Friday, March 26, 2010

Climbing Big Ben

Like the Eiffel Tower to Paris or the Statue of Liberty to New York, Big Ben is the most recognized symbol of London. Nothing else gives me quite the same 'Ahhh, I'm in London' feeling as to see it from Trafalgar Square, or over the river at night. Standing beneath it, in Parliament Square, I'm in the very center of London, its government, its history.

I've felt this ever since we first moved here; this is one of my favorite photos I've ever taken, and it's from our second day in the city.

I happen to be going on about this now, though, because this morning Teriann and I took a tour of the clock tower. We climbed all the way up to the inside of the clock faces and then up to the belfry, where at 10 a.m. sharp, Big Ben himself (the English are always keen to point out that, technically, 'Big Ben' only refers to the massive bell that tolls the hours — not the tower itself) rang out ten times while we stood about ten feet away.

The tour itself was absolutely incredible. The views from the Belfry were outstanding. Standing behind the faces of the world's most iconic clock was just as wonderful as I had imagined. And it was all made just that little bit better by the fact that this is one of the little benefits that comes with living here. You see, no tourists are allowed — one has to live in Britain to take the tour, and tickets are obtained through your Member of Parliament. The one downside, though, is that we weren't allowed to take pictures. Sorry — I'll have to stick with the stock photos from Parliament's website.

The tour started with the massive climb (we've done far worse — it wasn't too narrow) to the clock faces.

From there, it was up to the belfry. The guide gave out earplugs, and I had mine at the ready just in case, but I figured, how many times in my life will I hear the Westminster chimes from inside the clock tower? So I braved it, and what a sound. It was so loud, and I was so close, that I actually felt the initial strikes. It's been so rare that I've ever had that sensation that I don't really know what to compare it to. When you turn up the bass on a powerful stereo, sometimes you can feel it in your chest; but the bell was that loud across a wide and complex range of frequencies. It was exhilarating. Teriann and I were in the bell tower of St. Mark's in Venice when that started pealing, but this was much more intense.

We took one more look around at the view and headed down to the clock room. I knew that the clock was about 150 years old, but somewhere in the back of my head I'd always assumed that somewhere in the past century and a half, it had been updated to a modern system. Wrong. It's the same clock mechanism today that started ticking in 1859. And it's accurate to within a half a second.

It's kept that accurate by a team of clockmakers — one of whom was on hand to tell us that the first toll of our unforgettable 10:00 a.m. had been a quarter of a second late — who still look after it in much the same way they would have in Victorian times. They replace springs and tighten bolts; the clock mechanism itself, which is driven by a massive weight hanging through the length of the hollow tower, must still be wound by hand. If they didn't tend to this regularly, the weight would reach the ground in about three days and the clock would stop.

This website is pretty good... there's a video about the clock tower, more pictures of the inside, etc.

All in all, an unforgettable morning in the midst of a week otherwise crowded with work, work, and work.

Before I sign off, here are a few more of our favorite pics of Big Ben taken over the last year and a half.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Another weekend, another destination that we didn't want to leave, another... continent.

Istanbul is an incredible place. It has truly amazing sights and attractions, but it's also the kind of city that can catch you off guard: if you happen to look up from your path, the city tumbles down to deep, vibrant blue water on all sides; the skyline is softened by the arcs of domes and punctuated by proud minarets; seagulls swirl in flocks in the graying sky; beyond the water, hills roll away, more minarets, more domes... And I'm swept away.

Up close, too, it's a rich, rewarding place. The food and desserts are wonderful, the people are some of the nicest we've ever come across... and on and on. Enough. What did we actually do?

We arrived in the afternoon and set out from our hotel to do a bit of exploring, starting with the Grand Bazaar. If ever there was an idea taken to its absurd extreme, surely it's the concept of a market transformed into the Grand Bazaar. A photo would be useless — what amazes is how long one walks down passages crowded with stalls (largely selling the same things as their neighbors), all the while crossing further passages that extend to the right and left as far as one can see. It's a labyrinth. It makes suburban mega-malls of America look unambitious and hopelessly plain.

Many of the shops/stalls have barkers, but they're (mostly) not the aggressive, annoying kind. We struck up a conversation with one and, even though we had no intention of buying a Turkish carpet, let him show us some silk carpets that change color depending on the angle from which you look. There was also the most incredible assortment of colored-glass lamps and chandeliers I've ever seen. Here's one of our favorites.

The Bazaar is a bit of a sensory overload, so we basically walked straight through (which, mind you, takes plenty of time even in a straight line) up to the city's main harbor. The river that runs through the city is called the Bosphorus, and it is the dividing line between Europe on its west bank and Asia on its east. It branches off on the European side, so the city is divided into thirds, and the old town where we spent most of our time is surrounded on three sides by water.

From there, we took a ferry on an evening cruise of the river.

See what I mean about getting swept away?

Even the modern suspension bridge that links the European side to the Asian side is lit up in a kind of twinkling, glittering effect.

And when we got back to our hotel, the view from our hotel room was incredible.

In fact, the view from the breakfast terrace the next morning was something to see as well.

The building in the foreground (and in the night picture above) is the Blue Mosque, and in the background is the Aya Sophia. And if you drew a line through them, then continued the line into the distance, you'd get to our first stop the next morning: Topkapi Palace.

The sultans of the Ottoman Empire called Topkapi Palace home for centuries; like all such palaces around Europe, it's no longer in use — in favor of drab government buildings — and is instead a tourist attraction. It has the usual palace stuff (ornate banquet halls, crown jewels, etc.) but my favorite part was the complex in the corner furthest from the entrance. It also happens to be the corner of the peninsula, so the views are incredible.

You can see across to the military barracks on the Asian side of the city where Florence Nightingale practically invented nursing during the Crimean War.

There's a small museum there, but it wasn't open during our time in the city.

Teriann's favorite thing about the palace, however, was its band of feral cats. Cats and dogs roam the city, but they're all friendly and, for the most part, oddly clean. The encounter below, Teriann told me, was pretty much the highlight of her trip. Strange lady.

From there, we headed to my favorite thing we saw all weekend, the Aya Sophia.

It was completed in 537 — a thousand years before the great buildings of the Renaissance — when Istanbul was the Roman city of Constantinople. Built as a church, it was converted into a mosque and finally into a museum, somehow managing to stand through the centuries and regimes.

Let me explain something about Roman buildings. In Rome, you can see many ancient buildings, like the Coliseum, which is enormous but very much a ruin, or the Pantheon, which is incredibly well-preserved and beautiful but only the size of an average church. But the Aya Sophia is all three: ancient, preserved, and breathtakingly massive.

And right across the park is the Blue Mosque. To be honest, I was slightly ashamed that I had never been in any other religious building other than a church. Why should that be the case, especially since I'm not religious?

The building itself was spectacular, but it made me feel a lot like visiting the Vatican: at the same time that I was impressed by the structure, I was very aware of how deeply I disagree with some of the tenets of the religion.

More than anything, though, it made me interested in visiting other houses of worship, Hindu temples, synagogues, etc., in the future.

We ended that night with a whirling dervish show — which was pretty average. The ceremony was slow and reverent, but I, uninformed, was expecting something with a bit more energy.

Our last morning in the city was spent poking through a few shops on our way to another Roman-era attraction, the cistern. Essentially a giant holding tank to provide the city with water, it was built by the same Emperor who built the Aya Sophia. We had a limited amount of time before our flight back to London, so it seemed like the best option.

On our way, however, a local struck up a conversation with us. He guessed that we were Americans (in London they're more polite about it and guess Canadian... hehe) and told us that his son recently got married and lives in Queens, New York. We smiled, told him congratulations, etc... It's not uncommon to find yourself in small conversations with strangers. As I said before, the people are genuinely very kind. We asked where exactly we could find the cistern, and he changed his own direction: "Follow me."

He was still chatting up a storm: his son this, his wife that. "Come into my shop," he urges, "have a look around." Before we know it, we're not at the cistern but in his carpet shop, and he's showing us his old family pictures. I'm not kidding — he had a full-on black-and-white photo of a family, in which he pointed out which young boy was himself. Riiiiight.

Now all this is probably a little sleazy, but when we kindly explained that we weren't in the market for a rug, he just apologized and took us to the road where we could find the cistern. He wasn't rude or anything. In fact, he was so jovial the whole time that it didn't even feel sleazy — it just seemed like kind of a funny thing to have happened on our morning walk.

The cistern itself — we were still smiling when we got there — was quite interesting. There's a handful of these things to see around Europe, but most aren't nearly as old. This one is from the 6th century, and re-uses some Greek columns — which would have been about 800 years old at the time of its construction.

Before we reluctantly made our way to the airport, we spent a couple of last minutes in the park between the Sophia and the Blue Mosque. It was a beautiful morning. We had seen some amazing highlights but hadn't had the time to dig deeper into the city.

More than anything, though, it was simply relaxing. Sitting in a park is always a good way to spend time; doing nothing is never as rewarding anywhere else.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Concerts Concerts Concerts

I have been busy busy busy! No, I won't continue to repeat everything three times (times times), but I've had a few interesting concert experiences over the last few weeks.

February 25 - Prokofiev's The Gambler at the Royal Opera House. The Gambler was Prokofiev's first opera, and it's generally regarded (with good reason, methinks) as his worst. Still, it was given an immaculate performance at one of the world's great stages, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. Despite my comically distant standing place (from my vantage point, I could simultaneously lean on the back wall and touch the ceiling) and my headache, I liked it more than I had anticipated. In a strange way, the faults of the piece were more inspiration than the high points; I couldn't stop thinking of how I would have done it differently.

March 2 - Vienna Philharmonic with Lorin Maazel. This concert was old school to the max. With extra starch. I counted three women in the whole orchestra. As it was only four days before Maazel's 80th birthday, I consider myself fortunate to have seen him conduct; he is one of the most famous and recorded conductors of the 20th century, and he didn't use a score for any of the music. All that being said, the music itself was quite disappointing. Maazel was at turns showy and tasteless. And the orchestra played like they were completely nonplussed by him. For me, the highlight of the evening was probably when they tuned: they actually tune to the concertmaster, rather than the principal oboe, a practice I would advocate had I an orchestra to which I could advocate.

March 5 - Ensemble 10/10 at Wigmore Hall. Ensemble 10/10 is Liverpool's contemporary music group, but they come to London every now and then to give a concert. This one was quite good — varied and with solid, committed playing throughout. I especially liked Ian Gardiner's piece, a sort of bass clarinet concertante. And the primary reason I was there was to hear my teacher's piece, Music of a Distant Drum, which closed the program. After six other pieces, I was pleased to hear how well its craft stood up even to tired ears.

March 7 - London Symphony with John Adams. I expected the best orchestra I would hear this week would be the Vienna Philharmonic, but the hometown LSO blew them out of the water — and with an American at the helm to boot. There may have been empty seats dotted here and there, but the applause was far more robust (and genuine) than it had been a few nights before. I'm very much looking forward to Thursday night, when he premieres his new piece, City Noir.

And it doesn't let up just yet:

March 11 - A second concert of the LSO conducted by John Adams

March 12 - Dawn Upshaw with Emanuel Ax

And then off the Turkey. All this traveling over the past few years, but Asia will still be only the third continent I've been to.


There's a monster waiting for me when I come home this summer. A mountain; an impossibly large number.

But nothing cheers me up quite so much as when I reluctantly tell someone the actual dollar amount and they say: "That's almost a house!" Immediately, my mood lightens. I think to myself: Thanks for putting it into perspective. I could have either
  • An education that will allow me to pursue a career I wouldn't have otherwise been able to
  • Two years full of incredible travels and memories
  • An understanding of another culture
  • Friends literally all over the globe
  • A mortgage