Monday, August 31, 2009

Wellcome to London

I apologize now that I was not allowed to take photographs at the subject of this weekend's London exploration, the most unique and stomach-twisting museum I've ever been to: The Wellcome Foundation.

We went to see an exhibition called Exquisite Bodies, which chronicled the history of anatomical models. It was part curiosity, part history of public health, with a healthy dash of circus freak show thrown in for taste.

The exhibition was fascinating (and free! I Love London!) but the real event was the exhibition about the foundation's namesake, Sir Henry Wellcome. He accrued an eccentric collection of oddities from the far flung corners of the world, the likes of which belonged more, I think, in the pages of a Steven Millhauser short story than in a modern and surgically clean gallery in London. Here's a list of some of my favorite items:

torture chair with seat and back of blades
19th-century yet graphic painting of a birth
Buddhist/Shinto shrine
various reliquaries
scarificator
bleeding bowl
Lord Nelson's razor
Charles Darwin's walking stick (ivory shaft with a whalebone skull on top)
patches of tattooed skin
a copy of the 'Pain-Killer Polka'
Napoleon's toothbrush
brass corset
Chinese shoes for bound feet
collection of glass eyes
ram's head snuffbox
a mummy curled in the fetal position
Nepalese ceremonial headdress in which the top is the top of a human skull
shrunken head
guillotine blade
fragment of Jeremy Bentham's skin
lock of King George III's hair
gall bladder
Victorian chastity belt
phrenological skull
large range of surgical instruments
artificial limbs
leper clapper
and a chamber pot with the following poem inscribed:

On Your Marriage:
This Pot it is a Present Sent
Some mirth to make is only Meant
We hope the same you'll not Refuse
But keep it safe and oft it Use
When in it you want to Piss
Remember them who sent you This.

Paris Paris Paris

On Monday morning, our trusty crew of six boarded the train to Paris (thank God — and by that I mean engineers and public transport infrastructure — for the Channel Tunnel). We were pretty tired.

But by the time we got to Paris, we were geared up and ready to go. We started with the incredible Saint-Chapelle, a church with some of the largest and oldest stained glass windows anywhere in the world.




It's also only a few blocks from Notre-Dame Cathedral.





The inside of this famous, iconic cathedral is surprisingly plain, especially given how beautiful and ornate the interior of Strasbourg Cathedral is, and that's nowhere near as well known.

Also on the first day, we were inaugurated to Parisian cuisine: ham and cheese. I'm pretty sure that about 90% of what I ate over our three and a half days was either bread, ham, cheese, or some combination thereof (oh yeah, and wine). So after some awesome foot-long hot dogs with melted cheese on the square in front of the cathedral (we ate soooo much on this trip), we had a break, a nap, and headed out to Bastille.

It was the night before Bastille Day (France's Independence Day), so the area was packed, and we chose a Spanish tapas restaurant. Adam and I liked it.



So did the girls.



It was Steph and Julie's first time in Europe, so they were pretty apprehensive about ordering from a menu in both French and Spanish — without English — but once they found out how good the food was, they let their worries go.



We started the next day, our first full day in the city, with a trip to Montmartre and one of the most distinctive churches I've ever seen: Sacre Coeur Basilica.



Other sights that day included the Moulin Rouge (lame),



the top of Notre-Dame (the gargoyles are incredibly cool),




and the highlight of our time in Paris: the Bastille Day fireworks by the Eiffel Tower.




It's hard to describe such an unique and masterful show — it was, without a doubt, one of the most incredible travel experiences I've ever had. The light show projected on the tower made it look like it was twisting, dancing, even jumping with the music. The crowd, the park, the atmosphere — just being with our friends who we had missed for so long in such extraordinary surroundings — it was electric.

Our last full day in Paris started out with a trip to Versailles, an elaborate palace on the outskirts of the city that has been used for diplomatic purposes for centuries. Among other uses, the treaties that ended the American Revolutionary War and World War I were signed here. As a tourist site, however, it's not nearly as interesting as some other palaces we've been too. For example, in a gallery, the walls were not covered in marble but wood painted to look like marble.



And the famous Hall of Mirrors (below) isn't really that spectacular if you've seen the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museum.



In fact, my favorite thing about Versailles was its overwhelming garden. We went for a boat ride on the lake,



and found a bizarre collection of beautiful buildings — too small for royals, too adorable for peasants — in a back corner. To give you some sense of the size of these grounds, these little houses were a mile or more away from the main palace.




There was still one important landmark in Paris we hadn't conquered: the Eiffel Tower. Sure, we had seen it from afar the night before, but to stand near the thing — and to go to the top — was our goal.

The Eiffel Tower is a little like the Empire State Buliding or the Colosseum in Rome — it's impossible to explain to someone how enormous it is. However big you picture it being, when you see it for the first time, you'll still be floored.




Standing underneath it, even with my wide angle lens, I can only capture part of the awesome sight.



I did climb up and touch it though!



That night, we took the elevator up as far as they would let us — the top was closed for some reason. And it was magic.




And so, on Thursday, we made our way to the airport for the second leg of our odyssey: Italy. Bon voyage!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Proms - Zinman - Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra

I was expecting to like tonight's concert; in general, I'm quite a fan of Osvaldo Golijov, and even an adequate performance of Mahler's Fourth Symphony is a moving experience. I was surprised, then, that despite the Golijov, I enjoyed the concert more than I thought I would.

David Zinman is a big name conductor (he is the music director of the Zurich Tonhalle and in the summer teaches conducting at Aspen), but I'd never seen him conduct before. He is tiny, like a kind of pocket conductor; not that it matters, because he is fantastic. The Schubert overture was well-matched to his stately, glowing style that he gets from the orchestra so well. Golijov's Four Schubert Songs were rather dreary, but the Mahler was pretty close to perfect. Perhaps a bit too stately and subdued at times for my taste, but nonetheless accomplished.

The orchestra, frankly, was better than the Budapest Festival Orchestra (who were excellent) and the Bavarian Radio State Orchestra (all I could hear was Mariss Jansons grunting) — both of whom have better reputations than the Zurich Tonhalle. And it was refreshing to see Zinman only conducting what was needed. He kept the needless waving to a minimum, and it was reflected in more focused music.

Next week, two firsts for me: the Concertgebouw Orchestra (maybe this time I won't be able to hear Mariss grunting) and David Robertson. Oh, how I love the Proms...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Travel Schedule II

Now that our first round of traveling is past (culminating in our glorious July trip — I will finish my posts about the trip, I promise), we've turned our attentions to our next round of European exploits.

So here goes...

August 22-23: Edinburgh
September 10-13: Austria (and Mom comes to visit! It's about time!)
October 10-11: Nice and Monaco
October 17-18: Prague
November 28-29: Cologne and Brussels Christmas markets

But we haven't yet booked tickets for the trip I'm looking forward to the most: coming home for Christmas.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Typical Weekends...

...aren't so typical in London. Last weekend, for instance: Cambridge. Next weekend: Edinburgh. So what did we get up to this weekend? Just, a regular, laid-back weekend at home, right? Well, sort of.

Teriann and I finally went out to Hampton Court Palace. I went with Matt back in April, and ever since, I've been trying to get Teriann out there.

It's not as posh as more modern palaces — instead, it's grandiose in a 16th century sort of way. At the same time it is both magnificent and a reminder that the Renaissance had not yet arrived in England.

And in celebration of Henry VIII's anniversary year (they are apparently quite proud of what a monster he was), they're fixing the place up. This courtyard was just a patch of soil in April, and since then, they've recreated what a Tudor garden might have looked like.




The grounds were, as usual, in full bloom.



Here is where the oldest grape vine in the world (about 1750, they think) is kept. The ground where the roots are is kept unplanted so the vine doesn't have to compete for nutrients, and the shoots are wound inside the specially-built greenhouse. Yes, there's a plant in London that is older than America.



The chimneys in the background stick up throughout the palace, and I think they were a source of inspiration for Antonio Gaudi, the one-of-a-kind architect who shaped so much of Barcelona. It's a comparison I wouldn't have been able to make the first time I went to Hampton Court because I had not yet been to Barcelona.

Compare for yourself:




And another thing I didn't notice the first time: Sir Christopher Wren, the architect who designed St. Paul's Cathedral — and just about every other church in London — lived right across the street!



That night we went to a rock concert in a grubby little bar in Soho; one of our housemate's friends is in a band (Badtown and the Rockers) and has been staying with us for a few weeks, so we thought it'd be a good time to go see the show. For someone that is more accustomed to seeing a symphony than a rock band, I had a great time and the band was surprisingly good.

The last event of the weekend was the London Mela, an Asian/mostly-Indian festival in our local Gunnersbury Park. Though the website looked cool, it was clearly more developed than the event itself, which offered mediocre carnival food, endless sponsor tents (Ford? Really?), and not much else. There was nothing particularly Asian about the music either; there were several stages blaring pop music that was unmistakably Western, regardless of which language it was sung in.

The only thing that saved it from being a complete loss were three bizarre dinosaurs walking around. The costumes were cleverly built around performers on stilts, and to alleviate the burden of being realistic, were gleaming chrome.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Gang in London

July 9th was a day Teriann and I had been waiting for for months. Finally the morning came and the three of us (Adam had been here for a week — practically a local!) went to Heathrow to get Stephanie and Art.

Teriann was supposed to go to work that day, but she called in sick. Since Steph and Art thought that only Adam and I would be picking them up, Teriann hid while we greeted them. Just as I was explaining how sorry Teriann was that she couldn't make it, out she popped from behind a column! Totally worth it.

We brought them home to drop off their bags, and instead of immediately hitting up London's top tourist sites, the boys hit up the beer bong that had been such a hit at the Fourth of July party. Yes, we are wearing matching hats.



When we finally got on our way, we had lunch at the Lido in Hyde Park (still the best place for lunch in London in my book) and rummaged around Hyde Park and Oxford St. Here, I knight Art with a tree branch.



By the time we got to Piccadilly Circus, our fellow travelers had to take a break. 16 or so hours of sitting on a plane will do that to you! After a nap and a barbecue in our garden, we went down the road for a quiet night at the local Red Lion and Pineapple.

Friday saw four major events. 1) Photo shoot by Big Ben.






2) An incredible tour of Westminster Abbey by Graeme (who, in addition to being far more interesting than the audio tour, let us into the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor and got us seats in the Choir for Evensong. From further away in the Abbey, any music sounds like it's underwater, but up close, hearing that choir is a transporting experience.

3) A Little Night Music. Stephen Sondheim's 1973 musical is a great show and the performance we saw was excellent. In a harrowing coincidence, Julie (whose flight had been delayed four hours) arrived just in time for the curtain, storing her luggage in a usher's closet.

4) Our first night out as a group since January: a rip-roarin' good time at the Redback worthy of our best nights last summer.

Saturday saw us hitting up Hyde Park again to partake in our favorite London tradition: squirrel feeding.




Adam, however, took a shining to another kind of wildlife: pigeons.




After a trek through the city and a snack at my second-favorite place for lunch in London (the World Food Cafe in Neal's Yard), we played on the lions in Trafalgar Square, dragged our weary feet through the British Museum, and wearily wondered what to do next.



Dinner was just the thing. I've always been suspicious of chains like Bella Italia, but my reservations were completely unfounded: our meal was fantastic (possibly the best of the whole trip) and the bottles of rosé helped too. I've never really cared for wine, but that night was a turning point: the first time I've actually enjoyed it, and the first of several affectionately-named 'wino nights' of the trip. Again, an epic, summer-grade night ensued!



On our last day in London (as a whole group), we did the two biggest attractions: the Tower of London and the London Eye.




One last thing: our plan was to pack and catch a late-night screening of Bruno. While packing, however, we discovered that we had run out of time. We would need to leave immediately to make the showing we had planned on, and we weren't packed. We sat wondering what to do, whether to go to a later show or not at all, when Teriann had a brilliant idea: "Guys, let's go right now!" We looked at each other for a second, and burst into motion, pulling on shoes and frantically grabbing keys. Sure, we only got about two hours of sleep before getting on the early train to Paris the next morning, but hey — what else is vacation for?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Cambridge

Teriann and I weren't really planning on doing anything this weekend. But then our friend Mary, who has been studying in Cambridge for the past five weeks but is going back home tomorrow, said we should come up for a Saturday. What were we gonna say... no? We haven't seen that much of the UK outside London anyway (so far only Bath and Brighton) so off we went.

Mary was a terrific tour guide (I love traveling with a local), but even so we didn't do too much of the touristy stuff most people do; we didn't go in King's College (the choir only sings during term time) or Trinity College. Instead, we had a few drinks at the Anchor (the pub in which Pink Floyd was formed) and took a cruise down the river in a boat specific to Cambridge and the shallow River Cam: a punt. A punt is a completely flat boat that is propelled by a long stick — like a gondola. Punting is a centuries-old tradition in Cambridge, so why not join in?




Incidentally, if Brighton has seagulls, Cambridge has bees; they're absolutely everywhere, including on our punt and inside the Anchor.

One of the coolest things to see was the Mathematical Bridge, which, when it was built, didn't need bolts or fasteners of any kind to support someone walking across it. Students took it apart, however, to find out how it was built, and couldn't get it back together again. Here it is (with bolts, of course).



To walk on it, however, one has to enter Queen's College; so armed with our liquid courage from the Anchor, we snuck in to evade the four or five pound charge. Ha! Stick it to the man!