Monday, June 23, 2014

London: Day 5, Thursday

At the fish and chips shop, weird "Non Brewed Condiment"

My lovely Hokusai mug

The girls in the BBC broadcast booth. They're sort of hard to see, but that's them through the window, at that darkened table. Actually the better view of them is in that top monitor, second from the left. (Ignore the dudes in the way-background.)

Two items on the agenda:
  1. The British museum,
  2. A private tour of the BBC (as per Day 3's invitation from Lucy).
The morning was clearer. We got a late start. By the time we made it to the middle of things, we were already hungry and decided to grab an early fish and chips lunch. (Yes, our diet does seem to have consisted almost entirely of fish and chips and Indian food. Not so bad.) We found a funny little no frills place run by eastern Europeans, not far from the museum. It wasn't a culinary pinnacle, but it was hearty and filling. (They didn't have vinegar for the chips (fries). They had variously flavored (excuse me, flavoured) things labeled "Non Brewed Condiment". What does that mean? Aren't most condiments non-brewed?)

The British Museum: I confess, I'm a culture-less Neanderthal. I tend to find museums overwhelming and exhausting. And the British Museum was especially so. It's a beautiful building, with a gorgeous sky-lit atrium, but it's enormous and so full of deeply culturally significant treasures that the head reels.1 Sarah, who finds museums invigorating, was on fire, eagerly traipsing from one beautifully chiseled rock to the next. The rest of us tried to keep up. We passed through the mob-scene Egyptian exhibit with its mummies. I did, myself, finally light on fire when I learned that the museum contained an original Hiroshige print2 (one of my favorites), and I dragged the gang up to the obscure back-of-the-top-floor Japanese exhibit (which included other cool stuff like a full samurai suit of armor) for a gander. After all the varied gazing and wandering, we finally settled back in the atrium for a respite. Gift shop: I purchased my sole London keepsake, a nice little mug with a rendition of Hokusai's "Under the Wave, off Kanagawa."3 Food court: They served espresso, which helped alleviate the museum-daze.

The BBC was the surprise treasure of the visit. We met Lucy in the lobby, where she signed us in and got us visitor's passes. (I don't think the BBC gets many whole families traipsing around its inner depths. As Lucy brought us through security, she joked, "And this is my herd," to which the guard quietly responded, "Large herd.") It's a tremendous building, the kernel of the old original building, which then, over the decades (as Lucy explained) received many ad hoc add-ons, growing in a sort of U-shape, and then, more recently, underwent a massive and successful modernistic resuscitation: a groovy many-story beehive of industrious news gathering and dissemination. (The standard format throughout the building was open-air workspaces, with each person having their own little station with a computer and a phone and whatever else they needed.4)

Lucy led us past the main TV news studio, with its anchor people in funny off-camera down-time. We wandered around the perimeter of the main giant news-room. Y'know how when you're watching the news and there's a whole bunch of people off behind them doing industrious-looking news gathering work? That room. (It's conceivable that at some point during one of the main BBC newscasts, we were teeny-tiny dots in the background.) She led us (again, as the lead sound engineer) into one of the small recording booths, where on the other side of the glass, one of those ladies with the perfectly polished BBC accents read a brief radio news clip, which turned out to be something about the rape and abuse of young women in south Asia, which made everyone in the booth feel a bit awkward. No worries. Then the sound engineer gave a not particularly coherent explanation of how a sound-board worked: it's very simple, just one part over and over, and once you learn the one part you know the whole thing. (I'm sure he's right. We just didn't know what he was talking about.)

We moved on. It gets blurry. We took an elevator (each of the elevators plays a different BBC radio channel) up to the groovy pop-music channel floor, where with-it looking young staff  whisked about. We travelled down to the international news floor, where each of the major world regions has its own section. Above each section was a teeny sign identifying it, but they weren't really necessary: one could pretty easily tell from the composition of the staff what region each section covered; the Africa section had lots of Africans, etc. Ultimately we wound up in the main (unoccupied) recording studio for the BBC radio world service. Y'know, the studio where the BBC news comes from. Lucy set the girls up with earphones and mics and coached them on how to do a proper BBC news sign-off. Pretty friggin' cool.

Ultimately our tour ended. We thanked Lucy, returned our visitor's badges, and went to the gift shop. Sarah broke some stuff, apologized profusely, and bought a BBC mug. I got more coffee at the little cafe. Outside, it started pouring rain. We split up, Sarah and Louise off for a bit of tween shopping; Mom, June, and I headed home to rest our tired butts.

It stopped raining. The gang reunited back home. Indian dinner up the street. (Yes, fish and chips and Indian; an archetypal dining day.) After dinner (I think5), we revisited the foot-crushing playground. I wanted to swaddle Louise in bubble wrap, but she mercifully didn't break anything. Then back to the flat for some vegging in front of the telly.6 And again, sleep, sleep, sleep.

1 Of course, most of this deeply culturally significant stuff is stuff from other cultures, which has caused plenty of controversy in recent years, with some of the aforementioned other cultures wanting their stuff back. There were some unintentionally funny placards in the Ancient Greece exhibit that danced around the subject, obliquely alluding to the controversy but then saying how fortunate it was that these artifacts had been spared the degradation they would have suffered in the polluted environs of modern Athens.

2 As mentioned in one of the very first Slimbolala posts, in my youth, I went through a passionate (and idiosyncratic) Hiroshige fandom phase.

3 In addition to being lovely, the mug is also one-and-a-half times the size of our other mugs, allowing it to contain an extra-large dose of caffeine. I've been using it religiously since our return.

4 It's funny, in one sweep of the eye, seeing so many people in their workaday mode: some dressed upscale, some  down, some eating their lunches at their desk, some chatting with neighbors, some intensely focussed, some looking at Facebook (though I speculate that the Facebook-looking might have been for actual social-media news-research purposes; the open-air workspaces didn't afford much privacy).

5 My journal got sloppier as the days went by, starting with  multiple detailed pages, ending with a few chicken-scratched bullet points.

6 The brain needed an occasional respite from the overload of the sights. The family we were renting from had a set of Simpsons DVDs, which were in heavy rotation with the girls during their off-time. (Go to Europe. Watch "The Simpsons".) That night, we briefly delved into local network television but could never agree on what to watch. I wanted to watch a special on "the worst British football team ever". (I know nothing about British football but found the show wildly entertaining from a socio-cultural point of view. (Ooh! Ain't I fancy.)) Nobody else wanted to watch it. On a new BBC-phillic kick, Sarah wanted to watch the BBC news. (It was — briefly — entertaining to see news broadcast from the very spot we'd been earlier that day.) Nobody else wanted to watch it. June wanted to watch some trashy British talent competition reality show. Nobody else wanted to watch it. We reverted to the Simpsons.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Rain or Shine

The Swingers, in their snazzy white and red

Puddle dancing

The queen

We've settled into our summer pattern of afternoon storms. This afternoon it poured. But punctuated by rumbling thunder, the sound of a brass band came from the distance. And grew louder. And louder. A second line! Rolling right past our house! Despite the apocalyptic weather, the Uptown Swingers were marching their annual parade. I raced out into the storm, then dashed to join my neighbors on their porch for a better (drier) view. The second liners danced and smiled (in their soaked but snazzy suits), thoroughly enjoying themselves. The queen sat on the hood of her throne-car, waving her queenly wave. The king stood atop his float, laughing hugely, weather be damned. (Really, they seemed to be having even more fun than usual.) Rain or shine. Keep it going. You've got to respect that.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

London: Day 4, Wednesday

June, watching the guards watch us

The girls and mom (half-hidden in the back) in the flying car

So this time we didn't sleep in too late to see the Buckingham Palace changing of the guards: alarms set, up, coffee, dressed, out the door. The day was again gray, but the rain had eased. The bus again, this time to Buckingham Palace (Or close enough. There was a bit of walk, again with a straying blue map dot, but we followed the crowds and got there well enough.)

Word was, get there early if you want to see much — the crowds pile up towards guard-changing time. And we had indeed followed this advice: plenty early. So we got the girls stationed in an A-1 spot, right at the fence, straight line of sight to where all the shenanigans would be taking place. We spent a while watching the two guys out front (in their archetypal red uniforms with giant bear fur hats), marveling at how still they were, how tired they must get of just standing there all that time, gawking at their periodic perfectly synced struts back and forth. And we got tired of standing there all that time. The adults took turns wondering around, checking out the adjacent sites (as the girls vigilantly stood their watch).

We'd wound up next to a couple from Australia. He was originally from England and had served in the British navy. They wore matching race jackets with lots of patches. If they were American, I would have pegged them as NASCAR buffs, but in the Anglo-Australian context, I wasn't sure what the jackets signified. The man turned out to be a font of information, a total Brit-military buff, giving perfect narration as the guard-changing finally got underway: the bit of green worn by the one guard indicated he was Welsh; the guy in charge wore a red sash so if he got shot, his troops wouldn't see his blood and be demoralized; when the guys in red weren't being the guys in red, they drove tanks; the bear fur hats were maintained for generations (ooh, funky); today was a special once-a-decade changing of the colors;1 and much more. (It's possible I've mangled some of these factoids in my memory. And I can't independently vouch for the verity of his statements.)

The actual changing of the guard was far more complex and lengthy than I'd anticipated and has become something of a blur in my brain. Early on, some little band of red-jacketed guys showed up. Literally a band, banging and tooting. They were, surprisingly, out of tune (maybe tank drivers don't make the best musicians), but they were impressive nonetheless. Eventually a bunch of red guys wound up in formation, with the main guy (with the red sash) barking incomprehensible orders at them to fine-tune their positions. The red guys would shuffle slightly one way or another until their alignment was perfectly peachy keen. More stuff happened, the guy in the sash barking more incomprehensible orders, red guys marching back and forth in precise patterns. And then they all stood really still. At some point during all of this, a big real band (also of guys in red) had shown up, and they started playing: proper marches, and then, surreally, a Michael Jackson medley. More pop songs. More marches.

The girls were riveted. After a while, my attention started to wane. I eventually yielded my spot (for which I imagine the non-six-foot-three people behind me were grateful) and meandered about, watching the tourists watch the ceremonies. And finally it all ended. We hoofed back the way we came, stopping at a gift shop so the girls could blow some of their disposable vacation cash. June bought a stuffed Corgi ('cause y'know, the queen has corgis). And then our little group split up. Sarah went on her way for a little solo shopping and museum time. The rest of us headed on our way, in preparation for the day's other main event, a visit to Universal Studios, outside London, where they'd filmed Harry Potter! (The girls were very excited.)

The bus to the studios departed mid-afternoon from Victoria Station. We had time to kill. I found another little Indian restaurant. While we ate, older couples, the men in suits, the ladies in fancy itty little hats, kept walking buy. (I'd learned from watching Sarah watch the royal wedding a while back that these hats were called "fascinators".) But there was a slightly puzzling aspect: subtle little details of attire indicated that these couples weren't necessarily particularly "posh" — suits not quite expensive enough and so forth. Finally (happily), one of these couples came in and ate at the restaurant, and my mother, while standing in line for the bathroom (I mean "loo"), learned from the wife that the men were all former red-jacketed guards,2 and all the couples would later be attending some garden party in honor of the once-a-decade changing of the colors. Ah! Mystery solved.

At last, the bus to the studios. I took a nap (until June woke me up to ask me what time it was, even though my wide-awake mother was right there and could just as easily have informed her3). And at last, the tour commenced. The whole thing was a photo bonanza, everyone with cell phones out, snapping at everything in site. I leant June my camera, and during the tour, she took about a thousand (mostly blurry) shots. We wondered through the Great Hall and past many other sets, down Diagon Alley, and onward. It was indeed all very cool. My personal favorite part was actually the displays of the original artists' conceptions: the drawings (which were lovely, both technically and in the richness of their imaginings) and the models, fascinating to see the first steps from the written word to the visual representation. And of course the tour ended by shuttling us directly into the gift shop, where June spent about half-an-hour trying to figure out what to get, and eventually wound up with about fifteen pounds (money pounds) worth of Harry Potter candy. And then the bus home. The tube. More bus.


1 We weren't exactly sure what the "changing of the colors" meant. Apparently somewhere some significant flag was being swapped out. It didn't actually impact the actual ceremony we were watching, but at one point, a whole bunch of guys on horses, wearing shiny gold helmets (some of them playing instruments), rode by, headed off to wherever the color changing was actually occurring (and where supposedly, some important royal personage — the asserted personage varied — would be in attendance). Dunno. The guys on horses looked cool.

2 I keep talking about "red-jacketed guards". What are they really called? I wanted to call them "Beefeaters," but I think those are the red-jacketed guys at the Tower of London, not the palace. Hmm...

3 June always really likes to know what time it is.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

London: Day 3, Tuesday

The girls in Chinatown, post-lunch, armed with lollipop treats, now smiling and perfectly happy.

Tuesday wasn't as traumatic, no medical emergencies. We'd meant to get up and go see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, but still recovering from jet-lag, we slept too late. Alack alas. Other plans.

The morning: We went to Westminster Abbey, braving the ongoing steady rain. As a devout Anglophile, it was high on Sarah's to-do list: coronations, royal weddings, lots and lots of famous dead people, all the good stuff. I'll say it now: Westminster Abbey is crazy, just an insane amount of stuff going on: the tremendous ornate grandeur of the building itself; a bizillion little alcoves and grottoes, each of great import; and again, all the famous dead people. There were free little follow-it-yourself audio-tour-headphones-thing-a-ma-bobs, explaining, step-by-step, the historical significance of each location in the abbey. I found the combination of the over-the-top physical environment and the narration of some posh British guy waxing historic in my ear just too much — sensory overload — so I just walked around ooh-ing and ah-ing at the pretty/crazy stuff.1 Sarah and June completely geeked out on the audio tour, pure Anglophile delight.

Afternoon: Lunch. I'd identified a highly promising Chinese restaurant in London's tiny little Chinatown, a decent walk across the heart of the center city. And so I led the way, trying my best to follow the guidance of my phone-map, as our little blue dot marched through the twisty-turny streets.2 We passed some of the great sights of London: Trafalgar Square, St. James Park with its very-significant-horsey-marching-ground-the-name-of-which-I-can't-recall-right-now, many grand sights. The girls didn't give a damn. They were falling apart: hungry and wet (and in fairness, Louise was gimping along on her swollen potato foot). At last we arrived in Chinatown and — it seemed like a miracle — found the restaurant I sought. It was ridiculously good, real legit Chinese food. And after their bellies were full and blood-sugar levels returned to normal, everyone forgave me for the (supposedly) arduous journey.

Night: My parent's dear old friends live in London. We took an extensive journey3 to their house for dinner with their family. It was a lovely reunion. I had gone to kindergarten in Kenya with their daughter, Lucy,4 who was also there with her own offspring. We sat and ate and chatted about all sorts of things, comparing notes on life in England vs. the U.S. (I was informed that American and British toilets have entirely different "innards". I hadn't actually observed this myself.) And special treat: at the end of the evening, Lucy — who is the head sound engineer for BBC — invited us to come by the BBC headquarters for a private tour later in the week. Thank yous for the lovely evening were exchanged. And we made the long journey back home.


1 Funny moment: As the crowd herded past the sights, I spotted a middle-aged lady wearing a New Orleans Saints rain poncho, clearly a member of our own home tribe. I happened to have my own Saints hat tucked into my bag. (I wasn't wearing it, seeing as how we were in a church.) At one point, in one of the teeny grottoes (or alcoves or whatever it was), we passed close together. I discreetly pulled out my hat and flashed it at her and whispered, "Who dat?" She laughed and gave me a maternal pat on the arm, and we went on our disparate ways.

2 The GPS in London seemed to suck, because my little blue dot regularly became a big vague dot, drifting off into the middle of some block somewhere, leaving me at a loss as to which of the quaint little alleys we were supposed to follow. But despite the occasional mis-turns and double-backs, we always managed to get where we were going.

3 A little bit of bus, a lot of tube, a lot more bus, some walking. (London is huge. We were staying in the southern realms. They lived far to the north.)

4 Lucy, miraculously, was an adult. I suppose this shouldn't surprise me. We were the same age in kindergarten, and as temporal logic dictates, we're the same age now. Still, it's weird re-acquainting with someone one knew as a small child. The memory preserves things in stasis. Real time marches on.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

London: Day #2, Monday

Sarah, atop the injurious see-saw

June: the most monstrous yawn ever

Starbucks mocha-sump'n for "Louse"

Atop the London Eye.

Ah yes, the saga of Louise's severely mashed foot. We had gone to bed, crossing our fingers that it would be magically better in the morning. It wasn't. It looked like a potato with toes. Action was required. We googled and dialed.1 Sarah took Louise to the clinic/E.R./whatever-they-call-it. X-rays were done, and as mentioned, the foot was diagnosed as banged but not broken. They were out in no time at all. (We're accustomed to long hours in U.S. waiting rooms.) Free of charge. Vacation on. (Near) full speed ahead.

The weather had taken a decidedly "British" turn, the previous day's clear skies replaced by iron gray clouds and a steady drizzle.2 And everyone was still a  bit jet-groggy. We hopped on the bus and found our way to the Millenium Bridge, (a highlight because it's featured in one of the later Harry Potter movies) took a stroll across the Thames, wandered into St. Paul's, caffeined-up at an adjacent Starbucks (how very exotic),3 wandered back across the Thames, took brief refuge from the rain in the Tate Modern, then headed out to find a late lunch. I'd identified a promising fish and chips place a short bus ride away (fish and chips was on our check list), but the day was a bank holiday, and the place was closed. We wandered, semi-lost, finally finding a bustling pub near Picadilly station that did indeed have fish and chips (and ale). Bellies full, we trekked to the day's essential destination, the London Eye.

The London Eye — the northern hemisphere's largest ferris wheel, a dominant feature on the city's landscape — is a marvelous creation. The ladies had booked tickets in advance. I had thought I wouldn't ride. (I'm not absolutely wild about heights.) But when I saw its slow gentle turn, I changed my mind, bought a last minute ticket and hopped on with Sarah and the gals. It took the better part of half-an-hour to make the loop. And it was lovely. And the view was spectacular.

Home again. Sleep.

1 I'll mention now that we were traveling without operational cell phones.a I journeyed out to find a pay phone and call the NHSb hot line. I apparently headed in the wrong direction, walking many blocks through the rain into central Brixton, near the tube stop, where I finally found a row of pay phones. I chose the least repulsive. (I say the least repulsive. It was still phenomenally gross. It seemed like someone had peed on every square inch of the booth, include the actual phone handset. (I washed my ears when I got back to the house.)) I made the call, talked to a very polite man, who asked to speak to "the patient" directly, which I explained was impossible, and when I asked about going to the clinic/E.R./whatever-they-call-it, he asked for my postal code so he could tell me where to go, but I didn't know our postal code, and I after polite thank yous and goodbyes, I hung up with no more information than I'd begun with. I headed back through the rain to the house, getting lost for a while along the way. So Sarah gave it a try, armed with the postal code, heading out in what turned out to be the right direction, finding a nice clean phone booth a block away, made the call, and found out where to go/what to do. And then I journeyed back to her pristine phone booth to call a cab. The phone repeatedly rejected my strange British coins. A kind lady offered her cell phone, but our attempts to dial a cab — perhaps flubbing the exotic phone number formats — resulted in me  repeatedly mis-dialing some poor but patient gent. We asked at the grocery if they had a phone. They couldn't help. But then, magically, we found a dedicated "taxi phone" at the front of the store. Cab (finally) summoned.
a There were remedies that could have been taken, but they were hideously expensive. Sarah — again, the queen of research — figured out that, at Heathrow, we could rent a mobile wi-fi hotspot, which we toted around with us during our treks, at least giving our phones internet access for the duration. 
b National Health Service.
2 I actually hoped it would rain some. The year I'd spent there in my youth was their rainiest year in fifty years, and England, in my memory, was a gray/grey damp place. I, perhaps pettily, hoped my Anglophilic ladies would at least get a representative dose of English meteorological reality. Not that a little rain would stop us.

3 Starbucks inadvertently labeled Louise's beverage "Louse."

Friday, June 06, 2014

London: The Day of Jet Lag

Our first pints

Sleepy June, catching the sights

An overnight flight to Europe is a funny place, a gallery of people in odd sleeping positions:1 heads tilted back, mouths agape ("catching flies"); heads lolling to the side in neck pillows; the girls slumped forward over their fold-down tables (I couldn't fold my lanky form forward if I tried). We all caught a couple hours of sleep, not much. And our first day in the city was fogged by drowsiness. But that didn't stop us from getting out and about

The tube ride from Heathrow was long. A sweet young couple — him: nerd-punk; her: frump-chic — chatted with us. We saw a fox by the side of the tracks. June loves foxes and was very excited. The young man from the couple pleasantly commented: Oh yeah, city foxes — terrible dirty things.

Our agenda for the day was modest: get a traditional lunch-time Sunday roast at the neighborhood pub. The food was straight-ahead English meat and veggies fare, tasty. (Sarah, the queen of research — and a die-hard foodie — had found out all about this.) And it was our first of several forays into the world of British ales. (My last time in England was when I was eight. I didn't drink much then.) And after, on a whim, we hopped on the #3 bus into the heart of the city, making a round trip there and back again.2

And then naps for the fam. (I took a walk. I'm not generally a napper. I drink too much coffee.) Indian take out for dinner.3 And an early evening visit to the lovely adjacent park. (It was one of the couple of days of good weather during our trip. People were out in droves.)

The girls played at a fantastic playground. It had a see-saw. The adults discussed how, due to fears of injury, the U.S. no longer has see-saws. Minutes later, Louise severely mashed her foot while playing on it. (This launched a whole micro-saga, which I won't fully detail at this moment, regarding the woes of finding medical care in a foreign country, if the foot was broken,4 would we pay astronomical insurance-less fees, would she spend the rest of the trip on crutches, etc. Short version: The dilemna was solved. It was badly bruised but not broken. She successfully gimped around, crutchless, for the rest of the stay.)

And finally, deep slumber.

1 There were other notable features: meals (June was extremely excited about eating on an airplane; for me, it felt like a time warp back to when meals on planes were standard fare); the sociological entertainment of watching rush-hour patterns to the bathrooms (as soon as the seatbelt sign was turned off, after meals, when the "morning" lights were turned on...); eavesdropping on the stewardui's chatter and gossip (we were within earshot of the back gallery), etc.

2 The #3 bus proved key to our London sojourn, departing from right in front of our house, driving right into the heart of the city, and back. Taking it was like taking our own special £1.45 tour — with a soundtrack of multi-lingual chatter. (Riding the bus proved to be one of my favorite parts of the trip.) And at every one of the dozens of a stops, a posh automated British lady-voice said, "Three... to... Oxford Circus," which each time, left us expecting it to say, "Three... two... one," a weird little psychic jarring that will remain etched in our brains forever. (We took the #3 a lot.)

3 Much of the best food in England is the non-English food.

4 Louise was already travelling with a broken wrist from a previous incident. She's been on a bad injury-streak recently.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

London: "3 Haircut Sir?"

We rented a house in Brixton in the southern part of London, a very cool neighborhood — all sorts of folks from all over the world — outside of the tourist crush of the center of the city. (It reminded me of where we lived in Brooklyn way back in the day.) This barber shop was right around the corner: a very curious name. Is something lost in translation, or is it just plain old weird?

Monday, June 02, 2014

Oi! London! The Journal

So I took lots of photos and I kept a journal.1 In fact, here's a photo of my journal:2

Each day I wrote something: initially, a lot; later, less. But I did legitimately maintain it. Scatter-shot chatterings plus miscellaneous doodles. Most likely, I'll concoct some scatter-chatter and some snap-snaps into some posts and give a more detailed report of the several chapters of our little odyssey.

1 I'd briefly pondered the possibility of day-by-day blogging while I was there, but who wants to spend vacation time blogging about vacation time. (You never count your money while you're sitting at the table. There'll be time enough for counting when the dealings done.)

2 Oh, yeah. Half of it's updside-down. It was easier, just 'cause... well, supporting the right hand when writing on the right-hand page... whatever... it was just easier.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Oi! London!

On the bus

On the London Eye

Hmm, it's been very quiet around here. I wonder why. Oh, that's right. We were in London! More will be told...