaurant that is more like--Applebee's style in America (though even that comparison isn't quite right). They serve noodle dishes and gyoza and edamame, both of which were delicious (even Kayla thought so!) and I would not be surprised if we go again. 

After that Cat was determined to see the Kensington Palace (or the Enchanted Palace) and I was happy to go with her. I had not been all that interested in it, but I have to say it was fairly amazing. Cat put it best by saying "It was like a fairy tale". Each room was themed in a different style and a different real-life princess with their story over-exaggerated in a fairy tale like style. You were supposed to try and guess who each room belonged too by the clues left behind and by asking the people placed in each room.

Truly the entire area is actually quite amazing. A small little pond just outside the palace had ducks, swans, and geese (both proper geese and UK geese) that were completely lax about all the humans rummaging around. Back home I would never even THINK about walking up to a swan or for that matter a Canadian goose; there are too many stories we have all heard about their nasty temperament and how mean they can be, but--and I kid you not--these geese and swans would swim right up to you. One man was LITERALLY feeding swans out of his hand with no repercussions. We actually plan on going back to do the same later this upcoming weekend just because it's so unusual (and honestly, it looks fun!).

St. Pauls

13 May 2011

Friday we have finally begun to get into the swing of things. The tube is no longer confusing (except when changing through many lines), the beauty of London has not become less substantial, but more a reality. Today we had a fairly busy schedule with seeing St. Paul's Cathedral and a backstage tour of the National theatre (the place we saw The Cherry Orchard in two days prior) and then of course a show in the evening, again at the National though this one was called The Holy Rosenbergs

To be honest, today was not a day I was all that looking forward to, St. Paul's sounded nice, but I was not very attached to the idea and seeing a backstage tour hardly held any sort of interest for me; that was until we actually begun the day (though isn't that how it always is?).

However, upon walking into St. Paul's it was as if I was blown away by the just utter grand divinite in the very building. I am not one to place that sort of reverence on stone and brick, but in this case it seemed almost necessary. There was something holy about the church. During my last visit I was not able to see St. Paul's (though I could not remember why) and I am glad that I got to go this time. 

It was jam packed with people (as many places have been), but even with all of the hustle and bustle you could still feel almost unique in the space. In the back of the church there was an area given and built to honor the United States help during World War II. I am not the sort of person to bang her fist and declare my patriotism (though I do enjoy being an American), but standing in front of the memorial (where there was an area left of the shrapnel that had landed in the church during the Blitz) I felt a sort of pride or in the very least camaraderie.

The actual building is filled with memorials, many to war heroes, but also to locals and even musicians, writers, and poets. No one has been buried there since 1937, though ashes now are allowed to be placed and are still being placed to this day. The shining moment as we walked through the crypt was walking through and realizing, as I looked down, I was standing on J.M.W Turner, an artist that I highly admire. There is something amazing about knowing just under foot (LITERALLY) a man is buried that just recently you were looking at his work and enjoying it. 
I could have spent hours in that church, the reverence was moving and it was calming in a busy schedule; unfortunately a busy schedule was exactly what we had and after a few moments to sit and enjoy the domed ceiling mosaics it was time to move on. 

The backstage tour scheduled at the National was again, not something I was looking forward too, but as our guide took us through the building I was floored and equally impressed by the work that was done there. They have a main work station area that was full of props and people and things that were finished as well as in progress for upcoming shows. It was actually really interesting to see how they worked together with the same space even with multiple shows going on. 

It turns out that at the National the actors get six weeks of rehearsal and if they are lucky they get two dress rehearsals. This meant nothing to me, but listening to Cat and some of the other theater design majors this turned out to be an odd thing indeed. Apparently in America it is more traditional to only get three weeks of rehearsal and then a week of dress, which is obviously different then what they were receiving. The crowning moment (for the time) was walking in to watch a dress rehearsal of an upcoming show One man, Two Guvnors and as we watched a man came onto the stage that I leaned over to Cat because I was fairly sure I recognized. 

Sure enough as we left the rehearsal our guide informed us that our suspicions were correct, James Corden was in the production. James Corden, for those of you who are not familiar with him, is a British actor from most notably (in America) the movie The History Boys. He's not very well known, but Cat and I are big fans and to realize he was only feet away was insanely exciting. Only, it turns out, that wasn't going to be our only sighting for the evening. 

As the tour drew to a close we had about an hour to kill before the play started and we began to wander around the bookshop. It was a nice space and had quite a few interesting reads that I toyed with buying. While looking at one in particular I felt someone step close up and glanced, only to take a double look. The man was quite undeniable another actor (though at the time I thought he was only a model) that I am a fan of; rushing as subtlety as I could to where Cat was looking at a different book I told her to double check, and sure was Eddie Redmayne. As we were trying our hardest not to geek out I'm pretty sure he noticed our trying not to geek out and when we looked up to see him again he was gone. I like to think I'm not easily star struck, but that was fairly amazing and even now I can't get over the fact I saw two famous faces in one day!

Which is not to say that the show was not amazing. The Holy Rosenbergs by Ryan Craig was actually fascinating and quite moving. It focused on a family both torn apart and forced together because of the Gaza conflict, his daughter part of the UN's report, and his son--killed in the war--on the side of the Israelites. The father merely trying to hold together his family but quite unable too. The seats were terrible, but the inter-workings and the poignancy of the emotions was so heartfelt. I had been vaguely aware of the Gaza situation (it was hard to miss) but until those moments I was not quite aware of the effect it had on people not actually there.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Charing Cross

12 May 2011

There has to be something said for being able to talk to a group of people with the same interests and understandings as ones self. As our class started on Thursday we focused on what we saw the day before, including our feelings on the play The Cherry Orchard. The discussion lead us to the idea of a poignant tension which was clear in the play. Between the fear of the orchard being sold and the general unease of the country's upcoming history at hand, you could tell there was change coming for the family and it's friends.

There were characters you actually felt sorry for and others you believed got what they deserved. The main character, Ranevskaya, many agreed they did not--and have never felt--any sort of pity for her. My feelings were a bit different. She was a character that did not seem to want to change, in her family life or her business; for that she was despicable. As others tried to talk sense in to her she blindly looked the other way, but there was something almost sad in that, her attempts to cling to her past as if they could not change. There was a desperation I feel that we all can identify with, a fear of change that she took to the extreme.

From there however, we moved on to our new days activities. So far we have been lucky enough to have beautiful weather and today was no exception. The walk to St. Martin in the Fields was beautiful and the church itself was magnificent. It is the traditional style of architecture that we now use nearly exclusively in our protestant churches in America. It combines classic and gothic architecture with its very recognizable layout of a church parish and the steeple rising out of it in the front.

I feel I should state that the first time I've seen this church was not this trip, my last trip however, I wasn't paying much attention to it because of Trafalgar Square only steps away from it. Trafalgar Square is a fairly recognizable area in London with it's lions and large fountains. It's a wonderful area that people from tourists to locals like to sit and enjoy the day. 

It is also right across from the National Gallery, which is the museum dedicated to all the art I had previously only ever read about and studied in books. Again, it was not my first visit but there was significant change that last time I did not get to enjoy. 

If I had to pick any artistic period as my "favorite" I would have to say nearly all the Impressionist. Degas, Cassat, Renior, Manet, Monet, Turner (who techicnally is a preface rather then an actually impressionist) I adore their work. Last time I visited the ENTIRE Impressionist gallery was closed for renovation and I was not able to see any of the work there. This visit, however, it was open and I was able to see not only great works but was able to sit and enjoy the wonders of Degas as there was an entire room nearly devoted completely to him. 

Degas is my favorite painter, regardless of his womanizing ways and unsavory personality, and being able to enjoy his almost floating brush strokes and airy style was a treat. Degas is known for his ballerina's, of which there were two in the collection, but I was particularly drawn to the saturated reds of the "Combing the Hair". We were told to try and sketch in the museum (as pictures were obviously not allowed) and my first thought was to try and do that painting, but with it's over encompassing reds and subtle line changes within the shades I determined it was not a great idea and focused on the ballerinas. I have to say the sketching was terrible, I haven't done it in ages and my proportions were off, but it was nice to just focus on what I saw rather then worry about anything else. 

I have to say that while the National is a wonderful place and I would never call something necessarily "bad art" in a museum like that, there was some confusion over the large painting in one of the rooms. Portraits of human beings are traditional, back dropped with a simple color as we focus on the visage of some stone faced long dead man or woman. This portrait was nothing like that, 9 1/2ft tall, there was a giant picture of a HORSE. No back drop to place the situation, it was a (very well done painting) of a horse. I should have done research on the point of the horse, but I was so confused by this iconic large painting of simply a horse I could only, flabbergasted, walk past it to the other areas of the Gallery. 

By the time evening came, we had been rushed around other areas of London to be dropped off in a impressive building where we would be seeing the old eighteenth century play, School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. I had never read the play, but it had some really amusing scenarios that were atypical of that sort of period play. Disguise, confused identities of parties involved, and of course, scandal. Even the set and its design were eye drawing; there was a fashion show and bright strobe lights; except, the two did not meld well together in-tandem. There were inconsistencies between how the play was being enacted and how it was being perceived that left you jarred, trying to meld the two in your mind. Our final decision was that with more consistency one way or the other it could have been that much more enjoyable.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Tower Hill

11 May 2011

It has been a pretty busy week, which is part of the reason why I haven't been constant with blogging, that and our internet is shoddy at best. It cannot handle 11 students on it all at the same time, which is what tends to happen. We return from our busy days and all want to just relax on our computers, but if we all do, it bogs down the network (or this is what the house manager Fabio stated during that first meeting). 

In a nutshell this week has been walking a ton, seeing areas of London I have never even imagined, and watching a lot of shows. Like a lot of shows. One every night since Wednesday.

Tower of London being protected by a metal bowman.
Wednesday started with a class meeting going over our itinerary for the day and discussing the Tower of London (which we would shortly be going off too) and the show that we would be seeing that evening, The Cherry Orchard by Chekhov. Going through the tube, we got on the Piccadilly line to Tower Hill (appropriately named) to come out of the station with the menacing old castle spanning across the horizon. This was not the first time I have seen the Tower of London, and I do hope it is not that last (there is always still so much to see there, I feel), but every time I love just looking up at it, realizing the immense history that oozes from it's very stones. Weddings, funerals, tortures, beheadings; the Norman Tower is a place of tragedy as well as awe. 

We saw the crown jewels first, which were ridiculously expensive and hugely sparkly (yes, sparkly); nearly every surface was covered with some sort of precious stone or metal. I also learned that the fur ring around many of the royal crowns and robes is actually hundreds of tails of the rodent ermine. It is a special breed that is albino and the only spot of color they have is the little black dot at the end of their tail. They are extremely rare and hard to come by, so having so many of those black dots implies wealth and prestige because one can afford the luxury.

A guard at his post where the Crown Jewels are kept.
Finishing up our tour of the crown jewels we were left to wander around the area (which is quite large, as you can imagine) and a gentleman came up to us in costume that proceed to act in character of a warden of the prison as if it were 1614 (I believe). It came to pass that one of our group was decidedly visiting Sir Walter Raleigh, a prisoner there, for the tobacco that he was growing in the gardens of the prison (because he paid enough money to be allowed to grow tobacco). He was fairly amazing, almost seamlessly playing the part of a 17th century prison warden and being a fabulous guide in letting us know where the exhibits were. He and Cat were improv'ing which brought up a pretty fantastic blunder in which he asked if we were from the "Colonies" and how difficult it must be for us to live with the "red-skin savages"; her response "we should have let them keep their country" which left our guide speechless. 

It was both humorous and eye opening. In the States we are all aware that what we did to the Native American's was terrible, but as American's we forget that while much of it was going on we were still under British rule; and [particularly] while that man was playing in character they would not have seen it as wrong. His pause reminded--me at least--that our views are not all encompassing. 
The Real Diagon Alley as seen by "muggles".
After a longer chat and some wandering around the Tower a bit more it was time to go on a walk about London. It lead us to a very special area that was used in the Harry Potter and the Philosopher (Sorcerers) Stone movie. Diagon Alley was quite beautiful, the shops nearly as fantastical as one would imagine in the books themselves. The most wonderful part was the contrast with the newer buildings so close by; they fit together quite nicely but with Diagon Alley looking so classical and renessicence in conjunction with the tall metalic city-scape it was quite an experience. 

After a very quick dinner, we were off to the National Theater to see The Cherry Orchard where we had to cross a rather large bridge at night. Now I don't have many height problems, but I do suffer from a combination of agoraphobia and anablephobia; it's not specifically either one of them, but I cannot handle the wide open sky and tall things shooting up into the air.  The combination of the two makes me nauseous, light headed and extremely anxious and the bridge we crossed had all the right components to give me a start. It was a very long walk over the bridge but I managed to make my way.

An example (this is not London) of what would set off my phobia.
The Cherry Orchard was not what I was expecting, but I did enjoy it. The premise was a family where the mother, who has been abroad, comes back home to Russia because the cherry orchard they own can no longer be kept up and they must either pay their debts or it will be auctioned off. It is set right before the Russian Revolution and there are many illusions to what will soon be happening because of it. 

Now, tonight I will not be going on about it, but the National Theater is becoming one of my personal favorite places because of the sightings that have so far happened there. Luckily we have another show that will be previewed there and in the next few days Cat and I are planning on on seeing a different one that opens up next week. But more on all that in my next post, for tonight I must sleep and hopefully catch up the rest of my days tomorrow!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Gloucester Road

10 May 2011

I have arrived. Not only have I arrived but today has been one of the longest I have experienced in quite some time. Now I realize technically today should on count for May 10th, however, as I have not yet slept my version of today encompasses that of the 9th as well. It began with my realization that, I am an adult. 

A strange realization, technically by government standards I have been an adult since I was 18, at 21 I could partake in all once deprived pleasantries, and at 25 I can now rent a car with full insurance for a much cheaper price. I even live alone, support myself (mostly), and worry about bills. All of these things should have tipped me off (as well as my own number of birthdays that have passed) that I am Grown Up. Still it has been a label I have not really put myself in; to me Grown Ups are married, have 2.5 kids, worry about a mortgage and wrinkles, they are people that no longer have any need for their own parents--which in my case has never been true. Yet, as I sat on the plane from Detroit to Washington Dulls, adult worries went through my mind. Not 'did I forget something, how will I get to talk to my friends?'; no, I sat on the plane looking out the window as it took off thinking--'did I shut the garage door, is the oven off? did I remember to turn off all the lights?'. The things I remember as a little girl hearing my mother and father tossing back and forth as we'd take a long drive off to some exotic vacation. 

That moment, when I realized I had other worries and responsibilities (ones I used to laugh at for being so silly as a child) was sort of defining. In one day (of no sleep!) it has actually changed some of my perception of things. 

Now, you all expect me to go into detail in some long drawn out explanation of the how and why it has changed me, but really I think it's better I just continue on with my day and what happened instead (it'll at least be more interesting that way). 

Upon landing in Washington Dullas I cannot say that anything spectacular happened. A very nice woman helped to convert some dollars into pounds and I bought some Starbucks (passion shaken tea, very yummy!); however, I did look over and noticed Mel Gibson sitting next to me in the waiting terminal. 

Okay, so it wasn't the real Mel Gibson; unless he has gotten shorter and become Indian. I did want to tell him how much he looked like the famous actor, but held back (he would be one of many people in the last 48 hours that have looked like a celebratiy to me) for fear of odd looks--from him and those around him. I also became aware of two lovely older women, I believe they were a mother and daughter (though I did not ask) that we struck up a conversation as we waited for the plane to board. I never did find out why they were going to London, but they had an itinerary all set and were enthusiastic about going. 

The flight itself ended up being very traditional, the woman I sat next to was increasingly worried she was going to miss her flight to Düsseldorf to see her sister, but I believe she made it alright. I did not get nearly as much on the flight as I had hoped to accomplish; I ended up being tired most of the way and while I attempted to sleep, never actually managed to get into anything resembling the REM state. 

The real excitement began as I was walking through the terminal toward Customs. The shoes I had worn (a very cute and stylish pair of low cut cowboy boots) had been rubbing angrily against my heel all through the 7 hour flight and while it had not bothered me as I sat (besides the mild annoyance) began the process of engaging me in excruciating pain. I made it nearly half way to customs when I decide I could not take it anymore and had to switch out my shoes (that I luckily had packed a spare in my carry on). Going to run over to the nearest loo (restroom for those American-English only types), I sat on the toilet began to open up my carry on and sweat began to pour from my body. I was so overheated and began to feel both dizzy and light headed, I leaned over to the stall's wall to just close my eyes...only to wake up at least fifteen minutes later. The pain had been so intense I literally passed out.

Feeling somewhat better, I pulled off my (torture-device) shoes and then my socks, fully expecting to be bleeding profusely from the apparent wound only to find, there was no blood but instead a gaping huge hole in my heel. (I'd take a picture and show you all, but it's not for the faint of heart.) It made me feel a little better (ha!), in that at least I wasn't just being a pansy about the pain, there was physical proof of my owwie. 

After a little help (with new shoes on!) from one of the cleaning people I made it to customs where, for the first time in my life, there was literally no line. I walked up and got in immediately. It was a blessing in disguise because after getting through customs it was a mad search to find the rest of the group. 

I do not exaggerate when I say, I spent an hour looking for anyone, at least three after I found Jesse before we were discovered and then were able to get on the bus to our dorms. Heathrow airport no long holds any secrets for me! I have thoroughly walked (with a chunk of my heel missing at that) through nearly the entire building. It was here that I got to partake in my first (of many) missed attractions from the UK. 

Orange soda.

What you say? We have that in the States. Oh Ho, my friend. It is not the same, one of my classmates, after tasting it, said "it is more like carbonated tang" only better; because it's the truth. Warm or cold, Fanta Orange is far more superior to our Fanta Orange. It is as if it is orange juice that is carbonated and yet, it is not. It is unique and without having had some, you cannot really understand (trust me, I have tried to explain it many times). 

Upon buying the Fanta Orange I managed to find Jesse, a fellow classmate (and now roommate), just as lost and confused as I was; separately we had covered much of the airport, together we doubly covered it, trying to find any minute clue as to were anyone else was. For hours we searched, combing over all of Terminal 3 (our supposed meeting place), lost and confused. Eventually we decided to call one of our professors to try and find him, only to find that their flight had been delayed and were in process of going through a very LOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG customs line (a far cry from my own). This however, did not solve our other, now, more pressing problem. Where were our other classmates?

It became, as we looked and searched, and eventually gave up, our personal hell. The metal and cold concrete was not pretty to look at; Jesse put it best when she said it seemed like a prison rather then an airport. While I do not agree with that statement as a whole, Heathrow is a very lovely airport, this particular area holds no love in my heart today.

Jess completely agreed, and we chronicled our dislike with pictures.

Eventually however, everyone was found (and we all have determined getting pay-as-you-go phones are a smart investment!) which sent us off to our home away from home for the next 3 weeks; they are cozy, though I don't think what anyone had expected. Located in a flat block in South Kensington, they used to be an old house for the in-area school but were eventually closed down because of low enrollment. Close to nearly everything, they are quaint and have a very strong Old English charm. 

As our landlord gave us the low-down the building procedures, he happened to inform us of more fire safety tips then I have ever known in my entire life. Also, his name was Fabio (no he's not a tall, tan, blonde).

It was after that we all nearly collapsed. We were scheduled to do a walking tour of our area, but everyone (and I mean everyone) wanted a shower first. By the time 3 o'clock rolled around we were all ready and raring to go. I have to say, the last time I was hear I did not spend nearly enough time in the Kensington area. It is beautiful and exciting; the Kensington Gardens (built by Prince Albert for his loving wife, Queen Victoria) were beautiful and melded into Hyde Park almost seemlessly. Which was where we came upon something that was not quite finished when I originally had travelled. 
Princess Diana's Memorial Fountain is beautiful, and today was the perfect day to discover it. The sun shining, heat gently wrapping around without being too humid or too hot; people had their shoes off and were walking around in the water. It was a beautiful place and it seemed most of the parents of the area agreed. 

I came to the conclusion I probably looked like some sort of creeper with all the pictures I was taking of the little kids running around in the water. One set of sisters were in nothing but their undergarments running through the water, and it looked like, having the time of their lives. Another set of girls, eventually joined up with another set to play some sort of game that only kids can fully enjoy and understand, even if explained to us.

From there we took our first ride on the Underground. This was the part that I was most looking forward too. The last time I was here I loved the tube and had been looking forward to it once again. 

As we walked along the tunnels it was like I was walking back in time. The smells were the same, the sound of trains rumbling carrying through the walls and their screeches as the made their quick stops all along the underground rail. I could almost imagine being back on it that one late night laughing and joking as we wondered if we'd make it home in time before the tube closed, watching as the station turned from a subway to a train and back again. It's a unique place, even with all the other subway systems in the world, I don't think there is another quite like London's.