lillibet: (Default)
After B. left on Tuesday, I mainly spent the rest of the week relaxing and
trying to catch up on the various little things that had been allowed to
slide during her visit. Regis & Claudia seemed quite happy to take
themselves off to enjoy London on their own. On Thursday they took a bus
tour out to Stonehenge, Salisbury and Avebury and then we all met at
Mornington Crescent for sushi at Asakusa.

On Friday morning we went back to the Houses of Parliament and went on a
tour of the Clock Tower. On our first tour of the palace, our guide had
told us that we could arrange to see the Clock Tower by contacting our MP.
We don't exactly have one--not being UK voters, after all--but the MP for
our area, David Lammy, was happy to set it up for us. We got to go in a
separate door from all the tourists touring the Houses of Parliament, which
made us feel privileged. Up to 16 people are allowed on each tour--there
are three each day--but there were only 8 total on ours and the other four
all had badges suggesting that they work there in some capacity. Our guide
met us at the far end of Westminster Hall and escorted us up the tower.
There are 344 steps. Whew! He explained to us the history of the palace
and the tower. It was originally intended to be called the Albert Tower, to
correspond with the Victoria Tower at the other end of the palace, but
following Prince Albert's death, everyone thought it would be too sad for
the Queen, who could see it from Buckingham Palace.

We had a brief stop in what was once the prison cell where recalcitrant MPs
were once imprisoned. One of the most famous occupants was Mrs. Pankhurst,
who chained herself to the gates of the palace--guess they figured if she
liked the place so much she could stay there! After we caught our breath we
went up to the clock faces. Since one usually sees only one face at a time,
it was somehow strange to circle around past all four at once. From there
we proceeded up to the belfry, arriving in plenty of time to watch the bells
toll eleven o'clock. The vibration of Big Ben--which wasn't as loud as I
had feared--seemed to resonate with our tear ducts, as well all got a bit
misty. The bell is called "Big Ben" because that was the nickname of the MP
who wrote up the original order to the foundry. The original bell cracked
during testing, so it was recast by another foundry, the one in Whitechapel
that also cast the Liberty Bell. No surprise then that it cracked after two
months of service. The managed to patch that crack, turn the bell and
switch to a lighter hammer and the bell has remained in place ever since.
The original bell would have been too large for the shaft in any case,
probably a result of the poor working relationship between the architect of
the palace and the designer of the clock. Our guide said that the only
evidence of communication between the two men comes from the archived
letters page of the London Times.

After the striking of the hour we descended slightly to the the clock room,
where the guide explained the mechanism to us and we watched the workings at
that end as the quarter-bells chimed the quarter hour. Possibly the most
fascinating aspect of the system is the integral part played by a stack of
old pre-rationalization pennies and ha'pennies, which are used to counteract
the stretching and shrinking of the 14-foot pendulum in different seasons.
One penny makes the clock two-fifths of a second faster over 24 hours.

We descended once more and got to use the pass-holders' entrance to access
the tube. Regis & Claudia headed off to the British Museum and I talked
Jason into accompanying me to South Kensington to help me carry back the
books I wanted to buy there. He got a Cornish pasty for lunch out of the
deal, so I think he felt it was a good arrangement. I picked up some
groceries at Sainsbury's and made a nice roast chicken with roasted
potatoes, broccoli and stuffing as a farewell dinner for our guests.

They left on Saturday and we got a call from our friends, Claudia & Jim,
saying that Jim had been asked to sit in for the drummer in a Grateful Dead
cover band at a Festival in Honor of Jerry Garcia at a pub not far from us.
So we left shortly after Regis & Claudia and walked up to Seven Sisters,
where we met Jim & Claudia at The Fountain. Things were slow getting
started in the very nice outdoor area at the back of the pub--there was free
barbecue, which would have been more entertaining if the food had been
better--and then there were interruptions due to rain. The band for which
Jim was drumming got to play only three numbers. He was fairly unhappy with
the experience, but we were reasonably impressed--at least his band was
miles better than the first one. Jim & Claudia walked home with us--we were
so glad they'd called--and then we realized in the excitement, we'd
forgotten about a barbecue we'd planned to attend up in Cambridge, at the
home of one of Jason's co-workers :( It was too late, so we just hung out
here and watched an hour of the BBC version of _Mansfield Park_.

Today was too pretty a day to sit indoors, so I pulled out the _Walking
London_ book and decided it was time to explore Chelsea. We took the tube
down there and walked along the high street, down to the river along
intensely picturesque streets, and along the water as far as the grounds of
the Royal Chelsea Hospital, where the annual Chelsea Flower Show is held.
It looks very different without the enormous pavilions and show gardens in
place. The hospital is London's version of the VA, but with lovely
architecture and gardens and monuments to the loyal dead of a hundred
different minor wars through the centuries. There were many old pensioners
in uniforms sitting on the benches--somehow it had the aura of a real
community.

We walked up to Knightsbridge and hopped on the tube to Leicester Square and
made a survey of the movies available at the seven local cinemas, finally
deciding on _Lovely & Amazing_. It starred Catherine Keener, Jake
Gyllenhaal, Dermot Mulroney, James Le Gros, etc. It was very well done,
although kind of depressing, being about a group of fairly dysfunctional,
neurotic people. But the acting was excellent and there were cute guys and
kissing. After the move we walked around exploring the dinner options and
finally settled on Pizza Express, where we had a quick meal. I wanted a bit
more walking, so we walked up to Holborn and then over to Russell Square,
past Bloomsbury Square and the British Museum. From there it was a quick
ride home on the tube.
lillibet: (Default)
We've been so delightfully busy for the past ten days that I haven't had a
chance to write. Beckie was here and we had a wonderful visit with her and
did so many wonderful things that it's hard to know where to start.

She arrived on the morning of Sunday 28 July. I let her take a nap for a
bit--like all our guests, she said she wasn't really tired and then fell
right to sleep. I woke her up again for a lunch of grilled lamb bits with
pita bread (the Brits spell it "pitta," by the way) and Greek salad. After
lunch Beckie accompanied me on a quick run to Sainsbury's. It was a very
warm day, so we thought we'd go to a movie, but the cinema's air
conditioning was on the fritz and it was too hot to contemplate being
trapped in an airless room for two hours. So we wandered through Piccadilly
Circus and then came home, thus rescuing Jason from having to make dinner.

We had a huge day on Monday, starting with the London Walks highlights tour
of the British Museum. Our guide, Tom, showed us the Great Court, the
Rosetta Stone and a few other Egyptian artifacts, the Parthenon Marbles, the
Assyrian lion hunt frieze, a couple of exhibits from Sumeria and Ur, and the
Lindow man (buried in a bog ~2000 years, possibly a ritual sacrifice).
Beckie felt like some of the choices were odd, but I thought he did a
reasonable job of hitting the things people come to the museum to see.

After a quick lunch--cold salmon with lime mayo and pasta salad, yum!--and
quick visits to the reading room in the center of the Great Court and a
couple of other artifacts, we hit the BBC Shop near Oxford Circus, then gave
our feet a break by hopping in a cab down to the National Gallery. I did my
own version of a highlights tour there, showing B. some of my favorites in
the medieval section, the Rembrandt room and the Impressionists. By the
time we finished there, it was almost time to meet Jason. We wandered
slowly through Leicester Square, picking up our show tickets on the way, and
made it to YMing only a few minutes before Jason arrived.

We had our standard delicious YMing meal--hot&sour soup, fried dumplings,
shredded duck with winter green, Tibetan garlic lamb, and chicken with fresh
mango--with the addition of a new starter, fried scallops with mashed prawn
stuffing. Then we went to see _Taboo!_, the musical based on the early
years in the life of Boy George and written by him. It's staged in The
Venue, a space in the crypt of a church on the edges of Leicester Square.
Until three weeks before the show opened, it was a nightclub and retains a
lot of that feeling. The show was conceived by George and he wrote the
music. They found a very convincing look-alike to play him and an excellent
cast with very good voices--even the bartender had a serious set of pipes
and got to wail on "Church of the Poison Mind." It was all kind of sad and
funny--a couple of the cast members spent interludes hassling the audience.
One of the guys came over and told Jason he looked familiar and asked him to
bow his head, then said "Nope, never seen you before in my life!" The
language and concepts were pretty adult. The woman next to us had her
ten-year-old with her and gave B. a couple of helpless "I didn't know!"
looks. The paper we picked up a couple of days later said that Rosie
O'Donnell is trying to bring the show to New York and I think it could do
well off-Broadway.

After wearing ourselves out on Monday, we had a pretty quiet day on Tuesday.
In the morning we went up to my clinic, so Beckie could discuss her strange
itching with one of the doctors--she didn't have a clue, but the
antihistimines recommended by the pharmacist the previous day started to
kick in and calm down B.'s skin. We got to work on dinner fairly
early--somehow it always seems that if I give myself more time to cook I
just increase the complexity and attention to detail to fill up the time
until our guests arrived. In addition to Beckie and us, we had Barbara and
Philip, Jo Guthrie and Beckie's former boss, Kelly, who has spent the last
six months here in London. Everyone arrived bearing champagne and Beckie
did a great job of keeping people in the living room, occupied with
introductions and snacking on dips and munchies while Jason helped me in the
kitchen. We had moved the table out onto the deck, because the kitchen was
too hot for dining, but just as we started to set out the salads, a huge
thunderstorm began to pour down on us. I quickly changed the plan and
served dinner in the living room, instead. I had made a nifty salad of
peaches, prosciutto and greens, with toasted almond flakes and balsamic
vinaigrette that came out very well for a first try. Our main course was my
chicken isabel stand-by, which seems to always impress. For dinner I served
honey ice cream with fresh fruit and cookies. The group seemed to meld
quite well and we had a nice time, before shooing everyone away around
eleven, so we could pack and sleep for an early start the next morning.

We didn't get out of the house quite as early as we had hoped and picking up
the rental car took forever, but we were on the road shortly after ten. We
got a Mitsubishi jeep and having an automatic made London driving much
easier. Beckie was very impressed with my left-side driving. We got up to
Nottingham by 12:30, checked into the Royal Moat House and then headed out
to see the town. Frankly, there's not a whole lot to see.

We had lunch at Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, which bills itself as the oldest
pub in the UK, founded in the 12th century to serve pilgrims. That's at the
base of "Nottingham Castle," which we walked up to see after a tasty pub
lunch. On the way we passed a statue of Robin Hood, with some of his
legendary companions surrounding him.

Founded by the Normans in the 11th century, the castle was expanded,
rebuilt, abandoned and finally destroyed in the 17th century. The Dukes of
Newcastle razed the site and built a modern mansion there, but did not make
much use of it, and it was destroyed by fire in the 19th century. It has
now been renovated for use as a museum, but their collection is not of much
interest. The grounds are lovely, planted with gorgeous beds of roses and
other flowers, but as the board just inside the old gates says, "Where's the
castle?"

We took a van tour that proposed to show us the highlights of Nottingham,
but apart from what we had already seen, these were few and generally
unexciting. We saw the city hall, called The Council House, and The Park, a
tony development largely built in the 19th century and technically a
separate entity from the city. That was about it.

We went back to the hotel to nap--the rain seemed to be sapping us of all
our energy, although it was nice to have a break from the heat. Our timing
was good, as Beckie's assistant, Jan, called just as she walked in the room
for help on a work issue. After a refreshing bit of sleep, we strolled over
to the east side of town--like all of industrial England, Nottingham's burst
of construction and development is drawn like a thin veil over the grinding
down of the 80's on all of industrial England. The new ice centre shines
like a beacon and the area immediately surrounding it shows a greater depth
of new prosperity. The centre was built with money from the National
Lottery and with the public support of local heroes, Torville & Dean. The
complex includes two Olympic-sized rinks, as well as off-ice training and
educational facilities, which are intended to become an naitonal and
international centre for ice sports--hockey, sledge hockey and speed
skating, as well as free skating and ice dance.

The show this evening was "An International Skating Gala in the Presence of
Her Majesty the Queen," folding together a Golden Jubilee event with the
official opening of the centre and the plaza in front of it. There was a
fairly long queue when we arrived, but it moved quickly through the security
checkpoint. Our seats, although fairly high up, provided an excellent view
and the event-planners had arranged for the Nottingham Philharmonic to
entertain us with numbers including "Swan Lake," "Star Wars" and the "Harry
Potter Suite." We all had to be in our seats by 7pm for security reasons,
but the 45-minute wait gave us a chance to read our programs and watch Kurt
Browning clowning around on ice with the emcee.

Finally the emcee said "Ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding for the
queen," and we all rose while she entered in a gorgeous red dress to a
fanfare and the audience sang "God Save the Queen." The Lord Mayor welcomed
her and she spoke, officially opening the centre and thanking all of us for
being there to help celebrate her Golden Jubilee. I'm not sure why it was
so much more thrilling to hear her speak over the P.A. system than on TV,
but it really was exciting to feel that she was speaking to us.

The show was loads of fun. Emcee'd by Torville & Dean, it included numbers
by local skaters and synchronized skating team and the current British
National Champions, as well as international stars: Steven Cousins, Sasha
Cohen, Kurt Browning, Kristi Yamaguchi, Ilia Kulik, Anissina & Peizerat, and
Berezhnaya & Sikharulidze. Jason's favorite program was Sasha Cohen's
routine with a rhythm gymnastics ribbon--it is a very cool piece. My
personal favorite was a number choreographed by Christopher Dean for some of
the hockey players and speed skaters--that's something we're unlikely ever
to see again. At the end, Christopher Dean thanked the Queen for her first
fifty years and lead us all in three cheers for her. Then she descended to
the ice to speak with some of the skaters before heading off to a
reception. They held us in the arena for about ten minutes, giving her time
to get through the halls, then released us. We went out and stood at the
barricades on the street to watch her drive by in her Rolls, before heading
back to the hotel for an entirely passable dinner in the dining room there.
Beckie had a duck salad and chicken grilled with parma ham, while Jason
tried their goat cheese bruschetta and Thai green chicken curry, and I had a
prawn cocktail and better-than-average ribeye steak. By the time we were
through with that, we were all exhausted and went straight up to bed.

After a substantial breakfast at the hotel buffet, we dropped Jason at the
train station to head directly back to London, while we set off for
Althorp. Just west of Northampton, the Spencer family estate is down a
series of tinier and tinier roads through small villages and large fields of
grazing sheep. We arrived just as the gates opened and were welcomed by a
very friendly supervisor with a lovely baritone. He encouraged us to take
the tram up to the stable block, so we hopped on and he explained that this
is a prototype electric vehicle that "His Lordship" was essentially testing
this season to see if it is worth the #250,000 it would cost to buy. B. was
initially puzzled as to who "His Lordship" might be, but eventually caught
on that he meant Charles, 9th Earl Spencer, the brother of Diana and our
host.

The estate has been set up very well for the 2000 visitors who flock there
each day during the brief open season. The tram took us up a tree-lined
drive through the fields on either side to the stable block. Looking like a
mansion anywhere else, this building of rich, honey colored stone contains a
cafe--with tables set in the former horse-stalls--and shop, as well as a
five part exhibition about the life of Princess Diana. The different
sections give information about 1) her ancestry and childhood, complete with
home movies shot by her father, 2) the wedding, including her wedding dress,
3) her dresses, 4) her funeral (including the handwritten text of her
brother's initial statement to the press and his eulogy--very interesting
what he crossed out, mostly regarding Dodi--and the handwritten music and
lyrics of "Goodbye England's Rose") and a selection of the more than 150,000
condolence books that have poured in from all over the world, and 5) The
Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Fund. We found the exhibits less
maudlin and bitter than they might have been, with less hagiography and more
emphasis on what a very human person she was. Having to walk out into the
courtyard to get between sections also kept the sadness from building up and
even B. didn't get more than misty-eyed in the process.

From there we walked up to the main house, a typical country manor, with
amazing rooms and furniture and art, including works by Van Dyck, Titian,
Rubens, Lely and Gainsborough. My favorite room was the library, a
wonderfully light room with built-in shelves running the more than 100 foot
length of the room. It was good to see not only antique volumes, but recent
novels and non-fiction works on the shelves and tables. It is a gorgeous
house, but very obviously a place where people still live.

Continuing on the visitors' route, we strolled through the park to the
"Round Oval Lake." Eavesdropping on other visitors, we found we were not
the only ones to wonder what a "Square Oval" might be like. It began to
pour down on us, but we were suitably equipped and the weather seemed
appropriate to the mood of the place. Diana is buried on an island in the
middle of the small, man-made lake, without any marker visible from the
shore. At the far side of the lake is a memorial in the form of a small
Grecian temple with a silhouette of the deceased and plaques displaying
quotations from her and her brother on the interior wall. Flowers left by
visitors are collected and dried and their petals added to a pile in the
"funeral" section of the exhibits.

We stopped back at the stable block to visit the shop, which has only a few,
very tasteful souvenirs to choose from. The cafe had a rather long line, so
we headed back to our car and went on down the road to a motorway rest area
before stopping to grab a sandwich.

We spent the afternoon in Oxford, looking up old haunts from the summer that
Beckie spent there with my parents in 1967. With no map, sketchy clues from
my father, and the help of a gentleman bicyclist, we managed to find the
house where they lived, the street where they shopped each day for food, the
duckpond that is B's primary memory of the place, the college where my
father was studying, and the church they attended. It was a busy day in
town and there were lots of busses for me to dodge, but the sun had emerged
and we had fun piecing it all together.

We made it back to London much more quickly than we had expected and I
gloried in my ability to drive all the way home without having to refer to
the map--after almost two years, its nice to have confidence in knowing
where I live! We ordered pizza and watched a BBC version of the Jane Austen
novel, _Northanger Abbey_.

On Friday it was back to the whirl of London. I made poached egg muffins
for breakfast and then Beckie and I returned the car. We hopped on the tube
and went down to South Kensington station. We were early, so we browsed the
shops around the station, finding a couple of wonderful places. We met
another London Walks guide, Helena, at the station and set off on a
highlights tour of the V&A. We made a couple of brief stops for Helena to
explain to us the history of the area around the museum and its development
as a center for culture and education, before entering the museum itself.
With over five million items in their collection and seven miles of gallery
space, Helena had to pick and choose what to show us. She mainly focused on
the new British Galleries, explaining to us at length the history of the
ornate music room saved from the demolition of Norfolk House, the
Macclesfield wine service, a statue of Handel, James II's wedding suit, the
Great Bed of Ware, a 17th century wassail set, the Dacre Beasts--large
carved wooden heraldic beasts, a 13th century embroidered bishop's cope, and
the largest Persian carpet in the world. After the tour Beckie and I took a
break for a drink in the cafe--B. got a free banana--and then I showed her
the Cast Courts, with their amazing centerpiece, a plaster cast of Trajan's
Column from Rome. We wandered through the 20th century galleries, the
silver collection and the jewelry vault before making a quick stop at the
shop and vacating the premises. On our way back to the tube we stopped in
the gardens of the Natural History Museum to see the exhibit of Yann
Arthus-Bertrand's stunning aerial photographs entitled "Earth from the Air."

We took the tube up to Bond Street and made it to Claridge's to meet Jason
for afternoon tea. Beckie seemed very impressed by the decor of this "art
deco jewel" and with their offerings of finger sandwiches, scones and
pastries, all washed down with endless cups of excellent tea. As usual, we
left there rolling--probably a good state in which to go grocery shopping.

Jason walked us to Green Park and then went back to the flat to work, while
we hit Harrods for snacks and souvenirs--Beckie even managed to find the
shrine to Dodi and Diana, with their last shared wineglass and the
engagement ring he had bought for her encased in glass.

On our way back to the flat, the train stopped at Finsbury Park, citing an
incident with the train ahead of us. We left the train, figuring to just
pop upstairs to catch the bus, but the stop there was closed for
construction, so we ended up dragging our tired feet for another four blocks
to the next stop. We made it home, still full from tea, and all read email
for several hours before breaking out the nosherai. We had picked up--hang
on while I get the list--squat lobster tails in brine (I think we'd call
them "rock shrimp"), cornichons (gherkin pickles), buffalo mozzarella with
cherry tomatoes in pesto, spinata calabrese (spicy salami, for Jason),
sliced rare roast beef, a lobster tail with salmon mouse in an avocado, an
enormous scallop shell stuffed with smoked scallops and wrapped in pastry,
crayfish & prawns in mustard-mayonnaise, boeuf bourguignon, smoked duck
breast, three kinds of cheese (Coolea from County Cork, Ireland; Oak-smoked
Cheddar from Somerset; and Caerphilly from Wales) with savory biscuits
described as "ideal with cheese," a baguette, and some florentines (cookies
of nuts and caramel on a chocolate base). We also cracked open some fois
gras, to make the meal complete. We didn't finish it all, but we managed to
sample everything, and mighty tasty, too.

On Saturday the three of us went down to the Palace of Westminster to tour
the Houses of Parliament. This was the first day of their Summer Opening
and they were still working the kinks out, but it was a good visit. Unlike
the last time we tried to go, the House of Lords was open, so we got to see
its neo-Gothic splendor, together with the only slightly less fabulous
robing room and peers' waiting room, as well as the main lobby, the House of
Commons, St. Stephen's Hall and Westminster Hall. Jason left us there,
lured by the thought of a hot salami sandwich at home, so Beckie and I had a
light lunch in their newly opened cafe. We tried to visit St. Margaret's,
the Westminster parish church, next to Westminster Abbey, but it was
inexplicably closed.

We had a nice walk down Whitehall, past Downing Street, the various lovely
government office buildings and the headquarters of the Horse Guards. We
passed through Trafalgar Square and down Northumberland Ave. to the Victoria
Embankment and strolled through the Embankment Gardens to the Savoy. I had
thought the show was at 3pm, so after picking up the tickets (idiotically,
without really looking at them), we explored the Savoy Hotel. We were
passing back by the theatre, thinking to walk along the Strand a bit before
showtime, when the chime sounded in the lobby asking all patrons to take
their seats, as the show would begin in 2 minutes. We dashed inside and
took our seats and _The Mikado_ began.

This was a revival of the production we had seen with Anne & George in
December of 2000. The cast had changed slightly. Poobah was the same, Koko
was not quite as good, but both Nankipoo and Yum-Yum were better than the
earlier version and this meant that the former two did not overshadow the
younger ones, creating a much more level cast. The woman playing Yum-Yum
was actually pretty this time, which helped a great deal.

After that delightful matinee, we strolled across Waterloo Bridge to the
Southbank Bankside complex that includes the National Theatre, National Film
Theatre, Hayward Gallery and Royal Festival Hall. We caught the last few
minutes of a puppet show outside the theatre, then browsed through the
bookstalls in front of the film theatre--protected from the returning rain
by the bridge abutment--until it was time for dinner. We met Jason at The
People's Palace inside the Royal Festival Hall for a repeat engagement of
the exquisite meal we'd had two weeks earlier with Susan & Daniel. I made
Beckie order the spiced herring starter and the chicken breast with bacon
and peas served over mash--she was dubious at first, but agreed that I had
not steered her wrong. Jason tried the the white gazpacho--a serious garlic
experience, with grapes!--and the salmon fillet. I had the carpaccio with
quail's egg again, but switched from the chicken to the veal cutlet, served
with an odd-but-good mixture of barley, chicory and grapes. For dessert
Beckie took the banana & pecan pudding with clotted cream and toffee sauce,
while I had the tarte creme with poached peach and Jason made do with a
glass of sauternes. The funniest moment came when we said no, we weren't
going to a show in the evening and our waiter said "I love you, too!" After
that delightful meal in that lovely atmosphere with a nice view of the
river, we rolled home on the bus that goes from the end of the bridge to
less than a block from our home.

We were expecting Regis & Claudia to arrive around ten-thirty, since their
flight landed around 8:30pm, but Immigration was all backed up and they
didn't make it to the tube until ten-thirty, so it was about midnight by the
time they got here. A glass of water and they were good for bed. Beckie
sacked out on one of our couches and her CPAP machine put her straight to
sleep.

On Sunday morning Beckie and I did a run to Sainsbury's, dropped everything
at home and hopped on the bus to Camden Town. We wandered through the
crafts section of the market and then down the Regent's Canal. Right after
passing through the London Zoo--the canal runs right by the aviary designed
by Lord Snowdon and the ungulate pens--we left the canal and crossed into
Regent's Park. We walked through the playing fields--a bunch of Americans
were playing softball amid the British cricketers and footballers--and the
waterfowl sanctuary to Queen Mary's Rose Gardens and out the George V gate to
Marylebone Road. Just as we passed Madame Tussaud's, with only a block to
go to the Baker Street station, it began to sprinkle, after being dry
through our whole walk. We ducked into the tube down to Oxford Circus,
where we changed from the Bakerloo line to the Victoria and when I sat down
on that train, Jason was right next to me. You just never know where you'll
find your husband!

We met up with Regis & Claudia (who had spent the past hour over at
Speaker's Corner, listening to rants) and Carol & Scott, who were passing
through London on their way to a cruise of the Baltic Sea, and saw _Bombay
Dreams_ the Andrew Lloyd Webber conceived-and-produced mixture of Western
musical traditions and Bollywood extravaganza with music, lyrics, book and
choreography by a host of talented folk. The reviews had been quite
negative, but we thought it was fabulous. It's a pretty standard story of a
poor boy becoming a star, finding love, and learning to respect his roots.
The music is wonderful and different, the actors were wonderful, the dancing
and staging were spectacular. I'm listening to the soundtrack right now and
it's fantastic and very danceable. We all thought it was a great show.

After the show we danced over to Olivo singing "Shakalaka Baby" the whole
way and piled into a corner of their small dining room. We had hoped
Barbara might join us, but that didn't work out. We all enjoyed a good meal
of Sardinian delights (more carpaccio and veal for me--other highlights
included cured venison with asparagus, linguine with crab, a couple of
excellent risottos, stuffed swordfish, and grilled lamb) and a chance to
catch up all around the table. Carol & Scott seem to be doing very well and
enjoying married life. She has just gotten excellent scores on the LSATs
and is thinking to go to law school next year, the renovations on their
house are finished, and they weren't singed in the recent Denver-area
fires, so life is good and it was great to see them, if only for an evening.

On Monday I started everybody off with a full English breakfast--complete
with grilled tomatoes, but I skipped the mushrooms and beans--knowing that
we were unlikely to get lunch. The five of us went down to Buckingham
Palace to visit the State Rooms on their first day of the short Summer
Opening, while the Royals are up at Balmoral. There was an enormous line,
but it moved along quite quickly. We bought guide books for the self-guided
tour, which took us in through the Ambassadors' Entrance, around the
Quadrangle courtyard at the center of the palace, and in past the Grand Hall
to the Grand Staircase with its portraits of Victoria's close relatives.
Through the Guard Room and the Green Drawing Room we passed into the Throne
Room with its elaborate gilt ceiling and a Grecian-style frieze depicting
key events in the War of the Roses. From there we went through the picture
gallery, with some lovely works by artists including Rembrandt, Van Dyck,
Canaletto, and Rubens. The State Dining Room is an elaborate fantasy in red
brocade and gilt silver plate, which leads to a series of galleries
connecting to the Ball Supper Room--currently displaying a selection of the
many gifts from foreign heads of state during the Queen's reign--and the
Ballroom, where the organ--originally built for the fabulous music room we
visited at the Royal Pavillion in Brighton--that has not worked for over a
century has finally been restored and was being played publically for the
first time during our visit. From there we passed back through the dining
room to a series of drawing rooms: the Blue, the Bow (now the Music Room),
and the White--where Victoria & Albert's gilt and painted grand piano
reminds visitors of the many concerts enjoyed by them in these rooms.
Through the Ante-Room and down the Minsters' Staircase, we passed through
the Marble Hall, alongside the Grand Hall, and into the Bow Room, where the
Queen Mum's 100th birthday luncheon was held in 2000. Doors lead outside and
down the steps to the garden, where Elizabeth's famous garden parties are
held each summer. The grounds of the palace are quite extensive and after a
brief stop in the shop--during which the thunderstorms began again--we were
lead down the garden path to the exit on the opposite side of the palace
complex from our next stop, the Royal Collection.

We made our way back around three sides of the square to the entrance to the
Queen's Gallery, which has just been reopened as part of the Jubilee
celebrations, after being closed for several years for renovation and
enlargement. The works now exhibited include paintings by Rembrandt,
Vermeer, Cuyp and Van Dyck; nifty and beautiful furnishings; works on paper
by Holbein the Younger, Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rubens; manuscripts from
the Royal Library; watercolor depictions of rooms in the various royal
palaces through the years, often including views of other works in the
collection, as they were displayed in those rooms at one time; fabulous
jewels--including Queen Mary's usual diadem and the Cullinan
Brooch--porcelain, silver plate, golden boxes, jewelled Indian metalwork and
seventy pieces by Faberge. Sadly, the Nash Gallery was closed, so we did
not get to see the works of art exhibited there, which include paintings by
Reynolds, Gainsborough, Lawrence and Copley; sculpture by Canova; furniture
from France, China and India; as well as the Jubilee portrait of the Queen
by Lucian Freud. The docent outside that door told B. that "there are a
variety of opinions" about that one, but I've only heard one--negative--view
expressed. Jason and I will hope to return to see that and the other works
for ourselves before we leave.

We were running a bit early for dinner, so took our time in the shop, where
I found a book containing the illustrations, translated text and commentary
on the _Padshahnama_ ("King of the World"), the unique official description
of part of the reign of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who controlled much
of Northern India in the mid-17th century and is mainly famous to Westerners
for the construction of the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his favorite wife. Four
illustrations from this manuscript were my favorite pieces on display, so I
am excited by the opportunity to see the other 170 and read the accompanying
text.

Leaving the palace at last, we went back around it to Noura, a very nice,
modern Lebanese restaurant. We were too tired to choose from their list of
over fifty hot and cold meze (small plates, like tapas) and almost as many
mains, so we picked one of their set meals for the whole table. That got us
hoummus, moutabal (their version of babaganoush), tabouli, smoked eggplant
and tomatoes, cheese sticks, spinach dumplings and a variety of lamb ones,
with wonderful fresh pita. That was just for starters and was followed by a
mixed grill and lamb/cracked wheat balls in a yogurt-and-spinach sauce.
When we thought we couldn't eat any more, they brought us a selection of
own-made ice creams (mango, chocolate, pistachio, and rose-water) and a
plate of various baklava-like pastries. It was all delicious and deadly,
with so many little bites that we all ate more than enough before we'd even
realized it. We strolled up to Hyde Park Corner, with a brief detour
through Belgrave Square to see the building housing the new London RedHat
office, where Jason works on Thursdays.

Popping up to Leicester Square, we decided it was cool enough, even without
the air conditioning repaired, to see _Bend It Like Beckham_ at the Odeon
Mezzanine there. I had been trying to get Beckie to see it since she
arrived, so it was great to squeeze it in on her last night. Everyone
enjoyed it and it was fun to see the heroine of _Bombay Dreams_ playing a
BBA bitch from Hounslow. Jason didn't join us, deciding it might be good to
get some work done on a weekday.

In the morning, I managed to just about stagger everyone's schedule
correctly. I had gotten Regis & Claudia 10am tickets to tour the Houses of
Parliament, so they had to be out by nine, giving Jason a chance to shower
and be out by ten to catch his train to Cambridge, leaving Beckie an hour to
shower and be ready to leave at eleven for her flight home. Whew! It was
sad to see her go and the flat felt very strange so empty, but it was a bit
of a relief to have some time to myself. Claudia had clued me in to some
really excellent Spike-focused Buffy fan-fiction available online, so I
spent a lot of the day just reading that.

Wednesday was more of the same, with somewhat more productivity and a chance
to talk to my parents and sisters again. Beckie made it home pretty
smoothly, with the biggest hassle being an hour's wait for her luggage in
Boston. Regis & Claudia spent yesterday exploring London via a
hop-on-hop-off bus tour, followed by pub food and a ride on the Thames.
Today they are taking a tour of Salisbury, Stonehenge and Avesbury, with a
plan to meet for sushi at Mornington Crescent.
lillibet: (Default)
Our quick weekend hop to Zurich started with a tube ride on Friday
afternoon. The process of flying out of Heathrow is always an exercise in
hurry-up-and-wait--dash up the hill, run for the train, sit for an hour,
dash through the airport, check in, run the security gauntlet, wait for a
couple of hours. We got some food in the terminal--pizza for me, a chicken
& bacon foccaccia sandwich for J. and a Caesar salad split between us--and
then discovered that due to a runway closure earlier in the day, most
flights were running about two hours late. We found seats in the crowded
waiting lounge and settled in, but after only ten minutes, were called to
our gate and took off less than an hour late. It was a fairly clear night
and we got a great view of Paris, with the illuminated Eiffel Tour clearly
visible.

With no luggage to wait for, we breezed through the Zurich airport and
jumped on the train into Zurich center before realizing that our hotel was
actually quite a ways out. It was eleven by then, so rather than sorting
out the trains any further, we just hopped in a cab.

Check-in at the Swisshotel Zurich was easy enough and our room was
reasonably pleasant, although we didn't find the bed very comfortable and
the sheets irritated both our skin--must be the detergent they use. It's a
business hotel, chosen because that's where Linda's conference was, and we
were concerned at first that we'd be too far out of things, but with a train
station just across the street, it was actually quite convenient.

On Saturday we set out to see the town. Our first stop was at the Kunsthaus
Zurich, the main art museum. They had an eclectic collection oddly
scattered around a building that has been added to again and again to create
a strange maze of galleries. One of our discoveries there was the work of
Agosto Giacometti, Alberto's cousin, whose style reminded us of Mucha's
work. Another was Felix Valloton, whose vivid colors and stark lines
appealed to me. We were very amused by a Magritte that was new to both of
us, entitled "The Sixteenth of September" and were disappointed they didn't
have a postcard of it. They also had one of the prettiest Picasso pieces
I've ever seen. Their special exhibit was called "Sade Surrealism" and was
an exploration of the themes of eroticism in surrealist works.

Leaving there, we stopped into the Fraumunster, a church built for the noble
ladies of Zurich around the turn of the last milennium. Its current claim
to fame is a series of stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall that
we found enchanting. After staring at them for a while, we walked back
across the Limmat River and up the stairs to the Grosmunster, where we saw
some windows designed by Agosto G. that we didn't like nearly as much as
either his paintings or the Chagall windows--too dark and cluttered, like he
didn't really "get" the medium. In the crypt we found a very strange statue
of Charlemagne that used to adorn one of the niches elsewhere in Zurich.

Slipping back out of the church, we wandered through the pedestrian alleys
of the Old Town, looking at antique shops and candy stores and a
"schnappsboutique." We stopped into a coffee shop for a drink and snacked
on a wonderful slice of apple pie with a cinnamon almond crust. At that
point we were facing the dead zone of the touristic day, when all the shops
and sites are closed, but it's not time for dinner yet. So a brief stop
at the hotel, we went to the movies and saw _Ocean's Eleven_. It was
amusing and fun to watch without being particularly notable.

I had been suffering from a nagging, low-level headache all day and during
the two hours in the cinema, it bloomed into one of my Top Five Worst
Headaches of All Time. I thought my head was going to explode--pain so bad
I was nauseated by it. We headed back to the hotel as quickly as possible
and got me pain relievers and a dark room. After about an hour's nap, the
ache had receded to bearable proportions and by the time we'd eaten
dinner--room service, since I wasn't feeling up to going out--I was fine.
Since the last time I had one of these (and the first time in years) was
about 24 hrs. into our Italy trip, my theory is that it is a delayed
reaction to flying, that I'm not working hard enough to repressurize my
inner ear. I hope it's true and knowing this will help me to avoid the pain
in the future, by taking decongestants in a timely fashion.

We were waking up on Sunday morning when Linda called to say she had
arrived, she was not only in the same city with us, but in the very same
building and she was going to sleep. We partook of the hotel's excellent
breakfast buffet (real American style bacon!) and then popped into town and
went to the Helmhaus, an art gallery housed in yet another old church. They
do temporary exhibits of contemporary works. Currently they are showing
photographs from Afghanistan by Faizal Sheik--the most striking image was a
woman in full burkha that brought to mind a hazmat isolation suit--and
something called Wald/Explosionen, which consisted of photographs, video and
an installation depicting forest, explosions and explosions-in-forests.
Jason was very amused by a section title in the catalogue that read "Was ist
Wald? Was ist Explosionen? Was ist Wald/Explosionen?"

After an hour there, we walked back to the train station along the opposite
side of the river and headed back to the hotel to meet Linda. It was so
good to see her! The three of us went back into Zurich (hurray for day
passes!), grabbed a quick lunch--seafood bisque and sandwiches--in the train
station, and set out to find the Stiftung Sammlung E.G. Buehrle. This
private collection, housed in one of the former homes of the collector, was
well worth the ~45 minute walk. In addition to a substantial sampling of
medieval art, Buehrle amassed quite a group of French Impressionist and
post-Impressionist works. One of the best sets was four different Van Gogh
works on one wall, one each from 1884, 1887, 1888 and 1890, illustrating the
wide changes in his style over his relatively short working life.

We stayed until closing time and were glad to just walk down the hill and
hop on the tram back into the center of things. We wandered through the
mostly closed shops of the Old Town, pointing out the coolest ones we'd
found to Linda. It was too cold to enjoy wandering for long, so we went to
Adler's for fondue. We share a fondue bourguinnone (hot oil in which to
dunk various meats and a selection of sauces to season them) and a cheese
fondue that Jason especially enjoyed and washed it all down with some very
nice beer.

Filled and warmed we went back to the hotel and spent a couple of hours in
Linda's room, drinking tea and playing with the toys she'd brought for her
cousins' kids, whom she will visit in Germany after the conference. When
Linda's eyes could no longer be propped open by juicy gossip and discussion
of current events, we left her to sleep and went back to our room to watch
BBC World and CNN until we fell asleep.

This morning we had breakfast with Linda and then she started her conference
while we packed up, checked out, and caught the free shuttle to the airport.
Because of fog in London earlier in the day, our flight was held, but they
boarded us on time in the hopes we might get an earlier slot. No such luck
and we eventually landed about 45 minutes late, at 1pm. Then we had to sit
in the plane while we waited for a bus to come out and fetch us to the
terminal. Usually that's just a matter of a few hundred yards, but this
time we got a real backstage tour of Heathrow, winding through the offices
and baggage handling tunnels for almost ten minutes before finally reaching
Terminal 1. We zoomed through the concourse to the Immigration barrier,
confidently handed over our passports and then became more and more confused
as the official asked me all these questions about wasn't I working in the
UK and hadn't I ever worked and why didn't I have a dependent visa in my
passport. I offered to show it to her and she handed me Jason's passport!
No wonder she was confused! That straightened out we hurried on past
baggage claim and customs and were on the tube by 1:30pm.
lillibet: (Default)
Having spent Tuesday lazing around, recovering from Ireland, planning to
clean like a madwoman on Wednesday in preparation for Rob's arrival on
Thursday, I was fairly shocked to answer the door on Wednesday morning to
find Rob standing on the doorstep. We'd miscommunicated his arrival date!
So there he was and wonderful to see him.

Read more... )

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